Kirsten's Choice

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“My dushechka….I…I am sorry….”

Boris Vlatko stared at the silent, still figure of his beloved Elena, tears brimming from his eyes. It had been at least three months since the incident that had left him wandering in a field, stripped naked---and Elena with a gaping hole in her stomach, revealing her internals to the world…and still, he had no answers as to why things had gone so wrong. The one known only as McMire was rumored to be involved, but other than hearsay and gossip, Boris had nothing conclusive…

…other than the void in his life that was just as ugly as the hole in Elena’s torso.

He tried to speak, tried to assure Elena that everything would be all right, but no words could ease his raging mind, or magically repair the damage that had been done to his beloved.

Words, as he knew too well, could be just as damaging as any weapon.

The last time he’d relied on mere words to assure a victory for himself---and his first creation, Vladimir---he’d lost to an American girl, one whose victory made Boris and Vladimir (and, by extension, the once-prestigious Russian robotics company Boris had worked for) look like fools. It had only been a spelling bee, but in the eyes of those in power, any failing was grounds for dismissal. There was no room within the ranks for those who made mistakes---even if their record had been spotless…

…even if their success meant a chance to save the life of someone dear to them.

Boris had never told his bosses that Elena was dying, or that he’d been enlisting colleagues to help him with a project that, if his calculations were correct, could help her live on even after her human self was lost to the ravages of cancer. Of course, when those in power did find out, they reacted with brutal efficiency.

Every single employee who’d helped Boris with his project disappeared.

Had fate not intervened the way it did that night, he most likely would’ve joined them.

Instead, Boris found himself receiving promotion after promotion, much to the chagrin of those who shared the “failure means death” view of the bosses. By the end of the dacade, he wound up in the employment of a man whose name (much like his face) seemed to always be hidden behind impenetrable darkness. The bosses had been under no illusion of United Robotronics’ view on glasnost or any such policies, knowing that the one known only as the Baron had heard of their “slight blunder” and decided to spare him from that unknowable fate which had claimed his former colleagues. The 90s were the time for Boris to start over---with Elena, now living on as an unaging, eternally-beautiful gynoid,at his side.

Two decades later, things were back to square one.

Failed dealings with Drake Bradford, a string of dead projects meant to crush United Robotronics’ competition and his laughable attempt to end Sophia Starlet’s career were only a few of the bullet points on the list; as of now, Boris was living on borrowed time, with no eleventh-hour savior waiting to swoop in and rescue him.

This time, he was alone.

“I have failed you,” he wept, too ashamed to even behold the face of his beloved. “My dushechka…my dear, beloved Elena…forgive me…” His shaking hand managed to grasp an object on the nearby workbench---his old revolver, given to him as a gift back when the idea of joining the Russian army wasn’t a complete joke.

He raised the gun to his head, closed his eyes----

“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”

The voice that spoke those words was dripping with sarcasm; the speaker’s footsteps paced back and forth behind Boris, their owner’s shadow looming over him like a monument of Lenin. “If you’re going to do this, then take a page out of the samurai book---blade to the gut, carve a quick z, and have someone standing right behind you with another sword to lop off that worthless, gunk-filled head of yours---me, for instance.”

A spasm of anger flashed through Boris’ expression; “You have no business here,” he half-growled.

“On the contrary, Vlatko…I have very important business to conduct here.” A black-clad figure strode into view, his back turned to the disgraced roboticist. “You’ve been in hiding too long, comrade…you never came back to United Robotronics after the Baron issued the ‘all-call’ for his underbosses to return to the fold, and a lot of your friends are…dare I say…worried about you….” A dry chuckle punctuated the sentence; “Well, at least I tried to keep a straight face that time---not that anyone could ever tell, these days…anyway, enough of my rambling---“

“What do you want, Rengold?!” Boris demanded.

