The Dragon

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Part 1

“You gonna get this done soon, Holmes? I ain't got all night.”

Britney “Boom-Boom” Delacroix glared at her latest attendant---a rather nervous former clerical manager from a banking chain that had, as of the previous week, been bought out by one Victor Vega. “M..my apologies, Miss Delacroix,” the petite young blonde replied, “but I've, ah....”

“What you done or ain't done,” Brittney snapped, “don't mean a damn thing.” She thrust her left hand forward, allowing her “servant” to get a good look at the servomotor assembly, internal wiring and other mechanisms within. “You want your paycheck, you best fix my damn knuckles so my fingers don't keep curlin' in like I've got some kinda nerve issue....AND WATCH WHERE YOU PUT YOUR DAMN TOOLS!” Her right hand pointed angrily at the girl's power screwdriver, currently resting on the glove-like skin of Brittney's left hand.

“M-m-m-my appologiessssssss,” the blonde stammered, “but I-I-I-I-I-I-----” Her head twitched to the left with each repetition; servos in her neck whirred in protest.

Ever since her failure to knock Sophia Starlet off the pop charts, Brittney had seen less and less of her creator, Victor Vega---not that it bothered her at all. Her attempt to start a “criminal subculture” in Silicon Valley had effectively died out in a matter of days, but she refused to give up the attitude that came with it---everyone in her employ either called her “Miss Delacroix”, “Ma'am” or “boss”---never just “Brittney”. She'd planned on expanding her operations, as well, including buying out a new house in Reseda that had a recording studio added on by its former owner....

….and then everything went to hell.

Hannsen---the guy who'd tried to make Brittney's “Boom-Boom” nickname a bit more...literal---had gone off to the UK and gotten himself beaten half to death by someone. Björn Aaberg, an arms dealer who'd chosen (or been paid) to shelter Hannsen in the UK, had then tried to....do something, possibly avenge Hannsen's incapacitation. Brittney hadn't been told about the specifics.

She had been told, repeatedly, to “lay low and stay low” after those incidents.

“I-I-I-I-I-I----” The blonde attendant's malfunctioning stutter drew the “gangsta” gynoid out of her reverie with a scowl. “Damn pricks can't even get me any good help anymore,” she muttered. She'd read the file that came with the girl regarding her “quirks”---one of which happened to be stress-induced malfunctions---but hadn't expected them to be that big of a problem in day-to-day activities.

With a growl, she grabbed the blonde by the shoulder and practically jammed her little finger into the girl's left ear, feeling for a small bump-like switch inside.

“I....I.....Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.....” The girl's head bowed to her chest as her twitching slowed to a halt.

“Guess I'll have to do this part myself,” Brittney muttered, grabbing the power screwdriver and preparing to get to work on her own hand---but a set of slender, alabaster fingers wrapped around her own wrist from behind, stopping her. “I wouldn't,” a calm, even voice with a vaguely British accent advised. “Self-maintenance can only go so far, and the risk of damaging yourself is far too great....”

Brittney turned to stare at whoever was stupid enough to interfere. “....the hell? Who the---”

Her intended insult died on her tongue as she beheld a strikingly curvy woman with a thin waist, raven hair and a cold but tempting gaze staring down at her. “I've been sent on behalf of Drake Bradford,” she explained.

At the mention of Bradford's name, Brittney groaned. “Him.....what the hell does he want with me?!”

Despite her annoyance with the intrusion, the African-American gynoid's intimacy programming and sexual preferences were firmly set in the “swings both ways” category, allowing her to...appreciate the new arrival with a greater leniency than she might've had in other circumstances. The two strode down the central aisle of what had once been the chapel of Delacroix's mansion---she'd since converted it into a makeshift dance hall (and conference room, for the days when she'd had her fill of partying)---with passed out human females and gynoids in desperate need of a recharge on either side of the aisle. “Mr. Bradford,” the curvy woman explained, “has received an invitation to take part in a lucrative business venture on behalf of....” Her lips twitched in a faint smile. “A mutual former employer.”

Brittney stopped in her tracks. “...mutual former...” The realization hit her like a brick to the face. “No.”

“The Baron is willing to pay handsomely for your participation. You'll choose your own team, set your own pace for the mission...even Mr. Bradford's participation will serve to augment your own”

Her past experiences with the Baron had left Brittney wanting no more of his presence in her life...but the last big payday she'd had was right after she'd said goodbye to Victor Vega and his “fifty-cent dirt farm” operation, as she called his continued mining scams. “You said I'd get....paid handsomely, for doin' this?” she queried.

The pencil skirt of her guest slid up invitingly to show her smooth, bare thigh as the woman turned to smile at Brittney once again. “Very handsomely.”

Subroutines and processes kicked into overdrive to weigh the risk-vs-reward of the offer....not helped along by a mental replay of the blonde attendant's surprisingly arousing malfunction earlier. “Girl,” Brittney finally crooned, “you picked a hell of a day for this offer....my bitches are broken and broke, the power company says I ain't registered to run a 'experimental generator' on my own damn land....I need some new blood in my crew, and a couple extra zeroes in my bank account.”

She gave a sultry---and predatory---smile. “Baby, you tell Drake Bradford that Boom-Boom Delacroix is in.”

“I'm sure he'll be happy to hear the news,” the woman replied with a wan smile of her own. “In fact, I've just transmitted it to him now---”

“So you plug in, too?” Brittney's grin took on a new shade of lasciviousness. “Daaamn....I could use a girl like you, maybe a few girls like you!” She cast a glance back at her blonde attendant; “All the ones Vic keeps sendin' me....they break too damn easy,” she muttered. “An' that's just the day-to-day stuff...try to get 'em in bed, and.....” She gave a derisive snort. “One of 'em blew a fuse just lookin' at my delivery guy last week....aw, hell, where are my damn manners? I ain't even asked your name yet!”

The raven-haired beauty smiled. “K3ND47. My 'human' designation is Kendall.”

“Kendall ....” Brittney nodded. “I think I could get used to workin' with you....”

“Understandable---but most of our work together will be....dangerous,” Kendall admitted. “We'll be assisting in the capture and....removal...of a certain entity....” She handed Brittney an iPhone; “How much do you know about Project Epsilon?” she quietly asked.

Brittney gave her a look. “Epsilon?!” she echoed. “I saw that thing kill a whole room full of people---”

“So you have heard of it,” Kendall murmured. “The Baron was hoping your memory of the incident---”

On the far side of the room, the blonde attendant shuddered; her internal auto-debug systems, having started after Brittney abruptly shut her down, were kicking on and rebooting her. “Error....Error....this unit has been improperly shut down----”

“Damn it,” Brittney muttered. “Turn her off five times a day, she turns herself back on every damn time....”

“Then maybe you should get a new one,” a boisterous, male voice called out from the entrance of the former chapel. “Riggs, go make sure I turned the car off---Kendall, I'm surprised to see you haven't fallen for Miss Delacroix's considerable charms already.”

Even as her annoyance built, Brittney couldn't help but admire the wolfish smile, perfectly-coifed hair and $10,000 suit worn by Drake Bradford as he strode up the aisle. “So they got you on Epsilon detail, too?” she inquired. “Your girl here just told me that I'd get paid real nice for helpin' y'all bag that....thing.....” She frowned for a moment, remembering her initial sighting of the man-machine hybrid. “....anyway---”

“Kendall, go tell Riggs to get the other phone out of the car, too,” Drake cut in. “As for our arrangement,” he continued, focusing on Brittney, “I have a feeling that working together will be....mutually beneficial.” Seeing as how his last “mutually beneficial” working relationship had ended with the loss of several fembots based on the designs of the late Dr. Franklin, he decided to not mention the involvement of a certain SJSU student. “And I think we might even---”

“What you think and what you'll get ain't even on the same damn page,” Brittney interrupted, grabbing the head of a gynoid dressed in a vinyl approximation of a schoolgirl outfit and lifting her (by the hair) into a sitting position. “Same chapter, maybe, but.....but.....but......but.....”

Drake arched an eyebrow. “Problem?”

“....but....but....DAMN it!” Brittney kicked at the would-be schoolgirl, sending her crashing to the floor. “You got a lab at your place? All I got here are a buncha old-ass tools, fifteen Dells that don't do a damn bit of good for me other than target practice....” She glared at Drake, her anger slowly giving way that same sensual feeling she'd had towards Kendall. “If we bring both bring down Epsilon,” she mused, “you think the Baron will....give us somethin' other than a big-ass pay raise?” She strode towards Bradford, allowing a seductive sway to punctuate her walk. “You and I.....we might make a damn good team....” Her tongue played over her lips.

“We...we might,” Drake agreed, trying hard not to look at Brittney's skinless left hand. “I think we could both use a change of personnel, a change of scenery....” Brittney circled around him, tracing her finger across his shoulders. “Mmm-hmmm....you ask me, baby, I think we could use a lot of changes....” Despite the inherent sensuality of the gesture, Drake found his thoughts sliding away from how he and “Boom-Boom” Delacroix might make a great team---the Baron had made it clear that delays would not be accepted. “Sure, sure.....so, how soon can you leave for San Jose?”

At once, Brittney's finger-tracing stopped. “San Jose?”

“We're supposed to be there by midnight---the letter specified midnight, by the way---”

“Last time I was in San Jose,” Brittney breathed, “that Starlet bitch was on a mall tour...and some other bitch was the one who stuck her damn nose in my damn business!” She stormed back over to where the blonde attendant was in the middle of her reboot and grabbed the skin-sheath for her left hand. “You got a lab where I can fix my hand?”

“Fix your hand, give you a recharge and take some time to do whatever you feel like doing before we leave for San Jose,” Drake replied. “Riggs can even get my guys to take whatever vehicles you want with us---”

The offer was met with a glare. “Y'all ain't touching my damn cars,” she growled. “I'll get....I'll get.....” Her head snapped to the right with an audible whirr. “DAMN it!”

“I think you may need that lab visit sooner rather than later,” Drake offered. “As for right now....the Baron will send the intel on the way out.” He glanced at the gynoids strewn about the chamber; “And, if you need any of your....crew,” he added, “I can always have Kendall or Riggs drop by later.....”

“Damn straight,” Brittney declared. “This time, Boom-Boom's gonna RULE San Jose, baby!”

Part 2

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. ERROR: Subsystems 55964-55972 not responding RAM: OK ROM: OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. WARNING: Multiple subsystems non-responsive. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is ERROR: Date and time calculat9353qjl5qj53%#3#$

Brief, fleeting memories flashed through Vicki's mind. ….what....what happened.....why can't I....

“DO NOT CALL THAT THING A MIRACLE!”

“There is no other way.....”

“THAT'S NOT THE SODDING POINT!”

“I...CANNOT....HEAL......”

“Goodbye, Vicki....for now. Not forever.”

“Don't....be......”

A veritable flood of sights, sounds and feelings surged through the brunette gynoid's thoughts. I...I need to sort through....to find.... She couldn't feel her limbs; her uplinking ability, which would've connected her to any network or system in the area without even needing to speak, seemed to be offline.

What....what day is it?!

“It's Monday. September 19, 2011. You've been....out, for about seven or eight hours. Sorry about that.”

All at once, the storm of memories seemed to dissolve in on itself, fading out to a very familiar room. “I'm....at home?!” Vicki gasped, her voice sounding rather ethereal to even her own aural sensors. “How---”

“I think I can help with that.”

Vicki turned to see a familiar-looking girl----clad in purple and pink, but with a normal skin tone and dark walnut hair---sitting on the couch (the same couch Ted Lawson still owned), in the living room of the Lawson house. “I should probably explain,” the girl began, “that....what?

“You....look....” Vicki held a hand to her head. “Why do I feel so tired?! And why are you---”

“Why am I....oh, the skin and hair thing.” The girl on the couch rolled her eyes....

….and as Vicki watched, her skin changed to a more familiar silver, as her hair (and lipstick) turned neon-blacklight purple. “Better?” she offered.

“Definitely. So....this is, what, the third time you've been in my head?”

Galatea grinned. “For the record, I don't find it nearly as weird as some might....” Her smile faded. “...but as for why I'm here...well, it's no laughing matter.” She moved to sit next to Vicki; “What can you remember about the last two days?” she quietly asked. “Any specific details....places, names, mission objectives...anything at all from---”

Vicki shuddered, sitting bolt-upright in her chair. “Epsilon!”


“....can she be activating in the middle of the damn repair procedure?!"

“Just relax, it's...not as bad as you think. Vicki, sweetheart, just stay calm....”

“....CPU activity spiking, mental functions starting to redline---we need to---”

“Vicki....Vicki....”


Instantly, Galatea was at Vicki's side. “Vicki, I'm right here,” she intoned. “Whatever you just saw, anything you may have heard....it's all perfectly normal. Just---”

“I....I can't.....”


“She's spiking again! Ted, we need to—-”

“GIVE HER A MINUTE! Vicki, honey....can you hear me?”

“The simulated environment isn't going to keep holding up under the strain, we need to---”

“Let me handle that! Vicki, I'm right here.....”


“....everything.....hurts....” The words were an eerie echo of what Epsilon had said, back at the AutoYard, but they were no less poignant now. “I....what's happening to me?!” Tears streamed down Vicki's face with every word. “Why---”

Her body jolted again....


“IT'S NOT WORKING! We're going to lose her---”

“NO WE'RE NOT! Vicki, please.....just stay with me, just stay awake---”

“The simulated environment is starting to lag---it's crashing, Ted, it can't hold up---”

“Then pull her out of it. Let her see what's happening here, and explain it---”

“SOMEONE HOLD HER DOWN!”


Galatea steadied Vicki's shuddering form, her silver hands firmly grasping the brunette gynoid's shoulders. “I guess I might as well do a bit of explaining, while I still can,” she admitted. “You remember the last time we 'met', after you'd uplinked to that gynoid and guided her through the microwave emitters?”

“....yes....”

“Well, this was supposed to be another support session like that....but you're crashing. Hard.”

A sob escaped Vicki's lips; all around her, the room was beginning to glitch out into static, patches of nothing and corrupted pixels. “Am I going to die?” she whispered.

“Not today,” Galatea replied, giving her a reassuring smile. “Not if I can help it....”

The dissolving room began to shudder. “Brace yourself,” the silver-skinned gynoid warned. “The enviro-sim is about to crash...things are going to get really weird in a minute...” She smiled again. “Just remember, it's going to be---”

Everything---including Galatea---exploded into a cavalcade of random sounds and blinding lights.


“The enviro-sim's failing...core corruption in all modules. She's crashing hard, Ted---”

“She's not crashing. That's just the sim falling apart. Vicki's....stronger. She'll survive.”

“I sincerely hope you're right. For all our sakes, I hope you're right---”

“She's moving! Undo the straps and stand back...”

“Get to the observation room---Galatea, move! She'll knock your head off if---”

“I can handle it. You, go.”

“.....if you're staying, then so am I.”

“Last time I checked, you're still flesh and blood. Her arm will hurt a lot more if it hits you than if it hits me---”

“I'm her father, I'm not going to leave her like this---”


With a gasp, Vicki's world returned.

A sea of faces---six or seven total, slowly swimming into focus as her HUD emerged from a fuzz of pixels in her field of view---hovered just above her, talking animatedly. “...her father, I'm not going to leave her like this---”

“Ted....she's awake.”

All eyes in the room turned towards the brunette gynoid---just as the notification appeared:

Today is Monday, September 19, 2011.

“......where......” Vicki blinked---or, more accurately, winked---for some reason, her left eyelid didn't seem to want to respond. “Where am I?” Her voice sounded more digitized than she would've liked, but at least she could still talk.

Right next to the face of Ted Lawson, her creator---her father---a purple-haired, silver-skinned girl smiled down at Vicki. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” she murmured, smiling. “You scared the hell out of us for a few minutes.....” The sea of faces parted above her as Vicki sat up. “....what happened to me?” she asked, glancing around----in addition to Ted and Galatea, she could recognize Anton Malvineous, Alicia LeHane and Rae Clarke. Two unfamiliar figures---a man who might've been a 20-years-younger Clive DuBraul, and a woman hidden behind the tinted glass window on the far end of the room---rounded out the group.

“You got beaten pretty bad,” Alicia admitted. “Epsilon....lost it. He attacked you and Oberon---”

Vicki's eyes briefly flared red. “Where?!”

“He's in lockdown,” Anton informed her. “He's....to be honest, Vicki, Oberon isn't gloating, or being a prig at the moment....he's been screaming for the last hour or so. Spent the entire night crying in his sleep, in Latin....”

“.....oh.” Vicki looked down at herself---and immediately noticed one thing. Or rather, the lack of one thing...“Where the hell are my clothes?!”

“You're still wearing underwear,” Rae chimed in. “Ted didn't want to have you go the full Monty on us...and I love the pastels, by the way.” She grinned, ignoring a scathing frown from Alicia. “Even I have more tact than that,” she muttered. “Oh, spack off!” Rae shot back. “I'm trying to lighten the mood---”

“Guys,” Vicki interjected. “....I'm fine with the underwear, but.....”

She held up her left arm---which ended below the elbow. “Anyone want to explain this?”

“That,” the guy who looked like a younger Clive DuBraul replied, “is a result of the pounding you took back at the Block G facility.” He strode forward, offering his right hand for the gynoid to shake; “I'm the interim Chairman,” he explained. “Call me Collin.”

“I guess you already know who I am,” Vicki murmured, even as she shook Collin's hand.

“I do....and I have to commend you for handling things the way you did---”

“You mean playing walking punching bag?”

Galatea draped an arm around Vicki's shoulders. “You stood up to someone who wanted Epsilon dead,” she reminded the brunette gynoid. “You did the best you could to keep from attacking him and using your own strength against him....and you didn't hurt Epsilon, either---” She paused, frowning, as Vicki tentatively reached for her face. “....you're still silver,” she muttered. “You're....actually silver? I thought that was just how you looked in my head....”

Alicia bit her lip to keep from giggling. “Well,” Galatea admitted, “I have....certain preferences, when it comes to my appearance---Alicia, don't start.....anyway...” She rolled her eyes. “Purple and pink have always been my favorite colors,” she continued, “starting when I was...” She paused again, this time looking a bit worried.

“The point is,” Rae cut in, “we're all here to help.”

“Which we've been doing for the past few hours,” Anton added. “Epsilon really did a number on you back at the Block G factory. The blunt force trauma impacts to your cranial casing---your head, in basic terms---nearly unseated every chipset in you....combined with the damage Oberon inflicted---”

“Where's Kirsten?”

Everyone in the room tried to find something else to look at.

“Where's Kirsten?! Were you able to repair her after the AutoYard incident.....”

Anton coughed slightly. “Vicki,” he quietly informed the brunette gynoid, “Kirsten....she was nearly wiped clean by that magnet. BUT,” he quickly added, trying to stop the gynoid before she sank back to the surface of the table, “we're getting her backups from her dorm room, with Selwyn's help. We can have her restored before the end of the month....she can be repaired, Vicki.”

Slowly, sadly, Vicki nodded. “She can, but Epsilon can't.....”

“.....I don't suppose now would be a good time to mention the....other news, then,” Collin muttered.

“We might as well tell her,” Ted countered. “She's awake....she'll be restored to full functionality once we finish repairing her face and the rest of her left arm. The myogel lines are still being resealed....we're putting in some impact-resistant plating, too---”

“Dad.....”

“....oh, right. Sorry....forgot I wasn't playing the pitchman.”

Despite her intensive damage, Vicki nodded. “Fair enough...so, what is the other news you wanted to mention before Dad went into the sales pitch?”

Anton sighed. “As it turns out, we're not the only ones looking for Epsilon.”

Collin nodded at a 72-inch plasma screen on one side of the room. “You've heard of the DVS before, am I right?” he asked, as footage from the Block G facility played out on the monitor.

“I have...and they're involved, now?”

“More than involved, babe,” Rae replied. “Turns out they're splitters---they've left the Coalition in the dust after, what, a few decades of serving as their advisory board?” Alicia rolled her eyes; “We only thought they were the advisory board of the Coalition,” she corrected. “Turns out they're...a bit bigger than that. How big, exactly, we have no idea---”

“Big enough to order Epsilon's capture,” Collin finished. “And 'removal'.”

Vicki frowned (as much as her ruined face would allow, anyway). “Removal?”

“It seems that Oberon wasn't the only one who wanted Epsilon dead,” Collin explained. “You remember Ash Wakefield?”

“Remember.....” Vicki's remaining eyebrow arched in surprise. “They haven't----”

“No, no, not at all,” Anton assured her. “He's transferred to Reseda to help with the E-Lin relocation---you'll hear more about that later, when this is all over with, probably...anyway, when Ash defected from United Robotronics, for lack of a better term, he brought more than enough notes with him to give us a quite thorough understanding of how Epsilon is meant to function, and what's happening to Tony Sanderson.”

Alicia nodded. “Problem is, those notes were supposed to go straight to the DVS...or to the incinerator.”

“Which means that Epsilon's an endangered species,” Galatea finished, “and Ash Wakefield is now a wanted man...except we've got a team watching out for him in Reseda, and he doesn't even know they're there---he's under protection at all times.” She sighed. “That leaves us with the task of making sure Epsilon doesn't fall into the hands of the DVS.”

“Us, as in all of us?” Vicki queried. “Including me?”

Ted nodded proudly. “You've already faced Epsilon once, and defended him to the....is 'bitter end' the right way of saying it---” Alicia groaned. “The point is,” she declared, “you're not on the scrap pile yet, Vicki---you're probably the farthest from it that you could possibly be.” She gently hugged the brunette gynoid.

“And we'll all do our best to keep it that way,” Anton added.

Slowly, Vicki nodded. “....good to hear....but I'd appreciate it it I, ah....” She waved her left arm.

“Teddy-Boy said it best earlier,” Rae replied, “the myogel lines in your arm are being re-set...you, meanwhile, are running in what countless computer owners have known and....generally accepted as 'safe-mode'---and it's not a bad thing!” Even as Vicki's right eyelid fluttered closed, with a pained groan on her lips, the crimson-haired gynoid was at her side; “It's just to make sure your systems don't tax themselves past the limit while you're recovering,” she calmly explained. “Your personality files haven't been altered, none of your core settings will be changed...you're still you, sweetie.” She grinned. “Teddy wouldn't have it any other way---”

“And 'Teddy' would greatly appreciate it if you stopped calling him—-er, me---that!” Ted stated, more flustered than angry. “....and, ah....for the record....” He wrung his hands nervously.

“I get it,” Vicki assured him, turning so that he could see the smile on the intact half of her face. “And...thanks. For everything....even if I feel like a half-assembled model kit right now.”

Ted and Anton exchanged a concerned glance. “You're sure you want to return to Field Agent duty?”

“I'd feel like a total sell-out if I didn't, Dad.” Vicki laid back on the worktable, considerably calmer now than she'd been after emerging from the enviro-sim crash. “Do I have to be offline for you to finish my repairs?”

Alicia cast an accusatory glance at Rae. “Hey, just because I like it,” the tanned gynoid began, “I wouldn't---”

“It'll feel mildly uncomfortable, at points,” Anton cut in, “but it shouldn't cause any damaging disruptions to your systems. The only steps left in the repair process aren't terribly invasive, either. It's up to you, really.”

Vicki didn't need too much time to think about it: “I'll stay online. No offence, but that enviro-sim....”

“The crash wasn't your fault,” Galatea assured her. “It was a combination of your systems rejecting it---again, not your conscious fault---and the program itself being so bare-bones that it wouldn't have held up unless you were running at 100%, in normal functionality.” She blew a lock of neon-purple hair away from her eyes; “In 'safe mode',” she continued, “you can talk to us like you've been doing, and if you're just on the phone with anyone who doesn't know you're a gynoid, they'll never realize the difference...but a lot of your lower-tier human emulation programs are pretty much shut off.” The metallic-skinned gynoid offered a grin. “Like I said, it wasn't anywhere near being your fault, Vicki.”

After a few seconds of silence, Vicki nodded. “Fair enough. I just....why is half of my face still missing?”

“That'll be the last part of you that we repair,” Ted replied. “And not by choice---I wanted to apply a new facial dermal sheath as soon as possible, but Anton insisted---”

Anton cleared his throat. “The point is,” Colin interjected, “you'll be up and running before sunset.”

“I hope so...what's my excuse for missing classes this time?”

“We'll come up with something,” Rae beamed. “And no, it won't be anything 'obscene',” she added, rolling her eyes. “Did I even say anything?” Alicia muttered. “....anyway, we've all got your back, babe.”

Ted nodded. “It's like that Roy Orbison song---'Anything you want, you got it...anything you need---”

“I get it,” Vicki giggled.

Collin gave an approving smile. “Excellent. Now, about finishing your repairs....”

Vicki laid back on the work table, exhaling a deep breath (out of habit, more than anything). “I'm ready.”

“Good to hear. Ted, if you'd like to start....” Anton gestured to the rack of tools behind them. “We can---”

“Wait.” Vicki sat up slightly; “Jamie and Joan,” she muttered. “Has anyone told them about....well, this? I don't want Mom worrying about me, or anything....and Jamie's been through enough hell this year---”

“I, ah, didn't tell Joan the full extent of your...injuries,” Ted stammered, “and---”

A slightly-filtered voice piped in from the speaker grille built into the window on the far end of the room. “And I should make you sleep on the couch for a month for not telling me,” Joan Lawson declared. “Robot or not, she's still our daughter, Ted!” Despite her surrogate mother's annoyance, Vicki couldn't help but smile. “I'm okay, Mom, really. You don't need to worry---”

“It's practically my job to worry, Vicki!”

As Ted made his way over to the grille to calm Joan down, Anton sighed. “Ready?”

“As ready as I'll ever be, Professor.....”

Part 3

Mary Robinson watched, more than slightly annoyed, as an Escalade pulled up across the street. “They aren't even trying to be subtle,” she muttered. “Reaver, you have my uplink cable, right?”

“I nearly sat on it five minutes ago...” Reaver grabbed the cable from his gear bag. “I ran their plates,” he added, “and they're not tourists...and this part of town isn't exactly tourist territory.” He scowled as two burly, unshaven men exited the Escalade, looking as if they wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. “She's still got those two on retainer....and will you wait to hook that thing up?!”

His outburst did little to stop Mary from pulling at her shirt and tapping just above her breastbone. “You're here to keep me from getting spotted or shot,” she reminded him. “I don't see any guns aimed at me right now...”

Reaver stared at her. “You always this careless on ops?”

“You call it careless, I call it effici---” Mary froze momentarily as her systems synced with her iPad. “---cient, and.....what?”

“Freezing up for a second isn't what I call efficient,” Reaver muttered. “If you'd have done that in a firefight---”

“Except this isn't a firefight,” Mary sighed. “It's just Delacroix's idiot squad raiding a storage unit...” Her eyes went glossy for a minute as data scrolled through her field of vision. “The place is leased to...ah, Reaver, you might want to see this....” Without looking away from the scene of Brittney “Boom Boom” Delacroix's hired thugs looting the unit, she handed the iPad to Reaver. “What, exactly should I---oh, you are joking.” He lowered the iPad, scowling. “That storage unit belonged to Kirsten Sanderson?!”

Mary retrieved the tablet; “Not only did it belong to her,” she replied, her voice slightly electronic, “she planned to use it to hide Epsilon. I talked to the owner before you got here---he said Kirsten needed enough space for 'something big'----” She gasped as her systems cut the connection to the iPad.

“And now the DVS is sending their goon squad to sift through it,” Reaver finished. “Dumb-ass on them....”

The blonde gynoid almost giggled. “Did you really just say 'dumb ass on them'?!”

“It was better than what I was thinking,” Eric replied, allowing himself a smirk. “Trust me on that---”

Across the street, someone shouted. “I'm guessing that's not part of the plan for those guys,” Mary mused, no longer smiling. “Not part of our plan, either,” Reaver replied. “Nobody said a damn thing about---”

Before he could finish swearing, Mary held a finger to her lips, nodding towards the Escalade. Someone inside the vehicle was pissed. “Oh, joy,” Reaver growled, shaking his head as the profanity from the Escalade's interior got louder. “Delacroix's morons are working with him, now....”

“Him?” Mary echoed.

“Drake Bradford. The idiot who tried to sic a bunch of fembots on SJSU last year....I could've sworn he got hauled off for tax evasion.” Reaver gestured for the iPad again. “I have a feeling we're going to need a few more of ours out here---Bradford's not the type of guy who leaves things to chance.” He keyed in the number for ALPA HQ; “He had the Unmaker working with him last time,” he continued, even as Mary gave him a more than slightly confused look, “and---”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the blonde gynoid cut in. “'The Unmaker'? Fembots on SJSU campus?! The Ohio office never got any news about this!”

Reaver frowned. “All that happened last year....the Silicon Dynamics mission---”

“Oh, we heard about that. Pretty popular water cooler reading---”

“But you didn't hear about the Unmaker?” Eric prompted. “Or Bradford trying to use fembots based on Dr. Franklin's designs to infiltrate SJSU?”

“Not a word. Your guys might've...forgotten to call about it----”

Her idea only earned her a scowl from Reaver. “Like Hell they did. I filed that report myself---HEY!” His explanation was rather abruptly cut off---Mary was shoving him below the line of sight from the Escalade across the street, just as Bradford turned to glare at the “empty lot” and gesture wildly. “Stay low,” Mary hissed, “and don't attack until---”

Across the street, Bradford gave a rather ominous order: “Light it up. I don't want to see anything but cinders.”

“....okay, maybe we should attack,” Mary began, only to gasp as a pair of flamethrowers hissed into life---their flames engulfing the storage unit formerly owned by Kirsten Sanderson. “Tell me there wasn't anything vital in there,” Reaver groaned. “PLEASE tell me they didn't just destroy something important---”

“The owner of the lot said it was empty,” the blonde gynoid replied. “Kirsten must've moved everything---”

Another burst of the flamethrowers cut her off; the stand-alone storage unit was now beginning to buckle in onto itself as Bradford watched. “Something tells me the owner of this place doesn't allow anyone---clients or no---to torch the storage units,” Reaver frowned. “You think Bradford payed him---” He groaned again as Mary shushed him. “Less speculation, more....what's the opposite of speculation?”

Whatever reply Reaver could've made was cut off by a shout from one of Bradford's men: “We've got somethin' in here! You might want to take a look at it, boss---”

“If it's another damn RealDoll,” Bradford began, “I'm not....”

Mary and Reaver exchanged a worried look. “I'm guessing it's not a RealDoll, then,” Mary whispered.

“.....the hell? What is this thing?!” Bradford was pacing back and forth before the storage unit. “And why does she have a freaking touchscreen where her face should be---KENDALL! Get over here!” Bradford's shout was followed by the clicking of high heels on pavement. “Yes?” a clipped, British-accented female voice politely asked.

“What the hell is this?”

“An E-Lin, sir---Electronic Link-up. She can be used to access---”

“Can she track Epsilon?”

“.....I...suppose she could, sir, but---”

“Good enough for me. Dalton, get her into the truck---the E-Lin, not Kendall! And she'd better not be missing any clothes when we get back....” Bradford moved around the side of the storage unit Dalton was removing the E-Lin from. “Anything else we can use in here?”

Kendall (still out of sight from Reaver and Mary) moved to the far side of the unit. “Nothing we can use, but I believe Miss Delacroix might find a use for some of the dormant units. She has been stating a desire to....'get more for her crew', I believe the phrase was.” Her “clicky-walk” filled the air as she moved into view, allowing Reaver and Mary to get their first good look at her svelte figure. “Augmenting Miss Delacroix's entourage may give us a long-term advantage, after all,” she added, her lips curving into a polite (and possibly seductive) smile. “It would---”

“I just need the one line, not the whole sales pitch,” Bradford cut in. “Tag 'em and bag 'em---we're done here.”

Reaver's hand immediately went to his holstered sidearm. “HQ isn't going to hear about this until they're gone,” he muttered. “I'll be quick---”

“And you'll be dead.” Mary pulled him back before he could vault over the low wall they were hiding behind.

“You think I can't take those two?” Reaver scoffed. “I could drop 'em both----” Mary pulled him away from the wall. “You dropping them isn't the issue,” she quietly informed him. “The issue is you coming up against something else---that Kendall woman's using a LaMarquise chassis with about a dozen after-market add-ons to make her faster and stronger than she looks.” She glanced back over the wall; “One or two solid kidney punches from her,” she quietly added, “and you'll be down for the count before you can even draw your gun.”

