King Nothing

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King Nothing

Part 1

“So....where do we start?”

On any other day, in any other set of circumstances, Rae Clarke's question would've earned her at least a few looks of annoyance from those gathered around the stainless steel repair lab table with her. But out of every person there---Professor Anton Malvineous, ALPA Field Agent Kylie Lyndon, Ted Lawson and at least three fully scrubbed-up technicians and/or mechanics who Rae didn't recognize---nobody even glanced in her direction.

Looking at what was left of Kristen Charlotte Casey, it was easy to see that the question had merit, after all.

Her cranial module had been burned down to the “scalp”, with none of her synthetic hair left. Her face, rather surprisingly, was still intact---considering how most of the rest of her artificial flesh hung from her limbs like so much melted rubber and latex, the fact that her face was still holding up was all the more fascinating. Below the neck, things were less impressive; her chest still maintained a distinctly feminine profile despite the gel packs that gave her breasts their form and shape having melted. Below the waist, on the other hand....

...well, there's a thin line between technical and tasteless when it comes to describing the damage to Casey's more...intimate areas, and crossing it wouldn't do anyone any favors.

“We're lucky,” Anton muttered. “She had a daily backup at her flat---personality, memories, all of the important stuff. And she's off the shelf, as well....” He paused, noticing Rae's scowl. “....that is, she...ah....” Anton let a nervous breath pass his lips. “It'll be easier to find a compatible body, is what I'm saying. I probably have the makers on speed-dial---”

He flinched; Rae had nearly knocked over her chair as she stood up. “Can you just stop, for one second?”

“Rae,” Kylie began, “he's not---” The caramel-skinned gynoid brushed past her. “Casey isn't just 'off-the-shelf' hardware and software,” she hissed, jabbing a finger at the inert figure on the table. “She's a colleague---”

“We know,” Ted assured her. “That's why we're here---”

“She was in pain! Whatever did this to her....it blinded her....burned her from the inside....” Slender fingers grabbed the table, and the three technicians backed off; Rae's head was bowed, her vise-like grip leaving a set of dents in the repair table's surface. “.....you couldn't possibly understand what she felt,” she whispered, “but I did....I felt her pain.....”

Anton nearly said something, but one of the technicians spoke up. “We ran a full systems check, sir. Agent Carly Rae---” The sentence, delivered in an almost inhuman drone through the filtered mask the tech wore, cut off in a gasp. One of Rae's arms had jerked backwards, finding and grabbing the tech's collar without her even looking at the poor soul.

“Don't,” she hissed, turning to glare at her target as she pulled the tech in closer, “say that again.”

Kylie was at her side in an instant, prying her fingers off of the tech's coveralls and gently guiding him away from the infuriated gynoid. “He didn't know,” she murmured, her hands finding Rae's shoulders. “He didn't....”

Rae allowed herself to be guided to a chair, letting go of the table after another assurance from Kylie that the tech hadn't meant any offense by his off-handed remark. Shuddering breaths wracked her lithe figure, even as her human colleague massaged her shoulders and tried to calm her down. Once in a while, the faintest hint of a sob could be heard amidst her simulated breathing.

After a minute or two of waiting out Rae's not-quite-outburst, Anton nodded. “...as I was saying.....”

“Casey has an easily-available backup chassis and all the other necessities,” Ted finished, “and getting a new version of her face shouldn't be too difficult, either. I assume you were going to say that the physical repairs will be the easy part.”

“I was.”

“So what's the hard part going to be?” Kylie asked, not looking up as her hands kneaded the artificial flesh of Rae's shoulders. “Finding out what happened to her?”

“That part's easy, too,” Anton admitted. “The program that....” He cleared his throat, glancing at Kylie---and, by extension, at Rae. “....the program responsible for Agent Casey's current state is an unknown build of a former United Robotronics security project known as Helios. I say 'former United Robotronics project' because its effects were far closer to a virus than any kind of security measure or even countermeasure available.” He nodded to one of the technicians, who crossed the room at a brisk stride to turn on a large, flatscreen monior built into a wall alcove. “Helios triggers a number of...heat-related malfunctions within a target,” he explained, as a laundry list of horrific infection symptoms appeared on the monitor. “It begins by redlining the power cell or battery of an affected android or gynoid....”

He turned away. “....and, honestly, things just go downhill from there.”

“We noticed.” Rae's voice came as a harsh croak. “Not exactly hard to miss....she was glowing, Anton. I'm just amazed Teddy Boy didn't see it....”

Kylie nearly apologized on Rae's behalf, but Ted didn't shy away from the remark. “Working through the night on thirty minutes of sleep tends to make you want to conk out at the worst possible moments,” he admitted, “and I couldn't have picked a worse one if I tried. Someone told me that Harris tried to shut Casey off while I was....ah, 'out'....”

“Burned himself,” Rae muttered. “He did turn her off, though,” Kylie quickly added.

Ted nodded. “Did she have any contacts who knew what she was? Anyone we could call....”

“The front office is looking into it. As for right now....” Anton sighed. “We're going to need a day or two, at the very least, to sort through....well, Casey.....” He nodded at the table. “....figure out what we can salvage, and all. It's the least we can do for her---”

“The least we can do for her,” Rae spat, “is make sure that the program that bricked her is wiped out.”

Anton frowned. “It's not that easy---”

“We know what program it was, don't we? All we need to do---”

“We know what program it was, yes,” Anton acquiesced. “But there's the small problem of that program being the property of companies associated with the DVS. Dealing with them, right now, is a very, very bad idea.”

“So we just sit here and let them keep the program?” Rae snapped. “We just stand back and do nothing?!”

“We're going to get Casey into a new body,” Ted calmly replied, “and then we're going to work on making a few countermeasures to the program that destroyed her first body. We're not going to just leave her like this.” He glanced at the other two technicians (the one who'd uttered the name “Carly Rae” had left the room); “How soon can we get her manufacturer on the line?” he inquired.

“Now, actually.”

“Do it.”

Even as Ted was taking charge of the situation, Rae was staring at the floor again, almost unaware of Kylie's hands kneading the synthetic flesh of her shoulders---at least, until they moved down to the gynoid's sides. A sudden, gasping sigh escaped Rae's lips.

“Sorry,” Kylie apologized. “I didn't---”

“Don't stop,” Rae breathed. “.....I....I need this....”

Kylie hesitated, noticing Anton glancing in her direction. “....you think we should, ah, find a room to---”

Rae lifted one of Kylie's hands in her own and gently kissed it. “I was waiting for you to ask....”

Anton watched the pair leave, his expression neutral. “She needed a release,” he mused, just as Ted walked into earshot. “All of this aggression, this fear she's feeling over what happened to Casey....given her history, she needed to get it out of her system.”

“I keep forgetting just how intricate she is,” Ted agreed. “As a machine and a person.”

“You'd do well to remember, then,” one of the technicians replied, removing their protective headgear to reveal the stunning face of Alicia DeHane. “When it comes to mixing sensuality with the more technical aspects of being a gynoid, Rae could write a freaking book on how self-exploration can go beyond lighting a few candles and throwing on some mood music. Ever see her during a repair session?”

Ted and Anton both muttered under their breaths---they had, in fact, been present for many of Rae's repairs.

Alicia rolled her eyes. “Rae needed, and found, ways to enjoy every aspect of being what she is....and what happened to Casey showed her just how far down the opposite end of the spectrum that can go---”

“She said she felt Casey's pain, though,” Anton cut in. “Almost as if she'd...connected to her....”

“Ad-hoc WiFi. Get a bunch of gynoids in the room, they can text each other without a phone.” Alicia wasn't smiling. “Except this time, the 'text' was basically Rae feeling what Casey felt as she died. Hell, even I could feel some of it....” She hugged herself, the briefest flash of herself (more accurately, one of her previous bodies) bursting into flames in a Singapore high-rise surged to the forefront of her memories. “...I don't think I have to explain why that sort of thing would be a little...uncomfortable,” she murmured.

Anton nodded. “Think she'll be okay?”

“She's got Kylie. The two of them will work something out.” Alicia's lips formed a smirk. “In their own way.”

“As long as they don't knock anything over,” Anton replied, already turning his attention back to the ruined form of Casey on the table. “Also, Ted, you may want to check the sound dampeners in each room---”

“They work,” Alicia cut in. “Believe me, they work.”

It was Anton's turn to smirk. “Tell me they're not showing up on one of the security cameras---”

“Rae knocked it off the mounting bracket right after she kicked open the door,” Alicia informed him, her tone suggesting she found the whole thing both hilarious and slightly voyeuristic. “Probably hit the camera with the door....anyway, it's audio-only in there....yeah, the sound dampeners work.” She scratched one of her earlobes with her right pinky; almost instantly, her posture relaxed. “....I think they should get their privacy for this one.”

“Ah,” Ted interjected, “when's the last time any of us called ahead to check up on Vicki?”

Alicia and Anton exchanged knowing glances. “I'll call,” the blonde gynoid replied. “Hopefully, she's awake...”

Part 2

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Internal Diary Wednesday, October 05, 2011

We're here.

I've been on the road for the past few days, helping Agent Harris take care of various ALPA business before the main reason for our trip....and now, we're here.

And I have no idea where “here” is.

It's in the United Kingdom---Great Britain, specifically---but other than that, I have no idea. The past eight hours have been a scrambled mess, in terms of trying to use GPS to figure out just where in the world I am at the moment. The building itself is.....big. Really big.

Having said that, not knowing where the hell I am is a little bit scarier.

It's an ALPA facility, so I don't need to worry about anyone putting an SCEMP round in my skull or anything like that. Of course, considering why Harris and I came here to begin with, that's not even the biggest thing I need to focus on at the moment.

He's here. Somewhere in this building, he's here.

And I'm here to see him.

For the first time since I killed Epsilon, I'm going to meet with Oberon. Face to face.

And I'm absolutely terrified.

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


Vicki blinked away the text display from her internal diary, just in time to notice Agent Harris glancing at her with an arched eyebrow. “What?”

“.....you zoned out for a minute. Just wanted to make sure you were okay---”

“I was writing,” Vicki replied. “In my diary....my, ah, internal diary.....I mean---”

Harris grinned. “You don't need to explain it to me. Your laptop's still in the hotel room, you wanted to record what you were thinking....I didn't think you had a diary in there----”

“'In there'?” the brunette gynoid echoed, gesturing at her own head. “I....”

She stopped, remembering where, exactly, she was....and what she was there to do.

The hall around them was made of what appeared to be a smooth, black rock---not quite marble, but with a mirrored finish to rival it. The floor was some kind of low-pile carpet; the ceiling was black tile, and all visible fixtures were either black or obscenely-dark grey. “.....I feel like I'm wearing the wrong color in here,” Vicki muttered, glancing down at her usual red-and-white ensemble.

“You're not,” Harris assured her. “It's about aesthetics and intimidation. Every part of this building serves a specific purpose, and every element of its design was picked to reflect that.....even the location was picked to make sure this place wasn't overrun by anyone looking for a quick scoop.”

Whatever Vicki intended to say next was cut off by the low rumbling of a door---

---except no door she'd ever seen in her life looked like a massive slab of polished black stone, sliding forward as if pushed open by sheer force of will.

Five figures stood in the doorway---four of them were armored head-to-toe, in full riot gear with face-concealing helmets and flowing coats that matched the off-grey of their armor. All four wore sheathed swords on their belts, and two of them had holsters barely visible beneath their jackets---though Vicki couldn't see (and chose not to scan for) any firearms held within.

The fifth figure, approaching Vicki and Agent Harris, was a stark contrast to the four still standing in the door; he wore a tailored black suit over a grey dress shirt and patterned tie, his age (apparent from his hair, already turning a silvery-white, and the wrinkles that had just begun to crease his face) not slowing his step at all. A senior representative, more than likely, the brunette gynoid realized. This whole thing feels like something out of the Twilight Zone, for some reason.....I expected secrecy, and maybe a bit of the old cloak and dagger routine, but this?!

“Agent Harris. Miss Lawson.” The man in the tailored suit shook hands with Harris, and a polite bow to Vicki, who returned it with one of her own. “I see you've both been informed of Oberon's....summons.”

“How is he?” Vicki asked---too quickly even for her own liking. “....I mean.....ah....”

“Three meals a day, supervised access to the bathing facilities between the hours of 6 PM and 10:30 PM, and at least three hours to himself. Those detained here aren't your garden-variety criminal, Miss Lawson.”

“I figured that.....” Those three words, along with anything else she could think to say, sounded far too small and insignificant for Vicki's liking. “....I've, ah, never really heard of this place, before now,” she continued. “I didn't even know it existed---”

“Because you had no need to know of its existence before now, Miss Lawson.” The man in the tailored suit turned his head a fraction of an inch, nodding to one of the men in grey (I wonder if Publius used to be one of them? Vicki pondered), who moved swiftly and silently into the hallway that, until that point, Vicki hadn't even noticed. Whereas the chamber she currently stood in was polished black, the hallway beyond was its exact opposite---the walls, ceiling and floors were polished white tile. A pithy comment about “must be hell to keep all that clean” formed and died on the brunette gynoid's lips in the span of a microsecond.

“You'll need to sign the appropriate paperwork, before we can move on....”

The mention of paperwork snapped Vicki out of her somewhat dazed state; just staring into the room with the white tiles made her feel....weird. If she'd been human, the closest approximation would've been a mild, yet palpable sensation of nausea.

“I forgot to mention,” Harris quietly remarked, keeping pace with the gynoid as he spoke. “Some of the rooms in this place are wired with countermeasures–some a bit more subtle than others. Some affect humans, others affect androids and gynoids....” His posture, even as he walked, made it clear that if Vicki were to find herself overwhelmed by the countermeasures, he'd be at her side in an instant. “Not even Dragontown has some of the things they use here.”

A vague memory of Matthew Emmerich Hannsen–also known and hated as the Maestro–having been locked up in Dragontown made its way to the forefront of Vicki's thought processes, and was just as quickly pushed aside. “So nobody's ever escaped from here?”

Harris smirked. “Put it this way: the last time anyone tried, they had to hire people to break in to get them out.”

“I'm guessing it didn't end well for them,” Vicki quietly replied. “How prepared were the ones who broke in---”

A click at the far end of the hall, sounding far too similar to a gun cocking, cut her off.

“Poorly,” the man in the tailored suit informed her; a few steps behind him, two of the men in grey had turned a set of keys (the source of the click Vicki had heard) to open yet another door. “Allow me to apologize, by the way, for the intensity of the electronic countermeasures put in place in this particular room...after the incident at ALPA headquarters, it was decided our own security needed a marginal upgrade....”

Every word after “poorly” sounded like it was coming from above water---and Vicki felt like she was already six feet under water, and being dragged further down with every passing second. She took a step, then managed one more before her legs decided to just take a break and stop carrying her forward; her arms felt heavier than she remembered, and even the act of turning her head to look behind her had become a Herculean effort all on its own. “I....I can handle.....” Her own voice sounded far away, and the room was starting to spin....the sounds of several sets of footsteps rushing towards her seemed almost nonexistant---

---but the ding that sounded in her ears a split-second later was anything but.

Even as the world around her returned to a sense of nominal, managable clarity, Vicki realized she wasn't standing in the white room anymore---and that she wasn't even standing up at all. Two of the men in grey were on either side of her---not reaching for their weapons, but positioned to hoist her up by the arms if need be. Harris had already grabbed her left hand, and the man in the tailored suit was actually looking at her now, somewhat concerned.

“.....anyone want to tell me what just happened?” she asked. “One minute, I was fine, and the next...”

“Like I said,” Harris replied, helping her to her feet, “the countermeasures in this place can really do a number on you if you're not ready. Preston should've been a bit more specific...”

The question of who Harris was talking about remained unspoken---the man in the tailored suit nodded in Vicki's direction. “Director Gareth Preston, at your service, Miss Lawson. And I apologize, again, for the lack of disclosure regarding our countermeasures and security....it's my understanding that your own...connective sense, so to speak, with the world around you has expanded greatly over the past few months.”

I was wondering when that would come back to bite me.... “It has. I just....I never thought it would be a liability or anything....at least, not like this.”

“If you need to adjust your settings, Miss Lawson, this room is shielded....you can use this time for a bit of fine tuning while Agent Harris fills out his set of paperwork.” Even as Director Preston spoke, Harris had already been approached by a lithe, pale blonde in a slate-grey pencil skirt and white dress shirt who handed over both a clipboard and a tablet computer of an unknown make and model. “Policy dictates that all hardware used in the building be manufactured in-house, to prevent potential compromise,” Preston explained.

“Fair enough,” Vicki mused. “Does that policy extend to certain staff members, as well?” She glanced at the blonde, who'd already turned on her heel and walked away; it was hard to tell if her exquisite calves and thighs, so expertly emphasized by her skirt, were the product of healthy living and a daily exercise regime, or had been tooled and sculpted to fit over a lightweight framework housing a complex servo assembly.

“I'm afraid I can't disclose all the secrets of this facility, Miss Lawson,” Preston admitted, just as Harris finished with the clipboard and tablet PC. “Your turn,” he informed Vicki, handing over both items. “You need to check your software or anything before we go on?”

“Give me a sec....” The brunette gynoid closed her eyes....opening them five seconds later. “Done.”

“Did you actually do anything?” Harris inquired, frowning. “That was....fast, even for you.”

“What can I say, nobody knows me better than...well, me...” Vicki rolled her eyes. “Where do I sign?”

Harris glanced over his shoulder at Director Preston. “Just give her a minute....”

Part 3

“Okay, so here's where we're at so far. We're looking at about....30% salvagable parts, at best. Power cells are completely shot, so all we can do is get them out of her. Exoderm layer....pretty much the same thing. I'm still amazed that her face didn't get completely---”

A loud cough cut off Ted's run-through of Casey's condition; Kylie was staring at him from her spot on the sofa.

“To make a long story short,” Anton finished, “and probably reiterate what we've already gone through, Casey's rebuild is going to take a while. HQ has a team working on the spectrum analysis of the Helios strain that did this to her, but....” He paused, wringing his hands as he considered whether or not to continue.

“You can give us the uncensored version, Professor,” Rae sighed---looking a fair deal calmer than she'd been during the initial report. The fact that she was stretched out on the sofa, with her head resting in Kylie's lap, more than likely had something to do with it. “We can handle it....isn't that right?” She cast a lazy glance up at Kylie, grinning.

Ted coughed and turned away slightly. “....as I was saying,” Anton continued, “the spectrum analysis on the Helios strain hasn't been going all that well, and it won't even get us to the root of the problem. We know for a fact that it was the Helios virus that did this---which means that, whatever our next move is, we'll be in direct conflict with the ones who own it. United Robotronics still owns all the rights and patents for Helios, and seeing as how they just had a 'corporate restructuring', going after them will put us in direct conflict with their new CEO....” He let the remark trail off, waiting for someone to state the obvious.

Predictably, nobody spoke up.

“.....we can't prove they had anything to do with it,” he finished. “If they didn't, we'll face litigation. Even if they did, they'll hire the best attorneys in the Valley to make the charges go away---”

“We can't even get them charged,” Ted cut in. “We don't know where–-”

A light cough from the other side of the room interrupted him. “As much as I hate the cliché,” Alicia admitted, “we do have a third option. Casey was just finishing up with a field op before the meeting, right?”

“.....I believe she drove straight here from the field op,” Anton began, “but why---”

“I didn't let her run a self-diagnostic.” Kylie held a hand to her mouth in silent shock. “On the ride back, she had a twinge....I told her the car was shielded....she would've....” Tears welled up in her eyes. “....I told her to wait until we got here.....”

“A self-diagnostic wouldn't have done anything to save her,” Alicia quietly informed her. “At best, she would've known she was infected and told you to drive her to the middle of an empty parking lot so she wouldn't risk hurting anyone else when she....well, went up like she did---and at worst, the scan wouldn't have found any traces of the Helios code, so it wouldn't have made a difference....”

Rae sat up, putting an arm around Kylie's shoulder. “I think what she's trying to say,” she murmured, “is that you don't need to blame yourself for this. It wasn't your fault.”

“Then why does it feel like it is?!”

“We can discuss that later,” Anton informed her. “Right now, we need to focus on rebuilding Casey, and once that's done, we can get back to the matter of dealing with whoever or whatever got her infected with Helios to begin with.” He sighed. “I know this is....difficult,” he quietly added, “but you telling Casey not to run a self-diagnostic in the car didn't change anything The clock started ticking as soon as she got infected....I hate to put it in such a blunt term---”

“Then don't,” Kylie spat. “You're just sitting there, acting like.....”

Rae's hands gently took hold of Kylie's shoulders, returning the favor of the earlier massage by kneading the flesh and muscles. “Just relax, babe,” the chestnut-haired gynoid whispered. “Cool down and relax....”

Even as tears streamed down her face, Kylie nodded silently.

“.....right.” Anton decided to let the topic of Casey's imminent demise drop; “Her new chassis is being delivered as we speak,” he stated, “and we've already got a, ah, 'backup' of her face on hand---”

“If you're going to say that the rebuild won't take long,” Alicia cut in, “then allow me to remind you that you said it would take a while earlier today–-probably earlier this hour.” There was no anger in her voice–-on the contrary, she sounded almost bored. “We get it. Though I'd love to know where your people are able to get a replacement face for her at such short notice....”

Anton frowned. “We have her specs on file. Her...situation...required that we keep---”

“Her 'situation'?” Alicia echoed, chuckling humorlessly. “So her finding out she was all wires, tubes and metal on the inside, running away from boarding school and being effectively disowned by her 'family'---who, by the way, just bought another model to replace her–-is a 'situation'?”

“Alicia, please---”

“Don't 'please' me, Anton.” No trace of the blonde gynoid's earlier smile remained. “Casey was never meant for a combat role in field ops....she just so happened to have a knack for hitting whatever she aimed at–-pretty easy, when she saw the faces of the ones who ditched her on every target. So before you get on your high horse...” She crossed the room, advancing towards the roboticist. “...and tell us all anything more about her 'situation'....”

A mere two feet away from Anton, Alicia extended a finger and poked him right in the sternum.

“....try to remember that she was somebody's daughter, once,” she finished. “Not just your next repair job---”

Anton's hand closed around her wrist. “I know.”

“Ah, can we maybe, ah, not turn this into a confrontation right now?” Ted interjected. “We all know Casey had a rough time before the ALPA---”

“Tell her.” Anton's voice was a harsh croak, almost a sob. “Tell her, Ted.”

“About Casey's family, or---”

“About mine.”

Ted's eyes widened. “....you...Anton, we made a promise---”

“A promise to a man currently in the custody of the High Council, overseas, who has no authority to enforce the terms of that promise.” Anton's voice was shaking, as was the hand that gripped Alicia's wrist. “Either you tell her or---”

A trilling series of notes from Ted's right hip pocket cut him off. “....I, ah, have to take this....”

Before anyone could say anything else, Anton let go of Alicia's wrist, shoving her arm away and turning on his heel towards the kitchen. Rae, still massaging Kylie's shoulders, watched him leave without a word; Alicia just stood there, dumbstruck.

“....I'll just, ah, take this upstairs,” Ted muttered, heading for the stairwell. “Won't be but a minute...”

Once he was out of earshot of Kylie, Rae and Alicia (and, of course, Anton), Ted retrieved his phone. “Who's calling me at a time like this,” he groaned, swiping his finger to take the call. “Ted Lawson speaking---”

“I thought we dispensed with the formal greetings over the phone during my first semester at SJSU, Dad.”

“Vicki?! I'm...I thought you...Harris told me they wouldn't allow phone calls---”

“Seeing as how my security clearance checks out, they didn't have a problem with me making a long-distance call---and they do allow phone calls for anyone with proper clearance, Dad. I'm not an inmate here.” There was a hint of a smirk in the brunette gynoid's voice. “....anyway, I'm calling because you apparently wanted Harris to tell me to call as soon as I got settled in, so....”

A few seconds of brain-wracking allowed Ted to remember that he had, in fact, passed a note to Harris the day before Vicki's departure. “Sweety, I'm so sorry, I nearly forgot! We've been working on rebuilding Casey, and there were a few, ah, outbursts from both Kylie and Rae.....”

“You don't have to give me the full story. And you were running on almost no sleep when Casey...well...”

“Exactly. I am, after all, only human....you can forgive me for a few small missteps and missed memories.”

A giggle sounded from the other end of the line. “Seeing as how I'm the one who nearly forgot to call you, I'll accept that as our shared apology....anyway, how's everything else holding up?”

“Well, other than the aforementioned outbursts---”

A shout from the kitchen, followed by something shattering against a wall, cut him off.

“Another outburst?” Vicki's question held equal measures of sarcasm and concern.

“....Anton's in a bit of a mood,” Ted quietly admitted. “He had a stare down with Alicia, some harsh words were exchanged...it's best if I don't go into the details on an open line---”

“I'm calling from my line, Dad. It's as far from 'open' as you can get.”

“....I just don't want Anton to get angry...at me, or at anyone here.”

“Pretty sure that throwing a plate across the room doesn't qualify as 'zen-like calm'....”

“How'd you---”

“The 13-inch serving plate we used that one Thanksgiving, until Joan got a closer look at the floral pattern on it and said it looked---and I quote---unbelievably tacky. Last I saw of it, we were trying to sell it before our trip to Oregon....and if you're curious, the diameter and thickness of the plate would account for the somewhat heavy crashing sound it made when it hit the wall.”

Ted couldn't help but chuckle. “....every time I forget what you can do, you remind me in the craziest ways.”

“I'll take that as a compliment. Anyway, I have to go---Director Preston said the first meeting with, well, him is in a few minutes....you want me to call you again after it's over?”

“If they don't have a problem with it.”

“They won't. Stay safe, Dad....love you!”

“Love you too, Vicki.” With a sigh, Ted ended the call. “Better go check on Anton..”

Part 4

“They won't. Stay safe, Dad...love you!”

“Love you too, Vicki.”

The brunette gynoid swiped the screen on her phone, chuckling slightly; despite the apparent severity of what she'd heard from the kitchen (I need to ask Dad just how I could hear something like that so clearly through a tiny little smartphone speaker, she mused), things back home were a lot less....ominous, than she'd expected.

“Well, that's my call done,” she declared, falling back on her appointed bed with a sigh. The room she'd been assigned (and was sharing with Agent Harris) was by no means a prison cell---it looked more like something out of a reasonably priced hotel, complete with two beds, a bathroom and a minifridge. “I'm guessing you're done with yours?”

“I didn't make mine,” Harris replied, frowning. “I've spent the last ten minutes going through my e-mail...”

“Spam avalanche?” Vicki teased. “Or something else?”

“Something else.” Harris wasn't smiling. “I keep telling them not to send anything family-related over this line, but every other day....” He shook his head. “They want me to help plan a birthday party...what would be a good place for them to have lunch, where could they go to have about two hours of fun, which entertainment rental service has the least people with a criminal record.....all that stuff. Last birthday party I planned for anyone under 20, the clown showed up late and I got a 3-year ban from the Freddy Fazbear's Pizza over in Mountain View because somebody else's kid got in a fight with my nephew in the ball pit.”

Vicki couldn't help but giggle. “I didn't think any Freddy Fazbear's Pizza restaurants had a ball pit...”

“That one used to be part of another franchise....don't even ask how I know that.” Harris rolled his eyes as he continued scrolling through e-mails. “Sister-in-law thinks her 'champion'---she never says 'my husband' or 'my spouse', it's always 'my champion'---she thinks he's seeing someone on the side....and then right above that is an e-mail from the 'champion' in question, telling me how 'she's paranoid, she thinks I'm cheating on her any time my sister shows up, we have family business out of town'....”

“Why, exactly, does she call him her 'champion'?” Vicki inquired.

“Amateur MMA fighter. Undefeated, so far....”

“That explains it.....also, back to the ball pit thing: I actually worked at a Freddy Fazbear's restaurant, once.”

Harris arched an eyebrow. “You worked at a Freddy Fazbear's?”

“It was my first job after high school....I worked there for a few months in 1994. I was the 'on-site, general purpose maintenance manager', in addition to at least an hour of kitchen work per day...the kitchen work was no problem. Getting bitten on the arm by freaking Foxy the Pirate Fox, on the other hand...”

It was Harris' turn to laugh. “You got bitten? By Foxy?”

“They said I had to clean him off with compressed air and a power scrubber...apparently, someone 'nudged' a switch while I was midway through spraying him with air freshener.” Vicki rolled her eyes at the memory; “I tried for about fifteen minutes to keep my right arm out of sight whenever the managers were around,” she mused, “but that backfired on my last hour of kitchen duty---apparently, they'd just put in those 'safety hinges' on every single oven door. The ones that pull it back up if you lose your grip and it's not open all the way...”

“So the bitten arm got fried, too,” Harris finished. “Must've been a hell of a shift...”

Vicki rolled her eyes again. “My shift manager was also my best friend at the time, so nobody else found out.”

“Lucky you....they didn't fire you after that?”

“Well, Ted put in a good word with....” Vicki let her explanation trail off; the keycard lock on the door to her room (all thoughts on semantics and the fact that she was sharing the room with Harris were pushed aside) lit up with a trilling sound, just as the door opened to reveal two of the men in grey, as well as Director Preston.

“Miss Lawson. Mister Harris.” Preston nodded to each of them in turn.

“Director.” Harris turned off his phone, stowing it in a pants pocket. “We were just---”

“Making phone calls, checking e-mails and having a conversation,” Vicki finished. “I called Dad---my Ted...I mean, Ted Lawson, my...dad....”

Preston's lips twitched in the slightest hint of a frown. “I merely wished to inform you that the Visitation Room is now open...the accused will be waiting for you, should you chose to stop by later on.” He turned to leave; “I would also like to remind you,” he added, “that conducting personal business within your quarters is not a violation of policy, despite some...claims...to the contrary---”

“So we can see him now?”

Director Preston's hand was on the door pull when Vicki had asked her question. “....you wish to speak to the accused now?”

“....well, I mean....why wait? We came all this way to talk to him...the visitation room is open, like you said...”

The men in grey glanced at each other, then at the Director. “....if you're sure you wish to speak to him now, Miss Lawson, then I see no reason to deny you your request.” He stepped aside. “Ladies first....”

“And me second.” Harris moved to follow Vicki, but one of the men in grey stepped forward.

“.....the accused had requested to speak with Miss Lawson first,” Director Preston informed him. “Alone.”

“It'll be fine, Harris,” the brunette gynoid assured her colleague. “I won't do anything stupid.”

“That's not what I'm worried about,” Harris murmured, his stare focused on the Director. “Has he shown any signs of...aggression? Anything like what happened after his arrest?”

“Not since his incarceration. He's been....relatively calm, since being brought here. He was....muttering, a day ago, with a fair bit of weeping, as well....but it wasn't as bad as anything from just after his arrival. He hasn't made any effort to attack staff members, or been openly hostile.....”

“.....just make sure nothing gets out of hand.” Harris nodded towards Vicki. “Ted wouldn't forgive me...”

Vicki nearly rolled her eyes, but decided---in the presence of Director Preston and his grey-clad guards---to settle instead for a light sigh. “They've got more than enough security to make sure things won't get out of hand,” she assured her colleague. “I'll be fine.”

“We have eight guards stationed around the upper deck of the visitation room,” Director Preston added. “If anything happens...”

“I get the picture. Vicki....stay safe.”

“I will.”

With that, Director Preston motioned for Vicki to follow him out, keeping pace behind the two men in grey.

The hotel look that Vicki had equated to her shared room continued through the corridors---until she followed Director Preston through a single security door. Beyond that, the sterile white tiles on every surface---not unlike the corridor in which she'd first “encountered” the facility's countermeasures---returned.

Whatever her expectations, the brunette gynoid found herself somewhat surprised by how....quiet the corridors seemed to be. There was the predictable air of menace, as if one wrong step would find her staring down a rifle barrel, but nothing that outwardly suggested the place was out of the ordinary. Even the cold sterility, the almost paplable, antiseptic sense of aggressive cleanliness that pervaded the corridors, felt tempered. This place was unfamiliar, almost foreign....but at the same time, it felt....secure. It felt safe.

“I should mention,” Director Preston stated, “that the accused has been expecting you.”

“....expecting me?” Vicki echoed. “As in....he knew I'd be here?”

“He anticipated your arrival. My earlier statement---regarding the wishes of the accused to speak with you alone---were conveyed without his knowledge of your presence in this facility....since his arrival here, he made it clear that he expected you to 'drop in', at some unspecified point in the future.”

“So he's been waiting for me,” Vicki muttered. “That....doesn't sound promising.”

At the end of the last of many long halls (after about five or six angled turns that, Vicki reasoned, were meant to keep “guests” from figuring out the exact direction they were traveling in), the Director stepped aside, gesturing for Vicki to do the same. The two grey-clad guards stepped past them, retrieving objects from their coats that, at first, looked like knives or bayonets....until the men in grey approached what looked like slits in the wall. Pretty big for a set of keys, Vicki surmised, except there's nothing to turn---

The guards pressed the keys inwards, twisted them slightly, then pulled them back---with each key taking a cylindrical section of its respective wall with it, accompanied by the sounds of pistons and motors.

Both men in grey glanced over their shoulders at Director Preston, whose only reply was a silent nod.

As Vicki watched, the two turned the cylinders---clockwise, for the one on the left, and counter-clockwise for the one on the right---before pushing them back into the wall.

Before the question of “where's the door?” could be asked, the floor shook.....then began to descend.

“The visitation room and containment areas were...relocated,” Director Preston explained, as if he knew what Vicki was about to ask. “Despite our best efforts, there have been security breaches in the past...moving all of our containment rooms was the first step to solving the problem.”

“What about the decision to move the visitation room?”

“A precaution.”

There was something in those two words that greatly unsettled the brunette gynoid, but she said nothing.

“One more bit of advice, before we reach containment and visitation,” Director Preston added, his voice almost a murmur. “It would be in all of our best interests that you not...stray...during your visit. Things tend to go awry rather quickly in those situations....”

