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Part 1

Saturday October 1, 2011

It's been about two weeks since Brittney Delacroix basically got fried from the inside out---and the fact that she's a gynoid like me doesn't really lessen the impact of having to write that sentence. Everyone at HQ has been staying low---all field ops have been run at a MUCH slower pace than usual, and I've actually been spending more time in class than out on assignments.

Don't get me wrong---it's not like I hate going to class, or anything....

….I just wish I could be out there, helping to keep Epsilon safe.

It's been...hard to accept. The idea that Epsilon is still Tony Sanderson, I's hard to picture something as horrible as being trapped in a dying body you can't fully control. Also, I've been seeing a lot less of Rae these past few days....ever since she freaked out about Brittney's damage back at HQ, she just sort of ran off somewhere. Still, there are a few good things to report---Kirsten's doing well, all things considered, and Mom hasn't followed through on her threat of making Ted sleep on the couch for not telling her about how badly I was damaged....

….still, it's kind of heart-wrenching to know that Epsilon is being hunted, and he doesn't even understand it.

As for the former ALPA Chairman.....

Vicki stared at the screen of her MacBook, unsure of whether or not she wanted to keep going with the diary entry for the day. She'd started at 3:30 in the morning, for some reason---more than likely, the fact that her nightly charging cycle (sleep, for normal human beings) was fretful, constantly interrupted, and not really giving her a restful feeling.

Most of that was due to the ALPA asking her to stay in one of the many apartment blocks funded by several of their higher-ranking companies in and around Silicon Valley---reports of “strange people” at SJSU had been circulating for a while. Given recent developments, HQ thought it best for Vicki to spend off-campus time at the apartment with other Agents. She'd considered rejecting the offer, until hearing that Rae Clarke had a room in the same building she was staying in. If I can talk to her before the weekend is up....

Of course, the biggest reason for Vicki's sleeplessness was Oberon---or, rather, the fact that he was currently in Europe, awaiting trial for his role in the Epsilon incident. The last time she'd talked to him, she'd left with more questions than answers...

With a quiet sigh, she guided her thoughts back to the present.

The DVS---formerly believed to be merely an advisory board for the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity (or just the Coalition, for short)---had proven themselves to be a separate entity altogether. With Epsilon back in the spotlight, the DVS now had a trump card: the “Dragon”, Octavia---who, by means of a convoluted, inter-agency chess match, was poised to bring the hammer down on the Coalition and the ALPA, at the orders of her masters. Worse, the DVS apparently had their sights set on taking down Epsilon to cement their grip on power---with Octavia taking charge of that, as well, under the guise of wanting to protect the corporate assets of United Robotronics (the Coalition company she'd “inherited” from the Baron).

“And this,” Vicki realized, “is why I hate politics.” She saved the document file that contained her diary and set down the MacBook with a sigh. “Might as well go see how everyone else is handling their temporary new living quarters....”

She was halfway out of her room when she heard a moan from further down the hallway.

Reflexively, she tensed. Her progress down the corridor slowed, voluntarily, to a wall-hugging tiptoe.

Correlating source of noise. Interpreting---

She blinked away the second notice---realizing, half a second later, that she might very well be walking into a trap.....or something less potentially lethal and more embarrassing.

Three doors down, the moaning got louder, punctuated with heavy breathing.

Already beginning to realize that she wasn't dealing with a potential intruder (hopefully), Vicki edged towards the door, preparing her optical sensors to adjust to low-light conditions. Her fingers brushed against the door knob, closing around it as the moans from inside the room began to transition into a howl (though it sounded less pained and a bit more...pleasurable) she mentally ticked off a three-count before turning the knob, stepping forward as she pushed open the door....

….to find a nude, tanned female figure, barely concealed by bedsheets, atop another female on the sofa-bed inside the room. It didn't take a genius to realize this wasn't a case of the Heimlich maneuver gone awry.


The chestnut-haired figure stopped mid-thrust. “VICKI?!”

From beneath the sheets---and Rae---a second female voice gasped: “Vicki?!”

The brunette gynoid's eyes widened. “Kylie?!”


“What the hell---” The half-hidden figure scrambled out from under the sheets. “What's Vicki doing here?!”

“...I was just---”


Rae's final shriek ended the......confrontation (Vicki couldn't think of anything else to call it that didn't sound insanely filthy), prompting the Field Agent to back out of the room, close the door, and take a moment to think of what she'd just seen. Rae Clarke---a fellow Field Agent and unabashed bisexual---was enjoying some...very intimate time with Kylie Lyndon---another fellow Field Agent, who also happened to be Vicki's former hall mate from SJSU. It took a fiftieth of a second for the brunette gynoid to put two and two together---a climax reached even faster with the sounds of panting on the other side of the door, a very satisfied cry and someone (probably Rae) rolling out of the bed and hitting the floor.

For a few seconds, nervous giggling, heavy breathing and the sound of a closet door opening were all Vicki could hear from within.....

“Okay, we're decent now. Might as well come in and see the two raging sex queens basking in the afterglow.”

The sarcasm-laced remark from Rae drew an annoyed groan from Vicki, but she opened the door and re-entered the room all the same. With the lights now on, she could see that Rae was wearing a pink silk negligé that showed off more cleavage than it should've, while Kylie was wearing a bathrobe, a hastily thrown-on bra and boxer shorts. Neither one looked particularly embarrassed; Kylie was blushing heavily, but she still met Vicki's glance. Rae, meanwhile, looked to have already overcome her shock at the intrusion.

“SO,” the tanned gynoid drawled, “I'm guessing you got bored with the TV channels on offer?”

“...something like that,” Vicki admitted. “And you two were.....”

“Remembering the good old days when Kylie was still 'just bi-curious', and I was....well, me,” Rae replied. “I still am, by the way.” She grinned. “I'm guessing she never told you about her 'phase' before?”

Vicki arched an eyebrow at Kylie. “She didn't, actually....”

“I was trying to keep a low profile!” Kylie groaned, falling back onto the sofa-bed. “Mom kept sending guys to my dorm room, trying to 'turn' me.....and then I met Rae.” She glanced at the chestnut-haired gynoid, finally allowing herself a smile. “The picture on the dating website didn't do her justice....and she wasn't pissed off that I'd used that one photo Mom said made me look like 'a construction worker at a Labor Day barbecue'....we hit it off on our first date!”

“And the third time we were in the sack,” Rae finished, “she pulled some trick with her tongue---”

Kylie giggled, while Vicki gave her an annoyed glare.

“ worked a bit too well, and the big finish was a bit more....explosive than either of us expected. I had to have the whole back of my head replaced, and it took about fifteen or so phone calls before Kylie was calm enough to realize she hadn't damaged me that badly.” Rae sighed, heading for the mini-fridge; “We stayed together for a while after that,” she continued, grabbing a shot-glass and a decanter of amber liquid, “until Kylie got back a blood-test saying she might've had TS---Tzachor's Syndrome.”

“It's a heart condition,” Kylie added---ignoring Rae's decision to take a swig from the decanter. “People who have it aren't supposed to engage in....strenuous physical activity....” She glanced at Rae, who just rolled her eyes. “Turns out the test was a false positive,” the gynoid stated, “and we could've done each other like rabbits for years afterwards, but Kylie's mum was a bit less keen on that idea. Didn't help that the poor bird walked in on us doing the wild mamba on her couch one sunny afternoon, and damn near had a coronary on the spot.” She plopped down on the bed next to Kylie, offering a tanned shoulder for the human Field Agent to rest her head on. “We decided to stay 'just friends' after that, with the occasional romp for good measure.”

“That.....makes sense,” Vicki replied. “So all those guys showing up at your dorm room---”

“Friends. Just friends....and study partners, despite Mom's wishes to the contrary.” Kylie curled up next to Rae, embracing her with a blissful sigh. “Still, being with Rae helped me figure out a lot about my life at the time, like who I really was, who I wanted to be with....”

The chestnut-haired gynoid nodded sagely. “Just call me O-Komonan Du-mi....”

“Well,” Vicki declared, ignoring the bout of giggling from the two lovers, “I guess you want to get back to....what you were doing before I barged in here....”

“And let you walk off without offering our advice on the whole Octavia thing?” Rae countered. “I think not.” She patted down a spot on the bed; “Sexy time can always happen later,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “I think---and Kylie will probably agree with me---that you need someone to talk to....”

The phrase “hit the nail on the head” comes to mind..... “As a matter of fact, I do.” She glanced at a chair right next to the bed, before deciding to just sit on the bed next to Rae---which, not surprisingly, landed her in the path of a half-hearted neck-hold that ended with gynoids and human all laying on the bed together---two giggling, one mildly annoyed. “It's easier to talk shop when I'm comfy,” Rae breathed. “Keddy Bear knows that for a fact.”

A single look at the still-smiling Kylie was all the clue Vicki needed to ascertain “Keddy Bear's” identity.

“So,” the chestnut-haired gynoid continued. “The Octavia thing.....”

Vicki blew out an exasperated breath. “She hasn't made a single move against us since we first found out about her. Drake Bradford's gone off the grid, Brittney Delacroix is still in a ReVerse repair lab, and Oberon....”

An uneasy silence filled the room.

“...I still don't understand what happened with him. It's minute, he was taunting me, trying to get me to fight him, and the next.....” Vicki rolled over, planting her face in the mattress. “I don't get it,” she muttered, her voice muffled by the bed. “It feels like he just....changed, completely, after the fight!” She lifted herself to a sitting positon; “I just.....thinking about it makes me feel like it was all some really, really bad dream,” she murmured. “Like the whole fight was something out of a movie....”

A horrible possibility hit her like a brick to the skull. “.....and he was just playing a part.....”

“Not possible,” Rae countered. “When Oberon gets obsessed, it's genuine. I've seen it before, babe---not you, Keddy, though we'll get back to the good part soon.” She massaged Kylie's shoulders, earning another giggle from the human Field Agent. “But like I was saying, when he gets this worked up, it's no act.”

“That's even worse,” Vicki groaned. “Why is he acting so different now?!”

Kylie let out a satisfied purr as Rae continued her deep massage. “Beats the hell out of me, Vicki....maybe this is something you're not really meant to know.”

“Well, I want to know. And this whole thing is really bugging me....”

“Then maybe you----oh, right there.......” Kylie let out a shuddering moan as Rae's hands worked her shoulder blades. “...maybe you should....let it rest for a while.....think about something ELSE----” The last word was a pleasurable gasp, followed by a relieved sigh as the chestnut-haired gynoid's fists kneaded Kylie's back muscles. “Oh, that feels good.....”

Rae grinned. “Never let it be said that I don't know how to relieve stress.”

“But you two just.....oh, forget it.” Vicki fell back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling again. “Maybe this really is something I'm not meant to know...”

“Some things are better off unknown,” Rae agreed. “Of course, in a relationship like what Keddy and I have, the more you know, the better.” She leaned in to kiss Kylie on the neck, earning a squeal of delighted giggling from her lover. “And if you're burnt out on the whole Oberon thing, we could always change the subject to something a bit less...well, current.”

Interesting way of putting it... “Fair enough. And if you two are...well, 'just friends'---”

Another giggle from Kylie cut her off. “I try to keep in touch with everyone I've been 'just friends' with,” Rae replied. “Some more....intimately....than others....” She rested her head against Kylie's.

“So, after Kylie got her back carved up----”

“Doctor's office first,” Rae clarified, “followed by my place for a soothing lotion rub and an ice treatment.”

“.....and after Dawley?”

“Sleepover with a few of the girls, and a two-foot diameter pizza from Domino's.” The tanned gynoid grinned at the memory. “And other times after those, obviously....not every visit ends with us doing the hunka-chunka, if you must know.”

“......fair enough. And you two are bunking together here because....”

Rae sighed, pulling Kylie closer to her. “It's a long, complicated and boring story, babe.....I needed a bit of a break, after that whole incident with Brittney Delacroix.” She shuddered in Kylie's grasp.

“She called me right after it happened,” Kylie added, stroking Rae's hair as the gynoid laid back. “It freaked her out, she needed a shoulder to cry on.....among other things....” She let out a low, quiet breath as she ran both hands through the tanned gynoid's chestnut-coloured locks. “I let her stay at my place for a while, and when HQ sent out the notice for us to move here until they gave the all-clear...”

Vicki sat upon the edge of the bed, glancing at the pair. “And does HQ know that you two....ah.....”

“As long as it doesn't interfere with our working relationship,” Rae purred, “nobody gives a damn.” Her limbs flexed as she yawned, prompting a smile from Kylie.

“Figured that.” The brunette gynoid stood, glancing back at Kylie and Rae as they settled into the disheveled bedsheets; “I'm guessing you two would like some personal time now,” she mused, “so....I'll be on my way, and two will be okay on your own?”

Kylie shifted her position a bit, but otherwise didn't reply. “We'll be peachy, luv,” Rae assured her. “The minute she closes her eyes, it'll be off to dreamland for her, and a plug-in/conk-out for me...we've practically got a system worked out.” She grinned. “Keddy and I will be fine, could probably use a top-up yourself, though. Or at least a good nap.”

“Sleep won't help,” Vicki quietly replied. “I need.....”

The words to get out there and find Epsilon before the DVS does flitted through her processors, but she didn't speak them. HQ had given specific orders that no Field Agent was to act without authorization....a move, in all honesty, that was more than likely a direct result of her actions in Dawley two months prior.

“.....I don't know what I need right now.”

Before Rae or Kylie could reply, Vicki turned on her heel and headed for the door.

“Vicki, wait.”

Kylie's plea stopped the brunette gynoid in her tracks.

“I....I know it seems like this is too big for any of us to handle on our own,” she continued, “'s not. You've dealt with worse stuff than this before---we all have....” She didn't shy away as Rae's arms wrapped around her in another intimate embrace. “....and I know you can do this.”

The brunette gynoid sighed. “Thanks. I just...I don't want this to end in tears for all of us.”

“It won't,” Rae assured her, just as Kylie yawned. “I know I'm in no real place to guarantee anything, but I personally think you'll do just fine handling this. Keddy would agree, but...” She gestured to the now-snoring figure of the human Field Agent. “As you can see,” she whispered, “she's a bit preoccupied at the moment.”

“Guess you'll go for that 'plug-in/conk-out', now,” Vicki mused. I'll leave you to it.....and thanks for the talk.”

“Not a problem, babe.” With a sigh, Rae retrieved one end of a recharge chord; with a quiet utterance of the word “lights”, she dimmed the room's lighting. “See you when everyone else is awake,” she murmured, adding a typical saucy wink. Seconds later, she inserted the cord in her navel with a click, and her head bowed to her chest; Kylie, almost as if she knew her lover was now recharging, shifted in her sleep to drape an arm across the chestnut-haired gynoid's chest.

I need to ask those two about other...encounters of theirs, Vicki mused.

After locking the door and closing it behind her, the brunette gynoid returned to her own room. The fact that Kylie---her former hall mate---was in a very intimate relationship with Rae was....unexpected, but given Rae's proclivities, it wasn't that surprising. I definitely didn't expect her to be...partnering...with Kylie, though.

Regardless of who was sleeping with who at the moment, the talk Rae and Kylie had given Vicki was enough to calm her fears....for the moment, at least. She still had plenty of questions---chief among them being why Oberon went through a full 180 after fighting her (and Epsilon)---but at the very least, she was willing to wait for any answers to them. Two weeks without any calls related to Octavia or the DVS was....good, admittedly, but the wait was beginning to become unbearable.

Something would have to happen soon.

And I sound like I want something to happen, the brunette gynoid realized. Indeed, two weeks of being cooped up inside an ALPA-funded apartment complex was slowly becoming very annoying...not to mention having next to no updates on where Epsilon was and who or what might be looking for him.

Other than Octavia and the DVS, obviously.....

The newly-appointed head of United Robotronics had only appeared in the spotlight once since her face had shown up in Brittney Delacroix's memory files---a local news story on her appointment, which aired once in the middle of the previous week and hadn't really made much of an impact on most people. Whatever the case, it felt like nobody outside of the ALPA knew just how dangerous Octavia was. Then again, we don't know exactly how dangerous she is, either.....

A sigh escaped the brunette gynoid's lips as she opened the door to her room. Even as she lay back down on the bed, she almost knew that sleep would bring no new answers. If anything, she'd still be asking the same questions when she woke up---probably a few new ones, too.

With an eye roll and another sigh, Vicki found the charging cord for her backup power cells and hiked up her shirt to plug it in. “Guess all I can do now is hope for some clarity in the morning,” she murmured, her eyes faintly glowing as the recharge cycle began.....

….and her internal WiFi synced up with the MacBook, re-opening her diary.

… for the former ALPA Chairman, I don't know what's going to happen.

I'd say I don't care what happens, but....I do. This whole situation with Epsilon may prove to be too much for just the ALPA to handle alone---I don't know if the Coalition will step in, or if we'll have to ask the House to help us out. Either way, we can't do this by ourselves.....

The fact that her sentiments regarding the Epsilon situation echoed her own feelings, which she'd expressed to Oberon in person two weeks prior, wasn't lost on the gynoid Field Agent. Once again, a sense of uncertainty came over her---almost as if she didn't want to continue....

Either way, we can't do this by ourselves. However this gets finished, it needs to be finished.

Until next time, V.I.C.I/Vicki Lawson.

Even as she saved and closed the diary file, Vicki knew that it wasn't the last time she'd be thinking about how the ex-Chairman's actions would affect the entire ALPA. She lay back on the bed, closing her eyes and allowing her sleep cycle to take over. She'd have, at best, two hours of sleep before the day proper started; given her current mood, she intended to get the best possible rest she could before sunrise.

Entering sleep cycle....goodnight.

Part 2

“.....and you're positive we've had no leads?”

Octavia Martinet frowned as she went over the report that had been handed to her. The past two weeks had been....trying, in all honesty---not helped by the fact that all data stored in the building relating to Epsilon was now gone. Reading over the file she'd been given, she realized all too quickly that any and all leads on the one responsible for that data loss were rapidly drying up.

“I'm afraid so, ma'am.” Kendall---or at least, the Kendall unit pressed into service to replace the one whose cranial assembly had been crushed like a tin can by Epsilon---sighed. “It seems we've---”

Her sentence ended in a slight gasp---Octavia was staring directly at her.

“It seems rather....convenient,” the dark-skinned gynoid mused, “that our saboteur was able to remove all data relevant to our search for Epsilon.” Her tone and expression hadn't changed, but there was a clear note of what might have been anger in her words. “And she knew about the hidden server.”

Kendall pondered that for a moment. “She could've---”

“No other employee in this facility told her,” Octavia continued. “There are no records of the Baron giving her that information, and there are most definitely no records of her ever accessing that hidden server at any point before act.” Her nostrils flared slightly as she exhaled a slow, measured breath---an act that both reinforced the illusion of humanity, and helped to circulate cooler air through her internals. “If the Baron's suspicions about her true allegiance can be proven.....” She let the words trail off as she leaned back in her chair, fingers steepled.

For her part, Kendall didn't care who Celine---the aforementioned saboteur---had worked for. The memories recovered from her predecessor gave no indication that the Baron's former secretary was any kind of threat to the security of the mission. Then again, she hadn't exactly interacted with the crimson-haired aide often....