Another chuckle---more of a derisive snort, actually---silenced Boris before he could speak again. “Funny how so many people have taken to calling me that when they get annoyed with me…” Without warning, the black-clad figure swung out his left arm towards Boris---allowing the blade hidden in his sleeve to extend and lock into place, just inches away from the Russian’s throat.

“…even when my preferred title isn’t exactly that hard to forget…am I right?”

Boris, already beginning to see his life flash before his eyes, rephrased his earlier question: “What do you want…Faceless?”

“Funny,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour mused. “You’re asking me what I want, when I actually came here to give you what you want…” He flicked his wrist and angled his arm upwards, allowing the blade to slide back into the sleeve. “Considering the fact that I wasn’t able to make McMire suffer enough after he left you in a field in nothing but your birthday suit, the Baron has attempted to…renegotiate the terms of my employment with the Coalition---a much less pathetic state of affairs than your current self-imposed exile, I might add. To put it simply, both of us have been given one final chance to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the Baron---though I must admit, being lumped in with you is a bit…extreme, by my standards…”

Something lke hope coursed through the Russian’s thoughts. “What do we have to do?” he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

“I will be retrieving the research papers of several of your colleagues,” Faceless replied, pacing around the vertical slab where Elena rested. “Thanks to my…admittedly painful defeat during that little incident in Detroit, the Baron wants me out of the States before he enacts his ‘grand design’, whatever the hell that means. You, meanwhile, will be finding and either recruiting or terminating all living relatives of one Anthony Sanderson---“

“Why do you get to leave the country?!” Boris rasped. “I need a rest from all of this chaos---“

“I don’t ‘get’ to do anything,” Faceless hissed, his eyes blazing with hatred from behind the eyeholes of the bone-white mask that hid his ruined visage from the world. “Had the Detroit incident not gone the way it did, I’d be doing exactly what I wanted to right now---most likely going on another spree---but since my protégé left to ‘do his own thing’ and my company is forcing me to take an ‘extended leave of absence’, this is the only thing I could sign up for that wouldn’t run the risk of landing me in prison…not that it would’ve mattered after the first week, but that’s getting a bit off-topic.” He shook his head; “The fact is, I’m being sent to Russia as a punishment---even though the Baron could’ve done a lot more to ‘teach me a lesson’ by---“

“What about my assignment?”

Faceless glared at Boris, feeling the urge to strike him down, but decided to throw himself into a sagging leather recliner instead. “How many of the Franklin-inspired fembots were you able to recover from your past missions?” he drawled, surprised at the sturdiness of the chair.

“Seven,” Boris replied. “The rest were either destroyed or given to that Brightstar fool---“

“Reactivate them all,” Faceless replied. “How many were never switched on before now?”


“Excellent.” Faceless nodded his approval. “A pair of sevens…if only we could wrangle up seven more, we might just---“

“Some of those that survived previous missions are in ALPA custody,” Boris interjected. “Even if I could find a signal booster that would allow me to reactivate them remotely, they would be taken down by ALPA fire teams before they could do any damage!” He stared at Elena; “I…I don’t want to lose any more of my creations,” he muttered. “Not after---“

“The HELL with what you want!” Faceless snarled. “I fail this mission, and the Baron will have me strung up by my own intestines…or at least he’ll try his damndest to see me hang.” He glared at the Russian, his mutilated features contorted in a scowl behind his mask as he retrieved a Palm Pilot-sized device from his pocket; “I’ve taken the liberty of appropriating Bradford’s robot lab, so the equipment there should be sufficient for your needs. This---“ He handed the device to Boris. “---is going to boost the signal enough for you to take control of every Franklin-designed fembot within….let’s say, a ten-thousand mile radius. Actually, correct that---it’ll only control the modern fembots designed with Franklin’s specifications; the Maestro wasn’t able to get the chipset that would let it control the originals…”

Boris stared at the device, amazed. “How…did you---“

“Threatening to pull a man’s kidneys out through his nostrils can have remarkable effects on the rate at which he works,” Faceless deadpanned. “In any case, this should be more than enough for you to get the job done in…” He checked his watch. “Five days’ time. Hell, you might even be able to enjoy the Cinco de Mayo festivities once you’ve finished!” With that, he turned to leave…

“Wait!” Boris called out. “What’s this about ‘recruiting or terminating’ Sanderson’s relatives?!”

