Beast

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Part 1

Under normal circumstances, there were few---if any---reasons most of the students attending classes at San Jose State University would be at class on a Saturday. Few, if any, could even think of such reasons to be stuck indoors, in a lecture hall, when they could be spending the weekend doing whatever the hell they wanted to do.

Vicki Lawson, obviously, was not like most SJSU students.

Even as she took her seat in the Morris Dailey Auditorium, she didn't think of what she'd be missing by sitting in on the lecture that was about to commence. She didn't bother wondering if Kirsten Sanderson, Derrick Snyder, Kim DeFalco or Tori Hartwell were bored---she knew they weren't---and she didn't even ponder the possibility of just leaving before the lecture started. As soon as Ted had told her who was speaking, she knew she'd be attending....

“Right....is everyone seated?”

The voice that called these words prompted a few affirmative mutters and nods, all directed towards the stage.

“Good....just give me a minute....” The figure behind the podium took a few moments, adjusting a stepladder brought to the stage by his own personal request. Good thing everyone here knows who he is, Vicki mused, though I'm hoping nobody would be making short jokes even if they didn't know....

Diminutive though he was (due to a genetically-inherited form of dwarfism), Dr. Selwyn McElvoy was one of the most prominent figures in the international robotics community, respected by all three acknowledged “sides” (the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity and the House) for the simple fact that his research had, in one way or another, shaped everything they had been doing for the past two decades or so. Anyone Ted calls a “hero” has to be able to help me in the right direction, the brunette gynoid reasoned. At least, I hope so....

Dr. McElvoy cleared his throat, signalling the 30 or so students (a few of whom, Vicki was surprised to see, bore ALPA or Coalition-issued ID badges that clearly marked them as androids or gynoids---at least, to other registered androids/gynoids of either organization) to return their attention to the stage. “Before I begin, I'd just like to thank all of you for attending this lecture...I know some of you aren't...familiar with my work...”

More like, “I know none of you are familiar”, Vicki mentally corrected. Well, other than me....thanks to Ted.

A few rows away, someone raised their hand; “And we already have a question,” Dr. McElvoy mused. “Very well, feel free to ask.”

Vicki turned her attention to the student, noticing a girl about her own age---skin the color of toffee, dark brown hair done up in a braided bun of sorts, and a rather noticeable bright-yellow vinyl jacket with rolled-up sleeves worn over a pastel pink shirt and pale blue denim jeans---stand up. “No offence,” she began, “but....what's the point of this lecture? I mean---why are we here?”

If Dr. McElvoy was annoyed by the inquiry, he didn't show it. “First of all, you have my thanks for mentioning the lecture first, otherwise we'd be here all day talking about existential crises.” He adjusted his glasses, staring out over the podium. “All of you are here because of who you are, what you are, and the fact that you all know what you are.” He paused, allowing the words to sink in with the attending students; Vicki herself noticed a few glancing at each other in surprise, awe and possibly respect, with two girls in the front row conversing in the verbal shorthand perfected by the San Fernando “valley girls” decades prior (“So you're---” “Yeah, and you're---” “I know! It's, like---” “Completely random, and---” “We're both---” “Yeah!”).

“Now that we've cleared that potential hurdle,” Dr. McElvoy stated, “back to the topic at hand....”

He shuffled the papers on the podium before him. “I have no doubt in my mind that your lives---and I'm not going to go into the semantics of how an artificial being's existence constitutes 'life', so let's just call a spade a spade and say 'your lives' for the duration of this lecture...” After a short pause, he picked up where he'd left off. “I've no doubt that your lives, up to this point, have been...drastically different from anything you may have experienced as human beings. Things ordinary homo sapiens take for granted---'doctor visits', 'the talk', even learning about such arbitrary things as right and wrong, ethics...”

A tallish black-haired guy a few years older than Vicki shifted in his seat, almost as if McElvoy's words brought back memories that he'd forgotten (or suppressed, the brunette gynoid reasoned) for years. The doctor glanced in the young man's direction. “Something wrong?”

“It's...” The student stood, staring at the floor. “I started out not knowing I...wasn't real---”

“Let me stop you there for a second,” Dr. McElvoy interrupted. “I'm of the opinion that, despite their artificial nature, androids and gynoids such as yourself--- even those initially created without the liberty of knowing what they are---can be and are, in fact, 'real'.” He stared out over the crowd. “I'll get back to that in detail later on, but for now..”

The student who'd stood up nodded. “I started out not knowing I was...well...an android,” he muttered, “and I never really thought anything of it for the longest while...but then I realized something.”

McElvoy nodded. “And that realization was....”

“Every time I had to go to the doctor's office, even for a 'checkup', they always had some reason for putting me under. Mom always said something about haemophilia, not wanting me to freak out anytime the docs used medical instruments on me...and I always believed her. Until I started having the dreams.” He bit his lip, still not looking directly at the podium. “I....I started having these nightmares, about being taken apart, people taking things out of me, putting things in me.....like I was awake, during some sort of surgery or something.”

And you're not the only one, Vicki realized, seeing a few other students shuddering in their seats.

The black-haired student continued. “I told my mom about it, she said it was just bad dreams...” Something like a sob entered into his voice. “....but then, I had to go to get a 'routine checkup', and....”

“And you 'woke up' right in the middle of it.” Those words were spoken not by Dr. McElvoy, but (to Vicki's surprise) by Kim DeFalco. “Right when they were in the middle of changing something out, or reconnecting a few wires, or....something.”

Her observation prompted a tearful nod. “I freaked out. Completely lost it...I thought I was in Hell...”

“Except you weren't,” Kim continued. “Same thing happened to me, except at a dentist's office. I went in to get a tooth pulled, woke up to find myself staring at my headless body seated in a chair---with a crap-ton of wires and stuff where my neck ended. Oh, and some guy was poking around inside the back of my head with a power screwdriver.” She rolled her eyes. “Took me three weeks to get over it, with counselling...but after that, any time I thought about it, I'd just make a 'screamed my head off' joke.”

At the front of the room, McElvoy nodded. “The mere fact that most people not 'in the know' about who and what you are seem to automatically gravitate towards Roombas, Terminators or Disneyland animatronics when the word 'robot' is mentioned shows just how little they know as far as artificial intelligence is concerned. Just last week, I attended a conference focusing on the collaborative A.I.-based experimentation that started in the 1950s....and, if the report was to be believed, ended in the 1970s. The 'A.I. Winter', they called it.”

Guess we all know how that turned out, Vicki mused, fighting the urge to giggle.

“Simply put,” McElvoy stated, “the A.I. Winter is a myth, created and enforced by....certain entities.”

AKA the ALPA, the Coalition and the House. Memories of her recent history with all three groups swam briefly through the brunette gynoid's thoughts, along with a sense of awe at their capacity for conducting their actions in such secrecy for well over four decades. Almost as if he was thinking the same thing, McElvoy spoke up: “If any of you are wondering just how this myth has been enforced throughout the ages---”

Several trilling, bleeping tones went off around the auditorium, followed by a handful of students---including Vicki herself---reaching for their phones. “Vicki Lawson here, what's---”

“Where are you right now?”

It took three seconds for Vicki to recognize the voice on the other end of the line as Dominic Oswald Sandow, one of the operatives who'd accompanied her to the Salton Sea-based lair of Rykkard and his Spare Parts Society. “The Morris Dailey Auditorium,” she replied, a bit confused. “Why---”

“Is Kirsten Sanderson there?”

“Yes, she is....” The gynoid Field Agent's words trailed off as she noticed Kirsten with a somewhat perturbed look on her face; whatever the phone call she was listening to was about, it more than likely wasn't an invite to a weekend barbecue. “....and she looks kind of upset about something. Also...a lot of the other students in here got called at the same time as I did---”

“Good. The alert was just issued half an hour ago, so if they're just getting it now---”

“Wait, what alert?!”

Back onstage, Dr. McElvoy had been handed a note by one of his assistants; Vicki's enhanced hearing picked up a faint “You're sure?” from him, though it didn't take any focus at all to notice the aide nodding gravely.

In almost perfect synchronicity with the actions onstage, Dom's voice sounded in her ear: “The alert issued by ALPA HQ regarding the recent reappearance of Project Epsilon. There've been sightings all week....allegedly, it took a full day for our esteemed superiors to figure out how best to handle it.”

A few seats away, Kirsten Sanderson was quietly sobbing; guess she just got the bad news, Vicki surmised. “I guess I'll be meeting Oberon later to discuss the brief,” she told Dominic. “When can I---”

“Ah...about that.” Something in Dom's tone didn't exactly sound all that positive.

“Dom.....is something wrong?”

“Oberon's....not supervising this particular op, Vicki. There was an....aggressive discussion earlier today about it, and Oberon sort of....got out of hand regarding his views on it....” There was no humour in the words, no hint of the situation having been anything but serious. “Nobody's talking about any serious disciplinary action or anything, but....just don't ask about it when you get back.”

“....okay...” Even as she spoke the word, Vicki knew things weren't okay. “Should I get back to HQ---”

On the other end of the line, the phone changed hands; brief snatches of words from others (Clive DuBraul, Cedric Harcourt, and three or four whose voices Vicki couldn't recognize) filtered through and were picked up by Vicki's enhanced hearing in seconds. Finally, another voice: “For now, stay with Kirsten.”

“Not a problem, Professor.” Just hearing Anton Malvineous' voice calmed the gynoid Agent. “If she leaves...”

“Then go with her. Unless something else comes up.”

“Something tells me that won't be a problem,” Vicki replied, watching as guards took to the auditorium doors.


“....and you're positive? They signed---right. Well, if she doesn't know already.....no, I won't tell her. Fine. Be seeing you.” Major Thomas Lane (known as Major Tom around ALPA HQ, since he rarely used the call-sign they'd given him), shook his head as he ended the phone call. “Unbelievable.”

He half-expected a glance or response from the figure standing beside his chair, only to remember exactly where he was---and that the House employed non-sentient androids and gynoids (like the motionless, plastic-skinned maid unit at rest near his chair) as well as those like Alicia LeHane...and however many of her backup bodies were active at that moment. “Of all the times he had to go off the rails, he picked now....when we actually need him....”

Unlike the non-sentient maid unit, Kimiko Mori actually looked worried at the news. “It's that bad?”

“Worse,” the Major quietly replied.

A door on the opposite end of the waiting room opened, revealing William Patrick Baker---the Patriarch of the House, appointed in the wake of Celeste's abrupt departure from the position. “You might as well warm your bones in here,” he informed the ex-NASA operative. “Sitting in a lobby won't do any of us any good....you as well, Kimiko.”

The Asian gynoid closed the door behind her once Major Tom had taken his seat in Baker's office. “You've heard the news, then?” he muttered.

“Heard it, tried to make sense of it and bloody given up on it,” the Patriarch sighed. “I've known Oberon for donkey's years....never thought he'd do anything like this. If I'd known beforehand what his stance on the whole matter was, I'd have called him up, invited him to come 'round and have a few pints in the caff....instead, he's 'under enforced leave of absence'.” He scoffed; “Might as well call it what it is,” he bitterly added. “House arrest.”

Kimiko let out a quiet gasp. “But....he's the Chairman---”

“Chairmen make mistakes,” the Major snapped. “It's happened before...I just never thought it would happen with Oberon.” He gripped the armrests of the chair, shaking his head in disgust. “You didn't hear what he said at HQ, Kimmy....you weren't there. Damn good thing, too...otherwise you might've hauled off on him before he got hauled off.”

“And then she'd have been in the same boat as him,” Baker reminded him.

The remark prompted a scoff from Tom. “Not likely. The most she'd have been written up for was striking a superior....I've never heard anyone, much less Oberon, say some of the crap he was saying---”

“But what did he say?!”

Kimiko's pleading inquiry was met with a raised eyebrow from Baker...and a quiet, defeated sigh from Major Tom. “I was hoping I wouldn't have to be the one to tell you this,” he replied, almost sotto voce, “but the gist of it is....Oberon was lobbying for a team to be mobilized to kill Project Epsilon.” He leaned back in his chair, his eyes halfway closed. “He wasn't there, the last time Epsilon was in the Valley...he never saw what happened when Kirsten and Epsilon met....”

“Has anyone even tried to explain the situation to him?”

Major Tom gave a mirthless chuckle at the Patriarch's question. “No need to explain it, Rick....he knows. And he still wants to play it his way. Even after...shall we say, recent events....he wants Epsilon taken down with extreme prejudice.”

“Which leaves us in the unenviable position of trying to stop him,” Baker murmured. “So much for a quiet---”

“I still don't get why Oberon wants to kill Project Epsilon,” Kimiko interjected. “I mean...I thought the ALPA was supposed to....y'know, protect artificial life...forms....” Her words trailed off as Major Tom's gaze locked onto her. “What?”

“The situation with Epsilon is....complicated,” Baker explained. “At the start of the project, Epsilon was---and by some accounts, still is----Anthony Sanderson, an undercover ALPA operative working within the ranks of United Robotronics to funnel information back to his handlers. The Baron made the call for Sanderson to be conscripted into Project Epsilon, and from what we've been able to ascertain....he became Project Epsilon, in the most literal sense of the term. 'Unnecessary organic components' were removed, implants and upgrades were installed....”

His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “...they even went to work modifying his brain.”

“All of which,” Major Tom barked, startling Kimiko, “is considered verboten by the ALPA's standards. Even the lead researcher of Project Epsilon jumped ship....”

“To put it as simply as possible,” Baker concluded, “Epsilon is...outside what we consider to be the standard definition of an 'artificial lifeform'. Qualifying him as a 'cyborg' is out of the question, as well, despite the efforts of Hollywood to make the terms 'android' and 'cyborg' interchangeable....” He gave a sad, quiet sigh. “All this talk about the 'singularity', trans-humanism, and the limits between man and machine...if anyone saw Epsilon and knew what---who he is.....it'd all go into a tailspin from there. We'd be at the beck and call of politicians who cared less about the ethics of what we do and more about how much we contributed to their stupid 'PACs' come election season.....”

Kimiko let the weight of the Patriarch's words sink in, trying to think of how to phrase what she wanted to say...

“The choice.”

Baker's statement caught her attention. “What....”

“You're wondering if Oberon's single-minded determination to kill Epsilon is the 'right' choice.” Baker wasn't smiling. “To be honest....the 'right' and 'wrong' choices here are quite a bit harder to discern...but choosing to kill Epsilon 'is not' and will never be the 'right' decision...no matter who thinks it is, even if they claim to have a good reason for it. The last time Epsilon was on the loose in Silicon Valley, Oberon was...elsewhere. Tending to business best left undiscussed, if memory serves....”

Major Tom muttered something under his breath that Kimiko didn't quite catch, but the Patriarch spoke before she could ask what he'd said: “Oberon's opinions on Project Epsilon are....well-known, as are his views on what should be done to stop the end result.”

“And....what are his views on how to stop the end result?” the Asian gynoid quietly asked.

“Decimation.”

The four syllables of that one word seemed to chill the air in the room. “Absolute, total decimation,” Major Tom droned, a blunt, unfeeling tonelessness to his voice. “He knows what Epsilon is, and who Epsilon used to be...and he refuses to change his mind. It's.....unforgivable.” Something in his tone cracked.

“To put it simply,” Baker concluded, “we need to find Oberon before he finds Epsilon.”

For a few minutes, nobody in the room spoke.

Eventually, Major Tom stirred in his seat. “I think I have an idea of what he may try to do to locate Epsilon,” he quietly admitted, “and if I'm right, we need to cut him off now.” He nodded at a folder on Baker's desk; “You were at the E-Lin launch last month?” he offered.

“Hosted it,” the Patriarch replied, “and....no. He wouldn't.

“What's an E-Lin?” Kimiko asked, looking more confused than worried.

The Major sighed. “E-Lin---Electronic Link-up. A sub-series of gynoids designed specifically for remote access and connectivity to satellites, mobile networks and long-distance servers. Day-to-day, they can blend in as well as any gynoid...”

“...but give them a proper access code,” Baker finished, “and you can tap into whichever networks you have the clearance to access.”

Even as the question formed on her lips, Kimiko heard its answer: “Oberon,” Major Tom intoned, “despite being under house arrest by the ALPA, has the security clearance necessary to conduct day-to-day ops from his desk....which is not where he is right now, knowing him.” He steepled his fingers, his gaze turned to the floor instead of to Kimiko. “They never even got the anklet on him before he stormed out,” he murmured. “The way he was going on, I'm just glad there was no further bloodshed after Cedric took a haymaker to the nose.”

The Asian gynoid's eyes widened in shock. “He....he wouldn't!

“If he believes in his view strongly enough,” Baker remarked, “then he would---”

“Except this time,” the Major spat, “all he did was warn everyone to stay out of his way.” His lips curled in an ugly snarl; “All the times I've stood up for him,” he growled, “all the times I stuck my neck out for him and 'doing the right thing', and he freaking does this.....”

Baker didn't even try to stop him from grabbing a paperweight off the desk and hurling it at the wall, a wordless scream ringing through the room over the shattering of the decorative faux-coral piece. Kimiko nearly fell out of her chair; in all her time working with Major Tom, she'd never seen him as angry as this before. And, of course, there was the matter of Oberon---the Chairman of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency---now being seen as an enemy by his own colleagues.....

“This....feels wrong,” she whispered. “All of it....”

Despite the fact that Major Tom was still screaming, her whisper was, in fact, heard: she felt Baker's hand close around her own, his grip firm enough to not let her slip away, but just slack enough to not put stress on her joints.

“It's only a feeling,” he assured her. “Just a bad feeling, that's all.”

“But what do we do?”

Kimiko's plea was met with an unwavering gaze. “We'll do the right thing---the truly right thing, as opposed to what one person believes to be the right thing.....”

Richard Patrick Baker managed a smile. “....and even if the right thing isn't the easy thing...we'll do it anyway.”

What was left of Major Tom's chair hit the floor with a sickening crack as he stamped on it, the armoured sole of his boot easily splintering the wooden chair leg. Kimiko, her eyes squeezed shut, didn't turn to face him even as Baker looked up; “I take it you're done destroying my furniture?” he politely inquired.

Major Tom's glare was the only reply the Patriarch received.

“Right...I'll have the cleaners in to replace it tomorrow morning.” Baker sighed, glancing back at Kimiko. “My dear Agent Mori,” he declared, “I think it's time we get to mobilizing our people to make sure Oberon doesn't make the biggest mistake of his life....”

Part 2

“....right. I'll let you know as soon as possible.” Dr. McElvoy hung up the phone, frowning. “Looks like they'll have to wait for the audiobook,” he informed his aide. “The call just came in---they don't want anyone leaving the building.” He glanced back at the crowd of students; “I suppose someone will have to explain this to all of them,” he admitted. “A few of them might not grasp exactly why they have to stay here for a few extra minutes....”

Unbeknownst to McElvoy, one student in particular knew all too well why they were staying....namely, because she'd just been called about it, and because her internal WiFi reach had been extended to one specific gynoid in the room, allowing her to overhear the entire exchange without being noticed.

He'd probably hate me for this, Vicki mused, keeping a close eye on the picture-in-picture view that allowed her to see things from the POV of McElvoy's main aide. Then again, I have a better grasp of the situation than---

“Also,” McElvoy's voice piped in, “please inform Miss Lawson that there's no need to tailgate on your sensors, Miss Hynde...if she wants to talk to me, I have no problem discussing this in person.”

The brunette gynoid groaned. “Sorry, Dr. McElvoy...I was just---”

“No need for an explanation---you're not 'in trouble'.”

“Thanks...” Indeed, Vicki considered herself lucky that McElvoy viewed her intrusion on Miss Hynde's sensors as something less than an annoyance---ever since Lawson's Eleven had rebuilt her following a brutal defeat at Faceless' hands, the gynoid Field Agent found herself...gifted with a few new abilities---case in point, her little trick of wirelessly piggybacking on other systems in the area (even those of other androids/gynoids). She mostly used it to keep one step ahead of the Twitter Twins (their Skype obsession had been naught but a passing fancy), as well as keeping her schedule conflict-free---and, in anticipation of a talking-to from Ted and Joan, she vowed to never use her newfound talent for anything remotely connected to illegal activities.

By the time she reached the backstage area, Vicki was surprised to note that McElvoy barely paid attention to her arrival. “Very impressive trick you pulled, Miss Lawson” he mused, his eyes never leaving the screen of his iPhone. “If Miss Hynde's systems weren't linked to my phone, I never would've noticed.”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Yeah...sorry about that.” She glanced at Miss Hynde. “No hard feelings?”

The leggy, cinnamon-haired gynoid smiled and gave a polite nod.

“She's not feeling all that chatty,” McElvoy chimed in. “Her voice-box is being repaired by my specialists; her throat lining was a bit...weakened after a night out on the town last month, and she found out the hard way that grape juice doesn't agree with her internals.” Miss Hynde shifted her weight from one foot to the other, trying to look disinterested. “Fortunately for both of us,” McElvoy continued, “I'm well-versed in the art of reading body language---and American Sign Language---so her communicative skills are still sharp.”

“That's...pretty cool,” Vicki mused, nodding her approval. “So, about the, ah...alert....”

Her gaze turned back to the crowd, and to a pair of students consoling Kirsten Sanderson. “This may sound a bit weird, coming from me,” she admitted, “but....how much do you know about Project Epsilon?”

At the mention of the name, Miss Hynde put a hand to her mouth and backed away.

“Epsilon,” McElvoy sighed. “A name I never thought I'd hear again...” He shook his head. “I'm somewhat surprised you know of it, Miss Lawson....” His words trailed off as Vicki opened her jacket to reveal the ALPA Field Agent badge clipped to the interior lining. “....sorry, Agent Lawson,” he corrected. “I never thought we would meet at a college lecture, to be honest.”

The brunette gynoid allowed herself a grin. “Well, I do try to keep a low profile...”

Before McElvoy could reply, Miss Hynde nodded towards Stage Left. “Ah, that'll be Rengold,” the roboticist mused. “I should probably....”

He stopped, noticing the look of abject horror on Vicki's face. “.....Agent Lawson?”

Even in shadow, she recognized him. 6'1”. Muscular, yet trim---befitting someone with a history of gymnastic and ballet training. No, no, no, NO----

“Selwyn....sorry I'm late. Traffic was an absolute....ah, is she okay?”

Vicki blinked. 50 times---exactly 50 times (her internal monitoring system counted). And then blinked again.

Despite the fact that the newcomer's height, weight and even bone structure matched those of her hated nemesis, the man Selwyn McElvoy had called “Rengold” looked....normal. Dirty-blonde hair, cut short; stunning blue eyes, a chiseled jaw that could've been right at home on Robert Redford a decade ago....and, of course, there was the small matter of the fact that he was wearing a grey flannel suit with a Bondi Blue shirt, a purple Art Deco tie and brown Italian leather shoes, rather than all-black.

And, of course, he wasn't wearing a mask.

“Agent Lawson, allow me to introduce you to the new CEO of Rengold Cybernetics,” McElvoy declared. “May I present William J. Rengold IV.”

William J. Rengold.....IV?!

“William J. Rengold....the Fourth,” Vicki repeated. “The Fourth.”

“As in, after third,” William replied, sighing. “As in....the twin brother of a complete psychopath.” He smiled; “I might as well get that whole thing out of the way right now,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “I'm on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from....him. He dedicated his life to hurting people---”

“And you.....help them?”

William nodded. “Exactly. It's why I stepped up to take charge of Rengold Cybernetics after Fa....after my brother was banned. The Board of Directors hated the idea, at first---for some stupid reason, they wanted him onboard for every single harebrained scheme they had....but that's all in the past.” He glanced at McElvoy; “So....did I come at a bad time?”

“Somewhat. An alert's been put out---”

“I've heard.” William's smile vanished. “They're saying it's Epsilon. Again.”

Vicki managed to not blurt out “It is”, mainly because she was still wrapping her head around the fact that she was standing in the presence of Faceless' brother---his twin brother, at that. He does look like an older version of Psycho McCrazyMask---at least, he looks like how I picture Faceless looking from the last time I saw him before he....remodelled his own face....and I think there was a brother mentioned in those files I found back when WJR III was trying to take over United Robotronics in the 90s....

She saved all queries regarding William J. Rengold IV for later. “So....what brings you to Silicon Valley?”

“I was just going over that with Dr. McElvoy,” William acquiesced. “We're both in town for a college lecture tour, though mine is a bit less...posh than his.” There was a faint trace of a Trans-Atlantic accent in his voice. “The ALPA was a bit leery about having me onboard---”

“Bad blood with your brother?” Vicki quipped---instantly hating the words. “Sorry, I didn't---”

“I've heard worse,” William assured her. “A lot worse. Anyways, Rengold Cybernetics is trying to get a few big security contracts in the Valley---we've been working with Encom since around...July, I think, and the progress we've made is incredible. If we can get our latest project out of beta, it could revolutionize---”

McElvoy cleared his throat and tugged at the edges of William's coat. “Brochure later, Epsilon now.”

William cringed. “I was hoping that the sightings were just rumours, Selwyn. Last I heard, they still were.”

“Rumours don't flip a Chevy off the freeway at 5:52 A.M.,” McElvoy replied, not smiling. “Nor do they tear up Fry's Electronics looking for obsolete SCSI cards, multitools and specialized cabling.”

“Wait,” Vicki cut in. “Epsilon busted into Fry's Electronics?”

“Allegedly,” William replied. “The cover story is alternating between vandals and some sort of super-extremist radical anti-technology group...neither of which holds up under scrutiny.” He sighed. “The real question is, how in the hell are they going to contain Epsilon without causing any more damage...and why are you giving me that look, Selwyn?”

Miss Hynde stared at the floor, her expression one of wanting to be anywhere but in that particular location.

Dr. McElvoy gave William a look of disbelief. “You haven't heard about the ALPA Chairman?”

This time, it was Vicki who looked surprised. “Ah, what about---”

“They didn't,” William gasped. “I...I thought it was a sick joke---some sort of prank---”

“Last I checked, putting a man under house arrest isn't exatly a prank,” McElvoy reminded him. “I take it you heard the 'rumours' about what he said---”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Vicki stepped forward, glancing at both men. “When the HELL was Oberon---”

“This morning. When he threatened to kill Epsilon on sight.”

“.....what?” Picturing Oberon---the man who'd personally given her a Field Agent license, and who'd been the voice of reason in every incident she could think of---ordering Field Agents to kill Epsilon on sight sent a very real chill down Vicki's spine. “I.....I don't think...no, that has to be a mistake----”

“No mistake. He and DuBraul had a....somewhat physical altercation over it.” McElvoy glanced out towards the crowd of students; “If the word got out,” he added, “it might not be all that well-received. I understand that Oberon is no fan of Project Epsilon, but going this far...one can only imagine the fallout if the House or the Coalition got word.” He shook his head disdainfully. “I've heard that Oberon has...experienced quite a bit, most of it during his breaks from the ALPA...but what could he have possibly been through that would lead him to think this was an acceptable course of action?”

Vicki stared at the floor. “I don't know...and I don't want to know.”

“Whether or not we know why he's doing this is irrelevant. We need to get to him before he does something that could send us all into a downward spiral...”

A uniformed security man approached the group. “The car's out front, sir. We're ready for departure.”

McElvoy gave a nod of acknowledgement. “I'll have Miss Hynde give you Ted Lawson's number,” he replied. “If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to know if Miss Lawson could...travel with us, for the time being.”

“I don't have a problem with it,” Vicki admitted. “It's just...there's someone else here I need to bring with me.”


“So....your first official assignment with the ALPA. Liking it so far?”

Anton Malvineous' question didn't phase the armoured, 6-foot figure given the designation “Mr. Roboto”. “To say that I 'like' this would imply that I'm comfortable sifting through the remains of a sports-utility-vehicle,” the android replied, “whose occupants had no idea what they were facing....”' The servos in his neck whirred slightly as he turned to regard an unmoving female figure nearby. “When will she join us?”

“In a few minutes, give or take. I'm surprised you chose to take the call, honestly....thought you'd be at Leah Chambers' convers....on second thought, forget I mentioned it.” Anton returned his attention to the Chevrolet Suburban's autolog data. “Husband's a bio, wife's steel...two sons and two daughters. I don't get why 'bio' is apparently less...offensive, by the way,” he added. “Makes me think I'm talking about a book, instead of---” He groaned as the sounds of UB42's “Red Red Wine” emanated from the front pocket of the unmoving 20-something girl's jeans. “I'll have to take this one.....Anton here, what's----”

“She's still not on?!”

“No, Major, she's not. And if you're the one who gave her the UB40 ringtone---”

“I thought she got rid of that one! Anyway...found anything they didn't cover in the report?”

“They didn't mention one of the sons had prosthetics, or that one of the daughters was steel. Other than that, everything matches up. Also,” Anton added, “there's a lot that was, ah....taken out of the car---”

He nearly jumped a foot back as the Suburban's speakers blared to life, the chorus of “Mrs. Robinson” blaring from the speakers---just as the girl standing next to him shuddered out of her storage-required stasis. “GAAH! I....where's my phone?!”

“I'm borrowing it,” Anton quietly informed her. “Welcome to the case, by the way.....”

“Mary. Mary Robinson.” The girl shook Anton's free hand. “And who's the, ah...”

“Mr. Roboto,” Anton replied with a grin. “Say hi to the new girl, Roboto---if you're not too busy trying to put the Suburban back on its tires----” He winced as the SUV landed rather heavily on all four wheels, just as Mr. Roboto turned to nod at Mary. “SO,” the roboticist continued, “your first case since you got here from....Ohio, I hear?”

The blonde gynoid nodded. “I don't get why I had to go into a stasis capsule for the trip,” she complained.