“If you have any doubts about our mission,” Octavia intoned, “you'd do well to vocalize them.”

“I was merely....reflecting on why Celine had never been taken to task for her apparent transgressions in years past,” Kendall replied. “It seems she's made numerous smaller errors before-hand...yet the Baron merely gave her a warning.” She scoffed; “More often than not,” she added, a hint of disgust tinging her words, “she was given multiple 'vacations' and days off in the wake of suspicious activity!”

Her indignant remark drew a smirk from Octavia. “You're questioning the Baron's judgement now?”

Anyone else would've denied the fact, tried to change the subject or debated the point for hours on end. As it stood, Kendall wasn't about to fall into the trap her new superior had set. “If you mean that I'm questioning his repeated decisions to simply allow a potential saboteur to come and go as she pleased while she was still in service to him....yes.” She retrieved her smartphone and scrolled down through an itemized list. “I've also found many hours' worth of conversations between the Baron and Celine recorded by the building's security system, which----”

Midway through the sentence, she froze. “Oc...tavia,” she gasped, her lips twitching slightly. “What...”

“You're not going to tell anyone else what you've just told me,” the green-eyed gynoid calmly informed her lithe, blonde colleague. “And you're not going to file any reports on what you've found.” She rose from her chair, her gaze never leaving the other gynoid as she made her way around the desk. “I'd ask you to promise me you won't tell, be honest, your compliance is irrelevant.” She plucked the phone from Kendall's grasp.

“Why....are you.....”

“Celine wasn't our only security risk,” Octavia murmured. “She wasn't even the first...”

Her gaze now settled on the smartphone. “You should be lucky I'm not deleting your memories right now,” she casually informed Kendall. “I could, if I felt like it---one simple command to your internal parser, and you'd be a blank slate in seconds.” Her lips parted in a friendly smile. “It would be a great thing if you forgot about all this,” she added. “The Baron has a habit of...cutting loose ends, if you catch my meaning---”

“I....can't...move,” Kendall gasped. “Why....”

“Oh, sorry....nearly forgot to mention. I shut off your ambulatory and motor functions. Just as a precaution, of course....wouldn't want you lashing out at me, or anything like that....” Again, Octavia smiled. “You know how it is. Standard procedure, and all that....” Her attention returned to the smartphone, where---with a few swipes of her finger---the logs detailing every incriminating conversation between Celine and the Baron were wiped clean in a matter of seconds. “If the wrong people found out about this, we'd both be in trouble.”

Kendall's eye twitched. “'t....”

“You want to know something funny?” Octavia inquired. “You were originally requisitioned to work for Drake Bradford. After your predecessor was scrapped by Epsilon, there were orders given for you to be sent to his office...” She circled around the paralysed gynoid, looking over her lithe figure with every step. “It's...ironic,” she murmured. “Knowing that I am my own person, a unique individual with thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams....and at the same time, fully understanding that I am a tool of the Baron, an artificial construct created solely for the fulfilment of his've never given much thought to anything like that, have you?”


“Of course you haven't. Just as you never gave any thought to the bigger picture.” Octavia traced her finger across Kendall's shoulders as she circled the immobilised gynoid again. “You never think about the long-term, or plan for the end-game. You weren't designed to think that way.”

Something that might've been a tear made its way down Kendall's face. “....I.....”

“I don't blame you for wanting to report what you found. You're loyal to the admirable trait. But you don't seem to realize that loyalty isn't always a good thing.” Octavia stared into Kendall's eyes, her expression neutral. “The Baron had his suspicions about Celine, and I'm sure he wasn't the only one. If things had been a bit different, he might very well have had her De-Commed on his own any case, he had his reasons for not De-Comming her. Our opinions on those reasons mean nothing.” She cupped Kendall's chin in her hand. “We obey the Baron because we were made to. It's as simple as that.”

She sighed. “The ALPA wants to change the world, gradually letting the rest of the world in on the way things are, campaigning for 'android rights'...they have no idea how wrong they are. Humanity is....fickle. Even if a hundred generations are able to live alongside machines in relative harmony, all it takes is one---not even one generation, but just one person---to ruin everything.”

Kendall's lips twitched again. “.....but.....”

“Machines ruling humanity won't work either. Humans, by nature, don't want to admit to anything controlling their lives. Oh, they like to kneel and pray and sing hymns for an hour or so every week, to profess belief in some unseen, all-knowing....thing....that they may or may not even believe in....” The toffee-skinned hand holding Kendall's chin pulled away. “It's fascinating, really....but I'm going on a tangent again. We do what we do because it needs to be done. The DVS exists to keep things in check---to balance everything out. If the ALPA gains too much ground, or the Coalition makes an advance in the wrong direction, we do what we can to push things back.” Octavia leaned in close. “We're a....necessary evil, to put it mildly.”

She noticed Kendall trying to glance at the phone. “....and those conversations you logged?” she whispered, picking up the phone and holding it up to the other gynoid's face. “They would've started something you could never hope to stop. Pebbles and know the drill.”

Without another word, she tightened her grip on the phone....and as Kendall watched, helpless to stop her, the smartphone's casing and screen began to crack.

“You'll get a new phone,” Octavia assured her, smiling. “A small price to pay for the lesson you're learning.”

She punctuated the sentence by squeezing the phone even harder---and shattering it instantly.

Plastic, metal, silicon and glass fell from her hand to the floor, a rain of debris to be swept up by the next maid to pass through the room. The newly-appointed head of United Robotronics didn't even bother looking at the pile of parts and broken phone bits at her feet as she spoke: “I'm going to leave this room, Kendall....and twenty seconds after I close the door, you're going to reactivate. This entire conversation will be saved to a subdirectory in your memory, and you'll retain no memory of being paralysed. You'll remember that you need a new phone, but not why. You'll collect your belongings and go about your business without question, without thinking of reporting the logged conversations between the Baron and Celine, and you'll never think of filing another report about those conversations.”

Again, she gave a friendly smile. “Standard procedure. You know how it is.”

Kendall's lips worked silently, trying to protest.

“You were just doing your job,” Octavia called out, already striding past the immobile gynoid. “Except you did it a bit too well.” Her hand brushed against the doorknob; “Oh, and Kendall?” she added, almost absently.

The blonde gynoid was still frozen in place, staring at the wall on the other side of the room.

“Keep up the good work finding more data on Epsilon. We need all the help we can get to recover from that server failure.” Octavia turned the doorknob, opened the door, and strode out, catching the pull on the other side and closing the door behind her.

It was almost cheating, throwing in that “keep up the good work” bit---Kendall had no idea that she'd just been turned into a mobile recorder unit with a direct feed to the Baron's office. Then again, she'd nearly blown the lid off of the Celine debacle, as well....which would've gone over quite badly after their earlier cock-up out in Jakarta.

Octavia knew the Baron had his reasons for not de-comming the gynoid, just as she knew that there were other things that had been lost due to Celine's self-destruction.

It didn't matter. Only the will of the Baron mattered.

As she made her way to one of the building's conference rooms to go over a mundane finance report (which, in all honesty, she would've preferred to delegate to someone else), Octavia pondered how Kendall would react upon returning to her normal functionality. Her insistence on reporting the conversation logs was...troubling; a remote debug or other processor examination might be in order. There was even a possibility that Kendall might override Octavia's command and file away a report on the conversation logs later on....

She brushed the thoughts aside. The Baron's instructions had been clear, and she'd carried them out to the letter. All that was left now was to see what Kendall would do next.

The conference room was full by the time Octavia reached it, allowing her to focus on the task at hand instead of dwelling on Kendall's apparent reticence. There was something else that still bothered her, though---one of Celine's orders, regarding the observation of....someone. The full file had been lost when the server room went up like a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire---and that galled the president of United Robotronics more than she cared to admit....but still, she had a job to do. Searching for a lost order could wait.

“Thank you all for attending this meeting. If you'd all take your seats, we can begin.”

Part 3

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. RAM: OK ROM: OK Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Saturday, October 1, 2011 The time is 08:10 AM.

With a yawn, Vicki extricated herself from the bedsheets she'd wrapped around herself after finally managing to enter her sleep cycle a few hours prior. She managed a lopsided grin---there was something weirdly funny about a gynoid advanced as herself starting the day with bed-head and a yawn. Ted would probably find it “fascinating”, as per usual....

After a quick shower and change of clothes, she headed off to check on Rae and Kylie---their door was half-open, allowing her to see Kylie asleep, wrapped in the blanket---with a Post-It note stuck to her forehead

“If you're looking for Rae,” Major Tom's voice called out from a few doors down, “she's already in the cafeteria going over the itinerary for today.” The words were followed with the sound of gargling, and spitting into a sink. “I'm surprised you didn't hear her belting out friggin' Cyndi Lauper about an hour ago,” he continued.

Vicki rolled her eyes. “I was asleep an hour ago....anyway, you said something about an itinerary?”

“I thought you'd know about it already....we are heading to your house, after all---”

“Wait, what?!” Vicki nearly barged into Tom's room, but decided against it---the memory of her intrusion into Rae's room a few hours before was still fresh in her mind. “Ted never told me anything about this!”

“He didn't?”

“No, he---” The brunette gynoid groaned as a hair dryer kicked on across the hall. “He never mentioned it.”

“Huh. I thought he'd have told you first....” A door inside the Major's room slammed closed, followed by the Major himself (wearing a Ramones t-shirt a size too big) emerging and stifling a yawn. “Said something about retrieving a few things and cleaning up the place so Joan won't have too much work after a day of tutoring and stuff...” He shrugged. “Guess he was too preoccupied to remember to tell you, or something...”

His theory did little to calm Vicki. “I still think it'd have been better if he actually told me about this first,” she muttered. “How did Rae find out before I did?!”

Major Tom shrugged. “She has her ways....”

I'll bet she does.... “You can at least tell me when we're heading out, right?”

“As soon as everyone else is ready---which hopefully won't be too much longer.” The Major didn't bother trying not to yawn this time. “Also, tell Rae I want my damn hat back.”

Vicki decided not to ask how Rae had acquired the Major's hat, choosing instead to head for the cafeteria and talk to Rae in person. I might ask her about the whole hat thing.... She grinned at the thought of quizzing Rae about it---hopefully, it wasn't a sore point of any kind. Starting an “incident” right before deployment would only end in tears for everyone involved, and Vicki did not want that sort of incident on her record so soon after the return of Epsilon....any distractions from her work might cost her dearly in the field, which wouldn't end well if she had another encounter with Epsilon.

I wonder if Rae's still wearing the---

Any and all thoughts about the hat Rae had nicked from the Major were silenced as soon as Vicki saw a brown fedora, not unlike the kind worn by a certain famous cinematic archaeologist, jauntily perched atop a familiar chestnut-haired head. “Oh, you are kidding.....” She weaved her way through the crowd to get to Rae, hoping to silently pluck the chapeau from her...

“Spack off, Vicks. The hat stays on my head.”

Bristling at Rae's nonchalant response (and being called “Vicks”), Vicki sat down next to her fellow Field Agent, staring at the hat in question. “It's a fedora. You're not even wearing the full outfit---”

“You think I'm going to go tearing up my wardrobe looking for a leather jacket, khakis and everything else out of that ensemble?” Rae countered. “I happen to like fedoras....used to wear one during my dancing days---and I can tell you don't want to hear about it,” she continued, “so I'll just shut up...” She grinned. “It looks better on me than it did on the Major, if I do say so myself. Aside from's a hat. Am I not allowed to wear any hat of my choosing?” She fluttered her eyelids and gave a stereotypical pout.

“If it's someone else's hat, you might want to look into...I don't it back, maybe?”

Rae waved aside the suggestion. “I'll give it back if he takes back what he said about my hair.”

For a few seconds, Vicki considered asking what Major Tom had said about Rae's hair, but decided to go down another line of inquiry. “So when did Ted tell you about the upcoming op?”

“Two hours ago. Kylie was still asleep, so I figured I'd take a bit of a night jog....Ted was on his way back from the toilets. We chatted, he said we had an op coming---and he mentioned that it was coming soonish, as in today, so....” The chestnut-haired gynoid shrugged. “I left Kylie a note---”

“Stuck to her forehead....”

“She appreciates the uniqueness of how I leave messages. It's a thing.” Again, Rae shrugged. “Anyway, we'd better get to the vans and all,” she continued. “Wouldn't want the best seats to go to waste---”

“Is something going on between you and Kylie?” Vicki cut in. “I mean, other than the obvious....”

Any lingering traces of humour in Rae's voice and demeanour vanished. “I don't want her on this op, Vicki. I don't want her.....getting hurt, or killed. I get wrecked in the field, the techs can grab all my bits, drag 'em back here and just put me back together. Kylie....not so much.” She hugged herself, staring at the table; “I won't lose her because of this,” she muttered. “It won't be like.....”

The barest hint of a name was on her tongue for a full second, but she never spoke it.

“I won't lose her,” the chestnut-haired gynoid repeated. “I don't want to lose her.” She exhaled a fearful breath through her nostrils, looking for a moment as if she was seeing any number of scenarios in which she did lose Kylie. “I can't.....”

Even as Vicki thought of asking if she was feeling okay, Rae shook off whatever fear had gripped her. “It's for her own good, and mine,” she stated, not turning to look at the brunette gynoid. “It'll give her time to get a full medical check, all that good stuff....maybe get recertified over at the shooting range.” She smiled, showing off far too many teeth, and giving Vicki the impression she was about to go for someone's neck. “She won't mind, I'm sure....she probably won't mind.”

“Maybe you can ask her,” Vicki suggested. “She's over there by the vending machines---” She turned around to point Kylie out. “---getting a Sun Drop or something....”

When she turned back around, Rae was nowhere to be seen.

For some reason, the brunette gynoid expected to sit with either Rae or Kylie during the ride---Rae might want to apologize for running off, she reasoned, and Kylie would probably want to know why she had a Post-It note stuck to her forehead. To her surprise, neither Rae or Kylie even rode in the same van as she did---her seat-mate for the trip ended up being Calliope. “Figured you'd want a break from the lovers' quarrel back there,” she mused, nodding to the queue at the van behind theirs. “That, and I'm fresh off another tune-up---”

A slamming door cut her off, followed soon after by the van behind the one Vicki was sitting in roaring past, its tires squealing as it tore up the road.

Seconds later, an agonized shout of “KYLIE!” trailed after it.

“, like I was saying,” Calliope muttered, “I just got finished with a tune-up---”

The front passenger door flew open, and Major Tom took his seat next to a dark-skinned male Vicki hadn't met before. “....and tell HQ that Agent Linden is going to be brought in for a disciplinary hearing as soon as this is over,” the Major stated, scowling. “That little outburst of hers back there---”

He stopped, noticing Vicki and Calliope staring at him from the farthest seats back.

“...never mind.” The other man decided to introduce himself while the Major exited the vehicle; “Calliope, Miss Lawson, I'm Agent Harris.” He shook hands with both gynoids. “I've heard a lot about you, Miss Lawson.”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Who hasn't?”

Harris grinned. “If it's any consolation, everything I've heard has been positive. Ted, in particular, can't stop doting on you....he seems to think you'll be running Lawson Robotics yourself, at this rate!”

The intended retort Vicki had in mind died on her tongue. “He said that?”

“Repeatedly. I worked with him on the Crystal City project a few years's a shame you weren't a Field Agent back then. We could've used someone like you on our side when things went screwy.”

[iI'm guessing that “things going screwy” is why Ted doesn't talk about the Crystal City assignment[/i].... Vicki decided to shift the conversation to another topic. “I haven't really seen you around the Valley before today, y'know. Which Field Office did you transfer from?”

“I was in Oregon last year....first half of this year, things were a cross-country tour.”

Calliope arched an eyebrow. “Were you the one at the Cabo showroom---”

“Yeah, that was me,” Harris admitted. “Never thought the water cooler would put out the fire the way it did.”

Most of Vicki's attention was still focused on the call Major Tom was making---and unlike the call made by Selwyn McElvoy the previous month, she couldn't simply “borrow” the senses of another gynoid to eavesdrop on the call. After a few seconds of “just” using her enhanced hearing to pick up bits of the conversation, she gave up on trying to discern too much from it, turning her focus back to Harris and Calliope. “....and from what Ted told me,” Harris stated, “we need to get this done.”

“I'm surprised he hasn't jumped on this sooner,” Calliope agreed. “The Epsilon situation is....unique---definitely not a 'textbook' case.”

Jumping into the conversation now would probably end really, really badly.... Vicki leaned back in her seat, staying silent to avoid embarrassing herself---

“---and you've had experience with that before, right, Vicki?”

Oh, here we go.... “If I look back far enough,” the brunette gynoid replied, “I can probably find memories of a lot of experiences.” She grinned, hoping her answer to Calliope's question wouldn't come back to bite her any time soon.

“So you have charged a car battery before?”

Harris' reply earned a raised eyebrow. “We....were talking about Epsilon----”

“And then I started the van. Or tried to start it...” Harris turned the key a few times, frowning as the engine failed to turn over. “All of the other vans are leaving---it'd be a waste of time calling them back now---”

“Well, we're in luck. I have started a car battery before.” Vicki exited the van---noticing that Rae and Major Tom were riding off in what appeared to be a Land Rover---and made her way around to get at the hood. “It won't take long,” she assured Harris and Calliope. “Just give me a sec....and you may want to get out of the van, just in case.” With her colleagues literally standing by, the brunette gynoid popped the hood of the van and cracked her knuckles. “Here goes....”

Increasing charge to Detaining Grip

Lightning danced around her fingertips as she grabbed the leads on the battery, focusing her attention entirely on the task at hand. Within seconds, the battery sparked, the engine turned over, and Vicki gave a quiet, relieved sigh. “Battery's started....we can go now.”

“You started it that fast?” It was Harris' turn to raise an eyebrow. “I thought it was 'red to dead lead, red to donor lead' and all that stuff.....”

“Well, I didn't need to use cables,” Vicki admitted. “Ready to head off?”

Harris chuckled. “....I thought he was kidding....”

“Who was kidding about what?” the brunette gynoid asked, frowning slightly.

“Ted....he told me you pulled this once before, back in the 80s....I didn't believe him----”

“So you thought you'd see for yourself?” There was an air of annoyance in Vicki's tone, as if she found the idea of someone putting a dead battery in to test her abilities was a mild form of insult.

“Actually, the battery for this van was due to be changed last week,” Calliope cut in. “Major Tom had to sort of push this particular van half the way up the drive....the battery worked when we got it out of the garage, but then it sort of...stopped.....” She stared at the ground. “Harris figured it'd be interesting to see if you really could charge it....”

Any remaining traces of Vicki's annoyance evaporated at the clockwork gynoid's embarrassment. “Don't worry about it. I've had weirder tests imposed upon me before....” She gestured towards the van. “Shall we?”

Three minutes later, the trio had caught up with the rest of the “convoy” on the way to Ted's, with Rae and the Major's Land Rover near the middle of the pack; Kylie's “borrowed” vehicle was nowhere to be seen. I may need to talk to them both after this is over with, Vicki realized. And I have a feeling it wasn't just the Sticky Note to the forehead that set Kylie off....whatever it was, I'm not looking forward to the outcome if either of them decides they're not in a talking mood.