Faceless’ foot brushed against the carpet in front of the door. “Tony Sanderson,” he intoned, “was effectively rendered deceased some time last year…’effectively’ being the operative word.” He glanced over his shoulder at the Russian; “As of now, the entity known as Anthony Daniel Sanderson is part of the Baron’s biggest, most ambitious project to date…and it would be a great help if his relatives were on the United Robotronics payroll or simply out of the picture when said project is…activated.” His ruined lips twisted into a smile behind his mask, an all-too-familiar jolt of pain shooting through his face (and being ignored) as scar tissue was further pulled out of place by the gesture. “It’s sort of like that stupid BioShock game, when you think about it,” he added. “Either ‘save’ the harmless little idiots…or wipe them out.” With that (and a final chuckle), the Butcher of Lake Gilmour threw open the door and strode out.

As silence fell over his laboratory once again, Boris stared at the device Faceless had given him…then at the revolver laying on the floor. A few seconds ago, he’d been determined to end his shame by his own hand, only to be handed an opportunity to rescue himself---and his beloved Elena---from the depths of despair.

He shuffleled to the slab that held Elena’s form. “Dushechka,” he whispered, “we still have a chance…” He smiled, raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I will avenge our losses, my beloved…and the Baron will see that I am not a failure…” With that, he ran for the door, hoping to meet up with Faceless in the parking lot.

Had Elena been able to answer him, she would’ve begged him not to leave.

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary

Cinco de Mayo is on a Thursday this year, and I have a feeling things are going to get even crazier than they did last year, when it was right in the middle of the week. Yeah…Hump Day and Cinco de Mayo do not mix.

Anyways, I’d love to say it’s been quiet, but to be honest…it hasn’t. Chrissy and Summer---the two journalism majors who finally convinced the school paper to fire the Twins---have been acting a bit weird ever since I got back from the Reno case; they’ve been calling a lot of off-campus numbers and going out of their way to avoid me on some days, but on others, they’re as talkative as the next girl. I’ve been meaning to scan one or both of them, just to see if they’re sleepers---or if they’ve been replaced---but with all the craziness I’ve had to put up with lately, checking them to see if they’re gynoids isn’t exactly high on my priority list. I might run a passive scan later this week, just to make sure they aren’t using the PCs in their room to send or receive transmissions from known Coalition affiliates, but anything further than that would be invading their privacy.

Jamie’s working as a Human/Sleeper Relations volunteer with the ALPA right now; they’re letting him room with Jodie Conroy, a former sleeper who found out what she was via…trial and error (that’s the least filthy way I could think of to say it!) in preparation for working with sleepers. From what I understand, Jodie…kinda sorta nearly scrapped herself due to some over-vigorous…oh, forget it! I don’t even want to think about how the Field Techs found her…

On a completely unrelated note, the ALPA is ramping up their search for Kirsten’s dad; there’s been talk that he might be held prisoner at a United Robotronics building in Des Moines, but it’s just rumors at this point. All I know for sure is that I’m not part of the team that’s looking for him---Clive DuBraul pretty much gave me the rest of this month off after the Reno case, and I fully intend to use every bit of that time to---

A knock at the door interrupted Vicki’s chain of thought. “Who is it?” she called out, hoping that her diary entry would be properly obscured by the ALPA-issue screensaver once it kicked on.

“It’s the person who left a duffel bag full of sweaty underwear under her bed last night and needs to bring it to the bleeding laundromat before it stinks up the whole floor! Let me in already!”