“LaMarquise?! They make celebrity replicas, sexbots and high-end companions---”

“You're forgetting the after-market add-ons?” Mary reminded him. “And I hear LaMarquise is branching out into a few more...martial aspects of the robotics industry---at least, they're considering it—-”

“ALL RIGHT,” Bradford shouted across the street, “we're done here!” Sinclair, lock down the trailer---and make sure the damn door is locked, this time!” He strode back towards the Escalade, smirking. “Kendall, be sure to leave the owner a few....reminders of our gratitude,” he stated, “for letting us have the run of the place as long as we have.” The Escalade revved its engine and pulled out of the lot; behind the storage sheds, a truck (more than likely hauling the aforementioned trailer behind it) moved into position to follow the Escalade out. “I'm running the plates now,” Mary informed Reaver. “Think HQ will give us the clearance to follow them?”

“All I'm thinking about is how field notifications reach those new Amigas faster than they reach any other PC in the building,” Reaver admitted. “AND I'm thinking about how we're going to follow them,” he added. “Chasing down an Escalade on foot.....not a great idea, if I'm honest---and my ride isn't exactly, ah.....” He blew out an annoyed sigh as he glanced at the car he'd driven to the stakeout. “Damn thing's gonna need a tune-up before the week ends,” he muttered.

“We could get a few chasers on them,” Mary offered. “I'll call it in---” Reaver shook his head. “Won't do us any good. They'd probably lose 'em, or try to redirect the chase towards high-traffic areas....” He stopped. “High-traffic....Mary, call HQ, but don't ask for chasers.”

“.....okay, but---”

“You were able to detect Kendall's chassis type just from a low-level scan....what else did you pick up?”

“....an IP registered to Bradford's phone but emanating from Kendall,” the blonde gynoid replied, realizing the potential of her colleague's idea. “You're saying we should trace her from her internal IP?”

“It's a lot better than the alternative.” Reaver checked the clip on his gun, nodding in approval. “And it gives us a chance to recoup, head back to base....report the stolen E-Lins.” He scowled. “If this ends without anybody else getting sent to lockup, it'll be a good week,” he muttered, “and---”

A short gasp from Mary cut him off. “There's another IP in the area,” she breathed. “It's...unregistered, linked to a gynoid...possibly an independent A.I of some kind....whatever it was, it was looking for something.” She blinked a few times. “My own IP got pinged, just a few seconds ago---anti-intrusion counter-suite detected it, thankfully....”

“Any idea what the hell it was looking for?” Reaver inquired. “And why the hell would an independent A.I try to ping you---”

“I don't know why an A.I would ping me....but I saved the search query---meaning I know who it was after...”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The query it submitted was for all information on Vicki Lawson.”

Part 4

“....and curl your fingers again, if you don't mind.”

Vicki frowned, but flexed the fingers of her left hand inward. “I think we've established that my hand works,” she informed Anton. “And I know why we're doing this...I just don't see the point of doing the same ambulatory tests for a full hour.”

“It's a test of your mental functions as well,” Anton calmly informed her. “Passive scans coming up green....if I'm not mistaken, Agent Lawson, you're fully qualified to return to active Field Agent duty.” He grinned. “And you can stop flexing your hand now,” he added, chuckling at Vicki's relieved sigh. “SO....now that we've come to terms with the fact that you're cleared for field duty, anything you feel like asking---”

“Oberon.”

Anton's smile faded. “...I see you're not wasting any time,” he murmured. “Care to tell me---”

“Where is he, and what's going to happen to him? I'm not going to go....visit him, or anything, if he's in jail---”

“Common jail would be too dangerous,” Collin called out from across the room. “He's secured, for the time being....I can't tell you much more than that without violating about fifteen security protocols.” He strode over to Vicki and Anton, nodding his approval at the gynoid's rapid recovery. “This must feel pretty...typical, for you,” he mused. “The recovery, not the.....”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. “I get it. Though I don't actively set out to get my butt handed to me on a regular basis....” She paused. “While we're on the subject---”

“You want to know why you're on the latest recruitment poster,” Collin sighed. “Not surprising....that decision was made without my consent, long before this latest issue with Epsilon.” He pulled up a chair and sat next to Vicki; “The general consensus,” he informed her, “was that using your image on those posters without your consent was a bad idea---”

“So someone was actually thinking straight,” Vicki muttered.

Collin gave her a look. “You did sign up for a photo shoot, if I recall correctly---”

“Yeah, except nobody said I was going to be on a poster!”

Again, Collin sighed. “I've never been one to believe in the idea of 'star Field Agents',” he admitted, “or turning the focus of a recruitment drive on just one Field Agent instead of the efforts of the ALPA as a whole. That poster is everything we shouldn't be doing, Agent Lawson---”

“You can call me Vicki,” the brunette gynoid cut in. “All my friends do....”

“And you already consider me a friend?” Collin finished.

Vicki grinned. “You already said the poster was a bad idea....and your pulse rate is still normal, so either you're telling the truth, or you're a great liar.”

It was Collin's turn to grin. “Anton will be the first to tell you---I'm a terrible liar, which is why I gave up poker a few months ago.” He chuckled at the memory. “As I was saying....Vicki....that poster is a perfect example of everything we shouldn't be doing.” His smile faded slightly. “Putting the focus on you---on any single Field Agent---undermines the activities of the rest. Calliope, for example, has been our liaison with repair shops in and around Silicon Valley ever since she turned herself over after the Family of Steel incident....Agent Clarke has been helping us reforge our connections with DreamLand and other such establishments....”

“Long story short,” Anton finished, “every Field Agent is the hero or heroine of his or her own story.”

“That.....makes sense,” Vicki reasoned. “But that still doesn't explain---”

“Some of our....political connections,” Collin admitted, “who happen to be in the know about what we do and the scope of our work, thought you'd be an effective poster girl. For some reason, they like the prospect of 'branding' the ALPA......” He shook his head. “There's a reason I left the Hill, all those years ago....”

A door on the far end of the room opened with a hiss, revealing Rae and an unfamiliar blonde girl walking on either side of an auto-drive work cart. A female form, hidden beneath a sheet, lay motionless on the cart's surface. “Not now!” Anton called out, scowling. “I'm in the middle of---”

“Her processors are spiking, Anton,” the blonde replied. “If she's not fixed now---”

“If who's not fixed,” Vicki began, only to stare in silent shock as the sheet was whisked away to reveal Kirsten Sanderson. “We got the backups from her flat,” Rae informed Anton, “but---oh, hi, Vicki.” She flashed a quick grin at the brunette before returning her attention to Anton. “...anyway, we got the backups, but there's a bit of a problem we didn't exactly deal with in her last repair session....”

Still scowling, Anton circled the cart. “What problem would that be?”

“Her drives are borked,” the blonde stated. “They won't even spin up anymore. Flash memory's fine, servos still work, processors are fine....but the drives themselves are gone....” She paused, noticing Vicki staring intently at her. “...and it's déjà vu all over again,” she sighed. “It's the skin tone and the hair colour, isn't it? I keep saying that I like my usual look---”

“Usual look?” Vicki echoed.

The blonde smiled. “Despite some people's reservations, I never get tired of this...” She took two steps back, winked and spoke the word “Galvanize”....which triggered a rather astounding shift in her hair color---which seemed to dye itself neon black-light purple as Vicki watched---while her skin pigmentation seemed to recede into her to reveal a metallic silvery sheen. “Now if only Saban would've answered my fan mail about making the Power Rangers' morphing sequences cooler.....and I know that look, Vicki, so---”

“Another time, Galatea,” Anton interrupted. “You're saying Kirsten's drives were...destroyed, by---”

“What?!” Vicki's astonishment at Galatea's “morphing” evaporated. “She's....broken?!”

Rae was at her side in an instant. “Far from it, sweetie---her personality, memories, and all the good stuff is still intact.” She held up a portable hard drive. “It's just that.....well, until we get new drives in her, she won't exactly be up and about any time soon---”

Galatea took a step back from the cart, followed by Rae and a thoroughly-spooked Vicki; Kirsten's body was twitching violently, as if she was in the grips of a seizure of some kind. “RABIT spikes,” Rae muttered, pulling up a tablet attached to the cart by a metallic arm. “Memory conflicts, driver errors---she's trying to reboot and return to normal function---HELP ME, DAMNIT!” Galatea rushed to her side, pinning one of the malfunctioning gynoid's arms to the cart. “She's trying to resume normal functionality,” Rae continued, “but she can't---”

A half-scream from Galatea cut her off; Kirsten's lips were twitching in what might've been an attempt to speak.

“What's she saying? What is she trying to say?!” Vicki demanded. “She's saying something, what---”

“It's corrupted data in audio form,” Rae hissed, trying to wrest Kirsten's left hand back to the cart. “She's not saying any---” Her anger faded into shock as the words “help me” were briefly, but clearly audible through the otherwise nonsensical babbling.

Vicki stared into the unseeing eyes of her friend, already thinking back to the last time Kirsten had “died”....

On the other side of the cart, Anton was guiding Galatea through the process of halting Kirsten's failing systems by hand. “Isolate the corrupted files,” he instructed, “and try to move them off her drives---”

“Her drives are corrupted,” Galatea replied. “There's no way to get any files on or off of them!”

“Shut her off, then!” Rae shouldered past the two, moving to press the switch behind Kirsten's left ear. “We don't exactly have a choice---” A hand closed around her wrist. “If it were you,” Vicki quietly asked, “would you want someone just shutting you off?”

Rae stared at her for a moment, possibly biting back more than a few scathing replies....

“I'll try to get her systems to cycle-down into standby,” Galatea cut in. “See if that'll do anything to minimize the potential damage to her systems...any chance we could get that portable drive with her core files hooked up to a tablet, Anton?”

“Not a problem.” Anton retrieved the tablet Rae had used earlier, running a splitter cable from the cart to the tablet and hooking up its second lead to the portable hard drive. “It's only fair to warn you, though....given what she's been through, she's going to be very confused, probably more than a bit frightened, and she'll want to know what happened to her father.....” He paused. “You still have the enviro-sim package ready?” Galatea gave him a quizzical stare. “You're suggesting I---”

“Connect the enviro-sim program to the portable drive, instead of trying to sync it up with her body. It'll give her a semblance of reality that she can identify with, and let us talk to her in a setting of her own choice.”

The silver-skinned gynoid thought it over. “It's been a while since I had to use the enviro-sim to counsel a 'bot outside their own body,” she admitted, “but...if it works, and if it helps her cope, I'll do it.” She nodded. “And Vicki....shutting her off at this point won't be as harmful as you might think,” she added. “Her drives are already scrambled---be glad we were able to get the backups---”

“How recent are they?”

Vicki's panicked question didn't phase Galatea in the least. “From two days ago. She'll remember her last encounter with Epsilon from before the AutoYard....after that, I'll help her fill in the gaps if need be.”

“Fair enough,” Vicki replied, nodding. “And Rae.....sorry about---” She tensed as the chestnut-haired gynoid's hands rested on her shoulders....just before pulling the brunette Field Agent in for a hug. “Ah, okay...seeing as how this is a hug and not an attempt to pile-drive me---”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Rae whispered. “I just....that question brought back some bad memories for me.” She pulled away, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. “I forget, sometimes, how things were before the ALPA took me in,” she muttered. “Just because the ones who made me were ALPA members, and my first....can't really say 'owner', because he never saw it that way....” She turned away for a moment. “I just didn't think I'd have to remember any of that after the ALPA accepted me as an Agent in training,” she quietly admitted. “Your dad's the reason I'm here now, really---he paid a visit to my makers, all those years ago....”

And a certain someone tried to tell me that Ted's visit to Hreftech instead of visiting Grandpa was a bad thing, Vicki recalled. “You can tell me more about it another time,” she replied. “Right now, we need to find Epsilon before---”

“Hold that thought,” Anton cut in, checking his phone. “Reaver and Agent Robinson just called in again---it looks like Bradford just torched a storage unit....” His expression darkened. “....that belonged to Kirsten.”

“Then let's not waste any time,” V.I.C.I replied. “Care to join me, Rae?”

Her question earned a grin from the chestnut-haired gynoid. “Sweetheart...it'd be my pleasure.”

Part 5

Few things in Silicon Valley would've drawn more stares than the hot-pink sedan racing down the roads on a Monday afternoon---which, as Vicki reminded the sedan's owner, was the best possible reason to leave that particular car behind and head out in a royal blue Honda Regency (a car originally intended to run on the same RTG technology that powered Vicki herself, but ended up using a refined hydrogen fuel cell system). Anton had even uploaded SARIA (the Satellite Assisted Route/Informational Aide) from his own car into the Regency, with a request that Vicki not “total it”.

“So,” the brunette gynoid mused, “you said my dad's the reason you joined the ALPA?”

Rae rolled her eyes. “Already back to that, are we? You could chat up SARIA while we drive....”

“No offence to Anton, or to SARIA,” Vicki replied, “but I'd rather hear---”

“Your dad,” Rae replied, “effectively rescued me from the worst situation a girl like me could've been in. My first....companion, shall we say, was nice----he didn't treat me like a thing. Unfortunately, as nice as he was, he had his demons...the biggest of which was gambling. One particular betting partner decided to talk him into putting me up for one particularly stupid game of cards---”

“And he lost you to a bad hand?” Vicki surmised.

The chestnut-haired gynoid wasn't smiling. “More like he lost me to a bloody robbery. Everyone there left in bags....and the sods backing the game decided to collect on everyone's debts....”

Vicki winced; she'd heard similar horror stories from Ted, Anton and others in the ALPA. “Who 'won' you?”

“Someone who didn't deserve me,” Rae muttered. “He only switched me on whenever his ex-wife was around, at first---wanted her to see 'how he was doing now'....” She managed to not miss the turn SARIA pointed out, despite her seeming refusal to look at the road. “Then he sold me back to Hreftech, tried to get a refund on me....and they couldn't take me back. The berks who robbed the card game had torched the place when they left---well, not so much when they left as when they got stuck trying to leave....”

“And your registration papers went up,” Vicki finished, sighing. “So they had no proof of....ownership.”

Rae nodded. “Which was just brilliant for me, seeing as how my second owner never bothered to get a new set of papers....and after that.....” Her eyes were rimmed with tears as she guided the Regency to the side of the road.

“Would you like me to drive for you, Miss Clarke?” SARIA's voice inquired, briefly silencing the radio.

“I think that'll be a 'yes',” Vicki replied, as Rae buried her face in her hands. “Engage AutoDrive on course to our destination.”

“....protocol dictates that Miss Clarke herself give that order,” SARIA replied, “but in this case....” Slowly, the car drove back onto the road as Rae's seat slowly moved backwards, giving her room to cry without hitting any vital controls. “I'm here, Rae,” Vicki assured her. “If you don't want to talk about any of it, we can just forget I ever--”

“Bollocks,” Rae spat, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I didn't make it...sniff...this far in the ALPA by 'forgetting' things....” She accepted a paper towel from Vicki, wiping the tears from her face. “...thanks, sweetie,” she murmured, grinning. “Needed that.....anyway...after I tried to go back to Hreftech, they pretty much told me, in very polite terms, that I had to find my own way for a few months until they could get my data on file and figure out what to do with me.....” She sighed. “A few months turned into a few years, thanks to a few....detours....”

“I'm hoping one of those 'detours' didn't involve anyone named Damien Fal---”

“The Family of Steel wasn't in town....not that it would've mattered.” Rae hugged herself, as if even thinking about what she'd endured was enough to send a chill down her spine. “I wound up in a bloody stupid fight club---sentients vs sentients, sentients vs non-sentients, sentients vs humans....it was barbaric. Apparently, they'd just decided to start adding in more sentient 'bots to the roster---they were running out of 'bots, needed a few more fighters...”

Rae's revelation prompted a startled look from Vicki. “You were mixed up in that?!”

“I wasn't just 'mixed up' in it...my first night in the ring, I had to fight in a 'battle royale'. Never thought those Fazbear Entertainment 'bots had that much bite power, after '87....” Again, Rae sighed. “Ted Lawson saved me from that hellhole, Vicki. If he hadn't....I'd have gone down a very, very dark path.”

Dad does tend to have that effect on people.... “Well, the path you're on now is anything but dark,” Vicki replied with a reassuring smile. “And speaking of paths---SARIA, estimated time of arrival?”

“Given current traffic conditions: Three minutes and fifteen seconds.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “That's...surprising, actually,” she murmured. “I thought---”

“The Regency's got more than enough juice to get us where we need to go without stopping at a pump on the way,” Rae proudly declared. “And if I could get one in hot pink, I'd be driving one of these around...then again, SARIA's doing a damn fine job of that for us right now.” Her focus turned to the GPS tracking monitor (right next to the radio on the dashboard); “Can't say the same for that car, though,” she frowned. “Someone's in a hurry to get somewhere, with virtually zero regard for their fellow motorists.”

“Then let's not put them in any more danger.” V.I.C.I's eyes glowed an electric blue as she spoke; “We need to get as close as possible to that car,” she stated, “without them noticing us....SARIA, enable Silent Running.”

“Not a problem, Miss Lawson.”

Despite the inherent seriousness of the moment, V.I.C.I couldn't help but grin a bit.

“....and what's with the smile?” Rae queried. “We're about to go on a chase here---”

“I'm just....it's kind of funny, being called 'Miss Lawson',” the brunette gynoid admitted. “It's like---GAAAH!” Her hands gripped the armrests with enough force to dent them as the Regency skidded into a turn. “Sorry!” the voice of SARIA apologized. “I had to hit the turn tighter than expected....there were pedestrians---”

Rae and V.I.C.I exchanged looks, but nodded. “Not a problem. Just make sure we---”

“There they are!” Rae cut in. “Delacroix's Escalade....with Drake Bradford at the wheel!”

“Let me handle this,” V.I.C.I advised, going for her sidearm....and realizing SCEMP rounds would do little (if anything) in a car chase. “You wouldn't happen to have any ordnance that would help in this particular situation, would you?” she asked, her monotone tinged with embarrassment. “I don't want to waste any SCEMPs by just shooting at the tires...and what are you doing?” She frowned as Rae scampered into the backseat. “Just breaking out a few of the toys,” the chestnut-haired gynoid replied, grinning. “I have a feeling you'll like these....”

Even as the Regency pulled in behind the Escalade, the brunette Field Agent could tell that Bradford's men were probably well aware of the other car. “We don't exactly have a time surplus, Rae----” Gunfire raked the windshield. “Now we definitely don't have time to waste!”

“All good things in time, young Padawan,” Rae beamed. “You might want to duck....”

This had better be worth it.... V.I.C.I scowled, but decided to comply, unbuckling her seatbelt. “This won't hit either of us, will it?”

“What do you think the 'might want to duck' thing was for?”

“Rae---”

“It won't hit us, sweetheart. Just trust me on this.” Rae was putting something together in the backseat, the parts snapping into place with satisfying clicks. “And that goes there...and this goes here....”

A single shot pierced the windshield, narrowly missing V.I.C.I's head. “RAE---”

“ALMOST DONE! And the battery goes.....there.....”

Three rounds grazed the brunette gynoid's cheek. “RAE---”

“DUCK!”

Even as the shout processed in her aural sensors, V.I.C.I had practically flung herself below the dashboard of the Regency, just as Rae aimed what looked to be a cannon made out of an Erector set. “Howdy, boys!” the gynoid called out, giving her best ear-to-ear grin. “Prepare to meet this girl's best friend!”

Before V.I.C.I could shout at Rae to fire, the chestnut-haired gynoid squeezed the trigger. A bluish-green blast shot out of the gun's barrel, piercing the windshield and smashing into the Escalade's rear door before V.I.C.I could even blink. Swearing erupted from the Escalade as the Regency sped past it; V.I.C.I could hear Drake Bradford in particular shouting threats involving power tools and bodily orifices that sounded more than a bit ludicrous. “That'll let all the horses loose, I think,” Rae giggled, climbing over the armrest to return to the front seat of the car. “Now all we have to focus on is the truck hauling the trailer---”

“What truck,” V.I.C.I interjected, “hauling what trailer?”

Rae gave her a bemused look. “No offence, but do you really think Bradford would go out looking for Epsilon in an Escalade?” She rolled her eyes at the thought. “The call from Reaver and Agent Robinson mentioned a truck and a trailer...said something about a modified LaMarquise unit working with Bradford---”

“And she's riding shotgun in the truck,” V.I.C.I finished. “Not surprising...”

“We need to get the truck off the road,” Rae stated, checking the GPS monitor again. “The cannon's too risky to use for this---they've got stolen E-Lins in the trailer, and if the shot hits it, they'll get bricked.”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow. “Just what exactly is in that 'cannon' of yours?”

“Spoilers.” Rae winked, giving a cheeky grin as she did. “Anyway, we'll need to go hands-on with this lot if we're going to get the E-Lins back---” She nearly toppled onto V.I.C.I as the Regency swerved to dodge a burst of shotgun fire from the truck. “...or we could just throw a tracer on them and pick up the trail later,” she added. “Guess which option I'm in favour of at the moment...”

“I'll have SARIA paint the target with infrared. It'll last longer than a physical---”

“They'll backtrace it if we use infrared!” Rae groaned. “I've got a better idea...” She stared at the license plate of the trailer, her irises gleaming with minute lines of code. “And...done!” Micro-servos whirred as she blinked a few times. “ALPA HQ just got the full spec of that trailer and the truck hauling it....they're painting it with the long range infrared now.....”

She gave another wink. “....and some of our best and brightest will be on the way to pursue in---”

A shotgun blast tore through the front-left tire of the Regency, sending the car into a skid. “Agent Clarke, Agent Lawson,” SARIA's surprisingly calm voice informed the gynoids, “we seem to have picked up a flat tire...do you want me to pull over and---”

“Like hell I do,” Rae growled. “SARIA, disengage AutoDrive---and queue up some Golden Earring, will you?”

Her last comment earned a scowl from V.I.C.I; “You're thinking about driving music at a time like this?” she queried. “We're in the middle of a chase---”

“Time and a place, sweetie,” the chestnut-haired gynoid countered, smirking as the opening of “Radar Love” filled the Regency's cab. “And SARIA, try to get that tire back up while you're at it,” she added. “I'm not looking forward to giving an explanation of why this beautiful piece of work had to be towed in on a rim....”

“I'll do my best, Agent Clarke.”

“Damn right...” Rae cracked her knuckles, grinning as the “AutoDrive deactivated” notice flashed in her HUD.

Ahead of the Regency, the truck swerved to avoid an oncoming car; the LaMarquise unit working with (or for) Bradford was aiming a Cobray Street Sweeper out of the front passenger window. “LaMarquise doesn't sell the software packages that let their dolls pack that kind of heat,” V.I.C.I frowned. “She's probably got a few aftermarket warez in her---” She flinched, feeling a burst of static in her mind; was someone trying to ping me just now?

“Vicki, we've got a problem.”

Rae's words did little to calm the brunette gynoid. “If it's related to that LaMarquise---”

“It's Epsilon. He's inbound---heading towards that trailer.” There was an undertone of horror in Rae's voice as she spoke; “Those E-Lins,” she continued, “contain....you're never gonna believe this, babe, but they've got a few dozen specialized software packages in them---”

“For what?”

“Decryption, file analysis....all specifically related to countering the procedures used to turn Anthony Sanderson into Project Epsilon.” Something that might've been hope crept into her tone. “And this is even weirder: HQ just ran a check on those E-Lins, and they're all listed as 'cousins' of Kirsten Sanderson!”

That news made V.I.C.I's eyes widen. “....you're saying she---”

Another blast from the Street Sweeper hit the road next to the front right tire.

“If she didn't know about Epsilon's degradation at first,” Rae shouted, “she damn sure had some help---SARIA, engage DDP-090812!”

“You've got it, Agent Clarke!”

Any attempt by V.I.C.I to ask what DDP-090812 was cut off by Rae belting out the lyrics of the song blasting through the speakers: “When I get lonely and I'm sure I've had enough....she sends a comfort coming in, from above---we don't need a letter at all! WE'VE GOT A THING, AND IT'S CALLED RADAR LOVE!” She spun the Regency into the other lane as the LaMarquise in the truck let loose with a barrage of shots. “WE'VE GOT A LINE IN THE SKY!”

She's tenacious, V.I.C.I mused, I'll give her that... “So, what exactly is DDP-09812?”

“Defensive Driving Protocols---DUCK!”

That last shouted command wasn't questioned by the brunette gynoid; she dove into the Regency's backseat just as another burst of gunfire shattered the windshield. Rae grabbed a handset from under the dashboard and keyed it on; “ALPA Headquarters, this is Field Agent Rae Clarke,” she declared, wincing as another shot hit the still-smoking left front wheel. “I need plain chasers along the following route...” Her eyelids fluttered for a moment---non-verbal transmission, V.I.C.I reasoned. Good idea, especially with Bradford's newest doll right in front of us...

Rae's eyes snapped open. “Repeat: I need plain chasers along the transmitted route. Currently under fire from hostile entity associated with---” She hissed; another blast from the Street Sweeper tore into the street near the ruined tire. “Under fire from a hostile entity associated with Drake Bradford. Hostile is in possession of several E-Lin gynoids---”

Another blast peppered the headrest of the front passenger seat. “Agents Clarke and Lawson, this car won't be able to take much more damage,” SARIA declared. “I suggest we---”

“Sorry, love,” Rae called out, “but I've got a suggestion of my own---open the front passenger door!”

“Rae,” V.I.C.I intoned, “don't do this.....whatever you're about to---”

The chestnut-haired gynoid gave a cheeky grin. “When are you ever gonna learn,” she murmured, “that I like living dangerously---”

Before she could move to dive out of the opened door, a human-shaped blur charged towards the truck in front of them with a distorted, barely-human roar. “Epsilon,” V.I.C.I gasped. “He's already here--” She winced, more out of habit than for any other reason; the man/machine hybrid was leaping towards the truck, a taloned hand extended to rip the front passenger door off its hinges. The LaMarquise gynoid had already turned, her aim re-centering on the approaching figure of Epsilon....

…..just as the Cobray Street Sweeper was simultaneously knocked from her hands and ripped in half by five very long, very sharp talons.

“ALPA Headquarters!” Rae shouted, nearly crushing the handset in her grip. “This is Agent Rae Clarke---this message supersedes the previous notice! Epsilon is active---I need a containment team inbound to my current location! Repeat---”

Wrenching, tearing sounds in front of the Regency cut her off---Epsilon was tearing into the truck and flinging pieces of it into the road. Every human occupant had already fled the vehicle, and the LaMarquise gynoid, now unarmed and powerless against the hybrid's onslaught, had chosen to climb out of the driver's side door and jump for freedom before the truck lost all control---completely ignoring a rather noticeable problem.

“The trailer's going to crash with the truck,” V.I.C.I stated. “We need to---”

“Gimme a minute, babe---I've got a plan!” Rae was already preparing to leap from the passenger-side door again. “And this time, let me jump,” she added, a hint of teasing giving the request a slightly playful tone.

V.I.C.I gave her an annoyed look, but nodded. “I didn't actually stop you last time, you know....”

“Arguing semantics now?” Rae chuckled. “Time and a place, Vicki...” She grabbed onto the seatbelt mount inside the Regency, allowing herself to swing out with the opened door. “If Epsilon tries to go for the trailer while I'm doing my thing,” she added, her grin fading, “tell SARIA to initiate RP-1192---it's a Retrieval Protocol, if you're wondering.” Her grin returned. “I'll try not to keep you waiting too long.”

“Just be careful out there,” V.I.C.I replied, resigning herself to whatever would come next.

“I”ll do my best.” Rae winked, quickly blowing a kiss before she seemed to fall backwards out of the Regency...

…..only to hit the ground in a strangely-fluid combat roll, which carried her into a sprinter's position that she wasted no time taking off from. In seconds, she'd cleared the gap between the Honda Regency and the now-snaking trailer.

“Okay,” the brunette gynoid admitted, watching through the ruined windshield of the Regency, “that was cool.”

Even as her colleague was complimenting her skills, Rae was having more than a bit of a problem. Grabbing the trailer and working the latches on the doors was easy enough---she actually had to dial down the strength of her grip, to ensure that she didn't crush the handles---but staying out of sight of Epsilon and trying not to let any of the E-Lins fall out was several levels more difficult than she'd anticipated. “Hell of a thing,” she grunted, climbing into the trailer and managing a weary grin. “A few years ago, they'd have called me barking mad for doing this----”

A brutal pounding on the trailer cut off her reverie, serving as a not-so-subtle reminder for why she was there in the first place. “Right, right,” she muttered, brushing off Epsilon's attack on the truck. “I'll do my reminiscing later---none of that 'walking through the park' nonsense, though, if I can help it...”

Carefully, she examined each of the E-Lins---all of them had their faces attached, which made their position inside the enclosed trailer---stacked on top of each other, almost like mannequins---a bit too eerie for Rae to handle. “Someone needs a bit of a lesson on how to store these things,” she frowned, glancing back at the Regency. “Right, time to---”

Another jarring shove to the trailer sent her back-first into the wall. “DAMN....can't afford to waste a second with this one.....” She closed her eyes, establishing a wireless link with V.I.C.I and the Regency. “Here goes...”

[Vicki, can you hear me?]

[Rae?! What are you doing in my head?!]

[Internal WiFi, luv. I need you to pull up alongside the trailer and, ah, catch the E-Lins.]

[…..and you're sure this won't damage them---or you?]

[You're an absolute sweetheart, Vicki---no, it won't damage the E-Lins, and it definitely won't---]

A sizeable chunk of the trailer wall was ripped away by a steel-taloned hand.

[VICKI! PULL UP BEHIND THE TRAILER NOW!]

The Regency shot forward just as another thrown chunk of the trailer scythed into the roof at the perfect angle to cleave it from the rest of the car. SARIA's worried voice could be heard calling out a full report of the “loss of structural integrity within the vehicle”, but V.I.C.I ignored it. [I'm ready. Start throwing the E-Lins to me.]

Hefting one of the motionless gynoids on her shoulders, Rae managed to toss the E-Lin over the head of her fellow Field Agent to land in the Regency's back seat. [One down, about six to---] A fist sheathed in mottled greyish flesh closed around her throat.

“RAE!”

Epsilon's eyes stared into Rae's ocular sensors; his lips, still hidden behind the grating that covered most of his face, parted as a strangled roar escaped his throat. “I'm.....not....your....sodding....enemy!” the gynoid hissed, letting herself go limp in the hybrid's grip. Even as she stared Epsilon down, she hoped the gesture would be seen as proof that she didn't want to hurt him---


of course, the fact that the trailer smashed into the truck and flipped end over end sort of ruined that.


“RAE!”

Even as the E-Lin had been tossed into the backseat of the Regency, V.I.C.I had seen the truck hit a piece of its own debris mere seconds before Rae had been grabbed by Epsilon. She knew that Rae hadn't noticed, and her current predicament would more than likely take up far more of her attention. Thus, she watched the trailer fly end-over-end, above the ruined truck, with equal measures of horror---for obvious reasons---and, as strange as it might've seemed....hope.

She'll survive it. She has to...

Oddly enough, none of the E-Lins tumbled out of the trailer as it hurtled over the truck---either they were tied down (or otherwise secured), or Rae had managed to arrange things (however that might work) to keep them from falling out. As for Rae herself....

The Honda Regency carefully slowed to a park as the trailer finally settled in the middle of the road---which, as V.I.C.I realized, was surprisingly empty of pedestrians or anyone else who could've been injured in the ensuing chaos when the LaMarquise gynoid had fired her Street Sweeper. Something about the emptiness of the area didn't sit right with---

“OI, VICKI.....a bit of a hand would be greatly appreciated, if you can spare a tick....”

Rolling her eyes at Rae's colloquial British-isms, V.I.C.I followed the sound of her colleague's voice until she reached the trailer. “Feeling okay?” she called out, using her human voice in case anyone drove past.

“Can't feel anything below the neck, at the moment...but other than that, tops!”

A low groan fought its way past Vicki's lips as she realized what “can't feel anything below the neck” probably meant. “Just....stay where you are and I'll get to you,” she replied. “Is Epsilon---”

“He scarpered. Can't say I blame him....I think he may have lost part of a finger when the trailer landed!”