“You wouldn't happen to know why we're going to your dad's house, would you?” Calliope asked, interrupting the brunette gynoid's train of thought.

“In all”

“Allow me to take the mystery out of it,” Harris replied. “It's a mission briefing. As in, how we're going to keep the DVS from getting their hands on Epsilon, how we'll try to contain Epsilon without drawing any unwanted attention to us or it....stuff like that. And Ted mentioned he needed to check on something, too.....”

Vicki allowed herself a grin. “As long as it doesn't involve the stove----”

The radio handset built into the dash erupted in a squeal of static and noise, followed by several very loud shouts from Major Tom: “---MEAN, SHE'S NOT AT TED'S?! SHE TOOK ONE OF THE DAMN VANS AND SHE JUST DROVE OFF?! WHERE----” A loud thump issued through the van's speakers. “NO, I RAN OVER A STUPID BIKE---NO, THERE WASN'T ANYONE ON IT, I HIT A BIKE STAND---SHUT UP AND KEEP EXPLAINING, DAMNIT!”

Harris switched off the radio. “...guess I know what the first order of business will be at next month's meeting,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I thought Linden was one of the calm ones....”

Any number of remarks about Kylie's relationship with Rae passed through Vicki's thought processes....

….but none of them were voiced by the brunette gynoid.

Part 4

Ten minutes later, the van glided to a stop on the opposite side of the street from Ted's house---further up the road, the Land Rover that Major Tom and Rae had left HQ in was halfway through someone's fence. “Don't mention it when we get inside,” Harris warned.

“Wouldn't dream of it,” Vicki quietly replied.

The house looked relatively unchanged from the days since Vicki had last lived in it---apart from a few new terminal PCs built into the walls at strategic points around the living room area. It dawned on the gynoid that, for all the memories of her “walking appliance” days, she had even more memories of the Lawson house being her true home---a veritable fortress. Ted did call the place “Castle Lawson”, once upon a time, she recalled, almost grinning at the memory.

Just as quickly, she saw Ted himself---looking as if he hadn't slept since the fight with Oberon and Epsilon.

“Dad?!” Ignoring Harris' quizzical glance and Calliope's utterance of “Vicki, wait!”, the brunette gynoid rushed to her father's side. “I hate to say it, but---”

“I look like hell?” Ted chuckled. “That's what happens when you spend 24 hours without sleep, trying to come up with the necessary palpitations for the calculations of the ambulations.....” He stopped, realizing his verbal gaffes. “ it okay if I sleep on the floor?” he mumbled, nearly falling over where he stood---only for Vicki to take hold of his shoulders and guide him towards the couch. “Just....take it easy, Dad,” she whispered.

“......need to.....perimeter,” Ted muttered. “...seal off.....streets and back-ways....protect the......” Someone draped a blanket over him; Vicki looked up to see Alicia LeHane regarding Ted with an almost sad look. “He really didn't get any sleep,” the House agent informed her. “Drank six Red Bulls last night....”

“Were you the one assigned to watch him?” Vicki quietly asked.

“Three other House agents had that job. I was watching MuchMusic---oh, and you really need to update your taste in songs, Vicki. Classic stuff is great, and all, but---”

Harris' throat-clearing cut her off. “Meeting's about to start,” he stated. “We should probably.....” He noticed Ted napping on the couch. “The guy didn't sleep a wink last night,” the blonde gynoid explained. “Cut him some slack, will you?”

Anything Harris could've said in reply was cut off by something banging---beneath the floor.

“Rae's in the lab downstairs,” Alicia informed a somewhat-rattled Vicki---which only served to turn the gynoid's alarm into confusion. “Downstairs?! I didn't even know this house had a downstairs lab!”

“Well, it does. She's looking for.....honestly, I don't know why she's down there, but she is.”

After a few microseconds of considering a reply, Vicki settled for an eye-roll, half-bemused sigh and plopping down into the nearest recliner. “As long as she doesn't break anything down there....” She glanced at the now-snoring figure of Ted on the sofa; “Any chance we can hold off on this until he wakes up?” she quietly asked.

“Since Ted is the main speaker for the briefing....looks like we'll have to.” Harris nodded to someone on the other side of the living room. “DuBraul's not going to like the delay, obviously.”

The look he received from Vicki said more than any words could've.

“....and I can tell you don't really care,” Harris concluded with a sigh. “I'll tell him Ted needs to sleep off an all-nighter before we start---”

A shout from the front yard cut him off. “Please tell me that wasn't Major Tom,” Vick began---just as a flying, roughly spherical object shattered one of the windows and came to rest at her feet. Harris tripped over himself backing away from it, but Vicki, frowning as if the thing was merely a rock with a menacing note attached, just sighed and rested her foot on it. “I'll handle it---”


Faster than anyone could spot, Alicia had charged towards the spherical object, scooping it up in one hand and throwing it through another window; a cloud of bluish smoke erupted from the thing, followed shortly after by one of the wall-mounted terminals and the microwave going haywire. “That was an EMP grenade,” Alicia hissed. “Short-range---if you'd have stepped on it---” She dove forward, practically attacking another grenade with a double-underhand smash that sent it through the window and straight into a black Hummer haphazardly parked on the curb outside.

“Someone's followed us here!” Harris drew a USP Compact from a side holster, aiming in the direction of the now-disabled Hummer. “Defensive positions---”

“I'll check upstairs,” V.I.C.I replied, dashing off in a blur before Harris could ask a single question. The trip to Jamie's room, complete with the window Harriet had always parked herself outside to spy on Jamie (amazing how she never fell and broke her tailbone, the brunette gynoid mused). Just as she reached the closed (and locked) door to Jamie's room, the telltale sound of shattering glass sounded from inside. I knew Ted should've cut down that tree sooner.....

Given the use of EMP ordnance earlier, the idea of kicking in the door to take on the intruder (or intruders) was right out...still, the brunette gynoid had a few other ways to take out potential threats. One hand closed around the doorknob, with V.I.C.I cycling thermal energy through her hand and into the pull....

...just as the intruder grabbed and turned the doorknob.

A yelp, followed by the smack of a solid wood door against a human forehead, were the only signs of the brief “struggle” as the gynoid Field Agent emerged into the room. A figure in bulky black fatigues and body armour, with a ski mask covering his (or her---the ill fit of the clothes made it difficult to discern gender) face, lay on the floor, groaning. “One down,” V.I.C.I whispered, “and probably more to go----”

The words barely left her lips when another EMP grenade went sailing through the window.

A backhand strike knocked it outside. So much for a nice, peaceful return home.....

Ten blocks away, a young man listened to the proceedings at the Lawson house with a somewhat annoyed frown crossing his lips. “You're sure that house is where this....Lawson girl lives?” he inquired, glancing at the seat across the table from him. “My time is very valuable, Bradford---”

“That's her damn house,” Drake Bradford spat. “That's where Vicki Lawson is right now, Max! I wouldn't have told you about it if I didn't know for sure---”

Bradford's rant was cut off with an exaggerated sigh from “Max”---aka Max Mills. Often said to be “the next Bill Gates”, and even compared to Gary Kildall, the late founder of Digital Research, Mills was well-known for three reasons: his wealth and impeccable taste, his media-centric appeal....and his disdain for the robotics industry as a whole. “I know you wouldn't be wasting my time,” he replied, making an effort not to yawn as he spoke the words, “and after all you've done for me, helping you with this....small favour is the least I can do to repay you. That being said....” He interlaced his fingers, cracking the knuckles before resting his hands on the table and staring into Bradford's eyes. “.....I'm starting to wonder why you're after the girl, instead of her father.”

“I don't give a crap about her dad!” Drake spat. “That stupid girl—--”

“Drake,” Max calmly replied, “I'm more than happy to help you pursue this vendetta of yours....but I need more to go on than just 'she screwed me over'.” He turned a pen over in his hands as he spoke, remembering what had dragged him into this mess to begin with. One of his girls, a runner with a flawless record, an equally flawless appearance and something of an infatuation with him, had been in a bit of an accident involving an industrial press at one of Mills' factories. What should've been a bloody mess, however, revealed the girl to have been a humanoid robot of some kind, complete with a maker's mark---which had led Max nowhere after a few weeks of calls, Internet searches and his lawyers suddenly showing up in the middle of the night to tell him they'd “take care of it”, and to please stop calling people with threats of legal action.

The fact that the girl's two “sisters”, both with the last name Bishop, never called or asked about her served only to further his paranoia, even more than the lawyers' claims of “you voided her warranty” had.

Thus, a quick trip to the old Rolodex was in order, and one name that came up time and again was Bradford. Max's parents had worked with the Bradford family once upon a time, and it was obvious that the two could help each other in this newest time of need.

Speaking of which....

“....and she threw me into the damn magazine rack!” Bradford was shouting. Max nearly smirked, but decided against it as Bradford finished his rant. “And now....this Octavia person......she's---Max, I need your help, here!”

“Then you can earn it,” Max coolly replied, reaching under the table. “You've seen one of these before?”

Bradford nearly started yelling again, stopping only when Max laid a smallish, golf ball-sized orb on the table and rolled it between his hands. “They pulled this out of Mel's head after her little 'accident' with the metal press,” he explained. “My guess is, it's her black box---a recorder for everything she sees and hears, useful for whoever planted her on my team.” He palmed the orb, leaning forward as he did; “I've heard whispers for a good long while, Drake,” he continued. “Names and acronyms that I never understood---DVS, Coalition, ALPA, the House......and I think I want to join you at the table for this game. I want in.”

“You don't want this,” Bradford stammered. “'re not gonna want to be a part of this, Max---”

“Then you can go without my help,” Max replied, leaning back and folding his arms. “I've been following a lot of leads for a long time,'ve got connections I could only dream of. You want me to help you with the Lawson girl, then tell me who these people are---starting with the DVS.”

At the mention of those three letters, Bradford flinched. “ want them?!”

Max started to say something, but stopped. There was a genuine panic in Bradford's words, almost as if the DVS (who or whatever they were) had managed to wreck his life in the span of a few days. He'd known Drake for years, and considered himself a close business associate---and, quite possibly, even a good friend.

“Drake,” he finally stated, “not only do I want them....” A chuckle escaped his lips. “What are you so damn scared of, anyway?” he asked, letting his admittedly purile remark die on his tongue. “Did they---”

“IT DOESN'T MATTER,” Drake roared. His fists smashed into the table like mallets, rattling the dishes and nearly knocking the onyx orb from Max's hands. “They....I.....” As swiftly as his fists had hit the table, they unclenched as he tore at his hair. “I can'”

As Max watched, Drake Bradford buried his face in his hands and, for the first time in years, wept.

It should've been a sobering moment---the time for Max to finally realize he was the proverbial fool rushing in where the angels feared to tread. Indeed, part of him wanted to just let this pursuit of the DVS boil off into the ether, evaporating like Bradford's tears eventually would.....but the other part---the calculating, cunning and downright predatory side of him that had made him Silicon Valley's answer to the wolves of Wall Street---was not going to let that happen.

“Drake,” he softly informed his friend, “just tell me where to find them, and I'll make it all go away.”

Had his brother been present---or still alive, for that matter---he would've told Max not to pull such a dick move on Bradford. But it was his specialty, after all---the Max Mills playbook relied extensively on manipulation, coercion, ego-building and exploitation. He'd built his career on saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear it---what his grandparents (who'd raised him for a time after the incident that took his parents from him) called “attitude”, his peers recognized as a Type A personality.

“Drake,” he repeated, a bit louder this time. “I'm here. Just look across the table---look at me, my man. I'm here for you.” He smiled---the expression surprisingly genuine-looking. “You need anything, just ask.”

“'re really gonna do it,” Drake muttered. “You're going after the DVS?”

It occurred to Max that he'd managed to make Bradford forget about “the Lawson girl” for the time being----a good sign. “Yeah, I'm going after the DVS.”

“UPSTAIRS CLEAR!” Vicki's voice rang out through the upper floor of the Lawson residence, even as groans and the occasional profanity were emanating from the rooms below. The would-be intruder from Jamie's room had been handcuffed to the handles of the cabinet Vicki had spent her nights in, when she was still a “walking appliance”. “Everything sorted down---”

A fresh burst of gunfire, followed by someone getting hit in the kneecap and sent to the floor in a screaming heap, cut her off.

“Still working on sorting it all out,” Harris replied, not looking up from the incident report form he was filling out as Vicki descended the stairs, “but you might be surprised to know that only a few of these guys are known associates of Drake Bradford. The rest....” Now, he did turn to glance at Vicki. “The rest are working for someone we've never dealt with before. Not even ex-Knightwind this time---” Another pained shout from a few feet away cut him off, but he ignored it. “---whoever they are,” he continued, as Alicia wrestled the yelling idiot to the floor, “they're not amateurs. EMP grenades, low-charge SCEMP rounds....”

“They knew they'd be facing androids,” Vicki finished. “Or maybe they were here---”

“For you?” Rae Clarke called out, emerging from the kitchen. “Wouldn't bet on it---oh, and apologies for disappearing on everyone during the big shootout.....had some business to attend to downstairs. Hope none of ours got hurt....” She let the words trail off. “....and who's mad at me now?”

Vicki stared at her for a moment. “What exactly were you doing down there?” Her gaze rested on Rae's head, and what she was no longer wearing on top of it. “.....and where's the Major's fedora?”

“You're still hung up on that?” Rae giggled. “Seriously,'s a hat. He can get another one.”

Harris and Vicki exchanged annoyed glances. “You spent all that time in the basement to drop off a hat?”

“No, Harris, I didn't spend all that time in the basement to drop off a hat. I was doing other things---”

“We can discuss the details later,” Vicki cut in. “We need to figure out who these people are and what the hell they were” Her thought processes instantly zeroed-in on one particular scenario: “Has anyone checked on Ted?!” She ran past Harris and Rae, to the couch where her father had been napping....

….to find the blanket Alicia draped over him resting on the sofa with nobody underneath it.


“Is five blocks away,” Harris stated. “As soon as the shooting started, some of our people got Ted out the door and into a car outside. He's safe, Vicki.”

A few seconds passed before the brunette gynoid was able to nod in agreement. “Fair enough.”

“Sucks that the mission briefing's gone to pot, though,” Rae mused. “We all came here for information---oh, what now?!” That last remark was directed at her phone, though her annoyance vanished when she read the name of the caller. “It's Ked---Kylie,” she murmured. “I....should take this, probably....” She headed back into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

“, if Ted's safe,” Vicki continued, choosing to ignore the drama of Rae's love life for the time being, “what's our next move? We still need to contain Epsilon and keep him from tearing apart all of Silicon Valley...”

Her question earned a stern glare from Harris. “I'm pretty sure that tearing apart Silicon Valley is the last---”

Something in the kitchen hit the floor and shattered, instantly catching Vicki's attention. “SORRY,” Rae called out, “stupid coffee mug handle got all sweaty on me.....” The chestnut-haired gynoid poked her head through the partially-opened door. “Hope you didn't have too much sentimental attachment to this...”

“If it's the Garfield mug, don't sweat it. Mom always said there was lead paint in that thing...”

“Which begs the question of why she never took a hammer to it herself,” Rae teased, striding into the living room. “ANYway. Keddy's on her way here---she ran into a bit of trouble at an old factory, but she's fine now.” She grinned. “Also, for the record....might want to fix up the furniture before Joanie gets back---”

“My mother,” Vicki replied, “is out of town. I'll have someone take care of---Rae, who are you calling?!”

The brunette gynoid's panicked question prompted Rae to pull a face. “I'm calling Alicia, to give the all-clear.”

After an exasperated sigh, Vicki flopped down on the sofa. “Call HQ while you're at it---we're holding an emergency briefing. Calliope, go make sure nobody's hiding in any of the other rooms upstairs---your clockworks are less susceptible to EMPs than conventional circuitry. Everyone else....just keep these people contained.” Even in her somewhat-weary state, that air of finality she'd become famous for was clear. “Harris, get a message out to HQ....if they need a secondary testimony about this, get Rae to talk to them.”

Harris nodded. “I guess the Major will join the briefing when he gets back....”

Vicki sighed again. “He can join in after he explains why he put a van through the fence...”

Part 5

Octavia frowned as the last of the attendants for the meeting left the conference room. It wasn't out of a sense that she'd failed in some way---on the contrary, she'd done exactly what the Baron wanted her to, and possibly even opened a few new avenues for the DVS to explore in regards to profit margin and influence.

No, her frown was brought on by the troubling news of an “incident” in San Jose, received during the meeting.

Minutes after the first message had appeared in her field of vision, several additional notes, all corroborating the same basic story---a strike team using DVS-spec gear had attacked the residence of an ALPA-aligned roboticist, Theodore “Ted” Lawson. A second strike team, also using DVS-spec gear, had been deployed to a factory formerly owned by Drake Bradford around the same time. The attack on the Lawson residence had ended rather quickly, with no reported fatalities (though all members of the strike team had either fled or been incapacitated), but the Bradford factory incident was “ongoing”---and at least one bystander had been shot.

That wasn't what troubled Octavia. Nor was she bothered by the fact that the Lawson house strike team had been incapacitated.....

….no, the true cause of her ire was that neither strike team was actually part of the DVS.

“No order was given,” she murmured---partially to herself, but also just loud enough for Harmony, Melody and their newly-appropriated assistant, Siren, to hear. “The Baron never authorized an attack on any known allies of the ALPA---at least, no such order was issued to me.”

“Perhaps the Baron wanted to....surprise you,” Harmony offered.

“To test your reaction to spontaneous events,” Melody agreed.

Siren had just opened her mouth to add her thoughts, but Octavia silenced her with a glare. “I think I've come far enough in my service to the Baron,” she reminded the three gynoids, “to not need such 'tests' on a regular basis.” She rose from her chair, already looking away from Harmony, Melody and Siren. “Whoever carried out these attacks is not with the DVS....we could be dealing with a rogue element.”

This time, Siren got the first word in: “Could it have been a distraction?”

Harmony and Melody shot her annoyed glances, but Octavia looked rather intrigued. “Explain.”

“Someone may have ordered the attacks to draw our attention away from....other matters,” Siren replied. “For example, someone else may be looking for Epsilon---”

'Siren,” Harmony warned. “We talked about this...”

“.....your theory could lead us all astray,” Melody added, “if you turn out to be wrong---”

Octavia held up a hand to stop them, her eyes never leaving Siren. “Go on....”

“Suppose someone else is looking for Epsilon,” the petite gynoid theorized. “And that someone.....knows of our world, for lack of a better term. They know about it, they know people----things like us exist....but they don't have all the details. They don't know what the ALPA is, or who's in the Coalition....they may not even know anything about the DVS---but they've seen Epsilon.” She ignored Harmony's overly theatrical groan, and Melody's eye-rolling. “Maybe someone they know was hurt in the last rampage, or affected in some way---”

“And they wanted answers,” Octavia finished, nodding. “I think we can eliminate most of the...average citizens of Silicon Valley, by default---none of them have the resources to carry out a vendetta like this.” Even as she spoke, a process within her CPU pinged the DVS' servers for a search query.

“You don't seriously think,” Harmony began, but Melody stopped her.