Vicki tried to think of a reply to that rather odd request, but stayed silent as the floor's descent began to slow.

“If you'll follow me, Miss Lawson....”

The brunette gynoid nodded, following Director Preston towards the waiting visitation room.

Part 5

As he stared up at the sky, waiting for Alicia and Anton's latest shouting match to come to an end, Ted found himself thankful to whoever or whatever was responsible for him not developing a smoking habit---as it stood, with fifteen minutes having passed between Anton emerging from the kitchen (committed, in his own words, to making an attempt at rebuilding Casey) and a minor quip touching off another round of hostilities with Alicia, it wasn't unlikely that Ted would've smoked his way through at least half a pack of cigarettes waiting for the two to sort out their grievances.

Humming, thankfully, was far less hazardous to one's health...even if his “playlist” tended to veer more towards the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic rock than some would've expected.

Halfway through a verse of “Looking Out My Back Door”, Ted stopped---an official-looking car had rolled to a stop in front of the house, the front passenger-side door already opening. The mantra of “Whatever it is, it's not Vicki's fault” found its way to his lips as he tentatively approached the vehicle---ever since Vicki had received her new look, Ted had always dreaded a surprise visit from ALPA “representatives”, on account of something his daughter may have done.

The first person out of the car was someone he didn't recognize---a young man, more than likely in his mid-to-late 20s, in a red-trimmed black coat that looked both prohibitively expensive and specifically designed for his own tastes. The black dress shirt, red vest (with actual gold buttons, Ted noticed), patterned red tie and Oxford shoes barely concealed by the hem of the young man's black dress pants lent an air of sophistication to his appearance....one that clashed sharply with the rather grim set to his brow, and the frown on his lips. He pulled a pair of thin-rimmed, rectangular-framed glasses from a coat pocket, glancing over his shoulder at the driver of the car---Collin DuBraul, the soon-to-be President of the ALPA, and son of the current (soon to be former) President.

“Ah, anyhelp I can thing you with?” Ted inquired---immediately cursing himself for the flub. “I mean, ah, any thing I can help you....with....” The young man was now frowning at him. “Sorry, I'm just---”

“No need to apologize, Ted,” Collin sighed, fully extricating himself from his seatbelt. “You weren't expecting visitors, and all of a sudden we show up.” He flashed a quick smile. “If Vicki was still Stateside, I'm sure it would've been her sitting outside, trying to get away from---” He flinched, slightly, as the sound of another plate hitting a wall inside Ted's house cut him off. “....to get away from that,” he finished.

“And you brought me all the way out here,” the young man in the black coat muttered. “I had my own method of transportation---”

“We talked about this,” Collin reminded him, bidding him to be calm with a hand gesture, just as Ted walked over to introduce himself. “Ted Lawson, founder of Lawson Robotics and, ah, sitting member of the Silicon Valley board of the ALPA.” He held out a hand.

The young man arched an eyebrow. “....the ALPA has a board?”

“Had,” Collin chimed in. “We had to dissolve it three years ago...it turns out that territorial boards, much like the old system of territories in professional wrestling, was a lost cause. Ted just forgot to take it off of all his business cards.” He grinned again. “Common mistake to make.”

After a second or two of silence, the young man shook Ted's hand. “Pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Lawson.”

“Just Ted, please...I never could get used to honorary titles. Plus, 'Mr. Lawson' sounds a little too much like 'Mr. Wilson' for my liking...” Ted laughed at the self-depreciatory humor, stopping when he realized the young man was now staring at him as if he'd just said something like “the fourth moon is in the seventh inning”. He nodded, as if to acknowledge his own gaffe. “I tend to tell bad jokes when I get nervous,” he admitted. “A hard habit to break....”

“But not a dangerous one,” Collin finished. “Ted, allow me to introduce you to the doctor---”

“Doctor?” Ted echoed. “Doctor who, exactly?”

“Smith. John Smith.” The young man gave a quick smile, shaking Ted's hand one last time.

“It's not his real name, by the way,” Collin added, earning a scowl from “Dr. Smith”. “He prefers to keep his work with us...off-record. For tax reasons.”

Ted made a face at the “tax reasons” remark, but Dr. Smith actually chuckled. “'Tax reasons'?” he echoed.

“You told me not to say 'personal reasons',” Collin acquiesced. “He showed up at HQ when the call went out about Clive......about my father's condition....” He paused for a moment, frowning. “Ah, is there any chance we can take this discussion inside, or---”

Another shout from Anton, followed by Alicia screaming something personal (and vulgar) in reply, cut him off.

“We can use the treehouse,” Ted suggested---again, hating himself for even thinking it. “Ah, I mean---”

“Treehouse?” Dr. Smith echoed, arching an eyebrow. “I've never been to an official meeting in a treehouse before....” He paused, glancing down at his hand---still gripping Ted's own. “...handshakes don't usually last longer than a few seconds, right?” he quietly asked.

“What? OH, the hand....” Ted immediately let go of the young man's hand, backing away a step. “Sorry, I was just...distracted....” Another round of yelling from Anton and Alicia punctuated his claim. “....so, yeah, the treehouse. It's still in one piece, amazingly---even the earthquake didn't damage it all that much!”

“Your house got hit by the Loma Prieta quake?” Dr. Smith inquired.

“Less 'hit' and more 'heavily damaged', but yes. Thankfully, we were able to rebuild pretty quickly---we even took the opportunity to upgrade.” He grinned. “Joanie never thought the house would look good with a second floor, but---”

Collin gave a quiet, almost polite cough, nodding to the treehouse.

“Ah, right. The meeting, in the treehouse....” Ted sighed, leading the way up to the ladder. “Had to reinforce the thing after one of Jamie's classmates tried to start a fight in it,” he recalled, carefully ascending the plank ladder. “And Joanie insisted that I treat the wood to make sure nobody got splinters....” After twenty seconds of climbing (most of it due to the aches and pains of old age steadily reminding Ted that he was but mortal, and would one day pass from this life---which he usually drowned out with work and/or whatever he could blast from headphones while engaging in his favorite hobbies), Ted pulled himself into the treehouse. “It's perfectly safe!” he called down to Collin and Dr. Smith. “Floor's reinforced, the branches won't snap....”

Dr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Every time I get called out here, something fun happens....”

“Calling you is a lot better the alternative,” Collin reminded him. “Besides.....it's a treehouse. A treehouse---”

“All right, all right....you get to relive some long-lost fond memory, and I get to experience the joys of not falling about 20 feet.” Dr. Smith sighed. “While I'm thinking about it, would it have sounded weird if I said my first name was Zachary?” The question earned a smirk from Collin. “He probably would've made a 'danger, Will Robinson' joke....”

Dr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Just climb the ladder already....”

Collin made his way up the ladder, followed soon after by Dr. Smith. It was more than a bit bizarre for both of them---and for Ted, who was used to conducting meetings in boardrooms, or at the very least over a restaurant table or even in his own home. Holding an impromptu treehouse conference was....new, for all three of them.

“Right, now that we're.....here,” Collin began, “we can go into more.....” He paused. “The sound from in here doesn't carry across the fence, does it---”

“Clive DuBraul is dying,” Dr. Smith cut in. “ALM, also known as 'Widowmaker's Disease'....it's killed off almost 50% of the males in his family bloodline, and it's killing him now.” He stared at the plank floor of the treehouse, his expression inscrutable. “He's got....two weeks, if we're being generous---three days, if he's lucky.”

Ted's eyes went wide. “Three days?!”

“We've been asked to notify all prominent members of the ALPA,” Collin explained. “Given your involvement in recent events, you more than qualify as 'prominent'.” He retrieved an envelope from his coat pocket; “Sorry it has to be done in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion,” he apologized, “but after the breach at HQ, we needed to take precautions.”

“....and this is...what, exactly?” Ted quietly asked.

“The combination to a locker at San Jose International Airport. You'll find more information inside---”

“You can't just tell me now?” Ted insisted. “This is...I knew Clive, and he wouldn't want to go through all of this James Bond nonsense just to give me his last.....his last message.....” He stared at the envelope in his hand.

“He didn't want to have to pull a James Bond,” Collin admitted. “Things have changed since you joined–-”

“I know they have, I just.....” Ted stared through the treehouse window, trying to focus his thoughts. “I didn't think they'd changed this much....” The view of the yard and driveway offered a tantalizing reminder of years past---happier times, and places.....

A hand rested on his shoulder. “You okay?” Dr. Smith quietly asked.

“I was just...I was remembering so many of the crazy things that happened in the old days,” Ted replied. “All the times the Brindles nearly found out what Vicki was...Fernwald showing up every so often, just to make sure Vicki was okay...” He gave a half-snort of derision. “I was still convinced Vicki had the potential to be United Robotronics' best-selling product, once I worked out all the bugs....but Joanie never saw her that way. In her eyes, Vicki was a daughter first and foremost---never a 'thing'.”

“And you think everything happening with Clive will somehow affect Vicki?” Dr. Smith ventured.

“Clive DuBraul was one of the two people who approved of Vicki's induction into the ALPA as a field agent...the other is currently in a secured room in a facility somewhere overseas.” Ted sighed. “It's all just so...”

Collin leaned against a wall of the treehouse, resting his hands behind his head. “Different?”

“Exactly. It's different, and it's strange, and I'm starting to think it's leaving me behind....”

Dr. Smith moved to get a better view through the treehouse window. “Time has a way of creeping up on a lot of people without their noticing it,” he admitted. “You feel like everything's fine and dandy one minute, and going to hell in a handbasket the next, then back to relative normality....” He gave a slight chuckle. “I know the feeling, Ted. Believe me, I know it....but you can't let that feeling overwhelm you.” He glanced at the plain white envelope Collin had given Ted; “And even if you don't approve of the....James Bond approach,” he added, “you're going to look back on this one day and realize it wasn't that big of a deal---”

“I still don't know why I need to go to a random airport locker,” Ted insisted. “Collin never mentioned that part when he gave me the envelope!”

Dr. Smith glanced at Collin, who rolled his eyes. “No time like the present, then....”

He steepled his fingers, sighing. “You remember the breach of ALPA HQ?”

“I've been trying to forget it,” Ted muttered, “but....yeah. I remember.”

“And you remember what was taken?”

“.....the list, and---”

“It was more than the List, Ted. A lot more.” Collin glanced at Dr. Smith; “Seeing as how you're only on-staff for the remainder of the week,” he mused, “you might want to, ah....”

“Anything you have to say now, I'll take to my grave,” the doctor replied. “Cross my hearts, hope to die.”

Ted nodded in agreement---then stopped. “What did you just---”

“Cross my heart, hope to die. That's still an expression, right?”

“....yeah....but I thought....eh, forget it. Collin, if you would....”

With another sigh, Collin continued. “The delicate nature of some of the stolen items from the breach means that we can't simply call in every active field agent to go hunting down each individual article to get them all back....some of them will have to be destroyed. Clive knew, before his condition took a turn for the worse, that we might have to exercise this particular option---and he insisted that you, in particular, be entrusted with carrying out one particular set of objectives.” He nodded at the envelope in Ted's hand. “The locker you have the combination to contains everything you'll need to carry out Clive's request, as well as an explanation of that request. Six others have been given similar envelopes---”

“And before you ask,” Dr. Smith cut in, “the fact that seven people are carrying out his last wishes happens to be a coincidence. I think the number was going to be eleven, but apparently, he considered that 'your' number, or something....” He shrugged.

Ted couldn't help but chuckle. “I guess he knew me all too well....so there are six lockers at the airport?”

“Yours is the only one there. There are others all around San Jose---one at Spartan Stadium, one at the San Jose Convention Center, one at the HP Pavilion....I can't list them all, for security reasons---”

The sound of a door being flung open hard enough for the pull to hit the wall stopped Collin in his tracks; Ted and Dr. Smith scrambled to get a look out of the treehouse window just in time to see Anton nearly collapse in a sitting position on the front steps of the Lawson house, his face buried in his hands. “....ah, do we need to go make sure he's okay,” Dr. Smith offered, “or do we just....” His question trailed off---the chestnut-haired figure of Rae Clarke emerged from the still-open front door, sitting down next to Anton and resting a hand on his shoulder. “....I guess we keep going, then,” the doctor mused.

“I guess we keep going,” Ted echoed; below, Rae was whispering something in Anton's ear, followed by the roboticist pulling her in for a tearful embrace.

“I know you have pressing business to attend to regarding this rebuild project,” Collin informed him, “and if you need some time to finish that before you handle Clive's....” He paused. “....to handle my father's request, then just tell me now---”

“Can we not drag the whole 'I didn't speak to him for five years' thing into this discussion, please?” Dr. Smith muttered. “You had your problems with him, he told you to stay out of the ALPA's business, you ignored him and came back---”

He noticed Ted staring at him, and Collin counting the ceiling planks of the treehouse.

“.....and I get the distinct feeling I've said something stupid,” the doctor realized. “I'll just....I'll go to the car---”

“You can stay in the treehouse until we're done talking,” Collin declared---somewhat impressive, considering the words came out in a half-yawn. “My issues with my father are mine to bear....but if Ted wants the details, I'll tell him. In any case....” He steepled his fingers. “My father's request may not seem to be that high of a priority, compared to the issue with Epsilon...but it is his last request, apart from whatever he's written into his will. He'd have told you in person,” he added, glancing at Ted, “if it wasn't for the whole 'not long for this world' thing, and all....”

Ted nodded. “I'm just glad he passed the message on through you.....if I didn't know, I'd have kicked myself for months on end....” He glanced back down, to where Anton and Rae were still conversing at the front door.

“Everyone's handling this in different ways,” Dr. Smith mused. “Some better than others.”

“It's not about how Anton's 'handling' it,” Ted muttered. “It's....we made a promise to Clive. Not quite a 'blood oath' or anything like that, but...something happened.” He turned away from the treehouse window. “Anton suffered a lot....lost a lot, and nearly lost even more. We were basically handed an opportunity to get back at the ones---some of the ones who'd...inflicted, I don't even know if that's the term, but it's the way he said it...who inflicted this loss upon him. And we used that opportunity.” There was a bitterness to the words, a feeling that, at one point, Ted had been proud of his actions---and now hated himself for ever even thinking that way. “We did....things. Some of which weren't especially legal, and some of which would've landed us in jail if we'd ever been caught.....”

He glanced back at his house, ignoring Anton and Rae on the doorstep. “....things even Joan doesn't know.”

“And you're telling us this.....why?” the doctor prompted.

“Because back then, Anton and I thought we were in the right,” Ted replied. “We truly believed we had done something good....something we could be proud of. And Clive swore us both to secrecy....not just for what we'd done, but for what had happened to Anton's family in the first place.” He shook his head. “By the time the truth started to set in....it was just after we'd taken back United Robotronics from Fa---from William Rengold III, and....” He made a few small, fleeting gestures with his hands. “I knew. It 'clicked', and I just...I knew.”

Collin and Dr. Smith waited for him to continue. “And when you...'knew'.....what---”

“I couldn't tell Joan, or Brandon, or anyone. Lawson Robotics was just an idea, back then....if I'd told anyone what had happened, what Anton and I had done.....” Ted dragged a hand over his face, as if trying to ward off the lingering memories of what had happened. “It was after I'd joined the ALPA that I finally told Clive.”

“What about Anton?” Collin inquired.

“He might've told him before I did, I don't know. I never asked...because we didn't talk about it. Ever.”

“And I don't suppose you'll tell us,” the doctor began, only to wither under Ted's glare. “.....never mind.”

“He never brought it up with you, I'm guessing,” Ted mused, turning his attention back to Collin. “Otherwise, there'd be a full squad below the treehouse to haul me in for questioning, and Anton would probably be making a run for the border...”

“He only mentioned 'certain subjects' that needed to be....addressed,” Collin admitted. “Nothing about anything or anyone specific.”

Ted nodded. “So he didn't elaborate on what those 'certain subjects' were?”

“All I know is what he told me....and he didn't tell me a whole lot.”

“.....he'd say he didn't want to burden you with the knowledge,” Ted muttered. “Knowing him, he'd use those exact words....”

Collin checked his watch. “Not to be rude, or anything, but we have to be going. Dr. Smith....”

“I'm hoping that Corlette girl has the car running,” the doctor replied. “If the seats are cold---”

“Corlette?” Ted echoed, frowning. “Who's---”

“Crystal Corlette,” Collin explained. “Coppery-red hair, light tan....she was Oberon's assistant, before she got a transfer to HQ. She stayed on after his arrest....apparently, he didn't want her 'fighting his battles for her' or something---she told me as much before we got here.”

“Exposition dump later,” Dr. Smith sighed. “Warm car now...no offense, Ted, but the treehouse is a bit drafty.”

“It hasn't been used in years....Joan never did ask me to tear it down, or anything.” The remark sounded sad, even to Ted. “I just....I figured it'd be a nice reminder of the old days, when things were...simple. For all of us.”

The doctor nearly said something, but instead nodded thoughtfully.

“I suppose we'll leave you to your work, then,” Collin stated. “Rebuilding Agent Casey, and all....”

“I'll do what I can.” Ted shook hands with Collin and Dr. Smith---not an easy task, in the cramped quarters of the treehouse---and allowed them to climb down the rope ladder first. Just as Collin had his foot on the first rung, however, Ted stopped him. “.....I never did fully explain to Joan what joining the ALPA means for us,” he admitted. “She only just found out when she came back from her lottery trip, in December....”

Collin sighed. “You'll have to tell her eventually, Ted. At least tell her as much as you trust her with---”

“That's the problem!” Ted groaned. “I...I don't know what she'll be able to handle, what she'll hate me for not saying.....if I tell her too much, she'll want Vicki's Field Agent status revoked, or at least toned down. If I don't tell her enough, she'll think I'm holding out on her, she won't trust me---”

“Ted......” Collin regarded the roboticist with a knowing glance. “You'll know.”

“....know what?” Ted replied, slightly confused.

“You'll know. Just trust me.” With a final nod, Collin made his way down the rope ladder; Dr. Smith, by this point, had already crossed the yard and was standing impatiently by the car. “I'll keep in touch.”

“Thanks. And....I'd wish you luck, with the whole President of the ALPA thing, but.....”

Ted's remark was dismissed with a wave. “No need to. I'm only taking the job for the interim...they're going to pick someone else once the Oberon situation has been resolved.”

“You didn't offer to stay on permanently?”

“It wasn't my offer to make...in any case, I have other things on my plate now. You know how it is....”

“....yeah,” Ted quietly replied. “I do.” He backed away from the ladder. “Take care of yourself, Collin.”

“I'll do my best.” Collin descended the ladder, crossing the yard to join Dr. Smith. Ted sighed, moving to climb down the ladder....but he couldn't help but take one last look at the interior of the treehouse before he did.

“So much simpler,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I wish everything could be that simple....”

Part 6

“....so, this is just for visitation?”

Vicki's question earned her a frown from Director Preston---he never would've admitted to asking that exact question himself, more than a few times. “The security measures have been more than adequate,” he replied, “but this room does serve...other purposes.”

Any question of what “other purposes” it could serve was waved away just from looking at it---the walls were padded, the floor had fairly well-concealed holes where restraints could be bolted in at regular intervals, and the light fixtures were all recessed into a ceiling that appeared to have been molded to prevent anyone from climbing up and breaking pieces off to use as weaponry. Chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture seemed to have been designed to thwart such attempts, as well---they looked more like carved or sculpted slabs of stone and metal than something one would find at IKEA.

Every single item of furniture also happened to be a completely solid piece, at least to Vicki's internal scanning suite. There's being prepared, and then there's paranoia, she mused. I can't tell which prevailed here---

A padded panel on the far side of the room slid back, then opened into what looked like a metal detector and a hallway beyond. Vicki tried to get a better glimpse, but two of the men in grey uniforms were already moving into the room; a third followed close behind, pulling a heavy-duty wheeled cart that held another chair and several feet of heavy chains. This, unlike the rest in the room, had loops molded into the arms---probably for chains, Vicki realized.

Her theory was proved correct mere seconds later, when a fourth man in grey entered....

…accompanied by the shackled figure of the soon-to-be ex-Chairman of the ALPA.

He never looked up, even as the men in grey moved the chair off the cart and positioned it exactly three feet away from the door they'd entered from. Three of the men set to work securing him in the chair, running the chains from the cart through the loops and locking them onto his restraints. After a full four minutes of this, all four men in grey left the room, closing the door behind them.

At the exact moment the door re-sealed, the now-bound ex-Chairman looked up.

For the first time since her defeat of Epsilon, Vicki had her first face-to-face look at Oberon...

“You may speak freely, within this room,” Director Preston stated. “I'm required to inform you, however, that anything you say and/or do inside of this visitation room is being recorded and studied---”

“Enough.”

Vicki barely even noticed that Oberon's lips had moved. “She knows,” he muttered, his stare never wavering.

Director Preston frowned, but nodded. “I'll be just outside,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “You have....30 minutes to speak with him. The clock will start when I close the door.”

“Thanks.” Vicki didn't turn to watch the Director leave, or even acknowledge him with anything more than the slightest of nods. The hiss of the door opening behind her, the Director's footsteps on the floor....they barely registered in her hearing.

Don't look away from him. Don't blink, don't shift your focus even for a second. Let the clock start first, but don't try to jump-start the conversation. A littany of suggestions and self-advice scrolled down through her field of vision. Don't accuse, don't beg, don't demand....you came here to get answers, not to beat him down with an overdose of emotions. Don't play it as “I'm a machine”, or “I'm a person”....walk the line between both.

Seconds later, the door hissed again; Vicki's aural sensors could faintly detect the sound of a ticking clock.

Oberon inhaled, slowly, then blew out a low, quiet breath through his nostrils.

“Epsilon is dead,” Vicki stated–her tone as neutral as she could make it without falling into her “robot voice”. “I don't know if they told you yet....”

Her remark earned the barest hint of a scowl.

“You contacted me, right before it happened,” she continued. “That thing you did, with the fog...you told me it was the only way.” A tremble had begun to creep into her words; damn it, Lawson, this isn't the time to start cracking! “....I killed him. Kirsten was there, she....she saw. I told her to stay back, to keep herself from---”

“Enough.”

Again, that one word seemed to bring with it the force of a kick to the gut. “....you told me...you wanted him to die with her at his side....that it was the only fair thing....”

Even as her words trailed off, Vicki realized that Oberon had, apart from his meditative breathing, had barely moved after being shackled into the chair. The uniform he'd been issued wasn't the exact same brilliant white as his usual clothes, but it still looked like a beacon in the otherwise drab, grey room. “You told me that you knew she'd be there.....that Kirsten would---”

“Did he suffer?”

The question startled Vicki with its bluntness, but she soldiered on. “I amped up my Detaining Grip to beyond factory-limited settings and blew out every single one of his implants at once. His life signs and implant-driven functions terminated simultaneously....it was a quick death.”

“That's not what I asked.”

“I don't know if he suffered.....he screamed, at one point....but I couldn't tell if it was out of pain–-”

“And Kirsten?”

“.....she said her goodbyes to him, and then left.”

“.....I don't suppose you'll tell me what they did with the remains, then.”

“A cleanup team secured them ten minutes after I left the scene. Galatea supervised them.”

Oberon took another deep breath. “So it's over,” he muttered. “Epsilon is finally dead.”

“Yes. I confirmed the kill myself.”

For the first time since he'd been forced to take a seat, Oberon closed his eyes. “....I knew,” he intoned. “As soon as they transferred me here, I knew you'd follow me.” He leaned back in the chair, exhaling. “You want to know why I was so focused, so driven, to destroy Epsilon....to kill an innocent man, made into a beast by way of a committee that gave no thought to his life, his family....”

He bowed his head. “....why I threw aside all logic and reason,” he murmured, “to achieve my end goal.”

“....I want to know what you know about a program called Helios,” Vicki stated. “We lost a Field Agent to it, and someone deployed it against Epsilon...” She leaned forward. “I need to know who was responsible for using Helios against Epsilon....and how we can stop it from being used against us.”

“And you think I'm the one who wanted Helios used against him,” Oberon muttered.

“I think you know who would use it against him,” Vicki replied. “And who would benefit the most from it.”

Her statement (just a few hairs shy of an accusation, she realized) didn't prompt an immediate reaction from Oberon; he simply leaned back in his chair, eyes closed. “I need to know who would have access to Helios,” the brunette gynoid continued, “and why they would use it against---”

“No.”

Vicki stared at Oberon, somewhat taken aback. “.....no?”

“You already know who deployed the Helios program. That little incident at a meeting between one Max Mills and Octavia Martinet...” Oberon leaned forward, his stare locked onto Vicki. “As for why Mills used it against Epsilon...” A derisive snort punctuated the sentence. “He wants to get involved. Foot in the door, that sort of thing. And he chose to do so in the worst way possible.” He steepled his fingers, the chains at his arms making soft rattling sounds against the chair. “You want to find Helios' point of origin,” he intoned, “then take heed: it lies at the feet of Max Mills.”

“....so he stole it,” Vicki muttered. “He stole it from United Robotronics---”

“Or it was given to him.”

“It's not about how he got it. It's.....he used Helios against Epsilon....” Vicki finally looked away from Oberon, trying to collect her thoughts. “Why was Casey infected, then? Why did we have to lose her to Helios?”

Her question earned another half-scowl from Oberon. “You ask as if you expect me to know.”

“You're the one who was so hellbent on killing Epsilon before. I still don't know why you---”

“I changed my mind,” Oberon intoned, “because I was wrong. And because I watched him carry you...” He shook his head. “He carried you out of Block G as if you were his own child....it went against every single thing I knew----everything I thought I knew about Epsilon.” He shifted his weight in the chair, his tongue playing over his lips. “I was under the impression that every last trace of humanity within the brain of Anthony Sanderson had been burned out, carved out, or otherwise erased. Every bit of research, every note, every blueprint....all of them indicated that Epsilon had no capacity for emotion, or thought, or free will....”

“And him carrying me out of Block G convinced you that he did?”

Oberon exhaled a low, quiet breath. “Seeing him carry you away from our fight.....cradling you, as if you were his own child.....it brought forth an epiphany. I had choesn to spare R-528...” His lips curled up in the briefest hint of a smile. “....or as you prefer to call him, Mr. Roboto.....”

“You spared him because you knew.” Vicki seemed surprised that she'd spoken, even as the words left her lips. “You knew that he didn't murder in cold blood....”

Her assumption was met with a nod. “I did. And because what happened to him was never meant to turn him into a walking weapon. The attempt at forcing the thought patterns and brain waves of a human being to conform to a rigid, inflexible hardware and software standard.....it traumatized R-528. It left him...broken, for years. And yet, unlike Epsilon, he never sought to repair himself or to reverse his condition....he simply hid himself away from society.”

“And what does that have to do with your 'epiphany' about Epsilon?” Vicki prompted.

“Simple. The conclusion I came to was that, no matter how advanced the technology....” Oberon leaned back in his chair, staring into Vicki's eyes. “...nothing can fully overwrite a human brain with any permanence. In the case of Anthony Sanderson, the task was effectively impossible.”

The brunette gynoid frowned. “....that was your epiphany? That Epsilon---”

“Was doomed from the moment Tony Sanderson was conscirpted into the project. He wasn't just some randomly selected pencil-pusher with no prospects---he was a father.” Oberon shook his head, as if scoffing at the idea that Epsilon's creators had neglected to take paternal bonds into account. “A father's love for his children, be they sons or daughters, is far more potent than any drug, far more powerful than any mental conditioning. The man loved his daughter so much, he refused to let her death be the end....”

“....so I've heard....” Vicki paused. “But you're saying....it was love that kept him from succumbing to the mental conditioning?”

“You seem surprised.”

“....I just...it sounds....” Words formed and died in the brunette gynoid's processors in less than a second, as she tried to voice her thoughts without sounding mean-spirited. “....it's a bit too Harry Potter, for me....”

The faint smile returned to Oberon's lips, now looking more like a smirk. “'Too Harry Potter'?”

“....this whole thing of 'love is the greatest power' and stuff....you're seriously telling me that Epsilon spared me, and ultimately died, because of Tony Sanderson's love for Kirsten?”

“If it had been Ted, instead of Anthony....would you be as incredulous?”

The thirteen-word question stopped Vicki in her tracks. “....what?!”

“I seem to recall a time,” Oberon continued, “when your creator viewed himself exactly as that---a creator of an incredible new machine. In the earliest years of your existence, he viewed you as a product....a thing---”

“I know!” An undertone of rage---itself, cut with a hint of sorrow---tinged both words.

“---but over time.....through a series of remarkable events that allowed the bond between you to grow.....he saw himself as more than your creator, and you saw yourself as something more than a machine. The two of you grew closer...” The smile returned again, but....warmer, almost comforting. “....and Ted Lawson, by his own admission, was proud to call himself your father.”

A scathing rejoinder faded into nothing on Vicki's lips. “..I...”

“Your life was far different from that of Kirsten Sanderson. Kirsten was commissioned to replace a deceased daughter....you started out as the prototype for a new product. Yet, in time, your relationship with Ted became almost identical to that of Kirsten and Anthony---daughter and father, rather than creation and creator.” Another sigh punctuated the remark. “It was pure misfortune that led to Anthony's inevitable end....he was chosen at random, from the entire United Robotronics work force---”

“And you're saying it could've been Ted, if things were different?” Vicki's voice was barely a shade above her robotic monotone. “You're saying....if he'd never started Lawson Robotics.....”

“....do you want the honest answer?”

“It's why I'm here.”

Oberon nodded. “Yes. I do, in fact, believe that if the circumstances of your life had taken a different turn...it very well could've been Ted Lawson being mourned, and Kirsten Sanderson sitting before me, demanding to know why I wanted someone else's father dead---”

“Why?!”

For a moment, Oberon said nothing. He barely moved in his seat, adjusting his posture just enough to better analyze the body language of his “visitor”. Even without the small, subtle motions of breathing, or involuntary muscle twitches, it was obvious that Vicki was both angry, horrified and, quite simply, stunned at the possibility of her own father ever being in the same situation as the late Tony Sanderson.

“You're holding back,” he murmured. “Your anger...you genuinely hate those who tried to convert Anthony Sanderson into a living weapon.....but you're holding back---”

He stopped. “.....and there it is. The question....”

Even as Vicki stared him down, the former ALPA Chairman leaned forward in his seat. “You want to know why Anthony Sanderson was converted....why Ted would've been converted, had he been in Anthony's place...”

“I do.”

Oberon steepled his fingers. “I told you, when we had our....confrontations....that every single aspect of Project Epsilon was meant to make it---and I say this without specifying Anthony Sanderson, or a hypothetically-altered Ted Lawson---a better fighter, a better killer. That, alone, should give you enough of a 'why'....but I suppose you want the full explanation.”

“I do.”

“.....then you'll get it.” Oberon leaned back, half slouching in his seat. “You've heard of the singularity?”

“The idea that man and machine will one day become one.” Vicki gave a slight nod. “Good enough?”

“.....for now. And you probably won't be surprised that there are some who utterly abhore the very notion of the concept....they see it as treason against the entire human race. And there are also those....including, as you more than likely suspect, a few of the individuals responsible for the creation of Epsilon....who believe that a fusion between man and machine is inevitable. Many of those same individuals also believe that such a fusion is destined, if not designed, to be controlled, harnessed...used.”

Vicki's grip on the armrests of her seat tightened. “....you're saying they saw Epsilon.....as a tool?”

“......I am. And more to the point, they were intent on replicating Epsilon, had the prototype proved to be---”

Something crunched, and it took a moment for Oberon to realize that Vicki had crushed the armrests of her chair. “The prototype?!” Her voice carried an unsettling mix of human emotion---in this case, anger---and a touch of electronic distortion, not helped by the brilliant, cobalt glow of her eyes.

“.....Anthony Sanderson was, in the view of United Robotronics, the prototype Epsilon unit, yes---”

“He was a human being!” Vicki was halfway out of her seat, now. “You said it yourself---”

“And you honestly think that mattered to those in charge of Project Epsilon?” Oberon snapped. “You actually think it mattered to the Baron?!”

Vicki was standing, now. Her eyes cast a brilliant, yet chilling, glow over Oberon.

“.....did it matter to you?”

After the slightest pause, Oberon slumped in his seat. “.....at first.....I blinded myself to it. I wilfully ignored the fact that what had once been a man was now.....something else. I refused to let it hinder me.”

He bowed his head. “.....and that, quite simply, is why I was so focused on Epsilon's destruction.”

Even as she stood, Vicki felt herself go limp.

“Not an easy thing to accept, is it? Knowing that I was so driven, so focused.....so willing to ignore the life that had been stolen from Anthony Sanderson.....” Oberon stared at the ceiling shaking his head. “I told myself that Anthony Sanderson had already died, that the being running around and causing so much havoc was just a shell.....and I believed my own lies. I believed them until I saw how wrong I was......”

Vicki fell backwards into her chair, looking at the floor in front of Oberon's seat.

“.....you understand, now, don't you? Why I 'explained' myself by saying 'I was wrong'.....”

The door behind Oberon's chair opened, and two of the men in grey entered the room. “We need to go,” one of them stated, his voice filtered beyond recognition by his helmet.

“I didn't do anything to her,” Oberon began, but the other man in grey cut him off with a gesture. “Control has spotted an unauthorized aircraft attempting a flyover of this facility,” the first stated. “We need to keep you out of range in case anyone attempts---”

Oberon held up both hands, sighing. “Enough...” This time, he sounded almost tired. “I'll go.”

Both of the grey-clad men began to remove the chains from the loops in his chair, just as the door behind Vicki opened to admit Director Preston. “Miss Lawson, I'm afraid we have to cut this session short. I can assure you that you, yourself, aren't in any danger as of now.....” His claim trailed off as the brunette gynoid rose, shaking, from her seat. “.....is everything all right, Miss Lawson?” he quietly asked.

Silently, without even looking up, Vicki brushed past Preston and left the Visitation Room.