Which is the last thing I needed to hear, Vicki felt like saying. Seeing as how she wasn't going to find Rae by asking which finger Epsilon had lost part of, she decided instead to continue her inquiry regarding the other gynoid's “health”: “So, how much of yourself can you---”

“Sweetie, I'm not usually one to get crude at times like this, but could you please MOVE YOUR ARSE?!”

“I'm trying to find you right now,” Vicki countered, “so---”

“No, I mean, literally---your rear end is blocking the signal! I'm trying to call HQ, get a retrieval team out here!”

Her eyes squeezed shut at the mention of her own rear. “So.....you're.....” She turned, looked down....and stared into the eyes of Rae Clarke. Or rather, the ocular sensors of the disconnected cranial module of Rae Clarke, which was currently frowning up at her. Apart from the fact that she was, at the moment, just a head, Rae looked pretty good---until Vicki noticed the metal connectors, wires and servo relays at the terminal end of her neck stump. “It's not as bad as it looks,” Rae assured her.

“Not as bad as it looks,” Vicki repeated, a toneless, humourless laugh issuing from her lips. “YOU'RE JUST A HEAD, RAE!”

“The rest of me is still intact! Over that way---to the left of where we are! Damn, I already miss my hands...”

Vicki scooped up Rae's head, holding it under the crook of her arm as she approached the wreckage of the trailer. “You're lucky Hreftech had you built according to their modular construction guidelines,” she informed her fellow Field Agent. “If you were a Kumitosu model, you'd have been---”

“One of my flatmates was a Kumitosu,” Rae chimed in. “Lovely girl....hang on, I think I see my hand sticking out from there!” Sure enough, the bright pink nail polish that Rae preferred marked the slim extremity seen through a hole in the trailer's wall as hers. “You should be thanking me for letting my head disconnect from the rest of me, y'know.....if it WAS still on, I'd probably have a nice long shard of metal through my eye right now.”

“So you let your head disconnect,” Vicki muttered. “It wasn't some random accident---”

“Oi, you ever get a big, meaty hand wrapped 'round your throat, and you don't think 'oh, I might want to let my cranial module disconnect from the rest of me to keep my face from getting caved in by this nasty bloke here', let me know,” Rae pouted. “It was spur of the moment---OI, don't set me down on the damn pavement!”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. “I need both hands to drag the rest of you out of the trailer....” Her eyes glowed blue for a moment as she grabbed the edges of the hole Rae's hand was protruding from. “...and I also need to concentrate,” she added, in her robotic monotone, “to make sure I don't collapse the entire trailer assembly on top of you.”

Rae sighed---a remarkable feat, considering her lack of a torso at the moment. “Fair enough....just be careful.”

“When haven't I been?” With considerably less strain than a human would've gone through, V.I.C.I managed to pry apart the segments of the trailer on either side of Rae's headless body. “You're in luck,” she called out, turning to regard her fellow gynoid with a grin. “The crash didn't damage your body at all. No tears in the synthetic dermal covering, no fluid leakages....even your clothes are still intact....” Her attention turned to the motionless female forms at the far end of the trailer. “...and the E-Lins look to be in nice shape, as well,” she added.

“Feel like turning me around while you're in there?” Rae called out. “I mean...turn my body around....”

Her request earned her a glare from V.I.C.I; “You're seriously asking me to let you check yourself out?” she muttered.

“Just want to admire a high-quality build!” Rae beamed. “Which is me, in this case, but still...and don't go dragging me out of there just because you're in a mood!” If she'd had the ability to nod as V.I.C.I extricated her body from the trailer, she more than likely would have. “And now the turn,” she called out. “It's not that big of a deal, Vicki.....YES, there it is!” She gave a wolf-whistle at her own shapely figure. “And I am looking good!”

“If I hear anything about any part of you being firm enough to bounce quarters off of,” the brunette Field Agent warned, “I'm stowing your head in the trunk of the Regency on the drive back---”

“And I'll have my body slap you silly,” Rae teased. “Hreftech Remote Modular Access....” She winked.

It's times like this I'm glad I know what I am, V.I.C.I reflected, otherwise all of this would be very weird... As Rae continued complimenting her own body, the brunette gynoid half-carried the headless form over to where the chestnut-haired head rested. “Any time you're ready, babe....”

“I'd ask if you're ready,” V.I.C.I intoned, “but I have a feeling I already know the answer....” She gently laid the headless gynoid's body down next to her cranial assembly, before moving to the cranial assembly itself. “I just need to know,” she quietly asked, 'are there any special procedures I need to worry about while I'm reattaching your head?”

Rae chuckled. “Just turn me so my neck stump is above my neck and let me take care of the rest.”

Again, V.I.C.I frowned. “Please don't tell me you've done this before...at least, not intentionally.” A brief memory of Rae's sultry sighs during her repair session a day or two prior resurfaced.....

….and was dispelled just as quickly. “I'm not crazy,” the gynoid giggled.

Despite her annoyance, V.I.C.I managed to bite back a number of scathing rejoinders and focused on the task at hand---putting Rae's head back on her body. She turned the chestnut-haired gynoid's head until she was staring up at the sky. “Whenever you're ready....”

“I've been ready for a good long while, babe. Just move my head slowly towards the rest of me....”

After a deep breath (out of habit), V.I.C.I moved Rae's head closer to her neck---and watched, feeling a mixture of awe and fear as wires, thin rods and other...extensions, for lack of a better term...emerged from both the neck and the terminal end of Rae's head. “Is that....normal?” the brunette gynoid asked, her monotone doing a fairly decent job of flattening the emotion out of the question.

“Hreftech design,” Rae sighed, as if she was getting her nails done. “Of course it's---”

Her eyes shot open. “Hreftech unit NV-9947128, Designation: Clarke, Rae,” she announced, her own voice going into a digitized monotone. “Cranial module reconnection commencing....”

After a few brief seconds, her face returned to its prior state of animation. “---normal....and I can tell I just did the robot voice thing,” she drawled, rolling her eyes. “You're gonna love this next bit when I----” Her lips curled into a bizarre sneer. “---start getting-ting-ting----DAMN, that's annoying....getting all twitchychychy---” Her eyes blinked a few times, with her mouth locked into an “o” of surprise (or something else, V.I.C.I mused). “Cranial module reattaching. No hardware errors found. Please lift unit and unit's cranial module to an upright position to avoid interference.”

With one hand at Rae's back and the other cupping her head, V.I.C.I did as she was instructed. To her relief, Rae's body seemed to lock into a sitting position of its own accord, allowing the gynoid to plant both hands on her colleague's head as the various connectors from either end of the neck stump reattached. “So far, so good,” Rae declared, her monotone now sporting her British accent---and a hint of snarkiness.

“So what now?” Vicki asked, reverting to her own human voice.

“Now comes the fun part---lowering my head back onto my neck,” Despite the flatness of her voice, Rae gave a saucy wink. “I may not be as vocal about this as my last repair job, but it does feel---”

A low groan from Vicki cut her off. “Can we just get to the part where I reattach your head?”

“In three seconds...two.....okay, start lowering it.” Slowly, Vicki lowered Rae's head, surprised to find that the connectors from her neck were already doing their part to pull the cranial module back in slightly. Within a few seconds, only a 2-centimetre seam remained as a reminder....and even that was beginning to fade as Rae turned her head, flexing her neck in every available direction to make sure the connection was holding.

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “Better?”

“So much,” Rae beamed, pulling her in for a quick hug. “The E-Lins are still in one piece, I take it?”

“Surprisingly, yes....probably because Epsilon didn't try to tear them limb from limb....” Vicki reflected on that for a moment. “He only went after you,” she murmured, “but he left the E-Lins alone---”

“Yeah, about that,” the tanned gynoid cut in. “I have no idea why he decided to throttle me...I didn't do a damn thing to provoke him, so....” She rolled her eyes. “Guess we need to get them back to HQ ASAP,” she added, nodding towards the E-Lins. “And....oh, what the hell.....” Her question faded to a groan as she beheld the Regency. “Vicki, what happened?!”

The brunette gynoid was already heading back to the car. “Part of the trailer hit it...took the roof clean off.”

She decided to leave out the fact that “part of the trailer” had been thrown by Epsilon.

Part 6

“And you didn't even wound it?”

Bradford's question, though addressed to Kendall, earned a smirk from Brittney. “I told you I was better with hardware than her,” she bragged. “She's lucky that thing didn't rip her damn arms off---”

“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Kendall snapped, turning to glare at Brittney. “I assure you, my beauty is far from my only asset..” Even as she calmed herself, her annoyance at the other gynoid remained---she hadn't agreed to take the gig just so a glorified, would-be “gangsta” could push her around. “It would seem,” she continued, “that someone's methods of gathering intelligence on our target---”

“I KNOW you ain't talkin' about me!” Brittney countered, striding to get in the svelte gynoid's face. “Bitch, you best check your privilege and step off---”

“The only 'privilege' that needs 'checking' is yours,” Kendall replied, her voice as cold as her stare. “You'd do well to remember who we both work for, and what they'll be willing to--” Her threat ended in a slight gasp as Brittney's hands wrapped around her neck. “You don't need to breathe,” the taller gynoid purred, “so I know this don't hurt as much as it could.....” Her lips peeled back in a predatory smile. “....but I bet your head pops off real nice if I just....squeeze hard enough.....”

In an instant, Bradford was beside the two gynoids, trying to keep things from escalating. “Okay, okay, break it up! Both of you, just---”

“Drake, tell your girl to step off and check her damn privilege,” Brittney snarled, “or she's done.”

Kendall never looked away from the African-American gynoid. “Whatever course of action you recommend,” she muttered, “I'll gladly follow it....sir...”

For the most part, Bradford knew that Brittney's threats were all show. It was nothing but posturing, a spur of the moment skritch-fight brought on by tension, stress and boredom. “Kendall,” he stated, “just let Delacroix have her space and try to be a little less...abrasive, I guess.” He returned the gynoid's slight nod. “Brittney, just....stop trying to choke her out, already. It's water under the bridge.”

After five seconds of glowering at Kendall, Brittney nearly threw her to the floor.

“Good, good.....” Bradford grinned. “And both of you, just....relax, okay?”

“I'll relax when Epsilon's in a damn cage,” Brittney muttered. “That thing's a freak---”

“A freak we're being paid to catch,” Bradford reminded her. “You two can have a few rounds in the ring out back after this is all over with, if you want---for now, we're a team. And as a team---”

“As a team,” Brittney spat, “we SUCK. She can't do crap on her own---” She jerked a thumb at Kendall. “---I ain't seen any action since I got here, and all you're doin' is playing the damn referee----the damn referee---the damn referee----” Her face froze in a strange half-sneeze expression; the word “damn” issued through her frozen lips in a tinny echo.

Bradford stared at Kendall, frowning. “Go get the damn cart,” he muttered. “And tell the techs---”

His request was cut off by the audible servo whines that accompanied Brittney's sudden reanimation. “DAMN DAMN DAMN DAMN----” A grinding noise from her neck drowned out her repeated utterances of “damn”, and her head snapped to the side before she finally broke out of her program loop. “The damn referee.....” Brittney stopped, noticing the look on Drake's face. “What the hell are you starin' at?!” she hissed. “You think this is all a damn joke?!”

“I don't think your malfunction was funny, if that's what you're asking---”

“Aw, don't tell me I messed up again...” Brittney crossed the room and flopped down face-first onto a couch, groaning into a pillow. “Ever since Vega cut me loose, my damn stupid malfunctions have been....”

“Occurring with a greater frequency?” Kendall offered.

Brittney shot her a “shut the hell up” glare. “You patronizin' me now?”

“She's just asking if they've been happening more often,” Bradford assured her, quickly adding “Not that I think you didn't know that already.” He tried for a reassuring grin. “We're in this together---”

“Indeed you are....and should one of you fail, you all fail.”

The lights on the far end of the room cut out just as the last word spoken by that sonorous, menacing voice faded. “I see your first attempt at capturing Epsilon has failed,” the Baron declared. “And you have wasted significant resources in your efforts....one truck destroyed, one trailer ruined---”

“My damn Escalade got wrecked!” Brittney countered.

“Your Escalade,” the Baron replied, “is the least of my concerns. The Electronic Linkup gynoids you were sent to capture....you failed to secure any of them during your escape, am I correct?”

Bradford let out a slow, quiet sigh. “We....had some problems---”

“Excuses, Mr. Bradford?” the Baron inquired. “I feel it only necessary to inform you that my tolerance for failure has been low, as of late....those responsible for the farce involving the capture of R-528 have already been given exactly what they deserved.” Several rows of lights around Brittney, Kendall and Drake cut out; “I believe,” the Baron continued, his voice getting closer with every light clicking off, “that you have failed on your own before now....”

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Bradford felt more than a bit nervous. He decided to think of anything other than his last mission in San Jose---especially his failure to acquire that last fembot based on Franklin's designs....what was her name? Hart...something or other....

Brittney, meanwhile, regarded the Baron with little more than an indignant sneer. Yes, she'd failed in her efforts to dethrone Sophia Starlet---but in her view, the blame could be pinned squarely on Vicki Lawson AND the decision to intentionally infect her original body with the Stylo virus. “My ride don't come cheap,” she declared, “and I definitely ain't cheap---”

“What you are,” the Baron's voice rumbled, “and what you are not.....means little to nothing in this discussion.”

“I KNOW YOU DIDN'T JUST CALL ME A 'NOTHING'!” Brittney shouted. “I AIN'T SCARED OF---”

Two golden points---directly at eye level---stared into the African-American gynoid's ocular sensors, almost blinding in their intensity. “You will learn to be scared,” the Baron intoned. “You will learn the true meaning of fear...” From the darkness, something moved forward; a face began to form....

….and every bit of Brittney “Boom Boom” Delacroix's attitude and resolve crumbled.

“Ecce homo.....behold, the man......”

“BRITTNEY!” Bradford stumbled over something---probably the futon he'd been wanting to prop his feet up on earlier. “WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON?! BRITTNEY, SAY SOMETHING!” He grabbed at what he thought was a chair, only to realize he was effectively groping Kendall. “Ah, hang on---”

A shrill, terrified scream cut him off.....

…..just as every light in the room---save for those at the far end---kicked back on.

“Miss Delacroix has seen what cannot be unseen,” the Baron declared. “Unlike those who have beheld this revelation in the past, however, I have....generously....decided to let her use this as a time to reflect....to learn. You understand now, Miss Delacroix, why you cannot fail?”

“....yeah,” Brittney murmured, staring at the floor. “I know. I won't screw up.”

She directed her gaze at the far end of the room. “.....you'll get Epsilon. That's a damn promise.”

“I expected no less.” The lights in the room dimmed for a moment.....then brightened, revealing only Riggs standing at the door (and looking rather confused), Kendall adjusting her shirt and Drake delivering a more-than-likely half-hearted apology for grabbing her during his frantic search for something hang onto when the lights had cut off. “...and for the record, I---wait, where the hell did he go?!”

“Nowhere we need to be,” Brittney snapped. “And where we need to be is on the road, catching Epsilon.”

Kendall blinked a few times, trying to come to grips with the “gangsta” gynoid's sudden change of heart. “And why should we follow your lead on this?” she inquired, frowning. “As I recall---”

“I don't give half a damn what you 'recall',” Brittney cut in, glaring at Kendall with unrestrained malice. “All we done so far is sit on our asses and talk about goin' after Epsilon...” She strode across the room, grabbing an unattended pistol off of a granite bar top. “Right now, here's where the talkin' ENDS.”

Bradford, already casting a suspicious glance at Riggs, tried to defuse the situation before it got too far. “I'm all for quoting Halford,” he agreed. “I've been a Priest fan all my life, I'm not gonna lie---and I couldn't agree more that we've been---Kendall, just let me finish....” He shot the gynoid a warning glare before continuing; “I agree,” he admitted, “that we've been doing too much talking and not enough....doing....but the thing is---”

The hammer on the pistol---a Heckler & Koch USP Elite---was pulled back. “Shut up,” Brittney growled.

Immediately, Bradford held both hands up. “Okay, okay, I'm---”

A bullet tore through the chair to his right. “I SAID SHUT UP, DAMNIT!” Brittney kept the gun trained on him, even as she turned away. “I need some damn quiet....” She closed her eyes; “Y'all been goin' at this all wrong,” she muttered. “Tryin' the human way, the only way y'all can.....” Instantly, she opened her eyes, glaring at Kendall. “I need your phone.”

“I beg your pardon---”

“Bitch, don't MAKE me say it again! GIVE ME YOUR DAMN PHONE.” With the gun now aimed at the blonde gynoid, Brittney gestured with her free hand for her phone. “Just hand me the damn stupid---” Her scowl turned to a smirk as Kendall tossed her the phone. “Damn right.....and the cord...” She lowered the gun just as the appropriate cord was thrown to her. “Good. Now both y'all shut up for a damn minute....” With the phone and cord in one hand, she pulled back her hair with the other. “This may take a while....” As Bradford and Kendall watched, she managed to land the free end of the cord in a port on her neck. “...but it'll be---”

Kendall rolled her eyes as the ebony gynoid froze. “I don't know what the Baron did to her,” she murmured, “or what she saw---”

“Something tells me you won't want to know,” Drake replied, striding over to glance at the phone. “And....” He gasped, staring at the screen. “Kendall.....why the hell didn't you mention that Epsilon used to be a freaking human being----and that the storage unit we tossed was owned BY HIS DAUGHTER?!”

The blonde gynoid chose to simply scowl at Brittney. “Ask her, when she's done with my phone....”

Part 7

“So Bradford's girl decided to fire on the two of you and Epsilon? I'd have thought that 'contain and remove' order from the DVS would've meant that Epsilon was to be taken alive....”

Anton's question earned him a frown. “Considering the fact that Epsilon was attacking the truck Bradford's 'girl' was in,” Vicki replied, “I don't think capturing him was really on her itinerary....” The memory of Epsilon hurling part of the truck's roof at the Honda Regency came surging back to the forefront of her processors, despite her attempts to suppress it. “....and he was attacking the ALPA car as well,” she added. “He even tried to attack Rae—-”

“I've read her report,” Anton reminded her. “It's....disconcerting, to say the least.”

“Speaking of disconcerting,” Vicki mused, “all those E-Lins were registered as 'cousins' of Kirsten Sanderson, even though I haven't seen any of them around SJSU or anything like that. Care to explain?”

The roboticist grinned. “Not a problem. The E-Lins were to be deployed in and around the entire Silicon Valley area at DuBraul's request---they were programmed to keep tabs on Epsilon in their spare time, as long as that particular assignment wouldn't conflict with their sleeper personalities....” He sighed. “Of course, you know how bureaucracy is---”

“Actually,” the brunette gynoid cut in, “I don't. Not as much as you apparently do.”

“If that was an insult, it failed miserably.” Anton sighed. “The red tape that tangled up the E-Lins' deployment came from the House---Celeste was still in power at the time, and seeing as how she was....taken with the idea of monitoring sleepers, she decided to involve herself in the operation.” He rolled his eyes at the memory of the incident. “By the time we got that sorted out, the E-Lins were put into storage because they were needed for another op a few months later. They were never actually sent out on their assigned surveillance paths, which was probably for the best...”

Vicki stared at him. “So....they were given the 'cousin' programming because.....”

“If Kirsten bumped into an E-Lin programmed to look for Epsilon during her day-to-day routine, then that E-Lin would've told her that they were cousins, and presented ample proof to show it.”

“So they had falsified documents?”

Anton sighed again. “Vicki....we were trying to cover our bases with the E-Lins,” he admitted. “If Celeste hadn't had her little turn, then we would've been able to carry out the assignment with no problems. As it stands....” He set aside the tablet he'd been reading. “It's anyone's guess as to how Bradford found out about the E-Lins and where they were stored...people like him tend to have their ears to the ground on an alarmingly regular basis, after all---”

“This is hardly the kind of thing he'd hear just from 'having his ear to the ground',” Vicki countered. “Something about this doesn't feel right....” She cupped her chin in one hand. “And they wouldn't have torched the storage unit just out of....spite, or whatever,” she added. “They torched the place to cover their tracks...”

“That is a possibility,” Anton admitted. “But they might've been---”

His reflection on what Bradford's crew might've been doing was interrupted by the ringing of his iPhone. “Hold that thought. Malvineous here, what's---”

“You're going to want to see this, Professor,” Galatea's voice informed him. “I'm sending a full report on what I've found out from my counselling session with Kirsten....she was hiding something. And not just hiding it from us—-she didn't even know she had it!”

“I'll take a look it as soon as I can. Thanks for the heads-up.” He ended the call. “So.....now there's that---”

“There's what?” Vicki queried. “I'd greatly appreciate being in the loop, for once....” Her insistence only prompted another sigh from the roboticist. “Vicki, I---”

Somewhere down the hall, the sound of a shotgun blast---followed closely after by screaming---cut him off.

“Stay low,” V.I.C.I warned, her eyes glowing blue as she moved towards the door. “And whatever you do, do not run, even if---” The door exploded inwards as a full round of buckshot slammed into the brunette gynoid, sending her to the floor.

“VICKI!” Anton was at her side in an instant. “I'm fine,” V.I.C.I muttered, rolling her eyes. “It didn't hurt---”

“Oh, I know it didn't hurt,” a familiar voice called out. “I learned a lot from our last dance, bitch!” Brittney “Boom-Boom” Delacroix strode into the office, smiling wickedly as she cradled the SPAS-12 she'd used to blow the door. “I figured a round of buckshot wouldn't be enough to put you down,” she continued, “but it would be enough to knock you on your sorry ass---”

“I TOLD YOU,” Drake Bradford's voice thundered, “no shooting! I said when we got out of the---” He stopped, staring at the downed gynoid. “Who the hell's that?!”

Brittney smirked. “That,” she informed him, “is Vicki Lawson, the bitch who---”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Bradford cut in. “That's Vicki Lawson?!” He frowned. “I thought---”

“THE HELL WITH WHAT YOU THINK!” Brittney shouted, pointing the shotgun at Vicki's head. “This dumb bitch is the reason we ain't found Epsilon yet....” She strutted over to Vicki, grinning again as she stood over the fallen girl. “....an' she knows someone else who could do a hell of a lot to help us out, too---”

“You're dead,” Vicki muttered. “I saw your freaking head explode....you had the Stylo virus in you....”

A cocoa-skinned hand cupped her chin. “That was the old Boom-Boom,” Brittney purred. “The new-the new-the new-the new----” Her face contorted in a bizarre half-sneeze, giving Vicki just enough time to shove her back with both feet. “Anton, RUN---”

“No, Anton,” Bradford declared, pulling a Sig Sauer from his jacket, “do not run. Unless you want---”

“Thenewthenewthenew---DAMNIT!” Brittney knocked over a half-assembled desktop PC on a table as she struggled to return to her feet. “Bradford, you shoot him and I'll blow your damn kneecaps out....” She reached her partner in crime with minimal effort, snatching the pistol from his hands. “We need his ass alive to find the girl....” Her grin, now somewhat sinister and seductive, returned. “...'cuz when we got the girl, we can get Epsilon,” she breathed. “And when we get Epsilon---” A fist smashed into her head, sending her back to the floor. Bradford barely had enough time to turn before that same fist smashed into his midsection, sending him flying down the hall.

“You okay?” V.I.C.I queried, glancing at Anton just as Bradford hit a magazine rack with a pained yelp. “I've felt worse,” the roboticist admitted. “We need to get to Kirsten before---”

The click of a Sig Sauer's hammer being pulled back cut him off. “You, walk,” Brittney ordered. “And you,” she growled, turning to glare at V.I.C.I, “get your stupid white ass outta the way, or he's dead.” She rose to her feet, the pistol still trained on Anton. “Don't even think of any of those damn stupid little robo-tricks you got up your sleeves, either....my crew's waitin' outside, and if I ain't out in fifteen minutes....”

“You hurt him,” V.I.C.I warned, “you'll be leaving in pieces. And your 'crew' won't be anywhere near as willing to follow your orders if all that's left of you is a head.”

“They can build a new me in an hour,” Brittney bragged. “How long you think it'll take to replace him?”

Anton stared at the floor. “I'll be fine, Vicki,” he muttered. “Just---”

“WE GOT HER!” a voice shouted from a few rooms down. “We got the girl and the portable drive, just like---”

“Then get to the damn car and SHUT UP!” Brittney growled. “And tell Dalton to go pry Bradford off the damn magazine rack over there....” She turned to regard Vicki with a sneer. “What you said 'bout me bein' dead...I won't lie, you beat my ass pretty bad last time,” she admitted. “But this round....”

She chuckled. “This round....this round....this----” Her face froze for a minute....

….only for her eyes to blaze with an eerie light. “THIS round,” she intoned, “goes to Boom-Boom Delacroix!”

With a single-finger salute, she turned on her heel and strutted out. “And 'fore you try to cap my ass right now,” she called out, “I got guys on every window waitin' to put one in your skull!”

“She's bluffing,” Anton whispered. “Perimeter sensors don't show anyone within firing range---”

“It doesn't matter,” Vicki quietly replied. “We go after her now, she could destroy Kirsten's backup drives and her body....” Her eyes never left the African-American gynoid as the latter rounded the corner. “They shouldn't have found us so fast....or at all,” she realized, seconds before a car door slammed outside. “This building---”

Outside, the souped-up engine of another Escalade roared to life.

“TRACE THEM!” Anton shouted, sprinting past the brunette gynoid. “RUN A TRACE ON THE PLATES, GET A SATELLITE ON THEM! Do....something.....” His shoulders sagged as the Escalade sped off, blaring a bass-heavy track from its speakers. “DAMN IT!” He sank into a kneel. “Galatea should've been able to---”

“Galatea was disabled,” Vicki called out. “Took two Vampire rounds to the chest, and...this...to the face...”

Anton barely turned to glance over his shoulder; the brunette gynoid was holding up a four-pronged device that still crackled with residual electricity. “Vicki, drop that thing, now,” he warned. “It's---” He flinched just as the device exploded---on the pavement. “A DeComm projectile,” he finished, shaking his head. “There was one in the ditch, where Epsilon had been....pursued....by Oberon....” Already, a scenario of how the device had been obtained by Delacroix's men was playing out. “And it was brought here, to this office.....by Agent Robinson---”

“There was one in her forehead, too,” Vicki interjected. “'Was' being the operative term....it's in the trash now.”

“Doesn't matter,” Anton muttered. “Galatea won't lose more than half an hour, if we're lucky....we need to get Kirsten back before they get to wherever they're going---”

“Think we can spare a car to chase them?” the brunette gynoid inquired. “The Regency kind of, ah.....”

Her reluctance to mention the Honda's fate drew a chuckle from Anton. “No need to worry about it. I'm sure it's not the first time a car's been...shall we say, pushed beyond its limits in the line of service. And seeing as how it didn't affect SARIA at all....” He shrugged. “No harm, no foul.”

Vicki nodded. “You sure you don't need my help to get Galatea and Agent Robinson back up and running?”

“I have the Field Techs to help with that---getting Kirsten back is our main priority. It'll be dark soon, and the ALPA's tracers will wear off by sundown....” The roboticist glanced back at the Field Office, scowling. “Once we get Kirsten back,” he intoned, “finding out how they found us will be the next priority....”

“Understood.” Vicki sighed; “I guess you'll have to call Ted, then,” she mused, striding out of the lot.

Her eyes glowed blue as she glanced back at Anton. “....and tell him I'm working late.”

Part 8

“OW! Be careful, dammit!” Bradford groaned as the bactine-soaked cotton ball was passed over the wounds he'd sustained from smashing into the magazine rack. “That freaking hurts.....”

“That girl freaking smashed you into a rack with one punch,” Dalton muttered. “”How the hell---”

Another shouted profanity from Bradford cut him off. “We need to get back to base and meet up with Brittney,” he scowled. “I told her not to go in shooting...I TOLD her to wait up for me......” He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “Every damn time.....RIGGS! Where the hell's my phone?!”

Dalton slowly dragged the cotton ball across another contusion. “That Lawson girl---”

“I DON'T CARE,” Bradford shouted. “'That Lawson girl' is the LEAST of my damn problems right now....”

“Ah, she's outside,” Dalton quietly finished. “I see her outside the window, boss.”

Bradford glanced at his lackey with a skeptical frown. “If that was a joke, Dalton.....” He turned his attention to the window. “There's no way---absolutely no way in HELL......”

He stopped.

Saw the red-and-white clad female figure methodically striding into the parking lot of the gas station where Dalton had “parked” the Escalade by plowing it into a power-line pole.

“Oh, you are kidding,” he moaned. “DAMN it......” Before Dalton could finish sterilizing another wound on his back, Bradford was already on his feet, hobbling for the door on the other side of the admittedly small fill-up station. “DALTON, get the hell off your ass and get OVER here---we're leaving! Riggs, grab what you need and---”

A steady “tap, tap, tap” against the glass of the full-pane window cut him off---the Lawson girl was outside, staring at him with a surprisingly calm expression.

“RIGGS!” Bradford shouted, clawing at the door handle and trying to pull the thing off its hinges. “WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW!” Already, he felt like an absolute idiot for telling the gas station attendant to leave---the stupid blonde probably had the keys that would've unlocked the door. And, of course, he could just smash the thing.....and cut himself to ribbons trying to pass through the shattered glass to get away from the Lawson girl. “RIGGS, WHERE---”

About ten feet away, where the freezer “aisle” with milk, beers and other cold items ended, a door with the universally-recognized icon for the restroom opened; the faint echo of a flushing toilet sounded from within as Riggs emerged, still wearing his aviator shades.

“Riggs, we need to leave,” Bradford hissed. “That Lawson girl---”

A polite ding sounded from the far end of the store----which, being a gas station, was less than 30 feet away from Bradford---as the door opened to admit Vicki Lawson into the building. “So,” she mused. “We finally meet again, Drake....” To Bradford's surprise, she grinned. “Funny how you didn't even know who I was the first time we---drop it.” Her glare turned on Dalton, who'd managed to retrieve a crowbar. “Put it down now,” she warned, her voice dipping into an electronic monotone. “Better yet.....” She raised a hand, her palm facing Dalton---and the crowbar sailed from his already-loose grip into hers.

“And just to be safe....” As Riggs, Dalton and Bradford stared, the brunette gynoid gripped the crowbar in both hands and bent it in half.....then bent it again, into a roughly spherical shape. “Now, then,” she beamed, speaking in her human voice once again, “with that little distraction out of the way....”

Bradford let his hand fall from where he was reaching for the holstered Sig Sauer. “What do you want?”

“The girl you abducted from the Field Office about 45 minutes ago,” Vicki replied, no longer smiling. “And tell your bodyguard to drop his weapons, too,” she added, nodding at Riggs. “I don't want to have to hurt you people just to get Kirsten back.”

All three men stared at the ruined crowbar on the ground. “Riggs,” Bradford muttered, “do what she says.”

Even as he glared at Vicki, Riggs complied with her request and set down a pair of pistols, a knife from his boot and what looked like a “baseball” grenade. “AND the baton,” Bradford added, sounding as if he was trying to stave off a headache. “Put down the baton, too.” Riggs turned his glare on Drake, but nodded as he retrieved a collapsible baton from a shoulder holster and set it down on the floor.

“You want mine, too?” Bradford muttered.

“If you want to keep an unloaded Sig Sauer in your holster,” Vicki replied, “that's fine by me.” She gave a polite smile, which served to directly counter Bradford's horrified stare.

Dalton and Riggs glanced at Bradford, more than a bit confused. “You got an unloaded piece?” Dalton asked.

“SHUT UP!” The empty gun was hurled in Vicki's general direction, smashing harmlessly into a rack of atlases and travel maps. “Last time someone told me to worry about Vicki Lawson,” he growled, “they pointed me in the wrong damn direction---I had my people watching some girl who wasn't even---”

“Oh, I know 'your people' were following her around,” Vicki replied, not missing a beat. “Good thing for your people that they grew a conscience and didn't try to do anything to her. Actually, she's under the impression that she has a few guardian angels on her side...” She chuckled at the mention of it. “Seems like 'your people' have decided to protect her instead of dragging her to you,” she reasoned. “Tell me something....when's the last time you heard from that....particular party?”

The question got more of a reaction from Riggs than it did from Bradford---the moustachioed bodyguard ducked to retrieve the baton he'd put down a moment earlier. Just as quickly as she'd snatched the crowbar from Dalton, Vicki extended her hand and, with zero effort, brought the baton to her own hand.