Vicki laughed; “Give me a minute, Sharon…” Her roommate had always been one for inreteresting entrances, and today wasn’t looking any different. With a quick flourish, she activated the screensaver; with her journal now hidden behind a maze of ever-shifting fractals, she headed for the door and opened it. “Sorry I took so long,” she apologized. “I was just at the computer…”

“No apologies needed, Vicki,” Sharon replied. “Just as long as I can get my stuff to the laundromat before this afternoon.” She grinned as the brunette gynoid held the door open for her; “Looks like I got here just in time,” she added, holding her nose. “Well, it smells like it…how can you stand being in here with that reek?!”

“It’s not that bad,” Vicki assured her. “That, and it really helps to crack a window. How exactly did you---“

“Volleyball, Zumba and a bit of basketball, for three straight hours,” Sharon stated. “None of the showers had been fixed, so nobody could even wash themselves off…”

Yeesh, Vicki winced. Makes me glad I’ve got a fully-programmable heat management system! “Well, the shower on this floor is working,” she offered, “and the Twins won’t be back from their latest ‘investigative forray’ any time soon, so you won’t have to worry about them monopolizing the stalls…or you could follow some of your classmates’ examples and go barricade themselves in the Aquatic Center in the middle of the night.” She blushed at the mere mention of the incident; “Seriously, if the campus police had shown up just two minutes sooner…”

“Well, they did need a good clean,” Sharon laughed.

“There are better ways to clean up than locking yourself in the Aquatic Center,” Vicki countered.

Sharon nodded; “Well, it could be worse,” she mused. “I hear the Twins are planning to stage a ‘protest’ in the library parking lot involving a ‘Jello Bath’, or something…though how that has anything to do with third-world countries is beyond me.”

“’Jello Baths’ and ‘third-world countries’ shouldn’t even be in the same sentence,” Vicki frowned. “In any case, the Twins and their stupid fake protest are the least of my worries right now…have you noticed that Kirsten’s been missing classes a lot more often lately?” Though it had nothing to do with the ALPA’s investigation (not yet, anyways), Kirsten Sanderson’s tardiness had been noticed around the campus---mainly since she’d had a perfect attendance record (or as close to perfect as one could ask for) thus far in the year.

“I’ve heard,” Sharon replied, her voice grim. “Last time I saw her, she looked like she’d been crying for a full hour or so!”

Vicki grimaced, knowing full well just how much of an impact the disapparance of Kirsten’s father was having on the gynoid. “If something like that ever happened to one of my relatives,” she murmured, “I’d probably be spending a lot of time crying…” …except it’s already happened, she mentally added, and it took everything I had to save Dad from that Rykkard whack-job and his Spare Parts Society… She forced herself to let the memories of the Salton Sea mission fade. “Her mom’s doing a lot to help her cope,” she informed Sharon, “but if this doesn’t get resolved soon…she might not be coming back next semester. I don’t even want to think of what might happen---“

The sound of the Yaz song “Situation” emanating from her pocket cut her off mid-sentence. “Interesting choice for a ringtone,” Sharon commented.

“Mom’s been buying a lot of their albums on Amazon,” Vicki replied, fishing her cellphone out of her pocket. “I have to admit, I think they’re pretty cool, too…” She glanced at the screen; Lizette? I haven’t heard from her since the Bradford incident…”I have to take this,” she informed Sharon, ducking out into the hall and heading for the relative privacy of the restroom. “It’ll only be a minute…”

Once she was sure nobody could hear her, she opened the phone. “Vicki Lawson speaking, what’s the---“

“You don’t have to be informal, Vicki…or should I say Agent Lawson?”

A mixture of panic and confusion flooded through the brunette gynoid; “Ah, I don’t know what you mean---“

“DuBraul explained the whole thing after you helped save us from Bradford…and we know about the robots designed to look like us that had taken our places on campus.” Vicki could almost sense Lizette’s smile as she continued; “To be honest, this whole thing is sort of fascinating…but that’s not why I called.”