Preston turned his attention to Oberon. “You told her, didn't you? Why you were wrong about Epsilon?”

“You and I both know the answer to that, Preston. 'Everything you do and say within this room will be recorded and studied', remember?”

For a brief moment, a scowl formed on the Director's lips, but he let it pass. “You'll have another session with Miss Lawson after we determine the nature of the flyover. I advise you to avoid.....sensitive issues, when she returns to this chamber.”

Oberon didn't glance back, even as he was ushered out of the room. “She doesn't hate me, Preston.”

“And what if she decides to pursue the ones who created Epsilon?”

“Then she'll be in good company!”

The door closed behind Oberon, leaving Preston by himself in the Visitation Room.


Vicki tried not to think about what she'd heard, what she'd felt, after hearing the truth straight from Oberon's lips. “I blinded myself to it,” he'd admitted. “I wilfully ignored the fact that what had once been a man was now.....something else. I refused to let it hinder me.”

And he wouldn't have let it hinder him if it had been Ted, instead of Tony Sanderson....

From behind the padded door, she could hear someone---possibly Oberon---yell the words “Then she'll be in good company!” She knew nothing about the context, or who had spoken....all she could do was dwell on those last seven words Oberon had spoken. “I refused to let it hinder me.”

The brunette gynoid bowed her head, uttering what might've been a prayer, and wept.

Part 7

“....'come a little bit closer', da na na na nah, da da da da da....” Rae bobbed her head in time with the music from the peace offering Anton had politely rejected after his spat with Alicia---a Zune, one of the few holdovers she had left from her pre-ALPA days. The thing had been given to her as a gift, and she'd endured more than a few taunts about it....but the simple fact was, she'd always found a reason to not throw it out or drop it off in the donation box of any Goodwill she happened to pass by.

“I'll admit,” she murmured, “the way things are now are a lot better than they were 30 minutes ago....” She grinned, moving to the music and occasionally playing air-guitar in time with it.

It wasn't the thought of being “set off” by the repairs on K.C. that had driven Rae to take a seat on the front steps of Ted Lawson's house–-she'd already worked out all of her “issues” involving that, with a bit of help from Kylie. Her main motivation for not helping out with the repairs had more to do with Anton and Alicia, both of whom were actually attempting to work together, instead of just glaring at each other and stomping out of the room. Granted, there had been curt exchanges of words, more than a few utterances of “Get out of my way” or “stay on your side of the table”.....

….but even that had been preferable to them screaming obscenities and threatening grievous bodily harm.

“'Come a little bit closer, now'......and what do we have here....” Rae arched an eyebrow, lowering the volume on the Zune and sliding it into her back pocket as she rose from the steps. A plain-looking Ford was slowing to a stop in front of the Lawson house, with at least five people---all females---quietly conversing within.

Rae considered calling out to Ted, informing him that he had “visitors”---

“Friends of yours?” Ted's voice, from behind Rae, would've startled the gynoid if she'd still been listening to her music at top volume. “Never seen them before, Teddy,” she replied. “At least, not up close...a few times at SJSU, maybe, whenever I feel like wandering the campus, but until they.....get...out of the car.....” She rolled her eyes as all four doors on the Ford opened, allowing four Asian-American girls (all of whom had distinctivly Japanese facial structure) to exit the vehicle. A fifth remained seated in the back. All five were typical college-age---the youngest looked to be 19, and the oldest couldn't have been over 22.

“....tell me you haven't done anything weird overseas,” Rae intoned.

“I should be asking you to tell me that,” Ted replied.

“.....rain check.” Rae never glanced away from the girls as she spoke. “Pretty sure they're not...homegrown, if you get my meaning.” Her eyes briefly flashed amber. “You want to go inside, maybe tell the rest---”

“Thanks, but I'll pass. Hopefully, this isn't anything major....” Ted gave a subtle nod for Rae to move behind him as one of the girls approached. “Ah, can I help you young ladies with anything?” he inquired. “Directions, or a quick charge for---”

“My phone?” the girl replied, not smiling.

“......I'm guessing you don't need a charge for your phone, then,” Ted mused. “....ah....”

“Your daughter. Vicki Lawson. Where is she?”

The last three words out of the Asian gynoid's mouth prompted a scowl from Rae. “As if this day couldn't get any crazier,” she muttered. “Just give the order, Teddy, and I'll drop her like a bad habit.” She shifted one leg back, slowly moving into position to lunge if need be.

“Not now.....” Ted barely glanced at the chestnut-haired gynoid. “Ah, why exactly are you looking for---”

“You didn't answer my question.” The Asian gynoid was less than five feet away from Ted, now. “Where is---”

“I think it's only fair that you answer mine, first,” Ted replied, his politeness giving way to a tone Vicki had come to refer to as “Army Dad”---commanding, but just “parental” enough to not sound threatening. “Why do you need to know where Vicki is, and why did you need four of your....friends, I assume....just to ask me where she might be?”

The girl in front of him scowled, but said nothing.

Ted folded his arms over his chest, frowning. “If you're going to just stand there and glare at me, I'll just call the police and tell them you're tresspassing---”

“Don't mind her,” another of the Asian gynoids called out, making her way up the drive with a brisk walk. “She's been in a bad mood for a while....” She and the other gynoid had a brief exchange, entirely in Japanese; Ted managed to pick out a few words, and what sounded like the name “Lani”, but nothing that sounded like they were there to attack Ted, steal anything or otherwise give him any problems. If anything, they seemed to be arguing over treating him with respect, for some reason.

By the time the exchange ended, Lani---the younger of the two---muttered something too quietly for Ted to hear, and stomped off to the Ford.

“Sorry about that,” the other gynoid apologized. “She's never been fond of explaining things.”

“And you are?” Rae prompted. “Seriously, are you gals trying to form some kind of posse?”

The Asian gynoid gave her a bemused look; Ted glanced at her over his shoulder, mouthing the word “Really?”

“What? Nothing wrong with a good posse.”

Ignoring the chestnut-haired gynoid's cheeky grin, Ted sighed. “...back to the matter at hand....”

“Last October, we---Lani, Tomomi, Sai, Paula and I---were in the same building Vicki's dorm room was in, trying to......basically, it was a 'roving conversation', trying to sort things out on the go. On the way out, one of our number dropped her phone---Lani, specifically---and didn't really notice it until a few hours later....by then, it was a little too late for us to just run back up there and look for it.”

“And you think Vicki picked it up?” Ted inquired. “If she did, I'm sure she meant to return it---”

“I have no doubt she would've,” the Asian gynoid agreed. “The thing is, after all of the crazy stuff that went on last year, we thought she might've.....lost the phone, or something....”

“And you couldn't just get a new one?” Rae cut in.

“If it had been that simple, my.....” The Asian gynoid glanced at the car behind her, then back at Rae. “...then we wouldn't be here. The phone was....is very important to us.”

Rae arched an eyebrow. “To us? What, you have to split one phone between----”

“Enough.” Ted sighed again. “I'm pretty sure Vicki's backpack is in her room upstairs...I'll run up, check the pockets and see if the phone is in any of them. Ah, what kind of phone is it---”

“It'd be better if I went with you, I think.”

Ignoring Rae's constant jabs to his shoulder, Ted nodded. “Just, ah....try to stay close, and avoid looking into the living room at all possible. There's, ah.....just don't let your eyes wander too much, okay?”

“Fair enough.”

With the Asian gynoid following behind, Ted nudged the front door open and ducked inside, bidding for his “visitor” to follow suit. The two crossed the room quickly, ignoring the sounds of the repair job still being carried out on K.C. as they went. Ascending the staircase took almost no time at all....at least, to Ted, it felt that way.

All too soon, the pair were in Vicki's room. The backpack Ted had mentioned lay on the floor, near the bed.

“And this is why I told Joanie to get her more than one,” he muttered, silently hoping that Vicki hadn't taken the backpack with the phone with her. With a quick gesture of “just wait here, please”, Ted crossed the room to retrieve the backpack, setting it down on the bed and rifling through the pockets---all the while, hoping that any explanation he might have to give to Vicki whenever she returned would suffice.

Two minutes in, he found what appeared to be a mid-2000s model flip phone. “Is this it?”

“Yes,” the Asian gynoid breathed, accepting the offered phone as if it were a treasured family heirloom. “Mr. Lawson, you have no idea how thankful I am that you found this phone....”

“No thanks necessary,” Ted replied. “And I was never fond of the whole 'Mr. Lawson' thing....just call me---”

From outside, downstairs, a shout in Japanese rang out. “....ah....all I said was---”

The Asian gynoid shook her head, moving closer to the window before shouting out a reply.

“.....okay, I'm a bit rusty with my Japanese, but did you just say 'I have it'?” Ted inquired.

“I did, in reply to 'Have you found it?'.” The gynoid's posture was far more relaxed now, as if the simple act of getting the phone back had eased her mind considerably. “I apologize if this has caused any problems...and any explanation I could give would be even more vague than the reason I'm here right now.”

“In my line of work,” Ted assured her, “vagueness is something I've come to expect. Ah, one thing, though...”

The gynoid stopped, then nodded. “Of course...” She bowed briefly. “Kaede Minoru.”

Ted returned the bow. “Ted Lawson. Pleasure making your acquaintance, Miss Minoru.”

Kaede smiled. “The same.”

By the time Kaede rejoined the others outside by the Ford, Rae had already gone back to listening to whatever song had queued up on the Zune. Kaede gave another brief bow to Ted, thanking him for the return of the phone, before rejoining the other gynoids in the car---which drove off as soon as all four doors were closed.

“They never told you what the phone was for, did they?” Rae muttered.

“I never asked....you seem a lot less interested now that it's all over, by the way.”

“I wouldn't say I was less interested....well, not in them, if I'm being honest.” She grinned, bobbing her head in time with Glenn Campbell's “Southern Nights”. “More in where they're going....which we'll know ourselves, as soon as the tracer kicks in---”

“You didn't.”

“A bunch of Japanese college girls show up looking for a sodding phone, and you're not the least bit curious as to where they're headed?” Rae chuckled. “Besides, it's not like I did anything sneaky to get the trace in their car....practically handed it to them. Funny, really...the things you can fit on a standard-sized SD card...”

She retrieved her phone, handing it to Ted. “...so, care to join me for a road trip once the trace kicks on?”

Part 8

“I refused to let it hinder me.”

The last seven words Oberon had spoken were still ringing through Vicki's thought processes as she lay on one of the beds in the room she and Agent Harris had been “assigned” to. Knowing the context did little, if anything, to calm her about what had happened....

Harris had left the room a few minutes after Vicki had returned to it---he'd barely had time to offer the gynoid any consolation, upon seeing the tears streaking down her face, before two of the men in grey showed up to inform him of.....something. The brunette gynoid hadn't even considered amplifying the range of her aural sensors to pick up what the men in grey had said....not that it mattered.

If it had been Ted......where would I be right now? Grieving, like Kirsten was.....or.....

A knock at the door cut off her morbid reverie. “It's unlocked,” she called out---or tried to; the best she could manage was a half-muttered drone of sorts, barely any more lifelike than her robotic monotone.

“Everything okay?” The pig-tailed, pink-and-white-clad figure of Sophia Starlet was an almost-amusing sight, at least when compared to everything else within the mysterious, forbiddingly-antiseptic complex. “I would've been here sooner, but....”

“You're not allowed to go into details?” Vicki offered---half-jokingly, a little too loudly for her own comfort.

Sophia scoffed. “Nothing that extreme, trust me. The details were boring....you could've told me that not all Field Agent work was car chases and gun fights....” She managed a grin as she crossed the room to sit next to Vicki on the bed. “Dennis loves saying that I should 'inherit' his understanding of how vital paperwork is to stuff like this---he was a teacher before his music career took off, after all.....”

“You were doing paperwork?” Vicki mused. “Dressed like that?”

Had she asked the question to anyone else in the building, they would've thought it was a sign of a software fault. Of course, given that Sophia was still wearing her “classic” outfit---a one-arm, no-right shoulder pink and white swirl-pattern top, the skirt done up in plaid that matched her top, and all the various jewelry and other “accoutrements” that went with that particular outfit---it made perfect sense.

“.....well, I like this look,” Sophia admitted. “That Preston guy had no problem with it....”

“So you don't have a problem with a room full of suits staring at you,” Vicki teased---finally beginning to feel the numbness, induced by Oberon's confession, wearing off. “That must've been fun....”

The pop star gave her a half-hearted punch in the shoulder. “They weren't staring! Everybody here is so....”

“Precise?” the brunette gynoid offered.

“I was going to say 'professional', but that works, too.” Sophia shrugged. “They didn't even look my way until I handed over the forms...it was actually a little bit creepy. It's...hard to describe...”

It was Vicki's term to scoff. “And you've been on such a roll with the songwriting....”

Yet again, Sophia gave her a playful punch to the arm. “If I had to write songs about this place, I'd be lucky to get four or five tunes out of a week's worth of drafts...” She propped her chin up with one hand. “It's just...all so different, from the touring, and the recording....it's all so serious. Like, every decision made around here has this....this weight to it.” Her voice dropped to a murmur: “.....and it's kind of scary,” she finished. “Like, if I screw up.....”

“You won't screw up,” Vicki assured her. “And I'm not just saying that as a fan....I'm saying it as a friend.”

“....you really think I won't mess this up?” Something in Sophia's tone reminded Vicki of herself, from the day Ted had first dropped her off at San Jose State University. She'd been more than a bit anxious about attending college---mainly due to the rather sizable issue of being the only robot on campus (or so she thought at the time). In the singer's eyes, Vicki could almost see the same doubt, the same apprehension as she'd had that first day on campus....

“I know you won't,” she murmured. “Believe me, if you could survive Brittney Delacroix, you'll survive this.”

Sophia hugged the brunette gynoid. “I am so glad Dennis let you talk to me after that show at the Toy Fair last year,” she beamed. “Seriously, meeting you set me on a path to...well, this.....and I couldn't thank you enough for all of it.”

“You can show your appreciation by being the best damn Field Agent you can be,” Vicki replied, gently pulling away from the embrace. “Which you should have no problem with.”

“Says you,” Sophia teased. “Seriously, though....if you think I can do this---”

“If I have to say it a thousand more times, I will....”

“I might be able to use that for a lyric,” the pigtailed gynoid mused. “Anyway....if you really think I can do this whole Field Agent thing, I'll do the best I can with it.”

“That's all anyone could ask for,” Vicki replied. “I'm guessing Dennis isn't taking an 'active' role with you?”

“Well,” Sophia admitted, “he wanted to....but given his history with chronic fatigue and such, they didn't want to put him in a position where he might be a liability.” She sighed. “At least he took it well...and he gets to be my 'handler' when I'm out on field ops. It'll be just like managing my concerts and stuff---okay, maybe not exactly like it, but you get the idea.”

“I do,” Vicki agreed. “So....did any of them mention why I'm here?”

Sophia's grin vanished. “....ah....they might have, in...passing....”

“I've already talked to him once,” the brunette gynoid continued. “I was still reflecting on that particular 'chat' with him before you came in....it didn't exactly leave me with any kind of inner peace, if you're wondering.”

“....he wasn't screaming, was he?” Sophia quietly asked.

“In all honesty, he was mostly calm....I was the one who nearly lost it a few times.” Vicki sighed. “It's kind of hard to explain...basically, I asked him about the whole thing about Epsilon having been human---having been someone's father, at that, and...well, he told me that he 'refused to let it hinder' him.” She stared at the floor, trying not to let the memories of her “chat” get to her. “The session ended early, too...something about an unauthorized flyover....”

The mention of the flyover earned a puzzled look from Sophia. “A flyover? Out here?”

“I don't even know where 'here' is,” Vicki muttered. “My internal GPS suite was disabled some time after Harris and I had to change planes....not to mention all the 'countermeasures' in this place.”

“Well, if it's any consolation, this is friendly territory. The only reason your GPS was turned off was---”

“Security, I get it....” Vicki fell backwards onto the bed, an annoyed groan leaving her lips. “I just wish they weren't so....mysterious, about all of it.”

Sophia sighed. “I know how you feel. This place gives me the heebies, sometimes....”

“Hard to believe you get the 'heebies' in friendly territory,” Vicki muttered. “And you got here before I did, too!”

“It's the countermeasures,” Sophia admitted. “Most of the facility has them in just one room apiece, but...a few of them are 'roving'. And I don't mean there are giant white balloons with balls of light inside them...you'll just be walking down a hall one minute, and feeling like you're swimming in molten lead the next.”

Vicki said nothing, remembering her own entrance into the facility.

“Preston told me that the 'roving' security stuff is behind the walls,” the gynoid singer continued. “He explained it to me, just to make sure I didn't think he was kidding....and I kind of wish he hadn't.” A shudder ran through her body. “I feel like every subroutine in my system is being analyzed, sometimes...Preston told me it was nothing to worry about, but...there are some rooms in this place that I just won't stay inside for more than a few minutes at a time. I just....I feel like....”

“Like something's in the room with you, even when you're all alone?”

Both Vicki and Sophia nearly screamed---until a familiar purple-and-pink form seemed to materialize out of nowhere before them. “Sorry,” Galatea apologized---her figure ever-so-slightly flickering. “I didn't think the projectors in this room were working...”

“Projector?” Vicki echoed. “So they have hologram technology here?”

The image of Galatea rolled her eyes. “I'll have to remind someone to give you the full story when you get back....” Her expression turned grim as she continued. “In any case, I didn't call here just to show off the holographic projectors...there's been an....incident---”

“Is Ted okay?” Vicki was on her feet before the last syllable of “incident” left Galatea's projected lips.

“....he's fine. Granted, he's with Rae right now, barrelling down---”

“Wait. Hang on a minute. I thought Ted was working on rebuilding Casey!”

“....he was. The thing is....you remember last year, when a group of students were in your dorm and one of them dropped their phone?”

“......yes, but what does that---”

“They showed up to reclaim it. Ted found it and returned it to them....and found out that Rae put a tracer on one of them. She talked him into tracking them down, he called me, and I'm helping out with the rebuild of Casey in his place---”

“You didn't offer to go with Rae instead of him?!”

“He was calling from a payphone. They'd already left before I could get there.” The projection of Galatea sighed. “....I'm already kicking myself for not being where you are right now....I should be there.....”

Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “.....he'd know. He made me promise not to.....”

The image flickered, and Vicki could barely tell what Galatea was saying for a few seconds. By the time it reformed, her expression was significantly calmer. “As it stands right now, I have my 'objectives' over here, and you have yours. Hopefully, at least one of us can get things done before the day ends....”

She managed a grin. “.....in any case, it's been nice seeing you again, Vicki.”

“Same here,” Vicki murmured, watching the silver-skinned gynoid's image fade out before her eyes.

Part 9

Even as she terminated the call, Galatea knew that she'd said too much---especially after the “I should be there” remark. Vicki didn't need to be burdened with that kind of knowledge....

The digitized chimes of the front doorbell were a welcome distraction. “Lucky me.....GIVE ME A SEC!”

As she crossed the room, it wasn't hard for Galatea to wonder what any prospective visitor to the Lawson house might think upon seeing the front room cordoned off like a M*A*S*H unit---granted, the only “patient” in residence at the moment was fully shielded from prying eyes by way of folding partitions and a hastily-erected curtain, but a passing salesman or overly-curious neighbor (Galatea found herself thanking whoever would listen that the Brindles had long since abandoned such tendencies) would obviously notice something “off”....

“If you're looking for Ted Lawson,” the gynoid began as she opened the door, “he isn't......”

The six-foot-one, brown-haired figure of the man known only as Inspektor 12 peered back at her over the rim of his mirrored sunglasses. “I think the word you're looking for is 'here',” he intoned.

“Yeah, that....” A giggle left the silver-skinned gynoid's lips before she could stop herself.

“It's the shirt, isn't it?” the Inspektor mused. “Rochelle keeps telling me that 'business casual' isn't the kind of look a man of my standing should go with...” He gave a light cough. “....may I?”

“What....OH, right, sorry.” Galatea stepped aside, allowing the Inspektor to enter. “It's just....that shirt...”

“Indeed...I always did feel a splash of color would liven up an otherwise drab ensemble.” Inspektor 12's lips curled up in a knowing smile. “....then again, I hardly think I need to lecture you on the subject...”

“I'll consider that a compliment,” Galatea replied. “Especially compared to the usual remarks I put up with when it comes to my fashion sense....” Her tone turned serious. “...anyway, I'm pretty sure you're not here to talk fashion.” She nodded over her shoulder at the “triage” area that now took up the vast majority of the Lawson house's front room.

“The reports were....thorough, in their evaluation of Miss Casey's condition,” the Inspektor intoned. “I'd been hoping to talk to Ted in person about his progress---”

“You still can,” Galatea deadpanned. “As long as you don't have a problem sending your girls after Rae.”

Inspektor 12 lowered his sunglasses. “.....he left with Rae?”

“Strictly business, trust me. Rae's already got someone waiting at home for her....even if it's an on-again, off-again kind of thing.” Without even pausing to inform those behind the partition of their “guest's” arrival, Galatea moved a panel back. “As it stands, we've been a bit short-staffed here ever since Ted and Rae left---”

“Could you close that?!” Anton snapped. “We're trying to---”

“I'll apologize on Galatea's behalf,” the Inspector cut in. “She wanted to show me how much you've done.” He turned his attention back to the silver-skinned gynoid; “I assume you'll need me to 'scrub up',” he mused.

“As long as Anton doesn't have a problem with it.”

“Of course.” The Inspektor nodded, heading off to the dining room to “scrub up”.

“Ah, Inspektor....” Galatea jogged to keep up with him. “I.....well, I was just wondering....the program that did this to Casey---”

“You were wondering if I knew anything about it.”

“....was I that obvious?” The gynoid sighed. “Well.....do you?”

“Close the door, if you don't mind....and before your train of thought departs for the more lascivious corners of your mind, know that my only intent is privacy---what I'm about to tell you is something that remains a rather sore subject with several of your esteemed colleagues.” The Inspektor accepted the surgical smock Galatea handed him, sliding it on over his usual attire. “I'll begin with the obvious,” he stated. “Helios wasn't a virus, in its first iteration.”

“Its first iteration?” Galatea echoed. “You say that like---”

“Like it was legitimate software, designed and distributed for sale throughout the international robotics market.”

The silver-skinned gynoid's eyes widened. “...you're kidding.”

“Not this time, I'm afraid. The Helios program was an inter-agency effort---”

“No.” Galatea took a step towards the door, shaking her head. “The ALPA would never have a hand in---”

“Does the word Snowblind mean anything to you?”

Galatea froze in her tracks, the barest hint of a gasp leaving her lips.

“I'll take that as a 'yes'.....my dear Galatea, it gives me no joy to admit this, but the Helios program was, at one point, considered to be a possible replacement for the Snowblind initiative. There were many other potential successors to it....but Helios was the most brutal of them, hardly any better than Snowblind itself.”

“...and Helios somehow ended up with the Coalition,” Galatea finished. “And now it's with Max Mills.....” She moved behind the Inspektor to tie both straps that would hold the surgical apron in place, still shaken from the mention of the Snowblind initiative. “What I'm still trying to figure out is why Mills has the Helios program in the first place,” she mused. “Doesn't he hate the robotics industry?”

“He does indeed---lost both of his parents to an industrial robotics accident, if I'm not mistaken.”

“And the Coalition wouldn't just hand out something like the Helios program...at least, I hope not...” Galatea stepped back, nodding. “So....back to the task at hand....”

“Rebuilding Miss Casey. I suppose Anton and the rest are waiting...ah, Galatea, you didn't need to---”

“Casey was a colleauge,” the silver-skinned gynoid replied, “and a friend. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't help with the rebuild.” Her scrubs were already on, and her fingers were a blur as she tied off her own apron without even looking over her shoulder. “I have a feeling you'll need all the help you can get with this.”

“Indeed.” The Inspektor nodded without missing a beat. “Shall we?”

The two returned to the front room, where Anton was busy removing what appeared to be a fried RAM chip from somewhere in Casey's torso. “....d'you want the Cliff Notes version,” he inquired, without even looking over his shoulder at the pair, “or can we just keep going without interruption?”

“Whichever you prefer, Professor,” the Inspektor replied. “As I see it, time is of the essence...”

Anton nodded. “You'll forgive me if I'm a bit curt right now....things haven't exactly been ideal, as of late.”

“From my experience,” Galatea mused, “they're rarely ideal. Where do you want me?”

The confused look she got from Anton was met with a sigh. “Trying this again---”

“No need to clarify it,” the Inspektor assured her. “You'll be at your most useful standing near her head, at this point in the procedure....unless I'm mistaken?” He glanced at Anton, who shook his head. “If something in her trips and she starts thrashing, Galatea's the only one here who can hold her still without risking a broken wrist, or worse.”

“Fair enough.” Galatea took her place standing behind Casey's head. “Ready when you are, Professor...”

Anton gave a half-smirk. “You can call me Anton, you know.”

“I know....but somehow, 'professor' fits you better right now.” The silver-skinned gynoid grinned. “Shall we?”

For the next twenty minutes or so, the trio worked at extracting parts and running tests on the various internal components left within the body that had been Kristen Charlotte Casey. Occasionally, Anton or the Inspektor would nod or utter a monosyllabic request, and Galatea would remove something or re-insert something with additional leads attached to it, giving a nod of her own. Very little was said over the course of the procedure; ironically, most of the sound in the room came from the unmoving form of Casey---namely, beeps and other electronic noises from within her torso.

Half an hour later, Anton and Inspektor 12 were going over their notes, occasionally muttering and exchanging worried glances. Galatea, meanwhile, was running the last tests on Casey's removed internals. “So...all of this testing has led us....where, exactly?” she called out, her fingers pressed against the contacts of a chipset.

“You're going to want to stop doing that soon,” Anton advised. “All of her components show traces of Helios.”

“So we're going with the 'replacement body, use her backups' plan, then?”

“If we had another option, you would know by now,” the Inspektor replied. “Though I don't think you need to worry about catching Helios through touching the contacts on that.”

Anton frowned. “We barely know anything about it---”

“You're going to go for the 'diseased organ in a healthy body' analogy, aren't you?”

“....I was,” Anton admitted. “Considering the fact that we don't know enough about Helios to know how it might spread from one infected android to the next---”

Galatea held up her hands, revealing the faint shimmer of transparent plastic gloves over them.

“An impressive display of foresight,” Inspektor 12 mused. “I don't even recall seeing you put them on---”

“I learned early on that it pays to be prepared.” Galatea handed over the chips to Anton. “Seeing as how only androids and gynoids are affected by Helios,” she remarked, “I think a weak, pathetic human like yourself should be able to handle them without any adverse effects.”

“Anyone ever tell you that your sense of humor needs an upgrade?” Anton replied, chuckling.

“If they have, it wasn't to my face---besides, it was technically a compliment.” Galatea rolled her eyes as the roboticist examined the chips. “In any case, we're here to rebuild Casey---once she's back, then we can find out more about how the Helios program was used against her.”

“....it may not be as simple as that,” the Inspektor quietly replied, “but....it's better than the alternative.”

Anton nodded his agreement. “We still have to enact the use of her backups and a replacement shell---”

“Then let's get right back to that.” Galatea glanced at the bench. “Same as before, but in reverse...right?”

Part 10

….I'm not even going to bother listing the date or the time, since I have a feeling that they'll end up erased from this log, somehow, by the time I leave here. I know this is ALPA territory, but...

My next session with Oberon is coming up in a few minutes. The “flyover” that cut the last one short is still being looked into, and there's no clear indication of who did the flying or why they chose to buzz this spot in particular---oh, Jobs, did I really just enter that in this log?! Of course there's no indication of any of that if they're still looking into it....this place is getting to me more than I thought.....

A good half-hour or so had passed since Oberon's declaration of “I refused to let it hinder me” nearly brought Vicki into a crisis of confidence---with herself, the ALPA or Oberon, she couldn't exactly tell. She'd caught a few snatches of conversation outside the door since Galatea's message, as well, none of which pertained to Oberon or herself. A mention of Max Mills here, a muttered oath against “that Kingston prick” there, and a few questions about the flyover (and who would be stupid enough/have the balls to pull it off in broad daylight) were among the more intriguing bits of information her extended aural range could detect.

…if I could just focus......

“Focus on what, Miss Lawson?”

Director Preston's question startled the brunette gynoid enough to elicit a gasp. “I....you....the door.....”

“My apologies for entering without knocking,” Preston apologized. “The security systems picked up on your aural range extending beyond.....preset conditions---”

“You can say 'factory default',” Vicki assured him, rolling over to stare at the ceiling. “I won't mind.”

Preston nodded. “...I merely wished to inform you that, while we do allow for....capabilities, such as yours, to be used within our facility, we have our limits and regulations on such abilities. Much of the information dealt with in this building is of the utmost confidentiality---”

“'That Kingston prick'?” Vicki offered.

What might've been a smirk played at Preston's lips. “I'm afraid I have no idea who you're talking about.”

“Pretty sure I wasn't talking about anyone.” Vicki's own lips twitched, briefly---I get it. “So....my next session.”

“Will proceed on-schedule, provided our mysterious aerial intruder doesn't come back. Our security staff are still trying to identify the aircraft and its pilot...with help from the other ALPA, of course.”

Vicki nearly giggled. “Never thought the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency and the AirLine Pilots Association would have to work together on anything,” she mused. “I'm guessing the 'aerial intruder' wasn't just a tourist in a Cessna, or anything that mundane?”

“Civilian pilots know better than to ignore a no-fly order.”

“.....so it wasn't a random tourist in a Cessna, then. Wonderful.” Vicki sat up on the bed, frowning. “Who else would even know about this place, let alone fly over it? I mean, I know the whole 'drone photography' thing is taking off...”

“Again, no civilian photographer would risk revocation of their license for a simple picture.”

This is going to go nowhere fast.... “Fair enough. Is...ah, is Oberon aware of the flyover? Is he even allowed to know about that kind of thing?”

“He's allowed to know when and if his security is at risk. Anything further requires clearance.”

“Right...” Vicki tried to ignore the creeping sensation of paranoia that had slowly but steadily begun to fill her thought processes ever since her arrival; something about this place, “friendly territory” or not, was seriously wrong. “If it's not a civilian going in the wrong direction---”

“With all due respect, Miss Lawson, we have more important matters to discuss than the flyover.”

Director Preston's frown, coupled with his somewhat cryptic statement, were all the “persuasion” Vicki needed to change the subject. “..so, what matters are so important that we're discussing them now?”

“Oberon's successor as Chairman, for starters...among other things.”

So it's a shakeup in the ranks, then..... “And who exactly is going to be taking over the position?”

“Due to your....familiarity....with one of the possible candidates, I'm afraid I can't divulge---”

“Is it Ted?”

Vicki's three-word question prompted, for the second time, the faintest hint of a smirk from Preston. “...I can neither confirm nor deny your father's possible candidacy for the position, Miss Lawson...”

He wants to wink so badly, the gynoid realized. “Fair enough. It'll go to whoever's most qualified, I suppose.”

“Indeed it will....but back to the matter at hand: Oberon.” Preston nodded. “His 'stay' here will only last until the High Court can determine his sentence, but given the severity of the charges against him, and his actions against Epsilon and against fellow operatives of the ALPA....” He adjusted his glasses slightly. “....there are some within the High Court,” he continued, “who believe that simply stripping him of the rank of Chairman may not be enough.”

“So they're going to....what, keep him here, then? Exile him?”

“The Court is weighing all available options, at the moment.”

Vicki thought back to R-528---now known as Mr. Roboto---and how Oberon had more than likely spared him from a De-Comm On Sight, only to turn against the ALPA just to go after Epsilon.

“I can only assume you still have questions on your mind,” Preston mused, “about this whole affair....”

“That doesn't even begin to cover it....” For a second, Vicki didn't realize that she'd spoken out loud---until she noticed the look Preston was giving her. “...I just....I trusted Oberon, Director. I respected him. He pretty much helped secure my job as a Field Agent, and.....” She let out a brief, flat chuckle. “It's like the Oberon who got me into the ALPA and the Oberon who nearly killed me to get to Epsilon are two completely different people,” she murmured. “I thought I understood why he did some of the things he did....why he insisted on swords and horseback, during the siege of the ALPA building last month....but....”

“Many who believed that they knew Oberon have found themselves proven wrong,” Director Preston admitted.

Almost instictively, Vicki asked “Including you?”

Before the thoughts of “oh, crap” could begin to settle in, the brunette gynoid realized that the expression on Preston's face had finally changed. “Once,” he quietly replied. “Years ago...” There was a weight to those words that hinted at something worse than a mere betrayal...a sadness that would never truly heal. I'm sorry, Vicki wanted to say, for all of this, for everything he did and for everything I couldn't stop him from doing....but the words never formed on her lips.

“It's in the past,” Preston intoned. “All we can do now is move forward.”

The door opened again, revealing two of the men in grey; one of them approached the Director and leaned in close, saying something that even Vicki's enhanced hearing couldn't pick up. The helmet probably has a lot to do with it, the brunette gynoid mused. That, or he's really good at whispering.... For the briefest second, she considered ramping up her aural sensors, more curious than anything else---only to notice the other man in grey facing her, probably staring at her from behind the full-face helmet.

The message was clear: Don't.

Vicki nodded silently. The last thing she needed was to agitate anyone in this place....

“....of course. I'll convene a meeting at once.” Preston nodded, and the man who'd been conversing with him took a few steps back towards the door. “I'm afraid our meeting must be cut short,” he informed Vicki. “Some unfortunate business has come up that I must attend to...”

“I get it. And, Director.....” Vicki paused. “....thank you.”

Preston, already stepping towards the threshold of the door, glanced back at the brunette gynoid.

“...all of this,” she continued, “has been....terrifying, for lack of a better term. And not just with Epsilon, or anything like that---it's been going on ever since the incident with Matthew Hannsen, in Dawley....” She didn't bother trying to fight the shudder that ran through her. “And now, this whole thing with Oberon....as weird as this is going to sound, Director....thanks for not trying to hold my hand through this whole thing, or tell me 'everything will be okay' over and over again.”