“Like I was saying,” she mused, her eyes faintly glowing, “when's the last time your trackers called you back?”

“You really think I'm gonna tell you?!” Bradford croaked. “I don't keep track of that---”

“And now you're lying,” Vicki sighed. “You should know better than to try that with me...so let's see if you can be a bit more honest for this next question.” She glanced at the rack of travel maps; “You know how important Kirsten Sanderson is to the people who hired you to find her,” she mused. “So I'm guessing you also know how...unique she is.”

Bradford glared at her. “She's connected to Epsilon, and that's---”

“Not even remotely relevant to me. Kirsten Sanderson is my friend....and I make a habit out of protecting my friends, especially from the likes of you.” The faint glow returned to Vicki's eyes as she continued; “And you can quit stalling,” she added. “Your 'guys' aren't waiting by the van anymore---I'm guessing you've been a bit stingy with the pay checks lately?”

Drake muttered a curse under his breath; the men out by the van had been Delacroix's. “That's none of---”

“My business, I figured that. But the part you can't seem to figure is that this isn't just about Epsilon....” Vicki glanced at Riggs and Dalton. “You two, out,” she declared, nodding to the door behind her. “Just go. Leave the weapons and go. I don't care how far you run....just leave. Nobody needs to get hurt here...”

The two men exchanged a concerned glance.....then silently nodded.

“Aw, what the hell?! What is this?! RIGGS.....” Bradford groaned out loud. “Riggs, dammit, do NOT walk out of here! RIGGS!”

“They know where to draw the line,” Vicki informed him---grabbing Riggs' wrist just as he passed. “And they should know not to try and plant a tracker on me,” she added, plucking a nickel-sized device from Riggs' hand as Bradford stared. “And Dalton, I'd like my wallet back....” She smiled as Dalton---who couldn't bring himself to look the gynoid in the eye---handed over the wallet he'd pilfered from her pocket. “Thanks. Now, both of you...”

Her eyes blazed with a blue glow. “Get out.”

The two actually ran for the door, nearly colliding as they tried to squeeze through it at the same time.

Once the two had cleared the parking lot, Vicki nodded. “Now, then....back to my question.” She strode up to Bradford, dropping to kneel in front of him. “Where's Kirsten?”

“Why the hell---”

“Where is Kirsten Sanderson?” V.I.C.I intoned, her eyes now fully-glowing. “Where did Brittney Delacroix take her, and how do I get to her?”

“If you think,” Bradford began, only to watch as electricity crackled and danced in the palms of the brunette gynoid's hands. “What I think,” she replied, “is that you're going to tell me exactly what I want to know, or I might have to run the risk of hurting you to get that information.” She reached forward, her hand just barely an inch away from Bradford's face. “I'm trying to avoid being...confrontational, about this,” she added. “I'm doing my best to keep this from getting personal, even though Kirsten is a good friend of mine....”

She pulled back her hand....and then leaned in close, her glowing eyes staring right into Bradford's.

“....so I'm going to ask you again: Where is Kirsten Sanderson?”

“Delacroix's heading for a building on the outskirts of San Jose,” Bradford finally muttered. “There'll be about 25, maybe 30 guys waiting there....” He shook his head. “You'll get killed in fifteen seconds---”

“That's my problem.” V.I.C.I rose, still staring at Bradford. “As for you...run. Run as far as your legs can carry you—-just run away from this place, and don't look back. Not for a single second. I'm giving you a chance to forget about all of this---about Kirsten, about Delacroix, and about me.”

Bradford shook his head. “You think I'm going to walk away from---”

“You can get paid for other jobs, at other times. Too many people have been hurt because of this....”

The glow in V.I.C.I's eyes vanished. “Just go,” she murmured, using her human voice. “Please....”

Predictably, Bradford stared at her with more than a hint of suspicion in his eyes.

“I'll give you a time limit, if you want,” the brunette gynoid offered. “30 seconds to decide whether or not you want to leave and forget all about this....”

It took Bradford half that time to make up his mind---without stopping to pick up any of the weapons his men had left behind, he hobbled towards the door Riggs and Dalton had already left through. V.I.C.I ignored the muttered swear words as he passed; her thoughts were already somewhere else entirely.

Specifically, browsing the ALPA's servers for any news from the outskirts of San Jose.

Part 9

“.....and if you insist on fighting Epsilon up close and personal, at least consider taking along a weapon with more functionality than this!”

Kendall's plea went ignored---Brittney had already loaded her favourite gold-plated Desert Eagle with a full clip of explosive-headed rounds. “If you want to keep that fine face of yours,” she growled, “you'll mind yo' own damn business....” She aimed the gun at a wall, smirking; Kendall had no doubt in her mind that the “gangsta” gynoid was more than likely picturing either Epsilon or the Lawson girl in her sights. “You'll recall that our orders were to capture Epsilon,” she reminded Brittney, “not to---”

“I got my own orders,” the taller gynoid snapped. “And my orders ain't none o'your damn—damn---damn---”

The blonde gynoid sighed; Brittney's tell-tale malfunctions were becoming less of a nuisance and more of an actual issue. “She's going to break in the middle of a fight with Epsilon,” she muttered, moving behind her “boss” and preparing to reset her, “and then we'll all be in trouble....”

Her finger was an inch from the hidden switch when Brittney's hand grabbed her by the wrist.

“Don't touch my damn switch....unless you want me to find yours.”

With a genuinely nervous nod, Kendall backed away from the African-American gynoid. “Not a problem...you were just having another minor fault, that's all---”

“I ain't broken, am I?” Brittney spat. “You think you got the right to start pokin' and proddin' my ass every time I start twitchin'?!” Her left hand dangled near the Desert Eagle resting on the table near her. “I might just have to test these new rounds on your dumb ass.....”

Even as the other gynoid's fingers brushed against the gun, Kendall knew that Brittney was using a favourite tactic: intimidation. Lesser gynoids, and plenty of human employees, had fallen for it in the past; Bradford had found it annoying, more than anything else, but those with weaker wills than his often ran for the door before the gynoid had a chance to “plug” them.

“I'm merely fulfilling the request given to me by Drake Bradford,” the blonde gynoid calmly replied. “He asked me to ensure your own functionality and to keep you running at an optimum rate....”

Her explanation prompted an eye roll. “So all that reachin' for my switch was to help....”

From further inside the facility, several klaxons kicked on.

“Oh, it's ON now!” Brittney cackled, grabbing the Desert Eagle. “You best get back and leave the shootin' to someone who knows how to handle a piece like this!” She cocked the hammer on the Eagle, aiming at the door and whatever might try to come through it. “COME ON! BOOM-BOOM IS READY TO ROLL, BABY!”

Almost as if in response....something at the far end of the hall let loose with an inhuman roar.

“Oh, so that's how you wanna play it?!” Brittney sneered. “You gonna growl at ME like a DOG?! Well, just BRING IT, bitch!” She planted a round through the door. “I AIN'T AFRAID OF NOTHIN', 'CAUSE NOTHIN' ON THIS DAMN PLANET IS GONNA MAKE ME AFRAID! YOU HEAR THAT, BITCH?!” She fired at the door again, even as Kendall ran for cover behind a desk. “I AIN'T SCARED OF SH---”

The door flew into the room, with the flattened, still-sparking remains of a guard android smeared to its opposite side.....followed soon after by the lumbering figure of Epsilon.

“BRING IT!” The “gangsta” gynoid squeezed off two more rounds. “I'M RIGHT HERE, BITCH! I'M RIGHT---”

Within three seconds, the gun was knocked from her hand---and her hand was torn from her arm.

“GET DOWN!” Kendall tackled Brittney to the floor, just in time for the man/machine hybrid's talons to run her through. “Get-get-get-get-get---” Smoke listed from the lithe gynoid's mouth; “Get to the target,” she managed, “and make sure notthhhhiiii#Q%%#-----” A crunching, metallic noise cut off her words as Epsilon's other hand crushed her head like an empty Coke can---albeit one filled with expensive electronics and sensors, like the ocular unit that popped out of one socket to land on the floor.

With her head destroyed and her central power unit ripped apart, Kendall's useless body collapsed to the floor as soon as Epsilon's fist pulled back.

Brittney, for her part, was fast losing the “BRING IT”-fuelled resolve she'd displayed upon the hybrid's entrance into the room. She'd already begun back-pedalling even as the blonde's head was being crushed; by the time Epsilon had thrown the gynoid to the floor, “Boom-Boom” Delacroix was high-tailing it through the emergency exit. The sparks emanating from her ruined wrist didn't bother her; the loss of her weapon didn't phase her.

All she knew was that Epsilon was going to tear her to pieces if she didn't get the hell away---

Behind her, far too close for her own liking, a snarling, roaring howl rang through the corridor.

“Out of my way, get the HELL OUTTA MY WAY!” Facility staff were shoved aside, furniture was knocked over and every manner of apologies and insults were ignored---Brittney Delacroix wanted, needed to put a large distance between herself and Epsilon as she could. Nothing between her and the exit would be left standing, if she'd had her way---

Get to the target.

Kendall's final words—-her last coherent words—-echoed through Brittney's processors. Epsilon was after the girl, that stupid Sanderson girl who'd been stolen from the ALPA building....except the girl wasn't anywhere in the vicinity, and Epsilon was tearing everything up regardless. Killing the girl---or letting her die in Epsilon's rampage---wasn't an option, as much as Brittney wanted to rid herself of such an incriminating bit of---

“SUPPRESSING FIRE! LAY DOWN A FIELD OF SUPPRESSING FIRE!” Gunfire raked the hallway behind the retreating gynoid; Bradford's security squad had apparently decided to earn their pay-checks by keeping Epsilon at bay. That was fine by Brittney; as long as Epsilon wasn't on her case, it wasn't her problem.

Approximately ten seconds later, with the security squad bleeding all over the floor, it became her problem.

Her options already dwindling, the gynoid finally decided that enough was enough. In the centre of the hall, she stopped, turned on her heel, and in a course of action blending equal measures of bravery and suicidal, impossible stupidity, started yelling at Epsilon. “YOU WANT THIS?! YOU WANT A PIECE OF THIS?! THEN COME AND---”

All 200+ pounds of muscle and machinery that made up Epsilon's form slammed into her at an angle, sending her through a wall..and into the room holding “the target”.

Had it not been for the fact that the top of her head was resting on the table next to her, with wires trailing from exposed ports to the quietly-humming external hard drive holding her backup memory files, Kirsten Sanderson could've easily been sleeping. More importantly, her presence had a startling effect on Epsilon---he turned away from Brittney (who, at the moment, was thrashing about on the floor, swearing and trying to reattach one of her feet) and lumbered towards Kirsten. “KIR...STEN......” Even as her face remained still, somewhere within her cranial assembly, her voice whispered: “Dad?”

Epsilon placed the hard drive on Kirsten's chest, folding her arms around it and moving her hands to clasp it with unmoving fingers. “I....AM....HERE.....”

“Dad...I can't see.....what's happening?”

Silently, Epsilon lifted his gynoid daughter, careful not to jostle the hard drive in her grip. “WE...MUST GO.”

“....I'm scared, Dad....I...there's stuff I can't remember....Vicki was looking for you, to help you---”

“Oh, just SHUT UP, dammit!” Brittney groaned. “I don't need to hear none of this---”

A low snarl from Epsilon cut her off.

“Dad...you're still....it, aren't you?”

A tear rolled down Epsilon's face. “I...CANNOT....BE....like you...remember.....” He headed for the nearest exit, ignoring the shouts of guards at the far end of the hall. “....I....am sick.....I hurt.....”

“So what do we do now? Where can we go?”

“Away. Far away---”

“Y'all ain't goin' NOWHERE,” Brittney shouted. “Just....damn it....just gimme a minute to put my damn foot back on, and I'll show y'all real quick why nobody messes with---messes with---messes with---messes---” Her head jerked to the right with an audible servo rizz. “messmessmessmess---DAMN IT! Bradford thinks he can short-change me on---aw, I KNOW y'all ain't leaving!”

With Kirsten held tight in his arms, Epsilon knelt in a runner's stance. “WE LEAVE....NOW....”

“ALL UNITS, REPORT IN! TARGET IS ATTEMPTING TO ESCAPE!” More security operatives swarmed in from the other end of the hall, their weapons trained on Epsilon. “DO NOT ENGAGE UNTIL THE COMMAND IS GIVEN! REPEAT---” The command was drowned out by the sound of Epsilon smashing through the wall, holding Kirsten close to his chest to keep her from being hit by the debris. One SecOp fired a burst of three shots at the retreating figure, earning a rifle butt to the back of the knee for his stupidity.

“Miss Delacroix,” one of the operatives stated, approaching the damaged gynoid. “Do you need---”

“I need my damn hand back,” Brittney snapped, limping past the man on her half-connected foot. “Unless y'all done stepped on it already...”

The operatives glanced at each other, their faces inscrutable behind their goggles and filtered breath masks.

“Ah, we were unaware of any...extremities....when we were en route---”

“Then you and your boys can go reverse 'en-route' and find my 'extremity',” Brittney replied. “Unless you want me to kick your ass right here and now...” She glared at the operative. “And while y'all at it,” she added, “go find what's left of Bradford's girl....” Bradford had already missed the meet-up time, which could've meant any number of things---not that it mattered to “Boom-Boom” Delacroix. “Somebody's gonna take the big fall for this, and it ain't gonna be me...”

Even as operatives filed past Brittney, the one who'd asked if she needed assistance remained. “We'll have a team from KnightWind on Epsilon's trail as soon as possible, Miss Delacroix,” he assured her. “Bradford left us with a set of instructions---”

“Well, Bradford ain't here,” Brittney snapped. “And my instruction is that we go find his dumb ass....” She let the words trail off. “This ain't over. Not yet. We need to get off our asses and find 'Epsilon', or else.” With a last, withering glance at the security operative, she turned on her heel---and nearly fell on her face as she did so. “AND SOMEBODY HELP ME FIX MY DAMN FOOT!”

The leader of the security operatives sighed; it was going to be a long night....

Part 10

“....and the trace from the drive shows it's on the move,” Anton finished, sighing. “So Epsilon is able to track Kirsten. Doesn't really surprise me....”

“Track her and rescue her,” Vicki corrected. “If I hadn't picked up the drive moving out of its location when I did, I probably would've ended up walking into....something disagreeable.” She frowned, propping her chin up with one hand as she glanced at the readouts before her. “So where could he have taken her without us knowing about it?”

Rae leaned in to get a better look at the monitor. “I wish we could give a simple answer for that one, babe,” she replied, “but it's nowhere near as cut-and-dry as anyone would prefer...” She leaned up against the desk where the monitor rested, her cleavage compressing against her folded arms beneath her hot-pink sleeveless crop-top. “Any leads on where Epsilon scarpered to after he found Kirsten?” she queried, glancing back at Anton. “Or did his Demolition Man routine leave anything behind?”

“Well, for starters....Rae, do you have to wear your shorts that tight?” Anton groaned.

“At least they're not Daisy Dukes,” the chestnut-haired gynoid teased, throwing in a nice butt-wiggle to drive the point home. “Last time I wore a pair of those, the crotch blew out....pretty much turned 'em into a miniskirt.”

The roboticist pulled a face, and Vicki frowned. “I don't think we needed to hear that part, Rae...”

'Oi, don't knock it....” Rae's continued japes were interrupted by a trilling sound from the monitor. “And hello, unexpected lead! Looks like we've got ourselves a trail to follow.....and it's.....leading here,” she finished, her eyes widening. “Epsilon's coming here, to this building.....”

Vicki stared at the tiny dotted line heading for the field office. “How far away is he?”

“Two blocks, maybe three,” Anton replied, calling up relevant info on another, closer screen. “And he's getting closer by the minute....” He nodded for Vicki to join him. “He's not going as fast as you could,” he informed her, “seeing as how he doesn't use a myogel set like yours, but at this rate, he'll still get here within a matter of minutes---”

“So we need to plan ahead,” Rae cut in. “Call HQ, tell McElvoy they're going to want to have a repair bay open before the hour's up. We can get Kirsten to them, they can fix her---”

Several klaxons sounded at once, cutting her off. “And that'll be Epsilon at the gates,” she finished, sighing.

“More like Epsilon in the parking lot,” Vicki replied, already heading for the door. “If we can get to him before he leaves....” She raced down the hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of Epsilon before he retreated, only to hear a telltale set of heavy footfalls racing out of the parking lot. “WAIT! We can...help....” Her pace slowed as she noticed a figure laying in the doorway that led to the parking lot; “Kirsten?” she murmured, almost tip-toeing as she approached. “Are you---”

Rae nearly bowled her over as she jogged up to appraise the unmoving form. “Well, I'll say this for Epsy,” she mused. “He was thinking this time...Kirsten's got a nice grasp on her own portable drive.” She nodded towards the black box clutched in the blonde gynoid's fingers.

Anton's eyes widened as he joined the pair. “You're kidding....”

“Not even close---the drive's not damaged, and neither is Kirsten. She's got a bit of dust on her, but other than that....” Rae shrugged. “Guess her dad's got more left up in the ol' brainpan than anyone....” Her remark died on her tongue; Vicki was approaching her fallen friend, looking more than a bit apprehensive. “We need to get her to the repair lab,” the brunette gynoid murmured, “try to install some new drives in her---”

Her suggestion faded into a gasp as Kirsten's voice spoke---from the portable hard drive. “Vicki?”

“Kirsten?!” A quick glance at her friend's face showed it to be as unmoving as it had been. “You....can you see me right now---”

“I....can't see anything. But I can hear you. I....I remember Dad showing up at my window....”

Tears rimmed Vicki's eyes. “....you don't remember anything past that?” she murmured. “You don't remember going with me to the lecture on campus.....”

“....Vicki, why are you crying? Has....something happened?”

Anton knelt next to the unmoving blonde. “Kirsten? ….ah, hi, I'm Anton Malvineous....I'm a friend of Vicki's.”

“I've heard of you....you work with robots---like us.”

“Indeed,” Anton admitted. “And I can more than likely help restore you....” He cleared his throat. “You were, ah, rendered inoperable by an electromagnet at a scrapyard less than 48 hours ago,” he continued. “The magnet scrambled your internal hard drives....your memories of the last two days have been effectively erased because of it---”

Vicki's hand gripped his shoulder. “Don't,” she pleaded. “If anyone's going to tell her....”

“Tell me...what?”

“Your dad,” Vicki sobbed, “he....he lost control of himself. And someone on our side...someone wanted to kill him. They thought he couldn't be saved.” She turned away. “I....I fought to defend your dad, but....he was just attacking me, attacking everything in sight....”

She bowed her head. “...and then he carried me out,” she whispered.

“.....dad....attacked you?”

“He wasn't in full control of himself,” Anton stated. “His mind....I'm sorry, Kirsten, but it'll be easier to explain it to you when you've been restored to your body.” He motioned for Rae to help him lift Kirsten's body, as Vicki scooped up the portable hard drive. “We'll call for Selwyn to bring us back to HQ,” he informed the blonde gynoid, “and get a team out here to look after the field office—-”

Rae nodded. “Already taken care of. Hynde's bringing the car around.”

“Who's Selwyn? That name...it reminds me of something---”

Vicki choked back a sob. “s'alright,” Rae quietly assured her. “We're going to---”

“No, it's not,” Vicki shot back. “I had my scanning expanded to cover the whole AutoYard while we were there...I didn't pick up anything turning on the magnet! Even the AutoYard's own internal control signals didn't activate it.....”

“You're saying it was activated manually?” Anton quietly asked. “You think it was---”

“I don't know. I just.....I hope it wasn't him.” Vicki stared at Kirsten's motionless form; “I don't want to think he would've gone that far,” she admitted. “I just....if he did mess with the magnet, I....he couldn't have been that cruel, could he? Kirsten doesn't even have the unlock codes in her anymore---”

A muffled banging noise---Anton stubbing his toe on the baseboards---interrupted the brunette gynoid.

“She....doesn't have the unlock codes in her,” Vicki inquired, “does she?”

To her surprise, it was Rae who answered. “She might not have the unlock codes,” the chestnut-haired gynoid informed her, “but she does have a few other little surprises tucked away. Before she got nicked by 'Boom-Boom' and Bradford, Galatea was running an analysis...oi, Anton, where d'you want her?”

“Third table on the far right. Has Selwyn called again?”

“Hynde's up the street, she'll be here with the car in a moment....” Gently, Rae set Kirsten's body on the table Anton had indicated. “Anyway....Gal was running the analysis on her, and she found.....quite a few things left by Tony Sanderson. Probably left by him, I mean—-we're not 100% sure...” Her attention turned to the door she'd just entered through. “Either of you feel like running out and seeing if Hynde's driving up, feel free—-”

“What did Galatea find in Kirsten's hard drives?”

Both Anton and Rae were somewhat startled by V.I.C.I's robotic monotone, but Anton was the first to reply to her question. “Something that, in all honesty, shouldn't have been there,” he quietly admitted. “Something that goes beyond Epsilon...beyond any of us.” He sighed. “Despite what Agent Clarke mentioned earlier, the DVS aren't just 'splitters'---they were never a part of the Coalition to begin with. Very few of the ALPA were willing to see it that way, until now...but I knew. I've dealt with them firsthand....”

“So they're tied into all of this?”

Vicki's question earned her a sigh from the roboticist. “They're not just tied into it, Vicki....they're the source of it. They---” Two beeps from a car horn in the parking lot cut him off. “That'll be Hynde,” Rae mused. “Shall we take this discussion outside?”

Once again, Rae helped Anton carry the motionless blonde figure of Kirsten Sanderson, this time to the waiting Hyundai and the cinnamon-haired Miss Hynde, who nodded her approval. “Your voice still isn't fixed?” Anton mused, frowning. “I thought Selwyn would've made that a priority...” Miss Hynde rolled her eyes as she opened the driver's side door. “Guess he's been busy,” Rae murmured. “He and William are still sorting through...ah....”

“You can say 'what Oberon did',” Vicki informed her. “It's not like he's going to curse us for saying his name.”

Anton bit back a number of scathing replies, choosing to nod silently in agreement as he helped Rae load Kirsten into the rear passenger seat. “Mind the cord,” Rae advised, nodding to the trailing extension cord that led from Kirsten's head to the portable hard drive Vicki was still carrying; “You'll have to take the backseat with her,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “I'll sit with you...protect the drive, and all....”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Vicki made her way into the rear of the car, scooting over to sit next to Kirsten; the portable hard drive rested on the seat between them. “And Rae makes three,” the chestnut-haired gynoid called out, sliding in on the other side. “Comfy up front, Anton?”

“I'll be a lot more 'comfy' once we're back at HQ....the field office has some security flaws that need to---”

“Oh, lighten up! I was just asking a question...” Rae gave an exaggerated yawn. “Though the office DOES have a few issues that need fixin'....don't even get me started on the---”

“Guys,” Vicki muttered, “we've got company.”

Rae glanced at her as if she'd blown a fuse. “You're joking....this is a bloody car park, Vicki, how can we have any.....” She followed the brunette gynoid's unwavering stare. “Oh, you are joking.....this is just....this is totally pants!” She couldn't help but groan as a pair of Hummers glided into view on the far side of the parking lot, each with a pair of gun-toting thugs grabbing the roof rack with one hand.

“Miss Hynde,” Vicki muttered, “get ready to floor it.”

Before Anton or Rae could complain, Miss Hynde reversed out of the space she'd parked the Hyundai in; the would-be pursuit cars managed to crash into each other trying to avoid getting hit by her. “I'll call HQ,” Rae offered, “tell 'em we're---” Another harsh, crunching-metal sound cut her off. “PLEASE tell me we didn't hit anything....”

“We didn't,” Anton replied, “but they did...” He nodded towards one of the Hummers, currently backing away from the light post it had just smashed into. “We need to get out of here before—-”

Gunfire raked the pavement near the Hyundai's front tires.

“Any chance you could speed this up a bit?” Rae queried, just barely managing to keep the panic out of her voice as she tapped Miss Hynde on the shoulder. “Not everyone in here is bulletproof....”

The cinnamon-haired gynoid's hands never left the steering wheel, even as one of the Hummers sped towards her car. The Hyundai drifted effortlessly between the Hummer and another parked car; Vicki nearly ducked as a stream of bullets flew past her window, only to get a notice from some internal process that the thickness of the glass, the wind speed, projectile velocity and about fifty other factors meant the shots wouldn't even come close to hitting her.

A groan from Anton stopped her from mentioning the sensor readings; “I forgot the seatbelts in this thing were calibrated for Selwyn,” he muttered, shaking his head as he reoriented himself. “We didn't hit anything, did we?” Miss Hynde gave him an unabashedly cheeky grin. “I'll take that as a no,” he mused, sighing.

“Focus.” V.I.C.I's robotic monotone clued the roboticist into the fact that the Hummers were trying, yet again, to get an advantage over the Hyundai. “Miss Hynde, try not to crash into the fences,” she instructed, “seeing as how there's a low-level EMP charge in them.” She glanced at Anton, frowning a bit; “The place was getting broken into every night!” he declared. “I had to do something to keep out the thieves---”

“Two words: guard dog.” V.I.C.I scanned the fence, and the gate on the far end of the lot. “The gate's got a weaker charge than the rest of the fence---”

“Ah, not to interject on your strategic moment,” Rae cut in, “but this car is EMP-shielded. We can crash into the fences all we want, and not feel even the slightest bit dizzy!” She nearly fell out of her seat as she leaned over to relay the news to Miss Hynde. “We won't get bricked if we hit the fences, sweetie,” she assured the silent gynoid, “so---”

“And what about Kirsten's hard drive?”

Rae's smile nearly melted at that question. “.....I...wasn't really thinking of....that.....”

“Anton, will the car's shielding protect Kirsten's hard drive if we hit the fences?”

“For about sixty seconds,” the roboticist replied, his tone grim. “Any longer than that...and she's gone.”

“Got it. Miss Hynde, try not to smash into the fences too much, if at all possible...”

Again, the leggy gynoid nodded, shifting the Hyundai into revers and executing a textbook handbrake turn just in time to evade a Hummer racing towards her car. “Anton,” Rae called out, scrambling to keep Kirsten's hard drive from falling over, “please tell me you don't get carsick!”

“I don't....but if this keeps up, we'll be rolling on rims in a matter of minutes!”

Anton's assessment didn't draw any response from V.I.C.I, but Rae muttered something under her breath and sank back in her seat. “I was expecting a car chase out of here,” she sighed, “and we end up driving like utter maniacs in a car park...utterly brilliant.”

Miss Hynde gave her a semi-annoyed look, but managed to not roll the car as she guided it between the two Hummers in a move that looked more like automotive ballet than just “drifting”. By contrast, the Hummers had the misfortune of smashing into each other---the gunmen hanging onto the roof rack barely managed to drop off of the vehicles in time to avoid getting squashed between them.

“Think they're going to give up any time soon?” Anton inquired.

“Doubt it. They don't look like they're with Bradford or Delacroix....” Rae glanced at the Hummers through the back window of the Hyundai; “If I didn't know any better,” she mused, “I'd say they were with....well, someone a little higher-up on the food chain, to be honest....not that I like that possibility---”

“None of us 'like' that possibility,” V.I.C.I reminded her, “but until we eliminate the impossible, we've got a lot to sift through---however improbable it may be---to find the truth.”

Rae gave her a bemused look. “A certain detective would probably find that very amusing----

Her teasing was cut off by Anton: “They're moving to block the gate. Miss Hynde, if it's not too much trouble---”

As if to say “Way ahead of you”, the cinnamon-haired gynoid nodded---without even glancing at Anton---and shifted the Hyundai into top gear. “She'll break the bloody engine!” Rae gasped. “If she goes for that gate now, she'll redline every component in this thing---GAAAH!” Her head slammed into the rear passenger-side window as Miss Hynde spun the steering wheel (and, by proxy, the car) to avoid hitting the fence. “A warning beforehand would've been GREATLY appreciated!” the chestnut-haired gynoid snapped.

Her annoyance was met with a glare from Miss Hynde, followed by another wide arc of the Hyundai as one of the Hummers broke away from the gate. “This is getting us nowhere,” Anton groaned.

“So why the bloody hell can't we smash through the fence?!” Rae hissed.

Anton started to say something, but V.I.C.I cut him off. “The EMP charge is only low because the fence isn't damaged,” she explained. “If something tears through part of the fence, the EMP is ramped up to neutralize the threat. If the 'threat' isn't stopped by that initial surge, it gets hit with a second, stronger surge....and the EMP will keep ramping up and surging until the threat is stopped.” She glanced at the chestnut-haired gynoid with a nearly blank expression. “I pinged the building's security server just now,” she admitted, reverting to her human voice. “It's all there in the manual---literally.”

“Which leaves us stuck in a demolition derby,” Rae sighed. “And the EMP surges would fry Kirsten's hard drive if we took the 'smashy smashy' way out....”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Either we power past the Hummers and get through the gate---”

“Or,” Anton cut in, “we play a few tricks of our own....” He grinned, fishing his iPhone out of a coat pocket.

“You could've shut the damn fences off from here?!” Rae nearly fell out of her seat trying to grab the phone from him; “I can't shut the fences off,” Anton replied, “but I can do a few other things that'll make life very, very difficult for those two Hummers. It'll be quick---”

“Don't say 'and painless',” Rae warned. “Any time someone says 'quick and painless', it's never painless...”

Vicki would've dismissed the remark as one of Rae's witticisms, but there was something in her tone that told otherwise. “Let's just focus on the positive,” she advised. “The Hummers are in the same predicament as we are, and they don't even realize it.” She managed a grin; “We've got the element of a home-field advantage,” she added. “So let's use that advantage—-”

One of the Hummers began revving its engine, turning its brights on the Hyundai.

“I'm starting to think that advantage thing you just mentioned is circling the drain,” Rae muttered. “They've got control of the only way out, they're going to bloody ram us---”

Anton chuckled. “They'll try to ram us,” he corrected. “But what they'll get....Miss Hynde, get ready to reverse!”

Rae's eyes went wide. “No.....you're not seriously thinking---”

The Hummer's engine revved, its tires throwing smoke.

“On my count,” Anton intoned. “Five....four....three....two----”

A screech of tires and the roar of a red-lined engine cut him off---the Hummer was charging forward like a bat out of Hell, fully intent on ramming the other vehicle off the road.

“NOW!”

Several things happened at once when Anton yelled that word. The Hyundai shot backwards, stopping just before it hit the fence; the Hummer shot forwards, sailing past the Asian car and smashing through the front window of the field office---at least, it would have, had it not been for the sudden appearance of a metal security shutter closing on the hood and effectively scything through the engine below. “One down,” the roboticist declared, “and one....”

The Hyundai sped forward, prompting screams from Vicki and Rae---both of whom stared with open-mouthed shock as the second Hummer shot past them and rear-ended the first. “....to go,” Anton finished, chuckling. “Which is what happens when you have one driven by a human being and the other driven by its own satellite navigation.” He held up his iPhone, sporting an ear-to-ear grin as he waved the phone before the gynoids. “Just a simple command added to the sat-nav's queue, and it's a nice, iPhone version of Ridge Racer...well, with a real car, instead of---”

“Was anyone in the second Hummer?” Vicki inquired.

Her question was met with another round of chuckling from Anton. “They're more than likely still alive---”

“Was anyone in the second Hummer?” the brunette gynoid repeated, switching back to her monotone.

“Not to piss on your parade here,” Rae cut in, “but the gate's clear!” She nearly lunged over the front seat; “If you'd be so kind,” she purred, grinning at Miss Hynde, “let's all get ourselves as far away from this car park as physically possible---and I'll buy a round of lube shakes for everyone in this vehicle who drinks 'em if we leave within the next....three minutes, 'kay?”

After a moment's pause, the silent, cinnamon-haired gynoid turned to glance at her....and winked.

“At least promise you'll stick to the speed limit,” V.I.C.I began, only to clutch the armrests of her seat as the Hyundai arced into another turn, lining up right behind the two wrecked Hummers. “....never mind. Kirsten, how're you holding out?”

“...I'm...here, if that counts....what's been happening?”