After two seconds, Octavia let out a short, sharp gasp---an involuntary “reflex”, triggered by the end of a search routine. “....How many...unaffiliated robotics companies have caused problems for the DVS in years past?” she inquired.

Harmony and Melody were somewhat confused---but Siren spoke up quickly. “Very few, ma'am.”

“And of those many might have been affected by Epsilon?”

“....I don't know.” Siren's brief look of triumph faded into a downcast expression.

Octavia gave her a reassuring smile. “Then we can find out together. Harmony, Melody---run a search on all known opponents of the DVS. Cross-reference them with a net worth of.....$10,000,000 or more.”

“With all due respect, ma'am,” Harmony replied, “that could take hours---”

“---or weeks,” Melody finished. “There's no way of knowing how many---”

The stare they received in return held just enough menace to silence their protests.

“What if this is a rogue element from the Coalition?” Siren quietly asked. “They haven't been too happy with---”

“SIREN!” Melody hissed; Harmony guided the shorter gynoid away from her. “We've discussed this already,” she reminded her fellow DVS agent.

“Melody yelling at me doesn't count as 'discussing' it,” Siren sulked. “She never let me get a word in!”

Melody scowled. “You're supposed to be our intermediary---”

“Weaving your song between ours,” Harmony added, “and---”

“Enough, both of you.” Octavia ushered Siren to a chair. “Things between the Coalition and the ALPA have already been...tempestuous, in recent history,” she informed her. “Acts of direct sabotage....aren't tolerated, to say the least---” Another message popped up in her field of vision, earning a frown. “ least we know that these attacks weren't orchestrated by the Baron,” she muttered. “He's demanding a full explanation, and an inquiry....”

The memory of Celine's self-immolation briefly rose to the forefront of her thought processes.

“Whoever did this,” she continued, suppressing the shudder that she felt coming on, “is more than likely not with the ALPA or the Coalition.” She would've said “and not with the DVS, either”....but that fact effectively went without saying. Nobody in the DVS was stupid enough to try something like this on their own---the Baron had made it abundantly clear that such “ambition” would lead straight to the unemployment line (for the “lucky”) or a five-week wait for the inevitable missing persons report to be filed (for the “terminally incompetent”, as the Baron tended to call anyone stupid enough to think they could get away with defying his orders).

As if she could read Octavia's thought processes, Siren piped up: “What about anyone from our side?”

Melody uttered half of a swear word, which trailed off into a frustrated groan; Harmony settled for blowing out an exasperated sigh.

“It's not anyone from our side,” Octavia absently replied. “None of ours are that....ambitious.” Even as she spoke the words, another memory---Kendall's insistence on reporting all of Celine's suspicious activity---surged into her vision. “Aside from that, the Baron has people working to weed out any would-be traitors.”

She conveniently neglected to mention that she had been given that exact task.

“You're actually suggesting we listen to her,” Harmony muttered, glancing at Siren with obvious annoyance.

“Her flights of fancy may be a complete waste of our time!” Melody added.

“And you two have better ideas?”

It wasn't Octavia who chastised the two gynoids---indeed, she was staring, almost too stunned to say anything, as Siren glared at her “teammates”. “You spend so much time working on your battle banter,” she snapped, “and so little time actually preparing for any battles you might get into.....” She glanced at Octavia, trying not to give the impression of pleading. “It's because I look so freaking young, isn't it? My registration papers clearly state that my emulated age is 26, but I look like I just turned 18---and the clothes they keep buying me don't help AT ALL!”

Even as Harmony and Melody tried to find something interesting to stare at, so as to avoid Octavia's glance, their supervisor realized that Siren did, in fact, have very valid points of contention with her “teammates”. Her slender frame barely topped five feet, and her wardrobe---sports bra and a crop top over B-cup breasts, acid-washed jean shorts, knee socks and sneakers, with her hair done up in twin pigtails---did little (if anything) to give the impression that she was a capable operative in her own right. “I'm sick of being treated like a Kid Sister, especially by THEM!” Siren's stomp sent her pigtails bouncing---an almost comical punctuation to her remark, if not for the note of genuine frustration (and a borderline tearful breakdown) in her voice.

After a few seconds of silent contemplation, Octavia nodded. “Siren, I think it's high time you got a makeover befitting your status within the DVS.” She handed over a platinum credit card; “Just tell them it's a birthday gift from Miss Martinet,” she added. “You'll be looking like royalty in no time.....”

Even as Siren's jaw went slack over her newly-received gift, Octavia turned her attention towards Harmony and Melody. “As for you two,” she continued, “you'll be setting up a meeting with the five highest-earning CEOs in Silicon Valley, to see which of them has probable cause to muscle in on our operation---starting with....” She paused, reflexively touching two fingers to her temple as the first name from the list came up.

“Is something wrong?” Harmony asked, followed swiftly by Melody's inquiry of “Is it someone we know?”

“....I've heard his name before,” Octavia quietly replied, “but....I thought he wasn't one to lavish support on the robotics industry.” She transferred the picture to the table-top screens, allowing Harmony and Melody to get a glimpse of their prospective “interviewee”---handsome, possibly late-20s to mid 30s, and (surprisingly) not smiling or even looking at the camera, but looking past it. “Have any of our affiliates had any dealings with him before?”

“Not that we're aware of,” Harmony replied; Melody was quick to add “....but it couldn't hurt to check.”

“Which is why you'll be checking this lead in an hour,” Octavia informed them. “Siren, wait for me in the car park---I think I'll join you on that shopping trip...” She smiled as the petite gynoid bolted past her, letting the expression fade into a frown as soon as the door closed behind her. “You two,” she quietly reminded Harmony and Melody, “should be more supportive of her---and don't say she'll never be as good as Cadence was. She isn't Cadence, and she wasn't designed to replace stop treating her like she's an outsider and start treating her like your teammate.”

Harmony and Melody were stunned into silence by the rebuke. They'd intended to mention Kendall's recent (as in, a few hours before) erratic behaviour, had it not been for Siren's decision to speak out....

“You can start arranging interviews now,” Octavia informed the pair, not bothering to look at them as she paced around the conference table to collect the notes left behind. “I expect an e-mail confirming the appointment in 30 minutes.....and before that, you can pick up Siren when she's done with her shopping spree.”

Despite their annoyance at that last order, Harmony and Melody nodded. It was going to be a long, long day...

Part 6

“Just run in and do a quick recon, they said. You'll be back before you know it, they said....”

Kirsten Charlotte Casey, known to her friends and colleagues as Casey or simply K.C., would've laughed at the irony of that statement, if not for a few things. One, she was, for lack of a better term, in enemy territory---a factory owned by one Max Mills, specifically.

Secondly, she was being pursued by what she'd initially tagged as “cargo”---a deactivated gynoid, one of about five dozen or so, locked in shipping capsules and set to be transported across state lines. Other than standard issue wear-and-tear, the 'bot was putting up a surprisingly decent fight---though the constant taunting was beginning to get old.

“This is the last time I let them talk me into this,” Casey muttered.

The assignment had, on paper, looked so simple. Check out the factory, take notes on any suspicious activity and then head back to base. The first two parts had gone off without a hitch....

…..until the freaking shipping capsule opened on its own, and that damned gynoid started laughing.

Working with the ALPA had given Casey insight into things that, just years before, she'd never even dreamed of having to deal with. Her “escape” from boarding school---after an incident involving her then-boyfriend, a quick snog in a janitor's closet and an awkwardly positioned crowbar revealed her “big secret”---and the subsequent falling-out with her own “family” (rather than try to look for her, they'd simply called the company that had sold her to them and bought the latest domestic/companion model from her line) had already shown just one of many attitudes towards her own kind that she'd come to despise.

Good thing they never found out about all the cameras....

A momentary grin at the thought of her former family being under surveilance faded quickly---the capering, giggling gynoid from the shipping capsule was getting closer. Time to end this....

Casey counted the seconds, waiting until her target was close enough for her to spring from cover for a quick take-down. If all else failed, SCEMP ordnance could quickly bring the approaching gynoid down; HQ would probably have her file a report, but to Casey, an hour or so of filing out paperwork was better than getting jumped by a hostile---and infinitely better than losing teammates to a hostile. Great time for Kylie to get pissed off and try to go it alone.... She pushed aside all thoughts of annoyance at Kylie---the hostile was within striking distance....

When Casey emerged from cover, several things happened within the span of a few seconds.

First among them was a small, almost unnoticeable feeling in her torso---a kind of rumbling sensation, similar to what human beings knew as “hunger pains”, but not as unpleasant. Secondly, right after that rumbling feeling was the short, sharp report of a pistol being fired. Immediately after that, the attacking gynoid---clad in a slightly dirty tank top and form-fitting jeans torn off at the knees---turned and fled, only to fall to the ground a few seconds later. The SCEMP shot had done its job.

“ALL CLEAR!” Casey's shout prompted Kylie and the two male Agents with her to emerge from where they'd been hiding, trying not to be noticed by the now defeated gynoid. “This factory's a total sign of Epsilon. Just a few gynoids in storage and a bunch of old Dells----”

“Then we need to get moving,” Kylie shouted back, already on her way to the transport. “There's been an incident at Vicki Lawson's house---it's secure, but they're calling a briefing about what happened....we need to get there fast!” Two of the transport's doors were slammed; Kylie's teammates had already climbed into the vehicle. “You coming or not?!”

Despite a lingering feeling of unease, Casey nodded. “Just tell Marshall not to bust out the Eminem.....”

“She doesn't deserve it,” Melody growled. “She made us look foolish!”

“We have been...less than forgiving,” Harmony admitted. “She could---”

Their talk ended just as Siren emerged, looking far less like the toy she'd alluded to earlier. The jean shorts, crop top and sneakers were replaced with full khakis, a shirt that complimented her figure rather than tried to “sexify” her look, and dress shoes. The pigtails, surprisingly, remained---but had been done up in a way that actually drew more attention to her face. In short, she looked every bit the competent teammate she wanted to be---and she had more than enough alternative wardrobe options to change out any part of her ensemble in case Harmony and/or Melody found something to harp on.

“So,” she beamed, “how do I look?”

Melody nearly said something, but Harmony spoke first: “You look....ready.”

“Ready?” Siren echoed, frowning slightly.

“Ready to finally join us in the capacity you were designed for. And ready to take part in field ops.”

The petite gynoid grinned. “That's what I was going for....” She climbed in the back seat of the SUV, sliding her purchases into the empty seat next to her---immediately drawing Melody's wrath. “Allegra will be sitting there,” the brunette snapped. “Move your stupid clothes---”

Harmony shot her a look, and she let the threat die on her lips. “You should move the clothes,” the redhead quietly advised, “but....just make sure they won't be in the way.”

Siren nodded, moving the boxes and bags behind the seat. “Better?”

“Better.” Harmony returned the nod, glancing at Melody. “Isn't it better?”

Melody refused to even look at Siren. “She thinks it's better,” Harmony began, “and---” Her sentence ended with a startled “eep”; Melody had floored the gas pedal of the SUV. “”You may be our teammate,” the brunette declared, “but you are not---”

“Don't,” Harmony warned. “Don't put her through this. Octavia---”

“Has no idea what she's talking about,” Melody shot back, nearly putting her fist through the horn when a slow-moving car changed lanes to move in front of the SUV. “She failed twice in training---”

“And you failed three times,” Harmony recalled---a statement that earned her a punch to the side of the head, seconds before Melody swerved the SUV out of the way of an oncoming bus. From her seat in the rear of the vehicle---now heading into a side street---Siren clutched the armrests and tried to think of anything other than being in the same car as the two arguing gynoids---

“I DIDN'T FAIL!” Melody shouted, hitting Harmony again. “The final mission was rigged!”

The redheaded gynoid remained silent, gently rubbing a hand against the cheek that Melody had punched.

“No operative has ever beaten the final mission,” Melody continued, occasionally laying on the horn to scare pedestrians or other drivers out of the way. “The objectives can't be completed, especially with that damned timer!”

“I finished five of them,” Harmony murmured. “Five out of.....fifteen---”

“IT DOESN'T MATTER!” Melody screamed, a blast of the SUV's horn punctuating the sentence.

Siren closed her eyes and tried to think of something nice, something that she could smile at. The memory of Octavia handing her the card to buy more clothes for herself was admittedly pleasant----


Melody's shouting snapped the gynoid out of her reverie, but any profanity-laced tirade the brunette could've launched into was cut off by Harmony. “We should focus on the mission,” she reminded her “sister”.

“.....the mission, yes...” Melody nodded. “The mission.”

The rest of the drive, after the trio exited the side street, was uneventful---at least, until Siren decided to bring up the small matter of who they were supposed to “retrieve” next. “Why do we need Allegra for this part? It's not like she's a specialist at anything---Octavia tells her to do something, and she does it...we could just get any 'bot to come along and help!”

Harmony almost spoke up in agreement, but thought better of it after she realized that Melody had a death grip on the steering wheel. “Octavia has her reasons,” she reminded the petite gynoid.

“And we don't question them,” Melody added, not looking back. “Ever.”

Five minutes later, the trio were outside of Allegra's apartment building. It always annoyed Siren that Allegra looked as if she'd just emerged from a volleyball game---her crop top, worn over a sports bra, barely hid her C-cup breasts, just as her jean shorts left little to the imagination regarding her figure. Her golden-blonde hair had been done up in a high ponytail, courtesey of a scrunchie; ankle socks and tightly-laced trainers rounded out the ensemble. Her blue eyes swivelled to regard Siren for less than a second before she climbed into the back seat to take her place next to the smaller gynoid, who just stared out the opposite window, refusing to look at her.

“Apologies for the delay....” Melody gave an overly theatrical smile as she glanced at Allegra, who just stared straight ahead without even acknowledging her. “You've received the briefing?” Harmony inquired.

The blonde gynoid's ponytail barely moved as she nodded.

“Then we don't need to waste any more time,” Melody beamed.

An utterance of “Picking up Allegra was a waste of time” was barely audible from Siren's mouth as the SUV pulled away from the apartment; Melody showed no sign of having heard the smaller gynoid, and Harmony just stared at the floor.

Melody engaged Allegra in small talk for the next few miles of the drive---that is, Melody did 90% of the talking, and Allegra just nodded, occasionally chiming in with “yes”, “no” or a few pithy comments of her own. Her voice sounded human enough, but it was the tone of her replies---as if she'd rehearsed them, or was simply reciting them from memory. Harmony couldn't stand talking to the blonde gynoid for more than a few minutes at a time---it was a bit too much like playing with a pull-string doll for her liking. Allegra could converse with others and sound perfectly natural---she just never did so around Harmony. It's times like this that I miss Cadence more than ever, the redheaded gynoid realized. She was a true----

“ALPA vehicle incoming.” The near-monotone statement from Siren cut into Harmony's thoughts. “I...don't know if they're aware of our presence or not---”

“If they don't see us, it doesn't matter,” Melody quickly replied. “Let's just keep going!”

Harmony didn't even bother glaring at her---it had been a while since they'd lost Cadence, after all.

The SUV drove onwards towards its objective.....

“Incoming hostiles....okay, maybe not 'hostile', but they're not ours.” Casey's assesment of the SUV drew an annoyed glance from Kylie. “They're not registered to the Coalition,” she began, only for a readout on the touchscreen built into the dashboard to light up. “....those are the two who attacked the Chair—Oberon!” A quiet gasp punctuated her realization---

---followed by a slightly louder---and more startled---one from Casey.

“ feeling okay?” Despite her gaze staying on the road, the concern in Kylie's voice was evident.

“I....guess so,” Casey quietly replied. “It felt like...I don't know how to explain it.” She shuddered in her seat.

Kylie nodded. “You can run the diagnostics when we get to the briefing....unless you think it was something serious enough to warrant a checkup right now....” She glanced over her shoulder for the briefest of moments; “You're not getting any positives from your anti-virus software?” she inquired.

“Not even a false positive. It was just...a twinge.”

“A 'twinge' isn't enough to trigger that kind of a response,” Kylie countered. “And we're stuck on a very, very tight schedule, so we have to get to the briefing before you can run your diagnostic---”

Casey scoffed. “I can't run a self-diagnostic in transit?”

“Do I have to remind you that the GPS in this car isn't shielded?” Kylie muttered. “You run so much as a basic hard drive scan....” She shook her head. “If it was just a twinge, like you said, we can wait until we get to the briefing for you to run the diagnostic.” She sighed. “.....and as for why I borrowed a car with unshielded systems, it's.....a long story.”

“As long as we can get to the briefing,” Casey replied, “I don't care....I just want this op to be over with.”

Any and all residual hostility Kylie had retained from the incident at the apartment block had slowly evaporated over the drive---she wasn't mad at Casey, or her other fellow Field Agents, but at Rae. And the “argument” had started with Rae in tears---that, combined with her “I've lost enough” remarks, meant that Kylie had managed to get herself pissed off for the stupidest possible reason. There's a time for the big girl panties and a time for being sensitive, she reminded herself. Arguing with someone who wants to keep you from getting fragged on an op is not the time for the BGPs....

The drive felt short---maybe it was just Kylie going over the day's events as she drove, or maybe it was due to a distinct lack of traffic on the road to the Lawson house. A quick glance at Casey revealed that all was still well---as far as appearances were concerned. The “twinge,” whatever it was, hadn't yet returned.

“.....did someone get wasted on wine coolers before we got here?”

Casey's question, accompanied by the sight of a Land Rover plowed through the fence on the left side of the front lawn, did little to squash any lingering fears Kylie may have had about the briefing. She felt herself mouthing the words “probably Tom”, but didn't speak them---the last time she'd worked with him, and seen one of many displays of his “righteous fury”, still weighed heavily on her mind. The words that left her lips instead were “Let's just get inside, okay?”---the “okay” clipped off by a nervous breath, coming out as “'keh”, as if she'd nearly choked on it.

“You sure you don't need a checkup?” Casey half-joked.

Other than an eye-roll that was half sarcastic and half tired, Kylie didn't acknowledge the remark. “They're all waiting for us to go in and sit down,” she stated. “Let's not keep them waiting.”

With a shrug, Casey followed her up the walk to the front door.

“.....and I think you'll find it's more than enough for what you need.”

Max Mills' smile was repaid in kind by Octavia. “I...appreciate your generosity, Mr. Mills, but this hardly seems like something to be paid back with the information you requested.” She didn't even need to glance across the table at Harmony, Melody, Allegra or Siren; everything they saw (and thought) was being shared with her on a secure WiFi link-up.

At that precise moment, three of them deeply distrusted Max Mills.

“You're sure this isn't worth....a little something?” Max offered. “The least I can do is demonstrate....actually, forget I mentioned it.”

Octavia frowned. “Demonstrate what?”

“No,''s nothing, really. I don't think you'd have any use for it.”

It was a classic bluff---ever since her rise to the top of United Robotronics' power structure, Octavia had gone over countless notes regarding similar (if not identical) attempts to use “half-truths” or clever negotiating to get what they wanted. “If you're so sure it's 'nothing', why bring it up in the first place?” she inquired. Her polite smile earned an annoyed look from Melody, which she ignored.

“....well, for starters, one of your people passed it to me a few months ago,” Max admitted. “Apparently, you people have ethical concerns about using it....” He grinned. “.....but in the....right hands....”