The two men in grey glanced at each other; Preston merely arched an eyebrow.

“....I sound like a raving idiot, don't I?” Vicki admitted, giving a brief chuckle. “It's just....I know that everything isn't going to be okay from now on...not after this. I know that things are going to change....for better, or for worse....” She shook her head. “...it won't be okay, but....I'll handle it. I have to handle it....we all do.”

“And you choose to thank me for this?”

“Because you're just as scared as I am....but you're doing a pretty damn good job of hiding it.” A mirthless smile crossed Vicki's lips. “I love how people keep saying robots can never truly master emotions, or come close to simulating feelings.....because the only word that can describe what's going through my processors at this very moment, Director, is fear. I'm afraid....afraid for Oberon, for the entire ALPA, for myself....” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “.....I'm afraid that this will change everything...or maybe it won't change anything.”

She glanced at Director Preston, her eyes glowing a soft blue. “....you're afraid of it too, aren't you?”

“More than you could possibly imagine, Miss Lawson” Preston replied, the faintest shade of a tremor in his voice. “I can only hope that you, like myself, can control your fear, rather than letting it control you.”

The gynoid's smile turned genuine. “....I've had a lot of help with that, actually.”

Preston nodded. “The next session with Oberon will begin at the usual time....I trust you'll be prepared.”

“I will, Director.”

Without another word, Preston and the two men in grey left the room. At least he admitted he was afraid, Vicki mused, watching the door slide closed behind the trio. If anyone in his position said they weren't at least a little bit scared of everything that's been going on recently...I honestly wouldn't want them on my side, or anywhere near me, personally.

The brunette gynoid strode back over to the bed, laying down and once again focusing her thoughts....

Part 11

“Rae, are you sure this is a good idea?!”

Ted's question was met with a snort of derision. “Lighten up, Teddy,” the gynoid beamed. “We've come this far already, and we're not gonna stop now---”

“Unless whoever else is in there with those five girls decides to do the stopping for us! I mean, if they stop us, for....oh, you know exactly what I mean!” Ted shook his head as he stepped out of Rae's rental car. “And did we have to rent a vehicle for this?! My car was perfectly capable of getting us here on its own---”

“And just as good at getting spotted and reported by the phantom five,” Rae reminded him. “This is easier.”

“I'm hoping, for both our sakes, that you're right....” Ted sighed. “Ready when you are....”

The pair strode forward---one wanting to be back at home and assisting in the repairs on Casey, the other too keyed up for something to care about any possible danger. It didn't help that they'd tracked the “phantom five” across Silicon Valley for well over an hour or so, to what appeared to be a long-abandoned technical college campus; only one building still had lights on, and the strains of Iron Maiden's “Be Quick or Be Dead” blared from speakers somewhere within. The Ford that had parked in front of Ted's house was straddling the line of two parking spaces.

“Looks like the girls were in a hurry to get here,” Rae mused. “What kind of phone was it, again?”

“A flip-phone, early 2000s...from before the days when there was an app for everything.” Ted chuckled at the thought. “I would've offered to buy them a new one, on any other day of the week....”

Rae frowned. “You seriously would've bought a phone for girls you don't even know?”

“Well, the phone they were looking for sounded important,” Ted reminded her. “I didn't know if they were sharing one phone or on a budget, or something---”

“They're gynoids,” Rae groaned. “They could chat from opposite sides of the state without a phone!”

“Well, it was your idea to follow them here,” Ted muttered. “What's your plan to get in?”

“Oh, I have a few ideas....” The chestnut-haired gynoid gave a cheeky grin.

Before Ted could warn her about going the “strippogram” route to gain entrance into the building, the sounds of Iron Maiden abruptly cut off. Hushed whispers, all in Japanese, filled the silence; Ted had to take a few steps closer to the building and focus to hear them, while Rae had no such problems. “Guess we definitely know they're inside now,” she mused. “And someone else is about to join them---”

She stopped herself, her eyes going wide as she heard a sixth voice.

“What is it?” Ted whispered. “I can't hear anything other than the air conditioning, and---”

“Ted, we need to get out of here,” Rae murmured, her eyes glowing softly as she glanced at him. “Or at the very least, we need to hide.”

“Hide from who?!” Ted glanced back at the rental car, scowling. “Rae, I need more to go on than just---”

“Shut up and hide, already!” The gynoid had already dropped to all-fours on the ground, frantically gesturing at Ted to do the same. “Get down before any of them see you, for cripe's sakes!” She glanced back at the building, her eyes still glowing.

Despite his misgivings at her panic, Ted managed to lower himself to the ground without any issues. “Okay---”

"Shush!" Rae shot him a thoroughly pissed-off look before turning her attention back to the building.

The lights were still on, even as the front door opened; one of the “phantom five”---the one who'd first spoken to Ted when the Ford had arrived at his house---was standing in the doorway, her head swivelling from one side to the other in an all-too robotic way. Her hands were empty, but Ted had a sneaking suspicion (if similar incidents with Vicki were any indication) that she didn't need a flashlight.

Rae had suspended all nonessential processes---her simulated breath halted, her internal sound generator (for those rare times when she ended up examined by a doctor who wasn't “in the know”) went quiet and her eyes stopped glowing. She lay, silent and still, on the grass, hoping that the gynoid standing in the doorway didn't have enhanced sensors that would allow her to track power sources or internal WiFi signals---she shut off her WiFi just in case, hoping that the other gynoid wouldn't notice and immediately zero in on her.

Ted, on the other hand, was trying not to hyperventilate or draw any unnecessary attention to himself; he gave a few brief seconds of consideration to the idea of holding his breath, and dismissed the thought just as quickly as it came. His only solace came from the fact that it was nighttime...

…which was swiftly ruined when the gynoid at the door stopped, looking almost right at him.

“Don't. Move.” Rae never even moved her lips to speak the words. “Just stay still....”

The urge to nod at the gynoid's request nearly prompted Ted to blow his own cover, but he stayed as still as possible, hugging the ground and trying not to draw attention to himself. As long as nobody put a light on him, he was perfectly---

A spotlight blazed into existence, shining at Ted like something off of the bottom of a police helicopter.

Seconds later, another spotlight activated, its beam almost pinioning him to the spot.

He could barely meet Rae's horrified gaze, mouthing the words “I'm sorry” as the gynoid from the doorway marched over to where he lay. Whatever was about to happen---

“What's going on out here?!”

Kaede Minoru's voice cut through the silence like a knife, stopping the gynoid from the door in her tracks (less than three feet away from Ted, at that). “Lani, why are you....” She noticed Ted quaking on the ground, and Rae staring at her with a look of defiance. “.....Lani, deactivate Sentinel Mode and go back inside.” Instantly, Lani's posture relaxed. With one last glare at Ted, she turned on her heel and headed back indoors. Kaede watched her leave, shaking her head and muttering in Japanese all the while.

“.....ah, can I get up now?” Ted grunted.

“You both can,” Kaede replied, extending a hand to help him up. “I suppose I should've expected this, after Paula found the tracer planted on her....”

Ted started to apologize, only to notice Rae asending into a standing position at disturbingly inhuman speed, her figure never faltering as she moved. “...haven't had to do that in a while,” she mused, dusting herself off before glancing at Kaede. “So,” she declared, “you found the tracer I handed over to your gal pal and you haven't yet called for Teddy and I to be hung from the nearest yardarm, so I can assume that your posse is on the side of the angels....”

“.....we're agents of the House,” Kaede replied, “if that's what you mean. Specifically, the Osaka branch. The Patriarch can vouch for us.”

“The Osaka branch was one of the few that wasn't attacked,” Ted reasoned. “But why were you all---”

“Celeste was under investigation when we were at SJSU last year,” Kaede explained. “We were...keeping tabs on her, and we'd been given information leading us to believe that your daughter was going to be inducted into the House under her orders. Under ordinary circumstances, that wouldn't have been any cause for concern...”

“But this time, it was?” Rae prompted.

Kaede nodded. “Celeste had been acting...erratic, for the past few months. Some were considering replacing her as Matriarch, especially after the Detroit incident....but it was decided to let her continue, to see what would happen next...” She stared at the ground, as if ashamed to continue. “....that decision was...unwise.”

“And where does the flip phone come in?” Rae prompted.

“.....we had been given the phone to keep track of Celeste,” Kaede explained. “It was keyed in specifically to a frequency that only she emitted, and would allow us to monitor her location if the need arose...but when we were having our 'roving conference', one of our number lost track of the phone---and, well....” She sighed, running a hand through her hair. “Lani was of the opinion that we could just buy a new phone and program the frequency into it, but the House refused---the phone had....another purpose.”

Ted nodded, not wanting to press the issue. “And with Vicki's, ah, extra-curriculars taking up so much time, you couldn't just ask her to give it back....”

“We were considering asking her after the attack on ALPA HQ,” Kaede admitted. “Then the Patriarch told us about the breach, and what had been taken...with the List being the highest-profile item. Recovering the phone was no longer the top priority for the House, and we were told to put it on the proverbial back-burner for the time being....”

“And now that everyone in the House has sorted out their issues,” Rae finished, “someone decided that it was time to find the Almighty Phone before the wrong people got a hold of it.”

Again, Kaede nodded. “After the attacks earlier this year, we were told to minimize all possible security risks.”

“And they didn't think to do this before you dropped the phone?” Rae mused, frowning. “A bit late---”

“Celeste's actions hadn't yet warranted any further investigation....at the time, the phone was merely a means to keep track of her.” Kaede turned away. “When she began....courting...Jake Brightstar, the phone's 'other properties' were activated. Her most recent, shall we say, indiscretions have put the House in further jeopardy, and necessitated the use of those 'other properties'---”

“Is it going to DeComm her?”

Ted's question prompted a startled gasp from Rae. “....they wouldn't,” she whispered.

“Her....erratic behavior has been getting worse, over the past few months,” Kaede admitted. “Until recently, all we knew were a few...troubling rumors, until recently.” She glanced at Rae. “The voice you heard from the building is that of someone who is just as concerned as my sisters and I are---we were in the middle of a video-conference of sorts with him. We've received images and information from him, all of it pertaining to what, exactly, Celeste has been trying to accomplish during her exile in Florida....” Her voice dropped to a low murmur, her eyes focused on the ground again, rather than Ted or Rae. “....some of what we've found out is...more than troubling.”

“I think we'd better continue this discussion inside,” Ted advised. “

Rae's mouthing of “I don't” went unnoticed by Kaede, and earned her a warning glance from Ted.

“....it would be safer to continue inside.” The Asian gynoid nodded. “I'll need to tell Lani, first.....”

Part 12

“...since you already know the rules of conduct regarding the Visitation Area, I'll leave you to prepare for your latest session with the accused.”

Vicki barely glanced at Director Preston; the padded door on the other side of the room had opened, revealing the men in grey and the chained figure of Oberon being led in. Not a hair was out of place on his head, and his uniform didn't sag or look too tight on him (the question of do they custom-tailor the clothes for their prisoners around here? ran through the brunette gynoid's mind for a few seconds).....

…the only difference between this session and the last was the look in Oberon's eyes.

In her first session with the ex-chairman, Vicki had noticed a bloodshot, almost haunted look---this time, by contrast, Oberon seemed to have emerged from a much-deserved rest. Obviously, he didn't exactly look “happy” by any stretch of the term---the realization came rather quickly: he's calmer, now, than he was before.

Even as the men in grey set about chaining him to the chair, the deposed chairman never looked away.

Despite the revelations made in their last session, Vicki returned Oberon's stare with her own.

Footsteps out of the chamber, and the sounds of two doors closing, were the only auditory cues pointing to Preston and the two men in grey having left the room. Seconds later, the clock began to tick again.

Might as well get on with it....

“You look....calmer, now. Or at least as calm as someone chained to a chair can be.”

“And you're talking to me as if we've been enemies from the start. I already told you why I took the course of action that I did against Epsilon---”

“How many?”

Oberon arched an eyebrow at the question---more to the point, at the bluntness of it. “....what?”

“How many others have you failed, over the years?” Vicki's eyes took on a soft blue glow for a moment.

“.....if you're trying to antagonize me, it won't work. Tony Sanderson's death was regrettable, yes....but the death of Epsilon was a necessary evil---”

“Don't.”

There was no trace of Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson---frightened, anxious, confused, determined to find every possible answer---in the voice that spoke that one word. The lips that formed it, and the face behind it, were (of course) the same....but the robotic, digitized monotone was most assuredly not.

“....so that's what it takes to get you to the end of this sordid tale,” Oberon mused. “Vicki Lawson asks the first few questions....and V.I.C.I handles the rest---”

“Answer the question, or this session ends now. How many others have you failed?”

Oberon stared at the floor, shaking his head. “You ask me this,” he murmured, “as if you think I'm proud of having let them down...I can assure you that I'm not.” The calmness in his stare never wavered as he looked back to stare into the glowing blue eyes of V.I.C.I; “I'd quote the old lyric about 'and bad mistakes, I've made a few',” he continued, “but something tells me you didn't come here for a song and dance routine---ironic, considering Soph----”

“ANSWER THE QUESTION.”

The smirk on the ex-Chairman's lips faded. “....I will,” he muttered. “Believe me, I will.....but first, allow me to ask you one question of my own---”

“Why do I care?” The robotic monotone had vanished, as had the glowing eyes.

Oberon actually chuckled. “Was I that predictable?”

“Kirsten Sanderson lost both of her parents due to circumstances beyond her control, and almost got herself bricked trying to keep her father safe. A nobody who wanted to 'get his foot in the door' has infected two different gynoids, from the ALPA and the Coalition, with the Helios virus, and could probably spread it through Silicon Valley if nobody stops him. I'm willing to bet that over a dozen or so people---probably more---have had their lives royally screwed up by everything that's happened over the past few days.....under your orders.”

Vicki's eyes glowed blue again. “Is that a good enough answer for you?”

“......you lay all of this at my feet,” Oberon mused, “as if you think I caused all of it---”

“And you're going to say you didn't?! You trying to take down Epsilon is what caused all of those things to happen.....are you seriously going to just insulate yourself like this, like a king on a chess board---”

“No.”

“Did you even think of the damage you'd do to them? To their lives? Or was it just like moving pieces into place, waiting for the right moment---”

“Just stop.....please......”

“You want me to stop? Answer my question. How many others did you fail, over the years, like you failed the Sandersons?”

“Vicki...don't do this....”

“Everything that's happened---everything you've done---has been weighing on my mind like a freaking ten-ton hammer over the past day or so. The last thing I'm going to do is stop asking questions about all of this---”

“You don't understand....” Oberon was hunched over in his chair now, his fists clenched. “Vicki–-”

“What is all of this, to you? One big game of chess, with you as the White King---”

“I AM NO KING!”

Oberon's scream stopped Vicki's accusations with the force of a fastball hitting a concrete wall. “I have never, in the entire history of the ALPA, set myself up as anything like a king,” the ex-chairman hissed, glaring at the brunette gynoid from the far side of the room. “Yet every single time I take a step, make even the slightest of suggestions on how something needs to be done.....” He shook his head. “It's astonishing, how quickly a label can stick to someone...something like 'King of the Valley', even as a sodding joke.....ten bloody years, I heard that name, even before I earned the title of Chairman.....”

His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “....but I am no king. Not of man, nor of machine.....”

Vicki felt as if she'd been welded to the floor. After her emotional breakdown from the last session, she'd made the decision to hammer away at her former mentor with a never-ending barrage of questions, never letting him have an opportunity to deliver anything with the impact of “I refused to let it hinder me” again. “I....I didn't.....”

“I am no king,” Oberon repeated, “yet my so-called allies---and my enemies insist on 'honoring' me as such...”

“I didn't mean it that way,” Vicki insisted. “I was just---”

She stopped, realizing Oberon was staring at her yet again. “....I was talking about chess,” she murmured, “not calling you---”

“If I am to be a king,” the disgraced Chairman declared, “then bestow upon me the name, crown and mantle of King Nothing, the First, monarch of fools and and saviour of none!” He gestured to the chair he'd been shackled to; “And this,” he spat, “the throne from which I rule over a land of mistakes, damnation and good intentions gone awry.....” He bowed his head, his figure wracked by heaving breaths. “You really want to know how many people I've failed, Agent Lawson?”

Before Vicki could respond, Oberon looked up---the sclera of his eyes had gone almost completely red, as twin trails of tears ran down his cheeks.

“Too many.”

Vicki half-expected the door behind her to be flung open, for Director Preston to interrupt again with news of another flyover---in all honesty, she wanted to be interrupted, to have Oberon's explanation cut off. After five whole seconds without the door opening, however, she finally spoke. “....okay, you've failed...too many---”

“Celeste.” Oberon gave a mirthless chuckle. “You already know some of the sordid history between myself and the ex-Matriarch of the House...” He gestured to his blood-red eyes. “...complete with the ever-lingering reminders of our falling out. Unfortunately, the dissolution of what we had was not merely a failing brought on by a bad romance---she was caught up in the rush of her rise to power, and I was....caught up in other things, at the time. I made promises to her, promises of a better life....”

He turned away (at least, as much as the chair allowed). “....promises of a family.....”

For some unexplainable reason, Vicki's thoughts turned to the upper level of the Visitation Room, ringed by a catwalk of sorts where unseen guards monitored the entire session. She wondered, briefly, what would have to happen for them to take action....

“They're only watching, for now. Unless I do something daft, in the next few minutes...all they'll do is watch.”

Oberon's words drew Vicki's attention back to him. “....so, you promised Celeste a family.”

“She wasn't the only one I made that kind of promise to. I'm sure Alicia mentioned losing her intended family when they were appropriated for one of the many weapons shipments sent to the Contras.....” The disgraced Chairman shook his head. “....instead of trying to save them, I was doing my damndest to keep Celeste from going on a tear after we had our....falling out.”

Thoughts of Director Preston mentioning that Oberon had failed him---or at the very least, shown the man just how little he knew of him---rose to the forefront of Vicki's processors; the question formed on her lips---

“The 'P' in ALPA wasn't always for 'protection', you know.”

Obreon was staring at the floor again. “Preston was a younger man, then....your father already confessed to his sins at that time, or rather his complicity in the sins of those who were slaughtering androids and gynoids that didn't even have names....It was the Artificial Lifeform Procurement Agency, back then....and before that, it was the Artificial Lifeform Production Association....” A low, disgusted hiss left his nostrils. “It wasn't until the mid-80s that the P finally stood for 'Protection'....it took me that long to finally stand up to them, to stare down every greed-head and war-monger and say the two words someone should've said to them since the start....”

He looked up, his eyes no longer shot through with blood: “No more.”

The brunette gynoid nodded slowly, supressing all urges to demand further explanation about the ALPA's sordid past. “....but that doesn't explain---”

“I had the chance to help him,” Oberon spat. “Preston.....he could've taken charge faster, done more good within the ALPA, if I'd been focused on what mattered. Instead, I was trying so damned hard to do the best I could at keeping everyone happy....the government, the robotics companies, the Coalition, that sodding mercurial Celeste.....I was doing everything for them, and not enough for the people who needed my help. It was a fool's errand, but....”

He shook his head. “Preston's sister had married an android. I missed the ceremony, for reasons previously detailed....they needed a set of paperwork to prove he was 'natural'. I could've gotten them in minutes.”

The question “so why didn't you?” barely formed in Vicki's processors before Oberon broke down in tears.

“.....family reunion.....she was introducing him to everyone...some idiot had....” He paused for a second, drying his eyes with the back of his hands. “....some plonker had brought an infrared remote for the TV, as a 'gift' or something....” His fists clenched. “Damned stupid thing went and sent contradictory signals, the new groom wound up getting a burn-out---while he and the missus were 'sneaking a quickie' in the upstairs bedroom. And I mean 'burn-out' in the literal sense...with his blushing bride trapped under him.”

Vicki's eyes widened in shock.

“The 'official cause' of the fire,” Oberon continued, “was listed as an electric blanket with a frayed wire....I was in charge of planting one at the scene when I showed up.” A haunted tone had crept into his voice, now; “Four rooms,” he muttered. “Four whole rooms, gone up in flames.....”

His words trailed off into a sob. “....along with everyone in them....”

Words and images flashed, unbidden, into Vicki's field of vision: “FREAK ELECTRIC BLANKET FIRE CLAIMS EIGHT LIVES!”, “FAMILY REUNION GOES UP IN FLAMES!”, “NEWLYWED NIGHTMARE — GET-TOGETHER GONE BAD!” and other sensationalist headlines appeared, accompanied by pictures of a ruined two-story house, smoke billowing from the upstairs windows. One picture, in higher definition than the rest, showed a young man (Director Preston, the brunette gynoid realized) staring with slack-jawed shock at the carnage....

...and, in the background, a white-clad figure looking away.

“The groom would've been given a shielding upgrade,” Oberon muttered, “once the paperwork had all been sorted out. Just a few minutes, is all it would've taken.....”

Despite her growing sense of dread, Vicki spoke up: “What about Celeste's daughter?”

Oberon stared at her, tears still trailing down his face. “....what?”

“You....you said you gave Celeste a daughter, earlier. What happened---”

“No.” The ex-Chairman turned away as best he could. “I've told you enough about how much of a failure I've been over the years.....you've heard enough about her before, anyways---”

“What happened to Celeste's daughter?”

Again, it was the face of Vicki Lawson behind the question---but the voice that spoke the words, and the blue, glowing eyes that stared at Oberon, were those of V.I.C.I. “Tell me,” the brunette gynoid repeated, “what happened to Celeste's daughter.”

“.....before I answer your question----”

“Not this time. I've done enough explaining of my own for one day. Answer the question.”

A lesser man would've withered under the piercing blue stare and the digitized monotone; to his credit, Oberon merely nodded. “Your father would be proud of you, Victoria....”

“Enough stalling. Talk.”

“....she wanted a family. Celeste, I mean.....she wanted a family. Husband, progeny, all that. For a month or so....” Oberon paused, shaking his head again---this time, in disbelief. “.....she actually wanted to experience the 'wonderment' of giving birth, as humans do....obviously, there was no way on God's green Earth that it was going to happen, the technology just.....” He gave a brief, exasperated chuckle. “....anyway....she wanted a family, but everyone knew it wouldn't happen in the, ah, 'traditional' way, so.....”

“You created one for her.”

“Just a daughter,” Oberon corrected. “She was meant to be the first of many....if fate had been kinder, she'd be the one in charge of the House right now, probably....” His lips parted in a wistful smile at what could've been.

“Except fate wasn't kind,” V.I.C.I surmised. “What happened---”

“Celeste.” The disgraced Chairman took a deep breath. “Celeste, for lack of a better term, happened...she was on one of her damn foolish 'crusades' again, I can't even remember what it was about....the exact details elude me, at the moment, but all they told me when she was brought in---”

“Brought in?” V.I.C.I echoed, confusion tinging her monotone. “What---”

“She was supposed to meet me at the airport, after her little 'trip',” Oberon clarified. “Instead, we had our meet-up at a clinic---basically, think of Tell's shop, but sort of, ah, franchised....anyway, she was brought in, and all they'd say---her entourage, if you're wondering....” He sighed. “All they were willing to tell me was 'we think she's been infected'. Not a word more.” His shoulders slumped, as if dreading what he was about to say. “I was able to persuade the attending technicians to let me take a look at her charts, and...”

“Stylo?”

“...it didn't have a name. It could've been some early permutation of Stylo, it could've been something else entirely....all I know is, whatever Celeste was infected with, it changed her. When they reactivated her....I don't know how she knew, but she knew she was still infected....”

Oberon bowed his head. “....she begged me not to tell anyone. Pleaded with me....”

His eyes brimmed with tears. “....and I agreed.”

Before V.I.C.I could speak, the ex-Chairman continued: “The changes were...subtle, at first, but over time, they were far easier to notice. She was more possessive---possessive of me, even though we weren't a couple in any sense....and on those instances where we fell out of favor with each other, she was far more aggressive, more....ruthless.” His tone turned bitter; “It wasn't even about 'love', after the infection,” he muttered. “She was lusting after me, almost hungering for...” He rolled his eyes at the thought. “It was affecting her leadership abilities, as well---the simplest decisions became opportunities for power-grabs, favor-mongering....”

He cast his gaze to the floor. “....letting her raise a daughter at that point would've been...unforgivable.”

Before V.I.C.I could interrupt him again, he continued: “I did the only responsible thing I could do, which was to allow the ALPA to take custody of Celeste's daughter. She wasn't mine to 'give' to them....”

“You let them take her.” V.I.C.I's assessment wasn't a question. “And Celeste....”

“Took the news about as well as you'd expect....” He gestured to his eyes again. “You already know the sordid story of my bloody tears...even if my poisoning wasn't ordered directly by her, she wasn't exactly displeased with the news of my suffering...the point is, I've made promises before, and I've failed to keep them---and in the case of Celeste, I failed because I kept a promise.”

“And Epsilon is....your latest failure?”

“And I didn't even have to maneuver the conversation back to it...” Oberon closed his eyes. “Yes, my attempt to kill Epsilon is my latest and worst failure to date.” He held his arms up, ignoring the restraints that kept him shackled to the chair. “These failures, and so many more, are why I am no king, and will never be the king of anything. Too many people have lost far too much, all because of promises I made.”

“And you never promised the Sandersons anything?”

If V.I.C.I.'s question had any impact on Oberon, he hid it well. “Two of them are already gone. I don't think I need to burden you with---”

“Did you make any promises to them, or not?”

“.....I've told you enough, for one day.” The ex-Chairman bowed his head. “More than enough, really...”

“I don't think you have.” V.I.C.I didn't move from where she stood. “I want to know, right now, if you made any promises to the Sanderson family or---”

“Two of them have already died. Kirsten is still on the mend from almost having her own memory wiped, by that sodding magnet in the AutoYard....she's suffered enough.” Oberon took a deep breath. “Nothing I say, or refuse to say, will change that fact---for you, for her or for any of her surviving relatives.”

A number of replies filtered through V.I.C.I,'s processors....but none of them were spoken out loud.

“I wouldn't have had time to say much, anyways,” Oberon quietly added, almost as an afterthought.

“....what?”

“The clock, for our session. It's down to....three minutes, at the very least.”

“A lot can be said in three minutes.”

“Unless there's nothing left to say...which is exactly where we stand at this very moment.” Oberon sighed. “I can only assume that this didn't go quite the way you expected it to....”

For a full minute, V.I.C.I stared at Oberon, no words leaving her artificial lips.

“...your silence speaks volumes,” the ex-Chairman intoned. “I only ask that you remember this exchange, and that no matter what anyone else---and I do mean anyone else---tells you....”

Again, he bowed his head. “....I am no king. I never have been, and I never will be.”

The brunette gynoid started, silently, as the door behind Oberon's chair opened, allowing the men in grey to enter the Visitation Area. None of them spoke as they unlocked the shackles that bound him to the restraint chair. As they led the ex-Chairman out, he turned to glance, one last time, at V.I.C.I.....

...and once again, his final words echoed in her mind: I am no king. I never have been, and I never will be.

The men in grey closed the door behind them, leaving V.I.C.I in total silence.

Part 13

“.....well, we've done all we can do from a hardware standpoint.”

Galatea glanced at Anton and Inspektor 12---both of them still wearing scrubs and gloves stained with various vital fluids from their full teardown and rebuilding of Kristen Casey, a.k.a. Casey, after her graphic demise by way of the Helios program. Anton's mood had thankfully remained optimistic---or at least, as optimistic as he could be while repairing a gynoid who'd effectively been burned from the inside out by a virus/”security program”; Inspektor 12, meanwhile, was staring thoughtfully at the immobile figure of the rebuilt K.C.

“Something on your mind, Inspektor?”

The Inspektor had barely even noticed Galatea's approach. “It occurs to me,” he mused, “that Miss Casey might be irreparably changed by all of this. Her personality, her perspective....”

“And you think Helios is what might change her?” the silver-skinned gynoid inquired.

“Changes or no changes,” Anton cut in, “we'll never know for sure until she's back online. Oh, and you might be interested to know that I got a call from our friends in the EDF during our last break---they may know how Mills was able to get his hands on Helios.”

Inspektor 12 arched an eyebrow at the mention of the Earth Defense Force---but Galatea's groan caught the professor's attention. “You told them about this? I thought they were still handling the cleanup on the whole Rigelit----I mean, the 'hazmat weirdo' incident!”

“That was last year,” Anton reminded her. “And I was in contact with their Cyber Defense Initiative branch.”

“Cyber....what?!”

Anton chuckled. “I'll explain later---”

“A wise decision,” Inspektor 12 reminded him. “Especially since Miss Casey still has yet to return to the land of the living.” He glanced back at K.C.'s motionless form. “How current are her latest backups?”

“Gimme a sec....” Galatea checked a nearby laptop, her expression immediately turning grim. “Oh, scrap...”

“Unless Maise's primer on cyber-slang is out of date,” the Inspektor remarked, “I can only assume you've found something that's....very not good, to put it mildly.”

“Let me see....” Anton joined Galatea in staring at the readouts on the laptop. “They're from the night before her infection! Anything else she may have missed, she can get the info from a debriefing!”

“Including the part where she died?”

The expression on Galatea's face was difficult to pinpoint....but her eyes held an eerily human air of sadness as she spoke. “Even if she 'gets the info' about what happened leading up to her infection, right down to the last few minutes before the end,” she quietly informed Anton, “there's almost half a day missing from her memory after that....” She nodded at the not-yet activated gynoid on the work table. “....not to mention the tiny little fact that you managed to give her a body that's a bit more....built than her old one.”

Her remark wasn't lost on Anton or the Inspektor---the new body they'd selected for K.C. was at least two inches taller than her old one, and was a full cup size bigger, to boot. The hair color and skin tone matched, and even the face was a perfect reproduction....but there was no denying that her new body was different.

“....I'm starting to see why Rae got upset when I mentioned how K.C. was 'off the shelf',” Anton muttered.

The silver-skinned gynoid gave him a perfect Kubrick stare. “You actually used that term?”

“What's passed is past, and cannot be undone,” Inspektor 12 interjected. “I'm sure Anton meant no offense in regards to Miss Casey....am I right?” He lowered his shades slightly, glancing at the roboticist.

“Of course I didn't mean any offense! I was just making the point that repairs would be easier---”

The Inspektor held up one hand, prompting him to quiet down. “And I'm sure that you, more than any other girl of your kind on the planet, knows that not every gynoid is as....unique....as you are, Galatea.”

“Believe me, I know.” Galatea rolled her eyes. “But thanks anyway for putting it in perspective.”

“You're more than welcome, my dear. Now, back to the matter at hand....”

Galatea once again moved to hold K.C.'s head---this time, to allow Anton to move the gynoid's hair aside and plug a USB cable into a port hidden behind the right ear of her new body. “Not to ruin the mood or disrupt our work with idle chit-chat, or anything,” she mused, “but I haven't seen Alicia for the past hour or so....”

“She left right after the Inspektor got here,” Anton replied, not looking up. “Had to tend to 'House business'.”

“You say that like it's a bad thing....unless it was about Florida.”

“Actually, it wasn't. Something to do with a group from Japan...” Anton paused. “I heard you telling Inspektor 12 that Ted and Rae had left, earlier---”

“I'll give you the full story later. Right now, we have a Field Agent to resurrect...” Galatea noticed Anton's frown and the Inspektor's politely bemused look at the same time. “.....or reboot,” she added, “or whichever term you prefer---you know what I meant.”

“We do indeed...did you bring her ASU?”

Anton ducked behind the table, emerging with what appeared to be a large plastic box with no visible handles or hinges on it. “And this is a portable model,” he grunted, setting it down near Casey's midsection. “Just be glad she was able to bring it with her when her old family gave her the boot, otherwise...”

“Let's not focus on the negative,” Galatea advised. “We've got her ASU, we've salvaged what we could...”

“Cutting right to the heart of the matter,” the Inspektor declared, giving the silver-skinned gynoid a hearty clap on the back. “Almost reminds me of some of my own girls...your father would definitely be proud of you, my dear.” He smiled. “And of his old business partner,” he added, glancing at Anton.

“Way to shift the spotlight,” Galatea teased, quietly wiping a tear from her metallic cheek. “And also...thanks.”

“As always, you are most welcome.” Inspektor 12 nodded.

“Not to bring the compliment cavalcade to a crashing halt,” Anton reminded the pair, “but we're not out of the woods yet...we still need to get Casey back online.” He paused for a moment, frowning.

Galatea folded her arms across her chest, arching an eyebrow in the roboticist's direction. “I know that look,” she mused, “and I have a feeling it's either something profound or something profoundly not good. Anything you'd like to share with the Inspektor and I, Professor?”

“....it took twelve people to bring Vicki back,” Anton murmured. “Now, with Casey, it's just three....”

“Vicki's case was different,” the Inspektor reminded him. “The Eleven were all summoned......”

“And I'm pretty sure you both know Casey's history with her own family by now,” Galatea added.

Anton scowled. “I wish, every day, that we didn't have to know it. She was outed as a gynoid midway through her teens---boarding school. Worst possible place for it to happen.”

“I actually had to go there on damage-control,” Galatea admitted. “Obviously, not like this....” Her sarcastic tone faded; “It was....sobering, to be honest,” she continued, her voice a low, haunted murmur. “The way they were talking about Casey, like she was just a thing---some of them had known her for weeks, even thought of her as a friend....” The memory sent a shudder through her. “And the staff, talking about calling her 'owners' instead of her family, as if she were never anything but property....”

“Her family didn't exactly do any better,” the Inspektor muttered. “If I remember correctly, the first question they asked the investigating Field Agents was how long they'd have to wait to buy a replacement model.....”

He stopped, noticing Galatea's grip on the work table leaving rather sizable dents in it.