“Just be glad you didn't include your middle initial on the form,” Anton dryly remarked. “The S doesn't stand for Susan, Suzanne or just Sue, does it?”

Mary gave him a Kubrick stare that the man himself would've been proud of. “It stands for Sinclair.”

“Like the computer makers? I actually had a ZX Spectrum, back in the 90s...nice bit of kit, really.” Anton's reminiscing was interrupted by a trilling beep from the iPad he was using to scroll through the autolog data. “And hello, unexpected find! Roboto, you may want to stop playing hackey-sack with the Suburban...we've got a bit of a mystery on our hands! Mary, any chance you'd want to see this for yourself?”

“Give me a minute...” Mary unbuttoned the top two buttons on her shirt, tapping the unblemished skin below her neck; seconds later, a trapezoidal panel popped out slightly, allowing her to hinge it down. “You wouldn't happen to have an Apple connector cord for an Eastman-Kodak Type 9R-8, would you?”

With a flourish, Anton produced the cord---from Mary's jacket pocket. “I think this will suit your needs, m'lady.”

“Nice...ever tried street magic?” With a wry grin, the gynoid hooked up to the iPad. “Give me a min---”

At once, she froze in place, her eyes moving rapidly as if she was speed-reading the text. “A fascinating display,” Roboto intoned. “If my fate had been in kinder hands...”

“It's in great hands now,” Anton assured him. “Despite a few...missteps from certain higher-ups---”

His intended reassurance was cut off by a gasp from the lithe blonde. “No matter how many times I feel that,” she murmured, her voice a bit huskier than intended, “I can never get used to it...” A brief shiver passed over her as she disconnected the cord. “Well, you were right about this being a bit of a mystery, Professor---except it's more than 'a bit' of one!” Her eyes scrolled again, “re-reading” the data she'd just downloaded. “Seems the occupants of the Suburban weren't just hit at random...wait a minute.” She leaned forward, as if to get a better look at something.

“Quirk of the design,” Anton explained to Roboto. “She sees the data as---”

“A clipboard filled to bursting with papers,” Mary chimed in. “The autolog drive on that Suburban was logging a lot more than just tune-up data and collision reports...”

“Which is why we need to get back to ALPA HQ ASAP,” Anton finished. “They'll want to take a look at it.”

“Perfectly understandable...but none of this explains why the car stereo kicked on right when I activated.”

Mary and Anton glanced at Roboto. “Did you notice any external security sensors on the Suburban while you were, ah, examining it?” the professor inquired.

“I...might have nudged one. Accidentally.”

“Or it might've set itself off when Mary reactivated...a brief burst of WiFi activity, the last name Robinson---it'd explain the song choice, at the very least.” Anton shrugged. “Eh, just a theory----we've got more important things to concern ourselves with.” His attention returned to the iPad. “With their security clearances, I'm a bit surprised none of our people responded sooner....”

As soon as the words left his lips, he stopped himself. “....anyway, we need to secure the scene----”

“I know that look, Professor.” Mary's lips pursed in a frown. “I've heard the chatter, too...the Chairman getting put under---”

“THAT,” Anton declared, “is confidential....it shouldn't be 'chatter'.....”

Mary didn't flinch. “But it's true, isn't it?”

Anton stared at her. “Whether or not it's true has no bearing on this case,” he replied, his voice calm---and his expression dead serious. “We need to concern ourselves with Epsilon, and how to keep it from causing too much damage...this isn't exactly something that can be contained easily, like the Somalian ebola outbreak back in the 90s. Funny how the movie glossed over just how hard it was for those Black Hawk Down guys to get out of there when almost 90% of the country was infected....but that's another story for another day.” His stern glare softened a bit. “Yes, the Chairman is technically under house arrest---”

“How can it be technical?! He's either under house arrest or---”

“They served him with the warrant, but there were...difficulties. Harcourt took a shot to the nose, got blood all over his shirt...Oberon was out the door before anyone could stop him.” Anton sighed. “It's not exactly one of the ALPA's finest moments, to be honest....” He nodded. “Well. Now that we've managed to get that little detail out of the way....”

“Back to the case,” Roboto intoned. “And the autolog.”

Again, Anton nodded. “Best idea I've heard all day. As I was saying earlier, the security clearances held by the occupants of this SUV would've been more than enough to let anyone into any ALPA-certified repair facility or laboratory....and I don't think I need to explain why that's a bad idea.”

“Epsilon gets in, he gets all the tech he needs,” Mary replied. “Probably the worst case scenario---”

“Replace 'probably' with 'it is', and you've hit the nail on the head. Back to the autolog, though...seems this Suburban was on route to meet up with the Deeleys at the airport....Nina, Sammy and---oh, joy, it doesn't list the husband's name.” Anton blew out an annoyed sigh. “We're lucky that Epsilon focused his attack on the SUV itself, instead of its occupants....and what are you doing?”

Mary had hiked up her shirt to plug in a cable leading from the autolog box. “There's more to the autolog than the data you've read....oh, my God....” Her eyes widened in shock. “Epsilon didn't attack this car....”

“Ah, have you seen the vehicle in question?!”

“You need to see what I'm seeing right now....I'm transferring the data to your iPad.” A shiver ran through the blonde gynoid's frame. “The rear-view camera recorded it right before the SUV hit the ditch....”

Anton frowned, but watched the video anyway. “I don't see what's so shocking,” he began, “but---” His words came to a crashing halt just as a white sedan---driven by an all-too-familiar, white-clad figure---slammed into the rear-end of the Suburban. Worse than the obvious identity of the driver, however, was the look on his face---a mixture of tranquility and fury... “This happened just before they served him with the arrest order,” the roboticist whispered. “He.....he was already trying to kill Epsilon before we even got to him?!”

“There's no way someone could fake this,” Mary murmured. “Whatever the hell is going on, the Chairman---”

“No. We take this straight back to HQ and tell DuBraul. Wanting to wipe Epsilon off the map....that's already bad enough. But this---trying to run an SUV off the road?! I don't even want to know what his excuse is for this...I just....”

Mary rested her hand on Anton's shoulder. “We'll put an end to this. Somehow.”

“Putting an end to it may not be enough,” Anton quietly replied. “If he's prepared to go this far---if he's really going to pull out all the stops and just barrel on like a bat out of Hell---there may not be an end to this. We've already had to pay our friends at the Hill a visit and explain a few 'strange things' so far this year....” He shook his head. “I'd say I'm getting too old for this, but that's the least of my worries.”

“Age should be the least of any of our worries,” Roboto interjected, presenting something to Anton. “This was in the ditch....”

Anton nearly dropped the object as soon as he got a good look at it. “Mary, get an evidence bag from the glove compartment of my car, please,” he mumbled. “Anti-static, preferably....” He turned away as soon as the item in question was secured in the bag. “And whatever you do, Mary, don't touch the buttons on it!”

“What is it?”

“Something I hope you never have to face in the field.” Anton's quiet reply was tinged with the faintest hint of tears. “We need to report back to DuBraul, and make sure our side doesn't overreact to this. If the wrong people find out, it'll be Newcastle all over again....” He turned away. “Roboto, Mary....get back to the car. I need to make a few calls---if our phones weren't secure, I'd be using a landline for this...” He hurriedly dialled the phone, cupping his free hand over it to block out the wind. “Crystal, tell Clive to get on the line as soon as possible....we need all hands on deck for this one.”

The image of the sedan driver's face flashed through his mind. “.....and we may need extra help, too....”

Part 3

“Has anyone ever told you, Miss Lawson, that you're incredibly graceful?”

McElvoy's comment wasn't so much startling as it was....unexpected---all I did was walk up to the stage after he caught me piggybacking on Miss Hynde's sensors, she reasoned. Still, let's see where this goes... “Nobody's really commented to that regard yet, sir.”

“It's quite an astonishing thing, really,” the diminutive roboticist continued. “Humanity has, almost by design, come to associate the term 'robot' with stiff, jerky, stop-start motions and ever-present staccato speech....yet with every client and/or patient---”

“Patient?” Vicki echoed.

“Selwyn's our equivalent to a general practitioner,” William explained. “One of the few in this day and age who's still wiling to make house calls, even.”

Vicki nodded. “That....makes sense, I guess.”

“Indeed---especially when dealing with sleepers, but that's another story for another time.” Selwyn adjusted his sunglasses. “Back to my main point....every single android and gynoid I've ever encountered has proven a rather interesting point: When observed by someone who knows what to look for, like myself, there's a certain quality of....otherness, to their movements. Very exacting, and precise...but not stiff. Indeed, as I've said about you, Miss Lawson, androids and gynoids move with a certain grace---far more than most people would notice in their day to day lives.”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow. “So....I'm graceful?”

“It's inherent in your nature. Human beings have innumerable little tics, small quirks---sudden muscle spasms, the slight movements that come with inhaling and exhaling....very subtle, but still there. And so many people who pride themselves on being observant.....they never notice the absence of those things, sometimes.”

“....I never really thought about it that way,” Vicki admitted. “But how can so many people not notice?”

“Ignorance,” William replied, “is bliss. Some choose to ignore whatever they perceive to be irrelevant.”

Again, Vicki found herself nodding in agreement. “Makes a lot of sense, when you put it that way.”

“As it should,” McElvoy replied. “Of course, there are some out there who make a career out of reading body language, deciphering those little tics and quirks....the ALPA and Coalition go out of their way to consult with them or hire them as often as possible.”

“Not hard to see why....but---”

“I'm sure you've already discussed the need for the ALPA with others,” McElvoy continued, almost as if he could sense the question Vicki was about to ask. “Not everyone who knows what we know has...noble intent, to put it mildly......and we're here.” He nodded as the car slowed to a stop. “Funny how a drive seems to go by so much quicker when one is engrossed in conversation...” Outside the car, Miss Hynde opened the door and pressed a foot pedal built into the underside of the car, allowing a set of mini-steps to unfold.

“Ladies first,” William offered, allowing Vicki to move past him.

“Thanks...I just hope Kirsten doesn't get too weirded out by all of this. I don't think she's ever remembered any of her repair sessions before...” ...at least, before May, the brunette gynoid mentally added. “And I don't think she needs to hear about the Chairman's.....decision. At least, not yet.”

Selwyn nodded. “Perfectly understandable. Now, then...I believe we're expected inside.”

The Bugatti Firenze sedan (a rather elegant vehicle, blending the practicality of a four-door with sleek curves and a ludicrously-powerful engine that had become Bugatti's trademark) had glided to a stop in front of a building Vicki had only seen a few times before, completely out of any context---usually while on her way to or from somewhere else. Now, she recognized the place as an ALPA-sanctioned repair shop, complete with their holograph-stamped “Platinum Disc” seal of approval on a nearby window.

“I'm hoping Faber and Weiss are actually in, this time,” Selwyn muttered. “They didn't get my last call...”

William rolled his eyes. “You should take a listen to their answering machine some time....some idiot woman named Lertie keeps calling them, asking if it's okay for her to show up for Bible Study on Thursday.”

“Maybe she just got the wrong number?” Vicki offered, keeping in step with William and McElvoy. “Or---”

“Or nothing,” Selwyn countered. “They need to change their number and----”

Vicki gave a quiet cough, nodding in the direction of the second Firenze approaching. “That'll be Kirsten...”

Despite her tearful breakdown at the auditorium, Kirsten had composed herself rather quickly during the car ride. “So....we're here,” she mused, nodding politely towards the shop. “Wherever 'here' is....”

“It's a repair shop,” Vicki explained. “We'll be safe here---”

“This wasn't about 'safety',” Selwyn interrupted. “We came here because I have a prior appointment set up with the proprietors....but I assume that can wait,” he added, as a girl with midnight-black hair approached the group. “You're a bit early,” she informed them, “and with one extra....but if she's with Vicki, she's more than welcome here.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Thanks for the endorsement, Calliope. You look....well....”

“More modern?” Calliope teased. “It's a long story....we'll talk inside.” She gestured for the group to follow her.

Inside, the atmosphere looked strikingly similar to the waiting room of a normal doctor's office, albeit with less tacky Muzak and no fake plants dotted around the room. “Why do I get the feeling I've been here before?” Kirsten asked.

“You probably have been,” Calliope replied. “You just didn't see it for what it is. As for me....” She turned away, peeling off the black, tight-fitting top she'd been wearing. “The Inspektor's team really helped bring my internals into the modern age,” she admitted, reaching over her shoulder and pressing down on a small bit of skin at the base of her neck---prompting a gasp of surprise from Kirsten as a square of “flesh” folded outward to reveal four ornate dials and a smallish key on a locking hinge, currently folded into an “at-rest” position.

“She's a wind-up doll?” Kirsten quietly asked.

“More like a highly-advanced clockwork gynoid,” Calliope corrected, “formerly classed as an 'automaton'....but that's getting into semantics, and it's not why we're here.” She replaced the panel and pulled her shirt back down. “Faber and Weiss are in the back...they've been waiting for a few hours, to be honest.” She led the group towards a door at the far end of the waiting room. “Rae's already inside....she had a session booked---”

Selwyn nodded. “She called before I went on stage at the university. It's a standard session, I take it?”

“Of course....she just needed....”

Vicki trailed behind, noticing Kirsten hanging back and staring at the fake plants instead of following the rest of the group. “Something wrong?” she quietly asked. “I can give you a bit of an explanation about this place, if you don't remember---”

“It's not that. It's about....Dad.”

Guess we're talking about that now.... “So you got the alert call back at the auditorium, then,” Vicki mused.

“He....he showed up at my dorm,” Kirsten quietly informed the brunette gynoid. “He was...it was like he could only think clearly when I was around, and even then....” She turned away. “He's been losing more of himself every day, Vicki. It was like he didn't even recognize me when he was at the window....”

“You realize that the ALPA is currently trying to apprehend...your dad, right?”

Kirsten gave a mirthless chuckle. “You mean they're trying to capture Epsilon?”

“Your father is Epsilon, Kirsten,” Vicki insisted. “Even if the process that created him shut off as much of his brain as it did....he's still your father. You know that.” Too bad some of us don't recognize that, she bitterly realized. If Kirsten finds out...

“Thanks. But...this is going to sound stupid, Vicki....” The blonde gynoid bit her lip. “It was like he was forcing himself to remember who I was! Like....something was trying to---”

“Overwrite his thought processes,” Vicki finished. “Trying to erase all non-essential memories.” A quick flash of the memories of Unit R-528, now known as Mr. Roboto, surged through her thoughts. “I hate to break it to you, Kirsten, but the longer your father's out there, the less likely it is that he can be fully recovered.” If at all, she mentally added. Roboto caught more than a few lucky breaks---which begs the question of why Oberon isn't giving Epsilon one! Her attention turned back to Kirsten just in time to notice the blonde gynoid casting a forlorn glance towards a magazine cover showing an image of Anthony Sanderson from decades past. “I miss him,” she whispered. “I just...I miss my dad, Vicki.”

“I know,” the brunette gynoid quietly replied, not backing away when Kirsten moved to embrace her in a tearful hug.

The two stood in silence for a moment---one, grieving for a lost father; the other, remembering a fallen friend...

“Vicki,” Kirsten whispered, “are they going to hurt him when they find him?”

Now, the Field Agent found herself tearing up along with her friend. “They won't,” she replied, her voice a shade closer to a sob than she would've liked. “I know they won't....”

….but he will. Dammit, Oberon....

A quiet cough from the repair room entrance caught both gynoids' attention. “My apologies,” Selwyn McElvoy mused, “if I've interrupted a moment of grieving for the two of you...” Despite an arched eyebrow that gave off undertones of mild annoyance, there was a timbre of honesty in his words as he continued. “We have a spare room waiting on the upper floor, Miss Sanderson, if you need a place to stay for the night.”

“Thanks...my stuff's at my dorm room, though---”

“I'll have my people collect it for you, if you want.” Selwyn strode over to the gynoids, glancing at the magazine cover Kirsten had been staring at (and handed down to him). “Tony was a good man,” he informed her, “not just in a professional sense, but an incredibly decent human being.”

“He still is,” Kirsten whispered. “Inside that....thing....he still is.”

Selwyn nodded. “Indeed. Now, then....Miss Lawson, I assume your hardware is up to date?”

“Sure is,” the brunette gynoid replied---relieved to change the subject. “Kirsten, how about you?”

“Well, I.....” Her words trailed off as she followed Vicki into the white-walled (and floored) room. The place looked more like a factory's production floor than a “doctor's office”, with rows of tables (all but a few of them bare at the moment), distinctly non-humanoid robots darting in and out of the aisles, and several racks of tools and other machinery breaking up the otherwise-sterile walls.

“Oi, Vicki! Glad to see you could make it!” The cheerful greeting drew Vicki's attention to a caramel-skinned, chestnut-haired figure laying on a table, waving vigorously at her. “Nice to see having your entire abdominal sheath removed hasn't dampened your spirits, Rae,” she deadpanned, striding over to meet her fellow ALPA operative. “Kirsten Sanderson, meet Rae Clark.” Despite the fact that Rae did, in fact, have a literally bare midsection---the synthetic flesh having been peeled away to reveal her metallic “skeleton”, rows upon rows of servomotors, chip racks and fluid lines---she was all smiles as she shook Kirsten's hand. “You're the sleeper girl who got rescued back in May, right?”

Kirsten nodded. “Former sleeper, these days....and does that, ah, hurt?”

“What, this?” Rae rolled her eyes. “It's a lot less painful than it looks, babe...hell, it's downright---oooohhh...”

A husky sigh punctuated her sentence as a manipulator arm lowered from the ceiling to tweak something in her opened stomach cavity. “That,” she murmured, “feels good....” A blissful smile crossed her lips. “No matter how many times, it never fails to utterly delight---” Her “breath” caught in her throat as the manipulator arm made further adjustments. “It's....inde'scribable,” she giggled.

Vicki, meanwhile, rolled her eyes. “You sure your sensitivity and intimacy settings are at default, Rae?”

The chestnut-haired gynoid gave her a look. “You're saying you don't enjoy---ooh....oooohh.....” Her lips parted in a sensual moan. “They always ask why I tell them to leave me on for these....and this is why!”

“And there are plenty of reasons why you should be offline for 'these',” a male voice called out, as Vicki noticed the stocky, yet still muscular figure of Arnold J. Faber striding over. “One of these days, you're gonna pop right on the table, and I'll have to be the one to clean it up...”

“Oh, spack off,” Rae chided. “Don't knock it 'til you try it---which you can't....”

Faber---clad in an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt under a heavy canvas work coat and a pair of faded jeans, shook his head. “I've never heard of people waking up after surgery and asking the doctor if they liked it, too....”

“Well, you're not exactly given many opportunities to---ooh, oooooohhhh, that was beautiful....” Another shuddering sigh escaped Rae's lips as the maniupulator arm rotated a new chipset into place just above the link-up port that, in her day to day life, was disguised as her navel. “Right, you can seal me up in the front, Arnie...I'll turn myself over, thanks.” Another pair of arms moved out from under the table as Rae sat up (Vicki and Kirsten stepped back to ensure that the arms wouldn't grasp at them, instead of Rae), and pulled the flaps of synthetic skin over the opened cavity of the gynoid's stomach. “SO,” she beamed, “what brings you from the Motor City to Silicon Valley, Mr. Faber?”

“Business, same as always. And may I please ask why all the clothes in your locker are pink?”

Rae gave him a sultry look. “It compliments my skintone. Plus, I happen to like...exotic fabrics---”

“Vinyl isn't a fabric. And you're an ALPA operative, not a freaking—-”

“Oh, just let it go,” Rae breathed, turning over to lay on her stomach. “Everyone has their own fashion sense, Arnie...I like pink vinyl, Vicki likes red and white...” She winked at the brunette gynoid. “And I'm sure Kirsten here has her own preferences...”

Even though she'd been edging away from the table after Rae's gasps, Kirsten nodded. “Hi, Mr.....Faber?”

“Call me Arnold.” Faber shook Kirsten's hand, giving her a warm smile. “Former sleeper, right?”

“Why is it that everyone I've met knows that already?” Kirsten asked, glancing nervously at Vicki.

“ALPA records. As soon as you were brought back online following....well, you don't need to be reminded of that whole incident.” Vicki sighed. “ANYway, after...that....your ALPA status monitor was changed to 'awake', rather than sleeper---to reflect your new-found self-knowledge.” She grinned. “Nothing sinister at all.”

Faber nodded. “And since this is an ALPA-sanctioned shop....”

“You got the update as soon as it happened,” Kirsten finished, nodding. “Guess that's a lot better than....well, what I thought it'd be...” A loud hiss from the other side of the repair room startled her.

“That's just Weiss bringing out another client,” Faber laughed. “Nothing to get alarmed at, Miss....damn air brakes on the cart need some fine-tuning, I told him to get 'em fixed....” He shook his head, still chuckling slightly. “Meredith needed a full exam below the belt---leg servos were acting up on an alarmingly regular basis. Also, she got her head checked---”

Rae gave a short, sharp laugh. “Her face was doing that weird, half-sneeze thing, wasn't it?”

“She was on the verge of motor-lock, thanks to a crossed wire,” Faber replied. “She still needs to run the last test....” He nodded as the automated, upright “cart” with Meredith Basinger's unmoving form strapped to it rolled up; Meredith's facial layer was peeled down, exposing the chrome-alloy skull with its rubberised, painted Lucite eyes and ceramic/polymer amalgam teeth. “First thing's first---time to fix her face.” After a quick knuckle crack, Faber carefully lifted the facial layer back over Meredith's chromium skull, occasionally taking the time to make some minute adjustments with a few small tools.

“He may not have the best sense of humour about this, but at least he's professional,” Rae admitted.

Faber gave her an exaggerated frown as he finished returning Meredith's face to its usual position. “Right, Meredith....begin speech test.” A polished white arm, with a keyboard built into its surface, swung up and out, allowing Faber to type in a few words. “Out....over....eighty...ambulatory.....punctual.....” Meredith intoned each word without pause, her lips forming every letter and syllable perfectly.

“I think we've established that she can talk again,” Rae sighed, as the manipulator arm removed a semi-fried chipset from just above the base of her spine. “Thanks again for slotting me in at such short notice, Arnie...”

“Not a problem,” Faber replied with a grin. “And for your information, I happen to like my sense of humour.”

“Of course you do....just be glad your jokes aren't totally naff, otherwise we'd have problems.” Rae giggled as a replacement for the just-removed chipset was slotted into place. “Oh, that is just divine.....Kirsten, love, you simply need to book a day-trip here, if you ever get the time.” Her eyelids fluttered as her lips turned up in a blissful smile. “It is just....y'have to feel it for yourself, really.”

Vicki blew out an annoyed breath. “That's not why we're here, Rae. An alert call was just sent out---”

“Oh, I know about the alert call, Vicki!” Rae chided. “I'm not hiding out here just to get out of patrol duty, just so we're all clear....I needed to get a few bits changed out, and, well....” She gave a half-shrug.

Whatever Vicki's intended reply was, it was cut off by a sudden gasp from Meredith. “....never want to hear that song.....again....” She glanced down, noticing the neoprene top and shorts that she'd been dressed in. “I seem to remember wearing something a little less....fetish-club,” she mused. “What happened to my original clothes, and why am I strapped to a table?”

“Didn't want to get hit in the face due to a motor spasm,” Faber admitted. “And your clothes are in storage.”

“And an alert call's been issued,” Vicki added. “Kirsten and I just got here from SJSU....you've heard the news, right?”

Meredith's eyes widened. “An alert call? Arnold, how long was I out---”

“Hour and a half,” Rae sighed, “and the alert's about that Epsilon thing.....it came back, knocked over a car---”

“It did more than knock over a car,” V.I.C.I monotoned, her eyes briefly glowing blue.

Faber, Meredith and even Kirsten exchanged worried gances.

“.....and for the record,” the brunette gynoid added, her voice going back to normal, “there are a lot of unknown factors we need to consider about this.” Like why the freaking ALPA Chairman wants Epsilon dead, for one...

Rae rolled her eyes. “Far be it from me to downplay something this serious out of sheer stupidity, Vicki. I was only giving Meredith the Cliff Notes version of the story...we all know how serious the Epsilon issue is.” She failed to repress another gleeful sigh as the manipulator arm rotated something back into place. “...sorry, it's a bit of an impulse...”

“I get it.” Vicki helped Meredith step down from the cart; “I just....last time I saw Epsilon----”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Rae cut in. “You saw that thing? As in, face to face?!”

“Epsilon's not a 'thing',” Kirsten snapped. “He was---he IS my father! Underneath all of that....” She turned away. “I don't know what they did to him,” she murmured, “but the last time I saw him....I talked to him, and it was like he understood me. Like he knew me....and now....”

Faber glanced at Vicki. “She's telling the truth,” the brunette gynoid quietly informed him. “I saw it first-hand.”

“Small wonder you two came here instead of going back to HQ,” Rae admitted, shivering as two more manipulator arms closed up her back. “Oh, and could you hand me my top, please?” she added, rolling over to sit on the table. “I'd have done this session au natural, but Faber insisted I keep the shorts on....” She grinned as Vicki handed over a pink bikini top that felt more like latex than any real fabric. “Thanks...and my thanks goes double, since you weren't going all 'oi, Rae, you seem to have forgotten to put on a bra or a shirt today, and those magnificent breasts of yours are so distracting', or anything like that....”

“I was focusing on what was important,” Vicki replied, as the chestnut-haired gynoid fastened her top. “Like Epsilon, and who's after him.”

“Which we may have to confront sooner than anticipated,” Selwyn McElvoy called out. “A dispatch just arrived from ALPA HQ for Miss Clarke and Miss Basinger....and there's a sealed orders packet with your name on it, Miss Lawson.” He motioned for Miss Hynde to hand over the documents. “Epsilon's been seen again, closer to the old stomping grounds of Damien Falken...possibly some kind of residual memory from its old life---”

“His,” Vicki muttered. His old life.”

McElvoy continued without missing a beat: “Whatever the case, we need to intercept Epsilon before anyone else does, or before anyone or anything else is damaged---”

The sounds of shouted cursing from the waiting room cut him off; William staggered in seconds later, brushing a few plastic leaves off of himself. “There's been an attack,” he breathed. “Ten injured---three critical, seven others....not life-threatening. And someone brought some heavy firepower....and a sword?” He managed to fall into a chair without breaking it. “I just saw....aftermath,” he gasped. “Car slid past....on its roof.....”

Without a word, V.I.C.I sped off towards the exit, past Rae, Meredith and a terrified Kirsten.

Part 4

“.....unbelievable.”

Of all the names he'd been known by over the years, the man who the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity acknowledged as The Accountant knew that no amount of identity-changing or running away would get him far enough from....this. “Agent Sands, I'm beginning to get that sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach about this case,” he intoned.

“It's not exactly textbook,” Sands admitted, her gaze settling on the overturned car that had slid past them a few minutes earlier. “Looks like there was a fight..”

“Which is exactly why I'm getting that sinking feeling. We need to contain this---”

A red-and-white streak flew past both Coalition agents, coming to a stop just in front of the car. “And there she is,” the Accountant muttered, his scowl curling up into a smirk. “Hopefully, things are about to get substantially easier for both of us...” He strode over to the red-and-white clad female figure now analysing the car. “I can only assume you're here because of---”

“Was anyone in the car when it was flipped over?”

Vicki Lawson's abrupt question cut off the Accountant's snarking before it could begin. “Unless there's a blood smear underneath the twin trails of oil and gas this thing left behind...” He straightened his tie, glancing at the still fiery lines. “I was just at that pizza place everyone seems to be talking about, before I was called out here,” he mused. “It seems like they've had more 'grand re-openings' over the years than anything else---what was the name of that mascot thing? Freddy....something or other. I can never remember---”

“You're seriously talking about Fazbear's Pizzeria right now?” Vicki muttered, never looking up from the road.

“It's called the art of conversation. Small-talk, if you prefer. And the Coalition has a vested interest in it; the animatronics seem to have quite a history of going haywire. I've even heard that back in 1987---”

The brunette gynoid turned to glare at him, the subtlest under-glow adding a menacing light to her eyes.

“.....never mind.”

“You never answered my question earlier. Was there---”

“Anyone in the car would've had the good sense to get out of the car before it got knocked onto its roof and punt-kicked all this way,” the Accountant declared. “I take it you know what punt-kicked it all this way?”

The only reply he received was another glare.

“All right, then.” He sighed. “Seeing as how we've had to brick more than a dozen iPhones, iPads and Lord knows what else just to keep footage of this off the Internet, it's more than likely going to take us all night just to clean up after him....”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “You call Epsilon a 'him'?”

“No sense in denying him that,” the Accountant replied. “As far as I'm concerned, Project Epsilon falls so far outside of the Coalition's scope that the normal rules may as well be used as TP. He started out as a human being fused with robotics technology....whatever he is now, it's beyond the threshold of both. This is beyond transhumanism, beyond the so-called 'singularity'.....if anything, Epsilon is a step backwards from those lofty aims....and why are you looking at me like the audience at Des Moines when Mr. Osbourne bit the head off of a bat?”

“You want Epsilon killed, don't you?” Vicki asked, her eyes as lifeless as her voice was toneless.

She couldn't tell whether or not to be horrified or just stunned when the Accountant smiled. “On the contrary, Miss Lawson, Epsilon needs to be...contained. Studied, yes, and possibly analysed by way of rather....extreme techniques...but not killed. Again, the Coalition isn't completely---”

“But isn't Epsilon everything the Coalition hates?”