Melody gasped, Harmony looked worried, and even Siren was a bit perturbed....but Octavia said nothing.

“The 'Helios' program,” Max continued. “In your hands, nothing but an interesting little side project, a...coding exercise, I believe the term was. I never thought to trace it back to you people, but....well, after a few months and no phone calls to 'give it back', it seemed safe to assume that nobody wanted it back. So I took a crack at it, made a few....changes....and I'm thinking of marketing it as a security tool. Hence the demonstration.”

“The one you wanted us to forget?” Octavia gave a slight chuckle. “Not exactly promising...”

Max's grin didn't waver. “Well, it's not like I could put it off any time soon. See, I know that at least one person in this room---maybe more---happens to be a....gynoid, I think the term is?”

He retrieved his smartphone. “......and that gynoid is....'carrying'.....the product I intend to demonstrate.”

As Octavia, Harmony, Melody and Siren watched, Max nodded at Allegra. “Her. It's in her as we speak.”

Ignoring the infuriated look on Melody's face, Octavia glanced at Max. “What, exactly, is 'in her as we speak'?”

“Helios. Your name for it, not mine....but considering what it does, it fits. It's not exactly subtle---and it's not an instant-action thing, either. It's on a...time delay, considering she picked it up from another carrier----”

“It sounds like your 'security product' is actually a virus,” Octavia mused. “Not to mention the reason you're---”

“Not the reason you called me here, I know. But I'm a to the international robotics game, after all. I'm more of a 'people person', and dealing with.....product...isn't really my thing.” Something about the way he said “product” earned him a pissed-off glare from Melody, but he kept going. “I only tweaked a few bits of code in it, not the base...”

Harmony and Melody glanced at Allegra, moving a chair over to sit farther away from her.

Octavia regarded Allegra with a bemused glance. Whatever happened next would be...interesting.

Part 7

“....whoever attacked us wasn't after anyone specifically,” Vicki surmised. “EMP ordinance, non-lethal tactics and a hit-and-run strategy.....they were trained to fight androids and gynoids, or at least ordered to.”

“Apparently, they weren't trained to leave property intact,” Rae muttered. “They did break a few windows---”

Vicki glared at her, allowing Harris to interject. “Windows can be replaced. Casualties would've been a LOT harder to overcome.” He glanced at Alicia, standing by the still-snoring Ted. “Whoever sent those guys has a lot to answer for,” the blonde gynoid intoned. “As for us....”

“Epsilon,” Kylie finished, sighing. “I was hoping we were done looking for him....”

A shudder from Casey cut her off. “'s nothing,” she assured her colleague. “Just a twinge, like I said---”

“Anti-viral scans are picking up a foreign program in your systems, Case.” Rae was at her fellow gynoid's side in an instant. “As a fellow gynoid Field Agent,” she sighed, “I just have to ask: were you swapping selfware upgrades with someone from---”

“I didn't!” Casey assured her. “It's....just a twi----a it just me or is it really warm in here?”

Rae's intended question about the temperature was cut off by Vicki: “Rae, get away from her.”

“Vicki....what are you---”

“Her power cell's red-lining....she's been infected with some kind of virus!”

“What's happening to Allegra?!” Melody was halfway out of her chair just after the ponytailed gynoid began shuddering. “What did you do---”

“You mean, what did Helios do,” Max corrected. “I told you, she picked it up from---”

A letter opener embedded itself in the wall a few inches to the left of Max's chair. “What did you do to her?” Melody growled.

Max adjusted his collar, looking almost bored. “Helios is overclocking her internal power cell, faster than any standard activity would. It's effectively the same effect that mainlining pure espresso has on a human heart, though I haven't really tested what happens when it....fully kicks in.” He steepled his fingers, leaning back; “If anything,” he added, “you should be pissed off at the carrier she picked it up from....if you can even find them.”

“You made your point,” Octavia conceded. “Now shut it off, please.”

“'Shut it off'?” Max echoed, chuckling. “Miss Martinet, I can't 'shut it off' any more than I can 'shut off' my lungs, or my sense of smell. The Helios program is doing what it was designed to do. It's integrated with her---”

“MAKE IT STOP!” Melody shouted. “She's going to break apart if she keeps shaking---”

Again, Max chuckled. “The shaking is just her system trying to sort out the new code. It'll stop in a second or so----” Even as he spoke, Allegra had stopped shuddering violently. “And there it is,” he beamed. “The next part should be interesting....I've only hypothesized about what it can do---”

Melody's chair hit the floor with a dull clong; in three seconds, her hands were on Max's lapels. “What will it do to her?!” she hissed.

“.....Helios was the god who carried the sun across the sky,” Max whispered. “Let that sink in for a moment...”

All eyes in the room turned to the stock-still, wide-eyed figure of Allegra, staring blankly at the far wall.

“I...I can't see anything.” Casey whispered. “....Kylie, you're still here, right?”

“I'm still here,” Kylie murmured. “I'm right next to you, Case....we're all still here...” She glanced at Vicki with a panicked look. “What's happening to her?! Why is she---”

Rae guided her to a kneel as Vicki approached. “Her systems are redlining,” the brunette gynoid replied, her tone grim. “Everything is overheating....her ocular sensors couldn't stand up to such a sudden, sharp increase in temperature---” She flinched as Casey's hand closed around her wrist. “I....I can't feel your arm, Vicki...I know I'm touching your arm, but I....I can't feel it.....” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “....what's happening to me?!”

“Alicia, wake Ted up,” Harris ordered. “Casey, try to stay calm. We're going to help you---”

Any trace of calmness in his own demeanor vanished as soon as twin gouts of flame erupted from Casey's ruined optics.


“We can't do anything until we know what you've been affected with,” Vicki began, but Rae was already wiping the tears from the stricken gynoid's cheeks. “We're not gonna let this take you, babe,” she whispered. “We can help you---”

“Rae, get away from her. You might contract whatever is doing this to her---”

“And you have a better idea?!” the tanned gynoid snapped. “She's dying, Vicki---we have to do something!”

For the first time since her beating at the hands of Epsilon and Oberon, Vicki felt utterly helpless.


Harmony didn't bother glancing at her “sister”. The sight of Allegra with fire shooting out of her eyes, nostrils and slack-jawed mouth was both horrifying and---loathe as she was to admit it---fascinating. At the same time, she was holding Siren close, hoping to spare her the sight of a fellow gynoid being obliterated by this Helios program.

“From a technical standpoint,” Max continued, ignoring the proximity of Melody's hands to his throat, “it is a rather interesting phenomena to behold---”

“She's turning red,” Octavia intoned, her own voice a bit too flat for her liking. “Why is she---”

A stunned laugh---from Max---prompted another growl from Melody. “She's trying to vent,” Max breathed, “to expel the heat from her system....but they're all failing at once...” Harmony practically dragged Siren away from the stricken gynoid, moving to stand by Octavia. “It''s more than I ever expected---”

A backhand strike from Melody sent Max to the floor. “Give me the order,” she rasped, “and I'll snap his neck!”

“....he killed her,” Harmony murmured, “put the virus in her----”

Octavia didn't answer either gynoid. Her stare was fixed on Allegra, rapidly changing from red to orange, to a rather alarming shade of purple. The chair beneath the doomed gynoid was already beginning to burn from the intense heat output from her more intimate orifices, and her clothing wouldn't last much longer. There was no way Octavia, Harmony, Melody or Siren could try to shut her off without risking infection themselves; the gynoid was, quite simply, doomed.

Even as Melody threatened Max's life (and his manhood), Octavia never moved to help Allegra.

“Ted's still out cold....he can't help us.” Alicia's words carried the faintest hint of sadness, as if she knew Casey was about to die. “One of us will have to—-”

“Any of you tries it,” Harris interjected, “you'll catch the same thing she has.” Even as Casey was turning from purple to a rather alarming shade of hot white, Vicki and Rae had moved her from the sofa to the kitchen counter---the only surface that wouldn't burn or melt from her “output”. “I'll shut her off. At the very least, it'll stop her from going into a full meltdown---”

“MAKE IT STOP!” Casey wailed. “PLEASE!”

Vicki, watching from the entrance to the kitchen, couldn't speak. She'd seen the effects of other viruses, with the hated Stylo virus among the most lethal, before....but this was just wrong. It was more visceral, or at least more immediate, than the Stylo virus---and more immediately dangerous.

Harris recoiled; smoke wafted off of the burnt flesh of his hand. “Switches are fused....get my phone!”

Rae, standing next to Vicki, was already hugging the brunette gynoid and crying into her shoulder. Kylie, from her seat at the table with her head bowed, was uttering something under her breath---probably a prayer.

“....IT.....HURTS.......PLEASE MAKE IT STOP.......”

Casey's pitiful wails went unanswered. Even as Harris---letting his burnt left hand rest at his side---tried to turn her off with his phone, she still felt the pain of her body being burned from the inside.

And Vicki Lawson, watching it all, felt utterly powerless to do anything.

“Make it stop, please,” Siren whispered, clinging to Harmony for support. A fleeting thought of maternity---of being Siren's mother, rather than her sister---passed through the redheaded gynoid's processors.

Melody had finally stopped trying to choke Max Mills, dumbstruck by the horrific immolation of Allegra.

Octavia Martinet, CEO of United Robotronics, simply....stared.

Whatever had ignited within Allegra was now burning through her---holes were forming in her skin from where the heat had proven too much for her internal fireproofing. Her ample bosom had swelled, at first---”inflated”, no doubt, by the same heat that was destroying her---but after a few seconds of something that, under different circumstances, might've been comedic, her breasts simply exploded outwards, sending superheated gel, burning synthflesh and charred cloth flying.

Her nether regions, now freed from the confines of her jean shorts and underwear, were mangled beyond all recognition by the flames that had consumed her. The shapely curves of her rear, so effectively emphasized by her clothes, were gone---melted into blackened, ruined plastic. Worse than these, of course, was her face---looking for all the world like a chrome death's head, with synthetic flesh dripping off the metallic “bones”. What might've been a scream worked its way past her rapidly-blackening teeth....

...and then, mercifully, something in Allegra's midsection detonated, sending the gynoid and her chair backwards---and that, for some unknown reason, was enough to trigger the fire suppression systems. A rain of chemical foam poured over the ruined body of Allegra, effectively drowning the fire in a matter of seconds.

A trace of something wet rolled down Octavia's cheek. A milisecond's analysis revealed that it wasn't cooled-off gel from Allegra's detonating boobs, or a far-flung drop of fire-suppressant foam.

“......well,” Max Mills breathed. “I think, ah.....that....was enough of a demonstration, wouldn't you agree?”

None of the four gynoids left standing even turned to look at him as he made his way out of the room.

Vicki's gaze never left the countertop where Casey lay, unmoving.

Even as Harris---still swearing under his breath as Rae and Kylie tended to his hand (the heat emanating from Casey had effectively seared his flesh as he pressed her emergency deactivation switch)---made his way past her, the brunette gynoid still stared. Casey's ruined optics stared up at the ceiling, her mouth (which, as with all of her face, was surprisingly intact) frozen in a silent, pained scream.

One word echoed through Vicki's processors: Why?!

“.....backups are still viable,” Alicia was saying, “so we can probably start the transfer as soon as---Vicki? Hey, Vicki, are you in standby mode or what?” She snapped her fingers in front of the Field Agent's eyes.

“.....backups, viable, right. Start the transfer....” Every word was mumbled, as if Vicki was just waking up.

Alicia shook her head. “I'd say 'go home', but, well, you already are....” She sighed. “Just....take a break, for now,” she advised. “We'll get this sorted out. Somehow---”

“Sorted out,” Rae called out, prompting a hiss from Harris as she accidentally tightened the wrap around his hand. “A trusted friend and fellow Field Agent damn near went up in flames, right in front of us, and you say we'll get this sorted out?!” Ignoring Kylie's pleas to stay with Harris, the tanned gynoid marched up to Alicia and Vicki, glaring at both of them. “You don't even know what the hell she was infected with,” she hissed.

“How could we have known?!” Alicia countered.

“How about we just....get Casey off the countertop?” Vicki quietly suggested. “Please?”

“....get her out of here,” Octavia muttered, finally turning away from the ruined, burnt figure of Allegra. “Get the cleaners to remove what's left of her, and just---”

“You're throwing her away?!” Melody hissed. “Just she was trash?!”

Harmony looked away. “....we can use her backups,” she offered, “give her a new body---”

“Mills takes priority. How exactly did he gain access to the Helios project?” Octavia returned to her seat, still refusing to look at Allegra's charred remains. “Helios was meant to be under lock and key, not even accessible to me....”

Siren, looking as if she'd rather be anywhere else in the building than that room, spoke up: “.....Mills of our people 'passed it' to him. Said we 'have ethical concerns' about if Helios was something we only just got rid of....” She glanced at Melody, almost expecting a rebuke....but to her surprise, the brunette was nearly weeping openly at the sight of Allegra's destroyed form. “ could've been leaked,” she quietly added, “or even bought....”

“Mills had no idea the DVS even existed before now,” Octavia countered. “It's....”

“We knew about him,” Siren reminded her. “Maybe....this was him trying to keep us from....” She shook her head. “I don't know. It all sounds too.....convenient. Something doesn't add up---”

The sound of a chair smashing into the wall cut her off; Melody had practically flipped her own chair over as she stood up. “How can you just SIT THERE,” she snapped, “STARING AT HER LIKE THAT?! We need to get to her backups, we need to restore her.....” Her voice bordered on near panic with every syllable.

As Harmony and Siren watched, Octavia rose from her chair, staring at Melody and the ruined Allegra....

…..and, without a word, strode to the door, gently pushed it open, and walked out of the room.

Part 8


Anton Malvineous stared at the screen showing the readouts of Casey's cessation of function. “It's not Stylo,” he muttered. “And it's not anything I've written before. Whatever it's horrible.” He brushed a few stray hairs away from his eyes; “Whatever this virus is,” he continued, “it's new.”

“All the more reason for you to call in Vicki. It's time we tell her---”

“Tell her that we've been hiding more from her?” Anton tonelessly replied. “That'll go over well, won't it....” He closed the tracker program showing Casey's COF. “Everything that's gone wrong so far has gone wrong for the simple reason that we couldn't tell Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson the truth!” He lashed out with a savage backhand that smashed into the monitor, pushing it to the very precipice of the desk. “Every lie we tell her 'for her own good' is hurting someone,” he hissed. “How long will it take until one of our lies ends with someone's death?!”

“.....Anton, we haven't---”

The doors of Anton's office swung open, nearly knocked off their hinges by a red/white blur.

“......Vicki,” the roboticist breathed, “”

“Rae told me you had a tracker in Casey,” the brunette gynoid replied. “You saw what happened to her, the pain she was feeling...and you didn't deactivate her.” Her monotone was just a bit colder, a bit less friendly than usual. “You could've shut her off, turned off her systems one by one....ANYTHING to keep her from feeling any more pain.....”

Her eyes glowed a brilliant, chilling sapphire. “ why didn't you?”

It didn't take her enhanced aural sensors to tell that Anton was quietly sobbing. “....I couldn't,” he whispered, his hands brushing against the keyboard. “....just last time.....I saw the flames, and I....I could feel the fire on my back......” Even as V.I.C.I approached, the weeping roboticist didn't flinch away. “I'm sorry, Vicki, I....I truly's....there's no excuse for this, none at all......”

Slowly, the glow in V.I.C.I's eyes faded. “.....Anton....”

A hand rested on her shoulder. “You didn't know,” a female voice quietly informed her.

“Didn't know....what?”

“That the DVS tried to recruit him after he'd left the Great Dirty WorldWide Web....or that they repaid him for his refusal by burning down his newly-built offices and his house, with his wife and child still inside. He tried to break through and save them, but...ever since then, he's suffered from intermittent bouts of pyrophobia----”

“IT'S NOT FEAR OF FIRE!” Anton cried out. “It's fear.....fear of losing them.....”

His stare locked onto Vicki. “.....of losing you....”

The female behind Vicki stepped forward, clad in a hooded duster that obscured her figure from view. “It's okay,” she assured Anton. “You won't lose're not going to lose anyone, Anton. I'm here.”

Even as the mysterious female consoled the professor, Vicki realized that everything---Epsilon's rampage, the impending exile of Oberon, and this new, horrifying virus that had killed off Casey---was casting a wide shadow over everyone in the ALPA. “....I....I'm sorry,” she murmured. “I didn't....he never mentioned them.”

“It's a painful topic for him...but that's not what you're here for.”

The calmness in the cloaked female's voice was somewhat....eerie, yet soothing. “You know why I'm here?”

“You're here because you need help tracking Epsilon, and you wanted to get out of your own house before the grief consumed your every waking thought.” The female led Anton to a chair, removing her duster to drape over him....and revealing a familiar set of pigtails. “And I know that because Anton knew---I've been helping him, helping Ted and generally trying to keep things moving smoothly in the ALPA.”

She turned, confirming the brunette gynoid's suspicions. “'s not like I'm using this as a vacation to get away from touring with the Starlet Dolls, either,” she added.

“.....I...I don't...” Vicki took a step forward. “You?!”

“Before you ask, I'm not planning on making business cards that say 'Sophia Starlet, Secret Agent'---”

The gynoid pop star didn't back out of Vicki's embrace. “...this....this is what I needed,” the Field Agent quietly admitted. “You're....actually with the ALPA now? Paid duties and all?”

Sophia stepped away from Vicki, chuckling nervously. “My 'paid duties' were....more limited, originally,” she admitted. “Mostly, I was supposed to keep an eye on androids and gynoids in the entertainment industry, make sure none of them were being exploited...standard stuff. The Dolls' tour of Japan was a great way for me to do that....but then all of this stuff with Epsilon happened....” She glanced over her shoulder at Anton. “...and I knew that I could do more. A lot more.”

“And he didn't talk you into it? Give you the 'sales pitch', or anything---”

“She wanted to do this,” Anton croaked. “Wanted to help, to make an impact....” He dried his eyes. “Dennis was hellbent to keep her on the tour, but...she talked him into it.” He gave a weak laugh that faded quickly into a sob. “I tried to talk her out of it....”

“You never watched the Starlet Dolls cartoon series, did you?” Sophia teased. “I may not be built Tonka tough, but I can handle myself---”

Vicki gave a light cough that sounded remarkably like the word “batteries”.

“....and the whole 'I need Dennis to change my batteries' problem has, in fact, been corrected,” the pop starlet continued, without missing a beat. “I can change my own power cells out with minimal fuss, and a few Field Agents have been giving me lessons in self-defense, evasive driving and stuff like that.” She grinned. “They all say I'm a quick study---”

“Which is great,” Vicki acquiesced, “but....this Epsilon thing is.....”

“Complicated?” Sophia offered.

“Yes! Inter-agency politics, Epsilon freaking dying even while we're hunting him....and don't get me started on what happened with Oberon.” Vicki sat down next to Anton, shaking her head. “And what happened to K.C...”

Sophia nodded gravely. “I saw. Something redlined her power cells, causing a full system failure and multiple component malfunctions at once....pretty gory stuff. Well, gory for...our kind, I guess....” She sighed. “I know the risks of the job, Vicki. This isn't a game for me, and it's not a publicity stunt....I want to do this. I want to be able to help androids and gynoids like you do, and...I don't know, just do something with my life that means something---”

“Your music means something to a lot of people,” Vicki assured her. “Including me!”