“Your father,” Inspektor 12 quietly reminded her, “never saw androids and gynoids as mere property, nor did he ever refer to them as 'just things'. I share that view---Rochelle, Maisie, Gina and the rest are far more than just 'robots', to me....and even though it took him a few years to get there, Ted Lawson came to his senses just as quickly, in that regard.” He sighed. “There are even some who view robots as 'property', yet still treat them with the respect due to human beings...”

Even as his words trailed off, Galatea almost knew what the Inspektor would've said next.

“As I recall, she recovered from that...unpleasantness...rather well,” Anton stated. “And seeing as how we're helping her recover this time around....” He gestured at the table.

“Right, right...repair now, reminisce later.” The silver-skinned gynoid nodded.

Inspektor 12 went over a checklist on a nearby laptop; “Unless we've missed about five or six steps over the course of this procedure,” he stated, “everything should be in place for her reactivation.”

“Pretty sure we didn't miss anything...” Galatea paused for a moment, going over her own mental checklist.

“We didn't miss a step---I've checked five or six times.” Anton strode past the laptop Inspektor 12 was going over, taking a quick glance at the list as he went. “....seven, now. We'll need to get the tools off of the table, of course....”

Galatea and the Inspektor circled the table, picking up tools and putting them on the nearby “crash cart” that Anton had brought over from his office. “It probably goes without saying,” the gynoid mused, gently setting down a panel removal tool as she spoke, “but once she's back online....if Casey starts asking questions that will go into why she's in a new body....I don't think we should tell her about Helios.”

“And if she finds out from Agent Lyndon or someone else?” the Inspektor queried.

“Then we tell her---but only if we have no other choice.” Galatea glanced at the edge of the work table that she'd dented earlier. “We should all be thankful that Casey was never a sleeper....”

The Inspektor said nothing, choosing instead to input a nine-digit code into a keypad on Casey's ASU.

“We should also be thankful,” Anton mused, “that Casey never changed her code...strange how she has one even though she wasn't a Laine-designed unit---” He noticed Galatea giving him a “please stop talking” look, and he let the remark trail off.

Once the last digit of the code was entered, the keypad retreated into the ASU, and a panel closed over it.

“.....so, how long do we have to wait---”

Galatea's question was answered---not by Anton or the Inspektor, but by Casey herself. The gynoid's eyes opened, glowing a soft green. “Ac.ti.va.tion code ac.cep.ted,” she stated, her voice a clipped, synthetic monotone. “Sys.tem i.ni.ti.al.iz.at.ion com.men.cing....”

Anton's mutter of “Another Laine hallmark” went ignored by the Inspektor, though Galatea gave him a look.

“Di.ag.nos.tic in pro.gress.....”

Several trilling beeps issued from within Casey's form. “If there are any traces of Helios still in her systems,” the Inspektor mused, “I have a feeling they'll be detected here.”

“Right, right....” Galatea nodded absently. “Is it always like this?”

Her murmured question earned a puzzled look from Anton. “Is what always like this?”

“Activations....fresh off the assembly line, or first time in a new body....” The silver-skinned gynoid's right hand drifted to her chest, where a human's heart would've been. “Is it always this....robotic?”

“....was yours?” Anton quietly asked.

Whatever reply Galatea could've given was cut off by a final, almost musical beep from Casey. “All sys.tems fun.ct.io.ning nor.mal.ly.”

Inspektor 12 nodded his approval. “No traces of Helios in her. Everything's coming up green---”

He stopped, realizing that Galatea was shivering, her simulated breath sounding close to sobbing; Anton was at her side in an instant, embracing her.

Casey's announcement of “Neu.ral net.work map.ping in pro.gress” went ignored---Anton was too busy guiding the silver-skinned gynoid to the sofa, one arm still around her shoulders. Her lips were moving too quickly for the Inspektor to read, but it was clear that Casey's reactivation had brought forth one too many painful memories.

The Inspektor's attention was diverted from the emotional moment by Casey slowly sitting up on the table, uttering “Ba.lance co.or.di.na.tion in pro.gress” as she moved. Her motions were just a bit more fluid and lifelike than expected as she turned, positioning herself to stand up on the floor. Once she'd eased herself off of the table, a few subtle motions were all it took to keep her on her feet. Another beep sounded, followed by the utterance of “I.den.ti.fy.ing sur.roun.din.gs” from the gynoid. Inspektor 12 nodded, only to hear another sob from the general direction of the sofa; Galatea was whispering something to Anton, tears still trailing down her metallic cheeks. The roboticist replied in a comforting tone, prompting a nod from the purple-haired gynoid as she rose from the sofa.

As the pair rejoined Inspektor 12 near the work table, a final tone emitted from Casey as she stood, motionless, before them. “Di.ag.nos.tic com.plete. Hu.man per.so.na.li.ty ful.ly fun.ct.io.nal. Ac.ti.va.ting hu.man per.so.na.li.ty em.ul.at.ion....”

K.C. blinked a few times, the glow in her eyes fading to a “normal” pupil/iris.

“...okay,” she mused, “why are you all staring at me like that?”

“Ah, well,” Anton admitted, “you're kind of....” He gestured at her torso.

“What are you---OH, MY GOD!” K.C. quickly covered her bare breasts and crotch with her hands.

The Inspektor stepped in, keeping a respectable distance. “In our defense, we were merely repairing you...”

A quick glance at her ASU and the tools on the cart were more than enough proof for K.C. “...right, right. I just...” She paused, frowning. “Is it just me, or am I taller than I remember?”

“....there's a perfectly logical explanation for that,” Anton began, only to stop; K.C. was no longer covering herself with her hands. “I didn't think a boob job was an upgrade option this early in my ALPA career,” she joked, hefting one breast in her hand and squeezing it. “Not too big, but not flatter than a clipboard....” A quick crane of her neck gave her the barest glance at her rear end. “So I'm guessing my butt's a bit bigger than before, too, then....”

“Slightly.” Inspektor 12 glanced at the ASU. “You've been offline for...a day and a half, at the very least, Miss Casey.”

“That long? For a repair job?”

“We wanted to be thorough,” Anton replied. “The ALPA doesn't cut corners when it comes to repairs---”

“All right, all right...” K.C. sighed. “Crap, I have a mission to get to, with Kylie---”

Galatea finally stepped forward. “.....K.C.,” she quietly admitted, “you were already on that mission.”

“....I was?” The Fiend Agent frowned. “Then how come I don't remember it?”

“That,” Anton quickly cut in, “is why you were brought in for this repair job....”

As the Inspektor watched Anton “explain” K.C.'s situation to her, he noticed Galatea seem to lose focus---and her eyes blinking almost too rapidly to track. For a second, he thought that the silver-skinned gynoid was once again succumbing to an overpowering emotional memory....only to recall their earlier discussion about not telling K.C. everything about her situation right off the bat.

“....and we'll get you back to your apartment before too long, if you don't have a problem with it.”

Anton's assurance earned a frown from K.C. “Thanks, but....can I get some clothes, first? I know I'm not going to freeze to death, or anything, but....well.....” She gestured at her nude form.

Before Anton or the Inspektor could speak, Galatea gave a slight gasp; K.C., and the two roboticists turned to glance at her. “Sorry,” she breathed, “I was just....my internal communications suite is being a bit...difficult, for some reason, and I was trying to call Kylie...let her know you're okay, that you need spare clothes, all of that good stuff. She's on her way right now.”

“I thought she was already here,” Anton cut in, only to get nudged in the side.

“As long as I don't have to go back to my place wearing just a sheet, it'll be worth the wait,” K.C. replied, taking a seat on the couch. “I can't believe I missed almost a whole day....”

Inspektor 12 nearly spoke up, only for Galatea to guide him towards the kitchen by the shoulders. Anton, as if on cue, took a seat next to the nude gynoid (keeping his gaze firmly directed at eye-level), turning the topic of conversation towards “lighter fare”, as he put it; the Inspektor barely got to hear a word of what he said to K.C. before Galatea pulled the kitchen door shut behind her.

When she turned to regard the Inspektor, her eyes were once again brimming with tears.

“...I told Kylie,” she breathed, without even waiting for the Inspektor to ask. “I told her that we've had to lie to K.C., that she's waiting for a ride back to her place....that she doesn't remember what happened....”

“We're doing the right thing,” Inspektor 12 reminded her, gently placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Then why do I feel like such a traitor?!” Galatea nearly collapsed into the Inspektor, sobbing into his shirt as he caught her. “We're manipulating her memories, keeping secrets from her....it feels like we're no better than them....”

Something about the way she practically spat the word “them” didn't sit well with the Inspektor, but he ignored it for the time being. “We are nothing like 'them', my dear,” he assured her. “I can promise you, we will never be anything like 'them'. Agent Casey's situation is....unique, and we've handled it in the most effective way that we could. Also, if I recall correctly, you were the one who suggested that we not mention Helios, or its role in this sordid tale---”

“I know! I just....I wasn't thinking....at least, not clearly.....” Galatea stopped herself, noticing streaks of flesh-tone going down her hands. “....no......not again....not now.....” She glanced at her reflection in the door of the microwave; both trails of tears on her face left fading trails of “flesh” on her otherwise metallic silver skin.

“I'll tell Anton to get the car ready,” the Inspektor began, turning to leave---only for the gynoid's hand to close around his wrist. “Don't,” Galatea pleaded, her voice taking on a synthetic tone. “....please...”

As the Inspektor watched, the “flesh” trails faded back to silver.

“....it's just a glitch,” Galatea murmured. “Whenever I.....” She turned away, taking a deep breath. “When I get emotional,” she continued, her voice back to its “natural” sound, “certain subprocesses tend to....get away from me, at the worst possible moments. This whole thing with K.C....it brought back a lot of really, really bad memories for me, from before.....”

“From before you became a fully-fledged Field Agent of the ALPA,” Inspektor 12 finished, his tone grim.

Galatea nodded. “A lot of us were different, before the ALPA,” she admitted. “Rae had left her old home behind for one owner who didn't know when to stop gambling, and another who wanted to use her as a status symbol---among other things....Vicki was attending classes at SJSU like any other girl of her emulated age, until that idiot Faceless came looking for her again....and as for me, well....”

She turned away. “... funny how Oberon had a hand in all three of us joining....and now...”

“A coincidence,” the Inspektor assured her. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Except he didn't tell Vicki or Rae what he told me,” Galatea countered. “He didn't ask them to do what I did, what I helped him to do....”

She stared into Inspektor 12's eyes. “....he didn't ask them to make him forget...”

The slightest tremor of a vein in his cheek was the only sign that the Inspektor was in any way unnerved by what the gynoid had just told him. “...and I can only assume that nobody else in the ALPA knows about this?” he quietly asked. “Or what, exactly, you made him forget?”

“I think you already know the answer to that question.”

Inspektor 12 nodded. “And you won't....make me 'forget' this exchange?”

“If I tried it on you, you'd probably forget a lot more---and that wasn't a threat.”

Something in the gynoid's tone–regret, perhaps?–left the Inspektor feeling more uneasy than before, but he ignored it. “Miss Casey will more than likely need some help getting her bearings,” he mused, already heading for the door. “Shall we?”

“Good idea...” Galatea nearly tripped over her own feet, following the Inspektor out.

Part 14

“....you actually called him a king?!”

Sophia's question earned her a frown. “I didn't know he had such a dislike of the term,” Vicki admitted. “And I wasn't directly calling him a king, either...my whole point was that I thought he was acting like one...”

“...I guess that makes sense,” Sophia admitted. “Still, you could've eased up on---”

“I didn't want to just freeze up again,” Vicki countered. “After the first session, I didn't want him to catch me off-guard with an answer, and be left standing there like a deer in the headlights....” She signed, laying back on the bed in her assigned room. “All of this has been....”

“Far too much to take in?” Sophia prompted.

“I was going to say it's been exactly the opposite of what I felt like when I first met you....the whole 'fly around the world without touching down' thing...” Vicki gave a humorless chuckle. “But it really has been a lot to take in, now that I think about it.”

Sophia nearly said something, but a knock on the door cut her off. “Room Service!”

The overly-exaggerated, fake Southern accent prompted a giggle from Vicki. “I was wondering when I'd run into you out here, Tell....it's unlocked!”

“Remind me why I keep thinking that impression would ever work,” David Allen Tell mused, as the door slid open to allow him entry into the room. “I take it you don't need a tune-up on the fly while I'm here---and with Sophia, as well!” He beamed as he noticed the pigtailed pop star; “Still not wearing the 'uniform', I see,” he mused. “Walking around here dressed like that must've earned you a few dozen stares---”

“I haven't heard any complaints,” Sophia replied, grinning. “Nice to see you too, Mr. Tell.”

Tell glanced over his shoulder as the door closed, nodding as it quietly hissed shut; “I'm guessing you're both handling this well,” he mused. “Well, I'm hoping you are, actually....”

Sophia shrugged. “Other than terminal boredom, I'm good.”

Vicki almost scoffed, but couldn't quite bring herself to meet Tell's gaze as she sat up. “It's been...interesting.”

“I know that tone,” the field mechanic stated. “You don't need to self-censor with 'interesting' if you want to say something else....I heard about what happened when you first got here, too.”

“You don't have to remind me,” Vicki muttered. “I just....I didn't think it would come back to bite me...”

“And speaking of things I know,” Tell mused, “that look of yours is very familiar.”

The brunette gynoid frowned. “Don't tell me it's 'factory preset whatever', because I don't want to know.”

Her remark prompted a chuckle from the mechanic. “Believe me, V, nothing about your personality is 'factory preset'...I was going to say that I know that look because you get that look when you're feeling particularly thoughtful about something.” He grabbed a spare chair and pulled it close to the bed, taking a seat. “So, as a fully-licensed ALPA Field Mechanic and a close family friend, I have to ask...what's on your mind?”

“....was I meant to have this....connective sense thing, when I was brought back?”

“That....is pretty far outside of my sphere of expertise to answer,” Tell admitted.

“So you don't know,” Vicki finished, frowning.

“....in all honesty, it might've been part of the planned upgrades for you,” Tell replied. “Remember, everything that could be used as a weakness was eliminated---”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “And this 'connective sense' isn't a weakness?”

“It's not just WiFi, if you're wondering,” Tell assured her. “Nobody's going to be using you to mine credit card data any time soon...every bit of your software protection is ALPA-spec, so everything that makes you, well, you, is safer than Fort Knox.”

“So why did I feel bogged down when I got here?”

Tell sighed. “The countermeasures here can bring any android or gynoid to their knees, if need be. I hear you cleared the whole hallway before you finally dropped...” He actually nodded, as if proud of that fact. “...most other gynoids wouldn't have even made it halfway---”

“You sound a bit too happy about that,” Sophia mused. “And the 'countermeasures' didn't kick on for me...”

“Because you didn't have Vicki's connective sense,” Tell reminded her. “She was just passively scanning her environment, and the envrionment, for lack of a better term, reacted.”

“That was a 'reaction'?” Vicki mused, frowning again. “A reaction to a passive scan?”

“Be lucky you weren't actively scanning it, or trying to focus on anything---we'd be having this conversation in a repair bay, it we were having it at all.” Tell sighed. “Believe me, V, your connective sense isn't the problem here–like I said, the countermeasures were triggered by a passive scan, and you didn't know that kind of a reaction would occur in the first place.”

Vicki did her best to dismiss the idea with an eye-roll. “Next time, I'll make sure not to run the passive scan.”

Tell arched an eyebrow, and even Sophia looked somewhat bemused. “Ah, Vicki,” the pigtailed gynoid quietly reminded her, “the whole point of a passive scan is that you don't have to manually turn it on or off...”

“I get it,” Vicki sighed, falling back and letting her head hit the bed again. “Everything about this place....it's left me feeling like I'm in another world or something. The men in grey, for one....it feels like no matter where they are in a room, where they're standing compared to where I am.....” She gave a short bark of a chuckle. “This is going to sound so stupid---”

“It feels like they're watching you?”

Hearing the question from Tell, rather than from her own lips, wiped the humorless smile from Vicki's lips.

“...they're quiet, too,” Sophia murmured. “Sometimes too quiet. I was in my 'assigned' room, a few hours ago, writing lyrics...I could've sworn I'd locked the door! Ten minutes in, I turn around....”

Tell nodded. “They have universal access. If they need to get anywhere in the building, they can.”

“If you're trying to make me feel less paranoid,” Vicki muttered, “it's not working.”

“You have nothing to feel paranoid about, V,” Tell assured her. “This is ALPA territory---the security protocols around this place make Fort Knox look like a piggy bank.” He smirked at the analogy. “Granted, they don't exactly like that fact, over at the Fort, but it's the truth...”

Vicki scowled. “And why are we comparing a secure ALPA facility to a gold repository?”

“We were talking about the security protocols,” Sophia reminded her. “Speaking of which...”

“I haven't found out anything new about the flyover, if that's what you're trying to hint at. It's strictly 'need to know', and in their own words---”

“You don't need to know,” Sophia finished, rolling her eyes. “At least you're honest, Mr. Tell.”

The mechanic grinned. “You can call me Tell, y'know. 'Mr. Tell' sounds like a bad radio call-in host.”

“Speaking of calls,” Vicki cut in, “I'm pretty sure you didn't drop in just for a friendly chat, or to tell Sophia you didn't find out anything else about the flyover...” She glanced at Tell with an arched eyebrow. “If this was about my little 'fainting spell' when I first got here---”

“Which we already discussed,” Tell reminded her, “complete with my assurance that it wasn't your fault.”

“....fair enough. And that's the only reason you're 'visiting'?”

“In all honesty...no,” Tell admitted. “And this isn't one of those 'if I told you, I'd have to kill you' things, if you're wondering, but I can't go into details---”

“Is it about how I 'handled' my talk with Oberon?”

“....was I that obvious?” Tell shook his head. “That was one of the things I was going to bring up, but since you're not still staring at the ceiling and wondering why he refused to let 'it' hinder him---before you ask, I was allowed to watch the security footage of the session....anyway, you seem to have recovered rather quickly from that, so unless you feel a need to talk about it with me....”

The brunette gynoid didn't hesitate to reply. “I think I've come to terms with it, now.”

“Coming to terms with it is better than fighting it tooth and nail,” Tell mused. “And, since we're both here, I feel like it's only fair to ask how you're doing, Sophia.”

“Other than boredom, a mild creativity drain and mild paranoia,” the pigtailed pop singer replied, “I'm okay.”

“Good to hear---and I never expected the legendary Sophia Starlet to feel creatively drained....” Tell rolled his eyes at the thought. “Granted, a place like this is more than enough to sap anyone's creativity. Hell, just trying to enjoy the classics is a challenge, here---yesterday, I tried reading some Kerouac in one of the 'break rooms', and someone walked up and asked me why I was reading the same page for thirty minutes.”

“Thirty minutes?” Vicki echoed.

“I hadn't even noticed---believe me, V, even a 'mere mortal' like myself can get the creeping horrors from this place. I've seen people pacing the halls, going over notes for meetings that ended the day before...”

Vicki's eyes widened in shock. “....so the 'roving security' measures here aren't just for androids and gynoids?”

“In all honesty,” Tell quietly replied, “I don't even think it's related to the security measures. Sometimes, people just....lose themselves, in the halls of this place. They find their way, and themselves, quickly enough...”

He shook his head. “....anyway. You're doing well and Sophia's doing well, so I can safely assume that you two don't need me hanging around all day.” He chuckled at the remark. “If you need to talk to me again, V, just tell the Director and he'll set something up.” He rose from his seat, nodding that the gynoids. “See you when I see you!” He gave a jaunty salute and headed for the door.

“I look forward to it,” Vicki called out, waving at his retreating form.

Sophia watched the door close behind Tell. “....so, Vicki....you were saying this has all been a lot to take in?”

Part 15

“Rae, would you please get away from the door?!”

Ted's hissed warning had almost no effect on the gynoid. “I'm trying to find out a tiny bit more about our new 'friends', if you don't mind,” she mused, 'so please stop flapping your gums and let me get back to it!”

Kaede Minoru, the gynoid who had discovered Ted and Rae “hiding” on the lawn earlier, was still talking to the other four gynoids who'd shown up at Ted's; there was no sign of the sixth person Rae had apparently heard from outside the room, earlier, but she'd insisted to Ted that someone else was, indeed, inside the room. Ted, to his credit, was satisfied with the lengthy explanation that Kaede had given---even if he still had quite a few questions---but Kaede had insisted that Ted (and Rae) follow her inside to get the “full story”, an offer Rae was all too happy to accept...

“I know who I heard earlier,” Rae muttered, moving to position her ear closer to the door's keyhole. “They can't just hide him in there forever...”

“If this is about you needing or wanting to---”

Ted's attempt at a question (or was it an accusation?) fell flat a few seconds after Rae turned to stare daggers at him. “....never mind.”

“Just shush,” the gynoid muttered, turning to stare into the keyhole again. “Let me do the talking this time.”

“You're the one who put the tracer on them in the first place!” Ted groaned. “Why do you think they'd---”

“Ted,” Rae intoned, “shush.” Her eyes glowed softly as she held a finger to her lips.

Even as he folded his arms across his chest and tried to think about anything other than the situation he'd found himself in, Ted found it difficult to say angry at Rae for very long. He'd helped her out multiple times in the past, and apart from not mentioning her to Vicki before their first meeting in December of the previous year, had treated her like a member of his own extended family....and she, in turn, regarded him as a close friend, a confidant and, in her (thankfully rare) low points, someone to absorb the brunt of her tirades without flinching or folding under pressure. Others saw only facets of her personality: the playful flirtation, her unbridled and highly sensual enjoyment of being repaired, her devotion to Kylie Lyndon..

Rae Clarke was far more than the sum of her parts. Every “quirk” of hers wasn't just skillful programming or well-written software...it was a vital piece of what made her who she was.

Even as Rae stared through the keyhole, Ted found himself chuckling.

“....if this is about how my butt looks from where you're standing,” the chestnut-haired gynoid began, “you can save the compliment until later---”

“It's....it's not that,” Ted admitted. “I just...back at home---at my house, when you got mad at Anton for saying Casey's body was 'off the shelf'....thinking about it now, you're exactly the opposite of 'off the shelf'.” He shook his head, turning away slightly. “You think I'm nuts, don't you?” he mused. “Bringing something like that up now, of all times....”

A half-formed scowl died on Rae's lips. “....no,” she murmured. “I honestly don't think that....”

Footsteps approached the door she'd been standing by, forcing her to backpedal and stand near Ted. “Rain check?” she offered.

“Definitely.” Ted nodded. “And, ah, about the whole tracer thing---”

“I won't bring it up if you won't.” Rae winked.

The door opened to reveal Kaede Minoru, who regarded Ted and Rae with an apologetic look. “Sorry to keep you waiting...we were discussing whether or not to tell you more of the details of what's been going on with the House, and our reasons for needing the phone---”

“You gave us a pretty thorough explanation out on the lawn,” Rae mused.

Kaede nodded. “Almost all of my sisters---as in, Sisters of the House; we're not actually meant to be---”

“I get it,” Ted muttered, quickly adding “Sorry....it's a habit of Vicki's, and I, ah....” He shrugged. “You were going to say that you're not actually supposed to be part of the same family, though you're 'related' through the House...right?”

“Indeed---and you don't need to apologize.” Kaede smiled. “I've heard a lot about Vicki---all good things, of course. Agent LeHane, in particular, has told us plenty about her....in any case...” She stepped aside, allowing Ted and Rae to enter the room. “We were just about to hold a vote on whether or not to proceed with sending one of our number to Florida to look for Celeste, and...subdue her, if the need arose.”

“Interesting choice of words, there,” Rae muttered. “'Subdue her'....a lot of wiggle room, there.”

As Kaede closed (and, as her enhanced hearing noticed, locked) the door behind them, she noticed the gynoid named Lani scowling at her as she made her way into the room; thoughts of throwing a smirk in her direction, or even giving her a flirtatious wink, faded quickly after Ted nodded towards a pair of empty chairs. “Looks like they've set places for us in this little debate...let's not keep them waiting any longer than they have to.”

“Fine....” The word left Rae's lips as an annoyed sigh. “Just get that one to stop glaring at me.” She jerked a thumb towards Lani---

---who startled Ted, Rae and the three other seated gynoids by bolting out of her chair and nearly crossing the room in seconds; the only thing that held her back was Kaede's arm, accompanied by a plea (in Japanese) to just let the remark slide. Lani's glare never left Rae, even as she nodded, took a few steps back and returned to her seat---considering how she (and the other three seated gynoids) appeared to be dressed for a trip to the mall, the expression on her face seemed almost comical.

Ted started to say something---more than likely, a suggestion to Rae---but the chestnut-haired gynoid cut him off with a shake of her head, followed by a nod towards Kaede. Let her talk first, Teddy.

“As I previously mentioned to my Sisters,” Kaede explained, “Celeste's activities in Florida are beginning to draw...unwanted attention. Jake Brightstar has already been spotted at least twice trying to escape from the house he purchased, under her orders---”

“Escape?” Rae echoed. “I thought those two were---”

“Any semblance of love between them has long since faded,” Kaede replied, an undertone of sadness in her voice. “Jake has been making calls to House offices and practically begging for someone to get him out of Florida and as far away from Celeste as possible....any genuine affection she may have had for him has turned into obsession.” She looked away; “In his last call,” she murmured, “he even mentioned how Celeste was trying to get him to start wearing all white clothing...dying his hair blond....to channel a past love of hers. She even had him restrained while two of her closest aides tried to dye his hair.”

Rae didn't even need to glance at Ted to know he was horrified by this latest revelation---just hearing that the ex-Matriarch was going this far off the deep end was enough to unsettle her.

From the chair next to her, Ted spoke up: “Has anyone seen him since that call?”

“A few days ago,” Kaede replied, “He'd been trying to wash the blond dye out of his hair at a gas station---”

“So she's actually doing him up that way, then?” Rae cut in. “Hair dye, new wardrobe...the whole works?”

Lani actually growled at the interruption. Kaede gave her a sideways glance, but otherwise ignored her anger and continued: “We have reason to believe that Celeste is being...compelled, for lack of a better term, to do whatever she can to recreate her past romance with the, ah....”

“Former ALPA Chairman,” Ted prompted.

Kaede nodded. “...her romance with the former ALPA Chairman, using Jake Brightstar as a 'proxy'.”

“And she doesn't give anything remotely resembling a damn about the fact that Will Brightstar will hunt her to the ends of the Earth for this?” Rae inquired, frowning. “He has a history of going after 'gold-diggers' who only wanted Jake for his money....I mean, yeah, Celeste isn't exactly in it for the bank account, but trying to turn Jake in to a replacement for, well...”

“We've managed to keep Jake's father from getting involved, so far,” Kaede informed her. “Unfortunately, his patience grows shorter by the day. If we can't 'return' Jake soon, he may try to get him back on his own.”

“Which I can only assume is the worst case scenario,” Rae mused. “Care to tell us why?”

Kaede hesitated for a moment---and Lani spoke up in her place. “Jake's actions after the Silicon Dynamics incident last year earned his family the enemity of a dangerous individual. If Will Brightstar attempts to retrieve Jake on his own, that individual could retaliate and cause more problems for everyone involved. We intended to get Jake back without outside help...” She paused to glare at Kaede. “...but circumstances---”

“You mean losing the phone,” Rae cut in.

Lani growled again, her lips parting just enough to allow a brief glimpse of her clenched teeth.

“The loss of the phone did, in fact, require outside help,” Kaede interjected. “We were actually hoping to ask Vicki herself for assistance...but she was otherwise occupied at the time.”

“And in another country,” Ted added. “So when Rae decided to---”

“I thought we weren't mentioning that,” Rae muttered.

“The conversation just sort of flowed towards that point!” Ted countered. “You put the tracer on them, we drove all the way out here, and now they're asking us for help instead of having us charged with trespassing....if they didn't get mad about it before, I'm pretty sure they won't get mad about it now!”

“Oh, fine,” Rae groaned, turning her attention to Kaede. “You're not mad about the tracer, are you?”

“Under other circumstances,” Kaede admitted, “I might be, but given your status as an ALPA Field Agent---”

“Are we forgetting my status as the head of Lawson Robotics?” Ted cut in---quickly adding “not that I want to toot my own horn or anything”, after noticing Lani glaring at him.

“Neither of you displayed any hostile intent during our previous interactions,” Kaede explained, “and even if the tracer was a bit...unorthodox....your intentions were noble. As such, three of the Sisters, and I, have voted to allow you to assist us in dealing with Celeste....even if it includes having to fly out to Florida to rescue Jake from her.”

Rae nodded. “Fine by me. I shouldn't even have to guess who the one 'nay' vote was from....”

Lani made a rather rude hand gesture in her direction; Rae merely stuck out her tongue.

“So we're not in trouble,” Ted stated, “we may end up having to go to Florida to help you get Jake away from Celeste, and we know pretty much the entire story of what's been going on here....I'd say this is a pretty fair arrangement all around.” He started to stand up---only for Rae to nearly drop him to the floor by grabbing his shirt collar. “Not so fast, Teddy Boy,” she drawled. “There's still one unsolved mystery in this whole thing...”

“The dangerous individual Lani mentioned,” Kaede finished. “I was hoping to not get him involved---”

“It's not Max Mills, is it?”

Rae's mention of the name earned a confused glance from Kaede. “I....don't know who that is, actually.”

“Lucky you,” the chestnut-haired gynoid replied, not smiling. “The prick's been trying to 'get his foot in the door' by way of a little program called Helios. I'm guessing that name doesn't ring any bells, either?”

Kaede cupped her chin in her hand, pondering the name; Lani, for her part, was still staring at Rae with a look that couldn't be read as anything other than hostile. The other three seated gynoids were quietly discussing Helios amongst themselves, more than likely going over past experiences to determine if they'd run across it before. A few scattered whispers could be discerned---some mentioning “Rengold”, others mentioning names that Rae and Ted couldn't recognize---but not much could be gleaned from it all.

“This tension is getting ridiculous,” Ted muttered. “Back at the house, it was different---Anton and Alicia were having their spats, and all, but I know both of them....but this....”

Rae nodded in sympathy. “We're in someone else's movie, now---without a script, or any marks to hit.”

Ted nearly said something in response to her choice of analogy, only to be interrupted by Kaede approaching his chair. “The House hasn't heard of this...Helios....until recently,” she informed him. “The Patriarch has only just been notified of an incident---”

“Which we were working to clear up when you lot drove up,” Rae mused.

“I apologize on behalf of the Sisters for any inconvenience we may have caused...” Kaede bowed. “Again, we were unaware of the situation regarding Helios and its possible impact on any ALPA Field Agents...”

“No worries, luv,” Rae assured her. “You didn't know, and now you do.”

“Indeed....but the individual we mentioned isn't this 'Max Mills' you alluded to.” Kaede hesitated; “We have yet to meet with him face to face, actually,” she admitted. “He prefers...secrecy, in his operations---”

An overly-theatrical groan cut her off; Rae was almost slouching out of her seat. “I heard him in here, earlier,” she drawled. “You can't honestly expect me to believe that you haven't met the plonker face-to-face when I could hear him when Teddy and I were doing the Commando Crawl out on the lawn---”

“You were using your enhanced senses to eavesdrop on us,” Lani intoned, scowling. “I told you, Kaede---”

Kaede shot an angry look towards Lani, before glancing back at Rae. “You....overheard our conversation with this individual---”

“And can we stop calling him 'this individual, already?! He's not sodding Blofeld, and this charming little setup ain't exactly SPECTRE, so you can stop with this cloak-and-dagger BS and just say it outright!” She glanced at Ted, before turning her accusatory stare back towards Kaede. “You and your 'sisters' were having a right old chat with someone who's spent the last decade on the House's 'Do Not Call' list---AND the ALPA's, AND the Coalition's!”

She turned towards Ted again. “Hate to break it to you, Teddy Boy, but their 'mysterious ally' is---”

An ash-tray shot past her head, shattering against the far wall; Lani's chair was on the floor, and the gynoid herself was on her feet, already in a sprinter's position.

“LANI, NO!” Kaede shouted. “STAND DOWN!”

The crouching gynoid's eyes glowed red. “Priority Override Engaged: Disregard Command.”

Kaede stared, horrified, as Lani essentially target-locked Rae; the other gynoids scrambled to back away from the incoming brawl. Ted, for his part, was both fascinated by the display and more than a bit freaked out at how easily Lani had disregarded her superior's command---with a healthy desire to hide behind an overturned item of furniture thrown in for good measure.

“Oh, it is on now!” Rae eased herself up out of the chair, cracking her knuckles. “To quote an old friend of mine: Come get some!”

Lani's lips parted in a growl, and she prepared to charge the chestnut-haired gynoid---

---only for the door of the room to splinter open, revealing the hulking, armored figure of Mr. Roboto.

“Roboto?!” Ted sputtered, struggling to right himself (he'd fallen over, taking the chair with him, when the door had been kicked in). “What are you doing here?!”

“Agent Clarke. Mr. Lawson. I apologize for the....abruptness of my entrance. Agent Clarke's internal tracer activated three minutes ago, and ALPA Headquarters requested my intervention in what they believed to be an escalating situation....” Roboto paused, his glowing eyes turning towards Kaede, Lani and the other House gynoids.

“We were just having an aggressive debate,” Rae stated. “I was about to say something, Lani got pissy---”

Lani growled at her again, only to stop when Roboto's gaze settled on her.

“....anyway, she got all pissy, and we probably would've had a nice little brawl before you went and broke the door.” Rae grinned. “Nice work with that, by the way.”

Kaede immediately bowed towards Roboto. “Gomen ne, Agent Roboto. The House would never intentionally antagonize an agent of the ALPA.”

“Apology accepted, Miss....”

“Minoru. Kaede Minoru.”

Roboto nodded, glancing at Lani. “And Miss....”

For the first time since Rae and Ted had seen her, Lani's glare softened. “Shimada. Lani Shimada.”

The armored android nodded. “I intend to reimburse you for the broken door, if the House has no objections...” He glanced at Rae once again. “...if you require an escort back to Headquarters, Agent Clarke, I would be happy to---”

“Oh, spack off,” Rae sighed. “I was just about to tell Ted who they were talking to before we got here...”