The Accountant glanced back at the overturned car. “He's.....several things that the Coalition hates, to be quite honest. The metaphorical rulebook---well, the literal rulebook, in this case---was pretty much ignored when Project Epsilon was first launched, and on that regard, he's not exactly beloved by my colleagues....but the fact remains that Epsilon is a human being first....and a machine second. The procedures used on him qualify as augmentation, which put him on the scale as a heavily-altered human being, not a pure machine. We don't kill human beings, no matter how altered or augmented they are, unless----”

“I get it.”

Neither the Accountant nor Agent Sands responded to the harshness in Vicki's three-word reply, but there was no need to. “Not that it's my place to say it,” the Accountant quietly informed the brunette gynoid, “but we're under orders to capture Epsilon, not kill him. Our standards haven't fallen that far quite yet---”

“The hell with your standards,” Vicki spat. “Epsilon.....”

She let the word hang. There was no need to go into the details about Epsilon having been the father of Kirsten Sanderson, or what Matt Hannsen had done to Kirsten's mother....but the memories were surging back of their own accord.

“Epsilon isn't just a thing,” she murmured. “I just....” She turned away. “Give me a minute.”

“To compose your thoughts?”

“Something like that.”

As the Accountant walked off, shrugging, the brunette gynoid turned her focus to the surveillance cameras on the street corner light-posts. I wonder.... A quick glance back at the Accountant confirmed that he was deep in conversation with Agent Sands---and an even quicker, internalized check of the LAN revealed three other cameras in the immediate vicinity. More than likely, one of them got a clear shot of Epsilon and anything...or anyone that might've been chasing him.... With that thought coursing through her mind, Vicki Lawson closed her eyes....

….and V.I.C.I opened them.

Scanning local area network for connections...please wait. Connections found: Four (4). Would you like to connect? Y/N Y Please wait........connection established.

V.I.C.I.'s eyes glazed over as her vision filled with four separate screens, each one showing a different angle of the same scene. And that'd be me in the lower right-hand corner....time to rewind. All four images reversed, creating a bizarre after-image effect as the flaming car seemed to right itself, slide backwards and then roll over the wrong way. If I could just catch a glimpse of him---

In the upper left-hand corner of her vision, she saw: a tall, imposing figure, eyes glowing through the smoke. And there's Epsilon....but---oh, my God....... Standing less than three feet from Epsilon, clad entirely in white and almost wreathed in the fire surrounding them, was the one figure V.I.C.I didn't want to see in....

So it's true, then. He was chasing him.....

With an unspoken command of “Play”, the gynoid Field Agent watched as Epsilon lunged through the smoke, more than likely screaming something (the cameras' audio feeds had apparently been disconnected due to interference problems). Both Epsilon and his opponent dodged in and out of the flames, though without any audio, the difference between aggressor and defender was nearly impossible to discern....

….until the white-clad ALPA Chairman turned so that his full face was visible, allowing V.I.C.I to read his lips.

“You're a mistake....one that I intend to erase.”

All four screens blanked out, leaving V.I.C.I staring, silent and shocked, at nothing in particular---even as a polite Connection terminated notice flashed in her quickly-returning field of vision. He....he thinks Epsilon is just a mistake?! He doesn't even----

“Miss Lawson?”

The tap on her leg startled the brunette gynoid badly enough to elicit a shout.

“My apologies, but...we've got to get a move-on. Epsilon is on the move again.”

“Right, right...” She nodded weakly at McElvoy's words. “I was...trying to find him, just now, using security camera feeds. He was engaging in combat with a third party...” She decided to not mention who exactly the “third party” was, partially because she was still trying to come to grips with it herself. “How'd you find out that Epsilon's on the run, by the way?”

Selwyn glanced at the still-flaming car, which the Accountant and Sands were now going over. “Let's just say he's not exactly a master of subtlety. If you'd prefer that we try to get ahead of him, run an intercept...”

“If you think it'll work, then sure. I'm up for anything that'll put an end to this.”

“Trying to cut Epsilon off at the pass will be difficult,” Selwyn reminded her. “And if the...third party...is already ahead of us, we may have an even bigger problem on our hands---”

“A mistake.”

Vicki stared at the ground, not daring to look Selwyn in the eye. “I saw the security camera feed....I saw what he said about Epsilon.” Her voice was nearly flat---not quite at the level of her “robot voice” monotone, but just as emotionless. “He...he said Epsilon was a mistake, that he intended to erase....how can he think that?!”

Not for the first time, Selwyn McElvoy couldn't think of anything to say that would ease the gynoid's thoughts.

“Epsilon was...is a human being, beneath everything that was done to him,” Vicki continued. “And Oberon just calls him a mistake....”

“Under other circumstances,” McElvoy replied, “I'd attribute Oberon's reaction to the nature the project bearing the name Epsilon, not the result....but, given what we already know....” He shook his head. “He'd told me, a few times, that he'd do whatever it took to stop Epsilon,” he murmured. “I was too naïve, too short-sighted, to comprehend it....I thought he meant the project itself.....”

“Not the end result,” Vicki finished, her own voice nearly a whisper.

The horrible silence that seemed to hang in the air was broken by the Accountant's approach. “There's been a confirmed Epsilon sighting,” he stated. “Some of your people are already on-site....they're calling for any Field Agents available. Someone's apparently decided to...engage Epsilon---”

“Then let's not keep them waiting,” Vicki replied, turning on her heel and heading back to the shop.

Part 5

“Professor....do you think I act too human?”

Mary's question was met with a raised eyebrow. “You've picked an interesting time to ask me that question, Agent Robinson,” Anton replied. “Any particular reason for bringing it up?”

“I just....” Mary shifted in her seat, as if she was already hating herself for mentioning it. “Every other gynoid agent I know of,” she began, “looks human. No plastic sheen, no visible seams...they don't move in that stop-start, audio-animatronic way. It's....” She glanced at the interior of Anton's car, trying to focus her thoughts. “It feels like---”

“Like the whole 'gynoid thing' is one big act?” Anton finished.

“Something like that. I see Agent Reeves and Agent Larssen arguing, and they're just like a human couple!”

Anton grinned. “Well, it's pretty complex....but allow me to play armchair psychiatrist for a bit.” Even as he guided his car through traffic, the roboticist was able to keep the conversation going; “We hire human agents alongside androids and gynoids for a reason,” he stated. “Some people....have an uncanny ability to detect even the slightest hint of...'off-ness', if you will, when interacting with others. Every artificial agent in the ALPA is trained extensively in minimalising that 'off-ness'---”

“The uncanny valley effect, you mean,” Mary offered.

“Something like that. Ever wonder why you have an internal sound system in you that plays 'organic noise', like heartbeats and breathing? Well....with the world as it is now, any mass 'outing' of androids and gynoids would go over quite badly. The way I see it---”

A sports car sped by in the passing lane, the driver's middle finger briefly visible as a blur.

“....anyway,” Anton continued, rolling his eyes at the sight, “the way I see it, an android's best hope for fitting in is to keep their 'personal reality'---in plain English, their true nature---a secret, from everyone. Even within the ALPA, interactions between artificial and human agents are handled like conversations between normal human beings.”

“So it kind of is one big act,” Mary finished.

“True---to a certain point. It's a necessary act, to be honest---allow me to use you as an example, if I may.”

Mary rolled her eyes. “If there's a point to this, sure.”

“Thanks. So....let's say, hypothetically speaking, that you prefer to keep the truth of your existence a secret between yourself and....your preferred maintenance provider. You know you're a gynoid, and the provider knows you're a gynoid---and both of you are the only ones who need to know. Now, let's say you decide to get a minor cosmetic upgrade to your external synthetic flesh covering---seam lines, for instance.”

“Not my thing,” the blonde gynoid admitted, “but since we're being hypothetical....sure.”

“Indeed. Your provider might try to dissuade you from having the seam lines etched in, because it would be a small sign of that 'off-ness'---a small sign that you're not entirely human. And even the smallest sign on your part would trigger questions. Some people might be satisfied with the answers you could give...but others might do a little digging on their own. From there...” Anton sighed. “I've seen it happen before,” he mused, a hint of regret in his tone. “Girls going in for a routine tune-up, emerging with a new, 'streamlined' chassis and about two cup sizes bigger....” A mirthless chuckle punctuated the remark. “I'm not one of those 'killjoys' who despises the idea of cosmetic upgrades---”

“You're saying 'don't advertise', then,” Mary offered. “Don't draw attention to that 'off-ness'.”

“Exactly. In Japan, they can afford to be a bit more open about it---the culture's a bit more lenient, and they have a much deeper respect for robotics and automation in general. Here in the States, though....you say 'android' in any state, or even 'lifelike' robot......” Another mirthless chuckle sounded from the driver's seat. “It's funny, how many people seem to think that Disney animatronics and those Actroid things are the most lifelike 'humanoid robots' in the world, these days. Back in the 50s, they would've been, definitely....”

Having seen an Actroid 'dissected' firsthand, Mary found herself giggling at the thought of such a primitive bit of tech (primitive, at least, compared to herself) ever being thought of as “lifelike”. “I heard something about some, ah, certain studios---”

“No need to self-censor,” Anton assured her. “The adult film industry's use of gynoids has been ongoing since about...2001.” His chuckle held more than a bit of humour this time around; “I was there when they tested the first TR-PTK model, actually,” he admitted. “She was...impressive, for the time. Looked exactly like the star of the film, didn't smell like a used tire, and managed to move on her own without falling over...”

“....I'm guessing,” Mary mused, “that she had one particular flaw the studio heads weren't fond of...”

“Oh, if they'd known about the fetish market at the time,” Anton chortled, “they'd have loved it. Instead, they nearly tore down the set and demanded their 'real star' back.....” He sighed. “And there was a point to all of that rambling,” he admitted. “There's a time and place to drop the 'act' and let your personal reality shine through. The ALPA just prefers that, unless the need calls for it, our Agents stay as human as possible---”

“For those who have the option.”

Roboto's statement earned a gasp from Mary; seeing as he'd been completely silent after they'd left the wrecked Suburban, she'd almost forgotten the massive android was sitting next to her..

“We can get you a more humanoid form if you want,” Anton reminded him. “It wouldn't take long to---”

“I may accept your offer eventually,” Roboto admitted. “For now....this is the form I choose....the avatar I accept as mine.”

“So how does the ALPA intend to keep you from attracting attention?” Mary inquired.

“They've let me retain one habit from my old existence---I'm only deployed at night.”

A number of questions---none of them particularly easy to answer---filled the brunette gynoid's thoughts, but she chose to nod. “So....Professor. Your answer to my question is....androids and gynoids in the ALPA seem to be indistinguishable from humans because they're trained to be?”

“Because they're trained to be, and because they choose to be. It's not just one over the other.”

“That, I can understand,” Mary admitted. “And...thanks.”

Anton nodded, just as a notification appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the windshield. “Looks like any further talk on the 'off-ness' of androids and gynoids will have to wait---we're supposed to meet up with Major Tom and two House agents....Kimiko and Yuriko, I think. Any chance you can link up with....” He sighed, noticing that Mary had already hiked up her shirt to get at the port she'd need to connect to for a link with the car's GPS systems. “You've got SARIA?” she inquired.

Roboto glanced at Mary (still plugging her cord in) and Anton. “What's SARIA?”

“Satellite Assisted Route Informational Aide,” the roboticist replied. “Saria, say hi to our guests.”

A cheerful voice piped in from speakers built into the armrests: “Hi! Where do you want to go today?”

Mary giggled. “Microsoft might not like that she's stealing their old catchphrase....”

“Why would they? They helped develop her last five iterations....” Anton grinned. “I had to convince them to up her 'age' to sound more like a 20-something....they wanted her to sound far younger, but I had a feeling that most drivers wouldn't want their sat-nav to sound like someone else's kid.”

“Good point,” Mary admitted. “So, Saria....is satellite navigation all you do?”

“I can also tune to any existing satellite radio station, give you a readout of your vital stats or the Professor's health---”

Anton gave a theatrical groan. “Can we not discuss my cholesterol right now?”

“---or I can load up one of over 15,000 audiobooks, including several hundred strategy guides and hint books, all of which can be read from your tablet or the display screen in front of you!”

“What about my vital statistics?” Roboto intoned.

Before Anton could say anything, SARIA piped up again: “Sorry, but you're not configured to uplink with my hardware....my bad.” Her voice sounded genuinely apologetic. “Maybe we could just have a conversation while you wait to get where you need to go?”

“....a conversation about....what, exactly?

“Anything you want to talk about! I'm Turing-rated to chat, converse, and engage in 'small-talk' on any number of subjects!” Mary could easily imagine a smile on any face that might be attached to that cheerful, mid-20s voice. “I'm not just a GPS system, you know.....”

“And we're all fascinated,” Anton agreed, “so---”

You want me to shut up now, don't you?”

The awkward silence that followed was broken by Mary's unconstrained laugh.

“She's....interesting,” Roboto admitted. “Far more lively than most computer systems I knew.”

Thank you!” SARIA beamed. “I love a good compliment....and sorry if I hurt your feelings, Professor.”

Again, Anton sighed. “No apology needed, Saria,” he replied, smiling. “I'm actually impressed---your last iteration couldn't pick up on subtlety the way you just did...not as quickly as you have, at least.” He glanced at the notifier on the windshield. “And we're nearly there,” he informed Mary and Roboto. “Also....it seems a few more House agents have been deployed---”

Mary sat bolt upright in her seat, gasping. “Something wrong?” Roboto inquired.

“I....I just....” The blonde gynoid raised a hand to her brow. “.....it was like an overload of notifications, about two dozen coming in at once......” She glanced at Anton. “If...if my systems start lagging---”

“They won't. At least, if you disconnect from the car.”

“Good....good....good....” Mary blinked a few times, the whirring servos of her eyelids a bit louder than she would've preferred. “Damn it, that was annoying....anyway, I think we're not the only ones meeting up with Major Tom and the House agents---”

The car slowed to a stop. “Mary,” Anton quietly replied, “we were never the only ones meeting him here...”

Even as she exited the car, Mary could tell that something had gone catastrophically wrong---five vehicles (a pair of cars, a pair of trucks and one Humvee) bearing the ALPA insignia, about a dozen or so House cars, two unmarked vehicles that more than likely belonged to Coalition agents and a few “plain chasers”----Agency speak for police cars not bearing ALPA, House or Coalition livery---had been parked in a vague, half-circle in what was left of the parking lot.

As for what that parking lot had belonged to.....

“You're lucky,” Major Tom called out, “that all of ours showed up when they did....they all got the call at the same time, pretty much. Anyone else who would've driven by would've probably had a panic attack.”

Considering the building looked like it might've been a hospital in a past life (which, coincidentally, it had), it was all too easy for Mary to comprehend the Major's panic attack remark. Operatives in full Hazmat gear were emerging from the building's ground-floor exit, while a few others were trying to quench the fires that erupted from the windows of the second and third floors. “What happened here?” she asked.

Kimiko Mori, one of the House agents with the Major, gave a sad, quiet sigh. “Epsilon,” she replied. “And an unknown attacker...we're still going through the security footage.”

“The footage won't show us too much we don't already know,” Major Tom muttered. “Yuriko's already trying to run through the records...we're lucky the whole place didn't go up whenever---” A gout of flame shot out of a third-floor window, prompting shouts and another round of extinguishers were emptied into it. “....whenever the crap hit the fan,” the Major finished. “The place was mainly a clinic, was being the operative word---if the records aren't faked, it was also a catch-all repair shop, storage centre, trading post....you name it.”

A pair of House operatives in full-body Hazmat suits walked past, carrying a feminine form in a zippered, see-through bag. “One of the stored units?” Mary asked.

“Seeing as how this place changed hands almost a dozen times over the past five years, she was either a client, an employee, or a product,” Anton replied. “Why Epsilon was driven here.....” He shuddered. “I really hope he wasn't going the way of the SPS.”

“Doubt it.” Major Tom watched as another bagged gynoid was carried past. “Set her down,” he instructed the two operatives. “As you can see, Professor....” He unzipped the bag lengthwise, halfway-pulling out the lithe, pale female contained inside. “Not a mark on her---front....” With a bit of difficulty, he turned the fembot over; “or back,” he finished. “Other than some minor scuffage---she had a rear-loading power cell compartment, a holdover from the older DCX models...anyway, other than that, she's intact.”

“And the rest?” Anton queried.

“Kimiko and Yuriko were logging all the damaged units---there were only about 15 out of....112 inside.”

“And how were they damaged---”

“Smoke damage, a bit of fire damage, some had ceiling debris dropped on them---Epsilon didn't attack any of them, Anton....” A bin of damaged android limbs was rolled past; “Those were all damaged and discarded,” he explained. “Yuriko found them in the repair area---some of them were marked for resale, which is just---”

“We get the picture.” Anton stared out at the still-burning building. “Any employees online?”

It was Kimiko who replied this time: “The building's alarm network shut them all down after the breach.”

Mary nodded. “Makes sense...I'm guessing they were all in secured areas, out of the way of the...fight?”

“They were. The ground floor's been stabilized, if you want to see for yourself...”

Anton, Mary and Major Tom followed Kimiko into the building (Roboto chose to guard the vehicle), weaving through the crowd of ALPA, Coalition and House operatives as they went. “We pulled the files on everyone working here at the time of the breach,” the Asian gynoid explained. “The Patriarch asked us to follow that line of inquiry first....just to eliminate the obvious suspects.”

“And you found....what, exactly?”

The roboticist's question earned him a frown. “They're clean. Apart from illegally trading selfware update files and other...personal....software, they didn't have a single spot on their records.” Kimiko nodded at another gynoid; “You've got the files on the employees, Yuri?” she called out.

“Yuri” turned out to be Yuriko, the other House operative Major Tom had mentioned. Whereas Kimiko was on the athletic side, slim but with just enough curves to stand out in a crowd, Yuriko looked more like a well-rounded college student---”well-rounded” in the physical sense, at least. She could've easily been a cousin of the other gynoid; their facial structures weren't identical enough to make them twins, but there was enough to mark them as children from the same family tree---which, in a way, was true. Their manufacturers had, at one point, been part of the same zaibatsu. “I've had the files since we were called out here,” she informed the group, handing Major Tom a tablet. “Other than the selfware-swapping, they're all stainless.”

“Stainless is for kitchen utensils and medical instruments,” the Major replied with a frown, dragging his finger along the tablet to scroll through the reports. “And none of them knew about Epsilon?”

“They didn't even know Epsilon existed.”

Mary glanced over Tom's shoulder. “I know a few of them....from Facebook, I mean. I've never met them in person, before....we were all going to meet next week for a movie marathon....”

“We can reminisce later,” Anton gently reminded her. “Right now....” He nodded at the untouched tower PC on the desk. “There might be something in the records that shows why the fight went from the city limits to a building like this one....Epsilon may have been looking for something.”

“He was sighted in a Fry's Electronics store earlier,” Mary agreed. “You think....”

While Anton and Mary conversed about the case, neither of them paid any heed to the House agents as they examined another desktop PC. “Someone had a lot of fun on here,” Kimiko mused. “Every single game made by CHAMProgramming, the entire Apogee catalog....and all 37 Windows Entertainment Packs.” She grinned as her internal WiFi linked up with the PC, allowing her to browse it without even touching the mouse or the keyboard. “Wonder what else they had on here....”

“That uplink safety seminar didn't reach you at all, did it?” Yuriko groaned, manually scrolling through windows on another PC. “You could at least limit yourself to using the provided input, like everyone else...”

“I haven't had to use a mouse in years,” Kimiko bragged. “Just because you prefer it---”

The taunt died on her tongue, as both gynoids suddenly found themselves staring at the same image on two different monitors: eyes, blazing with a light unlike anything they'd seen before. “Hear me,” a voice---audible to both Kimiko and Yuriko, but unheard by anyone else in the room---demanded. “As of now, you no longer answer to the House....you answer to me.”

“Kimmy,” Yuriko gasped, “it's....him......”

“.....a virus,” Kimiko grunted. “....bastard....left a virus....fight it, Yuri....we have to----OHH!” Her lips locked into a shocked “o”, as did Yuriko's. “....breaking....down....firewalls.....over....riding....sec....urity.......”

“Don't bother trying to resist. I only need you to obey, not to suffer.”

The two Asian gynoids' fists clenched and opened with audible servo whirs, their faces contorting as the last anti-virus measures installed into their systems fell. Within seconds, their postures relaxed, and they simply stared at the screens before them. In an eerie kind of harmony, they spoke: “We're listening.”

“Every single person in the building right now will only interfere. Keep them there.”

A pause.... “Bruise them if you must, but break no bones and shed no blood. Handle it cleanly.”

“We understand.” Kimiko and Yuriko turned, regarding each other silently before nodding.

“Then go. And make sure they don't pick up the trail.”

“.....earth to Kimiko? You awake or what?” Major Tom's fingers were snapping in front of Kimiko's face. “I'm not usually one to question your decisions in stuff like this,” he mused, “but....this PC's power supply is shot to hell. You've been staring at a blank screen---”

“You should go up to the third floor,” Kimiko stated, her voice oddly flat. “There's something you need to see.”

The Major frowned. “.....Kimmy, the third floor's still on fire, and the floor above it---”

“It's really important. I'll take you there myself.” Kimiko's hand closed around the Major's wrist with all the subtlety of a vise being tightened. “We need to get up there now---”

“Ah, is everything all right?” Mary inquired. “I was just....” She stopped; both Kimiko and Yuriko were staring at her. “Everything is fine,” Yuriko replied, her voice just as flat as Kimiko's. “We're both fine. The Major was just going to join us on the third floor---”

“Which is still on fire,” Tom hissed. “Kimmy, please let go of my wrist---” He gasped as Kimiko pulled him closer. “We were just on our way now,” she informed Mary, her expression as blank as her voice. “There's something important that we need to see up there---”

“Oh, good!” Mary beamed. “I can go out to the car, get Roboto---he's fireproof, he can help---” She turned to head towards the door, only to feel Yuriko grab her by the shoulder. “It's all right,” she assured the Asian gynoid, I just need to---” Her statement ended in a surprised gasp as Yuriko grabbed her other shoulder and threw her into the wall.

“Okay, THAT was uncalled for! Kimmy, you've got some 'splainin to.....gaaah...my WRIST! Kimmy....” Major Tom gasped as Kimiko's grip on his arm tightened. “What the hell's gotten into....you.....”

His gaze turned towards the now-smoking desktop PC.

“NOBODY IS LEAVING THIS BUILDING,” Yuriko shouted, just as steel security shutters slammed down over the doors. “DO NOT TRY TO ESCAPE.”

“What....the hell?!” Mary gasped. “I thought they were on our side!” She waved aside Anton's efforts to help her up; “I'm okay,” she assured him, “apart from....a six-inch gash in my arm.” She groaned at the sight of her own internal framework, fluid lines and servomotors, exposed through a tear in the skin near her left elbow. “I'll get it fixed when we get back to base....if we get back---”

“If we can't get them shut down,” Anton replied, “then---GAAAH!” Yuriko's hands closed around his wrists as she frog-marched him over to a broom closet. “YOU WILL NOT LEAVE,” she declared.

Every ALPA, Coalition and House agent backed towards the shuttered doors, all staring at the Asian gynoids.

“Now that I have your attention,”' the voice of Oberon declared, “....allow me to bore you with a story....”

Part 6

“....and the panic signal is coming from inside the centre,” William gasped. “They're all inside---what the hell's going on over there?!”

“Knowing Oberon,” Selwyn quietly replied, “they've sprung one mother of a trap on themselves...”

Vicki stared at the floor mat, trying not to imagine herself stomping on Oberon's face. “He's....I still can't believe he'd go this far,” she muttered. “Epsilon recognized Kirsten, the last time she saw him....whatever was left of Anthony Sanderson was still alive inside of Epsilon, and he knew her. Why the hell would Oberon just want to kill him?!”

“Because he knows how far Project Epsilon was meant to go,” McElvoy calmly informed her. “He knows what it was meant to be---”

“Which is what?!” Vicki insisted. “What the hell was it meant to be?!”

Even as William shot her an annoyed glare, McElvoy's tone never wavered. “It was meant, quite simply, to be the first step towards the particularly ludicrous 'phenomenon' most people refer to as the singularity,” he stated, “a transhumanist's dream come true.....in the initial stages, at least. When the Baron gained control of the project, everything remotely benign about the project was discarded, and all work was turned towards making Project Epsilon something.....else.” He sighed. “What I'm about to tell you, Miss Lawson, might very well haunt you for the rest of your---”

“Spare me the dramatics,” V.I.C.I cut in. “Just get to the point.”

Selwyn nodded. “You've worked with Jake Brightstar before, correct?”

“.....is there a point to this?”

“Indeed there is. You see, Jake's augmentations are well within the acceptable parameters of the ALPA, the House and the Coalition---they enhance, instead of supersede, his natural abilities.....with a few 'bonuses', of course. They actually started off as medical-grade prosthetic implants....”

Before V.I.C.I could interrupt the pause, Selwyn spoke again. “His augments were meant to heal. What was used to create Epsilon....it was never meant to be used in conjunction with a human being. No metaphor, no comparison I could possibly come up with, could ever drive home just how wrong that decision was...this isn't like testing cosmetics on animals, or putting fluoride in drinking water. This is taking a living, thinking, feeling human being, cutting out parts of his brain, pumping him full of chemicals to remove anything resembling a conscience, and grafting on technology to turn him into a walking weapon.”

“In other words,” William murmured, “a nightmare come true.”

“Nightmares can end,” Vicki replied. “And whatever they did to Tony---”

“Can't be undone,” Selwyn finished. “I'm sorry to break it to you so bluntly, Miss Lawson, but whatever shred of lucidity remains inside of Anthony Sanderson's mind is being snuffed out by the technology of Epsilon...and it only gets worse.” As Miss Hynde guided the car around another curve, Selwyn wiped his glasses; “From what I've been able to discern from the reports collected by my contacts,” he admitted, “Epsilon....is dying.”

Vicki could almost see the reunion between Kirsten and Epsilon playing out again. “He's....dying?!

“Turns out all those chemicals and all that tech weren't really meant to mix,” William replied. “Underneath all that grafted-on metal and treatments to the internals of his organic form...he's falling apart. Whatever organs he's got left are rejecting the implants....whatever they did to keep his blood from clotting has reacted badly with some of the chemicals they've pumped into his brain.....” He let his words trail off as Vicki nearly crushed the armrests of her seat, her figure wracked by quiet sobs.

“Everything that made him strong is weakening him,” William quietly added. “It's just sick---”

“Kirsten.”

Both Selwyn and William stared. “What---”

“She doesn't know,” Vicki whispered. “She doesn't know Epsilon is dying....she doesn't realize....”

“Telling her won't solve the problem,” William reminded her. “Nor will it get us closer to stopping Oberon, which is a whole other can of worms in and of itself. We've got Ash on the line in case we need a takedown against Epsilon, but.....we're running against Epsilon and Oberon, and what works on one---”

“Leave Oberon to me,” V.I.C.I intoned. “He's not going to get anywhere near Epsilon.”

Selwyn frowned. “You realize that you're committing yourself to fight someone who's specifically trained to fight androids,” he informed her, “and that he'll try to exploit every single weakness you might have---turn left here, Miss Hynde, if you would...” William picked up where Selwyn had left off. “You're not fighting my brother this time,” he quietly reminded the brunette gynoid. “I can tell you right now that any strategies you picked up from your clashes with him won't do anything to help you against Oberon...and if it were me, I'd try to avoid fighting him at all, if possible---”

“Except you're not me,” V.I.C.I stated. “Nobody is except me......”

Her voice went back to its more human sound: “....and I have no idea what'll happen when...or if...I fight him.”

Both Selwyn and William nearly said something, but Vicki continued. “I'm not saying I look forward to it. I'm not trying to insinuate that I want this...because I don't. Oberon has been a part of my life in the ALPA ever since I joined, and....everything about this feels wrong.”

The car slowed to a stop.

“I...I don't know if I can fight him,” Vicki murmured. “I don't know if I'm---”

“Strength has nothing to do with it,” Selwyn stated. “Nor does strategy. This isn't---”

“That's not what I meant,” Vicki snapped, her eyes briefly glowing. “I...I'm not..” She hugged herself, bowing her head. “I don't know if I can fight him....because I might lose control again.”

William and Selwyn exchanged a worried glance. “Again?”

“The gynoids who attacked the Starlet Dolls concert,” Vicki tonelessly replied. “Erin Choyler's mom's former boyfriend....Matthew Hannsen.....all three times, I nearly snapped. I don't want Oberon to join that list...I don't want that happening to me again!” Tears streaked down her face with every word.

Despite her inability to speak, Miss Hynde's poignant glance at Selwyn was more than enough of a signal for him to say something. “I honestly think it won't come down to you having to kill him,” he assured the gynoid Field Agent. “Even with everything he's done thus far in his efforts to destroy Epsilon, there are a number of ways this can end without any innocent blood being spilled---”

“You might want to hold off on that,” William advised. “Two of the House gynoids at the centre have apparently decided not to let anyone leave the building...someone from a car outside just sent the call in.”

“Then we should probably get there as soon as possible,” Selwyn replied. “Miss Hynde....”

With a silent nod, the gynoid guided the car from a slow, rolling start back onto the road.

“You said something earlier,” Vicki muttered. “About a trap....Oberon leaving a trap.....”

“He's had years to prepare contingencies for this,” William informed her. “In all honesty, everyone thought he was just over-preparing for something that probably wouldn't happen in any of our lifetimes....”

Miss Hynde nodded at something ahead. “We're getting closer,” Selwyn stated. “Vicki....”

“I'm ready. Whatever happens next, I'm ready.”

“I sincerely hope so....” Selwyn let the words trail off as he noticed a hulking figure at the side of the road. “If that's who I think it is---” To his chagrin, Vicki already had the window halfway-down, gesturing for the figure to approach. “What are you doing out here, Roboto?!” she hissed. “I thought you were with Anton!”