Her friend's question prompted a sigh from V.I.C.I.; “We're about to leave the field office,” she admitted. “It's a long story....” She gave a slight cough. “I'll tell you when you've been repaired,” she promised. “For now, we need to go....”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Anton agreed. “Miss Hynde, if you would...”

With a grace reserved for winning F1 drivers, the Hyundai sped through the parking lot gate, towards the road.

Part 11

“.....unbelievable.”

The Baron stared, silently, at the reports that had been laid on his desk. Drake Bradford had somehow been waylaid at a gas station, his gynoid assistant was now out of commission (with a crushed cranial assembly, at that), and Brittney Delacroix had been damaged---all because of Epsilon.

A low, rumbling breath sounded from the darkness. “....he tasks me....he TASKS me.....”

From her vantage point by the door, Celine could tell that her employer was about to make a decision that, by her experience, could only end badly for everyone involved. Thus far, his anger had never been directed towards her, but she knew those days would eventually---and inevitably---come to an end. Unless he likes having an Eye of the Patriarch in his office, she mused, pausing only briefly to reflect on how quick she'd been to accept the regime change---

“Celine.”

A shiver ran through the gynoid's body. “Yes, sir?”

“I have business to attend to. Out of state business.” The already low lighting in the room died completely as the Baron left his chair. “You will find a folder with your name on it in your office after I leave this building,” he continued. “The orders within that folder are to be carried out at once.”

“Of course, sir.” Celine bowed slightly. “And what of---”

“Bradford and Delacroix will continue their operations to incapacitate Epsilon. Do not interfere with their work.”

Again, Celine bowed. “I'll do my best, sir----”

She winced almost instantly; she could tell, even in the dark, that the Baron's stare had settled upon her. “I hope, for all our sakes,” he intoned, “that your 'best' is more than enough to accomplish the job at hand.”

“It will be,” she managed. “It will be.”

No reply was given to her self-assuring statement; the door to the office closed, and the lights reactivated to reveal that she was now the only occupant of the room.

As far as she knew, Epsilon had been the thorn in the Baron's side ever since its initial deployment. After the Jakarta incident (which nobody was allowed to talk about, especially in the Baron's presence; Celine wondered if the Baron's “out of state business” was the latest attempt to clean up the aftermath of that particular cock-up), Epsilon was the DVS' most damning failure in recent history. And it's still running loose, she reminded herself. It's still out there....

The thought of referring to Epsilon as “he” and “him” as opposed to “it” only just occurred to her after the fact; it made sense, really. Epsilon had been human, after all.....

Celine pushed aside all thoughts of who or what Epsilon had once been; her office wasn't far, and she had a feeling the Baron would know if she didn't read the sealed orders he'd left for her. Opposing him---especially at a time like this---was suicide, both in the political sense and (very likely) the literal one...and as it stood, she was standing at the door to her office, and the envelope containing the Baron's orders was, indeed, waiting on her desk. The glass door allowed her a perfect view of it, sitting, untouched, amidst her personal effects.

Her palm brushed against the matte black surface of the security scanner under the doorknob; before she could even blink, the internal locks clicked, and the door opened inwards.

No time like the present to get things sorted....

Every step taken inside her office allowed Celine to scan every item in her line of sight---none of which had been disturbed. The locked bag with her personal smartphone, laptop and other incriminating items was still where she'd left it, with no telltale smudges on the lock's stainless surface. The drawer containing her diary (along with a “last resort”, to be used in the event of her cover being irreparably blown) was also still locked.

As for the envelope...

The words “I thought it would be black” were nearly uttered, before Celine realized how stupid she'd sound if she allowed herself to speak them. Indeed, the envelope wasn't black---it was a dark red, almost crimson. The handwritten name and address (which, disturbingly, was Celine's flat, rather than her office) had been inked in a plain black script---not the Baron's handwriting, which wasn't entirely surprising (Celine had addressed more than a few letters meant to have been sent from the Baron several times before). A cursory physical examination of the envelope---lifting it, holding it to the light and making sure no “extras” were hidden in or near it---turned up nothing....

It's an envelope. Stop being so damn paranoid.

With a sigh, Celine carefully opened the envelope with one fingernail, opening it as soon as the seal was out of the way and removing the single, folded paper---and, curiously, a photograph---within. Knowing the Baron, there were already agents in place to make sure she'd carry out whatever orders she was about to receive, to further the fight against Epsilon.

Thus, she found herself more than a bit surprised to see the photograph was not a picture of Epsilon's latest rampage, but a 20-something, chestnut-haired girl at a nightclub in London, holding a pint glass in each hand.

“What......” Her brows furrowed in a frown, Celine unfolded the letter and read it quietly: “'Find and activate Units GC-1412 and RR-1133. Their programming will be remotely updated to include orders to seek out and attack all relevant targets'.....” Her lip curled at the Baron's mention of units GC and RR---short for “General Combat” and “Reconnaissance/Retrieval”, respectively; both were of the same like that had produced Stacy Tanque, which meant they hadn't seen field action since the 90s. Unlike Tanque, however, GC and RR had received continual updates to their combat and military programming rather than news on social happenings and the ever-changing geo-political climate. Rumor had it they were still training within self-contained combat-sim programs that updated every three months....

Celine turned her attention back to the letter. “....'furthermore, your personal orders are to locate this Hreftech unit, current designation unknown'.....” The photo crumpled in her other hand. The Baron might not have known the “current designation” of the unit in question, but Celine---being an Eye of the Patriarch---knew Rae Clarke on sight. Number 1 on the House's wish list....

She forced herself to finish reading the letter. “...'observe, report and if necessary, detain'.”

Hreftech had made a veritable fortune on the companion series Rae had been a part of, and Rae herself was known in and around ALPA circles as their liaison with companion-centric companies. That, in Celine's mind, was perfectly understandable. What wasn't understandable was the fact that the Baron saw fit to put Rae under surveillance—and potentially “detain” her for some unfathomable reason There'd been reports of other models from Rae's line being involved in “questionable activities”; the Baron might've mistaken Rae for one of those units---

“Except he doesn't make mistakes,” Celine bitterly reminded herself. “Everyone around him falters, and he signs the order for them to 'disappear'.” The thought of her remark being recorded barely registered---few had access to the security feed, and even fewer had the authority to question her for the statement.

With a last look at the letter, she folded the paper and slipped it into her pocket.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a long night,” she muttered.

Before she left her office, Celine headed for the locked bag that held her laptop and phone. The biometric lock on the pad accepted her thumbprint (things would've gone to hell had it rejected it), deactivating the magnetic lock with a barely-audible click. Just like the door lock and the lock on the bag itself, the phone and laptop were designed to respond only to her thumbprint. If anyone else---even the Baron, who, as popular rumour had it, could easily access the personal electronic devices of any employee---tried to turn the things on, they'd get a fake startup screen, followed by a fake error message and the phone or laptop deactivating.

Can't be too careful, after all...wouldn't want a repeat of last time.

Seconds after she'd retrieved the devices, Celine made the necessary calls to have GC-1412 and RR-1133 activated. The brief thought of “wasting” the two gynoids was brushed aside; they'd been tested a few times in the 90s, and only sent on one mission before being sealed away for a decade or so.

Still, orders were orders...

The fact that the order to investigate Rae Clark had been given in the same letter as the orders for deploying GC-1412 and RR-1133 still bothered Celine more than she cared to admit. Even if this wasn't a mistake on the part of the Baron, something about the order didn't make sense....

“He has his reasons. He has his own reasons, and they're not yours to question.”

Speaking the words out loud did little to quash Celine's fears. She brushed a strand of dark red hair away from her eyes with one hand, staring at the phone she still held; either Rae Clarke, a gynoid the House had been courting for the last three years, had been caught up in another of the Baron's intrigues by pure chance, or....

“All who walk the Baron's path risk certain death upon his wrath.”

Merely thinking of that simple, almost childish rhyme was enough to send a very real shiver running through Celine's figure, almost as if she'd briefly been submerged in ice water. Her internal temperature sensors had picked up no climate anomalies within the room---the sensation was, more than likely, psychosomatic...which did nothing to ease her fears. Anyone who heard that line spoken aloud, by the Baron himself, became the stuff of legend---tales of midnight abductions, cars found abandoned on a roadside in Taiwan, birth certificates and other familial records disappearing without a trace......

…..except they weren't legends. Celine herself knew exactly what had happened to those unfortunate souls.

Even as her hand trembled slightly, she managed to turn off and re-lock the phone, returning it to the bag and closing the magnetically-locking clasp. More than anything, she felt a genuine sense of sympathy for Rae Clarke---in all probability, the gynoid had no idea of the Baron's plans for her.

Just like Vicki Lawson...two pawns in a grand game of deceit and destruction.

With her work for the day finished and her office secure once more, Celine headed for the building's car park, her processors already generating her plans for the rest of the evening. The Patriarch would want to hear about this, of course---after Celine finished her nightly recharge/programming review cycle. The covering for her ventral access port seemed to ache just a bit, as if the mere prospect of hooking up to her ASU (Android Service Unit---every android/gynoid House agent's living arrangements were equipped with one) was enough to set her off....

Keep it together. Business first, then pleasure.

Celine nodded, as if to reaffirm something she hadn't even said, and entered the lift that would bring her to the car park. I might actually try sleeping tonight, she mused. Might help clear my head....

With a push of the button, the lift descended.

Part 12

“....and under normal circumstances, you'd be getting reprimands all around for this,” Collin finished, sighing as he looked over the records of the “demolition derby” from the field office's parking lot. “That being said...you all did a damn good job of getting away and making the bad guys look like idiots.” He grinned.

“I'd feel a lot better if I knew who the 'bad guys' were,” Vicki muttered. Even in the ALPA HQ, she found herself more than a bit worried about the possibility of another such attack. “Did the cameras get anything on their Hummers that we can use to identify them? And please tell me nobody in the other Hummer was hurt after that little trick Anton played....”

Collin sighed. “Nobody got hurt. A few skinned knees and bruised egos, but no permanent damage.”

Vicki nodded. “And Kirsten?”

“She's responding well to the new hard drive installation. Agent Clarke and a few others have been filling her in on what she can't remember...which is working out rather well so far.”

“Which is great,” Vicki admitted, “but it still doesn't answer a few big questions. Why was she targeted again, how did the attackers know about the Field Office, and why did they use one unmanned Hummer?” She glanced at the pictures retrieved from the cameras at the Field Office. “At least tell me you've got something on that LaMarquise from the car chase Rae and I ended up in earlier,” she muttered. “PLEASE tell me you've got something on her...”

Her request earned a smile from Collin. “Actually, we've got a whole file on her. Kendall Hawke, formerly Kendall Hayes, Kendall Hawes and Kendall Hainworth---at least, the other three from her set used those---”

“Set?” Vicki echoed, frowning. “She's a gynoid, not a freaking Barbie....”

“She's a LaMarquise,” Collin reminded her. “And ten years ago, LaMarquise had a package deal for members of their VIP club---four of any model for half the price of one. Apparently, Kendall and her set-mates were acquired by someone who ended up owing a lot of money to Drake Bradford....so Drake ended up 'settling' for the Kendalls instead....” A trilling sound from his iPhone interrupted him; “....and it looks like the Kendall you saw during the car chase just experienced a CoF,” he added, his tone somber. “LaMarquise servers just picked up the report---something about 'crushing force to cranial casing'.”

The mention of Kendall's CoF---Cessation of Function---caught the brunette gynoid's attention. “You said she suffered 'crushing force' to her cranial casing?”

“Indeed....you think---”

“Epsilon hand-delivered Kirsten to us. It's not really a stretch of the imagination to think that he freed her from Bradford and Delacroix by way of a smash-and-grab...” Vicki glanced at the pictures again. “He ran, the whole way, to get to the Field Office,” she quietly added. “If they'd been chasing him, they would've caught up by the time he got there---not when Miss Hynde showed up.”

“You're saying the Hummers weren't there for Epsilon?” Collin suggested.

His question wasn't answered immediately; Vicki paced the floor by the table where the photos rested. “If they'd been chasing after Epsilon,” she murmured, “they would've stopped him before he even left the parking lot---or before he ever showed up. They were after Kirsten.....but why?” She stopped pacing, turning to give Collin a glance that was dangerously close to pleading. “Anton mentioned something earlier, about files hidden in Kirsten's hard drive backups....did Tony Sanderson know something was going to happen to him?”

“I doubt that.....he wasn't exactly---”

“Then why did he leave files on Kirsten's backup drives?!”

The Chairman steepled his fingers. “Because he wasn't just our undercover man at United Robotronics,” he quietly replied. “Anthony Sanderson....ran a lot of ops for the ALPA, and not all of them were on the books---if I even hint at some of them, you'll be getting a new Chairman by tomorrow night.” He sighed. “The only three people who knew everything that he did were himself, the ALPA President, and the Sanderson family's priest.”

“You're saying he ran black ops?” the brunette gynoid queried. “That he...killed people?”

“I can't confirm or deny either of those,” Collin admitted. “I can, however, assure you that the files found on Kirsten's backup hard drive had nothing to do with anything of that kind.” He crossed to a filing cabinet on the far side of the room. “There have been plenty of rumours,” he stated, “regarding the origin and meaning of 'DVS'.” He pressed his palm to a biometric sensor. “Some claim it's a corrupted abbreviation and acronym from a Russian name. Others---” A trilling sound from the sensor interrupted him, as the top-most drawer of the cabinet opened with a heavy click. “Others,” he continued, “believe it to be a reference to an old secret society that took its initials from the Dragon, the Viper and the Stag—--or Shrike, depending on who's telling you the tale.” He pulled a thick envelope from the drawer. “And some believe,” he concluded, “it has no meaning at all.”

“I'm more inclined to ask what it has to do with the files on Kirsten's backup drives,” Vicki muttered.

Collin grinned. “The 'dragon' part of the Dragon/Viper/Stag name theory. Or at least, the name 'dragon' as a pseudonym for a project developed under the radar at United Robotronics a few years ago. Not long after the Baron took over, UR began acquiring projects and contracts from other robotics firms around the country, as well as any personnel working on them. One of them....was something the Baron had taken over personally.”

“Sounds ominous,” Vicki mused. “But it still doesn't explain why he'd show personal interest---”

“Because projects like Epsilon, Stacy Tanque and anything the Maestro has ever done aren't enough to keep the DVS going. The Baron invested in the Dragon project because....he needed it. For what, I don't know---at least, nothing in in a martial sense.”

Vicki sighed. “It's better than nothing. Any chance we can cross reference 'Dragon project' with anything?”

“It depends on what you want to cross-reference it with,” Collin began, only for his iPhone to belt out the tones of a classical piece Vicki didn't recognize. “Give me a minute...” The Chairman keyed on the phone. “Yes, what is it....what?! Wait, wait, slow down.....how did----how did they get in?! I thought you had him under high security! Constant monitoring! How did anyone---you're kidding. PLEASE tell me you're kidding.....is he okay? Did they---slow down and take a deep breath! Did they wound him?”

He can only be talking about one of three people, the brunette gynoid realized. Faceless, the Maestro....or---

“Wait, wait...they got him how many times, and he still fought back?! I....look, just get him to the medical wing and get him sedated---STOP SHOUTING! Get him to the medical wing, and...hello? HELLO?!” Collin sighed, turning to set the phone down on a desk. “Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable....”

“Something wrong?” Vicki inquired.

Collin pulled up a chair and sat down at the desk where his phone rested. “Two women,” he explained, “just broke into ALPA HQ---Vicki, wait!” The last word was spoken with such a forceful tone that Vicki, in mid-stride towards the door, actually winced. “Somehow or other, they got to Oberon's cell and tried to attack him---”

“Did they go on some spiel about songs?” the brunette gynoid interrupted. “About harmonies and melodies?”

“....yes,” Collin admitted, “they did---were you listening in on my phone call?”

“I didn't need to. Harmony and Melody were among the gynoids who broke into ALPA HQ last month!”

Before Collin could object, Vicki was out of her chair, the Chairman's phone in her hand. “Did they get any video of the attack?”

“Surveillance feed, yes....but---what are you doing?!'

“Connecting to the ALPA servers. Give me a minute.” V.I.C.I touched two fingers to her temple---a purely aesthetic gesture, in all honesty---as she established the uplink with the servers. “I need to see this....”


“...your song is ending, old man. There's nothing you can do to stop that....but the harmony---”

“---and the melody will continue---”

“NO.”

Oberon rose from his chair, his back turned to the intruders. “You come here at my darkest hour, playing your little word games and trying to taunt me?!” Something like a sob wracked his figure. “I was so obsessed with destroying the enemy without, I never tried to look for the enemy within....the same one who let a pair of harlots like you into this building----”

“Harlots? Us? Melody, I think---”

The chair Oberon had been sitting in was smashed against the wall.


“I don't think you want to see what happens next,” Collin quietly informed V.I.C.I., his hand resting on her shoulder. “They had ceramic blades with them—-slashed him about thirty-seven times, before he finally fought back. One of them left missing an eye---the other one had four fingers bent backwards and one thumb missing entirely.....and when our people went in afterwards to clean up, Oberon was just sitting where his chair had been, staring at the wall.”

As her link with the ALPA servers terminated, Vicki glanced at Collin. “He was just...staring? At a wall?”

“And praying, apparently. In Latin....something about eternal forgiveness and walking the old path....”

Memories of her own fight with Oberon surged back to the forefront of Vicki's mind. “He was holding back this time,” she murmured. “That's why they got him 37 times....he was restraining himself, hoping to not kill them as soon as he attacked....” She hugged herself, trying not to picture the former Chairman letting himself be sliced 37 times. “How's he doing now?”

“He's in the private ward,” Collin replied. “Tawny's looking after him.”

“Which leaves us free to look for Epsilon,” Vicki sighed. “Convenient.”

Collin frowned. “Not when you consider the fact that Oberon has to be flown overseas to stand trial before the High Court,” he replied. “Getting slashed and stabbed 37 times isn't going to do him any favours...in any case, that's not our problem. You remember Stacey Tanque?”

Vicki groaned. “Don't tell me Epsilon scrapped her---”

“She's still functioning,” Collin assured her. “As are the two other gynoids that were sealed away at the same time as she was....the House just got a call from one of theirs about those two sealed units. Apparently, the Baron has given the order for them to be activated---”

From the room below, a scream rang out.

“Stay here,” V.I.C.I advised, already on her feet and halfway towards the door. “I'll check it out....”

Part 13

Had she been human, the brunette gynoid's quickest path to the source of the scream would've been to take the elevator (plenty of android/gynoid agents were comfortable with using it, as well). If she truly needed a fast descent to the floor below, any maintenance elevator would allow her access with a simple wave of her ALPA badge or ID card.

The only reason she didn't use the elevator, in all honesty, was that she simply didn't think of it at the moment.

Dad would tell me to slow down, if he were here. V.I.C.I's thoughts on Ted's predictable advice did little to keep her from barreling down the staircase as a red/white blur, all the while zeroing in on whoever had screamed just a few seconds ago. Female, mid-to-late 20s....that narrows it down. Her internal audio analysis picked up on a few other, almost unnoticeable cues---the tone, length, pitch and possible emotional spectrum, ranging from happiness (and "intense pleasure") on the high end to fear and helplessness on the other end. I need to remember to thank Inspektor 12 the next time I see him, she mused, even as she approached the room the scream had emanated from. This analysis suite----

A second scream---louder, and far more pained than the first---cut her off.

It took an astounding level of self-control for V.I.C.I to not crush the doorknob in her hand as she gripped it, and an equal level of control to avoid ripping it off the door altogether as she turned it.....

It would've been hard to imagine what had prompted Kirsten Sanderson to scream, had she been human; sitting on the exam table in the middle of the repair room, with nothing but a sheet covering her body, there was no sign of any major damage to her---at least from the front. As V.I.C.I entered the room, however, it was clear that Kirsten's post-repair reactivation had gone....awry, to say the least. Cables trailed from her back, and at least one was plugged directly into the base of her cranial module.

“Kirsten, are you okay?” The monotone voice that asked that question sounded quite a bit softer than usual---as if the calculating, robotic V.I.C.I and the concerned, human Vicki were speaking as one, balancing each other out. “I got here as soon as I heard you scream....”

A quick glance (and even faster sensor sweep) around the room revealed that nothing had been damaged, and none of the attending technicians (including a fully scrubbed-up William J. Rengold IV) were injured. “We were installing her new hard drive,” one of the techs explained, “copying files from the backup over to it...everything was fine at first, but then we got near the 2 minute mark, and....well.....”

The gynoid Field Agent nodded. “If it's not any trouble, I'd like to get Kirsten's side of----”

“They're killing him!”

Kirsten's sobbed declaration caught V.I.C.I off guard. “Who's killing him?” she quietly asked, moving to sit beside her friend on the exam table. “Kirsten, you have to tell me---”

“They're....sending it after him.....they're sending the dragon.....” Kirsten pulled the sheet tighter, shivering.

“How do you know?”

William arched an eyebrow. “Ah, Vicki....what exactly is 'the dragon'?” he queried. “And who is she---”

“Kirsten can sense that someone's sending something to kill Epsilon,” V.I.C.I stated, never taking her eyes off of Kirsten. “The Chairman....Collin has reason to believe that 'the dragon' is a project personally backed by the Baron...a project that Tony Sanderson was researching before he was conscripted into the Epsilon program.” She helped Kirsten off the exam table. “Collin informed me that Tony hid the data he found on the Dragon project on Kirsten's backup drives for safe-keeping.”

“So it's a false positive?” the tech who'd spoken earlier suggested. “Just a false alarm---”

“No,” Kirsten insisted. “It wasn't ready, then....when Dad hid those files, it wasn't ready....” Tears streaked down her face. “....but now......”

The techs all exchanged worried looks. “I'll have my people run a search for anything codenamed Dragon,” William declared. “Demolitions 'bots, pyrotechnic weapons, military-grade hardware....if they're sending it after Epsilon---”

“You'll be wasting your time searching under those parameters,” V.I.C.I stated. “Whatever the Dragon is, it's been hidden for a reason. You're not going to find it with a standard search....” She glanced at Kirsten, her expression neutral. “Kirsten....what I'm going to ask is going to sound...weird....”

“You want me to access the hidden files on my hard drives,” the blonde gynoid muttered.

Her question was answered with a silent nod.

“If you need any help,” William offered, “I can talk you through it...your file says you've never accessed your own files manually before, and given your, ah...current state of distress---”

“I can handle it. I just.....can someone get these stupid cables out of me, please?” Kirsten glanced over her shoulder at the wires trailing from ports in her opened back. “And can I have my clothes back?” she quietly added, shivering under the sheet. “I...I feel really cold, for some reason....colder than I can ever remember feeling before....”

“Your temperature regulation systems might take a while to kick in,” V.I.C.I informed her. “Your new hard drive needs a bit of time to adjust....sorry if that sounds impersonal of me.”

Kirsten gave a mirthless chuckle. “If I didn't know better, I'd think you were talking about a computer---” Her entire body was wracked with a shiver as the cables in her back (and the one in the base of her skull) were unplugged. “....can I have my shirt back now?” she murmured, gladly accepting her clothes back when a tech handed them over. “And if I didn't say it already,” she added, shrugging off the sheet and pulling on her shirt, “thanks.”

“For what?”

“Coming down here, checking on me...being a friend, throughout this whole crazy thing.” The blonde gynoid managed a smile. “Finding out what I was, what happened to Dad...anyone else would've probably freaked out, and I wouldn't blame them.” She ran a hand down her back, still feeling the ports beneath her shirt, only for V.I.C.I to gently guide her hand away. “You'll probably want to close up your dorsal covering,” the brunette Field Agent quietly advised. “Your shirt might get caught or something....”

After a few seconds of silence, she wrapped both arms around Kirsten and drew her in for an embrace.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered, finally reverting to her human voice again. “For everything that's happened with your dad....for what happened at the AutoYard.....for---”

“You have nothing to apologize for!” Kirsten assured her, gently wiping Vicki's tears away with the back of her hand. “And if you were going to apologize for giving me that choice---asking me to choose between learning what I was or losing my memory....Vicki, that choice was one of the best things in my life. You saved me that day, whether you believe it or not...” She tilted the brunette gynoid's face up to stare into her eyes; “And you don't need to apologize for what happened to Dad, either,” she quietly added. “And the AutoYard....it wasn't your fault.”

Vicki nodded. “I....I know....it's just that I felt....” She turned away. “I felt helpless. I was fighting---trying not to fight Epsilon, trying not to hurt him....and then the magnet turned on. You were right in the path of it, and it just....” She choked back a sob. “It nearly killed you, Kirsten.”

“Except that wasn't your fault! You didn't turn on the magnet, and you didn't shove me in its way....Vicki, you don't need to beat yourself up over this.” Kirsten once again cupped Vicki's chin in her hand, turning the other gynoid's face to look her in the eye. “You were trying to keep my dad from getting hurt,” she murmured, “and I can never repay you enough for that...”

With a sigh, Vicki nodded. “So.....we're still cool?”

Kirsten actually giggled at that. “Vicki, we're cooler than cool---just like the Starlet Dolls.” That remark finally garnered a smile from the brunette gynoid. “I ever tell you I actually still have the full toy line?”

“No,” Vicki gasped. “Harriet's aunt Ida Mae freaking stole mine and sold them at a pawn shop---”

“Ah, if I'm not interrupting anything,” William stated, “Miss Sanderson, we have the terminal ready, as well as a step-by-step guide to hooking yourself up to it.” He motioned to a nearby table with a smallish, Japanese-made computer on it. “An MSX Quad Plus?” Vicki mused. “I didn't realize we were using any MSX stuff for terminals around here.”

William rolled his eyes at that. “MSX machines have been ALPA -certified as terminals since the 90s,” he stated. “Damn good thing IBM only gained a quarter of the market share in Asia...otherwise---”

“No offence, but can we skip the history lesson and get to the part where someone tells me how to use this thing without....formatting myself?” Kirsten nodded to the MSX. “Do I need to take my shirt off again, or can I stay clothed this time?”

“You can keep the shirt on, but we'll need access to the port at the base of your skull.” William motioned to a cable running from the back of the MSX. “It might feel a bit....weird, at points....”

Despite Vicki's concerned glance, Kirsten sighed. “I've been through 'weird' before, Mr. …...”

“Rengold. William J. Rengold the Fourth. And before you ask, psychopathy doesn't run in the family.”

“Seeing as how you haven't tried to throw knives at me or anything before now, I sort of figured that...” She took a seat in front of the MSX as a few techs handed her the necessary cables to hook up to it. “This won't hurt, will it?” she quietly asked, glancing back at William for a moment. “It won't scramble my memories or anything like that?”

Her anxious question was met with a reassuring smile. “It'll be like any time you've ever used a computer,” William replied.

“Just....don't delete anything,” Vicki added. “We're only going in to look up the files your father hid...”

Kirsten nodded. “Right. No deleting anything. Not that I'd know what to---” A gasp escaped her lips as one of the techs plugged the cable back into her cranial module. “That felt really weird,” she muttered. “And....this looks really weird, too!” Indeed, the screen before her looked less like Windows, Linux, OS-X, or any GUI she'd been accustomed to over the years---and more like something straight out of a spreadsheet program.

“It's acclimating to your system setup,” William explained. “Give it a moment, and it'll look more...familiar.”

Indeed, even as he spoke, the lines and rows began to reconfigure into a more conventional “desktop”, with folders and file icons. “So....where would I look for anything my dad hid on my backup drive? I....never used the thing before, so.....it's kind of confusing to me, to be honest.”

“Just follow William's suggestions,” Vicki advised, “and click what he says to click.”

Again, Kirsten nodded. “All I need now is an idea of where to look....”

William gestured to what looked like a typical hard drive icon. “It's sorted itself now, so you'll do well to start here.” Two clicks later, and Kirsten gave a sigh of relief---folder icons labeled with dates in six-month increments dotted the new window. “That one,” Vicki advised, pointing out a folder from the previous July to December. “He disappeared around the start of the semester, so if he hid anything---”

“I know, I know....” Despite the minor trembling in her hand, Kirsten used the mouse to guide the cursor to the folder Vicki had pointed out. “What....file...should I be looking for, if it's even called that?” Before William could launch into a complicated explanation, Vicki cut him off. “That looks like it could be a video file,” she mused. “Think it's worth a look?”

“Might as well....” With a slow, silent nod, Kirsten moved the cursor over the file and hit “Enter”.

The MSX's proprietary video player opened a new window, showing an apartment complex (the one Kirsten's boyfriend investigated earlier this year, Vicki realized, thinking back to the days before Cinco de Mayo) filled with stacks upon stacks of boxes, notebooks, and---most intriguingly---an air mattress, halfway hidden behind a dividing wall; the lower body of a female form was just visible beneath a sheet. “That's me,” Kirsten gasped. “I....I paid Dad a visit before the semester started...I never could remember much about what happened while I was there. Mom said it was just a headache...”

Vicki said nothing, trying not to think of the last time she'd seen Raquel Sanderson in one piece...or the crushing personal loss she herself---stop it. She's gone, thinking about it won't bring her back!

The brunette gynoid forced herself to listen in on William's explanation of Kirsten's “amnesia” regarding the days at her father's apartment. “....and he probably set your read/write state to 'forget' those days, so that you wouldn't suddenly see flashes of the files he hid,” he explained. “I've seen it before----”

“Wait, I think that's him!” Kirsten gasped, as a tired, dishevelled-looking figure shambled into view with a notebook clutched in his hands. “...not enough time, there's not enough....” He stopped, staring into the lens of whatever was recording the footage. “Doesn't matter now, I have to do this...” William didn't bother to stop Kirsten from gently pressing her hand to the monitor; a whispered “Dad” escaped her lips as her father took a deep breath.

“Kirsten,” he began, “if you're watching this, then I'm a dead man walking...and, more than likely, you know exactly what you are.” He nodded to the form on the air mattress; “I had to detach your cranial module for this part,” he continued, “so you're literally seeing this through your own eyes.”

Kirsten glanced at Vicki. “He probably needed to access an internal port to back up your memories,” the brunette gynoid began, but Tony Sanderson's voice from the MSX cut her off. “Things at United Robotronics are getting....bad. Really bad. I don't know how much you'll know when and if you ever see this, but I'm only working for United Robotronics because they're doing....things. Things that need to be stopped....” He held up the notebook he'd walked into the shot with. “I copied a full day's worth of notes into this thing,” he whispered, his voice trembling with every syllable. “What's in this notebook is...Kirsten, baby, I really hope you have some understanding of what you really are, because otherwise, what I'm about to say won't mean a damn thing....”

“I know, Dad,” Kirsten whispered. “Believe me, I know...”

As if he'd heard her, Tony Sanderson nodded. “This notebook contains everything you'll need to know about what they're calling the Dragon. But that's just a codeword, just temporary....her name hasn't been finalized yet.” He paused for a moment. “Not a lot about her has been finalized, to be honest. There's a running bet on her name being something fancy. The guy across the hall said his money's on her name being Octavia---”

Without warning, William paused the clip, looking as if he'd just heard something blasphemous.

“You want to tell us why you look so spooked there?” Vicki inquired. “Or---”

“How,” William muttered. “How could I have missed this until now....” He stared at the screen, shaking his head. “The new regional manager of United Robotronics---the one hand-picked by the Baron himself---will be arriving in San Jose in less than 24 hours,” he muttered. “Guess what her name is.”

Instantly, Vicki and Kirsten stared at each other, then at William. “You're joking,” Vicki groaned.

“I wish I was. I really do....but it seems like our 'dragon' is the heir apparent to the Baron's throne!”

“What does any of this have to do with Dad, though?” Kirsten murmured. “I mean....this Dragon---Octavia, or whoever she is---she wasn't even active when Dad was....” She turned away. “When Dad was still at United Robotronics---”

William nodded. “Exactly. Because United Robotronics was in the hands of the Baron. But now---”

“Now,” Vicki stated, “United Robotronics is on the outs with the DVS---they've left UR and every other robotics firm in the Coalition behind, so having the Baron stay in charge of UR is a conflict of interest. He could swing things one way or the other, influence how the rest of the Coalition does things....” She rolled her eyes. “It's like Yemen '08 all over again,” she muttered, “her voice almost dripping with disgust. “Just replace 'puppet government' with 'puppet corporation'....”

“So the Baron is 'letting' this Octavia 'take over',” Kirsten mused, “but she'll really just be toeing the line the way he wants her to?”