“I know,” Sophia replied, “but....something tells me the 'Feed the World' approach won't help in this case...”

She let her sentence trail off as Anton rose from the chair. “....Casey can be saved, if her backups are found quickly enough,” he stated. “As for us, we've got enough on our plate already---starting with Epsilon.” He gestured to a nearby MSX terminal; “The implants used to create Epsilon give off a unique energy signature,” he explained, “and I've been able to keep tabs on him---well, very faint tabs, but tabs nonetheless---over the past few hours.”

Vicki and Sophia went over the last known locations Epsilon had “visited”, quickly establishing a pattern: “He's been trying himself, almost.” Vicki leaned in, quickly realizing another fact. “He's hitting all the old SPS chop shops,” she murmured. “Some of those still have ALPA security teams stationed inside---”

“Why isn't he hiting hospitals?” Sophia cut in. “I mean, he is still partially organic....right?”

Anton shook his head. “At the risk of overusing a cliché, I might as well say it: Epsilon is more machine than man, now. Everything about his organic body that was deemed to be a 'weakness' had to be removed, or at least modified. He's effectively been castrated, for example, and all subsequent...organs...were....” He turned away, fighting the urge to retch. “...sorry, I...I read over the notes to Project Epsilon....what they did to him was utterly horrible.” He shook his head. “....anyway....the only thing they weren't able to perfect was the mental conditioning---as evidenced by his repeated attempts to contact Kirsten Sanderson.”

“Which explains why she's been taken into protective custody...” Vicki nodded. “So we don't need to deploy any teams to hospitals. Anything else we need to know?”

“Not about Epsilon, but....” Anton cleared his throat, his fingers flying over the keys of another MSX. “It seems the, ah, virus that...killed...Casey was formerly a product of....” He stopped, blinking rapidly---almost as if he was trying to determine whether or not the text he was reading was actually on the screen in front of him. “Ah, may want to take a look at this.”

The brunette gynoid glanced at the monitor. “Formerly a product of United Robotronics....”

“From this year,” Sophia chimed in. “...doesn't exactly strike me as something that'd be high on the Christmas best-seller lists, though....”

“I have a feeling this wasn't meant for mass-market release,” Vicki muttered. “However this thing got out, it's a secondary priority---and I know we need to find out how Casey got infected in the first place, but...” She turned away.

Anton exchanged a worried glance with Sophia. “....Vicki?”

“ should probably help with recovering Casey. I've fought Epsilon before....he knows me, I guess you could say. If you or any other operative tries to stop him, they'll probably get ground into the pavement or worse. I'll do what I can to keep him contained...if I need any help, I'll call HQ. I just don't want anyone else to go through what I went through...” Brief, fleeting memories of her fight with Epsilon and Oberon passed through Vicki's processors.

“ shouldn't have to go through this alone, Vicki,” Sophia quietly replied. “This's like a---”

“Whatever it's 'like',” Vicki assured her, “what it is usually tends to be a lot more complicated....” She managed a smile. “.....and I can handle it. But if I need any help, you'll be on my speed-dial.”

The gynoid singer grinned. “Good to hear. So....what's your next move?”

“Finding Epsilon. Whatever happens, I have to get to him before....well, before whoever used the Helios virus can find him.” Vicki headed for the door. “Actually....Sophia, I changed my mind.”

She glanced back over her shoulder, grinning. “Wanna drive?”

Traffic was minimal as Max Mills made his way to the next “appointment” of the day---the “demonstration” of Helios had made a slight change to his intended itenerary. He'd been scheduled to appear at a meeting for any and all parties involved with an ongoing dispute between multiple fast food chains accused of “copying” the now-famous methods of Fazbear Entertainment, but with the Helios thing having gone a bit longer than he'd expected, the meeting was no longer anywhere near the top of his priorities list.

Then again, it had been near the middle-to-low end for a while. He'd met with the proprietors of some of the restaurants (Candy's Burger and Fries, despite being the newest of the bunch, had the most promise) a few days before, but....most of it was the kind of mindless corporate BS he'd come to loathe.

His little cat-and-mouse with the DVS was far more stimulating.

Watching the Helios-stricken gynoid succumbing to the program had ben an enlightening experience. For one, the gynoid herself was more than likely just as advanced as the girl whose “black box” had been recovered from Mills' factory (he'd already had his suspicions before that incident that the world of robotics was far more advanced than animatronics and Actroids), yet Helios had taken her down in...minutes.

Many parties would pay handsomely for that kind of protection against “synthetics”.

Secondly, Octavia Martinet---despite her cool, apparently unphased demeanour---had shown a rather glaring weakness during the “demonstration” by refusing to help the stricken gynoid. Her own employees were, in her eyes, expendable; if that could be proven for humans as well as synthetics, Mills could easily sow discontent among the ranks by way of a few choice e-mails.


Several sharp, blaring noises cut him off; his Acura had apparently begun to veer into the wrong lane while he was going over what he'd learned. Anyone else in his position would've panicked.

Then again, few in his position had seen---or survived---far worse things than a car crash.

“Driver,” he sighed---most of his employees had accepted the fact that he rarely (if ever) remembered their names, and chose to call them by their titles instead---”if this is some kind of protest about working later shifts than usual and missing sleep, I'll be more than happy to negotiate a new schedule for you...”

Two minutes passed without any comment from the driver's seat of the Acura, now slowly listing to the right side of the road. “....and I have a feeling this is a bit deeper than shift changes,” Mills sighed. “If you're going for the 'slow down, pull over and walk away without saying a word' routine, I would at least appreciate a decent explanation....”

As the Acura slowed to a stop, Max noticed a thin plume of smoke wafting up from the driver's seat.

“.....a smoke break? You pulled over for a smoke.....break....”

The realization hit him mere seconds after he saw the smoke: this wasn't a smoke break, because everyone employed by Max Mills, in any capacity, was forbidden from smoking around him (he'd had asthma during his youth, and lost a favorite uncle to lung cancer). The thought of the Helios-stricken gynoid from Martinet's office slowly crept back into Max's thoughts as he unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over the arm rest of the Acura, to get a better look at the driver....and nearly fell back in his seat a second later.

Half of the woman's face had, for lack of a better term, melted off---revealing a metallic skull not unlike that of the unfortunate Helios victim. Her left “eye”---a camera assembly of some kind---had collapsed in on itself, more than likely due to the sheer intensity of the heat. Half of her tongue looked like burnt beef jerky.

“....this....this is impossible,” Max breathed. “I hired her myself....checked the drug test results...she's human!”

No other cars were slowing down to check on the scene, despite the Acura's earlier erratic driving. Without any would-be witnesses, Max grabbed his ex-driver's purse and rooted through it, finding...nothing. No wallet (a massive red flag, considering how any passing police officer might ask for the ersatz driver's license in the event of a crash or other infraction), no cash....nothing.

All too quickly, he realized what had happened: his driver, the actual driver, had been....replaced.

With the Acura's engine still idling, Max exited the car as quickly as he dared, moving to the front seat to ease the now-useless driver into the back. What unnerved him about the situation wasn't the fact that his driver had been replaced with this...formerly-perfect facsimile of her. Nor was he disturbed at the possibility that the “switch” could've been made months before. What truly rankled him was the fact that the synthetic facsimile of his driver had, by means unknown, been stricken with Helios---a program that Max himself had only just begun testing on fully-functioning units.

The why wasn't important, nor was the how. All that mattered was the what next.

“Why” wasn't too hard to guess---someone had been watching Max, and as soon as he expressed an inkling of interest in the DVS, that someone decided to swap out his real driver with the gynoid, probably to have her “deliver” Max to some unknown fate. “How” was even easier to figure out---give the real driver vacation tickets (only rank amateurs, psychopaths and those who feared nothing flat-out killed people in this line of work) or otherwise remove her from the equation, and in comes the fake.

As for the “what next”.....

With the ruined gynoid now slumped in the back seat, her head turned to hide the damage to her face as best as possible, Max took her place in the front seat and eased the Acura back onto the road. Already, his line of thinking turned to the process of making phone calls to “the right people” regarding this...

….which left him completely unaware that the defunct gynoid in the back seat was far from his only worry.

The gynoid's purse was, in fact, not empty. Experimental, nano-thin layers of flexible circuitry---a primitive sort of audio transmitter/recorder, based on older technology used during the Cold War---were sewn between the innermost and outer-most layers, thus detecting and “storing” sounds made near the purse, and sending them after a certain period of time. Max had no idea that the purse would capture sounds, nor did he know what impact they would have on his life and career.

All he knew was that he had to ditch the gynoid who'd been posing as his driver.

Any old dumping ground would've sufficed---Max would've dropped the 'bot into the nearest sewer if he knew he could get away with it---but there was the small matter of would-be Good Samaritans possibly stumbling upon the scene. Anyone he called would ask questions, as well---none of which he could answer easily. Thus, his course of action was pretty much already decided by circumstance: it would be an in-house job.

Quite literally, in this case---the gynoid would have to be dismantled and disposed of at Mills' house. Privacy wouldn't be an issue, he could easily bring the 'body' in however he chose without getting stopped by any of his neighbors or a random police officer, and he had the tools to take the ersatz driver apart, figure out who had built her, and then make the appropriate calls to find out more.

Traffic thinned out as Max found the necessary exit to leave the highway and get back to his own residence; he made a mental note to call his secretary (hoping she hadn't been replaced as well) and reschedule the meeting he was ditching.

Five minutes after the “smoke break”, Max reached his penthouse, guiding the Acura into the parking garage.

No attendants greeted him on his way to the lift---all the better, considering who (and what) he was hauling.

Seven floors up, in the refitted bedroom that served as a workshop to test out various anti-bot software (and, occasionally, hardware) on “volunteers”, Max set to work removing the defunct gynoid's clothing. It was...odd, stripping her to her unmentionables without any remark or even movement in response; part of him felt utterly repelled by it, as if he was undressing a corpse.

And yet...

A brief smirk crossed Max's face; whoever had designed the gynoid duplicate of his driver had, by means as yet unknown to Max, created a facsimile that was more than likely 94% accurate to the real person. He knew his chauffeur had been a model, at one point, and the 'bot's figure was a perfect match. Even the birthmark on the left shin (accidentally revealed during a drunken Christmas party two years prior) was there. All too soon, Max found himself wondering just how....intimate....the anatomical fidelity of this ersatz driver was....

….and just as quickly, the thought was pushed out of his mind. Work now, fun later.

The toolkit in the drawer allowed him to peel back what was left of the gynoid's face---the only part of her that ruined the illusion of her humanity. It felt...disturbingly close to real skin, instead of the cheep, latex-rubber feel Max was somehow expecting. The chrome “skull” beneath, with its exposed motors and wiring, didn't help.

Frowning, Max turned the motionless figure on her side, glancing at her flawless back. He had no idea what he was looking for, in all honesty---a tattoo that doubled as a maker's mark, perhaps, or an opened port...any clue as to who thought it would be a good idea to replace his real driver with....this. And maybe even a hint as to why, other than dipping his toes in waters that were better left undisturbed.

He stared at the nearly-naked figure, his thoughts stuck somewhere between arousal and logical analysis.

“What,” he muttered, “am I going to do with you?”

His smartphone, resting on a table with a random assortment of tools, rang just as he asked the question out loud, giving him a perfect excuse to not delve too far into it. He crossed the room in a few quick steps to grab the phone, not looking back at the gynoid. The lone word he spoke wasn't anywhere near as polite as most people at least tried to be in these cases: “What?”

“Mr. Mills, sir, we just got a call from your driver.”

Max glanced back over his shoulder, scowling. “And where is she?”

“The Poconos, sir. Apparently, she received an all-expenses paid vacation, with your name on the note that was delivered with the plane tickets---”

“Then someone's managed to forge my signature for the sixth time this year. I never gave her those tickets.”

“Well, sir, she's under the impression that she can stay there for....the rest of the month. Should we tell her to come back, or---”

“No. Tell her....” Max closed his eyes, trying not to think of all the ways he was going to make Octavia Martinet pay dearly for this. “....tell her to enjoy herself. She's earned a break.” He managed a smile. “I appreciate the thought, and all, time, only call if it's an emergency. Life or death.”

“Understood, Mr. Mills.”

The phone clicked off, allowing Max to return his attention to the gynoid on the table. “She earns a break,” he mused, “and you.....” He sighed, picking up a power screwdriver.

“ should be glad you can't feel anything. I sure as hell know I'd hate being...taken apart...if I felt it....”

Part 9

“ you've been spying? All this time, you've been following operatives around San Jose?”

“Less 'spying', more 'recon', Vicki. I wasn't exactly built for stealth....” Sophia giggled at the thought. “Though I would love to try the whole 'Solid Snake' look for a music video,” she teased. “If I could think of a good spy title for a song—-”

“License to Love?” Vicki offered.

After a few seconds' worth of silence, both gynoids burst out laughing. “That is way too corny,” the pop singer chortled, “but it's a start---”

“We're approaching a red zone,” the voice of SARIA stated. “ALPA operatives have tagged the area as being potentially hazardous to android/gynoid agents....we may need to find a detour.” The Regency---having been repaired enough since its last outing to return to the road---slowed to a stop at a traffic light, allowing its occupants to see the after-effects of Epsilon having “visited” the area. “And this is the part where I wish we were in an armored personnel carrier,” Vicki muttered.

Sophia regarded the cars Epsilon had flipped over with a slightly arched eyebrow. “, Epsilon. What---”

“I didn't really interact with him before he was...conscripted...into the Epsilon project,” Vicki admitted. “And all I know about him as Epsilon is that he was pretty much made to fight. Everything that would've made him weak was....” Her eyes squeezed shut. “....removed.”

She didn't bother opening her eyes---she knew Sophia was recoiling at the news. “Removed?!”

“They didn't let me read all the files,” the brunette gynoid continued. “I know they tampered with his brain, tried to neutralize parts of it, or use drug therapies's just too much to even think about.” She shook her head, her eyes slowly opening as she reminisced about what she knew regarding Epsilon. “And...mistakes were made,” she added. “On both sides.”

“I heard some of what happened with Oberon,” Sophia replied. “I don't really know what to say---”

“Nothing to say, really,” Vicki muttered. “I talked to him about it---he was....contained, after the incident---but he didn't exactly give me any definitive answers.” She stared out the window, frowning. “I don't want to dwell on it for the rest of the mission---”

A loud rapping on the window cut her off, actually drawing a shout from the formerly pensive gynoid.

“Apologies, Agent Lawson,” the deep voice of Mr. Roboto intoned, “but I noticed your vehicle parked at a green everything okay?”

Vicki's annoyed glance faded as she noticed Sophia's wide-eyed stare. “You look like you stepped right out of an album cover!” the singer beamed. “Anton mentioned you a few times....what's your codename, again?”

“I am known as Mr. Roboto.”

Sophia glanced at Vicki, grinning. “Dennis is going to freak out---”

“We can't tell him,” Vicki cut in. “Roboto....isn't a standard operative. He's been through a lot....he started out as a human being, back in the 80s. Then, stuff sort of got weird....” The brunette gynoid turned her attention back to Roboto. “So what exactly are you doing out here, anyway?”

“Securing the perimeter, containing any threats and protecting civilians.”

“Makes sense....also, that reminds me of something, but I can't put a finger on it----”

Roboto cocked his head; “Apologies,” he intoned, “but Galatea has just spotted an entity that matches the physical profile of Epsilon. All available operatives are to engage---”

“Please don't say what I think you're about to say,” Vicki whispered.

“....with non-lethal force.”

The brunette gynoid calmed considerably upon hearing those four words. “Even if it degrades to a slugfest, try not to hurt Epsilon too much. He's....not fully able to control himself---” She flinched. “Did...did you just hear that?!” she gasped.

“I felt that,” Sophia quietly replied. “Is that Galatea, or---”

Both gynoids, and Roboto, all heard the voice of Galatea screaming: “NO, IT WAS NOT!” just as a pink and purple-clad figure smashed into the side of a building in the distance. “What you just felt was a signal from Epsilon---I think it's a---” Galatea's voice was cut off for a second. “---as I was saying, I think it can best be described as a---” Another pause, followed by a shout (out loud, as opposed to heard via WiFi) of “OH, COME ON!”---and the impact of what could only be Epsilon's fist against the side of the building.

“Is....she going to be okay?” Sophia quietly asked.

“I'll be a lot better as soon as Epsilon stops trying to cave in my face,” Galatea's voice replied. “Like I was just saying, the signal is a LITERAL panic signal....I don't know who the intended recipient is--”

Abruptly, her sentence ended in a gasp....then silence.

“We need to get over there and help her,” Vicki stated, already halfway out her seatbelt. “Otherwise---”


Roboto half-shoved Vicki back into the Regency, just as the brunette gynoid noticed the silver-skinned, purple-and-pink armored figure soaring through the air in an arc---straight towards the vehicle. The towering android took two steps forward, raised one arm and watched the rapidly-descending body....

…..catching Galatea by the collar before she hit the roof of the Regency.

“....okay,” the gynoid muttered, “that was probably the worst op I've been on in the past five years....”

“What happened to you?!” Sophia nearly tripped trying to get out of the car; “I saw you smash into the side of the building earlier,” she breathed, “and....I heard your transmissions----”

“How exactly did you not get wrecked when you hit the building?” Vicki cut in.

Galatea managed a weak chuckle. “The phrase 'built Tonka tough' comes to mind...”

“Agent Lawson, Galatea,” Roboto stated, “I will engage Epsilon. I suggest you stay here and avoid attracting Epsilon's attention.”

“I've fought Epsilon before,” Vicki countered. “And the last time I had to deal with him....he saved me. Carried me out of the building, even, after I almost....anyway, even if he's still succumbing to whatever's destroying him, the mind of Tony Sanderson is still alive within him.” She turned away. “Whatever he does,” she murmured, “don't destroy him. Don't break him any further.....just contain him. And try not to let him damage you if you can help it....”

Roboto's glowing eyes settled on the gynoid. “I can't make any promises, Agent Lawson.”

A primal howl split the night; Sophia dove for cover behind the Regency, while Galatea just sighed. “Your cue,” she casually informed Roboto. “Try not to break too many cars, big guy...”

The nickname had little effect on the android. “Stay here....I'll try to make this quick.”

Without another word, Roboto strode forwards, even as another howl from Epsilon sent Sophia diving back behind the car. “How the hell are we going to keep any civilians from trying to see what's going on?” Vicki whispered, glancing over her shoulder at Galatea. “We can't exactly say it was a gas main leaking, or some lame excuse---”

“It's a movie shoot,” Galatea replied. “At least, that's what the news will say.”

Vicki groaned. “A movie shoot?!”

“To be fair,” Sophia chimed in, peeking up from behind the Regency's fender, “I sort of had a hand in coming up with that alibi....working in the entertainment industry made it sort of necessary to have a great reason for stuff like this.”

“It's better than filming a spy movie at the Chirky Dam,” Vicki muttered. “With Steven Segal...”

Her remark was met with a giggle from Galatea. “They actually used that cover story?!”