“There is no need for secrecy, now.” Kaede sighed. “I apologize, Agent Clarke---and Mr. Lawson---for not having told you of our arrangement earlier....”

With a glance at Lani, who merely nodded, she spoke: “Our ally is the individual known only as McMire.”

Roboto's immobile face never changed, and Ted merely arched an eyebrow....but Rae once again looked as if she were ready to beat the mortal piss out of someone. “Him?! Your 'mysterious benefactor' is McMire?!”

“I've heard that name before,” Ted mused, frowning. “Wasn't there a McMire who worked with NASA, back in the 90s? Child prodigy, designed his own space ship.....even flew a mission or two for them?” He cupped his chin in one hand, nodding. “...yeah, I...I remember it now.....and I remember that the last bit of news ever written about him was how his ship blew up on re-entry over the San Francisco Bay---”

“That was erroneous reporting,” Kaede admitted, her stare fixed solely on the floor. “He is still alive---”

“Oh, I've heard how alive he is,” Rae spat. “Alive enough to have killed about forty-five people in the last Katushai Challenge before Katushai itself got annexed, and the new regime shut down the tournament!”

It was Lani who spoke, this time: “He's moved on since then. What you know is....outdated.”

“I apologize,” Roboto interjected, “for butting into this discussion....but the ALPA has requested that both Agent Clarke and Mr. Lawson return to Headquarters immediately. If one of you would be willing to accompany them, this explanation of your alliance with....McMire....can continue....”

Kaede nodded, and stepped forward---joined seconds later by Lani. “I'm going with you.”

“I don't need your protection---”

“It's not about protecting you, Kaede...” Lani turned away. “What I did....there is no excuse for it.”

Rae regarded the exchange with a frown. “So, one minute, she's perfectly willing to knock my block off,” she mused, “and the next she's apologizing for wanting to...any of this making sense to you, Teddy?”

“I have a feeling it's more about respect and honor than almost attacking you,” Ted replied.

“And here I thought she didn't jump me because I'm such a nice girl,” Rae drawled, rolling her eyes. “You're saying she disrespected Kaede by ignoring that 'Stand Down' command?”

“She overrode the command,” Ted reminded her. “It was just as bad as if she'd slapped Kaede in the face.”

Any sarcastic reply the chestnut-haired gynoid could've made died on her tongue at those words. “...so now she's apologizing,” she muttered. “To Kaede....”

“That would appear to be the case.”

“Maybe we should call you Captain Obvious instead of Mr. Roboto,” Rae muttered. “Otherwise....” Her remark trailed off as Lani approached. “...ah, hi....”

Lani was still staring at her, but without any of the anger she'd displayed in their first interaction. Before Rae could say anything else, the Asian-American gynoid bowed. “Gomen ne, Agent Clarke. I was unaware of your status with the ALPA....as well as your history prior to joining it.”

“Right, right....” Rae couldn't meet Lani's gaze. “Water under the bridge.” She turned to leave---

“I, too, have suffered,” Lani murmured. “I was also....bartered, between owners, like property.” The way she'd spat that final word held the same sting Rae herself knew far too well. “I thought I had suffered alone---”

“No,” the chestnut-haired gynoid breathed. “You're.....you're not alone, Lani. Not anymore.....”

Even as the others were filing out of the room, she took a seat. “I think you and I have a lot to talk about...”

Part 16

“...and seriously, Sophie, if you don't use these lyrics on your next album...” Vicki's attempt at a threat trailed off into a giggle. “These are just awesome!”

“You're not just saying that because we're friends, are you?” Sophia teased.

Any comment Vicki could've made in reply was cut off by the door opening to admit Agent Harris into the room; he was scowling at something (or someone) over his shoulder, muttering under his breath. “...next time they feel like giving me the damn runaround, I'll just....” He cut himself off, noticing Vicki and Sophia both staring at him. “....later, I guess,” he muttered.

Vicki rolled her eyes. “It's your problem, not my problem, that's why I won't ask.”

Something about the half-bored, half-singsong way the brunette gynoid had spoken earned her a confused look from Harris. “.....sorry, but what?”

Noticing Sophia looking at her and trying desperately not to giggle, Vicki sighed. “After the Big Upgrade, when I was still learning the basics of how to interact with people and not make it obvious that I was a robot, Joan taught me this....she called it a couplet, but I don't think it is one. Anyway, she made me repeat it over and over again: 'it's their problem, not your problem, that's why you don't ask'. Somebody---I forget if it was Jamie or if it was someone else...maybe it was just my idea, I don't even remember...anyway, someone turned it into this goofy little song, and it got stuck in my head for a while---”

“And then you sang it at the wrong time, and almost got in trouble,” Harris finished, his frown giving way to a chuckle.

“Did Ted tell you?”

“Lucky guess....that's how it happened, wasn't it?”

“During somebody's presentation on D-Day, and I got sent to the principal for it. Ted got there before I stepped into the office...I don't even remember how he explained the whole thing, but I was let off with a 'polite but firm' warning that bursting into song in the middle of class was a really bad idea, especially when someone was going over how the Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy.” Vicki blew a few strands of hair out of her eyes. “Funny how I wasn't going to ask about your problem, and I just told a story about one of mine...”

“If it helps,” Harris offered, “my 'problem' was boring as all Hell. Personal stuff...nothing to do with this place.”

Sophia frowned at him. “Don't tell me you tried to make a call to an outside line...”

“On any other day, I'd argue in favor of my own decision,” Harris admitted. “Right now, though...” He shook his head. “Speaking of decisions...” He glanced at Vicki. “....I hear tell---from Tell, at that---that you decided to call our ex-Chairman a king.”

“I was trying to keep myself from getting caught off-guard by anything he might've said,” the brunette gynoid countered. “I wasn't even saying he was acting like an actual king....I was comparing him to a king on a chess board, using everyone else---using me as a pawn!” A frustrated groan left her lips as she fell backwards onto the bed. “I didn't know he had....well, a history with that word, to be honest. I didn't even know he had a history with Director Preston!”

“He doesn't exactly like to publicize his past mistakes,” Harris mused. “I'm pretty sure nobody does---”

“I get it.” Vicki's eyes glowed slightly, but she couldn't bring herself to glare at Harris for too long. “I just....that first session with him was a total curveball...”

She turned away. “I didn't expect it to have as much of an impact on me as it did.”

“At least that means you're still, well....you,” Sophia offered.

Vicki turned to regard her with a frown.

“If it didn't have an impact,” the pigtailed gynoid explained, “then, well...” She shrugged. “If you'd just stared at him, after he said what he said, it would mean---”

“Something in me had changed,” Vicki finished, nodding. “That's what you were getting at, right?”

“That, or you didn't care,” Harris mused. “Since nothing changed, and you obviously do care....”

“We're right back at square one.” Vicki rolled over on the bed, groaning. “Yay, me....”

“It's better than not caring,” Sophia reminded her. “It means you're still you, and not just...” She stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to think of how best to phrase what she was thinking.

Harris, almost as if he'd read the singer's mind, finished her thought out loud: “It means you, Vicki Lawson, are still you, as both a person and a machine....you didn't slide too far over the line into either direction. That is what you were going for, right?” That last question was directed at Sophia, snapping her out of her funk to nod enthusiastically towards Harris.

Vicki rolled over again, sitting up on the bed to stare at Harris. “I've heard that a lot, lately...'who you are as a person and a machine'...or variations of it.”

“And that bothers you?” Harris inquired.

“It makes me think of that ALPA recruitment poster I saw,” the brunette gynoid replied, “with me front and center.” She wasn't smiling. “I never expected, or asked, to be set up as the 'face' of the ALPA, especially not after what happened....what I did....in Dawley.” Screams of “ANYTHING BUT MY HANDS! PLEASE!” rang through her thought processes, as clear as when they'd first echoed through that back room in Björn Aaberg's complex. “I crossed a line..I did something just as bad as what Oberon has done---”

“You stopped yourself from going all the way over that line,” Harris reminded her. “You---”

“I nearly killed Matthew Emmerich Hannsen,” Vicki shot back. “Worse than that....I enjoyed what I did to him.”

“The man shot your roommate point-blank in the back of the head, and she didn't even know what the hell was going on.” Harris' gaze and tone never faltered. “Any human being in your position would've---”

“No.”

The brunette gynoid rose from the bed, her eyes lit with a soft glow as she stared at Harris. “Don't try to tell me that what I did was acceptable. Yes, Hannsen killed Sharon, but he's still a human being---”

“And a criminal,” Harris finished. “Him being human didn't stop you from beating the hell out of him.”

The words weren't meant as a rebuke, but the effect was as sudden as if Harris had shouted V.I.C.I down for what she'd done. Oberon's words---”I refused to let it hinder me”---sounded in her ears again....

...and at that moment, she realized Sophia was staring at her with equal measures of awe and fear.

“....you're not the first Field Agent to snap, the way you did,” Harris continued. “I can almost guarantee that you won't be the last, either. I'm not trying to make excuses for why you did what you did....”

He barely glanced at Sophia, before returning his attention to V.I.C.I. “...or why you enjoyed it....”

“Then stop.” A measure of humanity had crept into V.I.C.I's robotic monotone. “Don't tell me that 'anyone else would have done the same'.....” She turned away, closing her eyes. “It wasn't even the first time,” she murmured. “I wanted to kill Faceless, on July 9...” A lone tear snaked down her face. “I destroyed those fembots at the Starlet Dolls concert....before July 9.....”

She bowed her head, her eyes squeezing shut. “....I think something's wrong with me.”

A hand was on her shoulder in an instant. “Those fembots were trying to wreck the show,” Sophia reminded her. “They'd just shot Agent Bishop...she'd jumped in front of me, to take that shot!”

“As for wanting Faceless dead,” Harris added, “you're not even in the Top 10 list of people who'd love to see him take a dirt nap. Every single one of your examinations, before and after July 9, have come back green, Vicki....nothing is wrong with you.” He glanced around the room, a sigh leaving his lips. “This place....it can bring out a lot of bad feelings in people....and in your case, it's dragged up a lot of bad memories, too.” He glanced at his phone; “I can call Ted, if you want,” he offered. “Director Preston can set something up to have a full scan done–”

“If none of them have picked it up before,” V.I.C.I countered, “they won't pick it up now.”

“There's nothing to pick up!” Sophia chided. “Vicki....you're not broken, or infected with anything, and there's nothing wrong with you!”

The brunette gynoid looked up, her eyes still glowing even as the tears flowed. “How do you know?”

“The same way I do,” Harris replied. “Every room in this building has an intensive, hidden scanning suite built into the walls, floors and ceilings. Android and gynoid operatives staying here are scanned 24/7, with the best tools available to the ALPA.” He turned his phone over in his hand, showing a detailed readout topped with V.I.C.I.'s build number. “You're green and clean,” he informed her, grinning. “Always have been.”

“.....you're sure?”

“Positive,” Sophia beamed. “It wasn't some kind of software issue or glitch that made you beat up Hannsen the way you did, Vicki....it was anger. You wanted revenge on him....and, for better or worse, you got it.”

“Anger and revenge are dangerous,” Harris agreed, “but not terminal.”

“...would you be saying the same thing if I had killed Hannsen?”

“This isn't a 'what if' session, Agent.....Vicki.” Harris sighed. “The only failing you had in that moment was a very human one...and if you're really worried, the official report on the incident states that your actions didn't meet any of the criteria to be classified as a Red Ring incident. In layman's terms, you got pissed off and you took it out on the one who'd pissed you off.....you just went a bit over the line in how you took it out on him.”

After a few seconds, V.I.C.I nodded, slowly pulling away from Sophia. “...so you don't think there's anything wrong with me?”

“Like the scan said, you're green and clean,” Harris replied. “Software, hardware, personality....all of it.”

Again, the brunette gynoid nodded. “And you?”

“I'll put it this way, Vicki....you're never not invited to join me on tour again.” Sophia grinned.

For a few seconds, V.I.C.I said nothing.....only to turn and embrace the pig-tailed singer.

“I'm taking you up on that 'join me on tour' offer,” she teased, once again speaking in her human voice.

“Not to break up the mood here,” Harris interjected, “but I have to ask....this thing about Hannsen has still been bothering you?”

Sophia nearly protested, but Vicki didn't flinch. “I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it even now,” she admitted. “I just...being here somehow makes it seem a lot more....relevant, I guess.”

“You were afraid of ending up here, after it happened,” Harris surmised.

“Maybe not this place exactly, but.....yeah.” Vicki sighed. “I didn't know if they were going to...this is going to sound so stupid, now....I thought they were going to undo the Big Upgrade, that I'd be back to how I was as a walking appliance, or something like that.”

Harris looked appalled. “You expected a downgrade in your own sentience?”

“I didn't know what to expect! I'd nearly killed someone with my bare hands...Ted didn't exactly tell me about how 'bad robots' were dealt with, back in the early days of Lawson Robotics---and don't say 'they go to Robot Hell'.” Vicki glanced at Sophia, who'd already started giggling at the mention of “bad robots”. “I was scared, okay? Scared of what might happen to me....scared of myself...I know I'm 'green and clean', and all that---I know it now.....”

She shook her head. “....I'll admit, I started thinking of how I could've been 'dealt with' for it after I saw K.C get bricked by that Helios program---”

“Anyone who would've suggested Helios as a punishment for what you did would've been fired,” Harris replied, not smiling....but his tone and glance softened when he noticed Sophia giving him a look. “Vicki....the ALPA doesn't 'punish' androids and gynoids. The whole purpose of the Agency is to protect them. Not every android that goes against their programming gets hunted down and scrapped....yes, there are people who think it should be that way, but it's nowhere near as simple as that. Sentient androids---”

“And gynoids,” Sophia chimed in.

Harris rolled his eyes. “The point is, sentient androids and gynoids deserve the same rights and freedoms as human beings...no matter who created them, what country they reside in, what they were created for or who 'owns' them. A lot of arguments have been made for and against that point....but it's the ALPA's central credo.”

“Hear, hear!” Sophia cheered, applauding Harris' “speech”.

“....so you're saying that my case was handled the way the ALPA wanted to handle it?” Vicki inquired.

“Pretty much. You weren't given any preferential treatment....” Harris chuckled. “....though I heard that your dad actually jumped Oberon, during the hearing.”

Vicki scowled. “And you find that funny?”

“Only because he's not exactly the kind of person I'd expect to see running full-bore at someone with the intent to spear them and beat their ass like a gong,” Harris admitted. “In his defense, he was in full 'Papa Wolf' mode, defending his daughter from a perceived threat....did a damn good job of it, too, especially for someone as old as he is...”

“You forgot the part where Oberon threw him off and threatened to 'end' him,” Vicki muttered.

“I don't suppose you'd be willing to write that one off as 'overreacting',” Harris mused. “Just like Ted was trying to protect you, Oberon was trying to protect himself...I'm not going to excuse what he did---”

“But you're willing to justify Ted jumping him?” Vicki finished.

“Because he was protecting you,” Harris reiterated. “Anyone else in that position would've done the exact same thing...like I said, he was defending his daughter, not just his 'creation'.”

“.....that makes sense,” Vicki mused, nodding.

“Of course it does!” Sophia chimed in, clapping the brunette gynoid on the back. “You should be proud that he was willing to protect you...I mean, yeah, he did go a little overboard with it..”

Vicki sighed. “I know, I know....I just feel like everyone's been sidestepping what I did to Hannsen, like they don't want to bring it up. Like....they're walking on eggshells when they're dealing with me–metaphorically, I mean....”

Her tone softened. “....it's like they're as afraid of what I might do as I've been.”

“Then prove that they have nothing to fear from you,” Harris advised. “Do what you do best....don't let yourself get distracted with how afraid anyone might be of you.”

“Pretty sure that won't happen until after I'm back in San Jose,” Vicki muttered. “Nobody here is---”

The door to the room hissed open, revealing three of the men in grey; one of them nodded to Harris without a word, stepping aside to allow him to leave the room.

“....rain check,” Harris mused, sighing.

The brunette gynoid nodded silently, watching him approach the door–and keeping the men in grey within her peripheral vision at all times. It was impossible to tell if they were watching Harris, scanning the room or simply staring at each other from behind the helmets that hid their faces from view...not to mention the possibility (unnerving though it was) that they were watching Vicki, from where they stood. The third of their group was apparently conversing with Harris in the doorway; something was said that prompted Harris to shake his head before leaving the room. The three men in grey followed, neither looking back as the door closed with a whisper-quiet hiss.

“...y'know,” Sophia murmured, “those guys scare me.”

“It's the helmets,” Vicki stated, almost conversationally. “The way their faces are hidden, the feeling that they can see you even if you can't see their eyes...” She gave a nervous chuckle. “Sorry, I was just...thinking...”

“Remembering, you mean?” Sophia offered.

Vicki couldn't meet her gaze. “....something like that.”

“Those guys are nothing like Faceless,” Sophia reminded her. “I mean, I've never....run into him myself–”

“You shouldn't want to 'run into him' yourself,” Vicki cut in. “And I wasn't just remembering him...those guys, the men in grey–Oberon used to have someone by his side, a man in a grey suit, with a mask that covered his whole face. Not a helmet....just sort of like a wrestling mask.”

“A luchadore mask?” Sophia offered. “I've seen those before, during my publicity tours in Mexico.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “His didn't have eyeholes or a mouth hole, though....it just covered his face. It was...kind of ominous....” She shook her head. “He saved me, once, in Detroit.....it was....it's not something I've told a lot of people about before now. He sort of got fired after that, I think...but then he came back to do one last job, I guess, and then just sort of...left. I don't remember a lot of the details.”

Sophia shrugged. “Don't worry about it. And you think he used to work here?”

“Well, he was wearing all grey, like the guys here do....I never really knew a whole lot about the guy!” Vicki groaned. “He wasn't exactly the most talkative person I've met...that, and....”

Don't say “he nearly got his head cut off”. She doesn't need to know.

“He got hurt trying to save you,” Sophia murmured. The way each word left her perfectly-sculpted lips made it clear that she wasn't asking a question or making a half-hearted assumption.

“Depending on if you'd qualify as 'nearly got decapitated' as 'getting hurt'....” Vicki heard herself speak the words and almost wanted to scream; the horrified look on the pop star gynoid's face made it clear that this was one bit of information she could've done without. “....I shouldn't have brought it up. I'm just...” Vicki rose from the chair, not noticing (or caring) that it nearly fell over; her focus was on the door, on leaving the room, on getting away before Sophia could ask–

“What did he save you from?”

The only thing that kept Vicki from growling her next words was the fact that the door pull, currently in her grasp, wasn't in any danger of denting in her grip.

“Pain.”

“....Vicki, I didn't–”

“John Lee Lassiter. The Human Animal. He was waiting, in my room. Used an old exploit Ted had forgotten to patch out of me, hit my underarm charging ports....” Vicki stared at the floor. “....he shut down all of my motor functions, left me locked inside my own body....he tortured me.”

“....he didn't....” In the mirror-polished panel by the door, Sophia's reflected face formed the letter “r”.

“He would've. The Man in Grey broke down the door....he had a knife with him, and he was....the way he was holding it, he was punching, but then he lost the knife, and....” Vicki sank to a kneel in front of the door, her palms pressed against it–the memory replaid itself in her mind, with the door seeming to be an unbreakable barrier between herself and what she was seeing.

“....I couldn't help him,” she whispered. “I couldn't move....couldn't do anything....”

The memory of the Man in Grey's near-death experience faded, and Vicki felt her arms drop to her sides just as the door hissed open. One of the helmet-wearing men in grey stood, motionless, before her.

“...she was just remembering something,” Sophia began. “She didn't–”

Without a word, the man in grey held a hand out to Vicki. Silently, she accepted it, rising from where she knelt.

“...I'll be back in a few minutes,” she informed Sophia, barely glancing over her shoulder. “If Harris gets back first, just tell him...” She let the intended remark trail off, turning away and moving to follow the man in grey out of the room....

….but just before the door closed, she stopped. “Sophia.....”

“...yeah?”

This time, Vicki did turn around, glancing at her fellow gynoid with just a hint of a smile on her lips. “Thanks. For listening....and for being a great friend.”

“.....any time, Vicki.” Sophia nodded, a femtosecond before the door closed.

Part 17

“....and you're positive the ALPA won't mind paying for new clothes to fit the...well, new me?”

K.C.'s question earned a half-groan, half-chuckle from Anton. “Considering the Field Agent dress code has at least five different provisions against running a field op in the nude,” he replied, “I can almost guarantee they won't have a problem with footing the bill for your new wardrobe.”

“Does that include 'personal items', like...well, underwear–“

On the far side of the room, Galatea watched the banter between Anton and K.C., barely paying attention to what was actually said between them. Her focus was divided between their body language–K.C. moving with just as much fluidity and humor as Anton–and the back of her left hand; the charts and sidebars detailing the stats of her synthetic flesh, already beginning to appear in her field of view, went ignored. Her lips parted in an unmistakably-human sigh before settling into a frown.

“Something troubling you?”

Inspektor 12's voice barely drew a reaction from the silver-skinned gynoid. “...are you asking for you, or for Anton?” she replied, not smiling.

“For you. Or at least, for your sake.” The Inspektor sat down next to her, ignoring the by-play between Anton and K.C. for the time being. “Ever since that...emotional moment, in the kitchen, I can't help but notice that you've been a bit...withdrawn–”

“Last night, before...well, this.....” Galatea scoffed. “I shouldn't even mention it, it was just a stupid dream–”

“Whatever you want to disclose to me in this conversation,” the Inspektor cut in, “I solemnly swear to you that it goes to the grave with me.” His expression softened; “If you prefer a bit of levity,” he added, “we could always pinky-swear.”

Galatea found herself grinning at the offer. “....you'd pinky-swear with me?”

“Only with your consent, of course.” The Inspektor winked.

“....we don't need to pinky-swear,” Galatea assured him, “but thanks....” She sighed. “....I had a dream, last night, about...being human. Flesh and blood, no readouts in my line of sight, breathing for real instead of as an aesthetic feature...all that stuff. And it wasn't just me disguised as a human being...” She turned away just as her eyes began to tear up. “....I was a human being...”

Quietly, almost unconsciously, she mouthed “like I used to be.”

“...have you had these dreams before?” the Inspektor asked.

“Not...frequently. Not recently, either. I just....it felt real. It felt....” She turned, gave a half-hearted chuckle. “If I'm going to explain this to you,” she murmured, “I need to know how much you know about me....”

“I know that you're not a rank-and-file gynoid off of an assembly line–”

“And you know what makes me...'unique', as you put it?”

“I know that you have Gabriella Guy's memories...not unlike the–”

“My memories aren't the issue here,” Galatea countered. “What I have...I'm not a Dyson-style 'conversion', or anything like that....” Her eyes held that same air of sadness as the Inspektor had seen before.

“....Inspektor,” she whispered, “for all intents and purposes....I am Gabriella Guy.”

“....and I'm sure we can sort that all out soon.” Anton grinned as he strode up to the Inspektor and Galatea. “I thought that you two would like to know that Agent Casey and I are heading out to restock her wardrobe,” he stated. “Shouldn't take us too long.....” He paused, noticing the expression on Galatea's face. “...is everything okay, or–”

“We were just talking,” Galatea began, but the Inspektor rose from his seat. “Nothing more than a polite chat between colleagues,” he assured the roboticist.

If Anton sensed anything off about the reply, he didn't show it. “Fair enough. Sorry for interrupting.”

The Inspektor and Galatea watched him leave, following Agent Casey (who'd been given clothes half a size too big, just so she'd have something to wear when she left with Anton to get clothes in her new size) out. Neither said a word until well after the door was closed and locked behind the Professor.

“....if you want this discussion to continue later on,” the Inspektor began, “we can–”

Galatea's form heaved with sobs. “They never believe me.....he told me they wouldn't.....”

Inspektor 12 stood before the weeping gynoid. “What makes you assume that I don't believe you?”

His words didn't seem to register with Galatea. “....he couldn't tell them....told me....” The faintest streaks of flesh-tone ran down her cheeks. “....he'll know....”

Hands gripped her shoulders, steadying her; she looked up to find the Inspektor staring into her eyes.

“....whatever it is that haunts you,” he intoned, “I promise that you can tell me, and face neither skepticism nor ridicule for it.”

Slowly, Galatea nodded. “....the night...the night Gabr.....I was killed.....” She glanced around quickly. “....the night I died, Dad was out of town. New Year's Eve party, all that stuff...you know all that, it was the headline of every newspaper in the Valley...none of them got the whole story.” She gestured for the Inspektor to sit next to her again. “....they just said it was a 'violent crime'....they squeezed my name in right at the end–”

“So you really and truly....” The Inspektor paused, considering what he was about to ask.

The silver-skinned gynoid didn't wait. “Do I believe I'm Gabriella Guy?” she finished, scowling.

“....I was going to ask if you really and truly are Gabriella Guy.”

“Of course I am! You think I wouldn't remember what that psychotic freak did to me?! How he...he just kept hitting me, right in the chest, harder and harder....” Galatea's chest heaved with each word. “....he, he had the knife, a big knife, some kind of hunting knife....he made a fist, he put the blade between his fingers and he just...he started hitting me again...I felt it go in, every time..the shirt, it was, it was changing color, the red just kept getting bigger and bigger....” Her eyes widened. “...he...he'd punched a hole in me, but....it...it wasn't clean, it was just big enough....”

Tears streamed down her face. “....big enough for him to put his fingers into.....”

Before the Inspektor could react, Galatea nearly collapsed out of the chair. “....he reached in.....he grabbed and he....he pulled.....I heard–I felt this 'crack'.....” Her eyes squeezed shut. “.....everything went red....he reached in again and.....”

Despite himself, the Inspektor spoke: “What did he do? You have to tell me–”

Galatea turned to stare at him, her ocular sensors changing color to resemble normal human eyes.

“.....he had my heart in his hand.”

The Inspektor stared, silently; the seven words he'd just heard turned over again and again in his mind.

Slowly, Galatea eased herself up until she was sitting on the floor. “...they...the press, I mean...nobody let them take notes. The cops were checking everyone's credentials, everyone's logs–Dad told me afterwards, or I found out on my own, for some of the details. It was...a few days, before he met Oberon, before he got what he needed to....bring me back, I guess.” She gestured at herself. “This was the only way. The only thing that worked with....with what Oberon gave him.”

She stood, sighing. “He'll know. Oberon, I mean...he'll find out.”

“If he as any problems with what you've told me so far,” the Inspektor countered, “he can–”

“Not with what I've said,” the gynoid corrected. “With what you're about to see.” She unbuttoned her shirt and reached down to unclasp the fastenings on her bra, then reached inwards, her fingers brushing against the edge of her collarbone (or the robotic equivalent of the same). “What you said earlier, about nothing leaving this room?” she murmured. “That goes double for this.”

Without waiting for a response, she pressed her collarbone down.

A soft click was the only confirmation that anything happened....followed shortly after by a line forming down the center of her chest, which parted in the middle (stopping at the navel) like double-doors. Her opened shirt and bra remained in place over her breasts as the halves of her chest swung out–but it wasn't her outward anatomy that had captured the Inspektor's attention. Situated in the exact center of her metallic endoskeleton, behind a clear shield in the middle of what would've been the sternum of a human being, was a gold orb, just about the size of a golf ball. Few, if any, visible wires were connected to the device.

“That,” Galatea intoned, “is what makes me....well, me.”

Seconds passed before she pressed on her collarbone again, causing the halves of her chest to return to their prior position and reseal with another click. Her fingers flew over the buttons of her shirt before the Inspektor could say a word.

“....like you said,” the gynoid reminded him. “It doesn't leave this room.”

“It won't.” Inspektor 12 nodded. “You have my word that it won't.”

“I suppose this is where you start asking questions, then,” Galatea replied; there was no hint of sarcasm, or of anything remotely approaching levity, in her words. “What it is, what's in it, who made it....all that crap.”

“Stanley wouldn't approve of that kind of language,” the Inspektor mused. “At least, not from you.”

“Yeah, well.....” A scathing rejoinder gave way to a chuckle from the silver-skinned gynoid. “Anything worse than 'damn' and 'hell' would get you 'the look',” she muttered, shaking her head at the memory. “That stare of his...I used to wonder if it was a prerequisite to master that stare in order to be a parent....” She sighed. “You worked with him long enough to know that he never gave up on anything–I read his journals, after...what happened. He mentioned you a lot.”

“In a positive context, I hope.”

The remark earned a smirk from Galatea. “The only thing he had an issue with was your fashion sense–and that was only because he couldn't pull of your look as well as you could....”

Another sigh left her lips. “....in any case, he never gave up on anything....or anyone, including me.”

She rose from her chair, pacing the floor as she spoke. “The day of the funeral, he met with Oberon. Or more accurately, Oberon found him. He'd heard about the news, gave his condolences....and then took him aside for a minute, told him that he could save one of us.”

“'Us'?” the Inspektor echoed.

“My sisters and I....and Mom.” Galatea bowed her head. “....he...Dad...didn't think it was real, at first. Thought Oberon was some kind of con man or something–nearly had him thrown out of the funeral home for it...he never wrote down what Oberon said that changed his mind, in the end, but whatever he said....” Again, she gestured at herself. “You already know how that whole thing ended.”

“So Oberon was able to perform...a transference?” the Inspektor inquired. “He gained access to your brain–”

“I already told you, I'm not a Dyson job....nothing against the Institute, and what they're trying to do, but in my case....” Galatea rolled her eyes. “Funny how I always said I hated people saying 'it's complicated'...” She turned to face the Inspektor, gesturing at her chest. “What's in here,” she explained, “is....me. What's left of me, at least–not in a physical sense, but....” She groaned. “Everything Gabriella Guy was, I am, all because of that thing. Personality, memories, likes, dislikes, quirks....whatever parts of her weren't dependent on a flesh-and-blood body, they're all in there, and by proxy, they're in me. I don't know how he did it, I don't know if I'm a one-off or if others like me can exist....all I know is what he told me....”

She briefly hugged herself. “.....and what I miss from when I was still a human being.”

The Inspektor arched an eyebrow. “And what exactly do you–”

“Wet grass.” A laugh–brief, humorless and too loud–left Galatea's lips. “The feel of it, on my feet...on my skin...I always used to say I hated it....” Her head bowed. “Hot concrete...fresh carpeting...the sun's rays hitting my back....ice cubes–freaking ice cubes, in my bare hands....” She held her hands out in front of her, regarding them as if they weren't hers. “....I still feel all of those things, these days, but...it's different. It's like there's a disconnect between how I can feel them and how I'm supposed to feel them...”

Her eyes slowly closed. “....and I remember the way things are meant to feel.”

She didn't flinch away from the arm that rested on her shoulder. “And these memories...overwhelm you?”

“They remind me of what I used to be..I don't say 'who I used to be', because I still am who I was.” Galatea sighed. “It's hard to explain. I guess the closest thing to it would probably be phantom limb syndrome, except it's....I have my body, or at least this body...” She glanced at the Inspektor, that all-too-human sadness once again evident in her eyes. “...sometimes, everything aches,” she murmured. “Sometimes, I remember things from the old days, and....it feels like I'm back in that moment...” She let her voice trail off.

“...you don't suppose these memories are sparks?” the Inspektor offered.

“'Overpowering flashbacks of a transference android/gynoid's former life',” Galatea recited, rolling her eyes as she spoke. “I asked Anton if that's what they were...he ran some tests, but....”

“There were no conclusive results,” the Inspektor finished.

Galatea didn't reply immediately; she leaned back in her chair, resting her head against the wall behind her as a sigh left her lips. Again, there was a distinctly human feel to the gesture–a genuine feeling of sadness, as opposed to any preset response coded into her personality.

A full minute passed, before she spoke: “It scares me, sometimes....remembering how I used to be.”

“I thought you would find such memories...a relief, at the very least,” the Inspektor mused.

“...it's not the memories,” the silver-skinned gynoid countered. “I just don't want to lose myself in them...”

The Inspektor nodded. “Given your...unique situation...it's entirely understandable that you might find yourself worrying about the perils of memory,” he reasoned. “Is it safe to assume that you have, in fact, told others about these concerns of yours?”

“...Anton, a few times. And...Clive. The President of the ALPA, I mean....that Clive.” Galatea looked away. “I even told Claudia, from DreamLand....not that she can help anyone now.” The expected air of bitterness in regards to the gynoid's untimely destruction wasn't there; the silver-skinned gynoid's words were, instead, tinged with a haunted tone that matched the look in her eyes. “I actually considered working at DreamLand, once,” she quietly admitted. “Claudia talked me out of it....she told me I was destined for 'greater things'....”

“The spirit of her work still lives on, you know,” Inspektor 12 mused. “I hear the Electric Kitten clubs are–”

“I've seen them,” Galatea blurted. “I just....” She turned away. “...last night's dream was different than the rest. I was....human, and it was the summer...the whole family was there. Dad, Mom, Vera, Helena....even Danny....the wet grass felt like it should've, the smells were all there...everyone was happy, and I was happy, and it just....” Her eyes brimmed with tears (the Inspektor knew, instantly, that they were ocular sensor cleaning fluid, but calling them anything other than “tears” would've been trivial) as she continued: “....Dad asked me a question....he asked me if I felt happy, and I...I said 'yes'...”

Her hand gripped the Inspektor's wrist, sending a chill through him.

“......the sky went dark....it was...it started to rain, and then....I looked away from Dad, and they were...all of them were gone....I looked back, and..and Dad was gone, too....” The gynoid's eyes squeezed shut. “...I saw him. Across the yard. Just standing there, watching me....he said something, I couldn't understand what he was saying....I...I looked down, and my hands were...one was silver, the other was normal....”

“And I assume this was another memory?” the Inspektor inquired. “You saw–”

Galatea shook her head, tears streaking down her cheeks. “....he never looked away....he just kept staring, and talking..there was this sound, in my head...it kept getting louder, and his words kept getting clearer....”