“Exactly. He can't run United Robotronics directly anymore---”

“But you just said he hand-picked Octavia as his replacement!” Kirsten cried, burying her face in her hands. “I just.....” A groan fought its way past her lips.

“In all likelihood, Octavia won't be with the DVS,” William replied. “She won't be a registered associate, or even a sponsored member. Hell, if I were the Baron, I'd have Octavia employed somewhere as far from anything connected to the DVS as possible....knowing him, that's exactly what he's done.”

Vicki blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I feel like we're living in Westeros or something.”

“It's nowhere near that bad,” William assured her. “The only way things will turn that bad is if the Baron orders a cull, or if there are about fifteen consecutive Red Ring events---except we haven't seen that many at one time since RedTail got shuttered---”

“Can we get back to the video, please?” Kirsten quietly asked. “I...I kind of want to know...” William nodded his agreement. “I think we'll all do well to listen to him now....” He moved the cursor over the video player's “Play” button and pressed Enter.

“---like I said, it's nothing concrete....not that it matters.” Tony sighed. “I....I don't know when, or if, you'll ever see this, but....it's better to be safe. I think someone may have blown my cover---they're sending in Sharpe tomorrow, for an 'evaluation', and they only send him in if something's gone wrong....” Even as Kirsten quietly wept, Tony Sanderson wrung his hands on the screen before her. “If I disappear....if you stop getting the calls from me every day, I don't want you to worry. Just....keep doing great at school, and help your mom out around the house...they may be looking for you, even if I'm gone. Don't give them any reason to think you're worried. Just keep going with life as usual.”

He put the notebook down, taking the “camera” that was Kirsten's cranial module in his hands. “I want you to remember, Kirsten....you're my daughter. Not a machine, not some pale imitation....as far as I'm concerned, you are my child....and even if it's the last time I can say this to you....I love you, sweetheart.”

“I love you too, Dad,” Kirsten whispered, her hand once again reaching out to touch the monitor.

Seconds later, the video clip cut to black.

“.....well, that adds a whole new layer of weird to things,” Vicki mused. “Tony Sanderson knew his number was up, but he decided to report for work anyway...I guess he figured it'd be safer to show up and accept his fate than to go on the run and have the DVS hounding his family...”

Again, William nodded. “I don't think he even considered any alternatives---”

“What alternatives?” Vicki countered. “If his cover had been blown, he wouldn't have been able to get back to the ALPA without being followed....if he'd tried to flee the city, the DVS would've put a team on his family...it would've been a no-win situation.” Her thoughts drifted back to Ted's temporary abduction by the so-called Spare Parts Society a few months prior. “I don't think he would've wanted to put them through that,” she quietly added, “or let someone else put him in that situation.....”

She stopped talking in time to notice Kirsten staring forlornly at the video player.

“He's out there,” the blonde gynoid murmured. “Dad's out there, and he's hurting, and he has no idea where he is or what's going on....he's out there, and he's not himself....” She glanced at Vicki. “....and he knew they were going to do this to him?”

“I don't think he knew they'd conscript him into the Epsilon project,” the brunette gynoid quietly replied, “but he knew they'd try something....” Even as she spoke, the images playing out in her mind were too horrible to ignore: Tony Sanderson, fully aware that the next time he showed up at United Robotronics would be the last time anyone saw him as himself.... “And we know now that the DVS was planning to leave the Coalition in the lurch a lot sooner than they did,” she continued. “United Robotronics is one of the Coalition's top earners, and if Octavia is allowed to take control unopposed....”

William sighed. “Too many problems, and nowhere near enough solutions.”

“Then let's get to work on finding some solutions,” Vicki suggested. “We can start by looking into when and where Octavia's going to be appointed as the Baron's replacement.”

“And how does that work, exactly?” Kirsten inquired.

“I can call some of my connections,” William offered. “Pull a few dozen files, make a few inquiries, and get all the info we need before the hour's up. I'll call Selwyn right now, in fact---he'll probably be able to get more info on this Octavia thing than we can on our own...” He pulled up a chair and sighed. “I came to San Jose for a conference,” he muttered. “Three days, four if you count the college circuit....and now this.....”

Vicki glanced across the room at another chair. “If it's any consolation,” she replied, extending her hand towards the chair---and not flinching as it rolled across the floor towards her, “I've seen weirder.”

“Does you pulling a chair across the room count as weird?” Kirsten murmured, her eyes wide.

“It's a fringe benefit of my RTG,” Vicki explained. “Magnets, pretty much....so no, it's not weird. But it is cool.”

Even as Kirsten replied with a quiet “Oh”, the brunette gynoid sat down across from William. “I have a feeling you're going to be here for a lot longer than a three-day-long conference,” she admitted. “But if we can stop Octavia from taking over where the Baron left off, keep Silicon Valley from falling under the control of a bunch of crazies and keep Epsilon from being caught up in all of this craziness....it's all for the better.”

Kirsten nodded. “That's all I needed to hear,” she declared, grinning. “So...where do we start with this whole 'stop Octavia” thing?”

“I think I have an idea,” Vicki replied. “Think you could make one phone call before we leave, William?”

Part 14

“They didn't think it was actually you, at first....considering recent developments, of course. One of the desk men practically demanded I answer the phone, just to verify that you were the one calling...” Selwyn McElvoy sighed at the memory of the incident. “Miss Hynde is helping out top-side, so I was given the necessary permission and security clearance to 'borrow' one of the E-Lins.” He nodded to the slender blonde at his side, who looked every bit the picture of a fashion model---except for the fact that the front of her head was missing her face, and instead featured a touchscreen pad with various icons. Selwyn gave a slight cough; “Audrey,” he muttered, “your, ah, face....”

“My apologies, Professor.” Audrey raised her mask-like facial covering, which extended its internal animatronic armatures just as the touchpad surface receded into her cranial assembly; within seconds, her face---a bit narrow, with high cheekbones, a “cute” nose and strikingly blue eyes---was attached, allowing her to smile.

“I wouldn't have minded either way,” Vicki Lawson replied. “So....how is he?”

Selwyn straightened his tie as the trio strode down the hallway. “Stable, and finally past the sobbing stage. It's a bit...eerie, to be honest. He stopped sobbing right after the attempt on his life. The on-site psychiatrist has been taking reams of notes ever since, trying to---”

“He's wasting his time.” Vicki never broke her stride. “I need to talk to him about....a recent development.”

“Dr. Christian's notes have been well-regarded in past cases,” Selwyn mused. “In all honesty, she made the decision to observe this particular case, and help us however possible---it wasn't a random appointment.”

The emphasis on Dr. Christian's gender did little to slow Vicki's pace. “Anyone else find out anything?”

“Two employees have been suspended for not changing the door codes before signing off,” Audrey replied, “and two more won't be reporting back to work here ever again---they tried to leak the security camera feed of the incident on YouTube. They implicated a third employee, but he missed the start of his shift an hour ago. A team is en route to his house,”

“You're sure you want to talk to him?” Selwyn cut in. “After all that's happened---”

“Yes.” V.I.C.I's eyes glowed a faint blue as she turned to address the roboticist directly. “I'm sure.”

“Then I won't stop you. I will ask that you be careful, and not mention anything that could...set him off.”

His choice of words earned an arched eyebrow from the brunette gynoid. “You think he's going to attack me again?” she inquired.

“We don't know what he's going to do. He hasn't attacked anyone since the break-in....but that's not saying much.” Selwyn's pace never faltered. “We've considered putting him on suicide watch, just to be safe,” he added, “but it's been seen as unnecessary---”

“Do I get to talk to him, or not?” The air of finality in V.I.C.I's question was only enhanced by the unfeeling monotone of her voice. “A lot of lives could be at stake, and I don't want this to get snagged in red tape just because some pencil pushers had a problem figuring out if letting me see him is 'safe' or not.”

Audrey blanched slightly, but Selwyn was undeterred. “I think the 'pencil pushers' hardly factor into it.”

“Good for them. How far until we reach---”

The words “Oberon's cell” barely formed on V.I.C.I's lips as she turned the corner---getting a shockingly perfect glimpse of the former ALPA Chairman's containment cell.

“....him,” she whispered, reverting back to her human voice. “I....guess we're here now, then....”

Apart from the black eyes, the split lip, and the unkempt hair---as well as the obvious fact that he was, in fact, in a prison cell---Oberon didn't look all that bothered by his current state. He also looked as if he hadn't slept since his....capture? Arrest?

“---and we'll be waiting outside.”

Selwyn's words jolted the brunette gynoid out of her retrospection. “Right....outside. In the hall.”

Audrey and Selwyn exchanged a worried glance, but nodded. “If you need anything---”

“I won't.” The words barely sounded sincere to her own ears, but Vicki knew she wouldn't need them to kick in the door and rush to her aid. I mean, he's not going to attack me again, she reasoned. Last time.....I mean, last time....it was a misunderstanding last time, when we fought....

The door closed and locked behind Selwyn and Audrey, brutally jarring the gynoid out of her thoughts.

Tentatively, she made her way towards the room Oberon was held in. It could barely be called a cell---Vicki hadn't really heard of all-Perspex prison cells before now, and she doubted this was something in common use, even by the ALPA. Both the floor and ceiling were somewhat fogged, but still translucent enough to allow surveillance from above and below if need be---this, despite the fact that every corner joint of the eight-sided room surrounding Oberon's cell (might as well call it what it looks like) had a camera mount aimed directly at the ex-Chairman.

At that moment, Vicki noticed another unusual---and slightly ominous---fact about the room: apart from her own titanium/carbon-fibre alloy endoskeletal structure and a few other parts within her own form, there was nothing else in the room made of any kind of metal. A cursory scan of the cameras---external and internal---revealed them to have been made with high-impact plastics and ceramics.

They didn't build this place just to hold Oberon.....but----

“Victoria.....”

The use of her full first name snapped Vicki out of her internal inquiry, forcing her to redirect her attention to the cell where Oberon was contained. A number of possible responses filtered through her processors, but she bit back the more cynical ones and outright ignored any “aggressive” replies. “You don't feel like calling me Vicki anymore?” she queried.

“I assume that privilege is still reserved for your friends....”

Even if his lips hadn't been turned down in a scowl, the ex-Chairman's body language made it clear that he wasn't just making small talk. “You tried to turn me against the ALPA....and you tried to kill Epsilon---”

“And Epsilon ran you through with his talons,” Oberon finished. “Guess that didn't work out for either of us.”

“That doesn't---wait, hang on.” Vicki frowned. “You said 'his' talons....”

“Surprising, isn't it? What a bit of introspection can do for someone....” Oberon sighed. “I suppose this is the part where you're going to ask about fifty questions,” he muttered, “and expect me to answer each and every one of them....” His fingers closed around the backrest of a Perspex chair; as Vicki approached, the former Chairman pulled the chair closer, slowly turning it until it was facing the door, allowing him to watch the gynoid Field Agent's approach. “I won't turn down any question you might ask----”

“Good,” Vicki replied, sounding less intimidating than she would've liked. “Let's start with the obvious....”

She strode up to the door, her stare never leaving Oberon. “Why did you want me to fight you?”

Oberon shook his head. “That,” he intoned, “was one of my biggest mistakes....a stupid idea, if I'm honest---”

“That doesn't answer the question,” Vicki snapped---at least, she thought she snapped. The words came out in a half-angry, half-pained sob that surprised her more than it did Oberon. “I...trusted you,” she continued, her voice calmer. “I looked up to you....respected you---”

“All of which, in an 'ideal' scenario, would've made your choice easier,” Oberon sighed. “Not that it matters now. I'm a wreck, you hate me with a fiery vengeance....and I don't blame you for it.” He turned away. “I cocked up....I really cocked up...tried to go out and be the knight errant, only to utterly ruin about fifty or so things that I had no business dealing with. I was blinded by....something---I'm not even sure what, to be perfectly honest. It wasn't vengeance, or something 'romantic' like that....”

He shook his head. “I failed, Victoria. I failed everyone....and I failed you worst of all.”

Even as memories of the taunts, the hostile takeover of Kimiko and Yuriko, the mocking use of the March of the Toreadors and everything else she'd endured at Oberon's hands resurfaced, Vicki found herself feeling something that, as near as she could tell, was the polar opposite of anger. “....you...failed me?”

“I shouldn't have pointed out the recruitment poster. I shouldn't have treated you like an opponent, or a rival, or any of those stupid things...I wasn't thinking, of how any of this would affect you. My eyes were set on the goal, the end-game.....except this wasn't a bloody chess board, and you're not a pawn.” A slow, sad sigh issued from Oberon's parted lips. “Small wonder you'd hate me after that---”

“I don't!”

Those two sobbed words caught the ex-Chairman's attention.

“I....I don't want to hate you,” Vicki murmured, “just like I didn't want to hurt Epsilon, or see anyone else hurt him...this whole thing has just been...” She didn't bother wiping the tears from her eyes. “Oberon....”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “What have we done?”

Again, the disgraced Chairman bowed his head. “We've all been idiots, is what we've done.”

“Then how do we stop?” Vicki pleaded. “How do we fix this, get everything back to as close to normal as it can go?!”

The reply she received was the worst she'd expected: “I don't know. I don't even think it can be normal again.”

With those twelve words, Vicki Lawson finally gave up the last shreds of her anger, and wept.

“I should've listened,” Oberon sighed. “To Clive, to Baker, to you....to every single person who told me that I was wrong about Epsilon. Instead....I decided to ignore them all, and just go my own way.” He gestured lazily at his containment cell. “And look where that's landed us....”

Vicki was still sobbing quietly, kneeling before the cell's door and resting her head against it as she wept.

For a few seconds, her weeping was the only sound in the chamber.

“Vicki...”

Through her tears, the brunette gynoid looked up. Oberon was staring past her, at the door. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “For everything I've done that's led to this, and to everything that comes next....”

His eyes closed slowly. “....and if you do hate me from this day forth, I won't hold it against you.”

After a few seconds of silently gaping at him, Vicki managed to find her voice: “I....I don't want to hate you!”

Oberon's stare turned towards her. “You don't want to hate me?” he echoed.

“NO! I...I just.....” Somehow, she couldn't meet his gaze. “I need.....I need to know what happened.....”

Quickly, she brushed the back of her hand across her face, to clear away the tears. “Were you at the AutoYard when Epsilon was there?”

“Yes. As implicating as that admission is, I have nothing to hide anymore.”

Already, the tears were returning. “.....and....the magnet?”

“I was trying to shut it off.”

Seven words, almost reminiscent of Faceless' preferred pattern of speaking---but with a far different impact.

“Someone,” Oberon stated, “some idiot, had decided to set the magnet on an auto-timer---I have a feeling Epsilon was being followed far longer than anyone anticipated, and not just by me. I was at the AutoYard to keep anyone else from being hurt...and then I heard Kirsten Sanderson call out to you, and I just knew....” His fists clenched. “It sounds like something from The Fugitive, doesn't it?” he muttered, giving a humourless chuckle. “Next thing you know, I'll be saying 'the one-armed man turned on the magnet'---”

“How?”

Vicki hadn't looked up when she asked the question. “How do I know you didn't turn it on to begin with?” she asked, her voice shaking.

“Because I knew the magnet wouldn't affect Epsilon. And I knew just as well that it would affect you or any other artificial operative in its path....” The ex-chairman steepled his fingers. “None of this makes sense, does it?” he murmured. “I was hellbent on killing Epsilon, but knew enough to spare you from the effects of a full-on magnetic wipe...” He glanced at the dumbstruck gynoid. “I wouldn't have let you succumb to the magnet---”

“Then who turned it on?”

The growled question prompted another sad sigh from Oberon. “It could've been anyone. You have no reason to believe a damn thing I'm saying, I know, but trust me when I tell you this: I would not have hurt Kirsten Sanderson to draw out Epsilon.” He steepled his fingers. “I know my limits. Harming Kirsten would've sent me over them---”

“So why go after Epsilon at all?! Why take over Kimiko and Yuriko?!”

“Because I needed every possible advantage,” Oberon groaned. “I needed...wanted total control over the situation, in case it went red-ring...” He gave another mirthless chuckle. “Haven't seen a proper red-ring event in years,” he mused. “Ever since Red-Tail went bust...I actually miss the old barcodes they put on theirs, to be honest. Made it easier to track when their androids started going berserk, as well---the worse the problem got, the brighter the barcode lit up....” He glanced at Vicki, arching an eyebrow at her confusion. “It's not quite ancient history,” he informed her, “and not before your time, either...you were still in high school when it started, if I---”

“You didn't finish,” Vicki cut in. “You were talking about---”

“Red ring events, yes. And the attack on ALPA HQ was a damn good simulation of one...but it wasn't the real McCoy, either. What we faced at ALPA HQ was a very well-prepared, well-acted panto---a solid performance, for all the wrong reasons, in our case....but NOTHING close to the real thing...”

Drying her eyes again, Vicki nodded. “And you thought Epsilon was---”

“Epsilon,” Oberon stated, “is....unique. Not fully a human being, but not entirely artificial---and, as many have feared, trapped in some limbo between the two as his body dies.....” His tone softened; “I really thought all that made him Tony Sanderson had been burned out of him,” he quietly added. “I'd seen all the tests, the previous batches....it was all just a little bit of history repeating.”

Thoughts of the Propellerheads briefly entered Vicki's processors. “You mentioned the previous tests---”

“When I tried to recruit you, yes...I wasn't just blowing smoke. I saw things....” Oberon turned away. “It's in the past. History. What matters is that I stupidly thought Epsilon was going to go down the same road.”

He barely turned back to glance at Vicki. “So....now that we've aired our grievances....how do you feel?”

“I don't know.” Vicki slumped to a sitting position in the doorframe of Oberon's cell. “I don't know what I should feel right now....it feels like just yesterday, you were had a blade at my throat, trying to talk me into letting you kill Epsilon...”

“And you're wondering what changed my mind?”

Silently, the brunette gynoid nodded.

“Three little words: I. Was. Wrong. I was wrong about Epsilon, wrong about your willingness to aid my cause, wrong about...every damn part of this debacle. And it hurts.” Oberon took a seat in the chair he'd pulled up earlier. “I don't just mean a case of wounded pride, either....this feels like a straight kick right to the gut....my little crusade, my stupidity, blinded me. After Faceless, after R-528, after the Family of Steel---I wasn't going to let anyone or anything take the ALPA by surprise again, and the hell with anyone who said otherwise. A classic recipe for disaster.”

A lone tear streaked down his cheek. “And they have every right to kick me to the curb for it.”

“They said you were screaming,” Vicki murmured. “Screaming and sobbing---”

“Because I was seeing just what I'd done,” Oberon replied, “playing in my mind like a bad movie on loop. When one reflects on their mistakes long enough.....one can find themselves in a very, very dark place. In my case, it wasn't the first time I'd been there.” He leaned back in the chair, steepling his fingers. “I don't expect you to just forgive me for this, nor do I want you to simply brush it off....”

“So you want me to hate you?”

“I want you to make up your own bloody mind,” Oberon hissed, his eyes squeezed shut. “You've come too far to start asking everyone what they want from you...” His nostrils flared as he blew out a frustrated breath. “I made the mistake of thinking that trying to guide you along was a good thing---a bit of help here and there is good, but trying to hold your sodding hand all the way.....unacceptable.”

Vicki stared at him for a full minute. “So what now?”

“Now you get to the part you came here for.” Again, Oberon sighed. “Octavia.”

“You knew about her?”

“Only rumours....nothing definite, nothing to act upon. Certainly nothing that would've warranted a full-scale mobilization of ALPA forces. But I knew it wouldn't be the last we heard of her....”

“So you knew she'd be the next in line to the Baron's throne, to keep United Robotronics in the DVS' thrall?”

At that, Oberon turned to stare at the brunette gynoid with a look that, under the bright lights of his containment cell, made him look almost as obsessed as he had during their fight. “.....you have a verified source for this?” he finally asked, after what felt like ten minutes of silence.

“William told me,” Vicki replied. “I mean..William J. Rengold IV---”

“He'd heard the whispers as well, I take it?”

“Something like that.....but---”

“BASTARD!” It was hard to tell what was louder---Oberon's shout, or the impact of his fist against the plexiglass wall. “Of course he'd wait until now,” he growled. “Get me out of the picture and then spring his stupid little trap....plant his puppet on the throne, and then 'hand over' the empire to her....all while I'm on my crusade....” He buried his face in his hands, nearly falling into the chair. “He has duped me, and I have let myself be duped....”

As she stared, dumbstruck, Vicki tried to find some sign that the outburst was more than what it appeared to be. After fifteen seconds of scanning Oberon to find changes in his heart rate, breathing, temperature and other possible signs he was lying or otherwise hiding something, she gave up. “So what now?”

“Now,” Oberon echoed. “Now, you go and do what you should've been doing instead of having to clean up after a senile old fool chasing his nightmares....you get out there and stop Octavia from killing Epsilon. And the senile old fool...” He shook his head. “The fool will meet his fate soon enough.”

Vicki wanted to say “You're not a fool”, or “you don't have to keep doing this”, but she couldn't.

“I suppose you saw this going rather differently, when you first got here,” the former Chairman mused. “You wanted answers, explanations....and I can't give any of them to you. This....this has not been a good time for any of us, Vicki. Too many mistakes, too many tears shed.....too many lives broken. And I'm not even going to think of denying my role in all of this...”

Twin trails of tears streaked down his face. “There've been enough lies. Enough excuses.....no more.”

Without another word, he rose from the chair and turned away.

“Oberon...” Vicki tried to find the words---any words, really, that would help her gain some insight to how she could defeat Octavia. “I can't....I can't fight this battle on my own!”

“You won't be on your own,” Oberon replied. “You have your friends, your colleagues---”

“And what about you?!”

Oberon glanced back over his shoulder. “I won't be fighting alongside you for a good long while,” he quietly informed the brunette gynoid. “Hell, I might not be doing anymore fighting ever, if the High Court decides to be less than generous when deciding my fate.” He returned his attention to the far wall outside his cell. “I can give you an apology, if it'll help you sleep better.” He turned, slowly, to face the gynoid Field Agent; “I am well and truly sorry,” he stated, “for every single stupid decision I've made that's led up to this.”

His eyes squeezed shut once more. “.....and I wouldn't do it again. Ever. Even if my life depended on it.”

The walk to the door seemed to take half an hour, almost as if Vicki was trudging through a room full of water just to leave. She hadn't known what to expect from her talk with Oberon....but the end result gave her a sick, almost dead feeling in the pit of her stomach---even if it was psychosomatic, it felt real.

With one last look at the ex-Chairman, Vicki Lawson left the containment room...feeling utterly alone.

Part 15

“Fifteen minutes.”

Drake Bradford's muttered statement did little to improve Brittney Delacroix's mood. Still missing one hand, and with her already-damaged foot now starting to dangle from its connection point, the “gangsta” gynoid's mood was already sour---not helped at all by Bradford's complaining when told of Kendall's demise. Thus, had her summons to the abandoned mini-mall (undergoing a renovation and refit to accommodate a few new stores) she was currently standing in not been issued by the Baron, she wouldn't have shown up...or even answered the phone, for that matter.

“Fifteen minutes,” Bradford repeated, scowling. “If he's not here in fifteen freaking minutes...”

Brittney glared at him, but said nothing. The fact that her hand was missing had a lot to do with it, as did the damage to her foot; had she been human, someone probably would've told her that phantom limb syndrome was setting in. For all she knew, it might've been phantom limb syndrome....or maybe it was just boredom.

That, and she didn't want to start glitching before the Baron showed up.

“If I were in charge of this operation,” Bradford declared, “this would've been done by now. I'd have guys on every street going house-to-house looking for Epsilon, and I'd have guys on the inside in every single police department from here to L.A., all doing what I tell them to do! We've been going about this all wrong, losing our guys...and Kendall.....to that freak, running around town like a bunch of bush-leaguers....” He glared at the cheerfully-decorated “Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria – Coming Soon!” sign nearby. “And we're meeting in this place,” he added, almost growling the words. “We should be meeting somewhere more secure---”

“SHUT UP,” Brittney finally snapped. “This ain't your meeting...and it ain't my meeting, either.”

Bradford stared at the cocoa-skinned gynoid. “Who pissed in your Cheerios? All I said---”

“You didn't see what I saw,” Brittney continued, ignoring Drake entirely. “When all the lights went out...you didn't see it....” Her voice was almost...fearful, now---surprising, considering how she was either pouring on the come-hither, or pissed off to the point of dropping F-bombs every other sentence. It was the first time Drake had heard her express such an emotion....and as impressed as he was, he also knew it meant trouble.

“Well, if you'd tell me what you saw, so we can both have a thorough grasp of the situation---”

“You don't want to know what I saw,” Brittney shot back. “The Baron....he's.....” She turned away. “Somethin' ain't right about him. He's.....”

“What,” Bradford snorted, “he's like you?”

“Hell, no......but I don't think he's all the way like you, either.”

Before Bradford could ponder the significance of that statement, the lights all around them began going out. “I hate it when he does this,” he muttered. “All the theatrics...all the spectacle...for what? I mean---”

The feel of Brittney's hands closing around his lapels convinced him to stop talking long before the gynoid hissed “shut up” in his ear. Something told him that he didn't want to know what she'd seen the last time the Baron had turned out the lights....they'd lost Kendall since then, which didn't help matters at all. “If he tries anything,” he whispered, “I've got something that might even the odds....” Even as he spoke the words, the thought occurred to him that a piddling Luger wasn't going to do a hell of a lot to even anyone's odds if things went wrong.

As if she read his mind, Brittney groaned out loud. “You brought a gun?!”

“I have a permit----”

Two glaring circles of light blared into existence several feet in front of the pair, almost blinding them instantly.

“DAMN IT...TURN OFF THE HIGH-BEAMS!” Drake shouted, shielding his eyes with a raised arm. “WE GOT THE NOTE, WE'RE HERE...YOU CAN CUT THE THEATRICS!”

The lights dimmed, but didn't fully go out.

“All right,” Drake continued, sounding a bit less miffed. “All right....we're making progress here.” He nodded, glancing at Brittney as if he expected her to do the same---and getting an annoyed glare in return. “Anyway, we got the note, we're here.....” He gestured to the empty storefronts around them. “Something you want to share with us? Any...news, any information that'll make our jobs easier?”

Other than the idling engine of the car whose lights still shone on him, Drake received only silence as a reply.

Even as Brittney cast him a glance that was equal measures worry and something that might've been her usual anger, Bradford wasn't deterred. “Okay. If this is how you want to play it....” He took two steps towards the car, reaching for his holstered sidearm----

---and the lights blazed back into their full intensity, stopping him in his tracks.

“Okay, okay.....no more back-talk,” Bradford muttered. “I'll shut up.....but I'd really like to know---”

The front passenger-side door opened; Brittney turned away, dreading what would happen next. By contrast, Drake had apparently regained his bravado; “So you're doing this face-to-face, now?!” he called out, regaining his smirk. “You wanna do this old-style? Fine by me! Enough of the dramatic bull crap! Time to---”

“The only thing it's time for, Mr. Bradford, is for you to stop talking and pay attention.”

To the shock of both Drake Bradford and Brittney Delacroix, the voice that spoke those words was a clear, calm female contralto---not the sepulcuric rumbling tones of the Baron. “....the HELL?!” Drake shielded his eyes with one hand, taking a few tentative steps towards the speaker. “Who the hell do you think you----”

Both headlights died out, just as a pair of glowing greenish-blue spheres at eye-level blazed into life.

“My name,” the newcomer declared, “is Octavia Martinet, previously designated under the codename of the Dragon project.” She stepped into view just as the minimall's lights began to fade back into being; she looked a few years younger than Brittney, more than likely her mid-to-late 20s or early 30s with a chocolate brown blouse and black dress pants covering skin the color of toffee. “I'm here to relieve you of your duties regarding the hunt for Epsilon,” she continued, “by order of the Baron himself.” As she approached Drake and Brittney, her eyes stopped glowing, returning to their standard sea-green. “Hopefully, we can part ways amicably---”

“Amicably?!” Drake echoed. “You want to talk to me about amicably?!”

Brittney was already backing towards the nearest exit. “Drake...we need to get-get-get-get---” Her face was contorted in a grotesque sneer for a moment.

Octavia arched an eyebrow, one corner of her lips lifting in a smile....

Accessing targeted unit's systems....access granted. Enable Remote Shutdown? Y/N Y Shutting Down unit designated Brittney Delacroix...

“Get....get.....get.....geeeetttttt...ggggeetttttttt......” Slowly, Brittney's head bowed, her movements slowed......

“One down,” Octavia murmured, nodding as Brittney froze in place, “one to go.”

Drake was back pedalling towards Brittney, as if getting to her would somehow keep him from falling to the wrath of this Octavia....person. “What...what, what is it,” he muttered---he had no idea why the hell he was speaking at all, honestly. “What the hell...what do you want?! You want a job, I can get you a job, I've got lots of jobs available----”

“My loyalty,” Octavia calmly replied, “is to the Baron. But I appreciate your offer....” Her smile was terrifyingly polite---as if she knew she could spring any number of traps on Drake, and he'd be helpless to stop her.

“We....we had some setbacks,” Drake continued. “The Lawson girl, she---”

“I know about the 'Lawson girl',” Octavia coolly replied. “Her presence should've been a triviality, at best...not the severe detriment she appears to have become....” Still exuding a sense of eerie calm, she walked past Bradford to examine the still-motionless Brittney. “The Baron considered having her scrapped,” she murmured, running a slender hand through the immobile gynoid's hair. “She hasn't been fulfilling her intended purpose, or holding to the mission objectives she's received...” She glanced back at Bradford, her lips parted in a smile that could've been merely polite, or one last comfort before a hit squad shot him to pieces.

“I talked him out of it,” Octavia continued. “Convinced him that it'd be a bad idea to just let such an asset go to waste---not to mention Vega would probably try to start something of his own in response.”

Drake found it rather difficult to focus on anything, other than the suddenly unbearable heat in the room.

“So,” Octavia's voice stated, snapping him out of his heat-induced funk, “I figured I'd give you a heads-up, and let you know that the Baron has kindly made an offer you'd do well to pay attention to.” After one last look at Brittney, she strode over to Drake. “You,” she purred, “and Brittney are going to be leaving town. Tonight. On the first flight for the East Coast. Your seats in First Class have already been reserved, and some friends will be waiting outside to help you pack and get to the airport on time.”

Something like a dozen soggy paper snakes uncoiled in Drake's stomach. He'd been burned before, by other employers, but never with such callous precision. The only word he could bring himself to utter was a pathetically weak “Why?”

Octavia's fingers closed around his shirt collar, gently pulling him close.

“Because,” she whispered, “the only other option he considered was letting me kill you.”

Drake nearly shoved the gynoid away from himself, stumbling backwards as he went. She was still smiling, but with an added air of subtle menace; nondescript men in nondescript suits were filing in behind her, two of them grabbing Brittney under the arms and hauling her away.

“You've still got six hours to get everything in order before you leave....plenty of time.” The words were pleasant, almost friendly advice---but it didn't take a mastery of social science to tell the six hours weren't being “given”. Numbly, feeling like he was in someone else's movie, Drake nodded. “Six hours, right,” he muttered. “I'll be gone....six hours....” He tried not to think about the money he was going to lose, or all of the hours he'd wasted tracking some random girl he thought had been Vicki Lawson.

All he could think about was Octavia's smile. Her simple, sinister smile.

“My men out front will drive you back to your place,” she calmly informed him. “It's the least I can do.”

“Least you could do, right....” He wasn't even in the car yet, and Drake could already anticipate the feel of a gun barrel against his side as someone mouthed instructions to do exactly as he was told. The Baron had spoken---Drake and Brittney were out.

Behind Drake, the lights were dying again....nightfall, before the fire of the Dragon rained down over all.

Part 16

“Seriously? He actually told you he wouldn't mind if you hated him?!”

Rae's question barely registered with Vicki. “....it didn't feel like I thought it would,” she murmured. “It didn't feel like one of us was wrong and the other was right....” She stared at the floor, not looking at anyone or anything around her. “....it's like....the fight between us was ages ago, instead of almost a day....he's almost...”

“Just try not to think of it too much,” Selwyn suggested. “It may lead to a cascading process failure---”

“How can I not think about it?! We fought....he tried to kill Epsilon....he attacked me.....” She pulled her uniform jacket tighter around herself, almost hugging it to her shoulders. “I went in there looking for answers,” she whispered, “but I left with even more questions....”