“Anton, Agent Robinson and Major Tom are still trapped,” the android intoned. “I was guarding the car...”

Vicki nodded. “What happened? Were you able to see any of it---”

“The security shutters were dropped down over the doors. A few agents tried to get through them, but sustained mild electric shocks.” Roboto glanced back down the road; “The two gynoids who initiated the lockdown were both House agents,” he added. “I wasn't able to get any further information on them with a long-distance scan....”

“House agents?” William echoed. “You don't think---”

“Speculation will only delay us,” Selwyn cut in. “How many agents were inside when the lockdown began?”

“Over two dozen....I didn't get a specific number.”

Selwyn's next question was cut off by Vicki: “What about side entrances? Were there any other ways into the building you could see?”

“I never looked for any.” Roboto leaned in, inclining his head; “You're going to try to save them,” he quietly intoned, “aren't you?” He cocked his head the slightest degree to the right. “You would risk total destruction to rescue them?”

“If I had to.”

“The top floor of the building is still suffering from heavy damage to its supports,” Roboto stated. “Any further damage to the interior of the building will more than likely result in a catastrophic structural collapse. You'll be destroyed in seconds....”

Briefly recalling her introduction to Roboto, Vicki managed a smile. “I've survived worse.”

“And I'm sure we'll all be happy to book a table for five at Fazbear's once this is over,” William agreed, “but—-”

“Way ahead of you. Roboto...get in. And lead the way.”

As V.I.C.I held the door open, Roboto slid into the backseat of the car with relative ease. “Keep going,” he advised, “and be prepared to make a hard left turn when I give the signal.”

“Not a problem,” Selwyn assured him. “Miss Lawson---”

“I'm ready, in case you're wondering.”

The diminutive roboticist nodded. “In that case.....onwards.”

As per Roboto's instructions, Miss Hynde hit the hard left turn when instructed. “About that Fazbear's invite,” William mused. “You think we should go to the original, or to the spin-off? I never thought the whole Fanny Fazbear's thing would actually work, but from the online reviews---”

“Less talking,” V.I.C.I advised, “and more focusing.”

“....right. Focusing.” William glanced at Selwyn; “You ever been to Fanny Fazbear's?” he quietly asked.

“Once. It was....an interesting change, from the norm.”

“And is it true that the 'bots there, ah----”

“FOCUS.”

“Right, right....focusing.” Despite his annoyance at the brunette gynoid, William grinned. “Y'know, Ted always did say you knew how to cut to the heart of the matter,” he informed her. “Whatever that big upgrade did, it makes me glad to know you the way you are now.”

V.I.C.I's expression softened. “Thanks....and I'll be sure to tell Ted you said that.”

“I believe you're the one who suggested we focus,” McElvoy reminded her.

“Not much need for it now,” Roboto interjected. “We're here.”

The cars were still parked exactly as they had been outside, leaving no doubt in V.I.C.I's mind that all those still stuck inside hadn't even had time to get to their cars to retrieve any extra gear before the trap had been sprung on them. “I'm not detecting any diminishing vitals inside,” she stated. “They're all still alive...some of them might be injured, but---”

Static crackled from the speakers mounted on the corners of the building, before an unfamiliar voice sang out: “Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador!”

“It's a taunt,” Roboto intoned, ignoring William's arched eyebrow. “Someone---”

“Not just someone,” V.I.C.I corrected. “Oberon wants us to go in.....”

“Toréador, l'amour,” the voice sang, almost mockingly now. “L'amour t'attend!”

Selwyn shook his head. “I never thought he'd be this arrogant....then again, I never thought---” A warning glare from V.I.C.I stopped him. “If you're going to get in there to rescue them,” he advised the gynoid, “I suggest you do it now....before they start singing again.”

“They?”

“The two House agents hit by Oberon's trap,” Selwyn explained. “Miss Hynde picked up their signals when the car stopped...they've been hit by a virus of some kind.”

So he's resorted to viruses, now..... “They're both singing at once, then?”

“More than likely. The singing may only be one effect---”

Doesn't matter. I'm going in.....” V.I.C.I glanced at one of the many trucks parked outside; “I'm thinking we should go with a direct attack,” she stated. “Namely, ramming the security shutters---”

“Even with your speed, you're not fast enough!” William protested.

Her eyes still locked on the truck, V.I.C.I barely turned to regard him. “I never said I was going to ram them myself.....” Her lips curled in a half-smirk. “I have a feeling we can use a bit of extra horsepower for this part....hopefully, the original owner won't mind.” With one hand working her seatbelt and the other opening the car door, the brunette gynoid was standing before the building. “I'll try to get everyone inside out as fast as possible----”

“And what about the two House agents?”

Selwyn's question only stopped V.I.C.I for a moment. “I'll be sure to keep things as quick and painless as possible,” she replied, slipping back to her human voice for a moment. “And I'll leave them intact.”

“And if they try to make sure you're not intact?” William inquired.

“Then they might come away from this missing a few pieces---nothing important, just whatever they might try to scratch, tear or bite me with.” Without another word, V.I.C.I strode towards the truck she'd decided to use earlier. “If I'm not out in ten minutes....send Roboto in.”

“And if he doesn't come back in ten minutes?” McElvoy queried.

“Then get as far away from here as possible.”

Something in V.I.C.I's remark troubled both Selwyn and William, but the gynoid was already in the truck by the time they could think of anything to say. In a split-second, she'd started the engine (the truck bore an ALPA badge, meaning it accepted her authorization code without a problem) and was well on her way to reaching the revs needed to smash down the gate.


Link-up: connect to OVCS (Onboard Vehicular Calculation/Control Systems). Please wait.....

Connection established. Loading OVCS HUD packet....

Maximum recommended revs exceeded WARNING: Accelerating at current speed--- Override safety lockout? Y/N (Y) Safety lockout overridden. Autodrive enabled. WARNING: Disengaging safety belt may result in--- Disable warning messages? Y/N (Y) Warning messages disabled. Please Note: Impact at current speed will cause irreparable damage to internal components if restraints are disabled. Are you sure you wish to continue? Y/N

(Y)

Connection terminated.

As soon as V.I.C.I's foot left the brake pedal, the truck---already aimed towards the shutters and poised in a perfect position to smash them down---shot towards the entrance like the proverbial bat out of Hell. The strains of the Toréador song still rang through the air, only barely drowned out by the ever-increasing roar of the truck's engine...which died out (for V.I.C.I, at least) in seconds as soon as the truck slammed into the steel security shutters, ripping them free of their moorings.

The gynoid Field Agent, having already hurled herself out of the cab, watched the empty truck ride on...

…..skidding through the empty lobby to slam, with a thunderous crash, into a decorative sculpture at the far end of the room.

Almost as soon as the truck smashed into the fixture, the mixed voices of the House agents piped in once again: “Tout d'un coup, on fait silence, On fait silence… ah! que se passe-t-il? Plus de cris, c'est l'instant! Plus de cris, c'est l'instant!” Both gynoids soon stepped out from behind a pair of pillars the truck had just barely avoided smashing into---V.I.C.I noted that one, Agent Kimiko Mori, had been seen with Major Tom a few times since their work together during the invasion of ALPA HQ. The other gynoid could've very well been Kimiko's cousin---and she's even from a related manufacturer, V.I.C.I noted. Not that it matters, now....

With an even stride, she approached the gynoids. “Where are they?”

“Le taureau s'élance en bondissant hors du toril! Il s'élance! Il entre, il frappe!…un cheval roule----”

“WHERE ARE THE ALPA, HOUSE AND COALITION OPERATIVES?” V.I.C.I demanded. “No more songs, no more games......tell me where they are now---”

“Toréador, en garde!” Kimiko sang, almost dancing as she approached the gynoid Field Agent. “Toréador...”

“Toréador...”, the other gynoid---Yuriko, if the info file hasn't been affected---continued, her own movements almost gymnastic as she bounded towards V.I.C.I with a smile. “Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant----”

Enough of this.....

Without waiting for them to reach the next verse, V.I.C.I hurtled towards the pair, arms outstretched to nail both in the neck with a clothesline---only for the pair of still-singing gynoids to grab her by the wrists and slam her, back first, onto the floor. “Qu'un œil noir te regarde!”

Even as she glared up at her opponents, V.I.C.I managed to strike out with both legs to trip them up, sending them to the floor on either side of her. “Even if there is a 'dark eye' watching me,” she intoned, quickly returning to her feet, “I'm not leaving here until every single operative in this building is free---” From the corner of her eye, the gynoid noticed several figures---the aforementioned operatives---leaving a stairwell past the ruined truck and the sculpture it had smashed into.

Ushering the fleeing operatives out: Major Tom, looking somewhat dishevelled, but otherwise okay. Almost instantly, a message appeared in V.I.C.I's field of vision: “Second floor cleared. Y and K marched us upstairs, told us to stay put....they're under O's control. Disable---do not destroy or DeComm. Signed, Anton.”

Yuriko and Kimiko returned to their feet, no longer singing. “YOU WILL NOT LEAVE,” Kimiko declared, her voice sounding heavily digitized. “NO ONE WILL LEAVE THIS BUILDING UNTIL---”

“Spare me the details.” V.I.C.I launched into a flurry of punches, not caring that more than a few of them were dodged by the Asian gynoid. “You're not doing this on your own---and I know exactly who's forcing you to do their dirty work---” A spinning kick from Yuriko impacted the side of the brunette gynoid's head, serving only to annoy her. “Don't try that again,” she warned, her eyes never leaving Kimiko---even as her own leg shot out to kick Yuriko right in the stomach. “As I was---”

Kimiko's hands had managed to tighten around V.I.C.I's wrists. “YOU WILL NOT LEAVE THIS BUILDING!”

“Who said I wanted to leave?” Kimiko more than likely didn't notice the Field Agent closing her eyes, or the sudden feeling of extreme heat surging through her arms---until that heat effectively burned the Asian gynoid's hands. She barely had any time to recoil; V.I.C.I closed the gap between herself and the back-pedalling House agent in seconds, her now-cooled hands gripping the back of Kimiko's head. “Just stay still...I'll be quick.”

As soon as the last word left V.I.C.I's lips, Kimiko sank to the floor in a lifeless heap.

Virus terminated. Subject disinfected. Seeking second infected----

Another kick impacted V.I.C.I's head; “YOU WILL NOT LEAVE!” Yuriko screamed. “YOU WILL REMAIN---”

“I'm getting really tired of this....” The brunette gynoid didn't bother turning to address Yuriko directly; even as the House operative reared back for another kick, V.I.C.I was walking away. If she falls for this....

“YOU WILL NOT LEAVE THIS BUILDING!”

Running footsteps, getting closer.....need to time this perfectly.....

Just as Yuriko lashed out with another kick, V.I.C.I spun to face her, grabbing her by the ankle and flipping her over to land face-first on the floor. “Nighty-night, Yuri---”

An audible servomotor whir sounded as Yuriko stared---not at V.I.C.I, but at the downed figure of Kimiko.

WARNING: Subject attempting to re-transmit virus. Disable immediately to avoid---

Kimiko's eyes shot open as she bolted into an upright position.

Damn..... V.I.C.I darted away from Yuriko as she returned to her feet, with Kimiko running (or more accurately, skipping) over to join her again. Both stared at V.I.C.I with unnerving grins before belting out the chorus of the Toréador song once more: “Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador! Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant....Qu'un œil noir te regarde!”

“Time to put you both down,” V.I.C.I intoned, her eyes overtaken by a blue glow. “Like you've said....”

She regarded the pair of gynoids with a stare that would've made Kubrick proud. “....en garde.”

Apparently, having the lyrics of their new favourite song quoted back at them was enough to send Kimiko and Yuriko into a surprisingly-startling frenzy---both gynoids (still smiling) charged towards V.I.C.I with every intent to ensure that she followed their orders and never left the building---even if it meant tearing her apart. As they parted ways---one running to the Field Agent's left, the other to her right---their target was already calculating how to best counter their inevitable attack. They're moving to flank---give them a target, but don't let them follow up...

Just as the thought processed, V.I.C.I whirled to duck underneath a charging elbow aimed towards her face, dropping into a spin-kick that took Kimiko's legs out from beneath her. “Don't try that again----”

Yuriko angled a heel kick towards V.I.C.I's face, just barely missing the mark---the brunette gynoid had gone into a side-roll that carried her far enough away from the attack to keep her eyes (the main target of the kick) safe. “Your calculations regarding that move's success rate were flawed, in case you haven't figured it out,” the Field Agent stated. “I wouldn't attempt it again if I were you---”

“YOU CANNOT LEAVE THIS BUILDING!” Kimiko shrieked, even as her limbs contorted in inhuman ways (with the audible servo whines that destroyed any lingering illusion of her being human) until she was standing.

“I never said I wanted to leave,” the gynoid ALPA operative countered.

“YOU WILL NOT LEAVE THIS PLACE,” Yuriko shouted. “EPSILON MUST BE CONTAINED. NO FURTHER CASUALTIES WILL BE TOLERATED!”

So that's what this is about.....this was never a trap for them----it was a trap for me!

Almost as if Yuriko's shouting had cued it up, the Toréador song started up again---this time, as an instrumental blasting from several speakers and around the room. “ENOUGH,” V.I.C.I growled---even her monotone wasn't enough to keep the anger from her voice. “You think I enjoy this?!” she called out, her gaze sweeping the balconies looking down from the second floor. “You think I want to hurt them?!”

Yuriko and Kimiko were singing along with the instrumental, practically dancing around V.I.C.I and darting in and out of range to strike at her. “THIS ISN'T A GAME!” the Field Agent shouted. “NOT TO ME---”

A knife-edge chop from Kimiko caught her in the midsection, doubling her over.

“I WILL GET OUT OF HERE,” V.I.C.I declared, “AND I WILL FIND EPSILON BEFORE YOU DO!”

Just as the song reached the “Qu'un œil noir te regarde” line again, the brunette gynoid backfipped away from another knife-edge chop and planted both feet into Yuriko's face. Kimiko, still singing, moved in for the kill....

…..and ate a kick to the jaw as a result.

“Vicki,” Anton's voice muttered in V.I.C.I's left ear, “you need to get out of there. The supports are starting to crack...everyone else has been evacuated already---if you stay inside much longer, you'll end up buried under what's left of the second floor!” From outside the building, an explosion almost drowned out Anton's voice; “I'm outside,” he continued, “with Selwyn and the rest---you need to---”

“I need to remove the virus from Kimiko and Yuriko,” V.I.C.I calmly replied. “Don't wait up.”

“Vicki, wait---”

In the blink of an eye, the call ended. A Connection Terminated notice briefly flashed in V.I.C.I's field of vision.

“'Think as well as fight'.....a taunt and a lesson, all in one.” With the lyrics of March of the Toréadors still blaring around her, V.I.C.I realized that Oberon had set up this particular trap for more than one reason---to detain her, as long as possible....and quite possibly, to test her. So he's trying to see if I'm “worthy”, now? Another kick from Kimiko missed the mark---and was in fact intercepted and countered into a throw that sent the Asian gynoid crashing into a wall.

Even as she ran towards Yuriko to intercept her, the brunette gynoid noticed a rather shocking effect (more than likely unintentional) of the virus: tears were streaking down Yuri's face, even as she smiled and sang.

They're not in control, V.I.C.I realized. They can't stop themselves from fighting me....

“Yuriko, if you can hear me from beyond the virus that's allowing Oberon to puppeteer you...” A quick dash behind the House gynoid allowed V.I.C.I to plant both hands on Yuri's head. “.....I'm sorry I couldn't stop this from happening to you.” A burst of data flowed through her systems, wirelessly translating into the afflicted gynoid....

….and this time, Yuriko slumped to the floor and didn't get back up.

Across the room, Kimiko was extricating herself from the hole her impact with the wall had made; “Your turn,” V.I.C.I intoned, crossing the lobby in seconds. “I didn't want to fight you---”

“YOU WILL NOT LEAVE!” Kimiko shrieked. “YOU WILL REMAIN---”

“Yes,” V.I.C.I agreed. “I'll remain....but what's in you right now, controlling you... it won't remain.” Another data pulse emanated from the brunette gynoid....

….and just like Yuriko a few seconds before her, Kimiko fell to the floor in a heap.

Virus routines suspended and quarantined. Commencing virus deletion routine.... WARNING: Subject 2 out of---

A quick dash to the other side of the lobby---and back to Kimiko---soon had both gynoids slumped in a sitting position against the wall.

Subjects in range for virus deletion. Commencing routine..... …....routine complete. Subject 2 and Subject 1 are now virus-free.

Kimiko and Yuriko stirred, no longer smiling vapidly as they stared up at V.I.C.I; indeed, both were on the verge of tears. “.....we....we couldn't stop,” Yuriko breathed, staring up at the ALPA gynoid. “.....we....couldn't....”

“I know. I've removed the routine from your systems....we can go now.”

As she lead them out through the ruined shutters, V.I.C.I stared back into the lobby. All of this, just to keep me from getting to Epsilon....he must be desperate to kill him, if he's resorting to this. Major Tom was already consoling Kimiko, and waving off her repeated apologies for throwing him around; a few feet away, a blonde gynoid with an ALPA badge was telling Yuriko not to worry about the arm damage. I guess they needed all hands on deck for this one....I've never seen her in Silicon Valley before.

“Under normal circumstances,” Anton declared, “I'd be a little miffed at you for ignoring my orders....but Kimiko and Yuriko are showing no residual effects from that little trick Oberon pulled on both of them---”

“Part of the job, Professor,” V.I.C.I stated. “They needed my help, and I provided it.”

Anton nodded thoughtfully. “Everyone and everything that could be salvaged was removed from the building before you started fighting with Kimiko and Yuriko, by the way.....” He shook his head. “All of this, just for the sake of a distraction....”

“A distraction that didn't work,” V.I.C.I reminded him. “The trail hasn't turned cold yet.....we can still catch up to Oberon and end this before anyone else has to get hurt.” Her thoughts turned to the song that Kimiko and Yuriko had been singing; “As much as he thinks I'm enjoying this,” she quietly added, “I'm not.”

Her gaze levelled towards the ground. “I'm not,” she repeated, reverting to her human voice.

With one last look at the building, she turned and strode towards the car....

“Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador!”

The song, again, rang out through the air.....but this time, it sounded as if a male was singing it.

“Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant, Qu'un œil noir te regarde!”

A quick look up at the fourth floor window stunned the gynoid operative beyond belief---amidst the flames still licking at the window frame, she could've sworn a white-clad, blond figure was standing in the window, staring down at her......

"Vicki, we need to get going.”

Anton's words caught Vicki's attention only for a moment. “I know. I just...” She looked back at the window...

…..to find it empty, except for the still-raging fire.

Part 7

“You think they're okay?”

Alicia's question went unanswered by the Patriarch; he'd received the notification regarding Kimiko and Yuriko being affected by a virus of some kind earlier, and was already well aware of who'd activated it. “Earth to RPB, hello?” Alicia snapped her fingers a few inches away from the Patriarch's face. “I know you can hear me---”

“I can....I'm just thinking.” Richard frowned. “They should've returned by now.....”

“Hold that thought,” Alicia replied, glancing out past the security gates of ALPA headquarters. “Either that's them in the distance, or somebody rerouted a parade....” Even as she spoke, the Patriarch saw a veritable convoy of vehicles making its way up the road. “Think they ran into any trouble?” Alicia leaned forward a bit as she asked the question; “Kimmy and Yuri are still functioning,” she added, “but they've taken one hell of a beating....whatever took them over is out of their systems now, but---”

The Patriarch gestured for her to be silent. “Time enough for questions later....” He approached the first car as it drove through the opened gates. “Run into trouble, or....” He sighed as Alicia ran past him to embrace Kimiko and Yuriko---both gynoids looked as if they'd spent the entire drive crying.

“Oberon left a trap for them,” Anton explained as he emerged from the front passenger's side of the car. “They herded us to the second floor of the building...as soon as Vicki arrived, they were both singing that March of the Toréadors song. It's like they were taunting her...like he was taunting her.” He leaned against the car, shaking his head. “Epsilon....he doesn't know,” he muttered. “Oberon doesn't realize that Epsilon was...is still Tony Sanderson, even the latter is steadily degrading under the influence of the former. Tony's mind....his memories, everything that contributes to his sense of self....it's all still there...”

“You read over the records of Project Epsilon with him,” the Patriarch mused. “I thought---”

“I know what I read,” Anton agreed. “And if things were different.....”

Both he and the Patriarch stopped just as Vicki got out of the car. “Did anyone inside the centre detect any signs of life on the fourth floor?” she asked, giving the Patriarch the slightest of nods.

“....Vicki, the fourth floor was on fire---”

“Did anyone see a guy in white on the fourth floor? Yes or no.”

“I didn't see anything,” Anton replied. “And if there WAS anyone on the fourth...floor---Vicki, you're saying you saw----”

The brunette gynoid continued striding towards the entrance. “Whatever or whoever I saw, it doesn't matter now. Taunting me with that Toréador song.....” Her pace quickened. “If the music was any indication, Oberon already thinks that Epsilon is nothing more than a beast...something he'll enjoy killing, or that he wants me to enjoy killing, just like the Toréador in the song....”

“That's a hell of an assumption to make,” the Patriarch mused. “You realize---”

“What I realize,” Vicki snapped, “is that Oberon was willing to sic two of your agents on me, controlling them against their will. What if he'd done that to any of ours?” She turned to glare at him. “What if he'd done it to me?” she whispered. “Would any of your agents have shown the restraint I did?”

Anton stared at the ground, not wanting to look the brunette gynoid in the eye. “Vicki....”

“He's trying to play every side against each other, trying to keep us all distracted while he moves in for the kill against Epsilon,” Vicki continued. “We have to get to Epsilon first, and protect him from Oberon. If that means containing or relocating him---”

“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” Baker interjected, striding up alongside Vicki as she stood at the front door of ALPA HQ. “You're saying we---all of us---should divert resources to the protection of an entity your own employer wants to destroy? That we should actually guard Epsilon, or at the very least shelter it from----”

“Shelter him,” Vicki muttered.

The Patriarch stared at her. “You still believe that Anthony Sanderson is alive?”

“If even part of him is still intact,” Vicki replied, “then I'm not going to give up hope. We can't keep thinking of him as nothing but a mindless beast...”

Anton and Baker shared a concerned glance. “Vicki,” Anton quietly reminded the gynoid, “you realize that every passing second means Tony Sanderson is slipping away bit by bit, and getting closer to becoming a mindless beast....or at the very least, something far beyond anyone's ability to rein in.” Baker nodded his agreement. “The House is already running a series of tests on a few tissue samples we picked up from one of Epsilon's recent---”

“Tissue samples aren't everything that makes Tony Sanderson who he is!” Vicki hissed, pulling on the closed doors of ALPA HQ and almost growling when they didn't open. “I need---we need to get to him before.....”

Almost instantaneously, the image of the white-clad figure in the window blazed through her thoughts.

“He's been following us.”

The words left her mouth as almost a whisper, but Anton and Baker both heard. “Oberon...following us?” Anton echoed. “You actually think---”

“Kimiko and Yuriko,” Baker interrupted. “They were taken offline by a virus specifically written to disable their systems....” He frowned. “Android and gynoid House agents have significant, personalized modifications made to their coding and hardware to make them invulnerable to viruses that target 'common' units. Even in the case of backup units, like Alicia's....if more than one are deployed at once, every line of code in their systems would be completely unique. It's why the House has discouraged selfware-sharing....”

“So Oberon wrote the virus himself?” Anton murmured. “That's....a very dangerous accusation----”

The rattling of the still-locked HQ doors startled him badly enough to prompt a sharp hiss; Vicki's grip was still closed on the handles, nearly pulling them off of the door. “Why won't it open?!”

“I believe the phrase is 'speak, friend, and enter'.”

Clive DuBraul's voice prompted an eye-roll---followed quickly by an embarrassed grin. “I didn't really think now would be the time for quoting Tolkien,” the brunette gynoid admitted. “I was, ah...”

“Preoccupied,” DuBraul mused, striding forth with Cedric Harcourt in tow, “as we all seem to be these days...I can't really say I blame you.” He gave a reassuring smile. “And in this case, it's less about 'speaking friend' and more about biometric hand scanners.” Stepping past Vicki, he put his hand against a featureless panel on the wall near the door....which promptly unlocked. “Shall we continue this discussion inside?”

Vicki silently nodded, letting DuBraul, Anton, Baker and several others file past her. Kimiko and Yuriko, both still consoling each other, muttered words of thanks as they passed, with Alicia following suit.

Last to enter was the blonde gynoid with the damaged left arm. “So....you're Vicki Lawson.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “You're on the transfer program, right? I don't think I've seen you around....”

The blonde rolled her eyes, walking in alongside Vicki. “If by 'transfer', you mean 'shipped across three states while in standby mode', then yes....I asked them to leave me online for the whole trip.” She shrugged. “In any case.....Mary Sinclair Robinson. Pleased to meet you.”

“Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson...likewise.” Vicki managed a grin.

Before the two could go any further in their chat, Anton gestured for them to join the rest of the group. “I have a feeling you'll both want to hear what's going to be said,” he explained, nodding towards a conference room at the far end of the hall. “Mary, if you want to get your arm patched up, I can get a kit from the auxiliary lab...it won't take but a minute---”

“If it'll give me that not-so-torn-up look, then go for it,” the blonde gynoid replied.

“Just be glad you're not on a myogel set, like I am,” Vicki mused. “Otherwise you'd be out for about half a day trying to get every single line re-laid inside your arm....” She shook her head. “A few years ago, I was out for almost a full month when the myogel lines in my left arm leaked into my vitals---though there was one good thing about it, to be honest....”

Other than having your arm work again?” Mary teased.

“Well, there's that, and the fact that I was able to watch about five seasons of Masked Rider while I was laid up!” The brunette gynoid grinned; “SyncroPhase, DualWave, Trinity, FlashWave and I think Core Hunter,” she recalled, counting them off on her fingers. “Fun stuff....kept my mind off of having only one arm to work with, too!”

Mary nodded. “Sounds reasonable. I prefer Sailor Moon, myself---”

Anton cleared his throat. “I think we can talk about favourite TV shows another time.....”

“Right.” Vicki sighed; “Work now, fun later,” she muttered. “I'm finding it hard to get into the latest of the Masked Rider seasons, though...it's not just the name change to Power Rider, either---”

Her complaints about Masked Rider's name change died on her tongue as she entered the conference room; it was such a brutal echo of the hearing she'd been forced to sit through after her attack on Matthew Hannsen that she almost thought she'd walked back in time just by stepping through the door. The room, the lighting and the arrangement of everything from the monitors to the furniture was exactly the same---of course, there was one major exception.

This time, Vicki was the one sitting on the sidelines, and Oberon---despite his absence---was the one in the ALPA's crosshairs.

“Thank you all for attending on such short notice,” DuBraul began. “I know that this must be...difficult, for a lot of you, knowing that the situation has taken this rather...unexpected turn.....” He regarded the assembled masses with a frown. “....but we must remind ourselves that sentimentality on the part of one man, guided by his passions and fervent beliefs rather than logic and reasoning, is not going to help us.” He nodded to Anton, who stepped up to the podium. “Many of you have more than likely never been briefed on the full extent and scale of Project Epsilon,” he informed the group. “You've heard whispers of it, and rumours of its barbarity...but you never thought to believe that it might be real.”

Vicki noticed Kirsten close to tears on the far side of the room. If it'd been Ted who went through what Tony Sanderson did, she reasoned, I'd probably be an emotional wreck, myself....

“Agents Clark and Basinger,” Anton continued, gesturing to Rae (who was actually wearing a jacket and a tank top---albeit an extremely tight-fitting one---over her preferred pink vinyl top) and Meredith as he spoke, “have been handling recon on this particular operation. If you would....”

Rae nodded, taking her place before the group. “Epsilon's condition since his last appearance in Silicon Valley has....degraded, significantly.” She managed to repress a shudder as a cord was plugged into her navel (Meredith had hiked up her tank top to facilitate the plug-in), allowing her to send data directly to the projector in the centre of the room. “From what we can understand, Epsilon's 'attacks' on various tech stores in the area haven't actually been attacks,” she explained. “He's been looking for replacement parts to swap out with any components within himself that might be failing---”

Kirsten let out a choked gasp. Vicki couldn't bring herself to look the other gynoid in the eye; she knew that what was coming next would likely push the former sleeper over the edge.

“---and we've actually recovered more than a few of these broken components,” Rae continued. “More than a few of them are showing high levels of corrosion, electrical damage and.....organic interference,” she finished, staring down at the notes before her. “To put it simply, Epsilon's organic body is fighting back against every upgrade and augment installed....”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “....and it's killing him.”

A low, quiet sob wracked Kirsten's body as she sank low in her chair; she didn't shy away from the consoling embrace offered by Alicia. None of the ALPA or House members present tried to stop Vicki from crossing the room to sit next to Kirsten and offer her own words of comfort: “We'll do the best we can to keep him alive, when we find him,” she assured the former sleeper. “If we can save some part of him....”

The fact that Meredith had taken Rae's place at the podium didn't register with the brunette gynoid until a few seconds after the fact. “For those of you who haven't been informed, the rumours of our own Chairman being placed under house arrest---or at least, our attempts to place him under house arrest---are true, as are the rumours regarding the reason for his arrest.” She shuffled the papers on the podium, trying to not sound too distant as she continued. “Oberon has, in fact, made it public that he will do whatever he can to term.....” Her breath caught on the first syllable of “terminate”; “.....whatever he can,” she continued, “to kill Epsilon.”