Her other hand closed around Inspektor 12's lapel, holding him fast as she stared into his eyes.

“....he was in my head.....”

Even as he noticed hints of red creeping into the purple and pink ocular sensors that tearfully held his gaze, the Inspektor never wavered. “And who, exactly, was 'he'?”

The red in Galatea's eyes faded; the tears on her face began leaving trails of flesh-tone behind them.

“.....McMire.”

Her hands released the Inspektor, and she nearly fell forward, sobbing, onto him.

Even as he embraced the weeping gynoid, Inspektor 12 couldn't help but frown at the mention of the name; he, and his colleagues and contemporaries within the ALPA, had heard tell of the enigmatic “McMire” for several years, occasionally in connection with the hacking crime spree of one “315”. The “Great Consolidation” from a scant seven years prior had seen a spike in mentions of him....except they were only “mentions”. Not a single report on any of his activities had included anything remotely resembling a sighting–there were the claims of men in dark suits showing up, acting as his emissaries, but those were apocryphal, bordering on urban legends and local gossip.

Galatea's recent dream, described in such vivid detail, meant that McMire was not just an urban legend.

“....he's out there,” the gynoid whispered. “I don't know why...” She briefly pulled away from her embrace with Inspektor 12, accepting the offered pocket square from him. “Thanks...” A quick dab with the square wiped the tears from her face. “....anyway...I don't know why he was in my dream last night, or what he has to do with any of this....”

“You truly believe he has involved himself?”

“I don't know....” Galatea replied, helplessness creeping into her words. “I–” Three knocks at the front door cut her off before she could finish.

The Inspektor knew something was troubling the gynoid. “Something wrong?”

Galatea only nodded silently towards the door, the sadness in her eyes replaced with a shocked look.

With a nod of his own, Inspektor 12 headed to the door. “The 'no solicitors' sign isn't up, at the moment,” he stated, “but–”

“I'm not a solicitor....I'm looking for Vicki. Is she here?”

The question earned an arched eyebrow from the Inspektor–and a shocked gasp from Galatea, which went ignored. “....she's out, at the moment. I'll be happy to take a message for her–”

“Sod it...she'll know where to find me, I guess. Just tell her Sharon stopped by, when she gets back, please!”

Footsteps moved away from the door, and the Inspektor nodded. “Another message to give Vicki when she returns from her sojurn,” he began, only to notice Galatea's horrified expression. “....something wrong?”

“Inspektor,” the gynoid quietly replied, “that was Sharon Wilson.”

“....Vicki's roommate, if I recall correctly–”

“Her DEAD roommate! Matthew Hannsen shot her in the head in Singapore!”

“....you're positive that was Sharon Wilson?” he finally asked, after a full minute of silence.

“If it's not her, it's someone posing as her....we can't tell Vicki. What happened to Sharon...” Galatea shook her head. “You've read the reports of what happened in Dawley, of what she did to Hannsen after she caught up with him. If she finds out someone's impersonating Sharon, or trying to fake her ghost–”

She stopped, noticing that the Inspektor was holding up his phone...

...and that the screen showed the security feed from Ted Lawson's front door camera, time-stamped a few seconds prior. The figure depicted as knocking on the door was, unmistakably, that of Sharon Wilson...minus the bullet wound from the shot that had killed her.

“Unless I'm mistaken,” the Inspektor mused, “ghosts aren't exactly known for knocking on doors.”

“So someone recreated her, as a gynoid?” Galatea groaned. “Whoever it is, they're going out of their way to piss off Vicki....except Vicki's not even here–”

The Inspektor held up a hand. “....the camera wasn't the only sensor that was triggered by 'Sharon' knocking on the door,” he informed the gynoid. “The medical and security scanners kicked on at the first knock...and even with the camera picking up our visitor, both sensor suites apparently detected nothing.”

Whatever reply Galatea intended to make died on her lips. Her own sensors hadn't detected anything, either.

Part 18

…they're not going to shoot you if you try to start a conversation, Lawson. Just say something.

Even as she kept her pace with the man in grey, Vicki couldn't work up the nerve to actually say anything to the masked figure that wouldn't sound stupid. Questions about who he was and what he might do in his “off time” were probably verboten, as would asking about Oberon's former bodyguard. It didn't help that there was something undeniably intimidating about the man....

It's the helmet, the brunette gynoid reminded herself. That stupid full-face shield.

Vicki ignored her trepidaiton, her steps matching those of the grey-clad guard. He's with the ALPA, like I am, she reminded herself. Even if he's an android, we're both on the same side...

Her thoughts turned, again, to the Dawley incident, in which she'd crippled Matthew Hannsen and very nearly crossed the line into killing him. She wondered, briefly, if the men in grey were all aware what she'd done, or if they even knew her by name...or, for that matter, if they cared. Tell, Harris and others had told her that she'd avoided going over the line when getting her revenge against Hannsen...but something about the incident still bothered her....

...you might as well say it, Lawson. You felt yourself–who you are–slipping away.

The notion that her personality, her entire identity, could potentially be compromised, configured and changed by an outside force had always been with Vicki, ever since the Big Upgrade. Even in a secured, hidden ALPA facility, it was still with her.

It was, without a doubt, her deepest and darkest fear. More than anything, even than Faceless...

…the barest possibility of it scared her.

Which somehow brings us back to the man in grey... She tried to glance, discreetly, at the helmet-wearing figure; had the face-concealing helmet somehow acted as a subliminal trigger of that hidden fear? Or was it the notion that this man, as well as others in the facility, willingly gave up their identities to serve the ALPA?

If I ask, he might get pissed off, or he might just stay silent. If I don't ask....

Suppressing the groan that made its way to her lips was easier than expected. Dad would find this “fascinating” if he were here. A machine trying to “work up the courage” to just talk to someone.... A number of reactions to that thought made their way through her thought processes, none of which were acted upon. This whole “as a machine and a person thing” is starting to make me feel....I don't even know how I feel about it. Jamie would probably say “like Harry Potter”, but I don't have a lightning-bolt scar on my forehead, both of my parents are still alive, and San Jose State University isn't Hogwarts...

Without glancing at the man in grey, she realized that her steps were effectively in sync with his own. At least he hasn't started walking faster....or does he even notice–stop. This isn't about walking in formation with a random guard or anything like that, this runs deeper...

Her thoughts turned, at random, to past conflicts–her battles against Damien Falken and the Family of Steel, and her clash with Rykkard and the Spare Parts Society. She wondered if the grey-clad guard had heard of either of those incidents, or if this guard (or, indeed, any of the others from the facility) had confronted the likes of Falken and Rykkard themselves. How many times have I heard that my case reports are “popular reading material”, again? she mused, rolling her eyes at the thought. Quiz him about the specifics...yeah, really good ice-breaker there, Lawson. Relive all your Greatest Hits to some guy in grey...

Something about the silence, the interminably long walk, finally proved too much to bear. Screw it...

“Listen, I–”

The guard held out a hand, cutting off her attempt at a conversation....and allowing her to realize that she was dangerously close to plowing face-first into a door. A quick glance over her shoulder nearly prompted a gasp from the brunette gynoid's lips; she'd turned a corner (probably not the only one) in the corridor without even realizing it, all while matching pace with the guard.

“....ah, thanks,” she murmured. “For not letting me hit the door, and all...”

In lieu of a response from the guard, the door slid open before her.

“....and this is the part where I go in,” she realized, sighing. “Well, ah.....” She nodded, as if to affirm that she was, indeed, going to walk through the door. “Thanks again.”

As she stepped through the door, Vicki noticed the guard give the slightest of nods.....

…a femtosecond later, the door closed.

Well, that was weird. The brunette gynoid turned her attention to the room she'd just entered...and quickly realized that the “room” was, in fact, another hallway, one that looked as if it'd been ripped from a television studio rather than the pristine, white-tiled corridors she'd traversed already. On the left-hand side, two impeccably-attired figures sat behind a desk, looking for all the world like nighttime news anchors (albeit with far more ostentatious clothing and hairstyles). One of the pair was addressing the camera directly: “...and it gives me great pleasure and relief to report that the condition of our esteemed President, Clive DuBraul, has taken an upturn and in fact stabilized over the past few hours.” His smile, warm and reassuring as it was, seemed to have an almost rehearsed air to it. “Despite an undeniably grim prognosis of only having anywhere from a few weeks to mere days to live, President DuBraul will more than likely live to see the sun rise until the end of next month–definitely something to be thankful for over a turkey dinner, when that day arrives.”

I'll have to remember to ask Preston about that later...or Harris. For now....

Vicki continued down the hall, doing her best to not be distracted by the constant activity on the right-hand side of the room or the areas where others were giving reports on ALPA matters from around the globe on the left-hand side. So much for this place being just a prison, she mused, stopping only when she realized the guard hadn't told her where she was going. And me without a hall pass–

“And there she is! I was beginning to think we'd have to go looking for you, Miss Lawson!”

The voice that spoke these words–not quite “shrill”, and in fact just melodious enough to sound welcoming while at the same time maintaining a sense of haughtiness to it–fit almost perfectly with the woman making her way towards Vicki, a tall, well-dressed (and well-coiffed) blonde with high cheekbones, a nose that would make classical sculptors weep and lips that were neither too thin nor “Botoxed to Hell” (as Jamie more than likely would've described them). The group behind her looked more like standard “office-types”, wearing muted greys, browns and blues as opposed to their apparent leader's pink pinstriped suit.

“....right,” Vicki replied. “The, ah....guard didn't tell me–”

“They never do, darling,” the woman assured her. “They couldn't be more stoic if you put them in red coats and tall, furry hats...” A girlish, almost squealing giggle punctuated her remark. “Just follow me, dear.”

“Right, right...” I guess this isn't another session with Oberon, then...

Vicki fell into step with the others in the woman's entourage, wondering if Sophia, Tell and/or Harris had seen this part of the facility before...with her questions soon turning to what, exactly, went on in this particular section of the massive complex.

As if reading her mind, the woman in the pink suit spoke up: “You haven't seen our channel, have you?”

“....channel?” Vicki echoed, frowning.

“Should've put it in plural,” the woman replied, rolling her eyes at her own mistake. “Radio, television, YouTube....only accessible to those within the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, of course. It simply would not do if some farm in Oklahoma picked up one of our radio broadcasts!”

“....so this is the ALPA's...” Vicki's lips formed the letter “p”, but something kept her from uttering the word.

“Media branch, yes. Some have dared to label what we do as...propaganda....”

Groans sounded from the crowd following her, and the woman herself shuddered. “...an utterly filthy word,” she hissed, “when applied to the duties we perform. An insult, even!”

Good thing I didn't say it out loud, then... Vicki nodded her agreement. “Why would anyone think–“

“A story for another time, dear,” the woman replied, without looking over her shoulder. “For the time being, you have a far more important task ahead of you...” She stopped, as if remembering something. “....I've been told that you were...shown, for lack of a better term....our newest banner–”

“The one with me front and center, in my Field Agent uniform?”

The brunette gynoid's voice held equal measures of curiosity and annoyance...but the woman's body language all but wiped out all hints of the latter. “...that banner,” she murmured, “is the closest this department has ever come to producing...” She paused, wiping her eyes. “...it's the closest we've come to making what so many have accused us of producing from the inception of this department,” she stated, turning to face Vicki with an expression of regret. “I, myself, was one of many who were informed that it was a mere 'recruitment' poster, rather than...”

“Something someone used to try to win me over,” Vicki finished.

“Indeed...and I do apologize, for overseeing the creation of that banner without knowing the context of–”

The woman's apology was cut off by Vicki's own response: laughter. “Sorry,” the brunette gynoid apologized, “it's just....the poster itself didn't piss me off. The circumstances had more to do with it than anything...if I'd known about it beforehand, I would've signed off on it being used for Field Agent recruiting...”

Her lips turned up in a playful smirk. “..and at least the photo didn't make me look fat.”

Whatever response the woman was expecting, it clearly hadn't been this; she nearly doubled over laughing, as the crowd behind Vicki let out sighs of relief. “My dear Miss Lawson,” the woman gasped, “you truly are remarkable...”

“It was just a poster,” Vicki reasoned, shrugging. “No harm, no foul...but I still don't know–”

“Why you're here?”

Director Preston, accompanied by three more of the men in grey, stood at the far end of the hall. “The High Court has requested your testimony regarding the actions of the former Chairman, Miss Lawson,” he stated. “I had been informed that either Agent Harris or Miss Starlet already given you this information...”

“They, ah, hadn't, sir,” Vicki muttered. “The guard–”

“You've narrowly avoided being late, Miss Lawson,” Preston informed her. “No apologies are necessary.”

Vicki nodded, feeling more than a bit nervous. “Right, right....I'm guessing I have to follow you, now?”

“It would be in your best interests to.” Preston motioned for the woman in the pink suit to fall into step at his side; Vicki tried not to outpace them as she kept up. “Miss Egeria was intended to be the one meeting you at your quarters,” he added, “but certain...events...detained her–”

“Egeria?” Vicki echoed.

The woman in the pink suit rolled her eyes. “Where are my manners...Rita Egeria, Chairwoman of the ALPA's Media Department.” She nodded to Vicki, smiling warmly. “Had the circumstances been different, your Field Agent certification ceremony would've been covered exclusively by my people.”

“Eh, the Citrus at Santana Row wasn't that bad...” Vicki chuckled at the memory. “I liked it.”

“Smaller ceremonies do work in...extreme circumstances,” Rita agreed, shuddering again at the memory of the reason for Vicki's certification being moved to a smaller venue. “It still boggles the mind to think that you did so much before receiving your Field Agent license. Granted, the ALPA does try to avoid condoning any actions carried out by, shall we say, unsanctioned individuals...especially in this day and age...but you were vouched for by some of our best and brightest.”

Including the man I'm about to testify against, Vicki recalled.

After a few minutes of walking (and Rita giving plenty of tips–“don't slouch”, “don't look too disinterested”, “let the High Court ask all the questions”, etc.), Vicki, Rita and Preston arrived at a large, circular chamber that looked suspiciously similar to a British courtroom....but with five benches for the judges. The guards at the doors of the chamber wore darker grey coats and armor than those Vicki had seen throughout the facility; two standing by the benches wore coats and armor that looked black, at first, until Vicki cycled her ocular sensors to see that they were in fact a very dark navy blue.

The question of “where do I sit?” formed and died on the gynoid's lips; Rita was gesturing for her to stay behind Preston as he descended the stairs leading further into the court chamber.

Others had already filed in and taken their seats–including Preston, at the lowest level in front of the stand.

Rita guided Vicki to her seat, taking her own seat a row behind her. “Just remember, dear,” she reminded the brunette gynoid, “you're not the one on trial here. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

“Right,” Vicki replied, nodded. “Thanks.” ...except what would I have to be afraid–

The lights in the chamber dimmed, almost darkening completely...only to return to full brightness in the blink of an eye. All five chairs for the judges were occupied by figures in black gowns, their faces hidden by the same shields as the men in grey; the traditional white horsehair wigs worn by conventional UK judges were present, looking surprisingly ominous over the face-concealing shields. A sixth figure, clad in a conventional black suit and with a shield that covered only the upper half of his face, stood before the judges.

“Miss Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson.”

Vicki stood, hoping she wasn't breaching protocol by doing so. “Sir.”

“The High Court has convened on this day to record your testimony regarding the recent actions and activities of the former Chairman of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, current name Oberon.” The man gestured to the witness stand; Vicki nodded and approached, ignoring the room-full of unfamiliar faces watching her every movement

“Miss Lawson...when did you first hear that Oberon had an...interest in the termination of Epsilon?”

“A phone call, during a lecture conducted by Selwyn McElvoy at San Jose State University.”

“....this phone call mentioned that the Chairman intended to terminate Epsilon?”

The brunette gynoid shifted slightly in her seat. “The call only mentioned that he wasn't handling the field op to locate Epsilon,” she replied. “The primary purpose of the call was to inform me that Epsilon had been sighted again in San Jose....I first heard about the Chairman's intent, in full, from Selwyn McElvoy and William Rengold IV, backstage at the lecture.” She decided not to mention her “piggybacking” on Miss Hynde's sensors before being summoned backstage.

The man with the half-hidden face nodded. “It is the understanding of the High Court that Oberon...contacted you, by way of means deemed forbidden for use by the ALPA.”

The virus that hit me in ALPA HQ, you mean... “He did, sir.”

“Would you please tell the High Court what, exactly, the purpose of this contact was, Miss Lawson?”

Vicki took a deep breath, remembering how the conference room at HQ had seemed to become enshrouded in a thick, rolling fog....

“He claimed he wanted me to hear his side of the story, to 'understand the depth and scope' of what he meant to accomplish. He wanted me to join his efforts to terminate Epsilon, under the belief that no trace of Anthony Sanderson was left. I disagreed...” She paused, trying not to let herself be overwhelmed by the memory of what had been said after that part of the exchange.

“Miss Lawson, if you need–”

“He offered me a chance to let myself lose control, to 'fully give myself' to a fight. He told me that I'd have to kill him if I truly wished to spare Epsilon.”

Gasps and murmurs went up around the chamber; Rita was whispering to someone in the row behind her.

“The High Court has obtained reports of a confrontation between yourself and Oberon, at a–”

“He told me about what he, personally, knew of Epsilon, of its history,” Vicki stated. “He said that trying to do things the 'right way' had amounted to nothing, that by the time he was in power and could've done anything, it was too late. In the end, he repeated his claimed that Epsilon was damned, beyond any hope of salvation, and repeated his offer to me–help him kill Epsilon, or continue to protect Epsilon from him.....” She paused, taking a moment to remember other things Oberon had said. “He told me he'd seen the first tests of what would become Epsilon, how nobody should see the things he saw.”

“And the second confrontation?”

The fight, you mean... “He challenged me to fight him, sir. Gave me two swords....he told me he would take mine when I was done with it.” The pause was shorter, this time. “He only inflicted minimal damage on me in the fight....the most substantial damage I took was sustained from trying to confront Epsilon.”

“The reports indicate that you were removed from the confrontation–”

“Epsilon.” The name left Vicki's lips as a half-shout. “Epsilon carried me away from the fight..I had tried to tell Oberon that he would die if he continued fighting Epsilon, and he ignored me. I...I didn't see what happened, to end the fight...I heard gunshots, but I was too damaged to move. All I could see was the ceiling....Epsilon set me down outside of the building. My dermal sensors detected that I was sitting on grass.”

“....and you have no recollection of the source of those gunshots you had heard?”

“No, sir.”

The man with the half-shield over his face nodded. “No further questions, Miss Lawson.”

Vicki returned the nod, heading back to her seat and not looking at the five judges or their guards.

Preston acknowledged the brunette gynoid's return to her seat with a minute tip of his head; Rita, on the other hand, looked as if she were trying desperately not to smile. “Exemplary performance, dear,” she whispered, just as Vicki settled into her spot on the bench. “Utterly flawless! It turned into a bit of a ramble at the end, but that's nothing to be ashamed of...”

“Thanks...I didn't say too much, did I? Or too little?”

“You said more than enough,” Preston intoned, never looking away from the judges.

Something in those words came across as...ominous, for lack of a better term, but Vicki nodded. “I'm guessing that's a good thing, then...so what–”

The lights dimmed again, nearly darkening the room....when they returned, the judges had disappeared.

“...yours was the last testimony of the day,” Preston stated, rising from the bench. “The High Court has heard all they need to decide Oberon's fate.” He motioned for Vicki to follow him out. “Unless anything new comes to light within the next two hours, of course...”

“I thought they were going to hold a full trial,” Vicki mused, frowning.

“They've been holding the trial, dear,” Rita informed her. “Some of those affected by all of this....” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “....it wouldn't exactly be in the Court's interest to have them in the same room as the former Chairman to give their testimony. That Corlette girl, for instance....accessed without her consent while she was charging! And those two House agents–”

“Miss Egeria.” Preston hadn't raised his voice, but there was a clear tone of rebuke.

“....well,” Rita finished, “the important thing is that you did a splendid job, dear. Held your ground like a true champion, and never wavered even once!” Again, Preston gave the slightest of nods.

“...ah, thanks.” Vicki managed a smile. “So....what happens now?”

“A final session with Oberon,” Preston informed her. “Unless you wish to attend the sentencing itself, you will be given full clearance to return home after the session ends.”

The smile faded from Vicki's face almost instantly. “....he wants to see me after I've testified against him?”

“Your involvement in this whole thing has been...intensive,” Rita reminded her. “Two 'confrontations', and–”

“I get it.....I just...” Vicki glanced over her shoulder, at the now-vacated judges' seats. “He won't know what I said in my testimony, will he?”

“The accused has been given access to all testimonies made against him, Miss Lawson.”

“Right...and he won't be, ah....”

“Measures are already in place to prevent any unfortunate incidents during the session.”

“....right.” Despite her growing sense of unease, Vicki nodded. “So, what now?”

“Now,” Preston replied, his voice sounding more tired than anything else, “we rest....and we wait.”

Part 19

“....so he's stable, now? As in, not coughing up blood and–”

“The dispatch from headquarters stated only that the President is in no immediate danger.” Mr. Roboto barely in his seat to glance at Ted. “I was given no further details.”

“Translation,” Rae drawled, “Clive's alive, and we're on our way to go visit him, or something like that...pretty much on the money, innit, Roboto?” She grinned at the android. “And let me just say that your 'kick in the door' act was sodding brilliant....dunno if they'll follow through on your idea of paying for the door, of course, but it was still brilliant.”

Ted frowned. “You're thinking about Roboto kicking in a door when we're on our way to–”

“Two words, Teddy: small talk.” Rae sighed, leaning back in her seat. “Good thing some people in here are a bit more open to casual conversation...” She grinned lazily at the gynoid in the seat next to her. “Right, Lani?”

“You two were almost at each other's throats back there,” Ted reminded her. “Why would she–”

“Agent Clarke and I both have a history of being...discarded.” Lani's voice was softer, and her posture more relaxed, than she'd been at the time of her near-fight with Rae. “I had believed she was...arrogant...”

Rae rolled her eyes. “I've heard tonnes worse, babe.”

“In any case,” Ted interjected, “we need to focus on why we're being called back to headquarters–now that I'm thinking about it, why am I being called back? I was in the middle of the rebuild on Agent Clarke, and–”

“The dispatch requested your presence specifically.”

“And mine?” Rae inquired, tracing a finger across Lani's leg.

“As I previously stated–”

“My LoJack said I was about to get jacked, so you decided to butt in before things went pear-shaped.” Rae blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “And HQ wanted me back in one piece...guess they really do like having me around after all....” She grinned at the thought, again tracing a finger in abstract patterns on Lani's leg. “I can only hope they didn't just tell you to bring me back so I could play bodyguard for anyone..OH, Teddy, nearly forgot to tell you. That gum you like is going to come back in style.”

Roboto's inscrutable gaze settled on her, and even Lani regarded her with a curious frown.

“....what? He told me once that he was a big fan of this gum that had...what was it....a cherry/cinnamon blend from the 90s that they don't make anymore, and I heard from a friend of a friend that they may be bringing it back!” Rae shrugged. “Dunno why I thought of it now....wait, no, I remember–Lani's eyeshadow!”

Lani arched an eyebrow. “My...eyeshadow.”

“It has this shade of pinkish red that looks exactly like the gum did,” Rae explained. “I found pictures–”

“We're on our way to visit Clive DuBraul,” Ted stated, “and you're going on about a gum that I used to like.”

“It's called lightening the mood,” Rae teased. “Keddy would love it....and Lani certainly doesn't have a problem with it, amiright?”

“I also do not have a problem with the mention of gum,” Roboto stated, “though it is rather...random.”

“Random's my middle name.” Rae winked. “And don't counter me on that, Ted.”

Ted sighed. “I wasn't about to counter you on that, Rae...” He glanced out the window of the ALPA retrieval vehicle (he'd been too frazzled to remember the make or model) Roboto had arrived with, reflecting on why it was that the android had been sent. “....so they're sure DuBraul is stabilizing, now?”

“Unless the reports are faulty, they are in fact sure.”

“So he went from coughing up blood to....not doing that,” Rae mused. “And I'm really hoping you're not going to add an 'again' to that, Teddy...” She glanced at Ted, waiting for a reply, only for Lani to interject: “My sisters and I were unaware that your President was ill. We were...focused...on our objective...” She turned away, as if her prior actions shamed her. “...I was focused on it. Too focused....”

A gasp left her lips as Rae's arm draped around her shoulder. “Lani Shimada,” she declared, “I absolve you of your sin of being too focused on a bloody flip-phone to think clearly–”

“Can you not do that now, please?” Ted cut in. “Or at least phrase it differently?”

“If I forgave her the way I really wanted to,” Rae teased, “you'd want to be in another van...”

Lani's eyes widened, only for Roboto's voice to end all discussions of “forgiveness” before they could get too raunchy. “HQ have just notified me that we are cleared to proceed directly to DuBraul's room when we arrive. A Dr. Smith will apparently be waiting for our arrival in the lobby.”

The mention of Dr. Smith prompted a nod from Ted. “He's the one who confirmed Clive's stabilization?”

“....the reports only mentioned 'the doctor'.”

Again, Lani looked puzzled. “Doctor–”

“Who cares?!” Rae groaned, absentmindedly pulling Lani closer to her. “The President of the ALPA isn't going to be worm food any time soon, so can we focus on that instead of Doctor Whoever He Is...” Her gaze drifted back to the Asian gynoid. “....when this is all over,” she mused, “I'll have to call Keddy, see if she doesn't mind sharing...” Her tongue played over her grinning lips. “...only if you're up for it as well, of course.”

“....it has been a while since I was....last intimate,” Lani admitted.

“And your preferences allow for going both ways?” Rae prompted. “If it's not what you're into....”

Lani shook her head. “Men have never truly appealed to me, Agent Clarke.”

The chestnut-haired gynoid's eyes lit up. “...I am really hoping Kylie likes you, now....”

“Roboto,” Ted muttered, “do me a favor and find something I can use for earplugs for the next ten minutes.”

“That won't be necessary. We've arrived.”

“Always when it's about to get good,” Rae scowled, rolling her eyes at the timing. “Hope you won't mind a rain check, luv...'work before play' and all that rot.”

For the first time since meeting her, Lani gave the slightest smile.

Ignoring the blossoming affection between the two gynoids (and Roboto's inscrutable, unchanging expression), Ted extricated himself from the seatbelt as someone outside the vehicle opened the doors. “I sincerely hope you two don't get touchy-feely with each other when we're in DuBraul's room,” he stated.

“Spack off,” Rae shot back, sticking her tongue at him. “Contrary to rumours, I'm the patient type...”

A quick glance into the lobby revealed that the mysterious Dr. Smith was, in fact, waiting for the group. “I was just about to call and ask if they'd sent the message,” he mused, barely noticing that Rae and Lani were arm-in-arm as they passed. “The other four from the House are...”

Another van pulled up behind the one Ted had just exited. “Just getting here now, apparently. Fantastic...”

“I heard on the radio that Clive has stabilized,” Ted cut in. “Considering the condition he was in a few days ago, some might call it a miracle–”

“I'd hold off on the labels if I were you,” Dr. Smith cautioned. “Clive is stable now, yes, and he's not going to keel over tomorrow or anytime soon....” His voice dropped to a grim whisper: “...just between you and me, it'll be a real miracle if he makes it to New Year's Eve, or even Christmas.”

“How can you–”

“Two words: Experimental treatments. They're what brought him back from the brink, but they can only do so much in this case..” The doctor shook his head. “From what Collin told me, the ALPA is going to need a new president soon”, he intoned. “He even let slip that the screening process has already started, so you've at least got that going for you, but whatever you need to tell Clive DuBraul, I highly suggest telling him soon. I'm still amazed that things are going this smoothly without a Chairman...”

“We're trying not to advertise that fact,” Ted replied, scowling. “What else has Collin told you?”

“Only what I'm cleared to know, which isn't a lot....”

Ted nodded. “Good call for him...and if you don't mind me asking–”

“I'm so invested in this,” Dr. Smith remarked, “because the ALPA's cause is one that I have no problem giving my full and total support for. What you people are doing....” He sighed. “...I wish it was a lot more common.”

“....interesting way of putting it,” Ted mused, “but definitely understandable.”

Dr. Smith nodded his agreement. “Oh, have you been to the break room here, yet? Damn good coffee...”

“I'm trying to cut back on the caffeine these days, actually,” Ted admitted. “Joan's trying to get me to lead a more active life...style...oh, GOD, I forgot to call her and tell her about Casey's rebuild!” He scrambled to find his phone; “They're working on her in the living room,” he gasped, “it looks like a M*A*S*H unit in there, I never told her–”

A tug on his sleeve stopped him; Dr. Smith held up a phone, revealing an image of Anton Malvineous and a rebuilt (yet slightly taller) K.C. at a San Jose-area store, shopping for clothes. “You were saying?”

“....I think we were talking about the break room coffee, before.”

“Indeed we were...Georgia coffee, I think it was.” Dr. Smith grinned. “Last time I checked, they had a spread of fresh-baked dessert goods, too. Damn fine cherry pie, if the smell was any indication.”

“I'll try some after I talk to Clive,” Ted acquiesced. “For now...” He glanced at the stairs nearby.

“The elevators are available, y'know,” Dr. Smith reminded him. “Unless Joan wanted you to exercise more.”

“....the stairs are for after the coffee and pie,” Ted replied, chuckling. “Let's not keep Clive waiting any longer, shall we–RAE, we're going up to meet Clive...is she even listening?!”

“She'll meet us when she's up to it, probably,” Dr. Smith mused.

“'She' can hear you quite clearly,” Rae cut in, sauntering past the pair. “Lani and I were just having a bit of a chat..getting to know each other, and all....” She stopped, regarding Dr. Smith with a wary look. “And who, exactly, are you?” she inquired.

“The doctor–”

“Doctor who?”

“Smith. John Smith....not my actual name, tax reasons...” He gave a smile that showed entirely too many teeth, giving the impression he was about to go for Rae's neck. “Anyway, I'm not the reason we're all here.” He nodded at the elevator. “President DuBraul summoned you to see him...well, he summoned Ted, and I can only assume–”

Rae's groan cut him off. “I've heard it before....LANI!” She nodded as the Asian gynoid approached. “If what I'm hearing from the good doctor is anything resembling correct,” she stated, “it's time for us to go pay a visit to Clive and see how he's doing...and not 'get all touchy-feely with each other' in his room, while we're there,” she added, shooting a scathing look at Ted. “Honestly, you think we'd go at it in front of someone who just barely came back from the brink of sodding death?”

“....I was trying not to think of that, actually,” Ted admitted.

“If I might interject,” Dr. Smith cut in, “you two might want to focus your thoughts on the fact that Clive DuBraul is no longer at Death's door, for the time being...but I still highly suggest that if you have anything that needs to be sorted with him, you'd do well to tend to it now.”

Ted couldn't meet Rae's inquisitive stare. “...right, right...sorting things.”


“....and you're positive that nobody matching that description has been seen in the area? Yes, yes, of course, I understand...thank you so much for your time.” Inspektor 12 nodded as he hung up the phone. “Well, that's five potential eyewitnesses on this very street who didn't see Sharon Wilson–or a remarkably lifelike facsimile thereof–pass by their houses before stopping to knock on Ted's door...”

Galatea, from her spot on the couch, groaned.

“It was you who informed me that Miss Wilson had been killed,” the Inspektor reminded her. “I thought–”

“I get what you're trying to do,” Galatea cut in. “Take the analytical approach, eliminate the impossible until whatever's left is the truth, however improbable....or however the line goes...”

The Inspektor frowned. “And you don't approve?”

“I do approve, but...there's so much more going on right now! I caught an ALPA broadcast earlier, while you were on your phone hunt, about Clive DuBraul apparently having stabilized?”

Galatea's remark earned her an arched eyebrow. “I...wasn't aware of that, to be honest.”

The silver-skinned gynoid tapped the side of her head. “Pays to have built-in radio receptors, Inspektor. In any case, we apparently don't have to worry about our President bowing out any time soon...” She sighed. “And Dad always told me not to be the center of attention,” she deadpanned, shaking her head.

“I suppose you have a better idea of how we can spend our time, then?” the Inspektor inquired.

“Lot of different ways that could be interpreted, 12...” Galatea eased herself up off the couch.

“Rest assured that my intentions are purely noble..I merely wondered if you–”

“I've done enough self-analysis for the day, I think...but thanks.” The gynoid stretched for a moment, noticing the Inspektor staring at her. “...old habit,” she admitted. “I know I don't need to stretch, but it's...not quite a full reflex, and more of just...” A frustrated sigh punctuated the remark.

“I assume you voiced these concerns to Stanley, at some point or another.” The Inspektor took a seat near the couch, looking Galatea over. “How much of your...aesthetic design was based on...ah...”

“My old appearance.” Galatea rolled her eyes. “As much as I'd love to say this was a 1:1 rebuild of how I used to look...Dad's robotics company was working on a toyline for something, I can't even remember what, and the concept art for one of the lead characters....” She gestured at herself. “After Oberon gave him the resources he'd need to bring me back, his team upscaled the design for one of the toys, redid the face to make it look a little more like, well, mine, and changed it to work as a full robotic form rather than a life-sized action figure..”

“And thus, Galatea was given form,” the Inspektor finished, nodding. “The color scheme was from the original idea, as well?”

“....actually, it was my idea–not from after I got this body, but...” Galatea propped her chin up with both hands, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “I'd always been a fan of designing clothes, and I drew up so many outfits in two main colors: purple and pink. They just worked together, in my view, so when Dad had his people create this body, they got the order to deck me out in my favorite colors. At least, that's how he explained it to me.”

“I've read his design journals,” the Inspektor mused. “The accounts he gave in their pages match what you've told me so far...quite fascinating, if I do say so myself.”

The silver-skinned gynoid gave a half-hearted chuckle. “I've heard that word a lot before, Inspektor, and plenty of other adjectives besides...” Her tone softened. “...but all those times, it was about what I was, not who I am. You're...probably one of the only people I've known who can look past, well, this....” She gestured at her gleaming skin with a smirk. “...and see what counts.”