“Sounds a lot like what I used to know as my daily routine,” Calliope commented. “And before you ask, Rae, I didn't see Epsilon during my patrols....” She sighed as she took a seat next to Vicki. “I even checked out old Family hideouts---I have a feeling even Falken wouldn't want him. And as for the 'more questions than answers' thing....” She shifted in her seat, positioning herself to face Vicki. “Trust me when I say that you'll get past this,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “You got me out of the Family of Steel, after all....”

Vicki nodded. “I just....I thought Oberon would be......damn it, why is this so complicated to explain?!”

“A mild state of shock,” Selwyn replied. “You never expected to confront Oberon this soon after the incident, and when you did....well, it wasn't exactly what you'd anticipated. And you couldn't figure out how to react to that, so....well, here we are.”

“Maybe he doesn't even know what happened,” Calliope suggested.

The brunette gynoid glanced at her.

“People do strange things under extreme duress,” the clockwork gynoid explained. “Falken was a textbook example....he believed so strongly in the 'True Path' that he was willing to neglect all of us, or to manipulate us into furthering his goals....” Noticing Vicki was staring at the floor again, she decided to change the course of the conversation. “At the very least, he wasn't still spouting the same 'Kill Epsilon' garbage he'd been saying before---”

“That almost makes it worse,” the Field Agent groaned. “It's like....he was barely the same person.....”

Selwyn frowned, but said nothing. “If it's any consolation,” Calliope offered, “I'll talk to him next---”

“And you think you'll be able to talk him down from the ledge?” Rae gave a mirthless chuckle. “Somehow, I don't see that happening...”

“I'll talk to him to try and figure out why he's pulled a 180 in terms of attitude,” the clockwork gynoid replied. “It might actually lead somewhere---and don't say 'it might not',” she quickly added. “This situation is...different from what the ALPA typically has to deal with.”

The chestnut-haired gynoid rolled her eyes. “And what qualifies you to deal with it?”

“It's not about who's qualified,” Vicki snapped. “This whole thing.....we're doing it all wrong....”

Her statement was met with confusion from Rae, a concerned glance from Calliope, and Selwyn giving her a furrowed-brow stare. “Considering the delicacy of the situation,” he quietly replied, “I'm not exactly inclined to agree with your assessment that our handling of it is 'wrong'. Oberon is in containment, we have teams out searching for Epsilon as we speak---”

“I KNOW!”

Vicki's shout left a horrible silence in its wake.

“None of this,” she muttered, “makes any sense at all. It all feels wrong....” She buried her head in her hands, her voice shaking with every word. “It feels like we've made a mistake....”

Calliope draped an arm around Vicki's shoulder. “Even if a mistake has been made, we'll do our best to fix it. And by 'we', I mean all of us.” She grinned, ignoring Rae pulling a face a few chairs away. “That's what friends and teammates do for each other, after all.”

Rae nearly said something, but a klaxon cut her off.

“Unauthorized access to the parking lot,” Selwyn mused. “After all the recent developments...”

“I'll handle it.” Calliope rose from where she'd been sitting next to Vicki; “Stay with her,” she advised Selwyn and Rae. “I doubt the DVS would be willing to send in anyone this early, but it won't hurt to be cautious---”

“Are you even a bloody Field Agent?!” Rae groaned. “Vicki's here having a crisis of confidence, or whatever---”

“Exactly. Which is why you should be here watching out for her.” With a nod, Calliope headed for the door.

Out in the hallway, beyond the prying eyes of Rae and Selwyn (and, for that matter, Vicki), she sighed. “I never thought I'd have to use this again....” Slowly, deliberately, she peeled off the glove she wore on her left hand, revealing it to be of a more porcelain-like sheen, with visible joints at the knuckles. After a quick glance back at the room she'd exited, the clockwork gynoid pulled back three fingers on her left hand, until their backs were touching the smooth, hairless surface of the hand. Each digit moved with a deliberate, slow click, revealing a hole where each finger was meant to connect to her hand....

….and, after a split-second's pause, a three-inch long spike shot out from each hole, locking into place.

Falken had never realized that she'd initially been built to protect her intended owner's estate, or that she'd had a few modifications meant to give her an easier time defending the estate (and herself) from thieves. There was also the small matter of the ALPA themselves not knowing about it---apart from Inspektor 12, who'd helped Calliope conceal the spikes during her routine examinations.

Her sole weapon now active, Calliope headed for the door leading to the car park.

Being a clockwork gynoid, her sensory capabilities were slightly limited compared to the average Field Agent; as such, she found herself reliant on the building's security systems, linked to her phone (and that of every Field Agent), to make sure there wasn't a hostile entity waiting around every corner. Her own hearing was far more finely tuned than that of a human, but it would do little to help her detect anyone trained in the art of stealth.

Fortunately, the sound of a car plowing into a concrete barricade dismissed that possibility in mere seconds.

Muttered utterances of “dammit to hell” and other, far more profane remarks issued from around a corner as Calliope approached, keeping her weaponed left hand hidden from view. “....put her on the damn plane, she'll be on the other side of the country soon enough....why the HELL did this have to happen now?!”

“Good question,” the clockwork gynoid admitted, stepping out from behind the corner---

---and earning a blast of Mace right to her eyes for her trouble.

“DAMNIT! You should be on the ground screaming right now.” Drake Bradford shook the can, smacking it with his open palm. “This is what I get from buying surplus...friggin' recalled mace doesn't even put down a 5'6 Goth girl---”

Three steel spikes slammed through the can, slipping between Drake's fingers with zero effort.

“Normal 5'6 Goth girls aren't built like me,” Calliope calmly replied. “You're on fifteen ALPA watch lists, meaning you have no business in this particular car park....care to explain why you're here right---”

“Octavia! She tried to send me to freaking New York, tried to get me out of the way....said she'd kill me if I didn't leave!” Drake glanced back at his car, where a barely visible (and barely moving) figure sat, disguised with a few blankets, in the backseat. “She turned Brittney off....she said we had six hours to leave....put two of her guys in the car with me.....” He seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “The Baron....he made her. Chose her.....”

Even as the footsteps of approaching security personnel sounded behind her, Calliope knew that Drake would pose no threat. “I can't take any of this information as valid until you surrender yourself to ALPA custody---”

“FINE,” Drake snapped. “I surrender. Everyone and their grandma is dragging me around on the short leash, so I figure I might as well just give up now...” He let go of the Mace, not even caring as Calliope retracted the spikes into her hand and let it fall to the ground. “Arrest me, throw me in the dungeon, whatever....”

I'm sure Rae would approve of that idea.... “We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.” Two officers secured Bradford as a third cuffed him. “Notify Clive and tell him we have someone with information on an ongoing case,” she instructed the security officers. “I'll tell Selwyn when I get back to him...I have a feeling he's going to want to hear about this. Secure whoever's in the car, as well---we're going to need their testimony.....oh, and someone get me some moist towelettes, please...he tried to mace me as soon as I showed myself.”

As the officers set about hauling Bradford off, Calliope pushed the spikes back into her hand, gripping the three fingers she'd folded back and slowly locking them back into position. A quick look at the can of Mace gave her a bit more peace of mind---she hadn't hit Drake's fingers when she'd impaled the can.

“Your towelettes, ma'am.” One of the officers presented a sealed packet of wipes. “I had a spare on hand...”

“Thanks.” Calliope tore open the packet, retrieved a towelette from within and dabbed at her eyes until she could see the moistened cloth stained with the capsaicin-laden fluid she'd been sprayed with. “He's lucky I'm not human,” she murmured, “otherwise...” With an annoyed eye roll, she discarded the towelette. “Let's just make sure Bradford doesn't try anything stupid before we can get him to a holding cell.” The officer nodded. “And the female in the car?”

“Drake mentioned her,” Calliope mused. “He said something about her being 'turned off'...I'm guessing remote deactivation. Bring her to an open repair bay and have two officers at the door.”

“Not a problem, ma'am.”

Calliope turned to leave. “And make sure the car is secured,” she called back. “And get that can of Mace into an evidence bag!” That last order prompted a chuckle; I'm starting to sound like a cop, she mused. Falken would probably complain about that....not that his opinion means anything to me, now. For a brief moment, she wondered where the old man had run off to after his defeat....then decided she couldn't care less.

Still, it'd be nice if we could've rescued Saang...

Ignoring the pang of regret that Saang had perished without an opportunity to fully redeem himself, Calliope headed back for the room where Rae and Selwyn were waiting with Vicki. All three of them would probably want to hear about this latest development---and given Vicki's past history with Bradford, the clockwork gynoid hoped her fellow Field Agent was significantly calm, or at least over whatever had seemed to befuddle her after the “chat” with Oberon.

As the door to the car park closed behind her, she silently hoped that Bradford would be cooperative...

Part 17

“Three minutes. That's all I'd need to get him to sing like an X-Factor reject. Three sodding minutes...”

Selwyn regarded Rae's remark with a frown. “We're trying to interrogate him,” he reminded her. “I don't think your....particular method....would----”

“And what the hell is wrong with my 'particular method'?” Rae countered.

Miss Hynde turned away, her hand raised to her lips as if to stifle a giggle. “Seeing as how you're dressed in a crop top, hot pants and knee-high stockings with ankle-length boots,” Selwyn replied, “all of them colored hot pink, I have a feeling---”

The light on the other side of the one-way mirror clicked on, revealing Vicki Lawson seated opposite Drake Bradford. All traces of her earlier confusion were gone, replaced with an almost eerie calm. Bradford, on the other hand, looked as if he'd been running all day and would rather be face down on a massage table as far from San Jose as possible.

Vicki didn't bother wasting any time: “You said you had information for us.”

“I want a lawyer,” Drake declared, slouching in his chair and trying to avoid the fluorescent lights. “I want my lawyer, and a phone call, and a jet on the runway at---”

The brunette gynoid slammed both fists into the table between her and Bradford, leaving sizeable dents.

“You have information,” she repeated, her robotic monotone flattening all human emotion out of her voice. “If that information isn't given to us in a timely fashion, your lawyer may never see you again.” Her eyes glowed a solid sapphire with every word. “Now talk.”

“You think you can threaten me?! I---”

Bradford's statement was cut off as V.I.C.I lunged across the table, grabbing him by the collar. “TALK.”

Rae was halfway out of the chair, but Miss Hynde managed to stop her from bolting out of the room. “She's still in control,” Selwyn murmured. “She's handling it.”

The roboticist's assurances stopped Rae from leaving...even as the telltale blue lightning danced over one of V.I.C.I's hands, just a few inches from Bradford's eyes. “This ends in one of two ways. One, you tell us every single piece of information we ask for, and you walk away unharmed...” Her free hand crackled with electricity. “....two, you keep being stubborn, and the cleaners get paid overtime after you're dragged out of here---”

“Octavia,” Bradford stammered, tears streaming down his cheeks. “She....she's taken over the hunt for that Epsilon fr---” He nearly said “freak”, but the memory of V.I.C.I's Detaining Grip-charged hand---and the small matter of her still grabbing him by the collar with her other hand---cut the word off. “....that Epsilon...thing...I'm due at the airport in five hours or so, and two of her guys were in the car with me....Maced the pair of 'em, tried to dump 'em....” His eyes darted around the room, trying to avoid the brunette gynoid's stare. “....she...she turned Brittney off, without even touching her....I think she did something to her.....they burned us, they're gonna kill us.....”

His panicking had little (if any) impact on the gynoid Field Agent. “Go on.”

“What the hell more do you need to hear from me?!” Bradford snapped. “Octavia has people out there hunting me like a freaking dog, and you expect me to sit here and play 20 Questions until they find me....I need to get out of here. I need a plane to the Cayman Islands---”

“What you need,” V.I.C.I interjected, “is irrelevant. You're in ALPA custody...the safest place you can be.”

“Great,” Bradford muttered. “Just great.....and I'm supposed to take your word for it?”

“Unless you want to be handed over to the FBI,” Vicki replied, reverting to her human voice. “And I don't think they'll be as patient as I am.” She wasn't smiling. “Contrary to any delusions you may be suffering from at the moment,” she continued, “you're not the victim here. You're collateral. And the ones who burned you and Brittney will come back and finish you off if you keep running around and breaking into random parking lots, looking for help....and they won't have any qualms about hurting innocent people to get to you.”

Not wanting to provoke another attack from the brunette gynoid, Bradford kept his mouth shut.

“You're staying in a holding cell until we can verify all the information you've given us. Brittney will be analysed and repaired if necessary, and she'll join you in the cell after she's been reactivated.” Vicki rose from her chair, heading for the door without even looking at Bradford. “And your lawyer's probably dead already.”

Without another word, she left the room, leaving the man stunned into silence.

“She didn't need to make that last remark,” Rae muttered. “We don't even know---”

“Actually, a team of Field Agents just found what's left of Mr. Bradford's attorney on an overpass,” Selwyn cut in. “The few teeth left were matched to existing dental records--”

Rae held up a hand. “More than enough information, thank you.”

Miss Hynde gave her an annoyed look, but anything Selwyn could've said to back her up was cut off by Vicki entering the room. “So,” Rae beamed, trying to go for a friendly tone, “you did a pretty good---”

“Can we get Bradford into a secured cell within five hours?”

The question wiped the smile off of Rae's face. “You're saying you want to lock that plonker up here, in your own building?! Vicki, the man's a criminal---”

“And he saw Octavia face-to-face. If we can get him to cooperate, we can find her.” Vicki exhaled a slow, even breath. “Talking to him was....the opposite of what happened with Oberon. He gave the exact answers I needed to hear, and even if he was a bit...emotional....about it, I still understood everything he said.” She stared at the floor; “And that little desk-pounding, collar grabbing thing,” she quietly added, almost sounding as if the act had been something embarrassing, “was.....a bit much, I admit it---”

“Except the only damage done was to the table,” Selwyn replied, “which can easily be replaced.”

Vicki nodded. “And the Detaining Grip was just for show....and all that stuff I said about handing him over to the FBI was....well.....”

“Cop shows,” Rae muttered, rolling her eyes. “You're bloody lucky he didn't have a heart condition!”

“As it stands,” Selwyn interjected, “we can now apply the 'good cop' half of that particular interrogation method, with Miss Hynde and myself filling that role.” He glanced at the cinnamon-haired gynoid, who gave a pleasant smile in return. “Even without her language skills,” the roboticist continued, “her overall body language and demeanour might be enough of a balm to Mr. Bradford's already frayed nerves....”

Again, the brunette gynoid nodded. “Honey and vinegar....guess I know which one I was....” She sighed. “Is Kirsten still doing okay?” she added, almost as an afterthought.

“She's with Anton and a team of plainclothes Field Agents. And yes, she is still doing okay, as you put it.”

Selwyn's reply earned a sigh of relief. “As long as she's safe....”

“So you want her safe, and plonkmeister over there caged up in your own headquarters,” Rae mused. “Not exactly the best call to make, babe...” 

“You want Octavia's people finding him in County? Or paying someone to turn him into a human pincushion in General Population at the nearest prison we dump him at?” Vicki's voice never wavered. “If we're going to keep the DVS from finding Epsilon---and if we want any chance of finding Octavia---we have to do things this way. Otherwise....”

After a moment of silence, Rae finally nodded. “Guess that puts it all into perspective, then,” she murmured.

“Questioning Bradford might lead to additional 'perspective',” Selwyn added. “I'll contact Clive, see if he can get the requisite forms signed within the hour....”

Rae sighed. “And I assume I don't get to do anything other than sit around and gripe?”

Vicki managed a grin. “You and I,” she replied, “will be looking for Octavia as soon as Bradford decides to tell us what she looks like...seeing as how you managed to not suck the last time we did a field op together, I have no problem teaming up with you again.” She glanced back at the window to the interrogation room, where Bradford was now yelling for someone to bring him a phone. “This situation doesn't really give us the leeway to act on instinct,” she quietly admitted. “We do this the loud way, Octavia escapes and we're left looking like idiots. We'll have a better chance of catching her if we do this the subtle way.”

“And if Epsilon forgoes any possibility of 'the subtle way'?”

Rae's question earned her an annoyed glance from Vicki. “We hide him if we can, protect him when we can, and let him escape if things get too stupid. It's the least we can do for him.”

“Fair enough,” the chestnut-haired gynoid admitted. “And for your information, 'managing to not suck' on field ops happens to be a specialty of mine.” She gave an unabashedly cheeky grin. “And you haven't sucked on a field op in a good long while, yourself!”

“I'll take that as a compliment. And before anyone asks when we're leaving, it'll be as soon as Bradford---”

Selwyn cleared his throat, cutting off the discussion. “I suggest we avoid setting our schedule by relying on him,” he stated. “The DVS will more than likely have their own people on the way to either silence him or buy back his loyalty. Either way, they could potentially stop us from finding out what Octavia looks like, and how much power she's managed to gain.”

“Then maybe we need to handle this....differently,” Vicki suggested. “Brittney's still in the repair bay?”

“.....what, exactly, are you suggesting we do?” Selwyn inquired.

“I'm suggesting I interrogate her,” the brunette gynoid replied. “In a way that only I can: direct interface.”

The stunned look on Rae's face spoke volumes, but Selwyn spoke before the chestnut-haired gynoid could give her opinion. “It's a risk....she might try to access ALPA servers, or even manipulate you somehow---”

“Believe me, I know. And I also know that the DVS will be able to backtrace any other method we use....which is why I'm going to wipe the last 24 hours' worth of her memory when I'm done.” Rae seemed to shudder at that, but Selwyn merely gave an approving nod. “Then do what you can to see if Miss Delacroix remembers enough about Octavia to lead us to her.”

“I will. And I'll need the most secure connection possible to make sure she doesn't counter-hack us.”

Again, Rae's apprehension was curtailed by Selwyn: “I don't think that will be a problem, Miss Lawson.”

Part 18

“Well?”

Anton glanced over his shoulder, frowning. “Well, what?”

“D'you think this would be a good time to...y'know, tell her?”

“About the breach?” The roboticist shook his head. “No. Epsilon is still on the loose, we're getting our first glimpse of the DVS in about a decade or so, and we've got two individuals currently on our watch list contained in the building. Telling her now would probably be a catastrophically bad idea...” He returned his attention to the monitor he'd been viewing before. “She doesn't need any more distractions---especially not now.”

“Good point. Another good point is that she may see the breach as a distraction---”

“She knows,” Anton cut in. “At least, she knows it happened. Pria Bishop---that freelancer, 'sister' unit to our own Agent Bishop---mentioned it during the R-528 incident...”

“And you nearly wiped the memory from her. I read the report.”

The roboticist glared over his shoulder, but said nothing.

“You'll have to tell her sooner or later, Anton. If you don't, someone else will...and it'd be better if she heard it from someone she knows. Someone she trusts.”

“And what happens if she stops trusting me because I waited so long to tell her?” Anton countered. “What if she doesn't trust any of us for hiding this from her for so long?” He was still staring at the monitor, but it was all too obvious that he wasn't even trying to read it anymore. “We've tracked most of what was taken, to be honest,” he quietly added. “The only lead we're still working on is who got the List.”

“That should've been the first thing your people looked for!”

Had anyone else made that claim, Anton might've argued with them for hours on end. This time, all he could do was mutter “I know”, and finally turn off the monitor. “We've botched this one.....we've botched it worse than we can ever hope to fully repair. Vicki's going to find out---from me, or from you, or from someone....and whatever her reaction, it won't be something we can just gloss over.”

“Nobody said anything about glossing over it.....it just needs to be put on the back burner for now.”

Slowly, Anton nodded. “Epsilon takes precedence...clear and present danger, imminent threat, all that great Tom Clancy stuff. Except Sam Fisher and Ding Chavez never had to deal with what we deal with....” He rose from his chair. “They need me downstairs,” he stated, not even bothering to look over his shoulder, “to assist with the interrogation of Brittney Delacroix...Vicki's going to try a direct interface method.” He turned, heading for the door; “Hopefully, we can find out something about what the DVS is planning next,” he continued, “if Brittney doesn't manage to counter-hack during the interface process.”

“Counter-hacking is the least of your problems. You know there are others who want Epsilon for themselves, and they might not be as subtle about it as the DVS....”

“I know!” The exclamation was punctuated by Anton punching the wall.

A hand rested on his shoulder. “Nobody blames you for this, Anton. It's not any one person's fault....”

“So why do I feel like I'm the one who's let Vicki down the most?” Anton muttered. Without waiting for a reply, he opened the door. “You'll be here when I get back?”

“I won't leave before this is sorted out, Anton. Go do what you need to do.”


Vicki barely glanced over her shoulder when Anton entered the repair bay. “You're early,” she informed him. “I was wondering if I'd have time to sort through the connector cables before we started...”

“I had a few things to tend to. I take it Miss Delacroix has been prepped?”

“Seeing as how her main connector port was on her neck,” Rae called out, “it was depressingly easy to get her ready.....” She rolled her eyes. “I never knew ReVerse had decided to streamline their 'bots so much...we didn't even get to open her up!” She gave the unmoving gynoid an annoyed glance. “Honestly, it's like she's saying 'screw you' even when she's turned off.....”

Her remarks earned her an annoyed look from Vicki. “You sound a bit too disappointed about that....”

“It's the boredom talking,” Rae sighed. “I wouldn't mind a bit of open-panel action myself....”

“You want to go get a room and let us handle this?” Anton chuckled. “If you feel like opening a few of your own panels for some....self-exploration.....”

“Spack off.....I just need to get a break from the boring stuff around here.” The chestnut-haired gynoid headed for a nearby table; “I'll check my contacts list,” she mused, retrieving her phone, “see if any of my exes in town need something to spice up their day....” Her lips parted in a sultry grin as she scrolled through the names stored in her phone's memory. “You might like some of my exes,” she added, glancing in Vicki's direction. “If you don't know them already, I mean.....”

Again, Vicki gave her a look. “Can we please stop talking about your love life for now?”

“And there's Selwyn,” Anton declared, just as Rae stuck her tongue at the brunette gynoid. “I'm hoping your efforts to glean some information from Bradford have been successful....”

“You'd be amazed at how much a man will reveal when a beautiful woman's in the room,” Selwyn replied; Miss Hynde, entering the room just after him, gave a shy grin and stared at the floor for a moment. “The only thing we weren't able to ascertain is what, exactly, Octavia looks like....” He allowed the sentence to trail off as Vicki hiked up her shirt, allowing her back panel to open. “Sometimes, the direct approach works best,” she stated, grabbing one end of a cable and shuddering only slightly as she plugged it into her own waiting port. “We've set up the firewalls to keep her from accessing my systems during the process...all we need now is to activate her and establish the connection.”

Selwyn strode over to the table where Brittney's unmoving form waited. “And you're positive she won't be able to tap into any secure systems?”

“Even if she does, she'll forget about it a minute after the connection is terminated.”

Something about the way Vicki uttered that sentence was slightly disturbing to Anton, but he ignored it. “I'm guessing you've filed the paperwork to authorize a memory wipe, then?”

“Can we not get hung up on the bloody paperwork, please?” Rae groaned. “I'm hoping we can get this done in half an hour or so...I've got places to be, things to do, that sort of thing....and here's the rest of the party,” she added, rolling her eyes. “Collin, William, Gal and....some blonde I've never seen before---are we on a hiring spree again?”

“Nice to see you're in a good mood,” Galatea replied, grinning in spite of Rae's sarcasm. “I'm guessing that whole cranial detachment thing hasn't left too many scars, then?”

“Oi, you ever get choked out by Epsilon, you'll....” Rae stopped talking just as Kirsten Sanderson entered the room. Gal was at the former sleeper's side in an instant; “You sure you want to be here for this?” she asked, ignoring Rae's sulking. “You might not like some of what Vicki may find out....”

Before Vicki could protest, Kirsten spoke up: “If she knows anything about the people who are after my dad, I want to know every last detail. Even if I hate what I hear.” She nodded at the brunette gynoid. “So...what happens now?”

“Now, I link up to her systems and start data-mining.” Vicki sat down in a chair next to the table where Brittney Delacroix lay, the seam between one hand and the end of the arm it was meant to be connected to beginning to show (whoever had reattached the thing had apparently done a rush job). “Hopefully, this ends with minimal damage---preferably with no damage at all,” she admitted. “Even if she tried to take down the Starlet Dolls, she's still in ALPA custody---and we shouldn't put her through the ringer just for that.”

William took his seat at a terminal on the other end of the room. “Ready when you are, Vicki...”

“I'll go find the zip ties,” Rae called out, “if you need to restrain her!” She grinned, ignoring the annoyed look Miss Hynde was giving her. “And Selwyn....if you want to put her voice box back in after this is done, I---”

Anton's upheld, open hand was a signal for Rae—-and anyone else talking—-to be silent.

“Commencing uplink.....failsafes holding. Preparing to connect.....” V.I.C.I's monotone left no doubt in anyone's minds that she'd long since stopped listening to the idle chit-chat around the room. “Please wait....”

Six seconds later, her eyes glowed blue---as did the just-opened eyes of Brittney Delacroix.

“Uplink established. Hello again, Brittney.”

“.....what did you do to me?” Even with her entire body frozen, Brittney's heavily-digitized voice still projected an air of fear. “I....can't move.....”

“You're in an ALPA repair bay, undergoing a direct uplink interrogation. Drake Bradford brought you here, and has effectively surrendered himself and you to our custody.” Even as she spoke, V.I.C.I's stare was fixed on the far wall. “We need you to tell us anything you can about Octavia---”

“You want her?!” The terror in those three words filled the air. “Why?!”

“We need to find her before she finds Epsilon. If she gets to him first, things will turn bad for everyone involved---”

Without warning, Brittney's body began to seize up. “Hold her down!” Anton ordered. “Someone---”

“I told you we'd need these,” Rae reminded him, securing the formerly paralysed gynoid to the railings of the table with zip ties. “I'll thank you for letting your proclivities dictate what's in your carry-all bag,” Anton replied, “once we've finished up here!” Without missing a beat, he pinned Brittney's arm against the rail as Rae tossed him a zip-tie. “How're you holding up, Vicki?”

“She's not fighting me,” the brunette gynoid replied, still staring at the far wall. “There's....someone else....”

Galatea's eyes went wide. “Vicki, kill the connection now.”

“I'm in control of it---”

“Except someone else is trying to horn in on it! Octavia may be trying to link up with her remotely....you need to cut the connection now, or---”

“Octavia won't get through. I won't let her.”

“It's not about letting her get to you,” Galatea insisted. “It's about---”

Brittney's face contorted as an ear-splitting, blood-chilling scream filled the air. “System resources are going into the red,” William called out. “Something's pushing everything in her to the limits—-she might go up in a matter of minutes, or seconds!”

“Then all of you need to get out of here,” V.I.C.I declared. “I don't want any of you getting hurt---”

A silver-skinned hand grasped her shoulder, prompting her to finally look away from the far wall.

“Vicki....” Galatea's eyes glowed a bright amethyst as she stared into V.I.C.I's own optical sensors. “You need to break the connection. Octavia is scything through Brittney's firewalls.....she'll get to you in seconds, if you don't cut this off now.”

Three seconds of silence passed before the brunette gynoid made up her mind.

“Control panel....disengage uplink. Terminate connection.”

A plink sound from the port in her back signalled the detachment of the plug, which Kirsten quickly grasped and threw to the floor. “Good call,” Galatea beamed. “And you might want to step back...” She guided V.I.C.I away from the table where the now-restrained Brittney was thrashing, screaming and generally losing control of her own body.

“How's she holding up?” Anton shouted.

“Give me a minute....you okay, Vicki?”

“.....I'm good. Just....a bit shaken up, to be honest.” The glow in Vicki's eyes was still present, but fading with each second. “I felt it,” she informed Galatea. “Octavia's breach of Brittney's systems....I could feel each thing getting redlined, but it was....indescribable. I knew it wasn't happening to me, but I could still feel it---” She flinched; Brittney was screaming again. “....anyway,” she continue, “I managed to get one recorded memory showing a clear image of Octavia's face---Brittney's systems were pretty much an open book.”

Gal frowned at the open-book reference. “You're saying her internal firewalls were just....down?”

“More like she didn't even have any. Or if she did, they were completely gone.”

“Which is impossible,” William called out from his seat at the terminal, “because the scans show they're still up right----wait, hang on a minute....oh, you're joking.....”

Selwyn and Anton joined William at the terminal---one mildly concerned, the other horrified. “This is all being done by remote access?” Selwyn queried, calling up a virtual PC-style app on his phone to get a better look at what William was seeing. “Most of these processes shouldn't even be active right now....let alone triggered via remote. I'd almost think Octavia installed something in Brittney, if Bradford hadn't mentioned that the whole thing was done without any physical contact between the two---”

Anton grabbed the phone out of his hand. “Octavia shut her down without touching her?!”

“Despite his....anxiety....Bradford's description of the event was very specific,” Selwyn replied. “And I'd like my phone back, thank you.”

“If we're all done being boffins for the time being,” Rae called out, “we're gonna need to shut her off in a matter of seconds---” Brittney's screaming cut her off for a second. “.....as I was saying, we're gonna need to shut her off soon, otherwise---SHUT UP, will you?!” She laid both arms across the shrieking gynoid's midsection, trying to hold her down on the table.

“Rae, the railing mount screws are giving out,” Galatea warned. “You might want to----”

A loud ping, followed by Brittney's left arm swinging out---its reach extended by the rail, still tightly secured via zip tie to her wrist---towards the chestnut-haired gynoid. Rae managed to dive out of the way in time to avoid getting hit, just as the railing smashed into a desktop tower PC on a nearby table.

“AS I WAS SAYING,” Rae shouted, “we need to turn her off before that happens again!”

“That won't be enough,” Anton muttered. “She's being attacked from the inside...and some of the viruses she's being hit with shouldn't even exist now!” He scrolled through the listing on his own phone's screen, shaking his head in disbelief. “Entity....Schazwort......Raprat?! Who the hell----how did someone find a sample of Raprat to infect her with---”

Galatea was at his side in an instant. “That one reads 'Aparat',” she corrected.

“That's even worse!” Anton groaned. “I wrote Aparat and Raprat when I was in the Great Dirty World Wide Web....and I deleted every single trace of the code for both of them at the request of the FBI! And before you ask about some random idiot finding a sample,” he added, “every anti-virus software since 1992 has three specific lines of code included for the SOLE PURPOSE of destroying both of those viruses.” He handed Galatea the phone. “The only way anyone could've had a copy of either of those viruses,” he intoned, “is if someone who handled GDW3's computers didn't wipe the drives when they were done running them through evidence processing---”

“SPECULATION LATER,” Rae shouted. “GYNOID RESTRAINT NOW!” Miss Hynde had pinned Brittney's left arm to the table; Kirsten, meanwhile, was standing by the right-hand rail on the table, ready to act if the need called for it. “Could we at least turn off her voice?!” she called out. “All that screaming is really annoying...”

Selwyn glanced at his phone, which was still showing off what was displayed on William's terminal. “Whatever Brittney is being attacked by, it's not exactly subtle---”

“WHO CARES ABOUT SUBTLETY?! JUST TURN HER OFF!”

Vicki ignored Rae's shouted order and moved to the terminal, cable in hand. “We can still get a glimpse of Octavia from the memory file I retrieved,” she reminded William. “If someone could hook me up---”

“Not a problem.” Selwyn took up one end of the cable, plugging it into the waiting terminal port.

“Thanks....now for my end.” With a quiet sigh, V.I.C.I hiked up her shirt again to reveal her still-opened panel, which accepted the other end of the cable without issues. “I'll upload the memory file to the ALPA servers, so you can focus on getting Brittney shut down before she damages herself or hurts anyone here.”

“A great plan....but I don't know if the 'keep her from damaging herself' part is going to hold.”

William's comment prompted V.I.C.I to glance at the table where Brittney was still writhing---and she instantly regretted it. The “gangsta” gynoid had dislocated one arm, and her left foot lay unmoving on the floor, with the leg it had been connected to now thrashing around at everything in range. Her other leg, still lashed to the table with a zip tie, showed signs of servo stress beneath the skin. “SOMEBODY TURN HER THE BLOODY HELL OFF,” Rae screamed, “OR I'LL RIP OUT HER BATTERIES WITH MY OWN HANDS IF I HAVE TO!”