Vicki didn't bother trying not to flinch as a wordless cry issued from Kirsten's lips; the gynoid nearly fell over as sobs wracked her figure, and she clung to the brunette Field Agent as soon as the latter caught her.

“Oberon's efforts to find and destroy Epsilon nearly incapacitated two House agents,” Meredith went on, “and as of now, the ALPA and the House are currently issuing Detain On Sight orders under top priority.” Vicki blinked a few times as a notification informing her that the orders had been received appeared in her field of vision; a few of the other Field Agents in the room did the same.

“All Field Agents should be aware,” DuBraul declared, “that Oberon has trained extensively in several forms of melee combat, specifically those involving swords and other weapons not reliant on ammunition.” He paused for a moment, frowning a bit. “All Agents should also be aware,” he continued, “that Oberon has spent years training in red-ring suppression scenarios, and has become proficient in combat tactics specifically tailored to incapacitate android or gynoid opponents. As we've seen first hand, he also has a proficiency for writing and remote-activating software that will give him a measure of control over android or gynoid operatives....” Kimiko and Yuriko stared at the floor as DuBraul spoke, not wanting to relive the incident that had set them against their own colleagues. “Regardless,” the ALPA President continued, “we must remember that.....”

Vicki blinked a few times, trying to figure out what was drowning out DuBraul's words with a low, droning hum of some kind. Must be my hearing, she reasoned, ramped up to maximum....maybe it's a side-effect of the fight with Kimiko and Yuriko?

The thought had just occurred to her when another, far more horrifying possibility, became apparent.

I'm infected. Oberon infected me, during the fight....but how?

A very good question.....Vicki.

The gynoid Field Agent's eyes went wide---the entire room had somehow been cleared out (or, as she realized, her ocular sensors were being overridden to make the conference room look like it had been cleared out). So you've managed to get into my head, she mused. Nice trick.

If you're trying to flatter me, you're failing. I'm giving you a chance---

To what?! To hallucinate that I'm in an empty room hearing the voice of a traitor?

To hear my side of the story. To understand the depth and the scope of what I mean to accomplish.

I know what you mean to accomplish....you want to kill off Epsilon before he---

Before IT can degenerate any further, and before those who unleashed it onto the world can study it and refine the system. I expected you, of all people, to understand....

I understand that Epsilon just so happens to be the father of Kirsten Sanderson. How can you---

You honestly think that Epsilon still contains any lingering fragments of Anthony Sanderson? I never thought you to be so naïve, Vicki..... The “empty” room began to flood with a fog that, in all likelihood, wasn't even real. I was hoping that you'd be the first to comprehend what I hope to accomplish, and the first of many to join my cause. Instead, you cling to this hopeless belief that Epsilon still retains the tiniest bit of humanity, the smallest ember of a soul....

At least I'm not going full-on Ahab!

A chilling, sardonic laugh was the only reply the brunette gynoid heard.

So you're going to laugh it off, now. You're talking about killing someone instead of even trying to save him---

THERE IS NO SALVATION FOR EPSILON! The man Kirsten knows and loves as her father is dead, and all that remains is a shambling, festering golem, a construct of flesh and steel that will serve to plague humanity unless SOMEONE takes up the sword against it!

And that someone is you? Great....not only are you a traitor, you've got a hero complex....

Another laugh. You're accusing ME of having a hero complex.....I thought the March of the Toréadors would've been subtle enough of a reminder.... Through the fog, Vicki could see the silhouette of a familiar figure at the far end of the room. ….you really do enjoy your work, Agent Lawson. The last two words dripped with contempt. Against Faceless and Hannsen, you faltered....you feared losing yourself in the rush of the fight.

As Vicki watched, horrified, the “fog” seemed to turn to flame, just as the silhouette's eyes blazed with a great, terrible light.

Against your own kind.....you revel in the battle. You welcome every war.

Shut up....just shut UP! Vicki closed her eyes, trying to drown out the voice, the humming....

You'll know where to find me soon enough, Vicki. And you'll learn....even if you can deny it to yourself, those in control know better. All those times you feared 'losing control', you wanted one chance to just let go....to fully give yourself to the fight. I offer you that chance, Vicki---if you truly want to stop me from killing Epsilon, I give you exactly that. Find me, and FIGHT ME...if you truly wish to spare Epsilon from the fate I have in store, you'll know exactly what must be done----

“I WON'T! I WON'T DO IT....I WON'T KILL YOU!

Even with her eyes squeezed shut, Vicki could tell that all eyes in the room were on her. “....I don't want to kill you,” she whispered. “I don't.......”

“Vicki,” Anton murmured, “what are you talking about---”

“Oberon. I heard him....in my head....the room was empty, and there was fog...and he was here.....” Vicki hugged herself, her eyes still closed. “He got to me just like he got to the House agents,” she whispered, “and I heard him....”

“He's not here,” DuBraul assured her. “And you can open your eyes now.”

Slowly, Vicki allowed her eyelids to flutter open---thankfully, all those present were giving her a reasonable amount of space to return to her feet, showing genuine looks of concern. “He....he told me I'd know where to find him,” she muttered. “That I'd---GGAAAHH!” Her hands flew to her ears as a hideous screech overtook her auditory sensors; even as she closed her eyes again, a barrage of numbers, letters and images flashed through her vision at speeds far too fast for any human being to decipher.

Hands gripped her shoulders, steadying her. “Just stay calm,” Anton advised. “Tell us what you just saw...and what you may have heard, if anything....”

“....coordinates,” Vicki gasped, tears streaming down her face. “....office building....across....town....”

Her eyes opened, glowing a faint blue. “I have to go.”

“After what he just did?!” Rae countered. “Vicki, sweetheart, I'm more of a lover than a fighter, so take my advice with a grain of salt...but you're seriously saying that you want to run all the way---”

“He's going to do this again until someone stops him,” V.I.C.I replied, her voice emotionless.

“You don't want to go down that road, Vicki,” Anton warned. “If you want to help, you can find Epsilon and try to get him back here, where we can---”

“It won't be enough,” V.I.C.I droned, the glow in her eyes getting brighter with every second. “This isn't like fighting Hannsen, or Faceless....this is worse. Oberon knows how to provoke and prod to get you all to react....I intend to stop him before he gets that far.....” A lone tear snaked down her cheek. “.....and I won't let him trick me into losing control,” she murmured, reverting to her human voice.

Rae, Alicia and Meredith exchanged worried glances. “Vicki....you don't have to do this alone---”

“I know you want to help, Alicia,” the brunette gynoid replied, once again in her monotone, “and you have my thanks for it...but he sent that message to me. Unless anyone else in here saw and heard it....”

None of the other android or gynoid operatives in the room spoke up.

With a nod, V.I.C.I headed for the door. “I'll call if things get too weird.”

DuBraul returned the gynoid's nod with one of his own. “Then I wish you safe travels, and protection from all harm when you find Oberon.” Anton handed over the pewter rabbit's foot pendant he'd been given by his mentor; “Something tells me you'll need all the luck you can get,” he informed V.I.C.I, “and probably a bit more than just luck.”

“Thanks,” V.I.C.I replied, her monotone the slightest bit softer than usual. “Be ready for the call if things go to Hell....”

Without another word, she burst from the room in a red/white streak.

Part 8

The office building was practically empty---which made sense, seeing as how it was still in the midst of a long construction process. The lifts didn't work, the stairs hadn't even been put in yet, and the floors were still a bit weak from the concrete setting. Every story above the second floor wasn't even complete---most still existed only as the skeletal, blueprint-like frames of what rooms and halls would look like.

Not that it mattered to the sole occupant of the building at that moment.....

….or to the red and white-clad figure racing towards it.

The sun hadn't yet risen over San Jose, but the weather wasn't particularly inviting in any case---a light drizzle had already begun. The rain didn't register with the red/white-clad figure currently standing before the building, staring up at the second-floor window---indeed, it had no adverse effects on her vision.

Scanning....scanning..... Life signs detected. Location----

“You can turn off your scans,” a familiar voice shouted. “You won't need them.”

The words prompted a scowl from V.I.C.I as she stepped forward. “I assume you won't be using any of the tricks you pulled back at HQ, then?” she inquired.

“No more tricks....just a nice, one-on one chat between the two of us. You'll want to come in out of the rain....”

“I'll decide that for myself.” Even as she spoke, V.I.C.I knew that getting into any kind of altercation outside would likely end in a muddy, knock-down drag-out brawl---which would do her no favours against someone with the skill-set Oberon possessed. With a calm, even tread, she made her way into the building.

Apart from the spartan layout and lack of any furniture, the only notable feature inside the “lobby” was a poster with the ALPA badge on it....as well as an image of V.I.C.I herself, as well as several other Field Agents. “They wanted to see how it'd look,” Oberon called out from across the room. “Figured they might as well leave it up for the night, take it down when they came back in the morning.” Even in the darkness, V.I.C.I could tell he was still wearing the same all-white ensemble he always did. “And thanks for answering my, ah, little invite,” he added. “Figured I'd go for the sturm und drang approach early on, get the drama and trauma out of the---”

“ENOUGH.”

The one-word drone from V.I.C.I was answered with a chuckle. “Glad to see you've still got that air of finality in you,” he beamed. “Still the same Vicki Lawson....wait, no, not quite. You've....changed, since July....which I had a hand in, if memory serves---”

“You said you wanted me here so you could tell your side of this,” V.I.C.I declared. “Start talking---”

“Aren't you impressed with the poster, though?” Oberon nodded to the massive banner. “They haven't told you yet, have they? Clive was going to break the news yesterday, before I....went AWOL, so to speak....” He stepped into the centre of the room, eerily lit by the skylight above. “They've been discussing this for quite a while, actually....turning you into their new poster girl.” His lips curled into what might've been a smirk. “I can only assume you feel...honoured, or humbled, to have been picked---”

“THIS ISN'T ABOUT ME,” V.I.C.I snapped. “You said you had your own side of the story...”

Oberon nodded. “And I do. But.....as hard as it may seem to believe....it does connect to the ALPA's desire to see you as their new star Agent.” He exhaled a low, quiet breath. “But let's not cut to that part of the tale yet.”

He regarded the brunette gynoid with an appraising stare. “You're here because I want to kill Epsilon.”

To V.I.C.I's chagrin, he sighed. “I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the hypocrisy of this,” he admitted, “since I gave R-528 a new lease on life, and am now hellbent on killing something that R-528 was the progenitor of.”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

Again, Oberon gave that half-smirk. “Did it......in any case, R-528 was a tragic byproduct of what would, at some point, become Epsilon. Crude, by modern standards---trying to transfer the memories of a human mind into a machine body wasn't exactly the best way of going about it....but there's a fundamental difference that separates Epsilon and R-528. The latter was not under the control of those responsible for his existence---he never would've survived the programming, to be honest.”

“And Epsilon was under the control of his handlers?”

“You've faced it before, Vicki....you know the answer to that question.” Oberon frowned for a bit. “I chose to give R-528 a chance because his human side was effectively killed off on February 23, 1983....and he was never intended to be a fusion between man and machine. He was a one-off...a byproduct.”

His assurance didn't go over too well with V.I.C.I; “So Epsilon's not a one-off?” she queried.

“There are things,” Oberon informed her, his voice closer to a whisper now, “that I wish I could erase from my mind.....things I wish I could unlearn.” He wasn't smirking now, and there was no trace of his earlier humour in his words. “I've read the recovered documents that Anthony Sanderson hid, before his 'disappearance', Vicki, and if you'd read them----oh, if you had read them, along with me.....” He turned away. “The entity we both know as Epsilon wasn't the first. He was just the first one to survive.”

There was an undertone of something---guilt? Pain?----in that last word. “You're saying---”

“I'm saying,” Oberon snapped, turning to glare at the brunette gynoid, “that Anthony Sanderson is the first test subject of Project Epsilon to make it past the proto-stage of development....” His voice went quiet again. “The first batch.....none of the subjects survived past the augmentations being implanted. I saw the photos, read every test log...” He looked as if he wanted to throw things, to scream profanities at the top of his lungs. “What was done to those people....it goes against everything the ALPA fights for.”

“Then you could've---”

“Could've done things the 'right' way? I tried the right way, Vicki---believe me, I tried. And every damn time, the red tape just snagged in the engines of bureaucracy, with Clive having to sign 30 or so forms just for a bloody inquiry.....” He shook his head. “And all they'd find were the abandoned labs.”

“So why not---”

“Everything I tried,” Oberon insisted, “everything that counted as the 'right' way, failed. None of them knew what I knew....anyone in power with any position to help managed to get dissuaded from their path by so-called 'activists' campaigning for the 'furthering of knowledge'.....bloody useless IMBICILES!” He turned away again, pacing back and forth; “Every one of those activists ended up being a test subject,” he spat, “just before they decided to take a different approach. Sanderson sent me the footage himself...nearly got caught, as a result, but he sent the footage....”

“And you never showed it to DuBraul?” V.I.C.I prompted. “Or did that even come up at meetings---”

A mirthless chuckle cut her off. “DuBraul,” Oberon muttered, “ was naïve. He thought the project would die out quickly, after the last crop of test subjects failed---he even thought they'd try using clones, to speed things along. Seemed to think there was a Swiss lab just full to bursting of cloned subjects for the tests....”

He snorted in disgust. “He gave up, in the end. They all did. None of them knew....”

“Except for you.”

“Not just me,” Oberon admitted. “Anton read the files as well---oh, yes, he, David and I spent most of May with those notebooks, those photos.....every single file was picked apart, looked through and practically dissected, all in the hopes of finding some way to stop Project Epsilon before.....” he shook his head. “It's pointless, now,” he muttered. “The only active Epsilon unit to survive the experiments---”

“That 'active unit' is Tony Sanderson,” V.I.C.I declared, “not just a piece of hardware! He has a life—-”

“HAD a life!” Oberon shouted. “Just like all of them did! Anthony Sanderson is dead, Vicki....everything not essential to the function of Epsilon was extracted, for lack of a better term, and cast aside. Everything within the body of Epsilon was selected for maximum efficiency---what they couldn't throw out, they attempted to improve. Anticoagulants, polymer coatings in the circulatory system to minimize risks of buildup and blood clots, steroids and hormonal injections into the muscular system.....and that's not even counting the implanted augmentations....”

Oberon's voice turned harsh. “....or the neural re-mappings,” he added. “The conditioning, the drug regimens, the surgeries, the programming.....” His breath was ragged. “There are lines that were never meant to be crossed in the name of science and discovery.....Project Epsilon trampled those lines. All of them.”

Memories of her own fight with Epsilon came back to V.I.C.I in seconds. “He remembered Kirsten---”

A half-snort, half-cough cut her off. “You....you brought her to it?! After everything that happened with the unlock codes.....” He shook his head. “Vicki, Epsilon was specifically conditioned to eliminate any trace of emotion within the brain....unbelievable. Absolutely sodding unbelievable---”

“He didn't hurt Kirsten,” V.I.C.I countered. “He....he became more lucid, around her---”

“Which is exactly the worst possible thing that could've happened!” Oberon snapped. “If there is anything of Tony Sanderson left in Epsilon, the memory of his own daughter....Vicki, what you've done, quite simply, is give a glass of water to someone burning in Hell. The comfort is fleeting, and the memory, the feeling of that comfort, will serve only to further torment Epsilon. It cannot feel! It can barely even think....it's a damn miracle Epsilon didn't lash out at Kirsten and tear her to shreds on the spot---”

“You said none of the other test subjects even survived,” V.I.C.I reminded him. “If none of the others had made it past the 'proto-stages', how would you even know---”

“BECAUSE I WAS THERE!” Oberon screamed. “I SAW THE FIRST TESTS.....” He was almost sobbing, now; “After R-528's....disappearance,” he breathed, shrugging out of his coat, “the work began on what we now know as Project Epsilon. It was nowhere near as bad as this, at first....but.....I saw, after Rengold took over the project, when he was in charge of United Robotronics. Even before he arrived, things were taking a very dark turn....as soon as the ink dried on his bloody contract, it turned into a nightmare.”

He pulled off his sunglasses, turning away to wipe the lenses. “They invited me for a 'demonstration', one week,” he intoned, his voice nearly flat. “Said it was the 'next big thing'...”

The next words out of his mouth were practically a sob. “Nobody should see what I saw that day. Ever.”

Despite the feeling in the pit of her stomach that usually accompanied horribly tragic events, V.I.C.I decided to let logic steer her through the confrontation. “And you didn't bring this up---”

“I had no power to bring it up to anyone,” Oberon hissed. “It took another four years until I became Chairman, and another three years until those who agreed with me were in any position to do a damn thing to end it....”

He sucked in a rasping breath through clenched teeth. “....and by then, it was far too late.”

“So you're making up for lost time by trying to kill off Epsilon now,” V.I.C.I surmised. “That doesn't---”

“I thought you'd have seen it clearly by now,” Oberon muttered. “The rest...they want to 'contain' it, to 'study' it and do their damnedest to 'fix' what's been done to it. Epsilon cannot BE 'fixed, Vicki. Nothing that's been done to it can just be reversed with the flick of a switch....”

Maddeningly, he gave that half-smirk again. “....though I'm surprised they didn't try to get you to kill it first.”

“What the HELL do I have to do with any of this---”

“How easily you forget!” Oberon thundered. “Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant---'and think, yes, think as well as fight'! You're the prime agent of the ALPA these days...you've proven that, so many times, against the likes of Hannsen, Faceless, the SPS AND the Family of Steel!” He actually smiled; “I'd have been honoured to have you fight by my side this time,” he admitted. “Both of us, working together, could easily take down Epsilon before---”

“No. I can't work alongside you after what you've done, Oberon.”

The Chairman (probably soon-to-be ex-Chairman, V.I.C.I realized) scoffed. “If you're talking about Kimiko and Yuriko, I gave them specific orders to not injure anyone. And anything else I've done....I believe there's a line from a certain movie you may have heard of....'the needs of the many outweigh'---”

“DON'T,” V.I.C.I warned, taking a step towards Oberon. “Don't you dare try to justify this with some BS rhetoric....you talked about Epsilon going over the line, earlier? You've gone over the line, doing all of this....” Her expression softened a bit. “You could've done this another way,” she murmured, using her human voice. “You could've found some other way to sort all of this out---”

“THERE IS NO OTHER WAY!” Oberon shouted. “Epsilon is a beast....an uncontrollable walking weapon---”

“So what does that make me?” Vicki quietly asked. “What does that make you?”

The question only stopped Oberon for a moment. “You have nothing in common with Epsilon,” he spat. “I can only guess why you would risk so much to defend it, considering the fact that it's kicked you around---oh, yes, I read the record of your last little confrontation with that nightmare, which means your continued insistence on protecting it makes even less sense!”

“To you, maybe...” Vicki stared at the poster bearing her image. “But the ones who put me on that---”

“Will see to it that you're demoted to a bloody desk job if you keep doing this,” Oberon cut in. “They lack the strength, the initiative to act....they try to keep themselves looking presentable, for everyone up there on the bloody stupid Hill. They posture and preen for the politicians, all in the hopes that none of them decide to just sack the lot of us and do things their way....” He scowled at the thought. “They're all weak.”

“Even DuBraul?”

Oberon managed a chuckle. “I commend you for the effort, Vicki, but trying to appeal to my camaraderie with Clive won't work. He could've easily given a shoot-on-sight order after I broke Cedric's nose...instead, he just sat back and watched me run.” His smile at the memory faded quickly. “He knows the futility of trying to stop me....something you should've picked up on much earlier than you did...but that's neither here nor there.” He paced the floor again, his stare never leaving the brunette gynoid. “You are here,” he intoned, “to discover my side of this sordid little tale---which you have...meaning you could just choose to walk away. To leave.”

“I'm not walking away from this,” Vicki replied. “I'm not going to leave you to your own devices....”

Her eyes glowed blue again. “....and I'm not going to let you kill Epsilon.”

Yet again, the air of finality that pervaded her words did nothing to dissuade Oberon. “You don't want to fight me now, Vicki,” he chided. “I can almost guarantee that it would end terribly for you....just trust me on this, and walk away. You and I will settle this, in the end...but not here, and not now---”

“So you're trying to get us to come to terms, now?”

“I only want you to understand that challenging me here won't end well for you. Take that however you will.”

“And you should understand,” V.I.C.I coldly replied, “that threatening me won't end well for you. I don't react well to people threatening me---”

“I did tell you,” Oberon reminded her, “that you'd have to be ready to do what was necessary to stop me...”

Memories of Matthew Emmerich Hannsen pleading for his life at her hands flashed quickly through V.I.C.I's mind. “I won't kill you,” she intoned. “It goes against everything the ALPA stands for....” She paused, considering her words. “.....and come to think of it,” she added, reverting to her human voice again, “what you're doing goes against what the ALPA stands for.” She took a few steps towards Oberon; “We're supposed to protect artificial lifeforms,” she reminded him. “You seem to have forgotten about that, in your little quest to kill Epsilon---”

“Worrying about Kimiko and Yuriko again? I thought I made that clear---”

“I mean everyone else,” Vicki snapped. “How many more would you be willing to manipulate, just to get to Epsilon before the ALPA did? How many more would you hurt, 'Mr. Chairman'?”

“There's an old saying about ends and means that you'd do well to recall, Vicki---”

“NO. This isn't about ends justifying means, or the needs of the many and the few....” Vicki didn't care that she was close to tears by now---don't crack, Lawson. Don't you dare crack.... “This is about you wanting to play the knight in shining armour, except Epsilon is no dragon, and you're no hero!

The last three words of her rebuke rang in the empty lobby.

“You,” Oberon intoned, “know nothing about what makes a man a hero---”

“I know enough to realize that you're just on a power trip,” Vicki shot back, “and that you're so blinded by your desire to kill Epsilon that you won't even consider any alternatives!” A peal of thunder cut through the silence outside; “I saw what happened when Kirsten got through to him,” the gynoid Field Agent continued. “I know he still has the capacity to understand her...she might be able to help him, in time---”

“The only help she'll be is a distraction---assuming Epsilon doesn't tear her head off. It can't be saved.

Even with Oberon shooting down her logic bit by bit, Vicki refused to yield. “Then maybe he can be studied, to determine how to reverse the process if any future generations---”

“Do you hear yourself?!” Oberon scoffed.

“Do you?!” Vicki countered. “You're raving about killing Epsilon because of what's been done in support of the project in the past....so far, I haven't heard a single thing about Epsilon attacking or killing anyone---”

“THAT'S NOT THE SODDING POINT!” Oberon screamed. “Vicki.....Epsilon is dangerous. It is beyond salvation. If I don't kill it, then either someone else will, or it will fall into the hands of those who will try their damnedest to recreate the experiments that created it, or to upgrade it, or any number of stupid things...”

He exhaled a deep breath. “....Epsilon is damned. You can either protect it...or help me destroy it.”

“You mean help you murder him,” Vicki muttered.

Outside, the light drizzle had escalated to a full-blown rainstorm. “I've wasted enough time trying to plead my case to you,” Oberon spat. “Epsilon is on the move as we speak, and your obstinance has probably given it a sizable lead against me....not that it'll matter in the end.” He turned on his heel, heading for the door on the far end of the lobby. “The next time we meet,” he called out, “you'd better be ready to kill me.”

“We won't,” V.I.C.I replied. “And I won't kill you.”

“THEN YOU'RE JUST AS WEAK AS THEY ARE!” Oberon shouted. “YOU CAN'T SAVE IT, VICKI! EPSILON MUST DIE!”

Something about that last sentence infuriated the brunette gynoid. “I WON'T LET YOU KILL HIM!”

“THEN YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'LL HAVE TO DO TO STOP ME!”

Even as she watched, V.I.C.I realized Oberon wasn't heading for the exit---he was heading for the empty, half-built elevator shaft on the far end of the lobby. A myogel-assisted sprint propelled her across the room, where she half-expected to find a hidden door of some kind that the disgraced Chairman might've used to leave....

….only to find a solid wall and almost no fixtures to facilitate the elevator car's installation.

“Looking for things that aren't there will lead you in circles,” Oberon called out---from the second floor. “Just between the two of us, I think you'd be better off going back home---”

A growl escaped V.I.C.I's lips as she sprang up to the second-floor doorway, taking care to not break the floor with the force of her landing. “If you're going to keep taunting me,” she began, only to spot Oberon near a far window overlooking the parking lot. She growled again, dropping to a runner's kneel that would allow her to clear the room without leaving so much as a footprint in the still-setting concrete....

….but Oberon only chuckled. “Not this time,” he chided. “Not here.....”

Without another word, he stepped backwards, onto the window.....and out of the building.

It took seconds for V.I.C.I to reach the window, grabbing the frame with both hands as her eyes swept the fenced-in construction yard around the building....but instead of a broken, bleeding figure below her, she saw only the confident stride of the Chairman crossing the yard....still humming the damned March of the Toréadors as he went.

Almost as if on cue, Anton's voice piped up in V.I.C.I's left ear. “Vicki...Epsilon's back on the radar.”

“Where?”

“A salvage yard, just outside Cupertino. DuBraul's sending someone to pick you up---we've got a team at the site to monitor any possible change in Epsilon's behaviour....” Anton's voice halted for a moment. “....what, exactly, happened, between you and Oberon?”

“He tried to recruit me. Seems like he's not the first to think of me as an icon for a cause....”

“....you saw the poster, then. I can explain---”

“Not now. Protecting Epsilon is more important---I'll be waiting for my escort.” With a blink, V.I.C.I ended the call and sighed, awaiting her ride to Epsilon.

Epsilon isn't damned, she assured herself. Not yet...I hope.

Part 9

“So.....the poster didn't make you look too fat, or anything?”

Calliope's attempt at a joke fell flat as she glanced to the row of seats behind her in the Baer 9950 (an armoured Hummer-type vehicle with the seating arrangements of a minivan, which was under consideration to supplant the ageing Rhino). “The poster,” Vicki replied, “is the last thing on my mind right now. Oberon.....he thinks his way is the only way. He wants Epsilon dead.....”

“Which is a complete and total mistake on his part,” Rae chimed in. “We've got our people on the ground at the salvage yard already---Kirsten's with them, if you're wondering.”

Vicki nodded. “Good to hear. Who else is there?”

From the front passenger seat, Alicia rattled off a few names: “Reaver, Hummingbird and Wyvern---Kimiko and Yuriko 'politely declined' the offer to take part, after what happened to them already.” She let out a low, hissing breath. “I never thought he was this...cruel,” she muttered.

“I don't think anyone did,” Calliope quietly replied. “Hang on....Enright just called.”

“Enright?” Vicki echoed, confused. “What the hell does Warren Enright---”

Alicia stifled a giggle. “Warren's brother, Jason,” she corrected, “is our FAST guy---Field Analytics, Security and Technical. He's conducting a sweep of the area, to make sure none of the whack-jobs out there are trying to move in on the salvage yard before we arrive....”

“That makes sense.” Vicki glanced out the window of the Baer, trying not to focus on her conversation with Oberon. “I'm....guessing nobody at HQ is focusing on trying to block Oberon from getting to Epsilon, at the moment?” she queried. Or am I the only one he feels like locking horns with, for some stupid reason? Just thinking about Oberon's apparent fixation on fighting her was more than enough to make Vicki not want to meet him again before the end of the op.

“I'd make a lame allegorical statement about tracking him,” Alicia replied, “but we don't have a ton of time right now---Epsilon's apparently getting pissed off at something.” She winced as the sounds of thrown objects hitting buildings blasted through the speakers. “And he's not holding anything back.”

Despite the sinking feeling in her stomach, Vicki asked one final question: “Are there any...casualties?”

“Considering how it's an AutoYard, I'm gonna have to say 'no',” Alicia replied---earning an audible sigh of relief from the brunette gynoid. The fact that the salvage yard was one of the newly-approved AutoYards---specially designed, fully-automated facilities created to minimize the risk of human error in salvage sorting---meant that Epsilon's tear through the place wouldn't leave anyone at risk. “We're double-lucky this time,” Alicia continued, “since it's not a pickup day---nobody's going to walk in and ask for the guided tour, or anything, so we pretty much have full run of the place.”

“I still don't get why people protested the AutoYards,” Calliope mused. “It wasn't that big a loss---someone still has to check the records, arrange appointments and supervise pickup days, so it's not like human beings are banned from the property or anything....” Alicia rolled her eyes. “It's the typical 'they tuk er jehhhhbs' mentality, more than anything---' The Baer lurched to a halt. “....and we're here,” the blonde House gynoid finished. “Time to---VICKI, WAIT!

Even as the vehicle's engine stopped, Vicki had managed to extricate herself from the seatbelt and get the door open in record time. The clean, white wall that served as the fence for the AutoYard did little to impede her progress as she leapt over it, into the decidedly less-clean yard itself. Most of what littered the area were the ruined husks of old desktop PCs, appliances, and too many rusting, broken vehicles to count.

So where the hell is Epsilon? If this was a false alarm----

A distorted, inhuman wail from the far side of the yard cut off her reverie, followed by several junked cars being knocked over and falling apart as they hit the ground. So much for that question.....

“VICKI!” Before her aural sensors could even tell her where the shout came from, Vicki noticed Kirsten sprint towards her from behind several plastic crates. “I....I tried to talk to him,” she gasped, “just like last time, but...it's like he's sick, or something! Like something's interfering----” She flinched as another wail split the night. “We have to help him, Vicki---we can't----”

Another group of cars was knocked to the ground across the yard, sending dirt and debris flying....

….and through the dust of decades' worth of disuse, neglect and general atrophy rising off of the fallen junkers, Epsilon emerged.