“Seeing as how nobody’s asked to see my back panel for the past few months, I’m guessing you’ve all been sworn to secrecy,” the brunette gynoid deadpanned. “Anyways, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what’s up?”

“It seems that there’s another me running loose on campus,” Lizette replied. “The same ‘me’ that managed to escape after the incident with Tori. Since it would be…awkward if I was seen arresting myself, for lack of a better term, I was wondering if you could look into it; if you can detain her without damaging her, it’d be a major bonus.”

“Let me guess,” Vicki drawled, “Tell put you up to that, right?”

“Actually, I did,” Anton Malvineous’ voice interjected. “Nice hearing from you again, Vicki---and in case you’re wondering, the Starlet Dolls’ Japanese tour was fantastic. I’ve got some prototypes from the new toyline, as well, if you want to take a look at them later---“

“Another time,” Vicki replied, barely hiding her surprise at hearing Anton. “When did you get back?!”

Her question was answered with a wry chuckle; “I’ve been ‘back’ for well over two weeks,” Anton informed the brunette gynoid, “but considering your workload over the course of last month, I’m not too upset with you for never checking to see if I’d returned safely.” His voice turned serious as he continued: “On a similar note, I hear you had a bit of an incident in Detroit this past March…anything you’d like to discuss?”

“Other than the fact that I’m over it,” Vicki stated, the air of finality in her voice leaving no room for any attempt at arguing, “not much---“

“I read the report, Vicki,” Anton interjected. “I know what that sadistic idiot tried to do to you…”

“Then you should also know that it takes a lot more than the likes of him to do any lasting damage to me. Like I told Faceless before he pulled a Houdini on me: He’s just flesh and blood, but I’m titanium…nothing he can do is going to hurt me for long, if at all.”

After a five-second pause, Anton sighed. “Not exactly what I was expecting to hear,” he admitted, “but to be brutally honest, it’s better than what I did expect. In any case, Lizette’s question---reinforced, as of now, by my own request---still stands: would you kindly retrieve the Lizette fembot that’s been sighted on campus, without damaging her too badly, and bring her to the ALPA for analysis?”

“Trying to channel Andrew Ryan now?” Vicki joked.

“I was just being polite,” Anton replied, his words just barely containing a laugh.

“Well, since you did ask me nicely,” Vicki stated, “I’d be happy to drag Robo-Lizette back to HQ---in one piece, as per your request. Any chance I could get some backup, if necessary?”

“Marybeth and Dawn will be standing by to assist if needed,” Lizette informed her. “They’ve been practicing how to move around without being spotted, even in their usual wardrobes…no camoflauge required.” A giggle rang in Vicki’s ears; “They’re actually watching you right now,” Lizette admitted, “from a doorway on the floor above you.”

The brunette gynoid glanced up, a smirk crossing her face. “Well, if I can’t tell they’re here,” she admitted, “then they must be getting pretty good at what they do. Can they---“

“Tell that you’re scratching your ear with your right pinky while crossing your left foot over your right?” Lizette finished. “Pretty much. For an encore, they could---“

“I get it!” Vicki laughed. “Tell them to meet me at Just Below in a few minutes for a recon meeting---if they’re not busy, that is.” She paused; “Anton, I think you should be there as well,” she added, after a few seconds’ worth of thinking. “If any of our usual annoyances are behind this, it might take more than just a three-person team to contain it.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Anton replied. “My schedule’s free for the remainder of the week.”

“Good,” Vicki replied. “I just have to go get some stuff from my room, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Glad to hear it,” Anton stated. “Be seeing you…”

Vicki nodded; “Bye for now!” With that, she ended the call; looks like my day just got interesting, she mused. I hope Sharon won’t mind taking a rain check on our conversation; it sucks that I have to leave her in the lurch like this… With a sigh, the brunette gynoid turned and headed back towards her room. At least this mission is going to be simple, she reasoned. Tracking down one fembot duplicate of a student, with that student’s friends helping me…how hard could this possibly get?