“I'll shut her off in a minute....I need to finish the upload first----”

A gout of fire issued from Brittney's mouth, just as Kirsten chose to duck behind an overturned chair.

Anton looked close to tears as the cacaphony continued. “We need to shut her off now, Vicki! She's circling the drain!”

Rae's hands were scrambling for the switch on Brittney's neck. “ENOUGH OF THIS----”

Without warning, the room went dark....for two seconds.

Before William could vocalize the profanity he was about to yell, the monitor before him kicked on, its soft blue glow bathing him (and Selwyn) in a welcome light. “What.....what just happened?”

“I did.”

All eyes turned to V.I.C.I, standing near the table where the now-silent Brittney Delacroix lay. “I overloaded the power core inside Brittney,” she explained, “and effectively linked her to the generator...her core wasn't designed to handle that type of power, so the last bit of her CPU that wasn't under external control instigated a shutdown routine. Because her systems thought this room was linked up to her, everything here shut down as well....” She nodded as the lights began to turn back on. “....and that'll be the failsafes kicking on to make sure that nothing was lost during that brief blackout.”

“The memory file,” Anton cut in. “Did it upload?”

In response, V.I.C.I only nodded towards the monitor....where the image of a 20-something African-American female, with sea-green eyes, a chocolate brown blouse and black dress pants was fading into view.

“Octavia,” William murmured. “The Dragon....somehow, I expected----”

“The next words out of your mouth had better not be 'green and scaly',” Galatea began, only to hear someone nearby weeping profusely. She turned to glance at Kirsten---but the dirty-blonde gynoid was only mildly shaken up, waving off the offer to be helped up. “Other than the possibility of that noise being stuck in my head,” she admitted, “I'll be okay....”

She stopped. Noticed the chestnut-haired figure slumped in a seated position next to the table, her head buried in her hands. “....but I think she may need some help,” she quietly added.

“Rae....” V.I.C.I moved to kneel by her fellow Field Agent. “It's over. Brittney's been shut off---”

“I need to get out of here.” Without even looking at the brunette gynoid, Rae nearly tripped over herself as she stood up. “DAMN it.....” She careened off the side of a work table, tears still streaming down her face with every step on her way to the door; an utterance of “calling her from the damn car park” could faintly be heard as she passed by Miss Hynde.

Seconds later, the door slammed, leaving the room and its occupants in silence.

“Do...we need to go after her?” Kirsten quietly asked.

“Not yet. We know what Octavia looks like...now we need to find out where she is.” As she spoke, V.I.C.I circled around the table where Brittney Delacroix's terminally-damaged form lay.

“And what about her?” Kirsten nodded at Brittney. “Is she.....well....”

It was Anton who replied. “She can be repaired....but not by us. ReVerse will have to replace....I'd say about seventy-five percent of her internals. Maybe more, maybe less...”

“We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.” Vicki moved away from the table holding Brittney, shaking her head. “For now....we have a much bigger issue to deal with. The DVS knew---or at least had a very strong suspicion---that Drake would bring Brittney here, or try to find someone to hide him from them, and---” She paused, frowning slightly. “.....and speaking of Drake,” she added, “it looks like Brittney's screaming had an adverse effect on him. If the security camera footage is correct, he's already past the security fence....”

“He's a secondary concern,” Galatea stated. “I hate to admit it, but we kind of have to let him go, now.”

Part 19

“...and I assure you, she won't be a problem anymore.”

Octavia smiled as she reported the news of Brittney Delacroix's incapacitation; she had no reason not to smile, in all honesty. Two of the most annoying “assets” of the DVS had been dealt with---well, one had been dealt with, the other was still on the run, but not posing any imminent threat---and Epsilon would soon be defeated.

“What of the 'star Field Agent' in the employ of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency?”

“Lawson will pose no threat. The ALPA has no information on me other than rumours and hearsay, and anyone who does know anything will unknow it soon enough....” The new head of United Robotronics paused, frowning, as the door to the conference room opened; a self-propelling cart of some kind was wheeling in, bearing a human-sized capsule. “A....house-warming present, Baron?”

“Your own Kendall. Her memories were recovered from what was left of her predecessor.”

“Including the memory of her own destruction?”

“....consider it an extra form of motivation. An incentive to succeed where her...previous self failed.”

As the Baron spoke, Octavia circled the capsule, her chin cupped in one hand. “And this punishment won't lead her to....question your authority?” she inquired. “Or mine?”

“She will not question you unless your own decision-making is....less than satisfactory.”

“That won't be a problem, I can assure you.” Octavia glanced at her other hand, which absently brushed along the capsule's surface—-the thought of her own artificial nature, of the servomotor assemblies, wiring and other minute components hidden beneath the toffee-coloured skin provoking a surprising number of feelings within her processors. “You designed me to be your heir, after all,” she added---quietly, as if the remark was meant as much for herself as it was for the Baron. “You wouldn't leave your empire in the hands of a....flawed product, would you?”

A low, rumbling chuckle sounded from the speakers mounted all around the room.

Flawless, bleached amalgam teeth smiled from behind gel-filled lips---any other response from the gynoid would've meant her doom. Of course, she'd been created by the Baron to serve his interests...and if those meant her own destruction, then she would accept it. Besides, there were five more versions of her---currently nothing but empty shells---waiting to receive her full programming and personality suite if her current body were to suddenly cease functioning. That had been Brittney Delacroix's fatal flaw, in the end---she knew what she was, but at the same time, believed herself capable of fulfilling the Baron's will on her own. Octavia had done her predecessor a favour by ruining her via remote uplink, really.....

“Introspection can do great things, Octavia....but now is scarcely the time.”

“Of course. The thought merely occurred to me that the Lawson girl may pose more of a threat to the capture and destruction of Epsilon than anticipated....” It wasn't quite a lie---one of Octavia's background processes was, indeed, working on the problem of how to most efficiently eliminate Vicki Lawson. “And the Sanderson girl your agents failed to turn---”

“Fail?” a giggling, almost musical voice called out. “We didn't fail....”

“We planted a seed,” another voice called out, “that grew and grew....”

Octavia frowned. “You never said I'd be working with these two,” she called out, just as a pair of stunningly beautiful women---one redhead, one brunette---walked into the room. “I was expecting to be teamed up with the men under Bradford's employ, to be honest....”

The redhead put a hand to her bosom, feigning offence. “You don't want to work with us?”

“I don't think she recognizes our potential,” the brunette replied. “She doesn't know what we're capable of---”

“ENOUGH.” The single word, resounding through the room like a peal of thunder, cut off all further discussion of potential and other such topics. “Harmony, Melody,” the Baron's voice intoned, “consider this your redemption for your past mistakes with Greendale. Epsilon is your new target. Do not fail me again....unless you wish to discover, first hand, the fate that befell your 'sister'.....”

Harmony and Melody nodded, the smiles effectively vanishing from their faces. “We won't make the same mistakes that Cadence made,” Harmony solemnly replied.

“And we won't let Epsilon escape,” Melody added. “We'll destroy ourselves to stop him if we have to....” Her words prompted an alarmed glance from Harmony, but the Baron spoke up before the redhead (or Octavia, for that matter) could protest. “Then go, and ensure that Epsilon does not continue to elude us....and as for you, Octavia, see to it that all who stand between yourself and the retrieval of Epsilon are....punished.”

“It would be my pleasure, Baron.”

An almost inaudible hum signalled that the speakers had turned off. The Baron cared little for the formalities of greetings and farewells unless ceremony called for it---which, in this case, it didn't. Epsilon needed to be taken down, the Lawson girl needed to be removed from the picture, and the status quo needed to be restored to what the DVS wanted. Naturally, Octavia would distance herself from the group in public and act “of her own accord”, carrying out the Baron's will within United Robotronics and ensuring the DVS had a foothold in the international robotics market---and, possibly, grander stages---for years to come....

“....hmmm, hmm-hmmm-hmm, da, da da da da daaaaa....hmm, hmm-hmm-hmmmmm, hmmm, hmm-hmm hmmmm....” Harmony (or Melody---it was difficult to tell which, without looking) had decided to start humming the March of the Toreadors; under other circumstances, Octavia might have reprimanded the pair of them.

Then again, it was hard to deny that she did enjoy the thrill of playing such a dangerous game as this......


From her vantage point in the Baron's office, Celine heard the entire conversation with Octavia, concluding with the command that would, in all probability, be the first shot in this newest cold war: “...and as for you, Octavia, see to it that all who stand between yourself and the retrieval of Epsilon are....punished.”

“It would be my pleasure, Baron.”

The monitors clicked off, and the room was silent once more....at least, for a few seconds. “Celine....” The Baron's voice came in as clear as if he were actually in the room, instead of across the ocean---the speaker system he'd had installed in his own office was that good. “I understand that the two gynoids I requested you activate have not yet been---”

“There was a problem,” Celine stated, a bit too quickly for her own liking. “The facility is being monitored, after the incident at the old G-Block building.”

A few more seconds of silence....

“We need to find an alternative,” the gynoid continued. “Trying to actually destroy Epsilon, or even to capture it, will only bring more unwanted attention to us. The ALPA will be looking for all freelancers, like Hewlett and Packard....” The thought occurred to her that she was talking rather rapidly---too fast, in fact, to simply be offering sage advice. “And the Sanderson girl---we can have a retrieval team out for her in half an hour...” A strange, recurring sound, getting louder with each repetition, was cutting into her words; she ignored it, carrying on speaking. “Surveillance teams could probably be placed at each intersection of San Jose, possibly even at the University---”

“CELINE.”

Every sound in the room died. The lights, by contrast, seemed to brighten just enough to be irritating---not fully blinding, but not welcoming....and in that moment, Celine realized the recurring sound had been the Baron speaking, repeating her name to remind her that he was present...if not in the flesh, than at least through the monitoring system. Something wet streaked down her cheek....

“You are dismissed,” the Baron continued, “for the remainder of the week. Your pay check will not be altered in any way during this time....” A low, slow breath sounded. “....and the next time you attend work in the wake of some personal tragedy,” he added, “you would do well to visit the on-site therapist.” Without another word, the feed from the Baron's foreign office cut out.

Two seconds later, Celine sank to her knees and wept.

The call from the Patriarch had come in an hour earlier---fifteen House agents in Jakarta had been, in his own words, obliterated. Among the group were two gynoids Celine had considered her sisters---theirs was the closest to a genetic familial bond, and they had even filed for a shared housing application a month prior.

And now they're gone.

Celine knew that the Baron suspected her of being a double-agent. She also knew that he had a team on her trail a month ago---he'd readily admitted to it when she asked, on the grounds of “reinforcing his control” over all potential security issues. Three men she'd been on dates with in as many months had vanished---one was found, wandering the streets of Tucson at 2 in the morning, dance-walking and staring up at the night sky with a crazed smile. The other two were never heard from again. As for the team that had been trailing her, a missing persons report sitting on her desk was a stark reminder of what happened to those who failed to live up to the Baron's high standards.

Even the mundane details of her life had been altered in her employ to the Baron. She hadn't worn her hair in its “natural” color since being hired by United Robotronics (and subsequently being transferred to her current job as the Baron's secretary); it was nearly impossible for her to picture hersef with anything other than the flowing crimson locks she'd sported for well over two years now...not that it mattered, now. Any proof that she was anything less than a loyal secretary would be her doom.

Sooner or later, she would meet the same fate that her sisters had. It was only a matter of time.

Failing to make the call for the two Epsilon-hunting gynoids wouldn't be what killed her. She'd made similar mistakes before, and been reprimanded with varying degrees of severity. It was a scare tactic, and a not-so-subtle warning: the BIG mistake, whatever it would be and whenever it would happen, would be her last.

Composing herself, and dabbing at her eyes to dry the tears, Celine gathered her things and headed for the door, hoping that her car would be where she'd left it in the car park. A relocated vehicle might not mean anything, or it might mean that the last thing her ocular sensors would pick up after turning the ignition would be a spark, then a fireball....stop it. He told you to go see the therapist, not that you should get fitted for your funeral-wear..... She dismissed the thought. In the end, her own fate was irrelevant, for the time being. Keeping her cover intact (or not compromising it any further) was all that mattered. Thus, she'd have to toe the same line Octavia was expected to follow....no matter how far down the Baron's path it would lead.

On her way to the door, she checked her phone---another call from the Patriarch. In all probability, the fallout from the Jakarta mission was still ongoing; ther possibility that more agents of the House had died wasn't lost on the crimson-haired gynoid.

Without hesitation, Celine turned off her phone. The call could wait.

Keeping the DVS from getting to Epsilon was top priority.

Part 20

“And she can be repaired?”

Anton sighed. “Not by us, and not any time soon...but yes. I'd ask why you cared, but.....”

“I should ask why you don't care, Anton.”

“I never said I didn't,” the roboticist countered, glancing at a nearby security monitor. “Brittney Delacroix is a known enemy of the ALPA, and some people would probably pay me handsomely to let her fall apart...” He turned away. “Considering all that's been going on, I'm sorely tempted to---”

“Don't. Do not finish that sentence, Anton Malvineous. You're better than that.”

The rebuke prompted a chuckle. “My mother would probably applaud you for that,” he admitted. “In any case, I said I was tempted---I never said I'd actually let her succumb to her damage. Even if I wanted to, there are other technicians who'd put her back together and make sure she was up and running in days...” As he watched, the security camera feed to the room where Brittney was being held flickered for a moment, but resumed focus in a few seconds. “Clive has suspended several operations for the remainder of the month,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “We're not going to take this back up until the start of October.”

“That doesn't include my ops, I take it?”

“I didn't ask...but you're probably in the clear. I'm more worried about what might happen if the DVS tries to make their move in that time-frame....they're not playing by our rules.”

“Then maybe you shouldn't play by them either.”

Anton arched an eyebrow. “Which means....what, exactly?”

“Call in as many of your people as you can. Active, semi-retired....even fully retired, if need be. Get them on the field, and have them ready for anything the DVS will throw at them.”

“You say that like it's as easy as snapping my fingers,” Anton muttered. “It's not, I can assure you...”

“It shouldn't be easy. The moment you start thinking of it in terms of how 'easy' it is.....”

Even with the sentence trailing off, Anton nodded. “I'll never make that mistake again. Not after last time...not after......” The last word caught in his throat, and he choked back a sob for a few seconds. “It won't happen ever again,” he whispered. “I won't let it happen again.....”

“Anton.....”

“I'd be lying,” the roboticist stated, “if I tried to say I was 'okay' right now...” He brushed away the tears from his cheeks with the back of one hand. “I'm not. I still remember....the occasional nightmare, the odd flashback in the middle of filing a report....” He bowed his head, his hands clenching into shaking fists. “I still hear them sometimes,” he sobbed. “I still hear them screaming for me, begging me to help them.....”

He nearly fell against the wall, the tears now flowing freely. “....I still feel the flames at my back.....”

Hands gripped his shoulders. “You don't have to suffer through those memories alone anymore. I'm here for you, Anton...and I have a feeling that, if they were with us....they'd be proud of you.” Slowly, gently, those hands pulled the roboticist to a standing position....and into their owner's embrace. “They've broken one life too many, Anton. It's time you helped the ALPA rectify that....for all the ones they're hurting now, and everyone they've hurt before.

“I will,” Anton quietly replied. “I swear to you....I will.”


“Put it down, Rae! You don't have to do this!”

Every eye in the courtroom was locked onto the “cage” where the accused was shackled---more specifically, those eyes were on Rae Clarke. The letter opener in her hand may as well have been a dagger; at the angle she was holding it, it wouldn't take much to pierce Oberon's throat. “HE DID THIS TO US,” she screamed. “IT WAS ALL HIS FAULT!”

“This isn't what you want, Rae,” Oberon murmured. “This isn't you---”

“You don't know a damn thing about me,” the chestnut-haired gynoid snarled. “YOU DON'T KNOW ME AT ALL!”

“I know you're not going to kill me....because I'm not the true cause of all your pain....”

Vicki Lawson was five steps away from her fellow Field Agent. “Just put it down, Rae, and we can talk about this. You don't need to---”

“YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO DO OR NOT!”

Oberon gave her one last, pleading look. “Rae, please....this isn't the way it's meant to end.....”

Rae looked the former ALPA Chairman in the eye, staring at him in silence....

….and, as the assembled masses watched, horrified, she plunged the letter opener into Oberon's neck, a gout of red streaming from the wound....


…only to wake up seconds later in her flat, her fingers curled into a death-grip around her bedsheets.

There was no one else in the room with her, apart from her on-again/off-again flatmate, currently slumped in a recliner with a recharging cord sticking out of her navel. She hadn't heard a thing.

As she'd done for the past three nights, Rae sank back into the bed, sobbing quietly. “Not again.....the third sodding night......” Without another word, she threw the sheets off of herself, storming past her recharging flatmate to a nearby desk. Her fingers brushed over the keyboard of an iMac before closing around her phone; it took all her self-restraint to keep from jabbing through the phone's screen as she dialed the same number she'd called from the car park of ALPA HQ.

“Yeah.....it's me again. I....I had the dream.....yeah, that one. Third time. I....I think I need to stay at your place for tonight---she's plugged in, charging, I'll leave her a note. I....I need to get out of here...”

A quick glance back at the bed brought back a lightning-quick flash of her nightmare.

“.....that won't be a problem. Thanks, love......”

Part 21

Celine stared at the readouts on the monitors before her, shaking her head in disbelief. “I 'forget' to activate two Epsilon-hunters,” she muttered, “and they requisition three more.....” Her gaze travelled past the monitors, all the way to the far wall where three tubes---each holding a feminine figure in a state of shutdown---rested; it had been less than half an hour since the clearance codes for this particular area of the building had been sent to her phone, and she suspected the new head of United Robotronics would be arriving even sooner.

Except by that time, Celine herself would be dead.

It had been her final contingency plan---a last-ditch means of inflicting massive harm on the enemy and leaving nothing of herself behind. Celeste probably would've tried to talk her out of it, if she were still in charge...but the Patriarch knew the risks. He'd been the one to reactivate Celine's self-destruct mechanism, after all...

Take the lift up four floors, straight down the corridor, left at the first intersection, right at the next....the route to her target was already flashing through her memory as she keyed in the codes that would power on the three gynoids stored in the tubes. She didn't even know their names---the tubes had nothing but “A.G.”, “M.L.” and “J.W.” on them, initials that could've stood for anything. Strangely, they had no build numbers or other typical designations that marked them as gynoids---then again, human beings didn't tend to survive being delivered cross-country in airtight tubes with virtually no room to move.

Focus, dammit! Even as she finished typing in the activation codes, Celine mentally recited the route she'd need to use to reach her final destination. The last dispatch from the House had been quite explicit---her cover had been blown. Either the Baron had finally twigged, or his newest toy had cast aside all pretence and---

“So we finally meet.....Celine.”

The voice was calm, almost polite....but the crimson-haired gynoid knew that the countdown to her own demise had started. “Octavia, I presume?” She didn't dare turn around. Not yet....

“The one and only. The Baron's told me a lot about you....including a few suspicions he's had.”

It wasn't enough to get Celine to turn. “Innocent until proven guilty, Madame President.”

Octavia laughed---an almost soothing sound. “So you've heard about my position within the company...very good. Not that it'll do you any favors....” She sighed. “....after all, inter-agency espionage tends to be frowned upon these days.” Footsteps approached Celine; “Did the Baron know just how often you contacted your handlers at the House every month?” the other gynoid inquired. “How much information you passed to them?”

Now, Celine did turn around, finding herself face-to-face with a dark-skinned young woman whose sea-green eyes seemed to stare into and beyond her own. “He didn't know.”

“And now he will,” Octavia beamed. “The warrant for your.......your......your......your....”

She'd frozen in place---falling victim to the same optical data transfer problem that had plagued the gynoids of Venus Industries for years. It was nothing but a stop-gap, of course---she'd probably repair the damage in a matter of seconds and be after Celine with a vengeance.....

….except Celine was already charging past her to the waiting lift.

“Emergency override 3848-gamma!” The code sent the lift car shooting upwards without even waiting for the doors to close---had its crimson-haired occupant been human, the decision might very well have been a fatal mistake. As it stood, however, the move allowed her to reach the needed floor in record time. Her biggest issue was not tripping over her own feet as she escaped the lift, which continued accelerating, and would do so until it reached the apex of the shaft and smashed against the ceiling.

Just one more way to keep them off their game for a bit longer...

Her sprint through the corridors wasn't met with any confused glances or strange looks; all other employees of the building were either on their way home or in the process of finishing up work. Those still in their offices had no reason to even glance in Celine's direction as she ran.

A small box in her field of vision pinged; apparently, Octavia had already recovered.

Right....left.....straight until the four-way....left again....right.....directions flashed almost too quickly for the gynoid to process, guiding her ever closer to the one room of the building that she needed to be in. Brief, fleeting memories of days spent working for United Robotronics---or, specifically, for the Baron---passed through her processors, but she pushed them aside without even thinking. All that mattered was the objective.

From the readouts in her field of vision, Celine could see that Octavia had already taken to the stairs.

Celine closed the dialog box and halfway-threw herself into the last door separating her from her target.

Standing before her, in rows and columns that surrounded a 10-foot square in the centre of the room, were the numerous servers that had stored every bit of data pertinent to the search for Epsilon. Thanks to various leaks of information (many orchestrated by Celine herself), no backups of the servers' content had been made---a perfect reason for the crimson-haired gynoid to carry out this, her last act of defiance against the DVS, in that particular part of the building.

The few non-sentient androids and gynoids employed in the chamber were either recharging elsewhere or shut down for the night. Human employees weren't even allowed to clean the place, and only a few individuals---the Baron's secretary included---had the clearance to enter the room at all.

None of it mattered to Celine as she strode to the centre of the room.

House Agents employed in rival agencies were usually given reconnaissance assignments---the gathering of information, or spreading misinformation, as two of the more common examples. But in some rare instances, when an Agent of the House (especially an Eye of the Patriarch/Matriarch, as Celine was) had no chance of returning with their cover intact, their final option was one that ensured their secrets wouldn't be revealed to the enemies of the House: a self-destruct feature. No Agent was allowed to arm their own charge, and the option to self-destruct was only used as a last resort. In this particular case, the added benefits of crippling the DVS' hunt for Epsilon gave Celine all the more incentive to carry out the task appointed to her....

….even though it would mean her death.

“Destruction” was, strange as it might seem, too gentle a word for the occasion---it implied that she was merely a thing, an unfeeling walking computer. Scrapping was far more accurate, but with a slightly less-flattering implication---as if Celine had simply been “taken down” by the DVS, or accidentally damaged beyond repair. In her case, “death” was more poignant, and more relevant. No backups of her personality existed, her memories would be sent to a remote server maintained by a remote team of Agents, and her internal hard drives, ROM, RAM and other memory systems would delete all files within seconds....not that they could be recovered, of course, seeing as how her entire body would detonate with the force of a bundle of TNT, completely and totally obliterating her.

Just in case that explosive force wouldn't be enough to destroy the server room, she'd installed a Trojan horse a few months prior under the guise of a heat-management program meant to keep the servers from losing fan power and catching fire. Ironic, considering the program's true purpose was to cause a fire....or better yet, a massive, room-clearing blast that would destroy every single server unit in the room.

Tears streaked down Celine's face as she stood in the centre of the room---she'd expected this, almost knew it would happen eventually, but she'd expected at least one final goodbye....

No more tears, Celine. The show must go on.

With the chorus of her favourite Queen song blaring in her mind, the gynoid stood in the exact centre of the room as her internal WiFi began to trigger the Trojan horses in every server around her. She gestured to a server a few feet away, almost as if she was conducting a symphony; in response, the unit's cooling fan gave three or four sharp blasts of protest before dying, sending black electrical smoke wafting up to the ceiling.

Another gesture killed the fans of five more servers, one in particular gushing bluish-green coolant as its fan was effectively strangled by its own belt drive. Across the room, Octavia's face peered in through the locked door; “Celine,” she called out, “you don't have to do this. United Robotronics will be more than happy to wipe the slate clean, give you a fresh new start.....just open the door, and we can talk about this....” Even as she watched the servers belch smoke and fumes, Octavia remained calm---almost as if she expected to simply talk Celine down from her appointed task.

The only response she received was a hateful glare from the Eye of the Patriarch---and three fans elsewhere in the room spitting fire as their cooling systems died.

With each disabled cooling system, the servers around Celine began to overheat---further goaded on by a bit of WiFi-based coaxing that pushed their power modules beyond industry-regulated safe levels. As for Celine herself, her own battery was beginning to redline---just as she wanted. The over-taxed battery, combined with her internal self-destruct charge, would keep Octavia or any of the Baron's lackeys from data-mining her hard drives once the deed was done.

“Celine,” Octavia declared, “open the door now.” There was no calmness in Octavia's words now. “This little game of yours is over---we know who you work for, and we----” Her threat ended in a sudden gasp, thanks to a server close to the door literally blowing its top. Flames tore through the metal casing, rising lazily as the unit's internal components smouldered within.

With that as the signal, Celine closed her eyes. It's time.

The outer-most “ring” of servers began to detonate, almost in tune with the song still blaring in the gynoid's processors. Metal, plastic, silicon and glass were flung about the room, embedding in the walls and ceiling with zero regard for anything else in their path---including other servers.

A few bits of shrapnel hit Celine herself, but she ignored them.

The crescendo was still oncoming, and she couldn't let anything stop her from reaching it.

“CELINE! OPEN THE DOOR!” Octavia smacked the server room's door with the palm of her hand, either not knowing or just not caring that it was a security door---effectively a shutter with a window that slid into place as soon as Celine had entered the room. With the main door laying uselessly inside the room, the stainless steel door keeping the dark-skinned gynoid out wouldn't budge even if she turned her artificially enhanced strength against it. “OPEN THIS DOOR NOW!”

In reply, Celine glanced skyward---and the voice of Freddie Mercury, belting out “THE SHOW MUST GO ON!”, emanated from every speaker in the room just as another set of servers exploded.

By now, most of the room was on fire, Celine's arms and legs were shredded beyond repair by the shrapnel flung about with each server explosion, and her own systems were beginning to suffer....but she still had one last ace up her sleeve. Anyone else would've simply left after destroying the servers around the room, and had Celine been able to move from where she stood, she might've simply walked away...but from where she stood, that simply wasn't an option.

“OPEN THE DOOR!” Octavia's repeated shouts, coupled with shoulder-blocking the door in an attempt to break into the room, did little to stop the Eye of the Patriarch. “OPEN IT NOW, OR I'LL---”

Celine's eyes shot open, almost completely red and sparking with flecks of electricity from within.

Octavia's rage gave way to a sudden realization, and just as the security team she'd wirelessly summoned came trudging up the corridor, she frantically motioned for them to back away.

Inside the server room, Celine mouthed one final word: “Goodbye.....”

Seconds later, she was consumed from within by an explosion that obliterated her....and, more importantly, what was beneath her.

The ten-foot square in the centre of the room hadn't been a simple aesthetic choice; housed beneath the rest of the now-annihilated servers was one final, “secure” server meant to store all the data that would've normally been backed up on external drives far beyond the building. EMP-shielded, waterproof and able to resist the crushing force of a cruise ship falling on top of it, the only thing the server wasn't protected against just so happened to be fire.

In this case, fire from above---the kind Celine's self-detonation ignited---roasted the server in seconds.

Just as the smoke from Celine's immolation cleared, the security door hissed open to admit a furious Octavia and her security team into the room. Smouldering remnants of server cases surrounded the room, with a hole in the floor where the crimson-haired gynoid's destruction had burned through and toasted the final server.

“....call Harmony and Melody,” Octavia quietly ordered. “Tell them to---”

“Ah, ma'am,” an armor-clad guard nervously replied, “we have a bit of a problem with that. After you, ah, called us up here, the, eh....communications grid for the building sort of....failed....” Another guard was jabbing at the screen of his useless phone. “Building-wide lockdown,” he muttered. “No calls can come in, no calls can go out....and we can't even make calls INSIDE the damn building!”

Octavia stared, silently, at the square of floor where Celine had stood. Nothing remained of the traitor, other than the hole burned into the floor. A few fragments of what might've been her endo-frame lay atop the ruined server that had, until a few seconds ago, remained hidden...the thoughts of why nobody had thought to add fireproofing to the thing circulated through the gynoid's thoughts for a few seconds before she turned away and headed back to the exit. “Do we have any backups of any files stored on these servers?”

“Ma'am, we---”

“Do we have any backups?!” The thought of losing the DVS' copy of the List, delivered anonymously to them three days prior, galled Octavia deeply---she refused to be the one who had to report the incident to the Baron.

“......I'm sorry, ma'am, but nothing in here was backed up. Whatever was stored on these.....it's all gone---”

“No. We can get some of it back.....when was the last data transfer to the off-site backup server?”

“.......two weeks ago, ma'am.”

So the List was gone. The one thing that could've turned the tide in favour of the DVS, and it was simply erased by a traitor's stupid self-sacrifice.... “Find some way to tell the Baron about this,” Octavia ordered. “And get this mess cleaned up. It'll take us two weeks to restore everything.....even longer to get back on Epsilon's trail, all things considered.” Without another word---and in ignorance of the protesting guard---she turned on her heel and headed for the door.

Two weeks. Two entire weeks for Epsilon to get a head-start and disappear. The Baron would not be happy.

As she headed for her office, Octavia reflected on Celine's final word, and who it might've been directed at....

…and willing herself to ignore the possibility that it might have been meant for her.


“So she did it. She actually freaking did it.....”

Alicia LeHane shook her head. “I never thought she'd go out that way,” she murmured, shaking her head and smiling. “She actually went and did that, for her final act....”

“That 'final act' has done us all a massive favour,” Richard Patrick Baker replied. “We now have two weeks to make sure that the gap between the DVS and Epsilon shrinks considerably. It might not sound like much right now, but believe me—-for Epsilon, two weeks could be the difference between life and death.” He bowed his head. “Celine's sacrifice will be remembered by future generations---”

“Remembered for blowing herself up?” Yuriko muttered. “Great legacy to leave behind....”

Kimiko planted both hands on her fellow House sister's shoulders. “She knew the risks when she signed up for the job,” she quietly reminded Yuriko. “And more importantly....she did us a favour---”

“How?! How could destroying herself---”

A slender, pale finger brushed against Yuriko's lips.

“For starters,” Alicia stated (ignoring the tender gesture from Kimiko), “they won't be looking for Rae Clarke anymore. All their data on her is gone---she's a non-issue for them now.”

Baker nodded. “Which gives us the advantage of being able to focus all of our resources on keeping Epsilon out of the DVS' hands.....” He paused for a moment, allowing Alicia to pick up where he left off. “They won't be looking for any other House agents,” she stated, “seeing as how they weren't able to get Celine to implicate us for the sabotage....”

Yuriko nodded. “So what now?”

“Now, we conveniently forget to let the DVS know that Celine also sent us the copy of the List some idiot sent them.” Alicia held up a flash drive; “Her last gift,” she added, “before.....well, before she went up.”

The sound of crystal on crystal cut her off---Baker was pouring out measures of cognac from a decanter. “I figured we'd do well to raise a toast to the memory of a fallen friend.....if you don't mind joining me.” He passed shot glasses to Kimiko, Yuriko and Alicia. “She never did get an official last name,” he stated, sighing. “She never thought she'd need one....”

“Doesn't matter.” Alicia raised her glass. “To Celine---a shining light in a time of darkness!”

Kimiko and Yuriko raised their own shot glasses. “To Celine!”

“To Celine.” The Patriarch nodded his agreement; in seconds, he and the three gynoids had downed their shots. “Well......which one of you wants to tell the ALPA that we have a copy of the list?”


The 3-part Epsilon saga comes to its chilling conclusion in “Broken”, coming to the new and improved Fembot Central this September (or earlier ;) ). Will the DVS manage to “remove” Epsilon from the equation, even after losing all data on him thanks to Celine's sacrifice? Will Vicki be able to help Kirsten save her father from a horrible death? And who's the mysterious visitor to the ALPA HQ seen consulting Anton and Ted?

And will Rae Clarke's horrifying nightmare of murdering Oberon come to pass?!

All of these questions---and some that nobody's thought to ask yet---will be answered in The V.I.C.I Diaries: “Broken”, coming to the new and improved Fembot Central this Fall!


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