He was a bit bulkier than the last time Vicki had seen him, but still tall. The healthy skin tone had faded into a sickly, mottled pinkish-grey; the chrome that showed through it now looked tarnished, and more as if the skin around it was falling off. His formerly bald head was now crowned with an unruly mane of long, stringy white hair that looked almost like wiring; gleaming steel talons had emerged from the tips of his fingers, and the grill covering his face looked a bit too....organic, to be anything less than horrifying. Even worse than any of this, to Vicki, was the look in Epsilon's bloodshot eyes.....

…..a look of absolute, agonizing and endless pain.

“Dad,” Kirsten whimpered.

Epsilon's head dipped back as another tortured howl split the night—-just before the tragic man/machine hybrid charged at his daughter and her friend. “NO! DAD, SHE'S HERE TO HELP---” V.I.C.I barely had time to pull Kirsten out of the way before Epsilon lunged, talons extended to impale the Field Agent. “As much as I hate to say this,” the brunette gynoid intoned, “he's not thinking like your father right now. He's in full on self-preservation----”

Her sentence was cut off by a forearm strike to the back of the head, sending her into the wrecked remains of a Prius. Status warnings and error messages flooded her field of vision as she struggled to stand.

WARNING: Traumatic impact has damaged--- Do you wiwwwwwiiiiiiish to te#$Qrmin@$8ate safety messages? Y/N

Y

Further impact will cause significant damage to endoskeletal structure.

Crumple zones in left arm weakened.

Crumple zones in right arm weakened.

Crumple zones in torso mildly damaged.

Shaking off the lingering disorientation of the impact, V.I.C.I returned to her feet. “I'm here to help you,” she called out, her eyes erratically glowing blue as she strode towards Epsilon. “Kirsten and I----”

At the mention of Kirsten's name, Epsilon reared back---and screamed.

The brunette gynoid's resolve was badly shaken by how human it sounded, compared to the animalistic roars she'd already heard. “We're here to get you somewhere safe,” she continued, ignoring a status warning about her left knee as she approached. “You're....you're damaged, or hurt---whichever term you prefer to use---and we need to get you somewhere away from the population. We only want to make sure you don't lash out and hurt someone----”

Epsilon's eyes glowed a muddy red. “DO SOMETHING!” Kirsten shrieked.

“....Kirsten just wants you to be safe,” V.I.C.I continued, even as Epsilon stalked towards her. “She just wants what's best----we only want to help you!”

Every word seemed to stagger Epsilon; he's still thinking, the gynoid Field Agent realized. He can think, which is good....unless he's thinking about---- Her musings over Epsilon's state of mind were brought to a halt by the appearance of a car fender flying towards her, forcing her to duck under it---just as a bumper smashed into her shins and sent her to the ground.

WARNING: Crumple zone in left calf severely weakened

WARNING: Crumple zone in right calf severely weakened

Engage myogel preservation? Y/N

N

WARNING: Further activity will----

An audible servo whirr accompanied V.I.C.I's blink as she forced the safety warning messages out of her line of sight. “I don't want to have to hurt you, Epsilon,” she called out. “Or is it still Anthony?”

Her question was answered with a wounded, angry roar.

“I'm not here to kill you,” she assured her attacker. “I only----”

Her weakened shins did little to impede her attempts at rolling away from Epsilon, allowing her to evade yet another lunging claw attack. She steadied herself, preparing to counter with a lunge of her own, but Epsilon charged again. Even as the monstrous hybrid tripped over his own feet, his claws managed to rake across V.I.C.I's left shin, going just deep enough to allow a dribble of bluish-grey myogel fluid to begin trickling out.

Damn! He's losing control...something in him must be kicking into overdrive!

Slowly, carefully, V.I.C.I returned to her feet. “....I'm trying not to kill you, here,” she muttered, glaring at Epsilon as she steadied herself. “The combination of drugs, chemicals and implants within your body is killing you....I'm just here to bring you somewhere safe, so that the process can be halted....” She paused. “.....and so that you can have one last chance to remember Kirsten,” she added in her human voice, “and how much she means to you----”

A low, droning whine of industrial-strength motors cut her off. “What....what was----”

“IT'S KIRSTEN!” Calliope shouted from the other side of the fence. “SHE'S STANDING TOO CLOSE TO THE MAGNET! VICKI, GET HER AWAY FROM IT----” Epsilon charged the fence, blindly slashing at whatever was calling out to the brunette gynoid.

The magnet?! What--- V.I.C.I turned to see what had happened....and regretted it instantly.

Kirsten was staggering drunkenly towards the center of the AutoYard, one eye rolling back in her head as her mouth contorted in a half-sneer. “Viiiiiiiiickiiiiii,” she slurred, “I.....IIIIIII doon't feeeeeellll sooooo.....” Servos in her neck strained as she tried to turn her head. “.....soooo goood.....” She lurched forwards, nearly falling to the ground....and behind her, embedded into a wall behind what had been a securely locked security gate, was the AutoYard's electromagnet, slowly wreaking absolute havoc on Kirsten's internal systems.

“KIRSTEN! SHUT OFF AS MANY FUNCTIONS AS YOU CAN!” V.I.C.I turned, fully prepared to cross the yard and save her friend from a total systems failure---

---only to be tackled to the ground as Epsilon stood over her, one taloned hand raised to rip her apart.

“THAT'S YOUR DAUGHTER OVER THERE!” the gynoid Field Agent screamed. “THAT MAGNET BEHIND HER IS GOING TO WRECK HER SYSTEMS IN A FEW MINUTES---SHE'S GOING TO LOSE EVERYTHING THAT----” She dodged a downwards chop aimed at her face. “SHE'S GOING TO DIE! YOUR DAUGHTER IS GOING TO DIE UNLESS WE DO SOMETHING!”

Epsilon looked up, just enough to see Kirsten trying to move towards where V.I.C.I had been....

…..and almost sprinted towards her, arm extended as if to clothesline her.

Before the other Field Agents could try to jump the wall to stop his progress, Epsilon had tackled Kirsten to the ground---and out of the magnet's path. V.I.C.I recovered just in time to see the blonde gynoid twitching and spasming where she lay, eyelid tics and head twitches utterly destroying any appearance of her apparent humanity. Her lips moved uselessly, garbled words and sentences spewing from her mouth; sightless eyes stared up from behind her eyelids, never noticing as V.I.C.I approached. “Kirsten....I'm....”

A toe-curling, wrenching, tearing sound cut her off----Epsilon was attacking the magnet, trying to rip it from its housing in the wall.

“Kirsten....can you hear me?” Even her monotone couldn't remove the emotion from V.I.C.I's voice.

Her friend's only response was to twitch a few more times, with every sudden, jerky movement underscored by snapping, whirring and rizzing sounds. A light plume of smoke was beginning to issue from her lips.

“No, no, NO.....” Ignoring the ongoing sounds of Epsilon attacking the magnet, V.I.C.I lifted Kirsten to a half-sitting position, feeling the motors beneath the blonde's synthetic skin as her body tried and failed to regain control. “Kirsten....” The Field Agent bowed her head, tears streaming down her face; memories of the last time she'd tried and failed to help Kirsten were already beginning to flood her processors. Still cradling her friend in her arms, V.I.C.I found the emergency deactivation switch behind Kirsten's left ear. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, her monotone doing nothing to mask the anguish in her tone as she pressed down on the small, bump-like switch. Slowly, Kirsten's twitches and spasms began to wind down, the snapping and whirring within her beginning to fade.....but not before the dying stream of gibberish from her mouth was replaced with two very clear words: “Don't....be.......”

As V.I.C.I watched, stunned into silence, her friend's face managed to settle into what might've been a smile before her eyes closed. Every motor in her body went limp as the last of her systems cut out.

The silence was broken only by the last wrenching of the magnet being torn out of the wall, followed soon after by a thud as Epsilon threw it to the ground. V.I.C.I ignored the chaos behind her---her eyes were still locked on Kirsten, pondering the last words that the blonde gynoid had spoken. She felt it?! And she didn't want me to feel guilty?!

Ragged, pained breaths behind the brunette gynoid broke into her attempts to rationalize what she'd seen and heard---with the magnet gone, Epsilon's focus had turned back to V.I.C.I and Kirsten.

“You were trying to save her. You pushed her out of the way of the magnet, to keep her from suffering any further damage....” V.I.C.I turned to regard Epsilon. “You're not a beast,” she continued. “She knew that....Kirsten knew. She wanted to help.....” She glanced back at the unmoving form of Tony Sanderson's gynoid daughter. “....especially if it meant restoring you,” she finished. “Or at least----”

“KIR....STEN.......”

Epsilon lumbered past V.I.C.I, kneeling next to the unmoving blonde. “KIR....STEN..........” A massive hand reached down to brush against the gynoid's face. “.....I.....AM......HERE......”

“She's been damaged. The magnet disrupted her systems....she can't hear you----”

Gently, Epsilon lifted Kirsten to a sitting position. “....SHE.....CAN.....SEE? SHE.....CAN.....HEAR?”

“I'm sorry, but.....she can't. The magnetic damage, combined with her impact against the ground----”

Epsilon raised one of Kirsten's arms, moving it to encircle his waist---almost as if he thought Kirsten would want to embrace him. “....SHE...MUST.....LIVE.....” His own arm draped across the unmoving girl's shoulder, letting her head rest on it. “....SHE....CAN....BE......”

“Repaired? Fixed?”

“HEALED......” Just as carefully as he'd lifted her, Epsilon set Kirsten down. “I...CANNOT....”

“This wasn't your fault,” V.I.C.I countered. “You were trying to stop the magnet from damaging her---”

“I...CANNOT.....BE......HEALED.......” Epsilon lurched away from the unmoving form of Kirsten. “I....HURT...”

A commotion had broken out on the other side of the fence---apparently, the locking mechanism for the gate into the AutoYard had jammed. “I can help you,” V.I.C.I quickly informed Epsilon. “The ALPA can get you out of Silicon Valley, somewhere far away from everyone who wants to---”

“I....CANNOT.....FEEL,” Epsilon roared. “EVERYTHING....IS....PAIN......”

A trembling hand pointed at Kirsten. “She.....helped......she....could fix.....could HEAL......”

“And as soon as I can get her healed,” V.I.C.I replied, “she'll be able to help you again---”

Hands gripped her shoulders, and she felt herself being turned in place to stare into the bloodshot eyes of Epsilon. “I....am.....LOST,” the machine/man hybrid intoned. “HURTS....to....think.....to FEEL.....” Something that might've been a tear rolled down the mottled flesh of his cheek. “.....I....do not........” Choking sounds issued from his throat. “....do not....want.....suffering......”

“I don't want you to suffer either,” V.I.C.I replied, but Epsilon nodded to Kirsten. “You don't want her to suffer?”

Slowly, sadly, Epsilon nodded. “....thoughts....like KNIVES....they CUT in me......they HURT....”

He backed away from V.I.C.I, his body trembling. “You....must go....must RUN......”

“I'm not leaving you to suffer like this!” V.I.C.I insisted. “There's someone looking for you right now, and he wants to kill you----”

A low, menacing growl issued from Epsilon's hidden lips. “LIGHT....MAN.......”

I guess that's how he sees Oberon.... “The man in the white clothes, yes,” V.I.C.I nodded. “He wanted me to help him---I didn't!” She held both hands up, taking a step back from Epsilon. “I didn't help him....but I will help you.....I know you're not a beast, and that you never wanted any of this.” She blinked away the tears; “And I know,” she added, going back to her human voice, “that Kirsten wanted me to help you, and she'd hate me forever if I gave up now----”

A sickening crack inside Epsilon's torso doubled him over, and he staggered back a few more steps. “GO,” he spat, staring into V.I.C.I's eyes. “I....MUST RUN....YOU.....”

He glanced, again, at Kirsten. “....you....help her....tell her......”

For a brief moment, his eyes seemed to clear. “...tell her....I will never forget her......”

The gate into the AutoYard opened, just as another crack within Epsilon forced him to haltingly move away from V.I.C.I; before she could offer any solace, he managed to find his way to a pile of cars stacked high enough to get him over the fence. A third crack sounded just as he turned to face the car stack, revealing the outline of his spine seeming to expand against his skin as he forced himself to climb.

By the time the Field Agents (led by a fuming Reaver) made their way to V.I.C.I and Kirsten, Epsilon had fled.

“...and for the record,” Agent Larssen declared, “you could've just climbed over the fence at any point, Eric---it wouldn't have done a damned thing to you!”

“Just drop it,” Reaver replied. “Me being human had nothing to do with it---”

Calliope gestured for him to be silent. “Vicki....is everything---”

“Oberon was wrong,” V.I.C.I droned. “Epsilon can still think......and he can still feel.” She bowed her head, as the Field Agents realized that Kirsten wasn't moving. “He moved her out of the way of the magnet---”

“He tackled her, you mean,” Reaver began; Jen elbowed him in the side, and he shut up.

“---and he said she could heal him,” Vicki continued. “He....he knows he's dying.” She turned away, not caring that her ankle was now spurting myogel, or that her arms were aching. “We need to tell DuBraul about everything that happened here,” she murmured. “We need to get him to see what Oberon won't....and to find a way to keep Epsilon as far from Oberon as possible---”

“We'll handle that as soon as you get to a repair bench,” Alicia cut in. “You're bleeding myogel, babe....a few more hours and you won't even-----Vicki, wait!” She managed to stop the limping gynoid before she got too far from the group; “I'm pretty sure all of them want to end this as much as you do,” she admitted, “and we'd all be happy to keep this going until 5 AM or so....but if you keep going without us, and you end up on the side of the road with your myogel all over the Valley, it's not going to do anything to help Epsilon---”

“I wasn't going to try to keep this up all night,” Vicki countered. “I was trying to get to the Baer....my freaking leg feels like it's full of helium right now.” A sigh escaped her slightly-parted lips. “...I know when to call it a night, Alicia,” she muttered. “I just don't want to leave Epsilon in the lurch.”

Calliope and Alicia helped Vicki to the gate, with Rae falling in step behind them. “So....Epsilon scarpered?”

Vicki nodded. “It was like....he knew he was going to lose control again.”

“And he didn't freak out when he saw Kirsten stop moving?”

“Not after I explained it to him. What I don't get---” Vicki winced as her motionless foot hit a car part. “...what I don't get,” she continued, “is why Epsilon didn't react when Kirsten was trying to calm him earlier....I think she said it was 'like he's sick', or something might've been interfering....” A horrifying thought struck her. “You don't think Oberon---” Rae shook her head. “We scanned the perimeter,” she replied. “Only ones out here are registered ALPA.”

So Oberon's off the grid.... “Any way to scan for unregistered?”

“Nothing that'd let us find him in the time it'd take to fix you up,” Rae admitted. “And since it's already tomorrow,” Alicia added, “and a Sunday, you won't have to worry about missing class once you're back on your feet....and we can get Kirsten fixed up, too.”

“Good enough for me.” With a grunt, Vicki pulled herself into the Baer. “So, Rae....”

She managed a grin. “Time to take you up on that offer to book a repair session....for Kirsten, and for me.”

Part 10

“....and he just left them in terminal mode?”

Clive DuBraul looked over the photos he'd been handed with a frown---as it turned out, the rumour of Oberon using E-Lin gynoids to further his efforts had a ring of truth to them. “Faces off to reveal the touch screens and everything,” Anton replied. “Our people got to them before anyone else, put their faces back on and restored them to day-to-day functionality....but it's getting out of hand---”

“And what about his confrontation with Miss Lawson?”

Before the roboticist could reply, the door to DuBraul's office opened. “Something wrong, Crystal?” the ALPA President replied. “You look....unwell....”

“It's.....sir, I was just....” The gynoid secretary bit her lip. “Oberon activated my remote uplink, sir.”

Anton turned away in disgust. “And where were you at the time?” DuBraul inquired.

“....in the ladies' room, just finishing up a recharge,” Crystal quietly replied. “I terminated the process myself, through my own command parser....”

“This was how long ago?”

“About fifteen minutes, sir. Ten minutes out of that, I was offline while the process was fully disabled.”

DuBraul sighed. “And you're not feeling any ill effects from this....intrusion?”

“I feel like I may need to disconnect from the ALPA network for the rest of the day,” Crystal admitted. “I heard him, before I killed the process.....he was trying to get me to initiate a full lockdown of the building.” She turned away, revealing her still-opened dorsal charging port. “Didn't even have time to re-seal after I finished,” she muttered. “I just wanted to kill that damned process---”

“You don't have to explain it to us,” Anton assured her. “But Oberon—-”

“No. Oberon won't explain, and he won't let us catch him that easily.” DuBraul stared at the photos again, a scowl set into his face. “This is....wrong. Using the E-Lins to track Epsilon, trying to use Crystal to lock us into our own building...I haven't seen him this obsessed in years.”

Crystal took a seat, manually pulling the bit of back-skin into place over her charging port. “What else did he obsess over?”

“Believe me, you don't want to know.”

Given the fact that she'd effectively been accessed without her consent thanks to Oberon's fanatical hatred of Epsilon, she nodded. “I just hope he doesn't hurt anyone,” she muttered. “I heard about what he did to those two House gynoids.....why would he even think of something like that?!”

“For the same reason he wanted to remote-access you,” Anton replied. “He wanted every possible advantage over us, to be able to get to Epsilon before we could. He's....trained, for this sort of thing. He's prepared for it, a bit too well, in my opinion.....and as strange as it may sound....” He shook his head. “Oberon is afraid. He's terrified of what will happen if all of his fears are truly borne out. All the years he spent preparing for a red ring event, and then this....”

The blonde secretary gynoid shuddered. “You say that like he wanted a red-ring event to happen....” Even as she spoke the words, a horrifying thought crossed her mind. “He didn't.....”

“Some think he did,” DuBraul admitted. “Wouldn't surprise me in the least---”

A warning glance and throat-clearing from Anton cut him off. “In any case,” he continued, wisely changing the subject, “our focus now is to keep him from making the biggest mistake of his life---if he kills Epsilon, he'll be on the bad side of far too many powerful people to count. ALPA, Coalition, House....and plenty of others who prefer to cling tight to their anonymity rather than let their names and faces be known.”

“Not to mention the fact that he's effectively damning himself to a life in exile,” Anton added.

The roboticist's grim statement deeply troubled Crystal; “So there's no way for him to just...give up?” she quietly asked, glancing at the photos of the E-Lin gynoids. “He can't just....stop, now, and surrender?”

DuBraul shook his head. “It's not his way. Once he sets his sights on a goal....”

“Care to take a rain check on this little discussion?” Anton offered, retrieving his iPhone from his pocket as he spoke. “It seems the team deployed to the AutoYard where Epsilon was last seen is inbound...” His face fell as he continued reading. “.....and they've got one mild case of myogel leakage, and one severe malfunction brought on by the Magnetic Debris Retrieval system.....” He read on for a few lines before lowering his phone, looking utterly perturbed. “The one damaged by the magnet.....was Kirsten---”

“She shouldn't have been,” DuBraul countered. “The AutoYard isn't set to activate for another three hours!”

“Well, from the logs I'm getting from the team, that stupid magnet activated during a confrontation between Agent Lawson and Epsilon,” the roboticist replied. “I'll check the supervisor records, see if anyone had any chance to mess with the timers and trigger the magnet before the whole yard was set to activate...” Even as Anton went to work calling up the logs from the AutoYard, Crystal's attention turned back to the E-Lin photos. “I just hope Oberon comes to his senses before anyone else gets hurt,” she murmured. “Otherwise...”

She didn't feel like speculating what, exactly, might happen if anyone did get hurt.

“Just got a hit from an E-Lin in Reseda,” Anton declared. “She was on slow search mode---someone accessed her systems last week....this is---”

“I suggest you save your hyperbole for a later day,” DuBraul advised. “The team from the AutoYard is back.”

A quick glance at a monitor on the wall revealed that the team was, in fact, driving up at one of the security checkpoints at the rear of the building. “I'll let them in, you prepare the lab,” the ALPA President advised, striding towards the door. “Something tells me Agent Lawson will need to have her leg repaired before she can get back out into the field....” Anton slid his iPhone back into his pocket with a sigh. “Crystal...feel like you might need a tune-up after that remote-access incident?”

“I feel like I could rent a room at the City of the Angels and just live there for the rest of the month,” the gynoid secretary admitted. “I just....I want to forget this.....”

“If you're serious about that,” Anton quietly reminded her, “I can probably arrange something...”

A shout---from the wall-mounted monitor---cut him off; Vicki had apparently banged her ankle on something as she was helped out of the Baer. “....on second thought,” he admitted, “we have more immediate concerns to take care of....rain check?”

Crystal grinned. “I'll be sure to take you up on it when all this blows over.”

“I'll keep that in mind---oh, and your port cover's opened again...” Anton carefully reached to adjust the square of synthetic skin that had come undone from Crystal's recharge port. “That may need looking at sooner, rather than later,” he informed her.

“I know...but I'm willing to put myself on the back-burner for now.”

The two joined DuBraul at the rear gate, where Alicia and Calliope were carefully getting Vicki up the steps and doing their best not to jostle her about and lose more of her myogel. “I'd say 'throw some duct tape on it and let me back out there',” the brunette gynoid muttered, “but I can't even feel anything below the knee right now.”

“Which is why you're back here instead of keeping up the chase,” Anton replied. “Let me take a look---”

“You need to repair Kirsten, first,” Vicki cut in. “She took the worst of it....I had to shut her down to keep her from burning out any more internals.” Over at the Baer, Reaver and Rae were carefully extracting the blonde gynoid's unmoving form from the rear-most seats; “Epsilon saved her,” Vicki continued, the barest hint of a tremor in her voice. “He's.....not completely gone, yet.....but....”

The look in her eyes was one of pure fear. “What if he can't stop himself? What if he does become a beast?”

“It won't come to that,” Anton assured her, falling into step alongside Alicia and Calliope. “He's held out for this long, and if we can get to him before...anyone else does---”

“No sense beating around the bush now,” Calliope grunted. “Oberon wants him dead---”

“And we're not going to let him get to him,” Alicia finished, nodding at the clockwork gynoid. “Once Vicki gets her leg fixed up---” She flinched as the brunette gynoid's foot hit a floor-hugging Roomba on its way through the cleaning patrol of ALPA HQ; Vicki herself muttered under her breath as the circular appliance glided on down the hall, letting out little trilling tones as it went. “....anyway, we can get back to finding Epsilon once you patch up Vicki's leg,” the House operative finished.

Despite his annoyance at the situation, Anton nodded. “I'm guessing Vicki approves of this plan?”

“I'd rather get my leg repaired now and help Epsilon later than try to keep this going on one leg,” the gynoid Field Agent replied. “Believe me, if I could be out there now....”

“Perfectly understandable. Now, then....ah, third door on the right, if you don't mind.” Anton guided Calliope and Alicia to the repair lab, keeping in step with them as they went; “How many repair labs do you have around here?” the clockwork gynoid asked.

Her question earned her a grin from the roboticist. “More than enough to do my job, Calliope.”

Even as her allies helped her onto one of the exam tables in the repair room, Vicki couldn't help but glance at Kirsten's motionless form being laid down onto another table. “Think you can repair her before the night is over with?” she quietly asked.

“That depends on if she has any kind of backups at home,” Anton replied. “I'll have to check if any friends or her remaining family know she's a former sleeper, and can get her backups to me.” He set to work removing the damaged section of Vicki's uniform pants from around her ankle. “You're lucky this is just a small leak, and such a clean cut....” He retrieved a nearby satchel from a rack near the table. “The repair itself won't take but a moment, and once the new line sets in about....half an hour---”

“I get it. Any recommendations against strenuous activity or anything?”

Anton chuckled. “After it sets, you can do cartwheels down Fourth Street and power yoga at the Student Union if you feel like it---it'll hold, believe me.”

“Fair enough....I don't want my leg going dead on me any time soon---” A peal of thunder outside caused her to tense, her leg stiffening under the roboticist's tools. “It was just a bit of bad weather,” Anton calmly assured her. “Just lay back, relax, and let me finish fixing your leg.”

With a sigh, Vicki laid back, resisting the urge to count ceiling tiles. “Just tell me when it's over....”

Part 11

“....y'know, if I was human, I think I'd start feeling sick right about now.”

Mary Robinson's remark earned her a slightly annoyed glance from Selwyn McElvoy, but given the state of the E-Lin gynoid on the table before them, it wasn't completely unwarranted. “I take it you've read the report of how she was found?” he queried.

“Face-down, and face-less, in a hotel room,” Mary replied, “shirt missing, still in terminal mode.” Indeed, the front of the gynoid's head was utterly bare---save for a touch-screen where her face should've been. “Charging cord reported missing---later found in her luggage.....nothing was taken out of her room, and everything checks out with the other reports of E-Lins being...well....'accessed' and left in terminal mode.” She glanced at the lithe body of the E-Lin, currently clad in a black silk bra/panty set and---apart from the missing face---looking impressively healthy.

“We've received similar reports from all over Silicon Valley,” Selwyn informed her. “Despite her temporary lack of a voice, Miss Hynde has been responsible for setting up my calendar and all appointments regarding the repair of every E-Lin unit affected---”

“What does her missing her voice have to do with setting up your calendar?” Mary asked.

Selwyn paged through the E-Lin's recovery report. “I have to answer the phone in her place....not exactly the most convenient arrangement, especially in this particular situation.”

“Well, at least Miss Hynde didn't have to put up with the marionette treatment from the Chairman,” Rae muttered, adjusting the Cliff Richard t-shirt and jean shorts she'd been asked to wear in lieu of her preferred attire (she'd stashed the clothes in Anton's repair lab during a previous session). “Why the hell the House lets their girls have the option for external control is beyond me....”

Mary gave her a look. “They're probably set to run on external control in emergencies---”

“External control by their own people,” Rae countered. “I'm pretty sure they never would've volunteered to be puppeteered around the building the way they were...and not by the Chairman.”

“I never said they did,” Mary replied. “I'm just saying....oh, forget it.” She returned her attention to examining the E-Lin. “This whole thing...one of our own going so far beyond what we know as acceptable just to destroy Epsilon.....it feels wrong. Like....”

“A bad dream you can't wake up from?” Rae quietly offered, her tone now more sympathetic than adversarial.

Silently, with more than a hint of fear in her eyes, the blonde gynoid nodded.

McElvoy ascended the stepladder set up so that he get a better look at the E-Lin. “Her personality shell programming should more than likely hold up even after the full, ALPA-spec defragmentation of her hard drive,” he noted. “Unless Oberon has gone so far as to alter her core files and programming...” He frowned. “Miss Lawson had a theory, earlier....she was under the impression that Oberon might be following us. If I were more paranoid, I might be under the belief that we're being observed by him as we speak.”

“You're kidding,” Mary groaned. “We're inside ALPA HQ, there's no way---”

“This building has, if I remember correctly, been breached before,” Selwyn reminded her. “I wouldn't depend entirely upon the security systems, if I were you. And has anyone made any progress on apprehending those responsible for the security breach---”

Rae and Mary stared daggers at him for a moment.

“.....my apologies. I was only inquiring---”

“Just do yourself a favour, mate,” Rae quietly replied, “and don't mention it again. Please.”

Even as Miss Hynde moved to stand near Selwyn, taking a defensive stance, the roboticist nodded. “I was mistaken in thinking that the issue had ceased to be a sore point here,” he admitted. “And for that---you can stand down now, Miss Hynde---for that, you have my humble apologies.”

“Apology accepted. Now, then...” Mary turned her attention to the E-Lin. “Think we can use her to track him?”

Miss Hynde's eyebrows arched in surprise at the idea---and Selwyn was quick to offer his opinion. “That,” he declared, “is an intriguing example of conjecture, Miss Robinson....if Professor Malvineous finishes repairing the myogel leak in Miss Lawson's leg soon, we may in fact be able to back-trace Oberon's activity through our unfortunate E-Lin....” He paused, noticing Mary's perturbed look. “By 'unfortunate', I was referring to her encounter with the Chairman. She can be repaired, reactivated and sent on her way with no lingering memories of her involvement with this sordid tale...”

“Sounds good to me. SO.....is Anton done fixing Vicki's leg?”

Rae's question was answered by the sound of something being knocked over in the other room, followed by Anton calmly (but urgently) asking Vicki to please stop kicking at things with her good leg.

“Guess that answers that question,” Mary replied. “So....”

Three minutes later, Anton and Vicki---sporting a freshly-sealed left ankle---entered the room. “Apart from your reflexes going into overdrive,” Anton stated, “you've got a clean bill of health.” His attention turned to the E-Lin on the work table; “I assume you need my help getting inside her head?” he inquired, striding over and taking a look at the gynoid.

“We were just posing that question,” McElvoy admitted.

“Figured that....just give me a moment to---Vicki, what are you doing?!”

The brunette gynoid was standing over the E-Lin, staring at the touchpad built into the other robot girl's cranial casing. “Expanding my sensory horizons,” she stated, not looking back at Anton. “It's getting me a lot farther than the old method would have---Oberon put in plenty of ways to trip up anyone who might try to use an ordinary computer to look through her file indexes.”

“Fascinating....” Selwyn climbed up the stepladder once again to get a better look. “Care to tell us what kind of view you can get inside her mind?” he asked.

Despite her focus on the task, V.I.C.I managed a smirk. “Ever see Johnny Mnemonic?”

“Once or twice.”

“Well, it's nothing like that. It'd be impossible to describe in purely human terms....just be thankful for stuff like GUIs and OS shell programs. As for why that wouldn't help you out right now....” Despite her robotic monotone, V.I.C.I gave a remarkably lifelike sigh. “Fake index tables of contents, dummy files and a metric ton of encryption....on practically worthless files. Oberon must've figured that he'd be under fire from the ALPA's best and brightest....”