Apparently, she hadn’t learned her lesson from the last time she’d asked herself that question…

“….and they haven’t made any attempt to escape in that period of time?”

Major Tom stared at the inert figures within the capsules, shaking his head. “If they had,” he mused, “we’d be up to our eyeballs in red tape and/or casualties. DuBraul’s made a lot of concessions just to keep these four our of the hands of…shall we say, certain parties…and he damn sure won’t let them slip through his grasp any time soon.”

Had the four captured fembots Major Tom referred to been stored at any site other than the ALPA’s armored bunker somewhere beneath the shifting sands outside of Reno, Nevada, his claims might have almost been laughable. Fortunately, the facility had more than enough reinforced walls, security systems and other such acoutrements to keep the fembot duplicates of Oksanna, Dawn, Simone and Marybeth from being “reclaimed”, reprogrammed via WiFi or otherwise messed with. It had cost a considerable sum, but seeing as how many of the much-maligned “earmarks” were actually being diverted to truly worthy causes (the ALPA, cancer research and funding the space program) rather than completley pointless ones (“swine odor research” had become a running gag with the ALPA bookkeepers), the bills were considerably easier to pay than one might expect.

“I still think it’s rather…convenient that they haven’t tried to get away,” Crystal stated. “I’ve heard horror stories of captured ‘bots ‘sleeping’ for months on end, only to spring up and take out a whole building full of people in an instant before returning to their makers.” She shook her head; “It just doesn’t seem like something Franklin would’ve done,” she added.

“You’re forgetting that it was Boris Vlatko who actually built them,” the Major reminded her. “Even though he used Franklin’s designs, he added a few…modifications of his own.”

Crystal arched an eyebrow. “Oberon never mentioned---“

“He didn’t want the info leaking to everyone else,” the Major stated. “Considering how many CEOs would sell their own kidneys to pay for Franklin’s original designs---even with Vlatko’s mods thrown in---it’s the only way he could keep the robotics market from flooding with crappy knockoffs overnight.” He shook his head, a sigh escaping his lips as he glanced at the encapsulated fembots. “You remember those Daikoku knockoffs Vicki fought at the SD plant?” he inquired.

“How could I forget?” Crystal droned. “I had to do the paperwork on every single one your guys brought in.”

The red-headed gynoid’s remark earned her a smile from Major Tom. “You performed a necessary, valuable service for the ALPA,” he informed her. “Never forget…even the most menial tasks can---“

“Ah, sir?” one of the technicials called out. “There’s an incoming signal….”

“So just block it,” Crystal began, only for the Major to interject: “All incoming signals are from the ALPA,” he quietly reminded her. “Everything else is blocked.” He turned his attention to the technician: “Point of origin?”

“….you’re not going to believe this, sir,” the young man replied, “but…it’s coming from Bradford’s old lab.”

Every eye and ocular sensor in the room focused on the technician. “You’re positive it’s coming from there?” Major Tom inquired. “Absolutely, 100% positive that this signal you’re picking up is emanating from the old robot lab Drake Bradford occupied last year?”

“100% positive, sir.”

A slow, almost exasperated sigh punctuated the tech’s remark; “Right,” the Major stated, “I want every single door, window and vent cover in this place locked down now. Increase firewall strength to maximum---over maximum, if at all possible---“

Behind him, the eyes of the four captured fembots shot open.