“They actually put out the 'movie', too,” the brunette gynoid sullenly replied. “At least the only shots of me are in the 'opening'....and they did a decent job hiding my face. Never thought I'd see security camera footage of myself riding a UAV being used in a Segal movie----”

Several sounds---the crunch of a car landing on its hood, Roboto's carbon-fiber armored fist hammering into the chest of Epsilon, and at least five explosions---cut her off. “So much for no damage,” Galatea sighed, one of her ocular sensors rolling back into her head seemingly of its own accord. “And there goes the eye again...I just got it fixed last month.” Ignoring the concerned looks from Vicki and Sophia, she moved the silvery “skin” away from the eye socket and gently inserted her finger in; “This doesn't hurt, if you're wondering,” she calmly informed her fellow gynoids, manually rotating the eye back into place. “It's just...annoying.”

“See, I'm glad you've got the silver skin thing going right now,” Vicki mused, “because if you had your human look, that would've been weird....”

“Ah, not to take away from the inherent weirdness of...that,” Sophia cut in, “but....shouldn't we try to help---”

Something that vaguely looked like a metal sail flew over the heads of Vicki, Sophia and Galatea. “And he's throwing car doors,” Galatea muttered. “Great....”

“Epsilon, or Roboto?”

“Both, probably. No offense to Roboto, but I've seen him train---his strategy is usually 'punch, punch, punch, throw heavy objects'...” Galatea brushed a strand of purple hair out of her eye. “I know he wasn't built to fight, but...someone needs to kinda sorta maybe help him learn how to fight---”

“You do know he was the product of a failed conversion, right?” Vicki reminded her---catching herself at the last minute. “I mean, uh.....”

“I read the file. I know who and what he used to need to censor yourself here.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “ knew, and you never raised an alert---”

“Now is REALLY not the time to argue about this,” Galatea reminded her. “Seeing as how Roboto is---”

Another car door sailed overhead, nearly clipping the top of Sophia's head.

“Like I said,” Galatea mused, “really not the time to argue.” She blinked a few times, making sure her eye was in the right way again. “It's times like this I wish I never downgraded---”

“Your current body is a downgrade?!”

Vicki's incredulous question was met with an amused glance from the purple-haired gynoid. “I'll explain later.”

“Probably after Roboto takes down Epsilon,” Vicki added. “Or after we help him take down Epsilon---”

“I think someone else is trying to take down Epsilon right now,” Galatea cut in, just as her fellow Field Agent noticed a vehicle driving towards the battle between Epsilon and Roboto. “Pretty sure that's not one of ours, or even someone trying to rubberneck---Vicki, wait!” She stopped the brunette gynoid before she could run towards the newcomer. “We have no idea who these people are---”

She stopped midsentence, just as Vicki shrugged away from her grip. “...what the hell---”

“You felt it too?” the brunette gynoid mused, slipping into her robotic monotone. “The digital signature of the program that nearly slagged Casey back at my place...except this time, it's coming from....” Her eyes widened in shock. “'s coming from that car!” She gestured for Sophia and Galatea to hide behind the Regency. “It's almost like the car is aiming it towards Epsilon and Roboto,” she realized. “Wait,'s only aiming it at.....”

The name formed on the tip of her tongue, but was never spoken. “....oh....”

“You're saying that Epsilon is about to get attacked with some kind of ordnance?” Galatea inquired.

“....not ordnance,” V.I.C.I quietly replied. “A virus.”

“Just ran a license check on the car,” Sophia piped in, earning a bemused stare from Galatea and a blank look from V.I.C.I; “It's an autonomous vehicle,” she continued, ignoring the brunette gynoid's apparent apathy, “only meant to be driven on one of those super-exclusive test tracks, away from any actual roads---”

“So what's it doing out here?”

Galatea scoffed at V.I.C.I's question. “Isn't it obvious? If it's targeting Epsilon, it's not out here to throw us a lifeline.” Her eyes glowed for a second; “Oh, you're gonna love this,” she added, sarcasm giving her words an exaggerated drawl. “I just checked Sophia's license check---”

“You were in my head?!” Sophia cut in, sounding equally indignant and impressed.

The silver-skinned gynoid brushed off the complaint---and the sound of Roboto being slammed into the side of a building. “Comes with the territory. I checked your check, and it turns out that self-driving car is registered to Drake Bradford's people---”

“Not possible. Bradford was ordered to leave town after what happened to Brittney Delacroix.”

Yet again, V.I.C.I's response earned a scoff from Galatea. “I never said he's working with them of his own free will,” she replied. “If anything---” She rolled her eyes as both Sophia and V.I.C.I flinched; Roboto had been hurled into a fire truck, and was being worked over with a series of savage punches. Noticing Sophia's look of wide-eyed shock, Galatea sighed; “He can handle it,” she assured the gynoid singer. “He was built to handle this sort of thing.”

“Which means we have to handle the car,” V.I.C.I finished, leaving no room for argument. “Cover me.”

Any question, objection or speech of any kind that Galatea would've used to protest the brunette gynoid's decision were left unspoken as the Field Agent moved towards the vehicle. Well, “moved” being the most basic description---in reality, her myogel-enhanced limbs carried her towards the self-driving car at speeds no human being could ever hope to attain, making her look---even to the enhanced ocular sensors of both Sophia and Galatea---like a vaguely humanoid, red and white blur.

It helped that the self-driving car was going only slightly faster than the speed limit; whoever had deployed the vehicle was obviously aiming for a bloodless battle against Epsilon.

Let's see if we can't---

V.I.C.I's internal monologue was halted by Roboto being thrown, yet again, into another vehicle; a quick glance at her fellow operative revealed that the larger android was no worse for the wear, without even a dent in his carbon-fibre chassis. He's resilient, I'll give him that----

She stopped.

Midway through punching Roboto in the face, Epsilon had frozen, almost as if sniffing the air....and as V.I.C.I backed away, trying to get a bead on the still-moving car, the man/machine hybrid turned towards her....

….seeing only the faintest after-image where she'd been standing.

His senses haven't degraded, the brunette gynoid realized. Even if he remembers carrying me away from Oberon.... She didn't finish the thought. All she could think about was the cold, hard fact that, if Epsilon went after her with the same level of ferocity employed against Roboto, she'd be reduced to a vaguely humanoid tangle of limbs within seconds....

A line from an old spy novel, referencing a gangster giving someone who'd upset him a bit of “friendly advice”, swam to the forefront of the brunette gynoid's thoughts: “Be missing”. The main character had told a female acquaintance about the gangster's remark to make sure the memory of a man she'd killed was “missing” from her mind, so that facing down death in the field wouldn't become troubling to her.....and just as quickly---almost half a second later---all thoughts of how Epsilon could mangle anyone or anything in his way went missing from V.I.C.I's processors. Thus freed from this apprehension, she could focus once again on the task at hand.

Acquiring target....

The driverless car was doing a good job of impersonating a rookie driver at a track day---staying in the middle of the roads when it could, hugging the insides of every curve it took and doing its best to not hit anything.

What it wasn't doing, of course, was evading V.I.C.I's optical tracking, or even her line of sight.

Target acquired. HQ authorizes pursuit.

A small smile formed on the brunette gynoid's lips; if HQ had received all updates from the field---from herself, Galatea and even Sophia---they'd probably be the first to read the field report of what would happen next.

Guess I'd better give them something good to read about.....

Breaking into a run from where she'd hidden from Epsilon, V.I.C.I charged towards the driverless car, fully intending to disable it before it caused any damage. Had any human being been behind the wheel, the sight of a 20-something brunette running that fast would've sent more than a few shivers down their spine. The AI guiding the car was nowhere near complex enough to process anything resembling emotion....

…..nor was it fast enough to evade the brunette gynoid before she landed on its roof, creating a sizable dent.

With her “grip” on the car enhanced by the precise manipulation of the electromagnetic fields created by the RadioThermionic Generator that served as her “heart”, V.I.C.I had no problems laying flat on the roof of the car and directing three precise punches into the windshield. It shattered in less time than it took V.I.C.I to blink; it took even less time for the gynoid Field Agent to half-roll off of the car's dented roof and land, with the barest hint of a thud, on its hood. Jumping from the hood through the now-nonexistant windshield would've allowed an easy takedown of any human being that might've been in the car, or even a rudimentary armature set up to manipulate the steering wheel and brake/gas pedals.

A quick glimpse into the car's interior revealed no such entities. The job would be easier than----

Something slammed into the car with enough force to nearly turn it onto its side; for a moment, V.I.C.I thought that Epsilon had hurled a heavy object in her direction and managed to hit the car. To her surprise, relief and admitted annoyance, the object in question was another driverless car---an SUV, as opposed to the sedan that V.I.C.I was still clinging to. The larger vehicle spun its tires, but rather than trying to push the sedan onto its side, it attempted instead to turn right---a move that would've planted it fender first into the side of a building.

Both of these vehicles were on patrol routes, the gynoid realized, trying to “tag” Epsilon with whatever took out Casey…..and now they're hitting each other. Just my luck.

With a decidedly non-robotic eye roll, V.I.C.I jumped off of the sedan---a move that led the self-driving SUV to abandon its attempts to turn. Before the other vehicle could reroient itself, the gynoid punched through the hood of the sedan, ramping up the power output from her RTG.

Let's see if I can stop a car the same way I can jump-start one....

Her eyes took on a sapphire glow as electricity flowed through her fingers as she grabbed for vital components under the hood. Predictably, the headlights flared on and off, the horn sounded a few times and even the windshield wipers kicked on....but in a matter of seconds, the brunette gynoid had fully overloaded the car's electrical systems. The headlamps blew out, the horn rose in decibels until it effectively exploded, and both wipers flopped uselessly as their motors shorted out.

Seconds later, V.I.C.I's internal sensor suite detected a sharp decline in signal from the electronic “ordnance” within the vehicle. Half a second later, the signal died completely.

Fittingly, as the last of the sedan's electrics died, the driverless SUV---bearing no “ordnance” of its own---pulled back and rammed the smaller car again, flipping it onto its side and pushing it towards a wall. Either that thing is on the fritz, V.I.C.I mused, or someone doesn't know how to program a self-driving vehicle....

“VICKI!” Three sets of approaching footsteps---one running, one briskly jogging and one calm stride---entered the gynoid's range of hearing. “Epsilon was....I think whatever they did to him is changing him,” Sophia began, glancing back over her shoulder. “It's getting worse....” She let the words trail off as she noticed the SUV and sedan, now pushing fruitlessly against a wall. Smoke was pouring out from beneath the SUV's hood.

“They were on patrol,” V.I.C.I explained, “but the SUV was apparently compromised.”

“'Apparently' is putting it mildly,” Galatea replied, approaching the vehicles. “This thing was hit with about eight or nine different scramblers, signal bafflers and a few gigs' worth of malware----”

“You can tell all that by looking at it?”

V.I.C.I's incredulous question was met with a smirk. “Not all of my current body is a downgrade....”

Galatea's boast was waved away. “Save the details for later,” V.I.C.I advised. “Let's get back to HQ.”

As the team left the self-driving vehicles behind, the SUV's engine revved...then belched black smoke.

“....and you're sure they used an earlier version of Helios?”

Ignoring the now-disassembled figure of the gynoid on the bed before him, Max Mills---having traded his usual attire for white coveralls (now stained in various internal fluids from the aforementioned gynoid), leather work gloves and a dust mask---listened intently to the voice on the other end of the phone. Apparently, the DVS had decided that Max's Helios demonstration warranted further research of their own into the project, resulting in a pair of self-driving vehicles being deployed to deal with....something.

“No, no, no, I don't care what cars they used,” he protested, “I just---will you let me talk, please?” He actually let out a short laugh; rarely, if ever, did anyone interrupt him in person. “I just want to know---I SAID I JUST WANT TO KNOW what the cars were after! Where the hell...where are you calling me from, anyway?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Max thought he saw one of the disassembled gynoid's fingers twitch.

“, no, I'm still here.” He turned his attention to the unmoving figure of his ersatz driver, frowning....every limb was motionless, every servomotor still. “Where are you calling me from? It sounds like a welding shop...”

A feeling of unease settled in; even with the photoreceptors removed, the eyeless “skull” of the gynoid seemed to be staring into Max's own eyes. “Look, you don't need to swear at me for asking a simple question,” he continued, circling around the bed as he spoke. “I just....what were the cars after? Did you get any information, I don't care how badly damaged the cars were! What were they after?!”

For three whole minutes, he stopped talking and simply listened.

The details were vague---another name he didn't recognize, “Epsilon”, was mentioned almost twenty times in twice as many seconds. The ALPA was name-dropped three or four times; the DVS, surprisingly, was only mentioned once. By the time Max's informant had stopped talking, the story was beginning to congeal: this Epsilon, whatever it was, had gone on a tear in part of San Jose, and the ALPA had been called in, probably to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. The two cars sent by the DVS were apparently driving around the area trying to “tag” Epsilon with the outdated Helios code, which did, in the informant's words, a whole lot of nothing. Epsilon had escaped, the ALPA left the area, and both cars were now useless.

Max waited a few seconds after the informant stopped talking. “....and you're sure there were no active DVS operatives in the area?” he quietly asked. “None at all?”

A small movement from the bed caught his attention; the left hand of the disassembled gynoid had fallen onto its side. Max had already stowed the synthetic “skin” of the gynoid in a lockbox currently bolted to the floor of his closet (just holding it had given him a case of the heebies), and he was dangerously close to taking a cutting torch to every last piece of the gynoid just to be sure the parts wouldn't suddenly reanimate.

Something about “massive inquiry” on the other end of the phone stirred Mills out of his morbid reverie.

“....who's going to think I'll be involved in an inquiry?” He almost laughed, but stopped. “You're not down, I'm right here....” The beginnings of a migraine were beginning to take hold. “Are you positive?”

A few more details stood out, including the rather intriguing mention of a girl with silver skin, but none could shake Mills out of the realizations that he was going to have to face this “Epsilon” soon, if he wanted any hope of getting closer to the DVS, and that wherever the DVS went, the ALPA wouldn't be far behind. “....okay, okay, I get the picture, I get it.” He sighed. “Call me when you have more info. No, no, I finished that want to come pick up what's left, feel free.” With one last look at the dismantled gynoid on the bed, Max nodded. “In fact, I'm leaving in...ten minutes, to go do a thing. You show up after I'm gone, you'll find it on the bed upstairs. Take all of it.”

With the push of a button, the call ended. “And now to find a thing to go do...”

Part 10

“And you're sure it was the same program that....affected Casey?”

Anton's furrowed brows held none of the fear Vicki had seen earlier. “An earlier version of it,” she replied, “but I could recognize the base code. It was a lot more...rudimentary than what took Casey down---”

“If by 'rudimentary',” Galatea cut in, “you mean 'utterly broken', then yeah.”

Vicki frowned, but continued. “It wasn't affecting him at all, to be honest. Either the car was too far away from him to provide an effective 'blast radius' for it, or---”

“Or nothing,” Galatea insisted. “The code from that thing was less sophisticated than a Sega Genesis game!”

“Did you look at the records of what happened with Casey?” the brunette gynoid inquired.

“Sophia filled me in earlier. I know what happened to Casey, and the idiots who sent those self-driving scrap-mobiles after Epsilon weren't the ones who hit her....” The silver-skinned Field Agent shook her head. “Just trust me on this, Vicki....we're dealing with two entirely separate campaigns here, masterminded by two very different parties.”

“So we've got a lot of people gunning for Epsilon,” Vicki groaned. “Great.....”

Galatea rolled her eyes at her colleague's sarcasm. “All I know for certain is that what happened to Casey wasn't sanctioned by the DVS,” she stated. “Casey was working on low-level ops that had nothing to do with Epsilon, or anything you've dealt with...” She paused, noticing a look in Vicki's eyes that toed the line between hurt and angry. “...I probably could've worded that a bit better,” she admitted. “What I meant---”

“You meant to say that Casey wasn't working on cases with the magnitude of the Silicon Dynamics incident,” Anton finished. “She's always stayed under the radar.”

At this, Vicki nodded, turning to glance at Galatea. “That is what you meant, right?”

“Dad always did say I tripped over my own tongue,” the silver-skinned gynoid admitted. “And yeah, that's what I meant. Casey wasn't rank-and-file, but she wasn't a star agent, either....the DVS would have to be either really paranoid or really stupid to target her.” She sighed, drumming her fingers along the service of Anton's desk. “ that means we're dealing with a third party. Somebody.....”

She paused. “Anton, call up a list of cancelled product releases from United Robotronics over the last year.”

After a few seconds of silence, the roboticist nodded. “....not much that qualifies for what happened to Casey,” he stated, “but....there's a security product here. Pulled from testing after, and I quote, 'undesirable and totally destructive' side-effects on units....” He leaned in close to the monitor. “'re not going to believe this.”

“The side-effects were all heat-based?” Vicki mused.

“'Heat-based' would be an understatement.” Anton turned away from the monitor, shaking his head. “It reads like an eyewitness report of what happened to Casey....graphic stuff.”

“Can you get this information to Sophia as soon as possible?” Vicki asked. “She's out doing....rounds...”

“PR work,” Galatea clarified. “She's making sure that nobody saw anything of Epsilon's little jaunt. Which leaves us to find out why the DVS went after Epsilon with outdated and incredibly unsafe tech..”

“What about who used the new version of it?”

Vicki's question earned her intrigued looks from Anton and Galatea.

“If we find out who used the newer version of that program,” the brunette gynoid continued, “we might be able to keep them or anyone else from using it on Epsilon. And...well, I'm pretty sure Casey wouldn't want us to just drop the whole thing instead of finding out who nearly scrapped her---”

“Even if there is a link between what happened to Casey and the driverless cars going after Epsilon,” Galatea interjected, “there's no way we can....Vicki, are you pinging me right now?!”

“Not you specifically. I'm taking a close look at the surveillance records, anything from the DVS or other parties that could be connected....” V.I.C.I's eyes took on a dull hue for a second. “.....a name keeps coming up,” she stated. “I have a confirmed sighting of someone named Mills leaving a meeting at a United Robotronics building.”

Anton frowned. “Mills? Max Mills?”

“You've heard of him?” Galatea inquired.

“Only occasionally. He's not exactly the kind of person I ever thought would be hanging around the DVS, or even us...lost his parents to an industrial robotics accident.” The roboticist crossed the room to a computer that was, at the moment, running stats for a turn-based game of some kind. “Except not everyone thinks it was an accident,” he continued. “In any case, Max stayed away from Silicon Valley for a few years after that. Once or twice, he showed up for shareholder meetings, never really said much...”

“So why would he have an interest in us? Or in---”

“I just got another hit,” V.I.C.I interjected. “Casey's last known activity before she got to my house was at an old factory owned by---”

“Max Mills?” Galatea finished.

It was V.I.C.I's turn to look annoyed; “Who's pinging who now?” she queried. “No pings were invovled,” Anton replied. “Mills owns several factories in and around San Jose---he actually had a bid in to buy the foundry where R-528 was hiding, at one point.” He paused. “...strange....” Galatea arched an eyebrow, glancing over at Anton. “What's strange?”