Her eyes narrowed. “...and more importantly, he wanted me to be the one to find all of this.”

Without warning, the E-Lin sat up, the screen built into her head lighting up and projecting an image onto the far wall. “Guess he wanted us all to see it,” Rae began, only to stare in wide-eyed shock at the display.

“Mother of God,” Anton whispered, crossing himself instantly.

The image on the wall was Oberon himself, stripped to the waist and looking as if he'd just been assaulted---more than likely, by Epsilon. “If you're watching this, things have already gone too far for the ALPA as a whole to contain,” he stated, “and either someone's been killed or Epsilon has descended into rampancy. I have a feeling that Agent Lawson is among you....” V.I.C.I scowled as Oberon's lips twitched up into a smirk. “....and since we've already had one exchange of truths,” he continued, “I feel it only fair to let her have one final chance to see if her...preferred tactics will be enough to stop me.” Shouts in the background, the crackle of nearby flames and screaming pedestrians confirmed everyone's worst fears---the message had been recorded at the sight of Epsilon and Oberon's earlier clash....before V.I.C.I had confronted Oberon.

“He planned for us to find this now?!” Mary gasped. “How---”

A single glance from V.I.C.I silenced her as Oberon continued. “This ends where Epsilon began---the currently abandoned Block G facility on the outskirts of Palo Alto. We'll have had our little talk by this point, and I have a feeling I know how it'll turn out....but whichever way the pendulum swings, Epsilon will return to Block G, where its existence will come to its inevitable end. If you want to keep me from killing it....”

Everyone but V.I.C.I flinched at the chuckle that ended the sentence. “...I think a twelve-hour rest should give you the time to decide how best to...'handle' me.”

Within the projection, a car screeched to a halt somewhere behind Oberon. “Don't keep me waiting.”

The image faded to nothing, and the E-Lin sank back to a supine position.

“So....he's planned for this,” Selwyn muttered. “I think---”

“How soon will I be able to get to the Block G facility?”

Anton, Selwyn and everyone else in the room stared in wide-eyed shock at V.I.C.I; “Vicki,” Anton quietly stated, “the Block G facility was owned by the Baron himself until very recently. The security systems haven't been deactivated, and if Oberon himself is there---”

“He'll be waiting for me,” V.I.C.I finished, “meaning I have to do this alone.”

“And risk getting obliterated,” Selwyn replied. “Need I remind you---”

“I know he's trained to fight androids, and I know he'll pull out all the stops to take me down....and I don't care.” V.I.C.I paced the floor before the table where the E-Lin lay; “If I don't stop him,” she continued, using her human voice once again, “he might.....I don't even want to think of what might happen. It's nearly 3 AM right now...most of you need to rest.”

Mary arched an eyebrow. “You're actually suggesting---”

“I'm saying that I don't want him striking while we're all still tired. Kirsten's already been damaged....I don't want to lose anyone else.” Another sigh escaped Vicki's lips. “Anton, Selwyn....you can fix her, right?”

The two roboticists didn't hesitate. “It won't be easy...but she can be repaired,” Anton replied.

“It may take some time to reverse the effects of the magnet on her drives,” Selwyn added, “but we'll do what we can. Miss Hynde is certified to assist in repairs of this magnitude---her assistance will more than likely make our jobs easier.” The cinnamon-haired gynoid nodded in silent reinforcement of McElvoy's assessment of her repair skills.

Vicki returned the nod. “The more help you have, the faster she'll be back on her feet. As for me...”

Her eyes glowed a vibrant blue. “....anyone up for a few sparring sessions?”

Part 12

The sun rose over San Jose, and most of the day passed without incident---apart from Rae and Alicia stealing flirtatious glances at each other from across the ALPA HQ gym during Vicki's sparring sessions, and Kirsten's repair session being temporarily halted when a soft drink nearly ended up in the blonde gynoid's internals (the incident almost caused a shouting match between Anton and the tech who'd brought in the soft drink, though Selwyn's mention of “the Pepsi Syndrome” managed to defuse the situation quite nicely). None of these, however, made any impact on Vicki's resolve as the hours ticked by....

….mainly because her thoughts were focused on the words she'd seen Oberon speak: “You're a mistake...one I intend to erase.”

Oberon's “offered” twelve-hour rest period came and went, though Vicki knew (or rather, hoped) that the soon-to-be ex-Chairman (there was no getting around that fact now) wouldn't be willing to drag complete civilians into the fray. He'd already crossed lines by taking control of the two House agents, instigating a fight with Epsilon in public, and that little hacking trick he'd pulled on Vicki herself....

He won't do anything worse, the brunette gynoid assured herself. I won't let him....

By 6:38 PM, word had arrived from the higher-ups that Vicki's trip to the Block G facility had been authorized and given the green light---with one caveat. The building's security systems had a 60-minute cool-down period starting at 11:00 PM on the dot and ending at midnight. Once the alarms and systems kicked back on, any and all ALPA extraction teams would be told to clear out---after that, Vicki would be on her own. Hopefully, it'll just be Oberon vs. me, she mused, reading over the note. The knowledge that the extraction teams would clear out at midnight actually calmed her, somewhat---if they were out of the area when things got serious, Oberon wouldn't be able to---stop it. He's not some kind of psychopath....not like----

“Clearing your head before the big fight?”

William J. Rengold IV's question prompted a gasp from the brunette gynoid---she hadn't even heard him enter the gym. “I was just....yeah,” she replied, the word sounding lame even to her own aural sensors. “Thinking of past fights, and stuff---”

“Like the ones you've had against Faceless?” William offered.

Vicki groaned. “Am I that obvious?!”

William only chuckled. “I can understand why you'd think back to those fights, Vicki....but trust me. If you think the plans you'd use against my brother will work against Oberon....they won't.” He strolled over to take a seat near Vicki; “Faceless....trained himself to fight in ways that would maximize his killing efficiency,” he explained, “and he focused on attacks to make people bleed...cut them at the pressure points, and stuff. Oberon, from what I've heard, has trained in fighting androids---”

“So I have to completely abandon every strategy I've used before?” Vicki muttered.

“You'll have to adapt,” William replied. “Fight like yourself---not as a machine, not as a person....but as you.”

Something about that bit of advice prompted a curious glance from the gynoid Field Agent. “That's...a really weird way of putting it,” she admitted. “Sort of like Bruce Lee's whole thing of 'be like water'.....”

“That's probably the best advice you can get.....that, and don't go overboard.”

“Most people would probably say 'thanks for the obvious',” Vicki admitted, “but given my....personal history with 'going overboard', I'll settle for just saying thanks.” She rolled her eyes at her own honesty; “Kind of weird, really,” she murmured. “Oberon told me about how to not lose control, once....and now.....”

A moment of silence passed before she spoke again. “Thanks again for the advice.”

“Not a problem, Agent Lawson,” William replied. “I think the convoy for the Block G complex leaves in---”

“Three hours, fifteen minutes and seven seconds,” V.I.C.I intoned, her robotic voice drawing a surprised look from William. “Sorry,” she giggled, slipping back to her human voice. “Couldn't resist....just thought I'd have one last laugh before things got too serious.”

William could only chuckle. “Fair enough. I'll leave you to your training, then....”

Despite Vicki's hope that training would make the hours feel longer, they seemed to breeze by far too quickly for her own liking; the announcement of the convoy's imminent departure was delivered sooner than she'd anticipated. Guess there's no putting it off now, she realized. Oberon wanted me to be ready....and I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be, considering what I'm about to do....

The departure of the convoy was a solemn affair, as was the drive---no songs blared from the radio, no idle chit-chat was exchanged, and no attempts to “ease the tension” were made. Even though her personal, built-in chronometer was accurately measuring time down to the millisecond, V.I.C.I felt as if time itself had slowed to a crawl. Anyone else in her position would've denied it, tried to make an excuse, or written it off as just a “bad vibe” of some kind....but the gynoid Field Agent knew exactly why her own personal sense of time seemed to be running a bit off, and why she dreaded reaching the Block G complex...

I don't want to fight Oberon....and I don't want to face what happens afterwards.

As the clock ticked down to 11 PM, the convoy had arrived at the Block G site---and was circling the perimeter to stay beyond the roving spotlights' range. The only farewells exchanged as V.I.C.I left her vehicle were silent nods and the low, quiet hiss of static from the in-car communications systems; the convoy's departure was equally silent, leaving their fellow operative standing before a wall of imposing security gates, automated turrets and other counter-intrusion measures.

They all know, she reflected, charging through the only unlocked gate. Sentimentality will only distract me...

Even as she sped through the corridors, faster than the still-active motion sensors could effectively track, it was hard for V.I.C.I to feel any sense of...anything, to be honest. I'm about to take up arms against the man who got me this job....the one who personally recommended that I join the ALPA...what am I supposed to feel?!

Somehow or other, Oberon had managed to lay a trail for her to follow even at her current speed---erasing any lingering doubts that this was meant for anyone but her. She didn't know (or care) how he'd managed to draw any of the arrows that peppered the walls---all that mattered was where they would lead in the end---and who they would lead to.

As if on cue, an all too familiar chorus rang out through the halls: “Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador!”

No......no more of that.

“Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant----qu'un œil noir te regarde!”

With every syllable of the lyric, V.I.C.I seemed to gain speed as she raced through the corridors. Getting closer.....he knows it's getting to me. He knows it's provoking me.....but why?!

Her run through the hallways came to a stop within what had to have been a testing chamber of some kind, long ago; spiderweb cracks ran through every pane of glass and Perspex, dark stains on the floor bore the unmistakeable ochre of blood that had long since dried....and more importantly, the ring of doors around the central floor---almost like gates at a colosseum---were marked with “E-001”, E-002” and the like. So this is where Epsilon began.....

“Et que l'amour t'attend, Toréador, l'amour, l'amour t'attend!”

The final verse of the chorus rang through the air like the peal of a bell, allowing the brunette gynoid's vision to centre on the white-clad (and still jacket-less) figure of Oberon in the centre of the room, standing before a pair of swords stuck into the floor. “You got the message, I see,” he mused, his lips curled into the barest hint of a smirk. “Good---”

“Enough. You called me here to---”

“I called you here,” Oberon interjected, “to give you one final chance. Join me, and help me to erase one of the biggest mistakes that everyone we've ever known has seen fit to turn their backs on....or stand by Epsilon as it rages through Silicon Valley. It's a simple decision, really.”

Nice try..... “So killing the innocent is a simple decision?”

Oberon gave a mirthless chuckle. “Epsilon isn't innocent. It can no longer be thought of as something that can be judged innocent or guilty...it is a weapon, forged from a human being and the unholiest technology and science that could be dredged up.....” He paced the floor, not once reaching for either of the blades; “Epsilon hasn't been human for almost a year, now,” he explained. “And if it continues to exist, then certain parties will find out....and they'll want one of their own. They'll try everything to make one of their own....and that's when the truly innocent will suffer---”

“You can't be certain of that,” V.I.C.I countered. “No one can----”

“And you'd be willing to risk that?! You'd be willing to throw away everything you've ever done, for the sake of an abomination....a beast?!

The glow in V.I.C.I's eyes was a pure, shining sapphire now. “I won't help you to kill an innocent man---”

“WHAT IS A MAN?!” Oberon thundered---outside, just as loud as the disgraced Chairman's scream, a peal of thunder split the night. “What is a man,” he repeated, “but a miserable little pile......” He stopped, glaring across the room at the gynoid Field Agent with what could only be a look of pure hatred. “Let's not waste time on philosophy,” he spat. “We're here for a reason.....” He gestured at the two swords.

“You're not taking one yourself?”

Again, Oberon smirked. “I'll take yours, when you're finished with it.”

I could grab them both, run the perimeter of the room..... Even as the scenario flashed through her processors, V.I.C.I knew it would do little more than annoy her opponent. “Hardly seems fair,” she reasoned, striding towards the blades. “Me with two swords, and you with....nothing.” She allowed the glow in her eyes to diminish; “While we're on the subject,” she continued, using her human voice, “why don't you let me make you an offer---”

“I believe the best phrase for this moment would be 'this isn't Let's Make a Deal,'” Oberon snapped. “We're not here to parley....you know exactly what happens next---”

“No, I don't,” Vicki admitted, allowing her grip on the swords to slacken just a bit. “And....maybe you don't---”

Lightning split the dark skies overhead, visible through the stained skylight.

Enough talk,” Oberon intoned. “It's time to end this.....Epsilon will be here soon, and I'd prefer it if I don't waste most of my strength in this merry little dance of ours.....” He chuckled again, with a genuine (and rather malicious) humour. “Let's see how well you can handle someone else who thinks as well as fights,” he crooned, “unlike your....preferred opponents...”

He bowed his head just a bit, regarding the gynoid from beneath furrowed brows. “En garde....”

In the seconds it took Oberon to utter those two words, the glow in V.I.C.I's eyes reignited---she charged (not screaming, to her surprise) at the Chairman, a blade in each hand-----only to have each of them knocked away from their intended target (Oberon's midsection) before a white-gloved palm slammed into the bridge of her nose, sending her staggering back.

“A fool's gambit.....you'll have to do better than that!”

The insult was a weak one, but V.I.C.I refused to let it distract her. The swords were still in her grasp; any number of plans revolving around keeping Oberon disoriented and off his feet swam through her thoughts as she went into what most would consider a “default” combat stance. “This isn't training,” she calmly informed the Chairman, “and you're not teaching me anything----”

“Oh, I beg' to differ!” Oberon countered, laughing off the attempted insult. “You have much to learn....”

He sighed, turning on one foot.....then almost spinning to face V.I.C.I again, sprinting towards her with the grace of an Olympian runner. Instinctively, the gynoid raised both swords in an “X” to counter the jump-kick----

---an attack that never actually came, much to her surprise. What----with that kind of start, why didn't----

Her vision exploded into corrupted pixels and static for a moment; as she staggered backwards again, V.I.C.I realized that the sprint was nothing but a feint. In her expectation of a jumping attack, she'd neglected to consider Oberon just running straight for her, punching through the “X” with both arms and hitting her on both sides of the head as hard as possible. “Training's catching up with you, I think!” he called out. “Starting to become a bit of a routine....and a great man made a great point about rehearsed routines....”

His smile turned a shade darker. “They lack a certain.....flexibility....”

“This isn't about flexibility!” V.I.C.I countered---even as she flipped the swords over in each hand. “I'm not letting you get away with murder---” Even as Oberon ran at her again, the brunette gynoid feinted drawing both arms back for an upward slash. Wait for it....don't telegraph the move, dammit..... With the Chairman less than a foot from her, V.I.C.I raised her arms, as if to follow through on her blatant move---only to slacken her grip and allow the swords to spin up in her hands, straight towards Oberon's arms.

Had it not been for his decision to leap over her head, the move would've ended the fight early....

….instead, it gave her less than a second to recover control of the blades and slash behind her, just before the sole of Oberon's shoe would've impacted with the back of her head.

A flash of red streamed from the white leather as Oberon landed, a quiet gasp escaping his lips.

“Don't make me spill more blood,” V.I.C.I warned. “We can---”

“That,” the white-clad Chairman intoned, “was a mistake.” He barely turned to regard his opponent over his shoulder; “You should've followed through,” he quietly added, “instead of giving me---”

Split-seconds passed between the word “me” leaving his lips and the red/white blur shooting towards him; any other man would've been skewered on both blades in a heartbeat. Oberon himself just barely sidestepped the charge---and caught a slash from the right-hand sword to his midsection even as he spun away. “So you are learning,” he muttered, tearing away the vest before it could be stained by his blood---the shirt beneath it was already beginning to show a crimson blossom as he threw the vest to the ground. “Good---”

“ENOUGH. No matter how much you think I'm enjoying this---I'M NOT!” V.I.C.I's eyes were now shining bright enough to light a 3-foot circle before her. “This isn't a game---”

“Nor is it a lecture,” Oberon countered. “It is, however....my turn---”

The circle before V.I.C.I blurred with her as she ran, both swords trailing her like steel jet trails. If I can time this just right----

Every light in the already darkened room cut out.

Don't let it distract you. Keep moving, listen for every breath---

She'd expected to be attacked from any direction once the lights went out, but that did little to soften the impact of the clubbing elbow that smashed into her back. Equilibrium destabilization warnings faded into her field of view, warning that she'd risk a head-first impact with a wall if she kept going….a few rapid blinks cleared the notices away in seconds as she spun to regain her footing---just as Oberon's foot seemed to materialize out of the darkness, heading right for her face.

Another split-second spin moved her out of the path of the kick---and into a leg-sweep that sent her to the cold hard floor.

WARNING: Internal stabilization compromised

WARNING: Equilibrium calibration errors

WARNING: Impact damage to----

Every message and notice was blinked away, just as Oberon's foot descended towards V.I.C.I's face; a quick roll moved her out of its path, but left her vulnerable for a lightning-fast kick to the back that prompted a sudden cry of pain---and an impulsive slash outwards and upwards with the right-hand sword. An angry shout split the silence as she recovered and stood; apparently, that blind slash had connected....and hurt.

“I'm starting to think this fight is a bigger mistake than you believe Epsilon to be---”

The lights kicked on again, blazing into full intensity; even V.I.C.I's optical sensors were overwhelmed for a brief moment. Even as her internal countermeasures kicked on, she knew----

A pair of punches smashed into her midsection, followed by an uppercut that sent her back to the floor.

Slowly, the over-saturated, hyper-lit room began to recede into something less taxing on her optics....though the sight of Oberon standing over her, sporting a long, red gash from where her blind strike had hit and trailed off, drained what little hope she may have had. “And you just refuse to learn,” he growled. “You know the only way to stop me, you know what you have to do...”

Before V.I.C.I could scramble to her feet, she felt herself lifted by the shirt collar.

“....so why,” the Chairman whispered, “do you refuse to take that final step----”

With all of his focus on V.I.C.I's expressionless face, Oberon didn't notice her hands---now fully charged with Detaining Grip---rising on either side of his head, until they closed around his ears. For three whole seconds, the volts fired through his body until he let go of the gynoid Field Agent; she instantly back-pedalled away from him, stopping to kneel and retrieve the dropped swords as she did.

“Who said I refused to take that step?” she quietly asked.

For a moment, Oberon seemed to have been overcome by the assault. A gout of blood ran from one nostril; his eyes were now tinged with a spiderweb of reddish-black veins, and his laboured breathing indicated that the move had, perhaps, worked a little too well. Either he's really hurt, or he's a really good actor......

Overhead, the lights flickered again. That can't be a coincidence----

Just as the realization hit her, V.I.C.I tightened her grip on the swords....and blackness consumed the room.

You tried this trick once....and just like Daltrey sang, I won't get fooled again. Indeed, V.I.C.I's internal, ALPA-approved tracking software zeroed in on Oberon's breathing, body heat, pulse and other factors. He's on the move again..trying to circle around me, this time.

That fact, by itself, didn't phase the gynoid operative in the least. What did was the fact that Oberon---having just been hit with dual Detaining Grips, on either side of the head---was moving a bit too....quickly....for someone trying to shrug off the effects of an electric shock. Did it even hurt him? Is he running on pure adrenaline now, or---- V.I.C.I cut off her internal inquiry, just as Oberon charged at her again. Even as she dodged to the side, she felt a glancing strike against her face---how is he even keeping up with me?!

“YOU'RE HOLDING BACK---YOU EMBRACE SELF-RESTRAINT!”

Oberon's shout registered with V.I.C.I's auditory sensors just as something (or more accurately, someone) smashed into her with a front tackle, sending her to the ground in a heap. Just as quickly, the lights flared into existence once again---and the brunette gynoid found herself missing one sword.

“I did tell you,” Oberon intoned, “that I'd take this from you when you were finished with it.....”

Error messages once again flooded V.I.C.I's vision as she rose, shakily, to her feet. “....I'm....not done....”

“It makes no difference to me. You stand with every single one of them by spouting their stupid rhetoric, saying Epsilon can be saved.....if you refuse to accept the truth---”

Your truth,” V.I.C.I countered, slowly turning to face the Chairman. “Not the truth.”

Her defiance earned her a scoff. “What is truth?”

Another peal of thunder split the night sky outside. “We don't have to do this,” V.I.C.I stated. “Just---”

“Put the sword down, turn around and walk away?” Oberon finished. “No. Not this time. I know what has to be done---Epsilon must be destroyed.” He snapped the sword up in a half-salute of sorts. “The time for talking has passed, Vicki.....if you're going to fight me, then fight me.”

Even as her stance faltered, V.I.C.I's eyes glowed. “You're making a mistake....challenging me like this.”

Her attempt at an insult only garnered a chuckle. “Prove it.”

From somewhere outside the room, a hideous, guttural roar split the silence.....and Oberon surprised V.I.C.I by not smiling. “It's here,” he muttered. “I was hoping to get you out of the way first---”

“'Get me out of the way'?!”

“You're only going to be a distraction,” Oberon snapped. “To me, and to Epsilon. There's no sense in trying to fight it if you're screaming Kirsten's name in its face....” He turned away. “If you insist on continuing this stupid charade, then I suggest you let this battle finish quickly---what little of Epsilon's cognitive ability remains won't be able to handle focusing on more than one of us at a time---”

“He's dying,” V.I.C.I hissed. “It's a miracle that he can----”

“DO NOT CALL THAT THING A MIRACLE!” Oberon roared---just as another howl from Epsilon rang through the halls. “You and I will settle this later,” he growled. “Right now....I have a beast to kill.”

“Epsilon is not a beast.”

“Defiant to the end....an admirable trait. Pity it's wasted on someone so stubborn....so foolish---”

A series of shuddering impacts against the door cut off Oberon's claim before it finished. Seconds later, the door itself fell to the floor, practically bent in half....

…Epsilon had arrived.

“SO,” Oberon shouted. “The beast returns at last.....at the very least, you understand the concept of fate!”

A bone-chilling roar was the only reply he received.

“I'm not enjoying this,” Oberon continued. “I'm not doing this for the 'fun' of it....I'm doing this because it needs to be done.” He strode towards the hulking figure of Epsilon, scowling; “If any part of you could understand me,” he continued, “I might consider apologizing....but I know what's going on inside that skull of yours. I know that whatever passes for a thought process in you is fading, like a dying ember....and that with every passing second, you become more dangerous---”

“LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

Epsilon's head snapped to the right, his stare locking on to V.I.C.I; “I told you,” Oberon growled, “to stay the bloody hell OUT OF THIS---”

A low, guttural grunt issued from Epsilon's throat.

“He can understand both of us,” V.I.C.I continued. “He can still think....we need to help him----”

“THE ONLY THING IT UNDERSTANDS,” Oberon shouted back, “IS PAIN. It can't think anymore....and it has no way of knowing how many people will suffer if it continues to exist.” His stare settled on Epsilon. “Whether or not it can understand any of this.....it doesn't matter. Epsilon has to be destroyed---to end its own suffering, and to keep others from suffering---” His statement was cut off with another roar from Epsilon---just before the man/machine hybrid charged him.

Despite the continued error messages flashing in her field of vision, V.I.C.I managed to break into a decent run that would put her between Oberon and Epsilon---which would've worked brilliantly, had Epsilon not changed course mid-charged and headed straight for the Field Agent instead. What?! Why the hell----

All mental queries as to Epsilon's course of action came to a sudden halt as the hybrid slammed into her with a crushing forearm to the midsection. A brief, but noticeable power fluctuation from her RTG sent a shiver through V.I.C.I's internals---the impact was far stronger than she'd anticipated. “Ep....silon,” she managed, “I'm...on your side.....”

“IT DOESN'T UNDERSTAND SIDES!” Oberon thundered, advancing on the pair with his sword aimed right at Epsilon's spine. “Every time you talk to it like it can hear you....you're making things worse---”

Another roar cut him off---sounding far more human than the others.

“You're wrong,” V.I.C.I muttered. “He----” Her head twitched to the right; not this, she mentally pleaded, not now! Fighting every system advisory and safety override, she rose to a sitting position. “....he can hear,” she continued. “He can.....understand....”

“Then let it hear and understand this,” Oberon coldly replied, hefting his sword in both hands. “The blade I bear tonight is the one thing that can end Epsilon's tortured existence---a carbonadium/titanium alloy, forged in fire and tempered to withstand forces that would shatter a lesser blade.” His bloodshot eyes never wavered as he strode towards Epsilon. “Your sword can kill it as well, Vicki,” he called out. “This is your last chance to aid me in destroying it, or foolishly stand in my way.”

Her pain did little to temper V.I.C.I's defiance. “Then may fortune favour the foolish.”

“So be it.” Oberon raised the blade, preparing to charge at Epsilon----

---and again, the lights cut out.

Heat signature tracking systems damaged.

Activate Y/N

(Y)

WARNING: tracking will only follow ONE (1) target

Do you wish to--- (Y)

Tracking engaged.

The glow in V.I.C.I's eyes changed to a bluish-green as her stare focused on Oberon. Taking him down should give me more than enough time to get Epsilon out of here, she reasoned, doing her best to stay quiet as she approached the Chairman. I didn't want it to have to come to this....

She swung her blade downwards, towards his hands---only for his sword to intercept it.

“Another mistake,” Oberon growled. “I'm not your enemy---”

“Neither is Epsilon,” V.I.C.I replied. “We can help him----”

“The only help it needs,” Oberon replied, backing away to take another swing, “is freedom from the shallow parody of life it's been cursed with!” He lunged at the brunette gynoid with an easily-parried stab. “Killing him isn't the way to handle this. If we had enough time, we could find a better way----”

“There is no better way!” Again, Oberon backed away. “Epsilon is too dangerous to be allowed to----”

Every light in the room kicked on just as Oberon and V.I.C.I heard the guttural, pained roar of Epsilon---right next to them. “Tony, wait,” V.I.C.I pleaded, slipping back to her human voice---only for Epsilon to roughly shove her aside and grab Oberon by the throat. A pair of strangled, half-coughing noises that sounded more than a bit like the earlier “LIGHT MAN” remark back at the AutoYard issued from behind the grating that hid Epsilon's mouth.

“Don't kill him,” V.I.C.I gasped. “Please----”

A hideous screeching yell filled her aural sensors; Epsilon staggered back, a greenish-red liquid spewing from two puncture wounds in his midsection. “For your sake,” Oberon replied, glancing back at the gynoid Field Agent, “I'll make this quick....” He tossed aside what appeared to be the hilts of two daggers with missing blades....and all too quickly, V.I.C.I realized why Epsilon had screamed.

“What did you stab him with?”

“The same carbonadium/titanium alloy as the swords,” the Chairman replied, “to take the fight out of him. I'm trying to keep this from escalating into a pointless brawl!”

Immediately, the lyrics to March of the Toréadors rang through her mind. “You're using bullfighting tactics against him?!” she growled---which only prompted a sardonic smirk from Oberon. “So you have been paying attention....under other circumstances---” A crushing backhand from Epsilon sent him to the floor; even as V.I.C.I ran to stop the brawl, the hybrid followed up the sucker punch with several stomps to the ALPA Chairman's ribs.

“You don't have to do this!” she pleaded. “I can get you out of here, back to safety—--”

The only reply she received was another pained scream from Epsilon.

Enough of this.....” With Epsilon sufficiently distracted by V.I.C.I's pleas, Oberon managed to retrieve another blade---small enough to be concealed in the palm of his hand---and thrust it upwards into the sole of Epsilon's foot. The end result: a shriek from the man/machine hybrid, and a shower of greenish-red blood from the new wound.

Before he could even blink, Oberon was dragged out from beneath the wailing Epsilon. “I'm trying to help him,” V.I.C.I intoned, “and all you're doing is making things WORSE---”

It is beyond help. What part of that can't you understand---”

Both Oberon and V.I.C.I were sent reeling when Epsilon smashed into them with another tackle. V.I.C.I's sword skittered away on the cold, hard floor; Oberon, meanwhile, groaned as he tried to push himself up with one hand, only to hear a sickening crack. “GAAH.....” He turned to glare at Epsilon---and found himself getting a far closer look at the hybrid's right foot than he ever wanted, which sent him back to the floor, coughing up one or two teeth as well as more than a bit of blood.

“Epsilolololon,” V.I.C.I called out, her human voice now skipping like a scratched CD, “just listen to-to-to..” She turned away, trying to mentally force herself past the errors. “PLEASE, just listen to me.....”

Her impassioned entreaty trailed off as she noticed the talons on Epsilon's fingertips. “....I...I'm your friend---”

A choked sob cut off her sentence---Epsilon's labored breathing as he dropped into a runner's stance was proof that friendship was the last thing on his already-addled mind.

“Please,” V.I.C.I whispered, her voice heavy with electronic distortion. “Let me help you----”

“SHE'S NOT THE ONE YOU WANT!” Several feet away, Oberon was staggering to his feet, his own breathing just as heavy as that of Epsilon. “IF YOU TRULY DESIRE AN END TO THIS SHELL OF A LIFE,” he shouted, “THEN FIGHT ME!” He pointed his sword at the hybrid, ignoring the searing pain that raced through every limb. “And as for you,” he added, angling the sword at V.I.C.I, “the blade I wield tonight wasn't forged solely to deal with Epsilon.....given the tensile strength of your synthetic skin, it's the only thing that'll cut YOU---”

Epsilon let loose with another roar---one that might've contained the word “NO” somewhere in it.

“You knew this would happen,” Oberon continued. “You knew, when you refused my offer, back at that office building---you knew DAMN WELL this would happen!” He raised the sword, his chest heaving. “....and now,” he muttered. “you join Epsilon in oblivion, and for that.....I apologize......”