“Ah, Major,” Crystal muttered, “you might want to---“

The supposedly shatter-proof Perspex that sealed the four fembots into their capsules erupted into a veritable spiderweb of cracks, only to fully break a few short seconds later. “SON OF A---“ Major Tom barely had any time to duck as the Perspex exploded outwards, shards piercing computer monitors (and the people in front of them) with predictably destructive results. “I WANT FULL LOCKDOWN PROCEDURES, NOW!” the ex-NASA operative shouted. “Get a fireteam in here on the dou---“

A slender hand closed around his throat, cutting off the words before he could finish the order; “Sorry, sweety,” the MaryBeth fembot replied, “but we don’t have time for your little army men game…” Without taking her eyes off of the Major, she backhanded a Field Agent who tried to run forward and separate the two. “We’re just looking for some maps, a few files, and something that can get us to San Jose before sundown…and then we’ll be on our little old way faster than you can say---“


The clong of a fire extinguisher against the MaryBeth fembot’s face resonated in Major Tom’s ears as he sank to his knees, massaging his throat as he looked up. “Crystal,” he coughed, “you just earned yourself one hell of a commendation…” He managed a weak laugh.

“Just don’t make a habit out of letting me save your butt,” the ginger gynoid joked, helping him to his feet.

Any reply Major Tom could’ve made was cut off by a scream---followed soon after by a hapless technician as he flew across the room.

“We must find the target,” the Oksanna fembot intoned. “All other obstacles are to be eliminated---“ An SCEMP round hit the wall near her, only for the fembot duplicate of Dawn to find the shooter, leap across three tables to reach him and break his arm in four places. The Simone fembot, without even waiting for Dawn to finish “disabling” the Field Agent, headed for the weapons locker and began field-stripping the guns at a rapid pace, crushing the parts beneath her feet when she finished.

“They’re…coordinating?!” Crystal gasped. “They’ve been in storage for months, and now---“

“It’s that damned signal!” Major Tom growled. “It wasn’t just a reactivator---they’re probably getting their orders as we speak!” He ran to a terminal, hoping to ramp up the firewall strength beyond the highest setting…only to swear as he saw that the console had been obliterated mere seconds before he could reach it. “Damnit to Hell…Crystal, get Central HQ on the horn,” he called out. “If they keep this up, we’ll lose the whole damn bunker, and---“

“Haven’t you figured it out already?” the MaryBeth fembot crooned, rising to her feet in jerky motions. “We’re not trying to bust your bunker…we just need some information…”

The Major glared at her. “Try the library, the phone book, or Google.”

His insult was met with a coy giggle; “Oh, you’re just too darn funny,” the MaryBeth fembot teased. “Allow me to be a bit more…specific….” Her hand closed around the collar of Major Tom’s shirt as she hoisted him to his feet; “We’re looking for a few specific people,” she clarified. “Namely, everyone related to---“

Another clong silenced her, and she fell to the ground in a heap. “Does she ever shut up?!” Crystal groaned.

“She was about to tell us who she and her friends are after,” the Major informed her, “and we might’ve been able to keep them from getting caught up in all of this if we actually had that information…” He noticed a rather large dent in the side of the fire extinguisher. “….Crystal,” he murmured, “exactly how hard did you hit her?”

“Not hard enough!”

The blonde fembot’s hand slammed into Tom’s thigh with a sickening wet thud, followed seconds after by a brutal snap. “This isn’t the 70s anymore, Major,” the MaryBeth fembot taunted. “Hitting us in the head won’t do more than tick us off---“

“And knock off your face,” Crystal added, holding up the fembot’s faceplate. “Step away from the Major, or I’ll…” A subtle tingling ran through her hands; “I’ll…..what the hell….” Slowly, the tingling escalated what could only be called the feeling of nails flowing through her arms, stabbing everything in their path. “I…I can’t hold onto it! Major….” Something in her eyes dimmed; “Ma….jor…….”

“DROP IT!” Major Tom screamed. “DROP THE MASK! IT’S BEEN RIGGED!”

Crystal’s hands opened, and the mask fell to the floor just as the red-headed gynoid sank to her knees.

“Much better,” the MaryBeth fembot stated, bending to retrieve her mask as her fellow fembots continued to break everything they could. “Now, just be a good little grunt and don’t call this in, or---“

“Or what?” Tom growled.