“Someone with such a low interest in the robotics industry would go through that much trouble to buy up so many factories, steel mills, and even old electronics surplus warehouses.” Anton cupped his chin in one hand, pondering the implications. “Either he's finally decided to let go of the whole 'a robot killed my parents' thing....or he's heard of us.” The roboticist scowled, almost as if Max Mills' “hearing of” the ALPA could be nothing but bad news. “He's been in and around the Valley long enough, he's heard the rumors about us, and about what we do.” He glanced at the brunette gynoid, not smiling. “He's testing the waters.”

V.I.C.I scowled. “He could've tested the waters without bricking one of our Field Agents.”

“Then maybe it's time we test him, in return,” Galtaea suggested, running one hand through her hair---earning a bemused look from Anton as it changed from its familiar blacklight-purple to a dirty-blonde color. “Maybe an interview with the SJSU campus paper is in order....and while I'm asking the questions---” A trilling sound from Anton's pocket cut him off. “ might want to hold off on that idea,” he replied, retrieving his phone. “Looks like the front office has issued....oh, dear GOD....”

“What now?” Galatea asked, sounding more annoyed than concerned.

“A dismantled gynoid was just dumped near the AutoYard where Kirsten had of our people was nearby, and they picked up traces of the same program that bricked Casey---”

“Then let's not waste any more time,” V.I.C.I replied. “I'll drive.”

“They caught two of them half a block down the road,” Agent Harris stated, glancing over his shoulder at a pair of kneeling, handcuffed figures. “Found him taking a leak behind the trash can, and they nearly busted him for indecent exposure....until our guy checked his phone.” He held up a cheaply-made, no-name iPhone knockoff, gesturing at the list of contacts. “Guess which name caught our attention...”

Galatea---her hair still dirty-blonde, and with a slightly tanned complexion that gave her the appearance of an amateur volleyball player---frowned. “So Dalton Sinclair, a former known associate of Brittney Delacroix and a few other....undesirable types...has Max Mills on speed-dial?”

“More like Max had him on speed-dial, probably,” Vicki muttered. “What about the gynoid?”

“The measurements match those of Max's chauffeur,” Harris replied. “She's still alive, by the way---someone apparently gave her an all-expenses paid trip to the Poconos.”

A smirk formed on Galatea's lips. “At this time of year?”

“Can we focus on the matter at hand, please?” Vicki chided. “Somebody replaced Mills' driver with a gynoid, and sent the real one to Pennsylvania....why?”

Harris shrugged. “Far as we know, Mills never had any dealings with the Coalition, the House---”

“And what about the DVS?”

The mention of those three letters prompted a scowl from Harris. “We already have one of our people trying to keep Octavia Martinet from going after Mills with an army of lawyers,” he quietly replied. “Apparently he gave an unscheduled 'demonstration' of some kind----”

“At a United Robotronics building?” Vicki finished. “I checked the surveilance records---”

“After you pinged me,” Galatea murmured.

Vicki gave her a look, ignoring Harris' attempts to not grin. “....anyway, Mills was spotted leaving a meeting at a United Robotronics think that 'demonstration' was why?”

“Could be. You think he was 'demoing' the same thing that took down Casey?”

“It might explain why the DVS is pulling an old program out of the mothballs to take down Epsilon...and I'm pretty sure that their version is the same one used to brick the gynoid that was dumped here.” Vicki headed for the gynoid in question---or rather, the remains of the gynoid in question. “The digital signature is....maybe it's just me, but it's sticking around like a bad smell.”

The brunette gynoid's remark prompted a gasp from Galatea. “...I can detect it, but it's not that strong---”

“Because you're not tuned into the entire AutoYard.” Vicki didn't even look back over her shoulder at her fellow Field Agent as she spoke; “It feels like all I have to do is look one way, and I can get the weekly output of that crusher over there,” she continued, her voice low. “Or look the other way and know when the retrieval trucks will be here for the recycled parts...” She closed her eyes, slowing to a stop. “ feels like I can the entire world around me,” she whispered, “like a big book. But I can't close the book.....”

“You can only walk away from the table.”

The hand on Vicki's shoulder briefly lost its flesh-like feel and coloration, the “skin” retracting into Galatea's shirt sleeve to reveal silver again. “I know how you feel,” she quietly informed her fellow Field Agent.

“ how did you deal with it?” Vicki replied.

Behind them, Harris gave a quiet cough.

“I'll tell you later,” Galatea assured her fellow Field Agent. “And while I'm thinking about it, how did one of our guys 'pick up' the signal---”

“They ran a trace for the code that took out Casey. 98.5% match.” Harris shook his head. “If this is a new outbreak...we're going to need every available operative out here to contain---”

“They're already containing Epsilon,” Vicki reminded him. “If we get them out here to contain this...”

Harris waved away her concerns. “They know how to regulate between missions. They can multitask---”

“It's not about multitasking. If the same thing that happened to Casey happens to any more of our active Field Agents....” Vicki turned away. “We can't afford to lose anyone else. Especially not now.....and especially not to some would-be 'major player' trying to get involved in things they can't possibly understand.” An air of cold bitterness, bringing such a sharpness to the second half of “understand” that one could almost feel its edge, punctuated her words. It barely sounded like she herself had spoken.

“....whoever started this,” she added, nearly whispering, “needs to be stopped.”

Galatea took a step towards Vicki, shying away from Harris' hand on her shoulder. “....they will be stopped,” she assured her fellow gynoid, “just....we need time---”

“The longer we wait,” Vicki snapped, “the more chance there is of more androids dying like Casey did!”

Harris actually flinched at the word “dying”, and Galatea froze mid-step.

“This....this isn't a matter of paper-pushing and 'official channels',” Vicki continued, somewhat calmer but still visibly shaken. “If this Max responsible, we need to find him. Now. Otherwise, he'll try to cover his tracks, and by the time we get any kind of lead on him....” The fingers of her right hand clenched, and neither Harris or Galatea wanted to see what might happen if the brunette gynoid decided to punch in the general direction of anything in her vicinity. “Casey....she felt every bit of what happened to her.....”

She stopped. Noticed that the AutoYard was now shrouded in fog...just like the ALPA HQ conference room a few weeks prior. “No,” she murmured. “Not this....not now.....”

“Would you prefer I deliver this little pep talk after Epsilon dies?”

Vicki forced herself to look up, despite knowing that the figure whose back was turned to her wasn't even there in the physical sense. “'re supposed to be in lock-up,” she muttered, “awaiting transfer---”

“I know the details of my own incarceration, and they have nothing to do with why I'm here...Vicki.”

“What about how?” the gynoid Field Agent countered. “You shouldn't even be able to---”

“I was given an opportunity to make one phone call.” The white-clad figure turned, slightly, to glance in Vicki's direction. “I used that opportunity to call you---”

“Last time I checked, phone calls don't do this!” Vicki was close to tears. “Why are you---”

“To be quite honest....I didn't make the fog this time. As soon as the call went through....well, you were telling Galatea earlier that it felt like you could 'read the world' some times....” The figure chuckled. “I just gave you a bit of extra background material....”

Slowly, Vicki's “caller” turned to face her. “...and you did the rest. 'Your mind makes it real', and all that...”

“You think this is funny, or something?!” Now, the tears did come, streaming down Vicki's cheeks in twin trails as she beheld the image of the man who, less than a week before, had sworn to kill Epsilon---and Vicki herself, due to her insistance on protecting him---on sight. “Why are you doing this to me, Oberon?!”

“'To' you?” Oberon echoed, frowning. “I'm doing this for you, keep you from making a big mistake...”

He sighed. “....the same mistakes I made. The ones that nearly ended your life.”

The fog cleared, slightly, but Vicki barely noticed. “I'm trying to save Epsilon---”

“Yet you also want to find Max Mills before what happened to Casey can happen to anyone else,” Oberon finished. “I've heard all about that...Clive insisted that I be kept up to date on this whole sordid affair. Rather decent of him, considering my...appalling behaviour, as of recent days, but that's beside the point....” His tone softened. “....I know now, and I probably should've figured it out far earlier, that killing Epsilon was the worst thing I could've done, and a damned stupid course of action to even attempt,” he admitted. “I...fell back on old habits, from before I ever joined the ALPA, and I let blind rage be my guiding light---”

“WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MAX MILLS?!” Vicki snapped, stopping only when she realized Oberon (or the image of him, at least) was approaching her. “It has,” the soon-to-be ex-Chairman quietly replied, “everything to do with him....and with you.” Now, Vicki could see the tears on Oberon's face, even as he continued speaking in a calm, even tone. “I was a fool, hunting Epsilon the way I did. People were hurt---a few nearly died, because of my damn fool idealistic crusade...I walked the wrong road, and it nearly led to my own end.”

A gloved hand rested on Vicki's shoulder, and for the briefest moment, the gynoid swore she could feel it.

“Choose your path carefully, Vicki,” Oberon whispered. “Yours is not the way of the warrior....not this time.”

“Then what do I do?” the brunette gynoid pleaded, closing her eyes as if the entire thing was just a bad dream she could wake up from at any moment. “What can I do?”

Two words, barely even distinguishable as the noises of the AutoYard came rushing back, sounded in her ears.

“You'll know.”

She knew, even as she sank to the ground in a kneel, that Harris and Galatea were right behind her. She knew they were talking; she could hear bits of words through her sobs, but not much else. Not that she cared, by that point...

….mainly, due to the horrible possibility that what she could do was, for lack of a better term, nothing.


Galatea's voice registered, briefly, but earned no response. “....there's nobody else here, Vicki,” Harris quietly added. “It's just the three of us....”

Silently, Galatea helped Vicki to her feet. “I'll call Ted,” she informed Harris, “tell him to---”


Even with her eyes still locked on the spot where Oberon's image had been standing, Vicki spoke to Galatea with that air of finality she'd become so well-known for. “I can handle this. Even if I don't know how, right now, I will.” She gave a half-nod, then set off towards the car that had Galatea had driven to reach the AutoYard.

“....I'll say this much,” Galatea murmered. “She never gives up, and never gives in....just like Ted.”

Within the confines of United Robotronics' San Jose branch office, Octavia Martinet sat motionless before a 72-inch plasma screen---optimized for teleconferencing calls---built into the wall opposite her desk. To the uninitiated, it would appear that she was simply waiting for an important call....

….unless they dared to look closer.

No breath stirred her lithe figure. No telltale, human twitch moved any of her extremities. Not once did she even blink; she just sat, staring at the screen---without seeing it. Instead, her ocular sensors were analyzing the footage recovered from both driverless cars that had, about an hour ago, been deployed to take down Epsilon using an outdated version of the Helios program that Max Mills had “demonstrated”. Octavia had never said a word to Harmony, Melody or Siren about the incident---at the time, she legitimately had nothing to say, having felt no reaction to the sight of a fellow gynoid being destroyed from within. Harmony, Melody and Siren had simply watched her leave the conference room, never once questioning her decision or asking where she was going.

Had they seen her locked in her office, ten minutes later....

During Allegra's immolation, Octavia had---without the knowledge of Harmony, Melody or Siren---initiated a direct link to the stricken gynoid's systems. She'd actually recorded Allegra's mental and emotional reaction to her own death, running multiple checks for the Helios code (all of which came back negative) in the process.

Inside her office, with the door locked and all sound buffers in the walls in place....

….she loaded and played back Allegra's final moments, allowing her to see, hear and feel them for herself.

Two and a half minutes later, Octavia---stripped to her underwear, chest heaving with simulated breath and close to tears---realized just how painful the other gynoid's demise had been.

She'd taken her clothes off due to something akin to phantom limb syndrome---except in her case, it was more like phantom flame syndrome. She felt the fire on her clothes, on her and in her....saw, through Allegra's eyes, herself watching dispassionately....heard the pleading (and demanding) of the other three to do something, anything, to help their stricken comrade....

….and for the first time since her activation, Octavia Martinet truly understood fear.

She'd called the Baron shortly afterwards---her shirt still open, her skirt hiked up to a nearly-obscene degree; her words had come out in a low, hoarse croak. She'd told the Baron exactly what had happened to Allegra, and what she'd just done to further understand it---and, in all honesty, to see if she could even empathize with the now-scrapped gynoid or her grieving colleagues.

For a few seconds, she'd heard only silence....but finally, the Baron's voice spoke, resonant even through the phone's tiny speaker: “Tell no-one of your...experiment. Compose yourself, and log all memories of your test to a private, encrypted external drive, to be delivered to me when I see fit. As for your concerns regarding a possible lack of empathy....” A low, rumbling chuckle punctuated the sentence. “....I was personally responsible for the coding of your emotions, your personality....your self, if you will. Had you chosen to continue on with your existence without your experiment, a 'natural' empathy towards Allegra, and her colleagues, would have developed over time. Your...curiosity, in regards to your limits, welcome, and warranted...but do not allow your desire for self-discovery and introspection to cloud your thought processes. Your duties to United Robotronics, to our cause, and to me all take precedence.”

“Thank you, Baron. Serving you is an honor and a privilege.”

“And you serve me well, Octavia. Continue to do so, and your future will be most rewarding.”

With that, the call had ended. The only other “event” on Octavia's schedule was a conference call....

…thus leading to her current state. Sitting motionlessly, her clothing once again meticulous, she continued internally analyzing the latest Epsilon sighting and doing her best to not dwell on Allegra's agonizing end. That last task was made significantly easier, due to her decision to view the Epsilon footage---which, in and of itself, would've been cause for concern to anyone else in her position. The outdated version of Helios had done nothing to incapacitate Epsilon, or even slow it down...

The thought of asking Max Mills to use his version of Helios on Epsilon, to incapacitate the hybrid, was looking more and more appealing by the second.

By the time her secretary had sent the notice that the call was coming through, Octavia had begun loading her human emulation drivers once again, closing all files related to Epsilon's latest rampage. The slightest twinge occasionally stirred her figure, but otherwise she remained motionless.....

...and after five seconds, her eyes closed, only to open again as she inhaled a deep breath. The gesture was purely aesthetic, but it did wonders to help her attain a state of calmness before the call. She settled into her chair, steepling her fingers just as the screen on the far wall activated.

Almost as fast as Octavia could blink, she found herself staring down Max Mills.

“Mr. Mills,” she beamed, as if his contacting United Robotronics was the most pleasant surprise she'd had in a long time. “I was wondering if we could get a chance to discuss your...demonstration, earlier today---”

“So you're not going to have me arrested for destruction of property?” Mills replied, arching an eyebrow.

Octavia's lips parted in a polite smile. “The property in question has been disposed of...actually, I was just wondering if you could perform another demonstration of Helios for us---”

“Epsilon, right?”

It was Octavia's turn to arch an eyebrow in surprise. “....I'm afraid that information is---”

“If you're going to give your people encrypted passwords,” Mills replied, “don't give them the 'Horse Bonnet Overture Fluctuation' bullcrap---I have at least five programs that broke through every single password at your building in about five minutes.” He grinned. “But yes, I'm talking about Epsilon. And I'd be honored to take a shot at bringing it down....whatever it is.”

Not missing a beat, Octavia nodded. “And you'll be willing to work with United Robotronics personnel?”

“I was thinking more along the lines of....your people,” Max suggested. “DVS people.”

This time, Octavia was momentarily stunned. Max Mills, a virtual outsider to the world she knew---the world that created her---had just name-dropped three initials that, to him, should've meant nothing. “....I...don't know if I can arrange something on such short notice,” she began, “but if you give me---”

“An hour. You get one hour, and then I take Helios somewhere else. Or do you intend to replace more of my staff if I refuse an 'exclusive work offer'?”

A thought process somewhere within Octavia's artificial mind recalled seeing a memo that Mills' chauffeur had, a few weeks prior, been given a free trip to the Poconos, on the Baron's orders. She'd thought nothing of it at the time, and had never thought to mention it to the Baron at all. “...I'm afraid I don't have any information on that,” she replied. “Working with us is entirely up to you---”

“Then I accept. Tell me where and when you want me to use Helios against Epsilon, and it's a done deal.”

“ of mine will send you the information later on today,” Octavia replied, “and---”

Mills cut her off with a slight hand wave, his image on the screen looming large over the entire room. “I don't deal with 'associates', Miss Martinet. Either you give me the details, and I handle this Epsilon situation, or you can find yourself another operator for this little operation.” He smirked; “You're not as....dismissive of Helios as you were during my previous demonstration,” he mused. “Care to tell me what exactly changed your mind?”

“Our own iterations of Helios are far less refined than what you used in your demonstration,” Octavia calmly replied. “Epsilon may be more...vulnerable to the updated Helios code you possess----”

“So you're only asking for my help because you can't get the job done on your own,” Mills finished.

The slightest frown crossed Octavia's lips. “My reasons for requesting your assistance are my business,” she replied, her tone turning frosty for the first time in the conversation. “Your cooperation will benefit both yourself and the DVS...unless, of course, you continue to show such a cavalier attitude.” She leaned forward, steepling her fingers as she stared at the larger-than-life feed of Max Mills on the monitor. “My time,” she stated, “is very valuable, and I don't like wasting it with people who focus more on...stroking their egos, than getting the job done.” She nearly smirked at that last remark---clearly, when it came to people who got a massive kick out of “playing the game”, Max Mills fit the bill perfectly.

Max actually chuckled at the “stroking their egos” line; if the insult galled him, he hid it well. “My ego doesn't really have anything to do with this conversation---”

“Then you'll have no problem with me dictating the terms of our arrangement,” Octavia finished.

For a few seconds, Max looked as if he had a scathing comeback ready...but whatever insult was on his lips was left unspoken. “I'm all ears. You want to name the terms, be my guest---”

“And you'd do well to remember that you are my guest,” Octavia reminded him. She nearly added “as well as a guest of the Baron,” but decided against it---even if Mills knew of the DVS, it would be better to not mention the Baron unless she had to. Even a whisper of his existence had to be slipped into a conversation with the utmost discretion---his was not the kind of name one dropped casually, unless they were bored with living.

“I have no problem with that. Compromise is nothing new....I just didn't expect it this...early on.” The words were spoken calmly, but Octavia could tell that Mills wasn't quite used to having to deal with someone of her caliber. “Do we need to go over the particulars one more time, maybe for notes...?”

“I'd have thought you were paying enough attention to take all the notes you needed by this point.”

“....I have been, I just....” Clearly, Max had realized he was no longer the one controlling the conversation. “I think I've heard all I need to hear...hopefully, you've heard all you need---”

“I have. I'll meet you with the finall arrangement in an you requested.” Octavia smiled. With that, the conversation ended, punctuated with Max muttering some variation of “Fine by me” as the monitor winked out.

With a slight nod, Octavia rose from her seat---the memory of Allegra's destruction was already fading, which was just as well. Now, the focus could be shifted to the two-fold task at hand: Taking down Epsilon, and either recruiting or destroying Max Mills.

Her hand was just gripping the doorknob when she noticed a strange warmth emanating from it---her internal temperature regulation systems might've been acting up again. “I'll get it checked later,” she murmured---a bit surprised that she'd even spoken it out loud. With a frown and a shrug, she dismissed the issue---more than likely, it was just a false positive, something her internal software hadn't picked up on while she was waiting for the call from Mills.

Whatever it was, it could wait. Epsilon's destruction---as per the Baron's orders---took full priority for now.

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