Despite her vision being flooded with more error messages, V.I.C.I could see what might've been a lone tear rolling down the Chairman's cheek. “I didn't want it to end this way,” he hissed, his teeth clenched. “You should've been standing at my side....NOT DEFENDING THAT!” He waved the sword at Epsilon. “I never wanted this.....the only one who needed to die here was EPSILON---”

“Nobod....nobody....no-no-no-no---” V.I.C.I gritted her teeth, trying not to let the overrides built into her systems overwhelm her personality. “Nobody....needs to die here,” she muttered. “Not....me.......not-not-not---”

An electrical snap erupted from her left leg, her uniform burning away to reveal charred synth-flesh.

“.....not....Epsi-Epsi-Epsilon,” she continued, “and.....not.....even....you.....”

Oberon's eyes widened. “....you....what?!

“I...don't....want to.....fififififi-----I DON'T WANT TO FIGHT YOU!

Anything Oberon could've said was cut off by Epsilon's screaming---followed immediately by a punishing right cross to V.I.C.I that sent the brunette gynoid to the floor.

WARNING: CRITICAL DAMAGE TO CRANIAL CASING

WARNING: CRITICAL DAMAGE TO INTERNAL ENDOSKELETAL STRUCTURE

WARNING: CRITICAL DAMAGE TO MULTIPLE MEMORY SYSTEMS

WARNING: CRITICAL DAMAGE TO ELECTRICAL REGULATION MONITORS

MULTIPLE CRITICAL DAMAGE INPUTS DETECTED

SHUTDOWN? Y/N

(N)

…..can't.....feel my....what can I feel?! Hands....still have my hands.....legs....feel a bit floaty, but....still on...my head's still connected..... Tentatively, V.I.C.I reached towards her face; If I've got an eye missing, she mused, better to connect it now.... Her hand brushed against what should've been her left cheek.....

….touching only titanium/carbon-fibre alloy, the servo armature that gave her face its full range of movement, and a sticky substance that was more than likely leaking myogel. ….my face.....what happened?! She spied what appeared to be a piece of skin-coloured rubber a few feet away---more than likely, the missing portion of her face. Gingerly, she continued moving her hand across what she could still feel of her face, taking a small comfort in the fact that her nose---and the entire right side of her head---hadn't been ruined.

Faintly, the sounds of Oberon and Epsilon's skirmish filtered through her aural processors---Epsilon, screaming inhumanly with every attack, and Oberon shouting “DIE!” and more than a few unprintable remarks with every charge at the man/machine hybrid.

Carefully, so as no to risk damaging any other part of herself, V.I.C.I crawled towards the section of her face that had been torn off by Epsilon's right-hand punch. Even as her internals protested, she lifted the synthetic skin up, holding it before her and staring through the empty left eyehole. Might as well pick it up.... With her arm feeling more and more like lead with every second, she managed to stuff the section of her face into one of the hip pockets on her uniform.

“Ob.....ober.....oberonononon......” Even with half of her face ripped away, V.I.C.I still made her way towards the fight. “....he can't-can't-can't.....he can't stop himmmmmmmmmm----” One of the exposed servo relays in her face sparked. “Epsilolololonnnnnnn......can't stop himself.....he's.......”

“STAY OUT OF THIS!” Oberon shouted, swinging for Epsilon's skull (and missing).

“I....I can can can can----” The brunette gynoid's teeth clenched as another servo relay in her face sparked. “I can handle mymymymymymymymy----selllllffffffffff----” Smoke drifted out of something behind her left eye for a moment or two. “You.....you're makakakakakakakakakak-----” A loud bang from her midsection doubled her over; black electrical smoke wafted out from between her half-parted lips. “No.....”

“You can barely stand, and you're still defending it....” Oberon dodged a wild haymaker from Epsilon, slicing at the hybrid's torso below the arm. “RUN WHILE YOU CAN----”

Shudders, violent tremors and electrically-charged spasms wracked V.I.C.I's form as she staggered towards the Chairman. “.....I....won't.....leave....” Her exposed left ocular sensor flickered weakly. “....won't....let...you make....this....mis...take....”

WARNING: ENDOSKELETAL INTEGRITY FAILING

RECOMMENDED COURSE OF ACTION:

EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN

Epsilon ran for the faltering gynoid, only to get a slice across the kneecaps from Oberon. “STAY DOWN,” the Chairman thundered, striding towards the malfunctioning Field Agent. “Vicki, you need to get out of here. I never should've involved you in all of this---”

EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN COMMENCING IN FIVE....FOUR---

OVERRIDE: Y/N

(Y)

“I....can....handle....myself,” V.I.C.I managed. “This can all be repaired....you....can't be......”

Oberon stared at her in shock. “.....what?!”

“.....all of this....you're making a big mistake by fighting Epsilon.....” Every word out of the brunette gynoid's mouth alternated between her human voice and her robotic monotone, heavy with electronic distortion. “This will only end badly for us....” A tear snaked down V.I.C.I's unblemished right cheek. “....we shouldn't fight like this,” she whispered. “....there were always other ways......to save Epsilon.....”

“Vicki, you're damaged,” Oberon muttered. “You....you need to get out of here---”

A trembling hand reached out, grasping at his shoulder. “I.....won't....leave.......”

The all-too-familiar roar of Epsilon---now a higher-pitched, keening wail---sounded five feet away from Oberon.

“...please,” V.I.C.I pleaded, “don't kill......him.....”

SHUTDOWN OVERRIDE FAILURE

SYSTEM CANNOT INITIATE SHUTDOWN

FILE AL0C4T10N %##Q%%Q#%%

WARNING

WARNING

FILE CORRUPTION DETECTED

“I HAVE NO CHOICE!” Oberon screamed. “Epsilon....it's attacked both of us---”

“.....it....can't....help....it....self.......”

SYSTEM RESOURCES COMPROMISED

PANIC SIGNAL SENT.....

PREPARING FOR REMOTE SHUTDOWN SIGNAL

UNABLE TO RECEIVE REMOTE SHUTDOWN SIGNAL

WARNING: UNIT V.I.C.I COMPROMISED

MULTIPLE CRITICAL SYSTEM FAILURES DETECTED

UNABLE TO RESOLVE THROUGH SHUTDOWN

Epsilon's fists smashed into Oberon's face and chest, sending him back to the ground in a bloody heap---

MEMORY FAILING

MOTOR FUNCTIONS FAILING

“Dad....” V.I.C.I sank to one knee, her right eyelid fluttering closed. “I'm....sorry......”

“---AND FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL,” Oberon shrieked, rearing back to impale Epsilon through the heart, “I STAB AT THEE!” A glancing kick from Epsilon sent the sword off course, skewering the hybrid through where his right lung had been. The sword remained in Epsilon's chest as Oberon staggered to his feet; “And now,” he snarled, “TO END THIS NIGHTMARE----”

The crack of a gunshot split the air.

Oberon froze in his tracks, a gasp escaping his lips; his fingers brushed a slowly blossoming red stain, just five inches to the right of his heart. “What.....”

Another shot sent him to his knees, screaming in agony---with a hole blown through his right hand.

All V.I.C.I could do was stare up at the ceiling, the occasional twitch running through her. Every single system resource within her was beginning to shut down; she couldn't move, couldn't speak, and couldn't even send out another panic signal. Only her mind was still working---and even that was fighting her internal overrides at every second...

….but then, as Oberon---in the midst of trying to stand---was dropped by a third shot, something happened.

Slowly, gently, someone lifted V.I.C.I from the floor. The gynoid could just barely make out the figure of the Chairman looking up, watching in utter disbelief.....

….seconds later, that same someone who'd lifted her began moving towards the nearest exit, calmly---but with a sense of purpose, of meaning. The sounds of footsteps in the distant hallways were barely registering in V.I.C.I's auditory sensors; all she could tell was that she was moving. Someone had picked her up off the floor, taking her away from the fight....

….the fight that had suddenly gone very, very quiet.

It felt like an eternity before V.I.C.I's rescuer set her down---on grass; she'd been removed from the building entirely, from what she could tell (her sense of touch was one of the few still working properly). She stared up, trying to get a glimpse at her savior....

….and stared into the eyes of Epsilon.

“Thank you.” Two simple words, distorted almost beyond recognition....but they were all she could say.

Epsilon leaned in, his eyes brimming with what might've been tears. “Thank....you....Vicki.” He looked back at the building, now swarming with ALPA Field Agents; “I....must go,” he intoned. “For Kirsten---”

“No,” V.I.C.I pleaded. “I....I can can can----” She bit back the word, trying to fight her own failing systems.

“For Kirsten,” Epsilon repeated, “and....for you. You.....saved me.”

“HE WENT THIS WAY! I WANT EYES ON EVERY ALLEYWAY, EVERY EMERGENCY EXIT---COVER IT, MCGINNIS!” Reaver's voice, shouting somewhere in the distance, barely drew any recognition from V.I.C.I, but Epsilon backed away. “....you must live. For Kirsten....for all......”

His head bowed. “Goodbye, Vicki.....for now. Not forever.”

The brunette gynoid stared in shock at the sudden clarity in Epsilon's words; within seconds, the hybrid was running for the fence, scaling it with surprising ease. “Goodbye.....” She tried to smile, but with half her face missing, figured it'd just be easier to lay her head back against the wall----

EMERGENCY SYSTEM SHUTDOWN INITIATED.

Part 13

“...what do you MEAN you didn't see Epsilon?! The thing's HUGE, how can you---”

Reaver's tirade was cut off by a glare from Rae. “We've got more important things to worry about than that,” she reminded him. “The panic signal came from Vicki---unless her systems are goofing, she's in trouble.”

“Not just trouble,” Anton added. “Catastrophic system failure....just as bad---or worse---than what she went through on July 9, except without a cessation of function. We need to extract her from this complex as soon as we can, or---” A sudden gasp from Rae cut him off. “What? Rae, what is it, what did you.....find....”

His gaze followed the crimson-haired gynoid's trembling finger. “Out there.....it's her.”

Through the outline of a broken window, the roboticist could see the unmoving figure of Vicki Lawson, her head resting against the wall as if she'd merely been taking a short nap....but the wispy tendrils of smoke issuing from her leg and (most horrifyingly) part of her face told a far different story. “We need to get to her,” Anton muttered, heading for the nearest door. “Reaver, get a team to secure Oberon---”

“They already did,” Reaver replied. “He gave up without a fight...they just got the cuffs on him a few minutes ago. Said something about him muttering under his breath....”

It took the trio a few minutes to navigate their way through the doors, all the while hoping against hope that V.I.C.I hadn't been utterly destroyed. “You think Epsilon did all that?” Rae quietly asked. “Could Epsilon have damaged Vicki that badly?” She nearly outpaced Anton and Reaver while walking alongside them; “I mean, none of us have seen Epsilon up close,” she continued, “and---”

“Can we just focus on getting Vicki out of here?” Anton curtly asked, brushing past the gynoid. “We should---”

A hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Our chairman,” Reaver reminded him, “is currently being hauled off in full restraints. One of our best Field Agents is laying out there, damaged, due to unknown circumstances. And Project Epsilon is still on the loose.” He stared into Anton's eyes with a look that held equal measures of calm and anger---a veritable seething cauldron of emotions. “You focus on what you feel like focusing on,” he intoned, “and we'll deal with what we need to deal with. Are we clear?'

The roboticist stared him down without a word.

“I said,” Reaver repeated, “are we clear?”

“No,” Anton finally replied, pushing past the Agent. “And I have a feeling we won't be for a very long time.”

Rae stared at the floor, not wanting to watch; Reaver, for his part, was livid. “What the HELL does that mean, Anton?! What gives you the right to say we're not clear----”

“LOOK AROUND YOU!” Anton snapped. “Oberon turning on the ALPA to hunt down Epsilon by himself! Our own people being held captive by reprogrammed House agents! Vicki Lawson, someone who wanted to bring Epsilon into protective custody, lying out there on the ground with God knows how much damage done to her systems....” He strode towards Reaver until he was almost nose-to-nose with the Field Agent. “I'm standing here in the middle of all of this,” he rasped, “and you're asking me if we're 'clear'?!”

“Vicki knew what she was getting into---”

“LIKE HELL SHE DID!”

Rae stepped between the two before either one of them felt like trading punches. “Guys,” she pleaded, “let's just get Vicki and get back to HQ. Please.”

After a full two minutes of silence, Anton nodded. “Fair enough.”

By the time the trio had reached V.I.C.I, a few other Agents had laid crime-scene tape around her unmoving form and had begun the process of taking photos of the scene. “Oh, my God,” Rae breathed, staring in wide-eyed shock; the ALPA-issue field light perfectly illuminated the damage done to the brunette gynoid, including the exposed framework of the left side of her face. The only thing that kept the scene from looking like she'd been utterly killed was her posture---had it not been for her disfiguring “injuries” and damage, she could've very well been sleeping.

“She's still functioning,” Anton muttered, kneeling down to examine Vicki more closely. “Barely....”

“You think Oberon did this?” Reaver quietly asked. “Maybe he just....snapped---”

“Hardly. Look at the damage to her face---this was an open-palm strike, with at least four blades, finger-level, spearing and ripping into her dermal covering....” The roboticist sighed. “It wasn't a directed attack,” he stated, gently turning V.I.C.I's head. “I have a feeling Epsilon was...lashing out, when it...he did this.”

Rae was quietly sobbing by now. “So he did attack her.....”

“Out of blind rage,” Anton added, “not a cold, calculated assault. This was as far from the July 9 incident as one can get...Faceless planned that attack, and he executed it with his typical precision. This....was like a gorilla with a sledgehammer.” He carefully turned V.I.C.I's head again. “Her upgraded form was built to withstand a lot of things....but this kind of blunt force trauma is just.....”

“Just what?” Rae wailed.

Anton chuckled mirthlessly. “Ever smack your computer on the side of its case when it's not working right?”

“I owned five Dells when I was in college,” Reaver tonelessly replied. “They'd have turned me in for abuse if they'd been sentient 'bots....what's your point?”

“Hit a computer hard enough, you can unseat components, disrupt the hard drive.....smack a human being in the skull hard enough, you can concuss them, break their skull, possibly kill them.” Anton gestured for two other Field Agents to carefully lift V.I.C.I's unmoving form onto a stretcher. “The hit that she took to the head,” he quietly informed Reaver, “should've torn her cranial assembly clean off. If she'd still had her old body, the one she had before July 9, that one punch would've ended her...” He turned away. “If she'd been human....it would've been the end. If that punch had hit me....if it'd hit you, Eric.....”

Reaver stared at the ground. “And you're saying Epsilon did this out of....blind rage?”

“We can talk more about it back at HQ. Vicki's going to spend at least a full day getting repaired....”

“And what about Oberon?” Rae queried. “What happens to him now?”

“To be quite honest, I couldn't care less,” Anton admitted. “I just....we just need to go home. Back to HQ, back to square one....back to whatever the hell we need to get back to.....” His hand brushed against the stretcher as the Field Agents guided it towards a waiting van. “She'll need all the help she can get,” he added, “to return to full functionality....otherwise....”

He let the sentence hang, already feeling the tears on his cheeks. “The car's waiting out front. We should---”

Again, a hand on his shoulder stopped him....followed seconds after by Rae pulling him in for a consoling hug.

Reaver just stood by, watching as the two grieved. Jen had expressed fears of finding herself in a situation similar to Vicki's, and he'd refused to acknowledge them....

….but now, staring at the gynoid's unmoving form, they all came flooding back.....


“And he gave himself up without a fight?”

Even amidst the ALPA field operatives, the girl asking that question was a rather interesting slight---neon purple hair, a flash of silver beneath a custom-tailored uniform jacket. “If my understanding is correct,” Selwyn McElvoy replied, “there wasn't much of a fight to be had. Three shots, just as you advised.....”

The girl nodded. “And the second one hit him in the hand?”

“Went straight through it. I have to ask, Miss Galatea.....how did you---”

“I knew, Selwyn,” the girl replied, “because I've worked with him for years. He told me that if he ever went this far off the rails, he wanted me in charge of the team that would be taking him down.” She sighed; “Something tells me the list of charges against him will be really, REALLY long,” she murmured. “Any word on what the sentence might be?”

Selwyn frowned. “If the High Court is feeling merciful....he's never going to be Chairman again. Ever.”

“Figured that.”

“You seem to be taking this in stride,” Selwyn mused. “Considering what's happened---”

“Look,” Galatea interjected. “I....did some things, once. Stupid things. Really stupid. And I was hauled over the coals just like he's going to be....and out of everyone I knew, everyone I thought I'd have at my back and on my side in the time of trials....he was the only one who stood up for me. He's the only reason I'm here right now.....” She sighed again. “I'm not saying he's just misunderstood, or anything,” she continued. “He crossed too many lines to count this time....and he does need to be made to pay for it....but he's not the issue here.”

“You think we should turn our attention back to Epsilon.”

Galatea pulled her jacket tighter around herself. “I think,” she replied, “we need to make sure Epsilon doesn't lose what little is left of Tony Sanderson before we can get to him. If the wrong people find out about all this, we'll be lucky if this ends without anyone getting killed.” She turned away just as Miss Hynde walked up to hand Selwyn a smartphone. “If we can end this without any more suffering---”

“I'm afraid your hopes for that have already been dashed,” Selwyn replied, frowning as he read the news displayed on the phone's screen. “It seems that the Coalition's ruling board has....departed.....”

The news did little to phase the silver-skinned gynoid. “So the DVS shows their true colors. How does that---”

“It gets worse. Their first new order of business is the capture and....removal....of Epsilon.” Selwyn handed over the phone; “I assume you recall the name Drake Bradford?” he inquired.

“Brought in to re-acquire the Franklin fembots some time last year, I think,” Galatea murmured. “And he drew the short straw when it came to rounding up Epsilon....” She handed the phone back to Selwyn. “The notice mentioned that Delacroix is being brought in to help 'remove' Epsilon, too...we need to get this under control now, before the DVS calls in every single 'specialist' they have on retainer.”

Miss Hynde looked more than a bit worried at the mention of the DVS, but Selwyn shook his head. “I have a feeling we won't need to worry about them yet.”

“I really hope you're right about that,” Galatea quietly replied. “For all our sakes....” The words trailed off as she watched a stretcher bearing the unmoving form of Vicki Lawson being guided out through the complex's entrance. “I have a feeling we're all gonna need time to recover from this....”

….and some of us will need more time than others. A lot more.

Part 14

“How long will it take?”

Ted Lawson didn't look up from the photos of his damaged daughter. “A few hours, at most....blunt force trauma will be easier to repair and recover from than what happened to her on July 9.”

“And what about the psychological damage?

“She's been through worse. She'll get over this---”

“And if she doesn't? You've already left one creation behind and handed another over to the ALPA for safe keeping.....and those are just the ones you've been keeping track of.”

This time, Ted did look up. “She'll be fine,” he stated, frowning. “She's not like them.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself....what if she proves you wrong?”

“She won't,” Ted insisted. “I know her....I know what she's capable of, and what her limits are. She won't end up like.....” He shook his head, returning to going over the photos. “She won't end up like any of them,” he muttered. “She can't.”

“Guess you really did learn to stop thinking of her as just a product, then---”

“I'd have been an idiot to keep seeing her as one,” Ted cut in. “Anyone else who'd been through what we both had to endure....if they kept seeing as her just 'product', then I'd have shown them the door.” He fanned the photos out on his desk, cupping his chin in one hand. “She'll get over this,” he murmured, as if to reaffirm that statement to himself. “She has to.”

“Well....I, for one, don't doubt that she will. She's had plenty of great teachers---”

“Even if one of them is currently in handcuffs,” Ted admitted. “I never thought---”

“---and she has the best father a girl could ask for....especially one in her admittedly unique situation.”

That remark actually garnered a smile. “I have a feeling she'd be willing to give a lecture on that subject, if she was here now,” Ted chuckled. “As it stands...”

A quiet, low buzz cut him off. “And that'll be the field team. They just sent the photos three minutes ago---”

“It won't be about her. Probably. If something else happened to her en route, they'd have called by now.”

“It's not about her,” Ted replied, frowning again. “Epsilon's officially on borrowed time---the DVS have just given the order to 'contain and remove' Epsilon ASAP.” He set the phone down, sighing. “Vicki could probably use your help, once she's fully repaired,” he mused. “I think we'll all need as much help as we can get---”

“I appreciate the offer, but....I don't think I'd be well suited for field work. Not yet, anyway. For now...”

“You're offering moral support,” Ted finished, nodding. “Perfectly understandable---” He groaned as the phone rang again. “And my life gets fuller and fuller,” he muttered. “Thanks for stopping by....sorry I couldn't be of any help to your own....situation, at the moment...”

“No worries. Just talking is better than nothing....and I'd better see myself out before she gets here.”

“Good call,” Ted agreed. “And if you need any help with any thing---”

“I know who to call...and I've already got you on speed-dial.”

Ted rolled his eyes at that last remark, just as the door closed behind his departing visitor. “Guess I can call Joan and tell her I'll be late....again,” he mused---realizing at that moment that he wasn't nearly as panicked as he'd been on July 9. “Guess there's a big difference between seeing her get....well, killed right in front of me and getting the photos delivered from the scene....”

The report from Anton included a full list of the damages from her latest encounter with Epsilon---most of it, blunt-force trauma. There was also the matter of electrical overload in several of her myogel lines, leading to what the report described as “blow-outs”---and, last but FAR from least---half of her face being torn off by a wild punch from Epsilon. Compared to the dual stabs she'd sustained from Faceless, Vicki had managed to emerge from her battle with both Oberon and Epsilon relatively unscathed...not counting the torn-off face and the myogel blowouts, of course.

From the window of his newest temporary office in ALPA HQ (there was a running joke regarding Ted's habitation of “temporary offices” in the building, especially since he'd been using well over half the rooms on one floor in that capacity for a long while), Ted could see the convoy pulling into the ALPA HQ drive. Not surprisingly, a plain chaser transport van was leading the pack---the surprise kicked in when Ted saw Oberon removed from the vehicle, not looking defiant, proud or even remotely smug...

….instead, he looked horrified.

Vicki, strapped to a stretcher and accompanied by Anton, Reaver and a sobbing Rae Clarke, looked relatively peaceful---apart from the holes in her arms, legs and torso and the massive portion of her face that had been torn off. Ted caught himself mumbling “three hours” and decided to head downstairs to talk to Anton.

Ten minutes later, the two were sitting in the commissary, going over the reports of Vicki's “fight” with Oberon and Epsilon. “She was just sitting there against the wall,” Anton sighed, “looking like...well, she was sleeping, to be honest---as for how she got out of there on her own two feet.....” He fanned out the photos on the table, sighing again. “It's not as bad as what happened with Faceless....the blunt force trauma is easier to repair---”

“What about her mental state?”

Anton frowned. “We weren't exactly able to gauge that on-site,” he admitted. “The field techs---”

“I...I know,” Ted cut in. “I just....it seems like every time Vicki goes through something like this, some....massive defeat that ends with her on the repair table for a night or so....”

He exhaled a shuddering, fearful breath. “...it's like something changes. Like she's...different.”

“We've got the logs of her repair sessions,” Anton mused. “We could always....go over them, compare the pre- and post-repair stats.....”

“It's not just that,” Ted countered. “It's....hard to explain, really.”

For a moment, neither of the two spoke.

“Ted,” Anton finally muttered, “if you want to pull Vicki off the mission, give her some time to recuperate from this, I'll----”

“Not a chance. She'd have my head on a pike if I tried to take her out of this now.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Anton chuckled. “Perfectly understandable....and all the more reason for us to get to work repairing her. DuBraul will want to know when we begin...I'll start the repair log when we get to the repair bay---”

“Ah, I think I might want to start the repair log,” Ted mumbled. “She's..my daughter, and all...”

“Fair enough.” Anton gave him a reassuring smile. “Shall we?”

The two made their way to the repair lab, already discussing Vicki's current state. “Those punches she took from Epsilon more than likely unseated a few chipsets within her, so repairing her cranial module will be first on our list,” Anton stated. “It'll be a simple task---”

“I sincerely hope so,” Ted replied. “If the reports about who else is looking for Epsilon are true---”

“They are,” Anton replied, his tone grim.

“Which gives us all the more reason to get her back online as soon as possible,” Ted finished. “And if the panic signal was any indication---”

His words were cut off as the doors to the repair bay opened, revealing V.I.C.I looking much as she had in the photos from the site---looking as if she was merely asleep, apart from the obvious physical damage. “The myogel lines will be the easiest to fix,” Anton admitted. “The rest....well, you didn't have anything important planned for tomorrow, did you?”

“I think getting Vicki back on her feet is more important than anything I had planned.”

“Wise words indeed....so, where do we start?” Anton crossed the room to a rack of tools, picking up a power screwdriver. “I say we repair the myogel damage first,” he suggested, “and you may want to do something about the electrical conductivity of myogel and these 'blowouts', to prevent a repeat of that kind of thing.”

Ted nodded. “Good idea---but what about reinforcing her cranial casing?”

“I think we should worry less about reinforcing it for the time being and more about her learning how to dodge hits to the head,” Anton replied. “After we've fixed her up, of course.....” He paused, glancing at the brunette gynoid's ruined face. “I'm hoping you have a few extra dermal sheaths for her?”

“Modular dermal sheaths,” Ted replied. “Your suggestion, if I remember correctly...”

“And a damn good one, too,” Anton grinned. “That way we don't have to de-skin an entire limb...speaking of removing layers, I think you should be the one to, ah, extricate her from the uniform.” He politely backed away from the work table where V.I.C.I rested; “like you said earlier, she is your daughter,” he added. “And this is your repair job---far be it from me to encroach on something...personal.”

“I wouldn't have called it encroaching, but thanks.” Ted returned Anton's earlier grin with one of his own. “First thing's first, though....” He retrieved a mini-tape recorder from a nearby workbench and pressed the “on” button. “ALPA repair session, log number 55942. Primary attending specialist: Theodore Lawson.” He passed the recorder to Anton; “Secondary attending specialist,” the roboticist declared, “Anton Malvineous.” The recorder was returned to Ted. “All yours,” Anton quietly reminded him.

“Subject: Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant Mark IV, Model VI---V.I.C.I, registered name Victoria Anne-Smith 'Vicki' Lawson. Field Agent codename....” Ted paused. “Did she get her codename yet?”

Anton shrugged.

With a sigh, Ted resumed the recording. “...Codename, to be assigned at a later date.” He clicked the stop button and set the recorder down. “That'll do for now, I think....and now, as you suggested, to 'extricate her from the uniform'.” Slowly, he slid the frontal zipper of the uniform down the full length of the outfit, carefully opening it. “A lot of myogel stains on the inside,” he mused, taking great care as he slid the gynoid's arms out of the uniform's sleeves. “You want to pick up the log here, Anton?”

“Not a problem.” The record button was pressed again. “Preliminary analysis commencing on subject....”


I was wrong. I.....was wrong.

Sitting in the unlit cell, within the innermost reaches of ALPA HQ, Oberon didn't stare out into the hallway, or up at the ceiling, or through the small barred window on the far wall. Instead, he remained curled up on the small cot that would serve as his bed for however long his peers saw fit to detain him there.

And all he could do was realize that everything he knew about Epsilon had been completely, totally wrong.

That one moment, when Epsilon picked up Vicki and actually carried her out....it went against every single projection, calculation, theory and possibility. It....he was supposed to have been reduced to the mentality of a beast....a monster with no conscious thought whatsoever....and instead, Epsilon saved her. Pulled her out of the fire, so to speak.....

Again, those three words rang in his thoughts: I was wrong.

The realization didn't anger him, nor did it humiliate him. In all honesty, he'd been nearly fanatical about his hatred of Epsilon, ever since first reading the files on the project...and now, everything he'd expected---wanted to see happen had gone tumbling down the wayside like so many dominoes. More than anything---more than missing teeth, more than broken ribs, more than the hole in his right hand, even more than the bullet hole five inches from his heart---the fact that he'd been so damned wrong.....hurt.

...and now the time of trials begins...

He didn't ask himself “what have I done?”, he didn't beg for forgiveness.

Instead, he lay on the cot, replaying every event of the past few days in his mind....and wept.


“Think he's cracked?”

Reaver's question earned him a frown. “He hasn't 'cracked',” Galatea quietly replied. “If anything, he's just now realizing how badly he's screwed up....if you were in his position, and had that kind of an epiphany, you'd be weeping, too. I can almost guarantee it.” She stared at the monitor, watching as her mentor---the man who'd practically saved her life—-muttered prayers in Latin and wept, for his own sins and failings, and for the hell he'd unleashed on those he considered his friends.

“So....he's not being an idiot?” Reaver inquired. “He's not...gloating?”

“Innocent people nearly died because of what he did,” Galatea reminded him. “And his grand theory about Epsilon being an unthinking, unfeeling beast....that was pretty much torn apart as soon as Epsilon carried Vicki out of there---”

“Wait, what?! Epsilon---”

I'm the one who put those three rounds in Oberon. I saw....you can check my memory files right now.”

The offer was declined, and Reaver returned his attention to the monitor. “I'm still trying to get over how in the hell he didn't just drop dead after the first shot,” he muttered. “And we're flying him overseas in two weeks to stand before the High Court...”

“You'd rather send him to the House?” Galatea suggested. “The High Court is the only way he'll get a fair trial without blowing the lid off of what we do....as stupid as it sounds, we owe it to him.” She paused.... “I owe it to him,” she murmured. “For now, though, he's not the priority. Finding Epsilon is...and even without Oberon on our side, we're going to need all hands on deck for this.”

She turned away from the monitor. ….otherwise, this will be the beginning of the end....for all of us.


TO BE CONTINUED IN

THE V.I.C.I DIARIES - THE DRAGON

COMING SOON


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