“And your fellow Field Agents don't?”

“Correction: you're one of the few who can see what counts right off the bat.” Again, the gynoid rolled her eyes. “Most other people, it takes a few days for them to get past the 'oh, she's a robot girl with silver skin and purple hair' thing to realize that I am, in fact, a person as well as a gynoid...the ALPA, maybe two days, if I'm feeling generous...but in all honesty, the first time I meet anyone, their focus is on the look....” She turned away, giggling slightly. “The second time I had to help Vicki, when I was in her head after that incident at the Dynadrive Systems factory...even she couldn't get why I was 'silver'...”

The Inspektor nodded thoughtfully. “It is a rather...distinctive appearance.”

“I know, I know....I just...part of me feels like it'd be cheating if I just kept my appearance looking 'normal'. Like it'd be a sign of me being...ashamed, or something, of what I am, y'know?”

Galatea's remark drew a frown from the Inspektor, who lowered his sunglasses slightly.

“I'm not,” she clarified. “Ashamed, I mean...I'm not ashamed about how I look....it doesn't bother me. Part of me actually prefers this look, over going around looking 'normal'....for one, nobody else I know wears as much purple and pink as I do. Not that I'm saying nobody else can rock that look, or anything....” She shook her head at the thought. “...I just...sometimes, I remember how I used to be, compared to how I am now, and I just...miss it, I guess.”

“Including all the perils of the flesh?” the Inspektor queried.

“I don't miss getting sick, if that's what you're asking...” Galatea chuckled. “Or breaking bones.”

“But you miss...the little things, as it were?”

“....pretty much. Danny would have a field day with it....” The gynoid smirked. “He'd say I was out of it, call me a goof just for missing all those 'little things'....”

“...Danny?” the Inspektor echoed. “The records of that particular night don't mention–”

“You won't find him in any records, Inspektor,” Galatea replied. “He's the one who sounded the alarm that got the cops to the house...” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “...the reason my dad was able to see...” She turned away. “You get the idea. Danny got away, that night...but after Dad...”

Her hands, resting by the sides of the chair, clenched into fists.

“If you would rather not discuss it,” the Inspektor assured her, “we–”

“After Dad got killed,” Galatea continued, “things...things got complicated. Danny told me I might have to not see him for a while...a long while...told me I wouldn't be able to find him, even if I looked for him. After that, he just....” She gave a half-hearted shrug. “He just sort of....faded away. Not literally, obviously...he showed up at Oberon's place, where I was staying when he was helping me get everything sorted...” Tears began to well up in her eyes. “...he showed up, and we talked for a bit...he said I might not be able to see him again, ever, but he...he wouldn't explain why....”

The Inspektor was at her side in an instant, draping an arm around her shoulder.

“....he stopped, in the door, right when he went to leave....looked back at me...he smiled, one last time...”

“....and then he was gone,” the Inspektor finished, his tone somber.

Galatea gave a tearful nod, accepting the offered tissue to dry her eyes. “...after that...every single document about him, everything that ever mentioned him....didn't. All the files I have–” She gave a flippant gesture towards her own head. “–they haven't changed...”

“And who was it that changed everything else?”

“....I thought it was Oberon, at first. I didn't want to ask him..thought that if I did, I might 'forget' Danny, out of the blue, and I'd never know the difference..but it wasn't him. He told me, one day, that he didn't do it...I forget what led to it, or anything else, but he just told me flat out that he didn't do it.” Galatea's shoulders heaved with simulated breath. “....I don't know who did, or why....I just want to know why he had to disappear....”

Inspektor 12 nodded, more out of sympathy than anything else.

“...anyway....” The silver-skinned gynoid took a deep breath. “...nobody ever comments on how weird it is to see me take a breath, by the way,” she mused. “Even with this look...”

“More people would find it odd to see a humanoid figure not breathing,” the Inspektor mused. “Even one with such a....fantastical appearance as yours. Aesthetic programming goes a long way towards easing people out of the 'uncanny valley'....which, my dear Galatea, you've managed to leap in a single bound.” He smiled. “I have no doubt in my mind that Stanley would be proud of you–for the accomplishments you've made in your ALPA career and for this.”

“What, for having a heart-to-heart about wanting to be human?” Galatea scoffed.

“For admitting that you've had these dreams,” the Inspektor corrected, “and for not simply hiding from them.”

“....I don't think I could hide from them, Inspektor,” Galatea admitted. “I don't even think I'd want to.”

The Inspektor didn't immediately reply; his gaze fell, instead, on a package resting in a real gold stand on the fireplace mantle, wrapped in heavy brown paper. “Everybody has their secrets, my dear,” he mused. “Some of us, moreso than others....”

“I think Dad told me you told him that, once,” Galatea chuckled. “Or he wrote about it...” She shrugged. “So, d'you think we should wait for K.C and Anton to get back, or should we go find Ted and–”

Her eyes glowed for a second. “Actually, cancel that question...Ted, Rae, Roboto and about five House agents are at the hospital where Clive is staying...Ted's on his way to go talk to him now....” She paused a moment before rolling her eyes. “...and apparently, Rae's made a new 'friend',” she added, sounding half-amused and half-exasperated. “They've promised to 'keep it PG-13' for the time being, seeing as how Clive just fought his way back from the brink of death, and all...”

“An understandable concession,” the Inspektor agreed. “And these House agents...”

“Were the ones who showed up here looking for a phone, earlier,” Galatea clarified. “I got the full scoop when I showed up.” Her eyes returned to their usual appearance. “So....do we wait here, or do we go visit Clive?”

“Allow me to answer your question with a question of my own–”

“Was I a fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books?” Galatea finished, her tone deadpan.

Inspektor 12 chuckled. “I'm pretty sure this particular 'option' wouldn't lead the two of us to a disasterous 'The End' page, if we were in one,” he replied.

“I'd hope it didn't...” The silver-skinned gynoid rolled her eyes at the thought. “I can just see it now: 'You walk out through the front door, prepared to drive to the hospital, when out of nowhere a shark falls on you and crushes you flat. The End.' That would be utterly stupid....” She allowed herself a giggle. “...to be honest, I think we'd get just as much done if we waited for Anton and K.C,” she mused. “Or at least give them a chance to get up to speed on the whole situation with Clive...and the one with Ted and Rae, if they didn't know about it already....” She noticed the Inspektor giving her a look. “...what?”

“'Out of nowhere, a shark falls on you and crushes you flat'?”

“....I've read weirder. Believe me. I actually tried writing a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, once...never got around to finishing it.” Galatea flopped back on the sofa and sighed. “I just couldn't bring myself to put in so many possible negative endings.”

The Inspektor nodded thoughtfully. “Pots of gold are far more desirable than the status quo.... “

“Or being flattened by a shark falling from the sky,” Galatea added, shaking her head at the absurdity of the idea. “At least K.C.'s story didn't end just because of the Helios virus....granted, she did survive with a little help from her friends.” She glanced at the door. “....you said earlier that nobody saw Sharon walk up and knock on the door?”

“I only called five potential witnesses,” the Inspektor reminded her. “All of whom had either a direct or partial view of the Lawson house in which we now sit.”

The silver-skinned gynoid frowned. “Guess that potential lead's gone out the window already...”

“I'm sure that whoever or whatever knocked on the door will be identified in due time, Galatea,”

“I know, I know....” Galatea sighed. “And, ah...thanks, for listening, and giving me a shoulder to cry on.”

Inspektor 12 smiled. “Your father never would've forgiven me if I hadn't, my dear.”

Part 20

“...okay, care to run that by me again?”

Vicki's annoyance did little, if anything, to phase Preston. “Your post-trial meeting with the accused has been postponed, Miss Lawson. Another aircraft has been spotted flying over our faciltiy–”

“It might be the same one as the first,” Rita offered. “We don't exactly know for sure...”

Preston didn't acknowledge her interruption. “A second flyover, so soon after the first, is sufficient cause for us to secure the accused until the nature of the flyover can be determined....rest assured, Miss Lawson, that our decision has nothing to do with any remarks from your own testimony–”

“I get it.”

Even as Preston frowned at the apparent flippancy of her remark, Vicki leaned against a wall and sighed. “I'm guessing this means my timetables for leaving here just changed, too?”

“...they have.”

“Figured that...” The brunette gynoid nodded. “I'll have to call home, let someone know I'll be late...”

Preston nodded. “Arrangements will be made as soon as possible, Miss Lawson.” He turned on his heel to leave; “I would advise against returning to your quarters,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “The nature of this latest flyover may lead to a lockdown of the entire facility..”

Rita tut-tuted at the thought. “And what of the Media Department's current activities?”

“The lockdown will have minimal, if any, effects on the power grid, Miss Egeria. Your department will have full reign to continue their work unabated.” Without another word, Preston walked away, accompanied by a pair of grey-clad guards.

“Well....” Rita shook her head as she watched Preston leave. “A fine mess our Site Director leaves us in, isn't it, dear? Possible lockdowns, with the two of us camping in a corridor....all because of some silly little plane flying overhead...it's enough to drive someone mad...” Her remarks trailed off when she noticed Vicki's lack of response. “...still thinking about the trial?” she inquired.

“....Preston told me I'd said more than enough,” Vicki replied. “I just...”

“He can be a bit curt, sometimes,” Rita informed her. “They say it's not in the job description for a Site Director to be so...cold, if you catch my meaning...but poor Preston's gone through plenty in his life...” She quickly glanced up and down the hallway before continuing: “...and I'd greatly appreciate it if you forget hearing what I just said,” she added, her voice barely above a whisper. “....in any case, Preston does mean well, even if he doesn't come across as the friendliest man in the building.”

Vicki nodded. “Figured that...”

“You're handling it all rather well, dear,” Rita mused. “Some people find this place...stifling...”

“Well, I've...been through a lot, too....” Vicki frowned, glancing at–past Rita. “....you should probably get back to your work before they start a lockdown, or something....”

Rita shrugged. “I never thought I'd want to go back to the office, but I do have quite a workload to handle before the day is through...take care, dear!” She waved a quick goodbye at the brunette gynoid as she walked away, unaware that Vicki hadn't even seen it....

…mainly due to what–or who–was standing at the far end of the hall.

Scans say he's human....and he's not on file.

Under normal circumstances, those words wouldn't be any reason for Vicki to slowly approach the figure she was still staring at...but she had very little reason to believe that the ALPA employed kids to do any work in this place–which did little to explain the presence of the boy at the end of the hall, regarding something with a frown. Even with the knowledge that he was human, however, there was something....off...about him. He didn't look lost, or remotely frightened of his surroundings, or confused about where he was–if anything, his expression was one of annoyance.

Why do I get the feeling I know him from somewhere?

As she approached the boy, Vicki decided against contacting any of the guards–given the fact that another flyover had taken place, they already had more than enough to deal with. “Ah, hey,” she called out, “are you lost, or something?”

The boy turned to regard her with a scowl.

“....are you, ah, lost?” she repeated. “D'you need any–”

“Lost?” the boy echoed–a strangely cynical edge to his voice. “I think not, Miss Lawson.”

“Well, then–” Vicki stopped in her tracks, stunned. “....what....what did you just–”

“I'm currently in the presence of Field Agent Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson, correct?”

“.....you are.”

The boy's expression didn't change. “....to answer your question, Miss Lawson....at this moment, I can assure you that I'm not lost. In fact...”

A smirk crossed his lips. “…I'm standing exactly where I need to be.”

Without warning, an image sprung to the forefront of Vicki's memory–the bathroom at the HP Pavilion, that January. A headless fembot on the floor, two human thugs unconscious right next to it....and a third figure, with a gun pointed at Vicki's back, ordering her to flatten herself against the back wall of the room with her face against the wall. The exchange between herself and the gunman replayed itself almost instantly:

“And where does that leave you?” she'd asked quietly. “Where, in the ‘big picture’, do you stand?”

The unseen gunman gave a strange chuckle. “Miss Lawson….I am standing exactly where I need to be.”

A gasp left the brunette gynoid's lips. “....but....that would mean....”

Her medical scanners kicked on again. It can't be him. There's no way.....

Two numbers flashed in the upper-right corner of her field of view.

“I figured you'd recall our...last encounter,” the boy stated. “Just as I figured your scanners are telling you that, despite my appearance and the sound of my voice, I'm nowhere near as 'helpless' as I may look. Of course, many who've dealt with me in the past–including you–are far more accustomed to not seeing or hearing 'the real me'....but the time for such games has long since passed.”

He regarded Vicki from beneath furrowed brows. “...I think I've waited long enough to make my move.”

“...what are you–”

The wall to Vicki's right exploded, sending her to the floor in a heap. Her scanners were still functioning, and already recovering from the impact of the debris. Get up, keep moving, don't let anything–

Three feet behind her, the ceiling exploded; shouts and gunfire were beginning to erupt from the branching corridors off to either side of her. Three steps further down the hallway, the floor itself shot up into a column of fire and rubble; had Vicki been standing directly on that spot, she would've been thrown into the ceiling and almost certainly damaged.

Black-clad, armored figures entered into her field of view, swarming into the corridor with rifles drawn. All of them wore badges, belt buckles, pauldrons and armbands with a distinctive double-M insignia.

The leader of the group held up a closed fist. “Sector clear. Proceed to Phase 2–”

“Make sure he hasn't left containment,” the boy ordered. “If he's out of his room before we're done here...”

“Acknowledged.” Five of the black-clad newcomers made their way past Vicki, seeming to move without wasting a single motion.

…get up...find Preston....find Sophia, find somebody....

“They'll come looking for you, of course. An assault on this facility, especially in this day and age, would be almost–” An explosion cut the boy's remarks off; he merely frowned, before continuing. “....unthinkable. To even consider attacking this place–”

Another explosion cut him off, this one dropping rubble on Vicki as she tried to return to her feet.

“...I suggest you stop trying to move,” the boy advised. “'Titanium' though you may well be, even you have your limits, Miss Lawson, and I'd hate to see you push yourself past them and risk destruction. Contrary to what you might think, I'm not one of the many who would enjoy seeing you in pieces–”

“Who are you?!” the brunette gynoid hissed, struggling to stand.

“....you already know the answer to that question, Miss Lawson.”

Even as her systems began to give out, Vicki found herself realizing what should've been all too obvious from the moment she'd first seen the boy. “....the flyovers....your idea....”

“Under most circumstances, I'd be insulted that it took you this long to figure it out,” the boy admitted. “Still, I might as well admit that the flyovers were conducted on my orders...a remarkable distraction. Fool the entire complex into thinking that some adversary might be performing an aerial surveilance run...never even thinking to check their own ventilation systems for possible intruders.” He smirked again. “If memory serves, I believe you entered the Chirkey Dam through an unguarded ventilation grid....”

Vicki tried to growl, only for her left leg to collapse under her.

One of the black-clad figures approached the boy. “He's broken containment, sir. We don't know if he has a weapon or not–”

“Then we leave. Secure our target and get her to the–”

A burst of gunfire from the end of the hall cut him off; another of the black-clad figures staggered backwards before collapsing. Several others were retreating from something–someone charging at them with a feral scream, clearly unphased by their gunfire.

The boy's glance snapped from the black-clad figure at his side to Vicki.

“Right away, sir.” The armed and armored figure marched over to the brunette gynoid, picking her up with relative ease and slinging her over its shoulders (medical scanners weren't picking up any life signs, meaning all that gear was more than likely concealing an android)–just as another figure staggered into the hall at the far end, minus its head.

Seconds later, a white-shod foot kicked the flailing body to the floor....

….and Oberon stepped into view, wielding what appeared to be a machete.

“I had a feeling you'd intervene,” the boy remarked, his tone disturbingly casual. “Even after she refused to help you murder–”

“LET HER GO!” Oberon's eyes had gone blood-red again. “NOW!”

“You and I both know that's not how this ends,” the boy countered. “She leaves with me.”

“TAKE ME, INSTEAD!” Oberon screamed. “LEAVE HER OUT OF THIS!”

“Under any other circumstances, I would,” the boy replied, turning on his heel, “but you wouldn't last fifteen seconds in the Dollhouse. She leaves with me, Oberon–”

“YOU CAN'T!” Oberon tried to rush the figure carrying Vicki away, only for two more to restrain him.

“I will. You have no power here...and when you leave, you probably won't have that much power in the Valley, either, so just take my advice, and–”

Both figures collapsed to the floor, their heads rolling away. “I won't let you take her, ESPECIALLY NOT–”

Three gunshots ended Oberon's threat.....three red holes, in a perfect triangle, blossomed on his shirt.

“I didn't want to resort to this,” the boy muttered, dropping the smoking Walther PPK to the floor, “but you didn't exactly leave me with plenty of options.” He turned and headed back down the hall, followed by the figure carrying Vicki. “If you're lucky, both you and Miss Lawson will survive. At best, one of you will live, one of you won't.....I don't think I need to explain the worst-case scenario.”

“....you....you can't,” Oberon groaned, sinking to his knees. “Vicki.....fight this.....”

“She's already gone into standby mode, Oberon. If she hadn't, this would be going a lot differently.”

“......VICKI.....”

Oberon's pleas went unheard; Vicki had, indeed, lapsed into standby mode...but not from the explosions that had hit her, or the debris falling on her. Either the figure carrying her or the boy had done something to trick her systems into entering a standby state, not helped by the falling chunks of ceiling or Vicki having been sent flying into the walls by explosions.

“You know why this needs to happen, Oberon,” the boy called out. “You've always known.”

“Vicki....” Oberon tried to stand, to lift himself from the floor where he'd fallen. “...Vick......” He fell to the floor, ragged breaths barely stirring his figure as the boy and the figure carrying Vicki entered an elevator car–mere seconds before a chunk of the ceiling fell in front of the door.

The boy glanced at the chunk of debris, then at the hole in the ceiling.

Seconds later, the lift door closed

“The helipad is secured?” The boy didn't glance at the figure standing next to him in the lift car.

“It has, sir.”

“And the backups are in place just in case our control of the helipad is compromised?”

“They are.”

“Check everything, one last time, to be sure. I don't want all this planning going to waste on account of some random guard being where they're not supposed to be.” The boy scowled. “I didn't have the luxury of planning this far ahead back at the Pavilion...a mistake that won't happen again.”

The lift car door opened, revealing several of the grey-clad guards on their knees, hands secured behind their backs with zip-ties. A black-clad figure stood behind each of them, each poised to shoot if anyone made even the slightest sign of resistance. At the far end of the line of guards was a gleaming black helicopter, a single red double-M insignia serving as the only identifying mark on it.

A smile briefly crossed the boy's lips. “....perfect.”

With a gesture, the figure carrying Vicki ordered the black-clad humanoids to turn away from their captives and face the boy–all of them turned as one, without a second's lag. It was through these imposing double lines of motionless watchers that the boy and his entourage (three more of his own guards had emerged from another lift) strode towards the helicopter; each pair of black-clad figures turned to regard the boy as he passed, as if to acknowledge–

One of the guards by his side shuddered, then fell to the ground in a heap.

The boy's pace never slowed. “Handle it.”

Two guards let themselves fall back from the march toward the helicopter, turning to fire at the attacker–and getting bullets through their helmets as a result. Two more guards stepped in from either line, intending to do what their predecessors hadn't, only to be shot down as well.

“You're persistent,” the boy remarked, never looking back. “I'll give you that much–”

“And you know why we can't let you take her to the Dollhouse.”

The boy smirked; the figure next to him was already loading Vicki into the helicopter. “You say that as if I'm a comic-book supervillain....you already know why she has to face the Dollhouse, Preston. Save your bullets and your breath for another time, when they'll actually mean something–”

“This is your last chance. Let Vicki go.”

The boy glanced over his shoulder at Preston. “You get what she gets: 48 hours. You'll know when it starts.”

With a nod, he climbed into the cockpit of the helicopter. “And don't bother trying to shoot me,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “If even ONE bullet from your gun hits me, I can guarantee with absolute certainty that every one of my guards will empty every clip from their guns into you.” The door slammed shut; seconds later, the helicopter began to ascend. The boy gave Preston a final glance as his “ride” rose further into the clouds.....

...and all Preston could do was watch, silently, as the helicopter carried Vicki Lawson and her captors away from the formerly secure ALPA facility to an unknown fate.

“Damn you,” he whispered. “Damn you to Hell.”

Part 21

“NO!”

Galatea's shout jolted Inspektor 12 out of his reverie–a particularly fond recollection of his band opening a show for Blue Öyster Cult in Houston back in '86–and into reality. “...something wrong?” he asked, managing to remain nonchalant despite the note of abject horror in the gynoid's tone.

“....they...they breached the complex,” Galatea breathed. “...I just...”

Without another word, she collapsed to her knees, sobbing. The Inspektor was at her side in an instant.

“....Oberon...he's been shot.....” Again, the silver-skinned gynoid's eyes seemed far more human than the ocular sensor arrays that they really were. “....they took her. They took Vicki....”

Again, the throbbing of a vein in his cheek served as the only signal that he was in any way distressed by what he'd just heard. “Whoever 'they' are,” he informed Galatea, “they won't get far.....” He stopped himself. “You said they breached the complex...”

“He did this,” Galatea hissed. “Just like at the Pavilion....”

The mention of the HP Pavilion jolted the Inspektor's thoughts like a brick through a window–he'd read the files on what had happened during the Starlet Dolls' tour, including one particularly distressing report of a “strange figure” exiting a women's restroom accompanied by two other figures, and “something on a cart”.

“...he warned me. In my dream....he said he'd do this....”

Galatea's sobbed words again caught Inspektor 12's attention. “Your dream....McMire did this?”

Silently–tearfully–the silver-skinned gynoid nodded.

“We need to contact HQ,” the Inspektor declared. “Tell them what's happened, get them to–”

Without preamble, the TV kicked on, showing what appeared to be a surveilance camera feed...a live feed, at that, from the inside of a vehicle. From the background noise and the scenery passing the windows, it was all too clear that it was coming from an aerial vehicle.

The focus of the feed, of course, was the motionless figure strapped to an interior seat.

“Vicki,” Galatea whispered, a hand rising to her mouth in shock

A voice spoke up, just loud enough to be heard over the helicopter's rotor noises: “Friends, family, colleagues and anyone else who might consider themselves 'loved ones' of Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson...consider this a friendly warning. I've 'borrowed' Miss Lawson, and for the next 48 hours, she'll be subjected to...a test. Some of you will be receiving reports of others, like Miss Lawson, whom I've 'borrowed' in a similar fashion–their fates rest entirely in her hands. Thus, anyone planning a 'rescue mission' or any such nonsense would do well to call off those plans, immediately....”

The camera in the helicopter panned towards an open door–and, below it, the sea.

“....or else this....” The camera panned back to Vicki. “....will be the last time you see Miss Lawson...ever.”

Galatea clung to the Inspektor, as if he were the only thing keeping her from a similar fate.

“Seeing as how I am, in fact, generous, the 48-hour time limit will begin in two hours. Furthermore, you have my word that, as soon as she's finished her 'test', she'll be released intact–her memories won't be deleted or altered, and no alterations will be made to her programming.”

The camera panned around the helicopter, showing identical figures–black-clad, armored humanoids whose figures weren't stirred by even the faintest hints of breath or muscle twtitches–occupying the other seats. “A final word of warning....my associates will be responsible for handling the retribution against anyone foolish enough to not heed my words and try to 'rescue' Miss Lawson...”

Without warning, the camera spun to face Vicki's motionless form again.

“...and, should any of you actually find where Miss Lawson is being tested, and attempt to take her by force...”

The camera turned, slowly, until a strangely youthful (yet oddly cynical) boy's face filled the screen–Galatea instantly flinched at the sight of it, murmuring “it's him.”

“....I assure you that such a rash decision will be the last mistake you ever make.”

Without another word, the TV turned itself off.

“...they'll have seen that message,” the Inspektor intoned. “At headquarters...it's been broadcast to every ALPA facility for miles, more than likely.” He shook his head. “I haven't seen anything like this since Franklin...”

He stopped, noticing that Galatea was still staring at the TV.

“....we have to do something,” she murmured. “We have to at least try to find where Vicki is...”

“In normal circumstances,” the Inspektor admitted, “you'd be hard pressed to find me not leading the charge to rescue Vicki from whatever fate she's been carted off to....but in this case, the waiting game may be our only logical option–”

“We can't just wait!” Galatea countered. “Vicki's been stolen–taken from a secure ALPA complex, and we're just sitting here, trying to figure out what to do....” A shiver wracked her form as she sank back onto the couch, her eyes closed. “....this sucks. I'm so used to just going out there and doing something, taking the fight to the enemy....all that stuff. Now....”

The Inspektor sighed. “This is a far different type of battle, my dear.”

“Well, then, I hate this type of battle,” Galatea sulked. “All this sitting around and waiting...”

“It grinds your gears, doesn't it?”

Galatea turned to regard the Inspektor with a textbook Kubrick stare. “Really?”

“....you have my sincerest apologies for the unintended pun, my dear. I was merely trying to make a point.”

“I know, I know...” The silver-skinned gynoid sighed. “I just...I'm so much more used to just doing something, being out there and helping, instead of camping a sofa and waiting for the call.”

“In our current predicament, waiting is the safest course of action.” The Inspektor glanced at the TV, his brow creased in consternation. “Anything else, and we risk losing Vicki to the machinations of McMire...I can only hope that everyone else who's seen his message is willing to exercise the same restraint as ourselves.”

“You don't think–”

“That message,” the Inspektor reminded Galatea, “was sent to everyone who has any detailed knowledge of Vicki Lawson....both who she is and what she is.”

The only words that Galatea could utter in reply were a quiet “Oh, scrap....”


“....and you're sure it's–IS SOMEBODY GOING TO SEDATE HIM, OR DO I HAVE TO DO IT?!”

Dr. Smith's shouted question earned him a frown from Rae. “You and I both saw what Ted just saw on that TV, and heard what he heard...tell me true, 'Dr. Smith', if you were in his position, knowing your daughter is on a helicopter to Parts Unknown to go up against lord knows what–”

The sound of something heavy, expensive and fragile breaking against a wall in the other room cut her off.

“I'm not saying we should forget that Vicki's been taken,” Dr. Smith muttered. “I'm saying that we can't just Rambo our way through this by kicking in doors and knocking down tables...the one who has Vicki now has all the bases covered. Anyone on our side puts a single toe out of line, and it's bye-bye, Vicki....” He sighed, just as Ted screamed and kicked something over in the other room.

“We should be out there,” Rae murmured. “We should be doing something, to find her.”

The feel of Dr. Smith's hand on her arm surprised her, but she didn't flinch away from it.

“I'm pretty sure that the ALPA's best and brightest are doing something to find her, Rae.”

The gynoid glanced at him, frowning. “And how do you know?”

“Trust me.....I'm–”

“Being utterly melodramatic,” Rae drawled. “And 'trust me'..a bit arrogant of you, isn't it? I hardly know you!”

“....no, I mean....look. I want Vicki back with the ALPA, safe and sound, and I know you want her back safely, too....and if I knew that my intervention, or yours, could get her back right now–”

“It would.”

“No, it'd just step on the toes of plenty of people the ALPA would do better to avoid right now–including the one who has Vicki. The best thing we can do for now is–” Something hit the floor in the other room with a loud crash, causing Dr. Smith to flinch.

“I appreciate the effort,” Rae admitted, “but your bedside manner needs a lot of work.” She turned to leave...

“Rae.....”

The chestnut-haired gynoid turned, glancing not at Dr. Smith, but at the bed-ridden figure of Clive DuBrual.

“....the.....the doctor knows, Rae,” Clive intoned. “You'd do well to trust his instincts.”

“Trying not to make this about me,” Dr. Smith admitted, “if you don't mind...”

“Spack off, Doc.” Rae moved her chair closer to the bed. “No offense, Clive, but you should–”

“If the next words out of your mouth are 'save your strength for your recovery', I'll have you demoted to a desk job,” DuBraul warned...though there was just enough of a playful twinkle in his eye to ensure the chestnut-haired gynoid that he was kidding. “The disease that sapped my strength hasn't robbed me of my sanity, if you must know...”

“Wasn't trying to say it had,” Rae muttered, not quite able to look Clive in the eye as she spoke. “I was just going to say that–”

Yet another object from the other room was kicked over, followed by a pained sob/howl from Ted.

“He hasn't felt this since Vicki was killed,” DuBraul sighed. “When the Butcher ran her through with his blades, back in July...even then, he had the Eleven. Even then, he still had her close by, to rebuild, to repair...” He shook his head sadly. “Now, he can't even talk to her.”

Dr. Smith stared at the ceiling. “...and I now feel like a prick for wanting to sedate him...”

“All he can do, for now, is grieve...” DuBraul laid back, closing his eyes. “All we can do, for now, is wait.”

A groan from Rae cut through what would've been a poignant silence. “Like I told Lani, I'm the patient type,” she muttered, “but waiting through something like this...Vicki's a teammate, a friend, and all we can do for her is just sit here?!”

“Our intervention could end badly. Vicki's captor could simply destroy her before she can undergo her 'test', if we choose to rescue her...” DuBraul sighed. “Even if we find her exact location, we could lose more Field Agents trying to get in and extract her...this test is something she must face on her own, and something she must triumph over without our help. She's made it this far on her own....we need to trust in her abilities and let her win this latest battle without us.”

“So we're her cheerleaders,” Rae scowled, “and she won't even know it....yay for us.”

“You'd prefer not supporting her at all?” Dr. Smith countered. “Yes, it sucks that we can't go rescue her...but it's better than just acting like her fate is already sealed and we'll never see her again.”

Despite her annoyance, Rae couldn't argue with that fact. “Y'know, you have a point there, doc.”

“Thanks....and please don't call me 'Doc'.”

Rae's intended reply was cut off by the door to the other room opening, allowing the gynoid (and both DuBraul and Dr. Smith) to get a close-up look at a shuddering, bleary-eyed Ted Lawson. His shirt was torn, several of his knuckles were bleeding from where he'd punched things, and he looked as if he desperately needed a good, long sleep...but he met the stares of Dr. Smith, Rae and DuBraul without hesitation.

“Ted,” Rae began, “if you....ah, need a moment...”

“I don't. I...” Ted glanced over his shoulder, at the carnage in the room behind him. “....I guess I got a little bit carried away,” he mumbled, “over...this...”

“None of us blame you for it,” DuBraul assured him. “These are difficult times for us all.”

“'Difficult' is an understatement....” Ted shook his head. “...we have to stay out of it, for Vicki's sake. I won't risk losing her because someone jumped the gun and tried to rescue her.”

“...and you're sure that this is how it has to be done?” Dr. Smith inquired. “You're not going to–”

Ted held up a hand. “Right now....we all need a break.” He glanced back at the room behind him again; “I'll, ah, foot the bill for that,” he added, a bit sheepishly.

DuBraul chuckled. “I'll tell them to refuse any check you sign, Ted...the ALPA can replace anything you broke.”

Rae's silent mouthing of “really?” earned her an elbow in the side from Dr. Smith.

“...so I guess all we do now is...wait, then,” Ted reasoned. “Wait for Vicki to pass this 'test'...and hopefully get back home as soon as she can.”

“She will, Ted,” DuBraul assured him. “She's survived plenty worse, before...she'll survive this.”


04-10-11

Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson has been secured, and is en route to her test, as planned. The level of resistance at the complex was....expected, including the attempted intervention of Oberon; a lesser man would've been more than happy to bathe the floors in blood and leave the place a smoking ruin.

Anyone who entertains the prospect of my forces using such brutish tactics is, quite simply, a fool.

My message to Miss Lawson's allies, friends, family and loved ones will no doubt provoke reactions ranging from shock to outright fury; I'm positive that many of them might ignore my warning and do their best to “save” her from a perceived “horrible fate” in some unknown, unseen deathtrap. They believe–incorrectly–that I fall under the same category as her past “foes”....Faceless, Damien Falken, Epsilon, Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, even the Baron. I'm sure that most of them think I want Miss Lawson to fail this test, to be utterly destroyed in some cunning trap or another.

Again, anyone who entertains such a notion is a fool.

To have all of this planning, all of this effort and coordination, wasted by simply destroying Miss Lawson or subjecting her to whatever horrific fate her friends believe she faces at my hands....I'm almost insulted by the thought of it. Miss Lawson, of course, isn't facing this test alone....allowing her to be destroyed, manipulating every aspect of the test to lead to her doom or even turning the others against her would run counter to my purposes for this endeavor.

She's survived worse, after all. I've seen the footage myself: again, Epsilon, Faceless, the Family of Steel, the Maestro....she even went blade-to-blade against her mentor, a man trained to destroy her kind.

It almost makes me regret pulling the PPK on him...but such measures were necessary.

The helicopter is 14 minutes away from landing....Miss Lawson will be prepared by my aides. The test will be checked and calibrated one final time.

Soon, Miss Lawson will reactivate–I'm sure she'd refer to it as “waking up”.

The Dollhouse awaits her....I expect the next 48 hours to be interesting.....

McMire

Next time on The V.I.C.I. Diaries

Vicki Lawson faces her greatest challenge yet–with no gear, no way to contact her allies and no choice but to take part in the “test” she's been dropped into, Vicki finds herself trapped within the confines of the enormous (and ominous) Dollhouse...and she's not the only one there!

The purpose of this twisted place is made apparent all too soon: Vicki, and her “housemates”, must navigate a facility loaded to the gills with tricks and traps, all designed to test (and in a few cases, to trash) androids and gynoids caught within them! Every other gynoid in the Dollhouse was “dropped in” for a different reason; some will trust Vicki's decisions, others will want to do things their own way...and one (or more) of them might be in the employ of the mysterious McMire!

Whatever the case, Vicki has 48 hours to escape the Dollhouse, with or without the other gynoids....

...and if she can't, no pressure–she gets to try again! And again....and again......

You won't want to miss the next installment of The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, coming soon to Fembot Central!


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