The fembot leaned in close, her stunning eyes holding an unmistakeable air of menace. “If you decide you’re going to call this in and report us to the ones in charge,” she whispered, “we’re just going to have to---“ Her face---and, by proxy, her entire body---froze before she could finish the sentence; as Major Tom watched, confused, the blonde fembot suddenly stood, no longer interested in him. “We’ve done enough here, girls,” she called out. “Time to get moving!” With that, she turned and ran for the emergency exit door on the far side of the room, shattering the locking controls with a single punch. Klaxons rang out through the chamber as the Dawn, Simone and Oksanna fembots stopped what they were doing, turned and followed the MaryBeth fembot through the newly opened exit.

“Well,” the former astronaut muttered, “that didn’t pan out…”

Crystal was at his side in seconds, helping him to his feet. “What the hell just happened?!” she groaned. “We had them here for almost seven months…and then this happens…”

“You want my guess?” the Major asked, wincing as a throbbing pain shot through his left side. “Someone took over Bradford’s old lab and decided to boot up the fembots---and not just for some random mayhem.” He strode over to one of the few terminals that hadn’t been wrecked; “From the looks of it, they were gathering info on one person in particular,” he mused. “Strike that---a group of people….”

He stopped.

“Major? Who were they---“

“Get DuBraul on the horn now, and tell him to get a security team to Raquel Sanderson’s house. I want eyes and ears on Kirsten Sanderson ASAP, and a cleanup crew---“

“MAJOR!” Crystal grabbed him by the shoulder. “Who were they looking for?”

The gynoid felt a shudder run through the Major’s figure. “They’re looking for every single living relative of Tony Sanderson…namely, those in the San Jose area.” His gaze never left the monitor. “They had a list with all their names…the last name on the list is Kirsten Sanderson.”

Any reply Crystal could’ve made evaporated upon hearing that name.

“We need to get to San Jose as soon as possible,” the Major informed her, “otherwise Kirsten could end up being compromised by Vlatko’s fembots…and considering that we both know about two-hundred different ways that could go wrong, I think it’s best if we leave now.”

By the time Vicki reached Just Below, it was obvious that the Lizette fembot’s presence on campus hadn’t yet been picked up by her classmates---mostly due to the issue of Kirsten Sanderson having walked out of class earlier that day and not coming back. Her concern was plainly visible to MaryBeth, Dawn and Anton as she sat down; before she could even mention the Lizette fembot, Anton spoke up: “Vicki, we can always have another Field Agent look for---“

“I can stop Robo-Liz myself,” Vicki interjected. “Yes, Kirsten’s my friend, and I should probably be helping her through this…but…” She paused; “How much have you told them?” she asked Anton?

“Enough for the situation to make sense,” the roboticist replied, “but not enough to endanger them.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Then they both know that Kirsten’s father knew the risks when he signed up,” she began, only to shake her head. “Anton, is it normal for me to feel like a complete tool for saying what I just said?” she muttered.

“Probably,” Anton replied, allowing himself the smallest hint of a smile. “But it’s also part and parcel of why the ALPA was debating over whether or not you should’ve been allowed to become a Field Agent so soon after that little incident with Damien Falken---they knew that your loyalties to your friends would inevitablty clash with your mission objectives---“

“I get it,” Vicki groaned, resting her face in her hands. “I haven’t been talking to Kirsten often enough lately as it is…other than that one time after the incident with the SPS, we’ve barely spoken to each other.” She sighed, staring at her smoothie with a half-annoyed, half-worried look. “Is anyone else even available to follow Robo-Liz around campus?” she murmured. “I mean, I’d take care of it in a heartbeat, but….I just don’t want Kirsten thinking she’s all alone, or anything…”

Dawn and MaryBeth exchanged glances. “From what Anton told us,” MaryBeth informed the brunette gynoid, “this ‘Robo-Liz’ could cause quite a lot of damage if someone doesn’t shut her off soon---“

“Hold that thought,” Anton cut in, frowning as he retrieved his iPhone. “HQ just called…” His words trailed off as he read the e-mail he’d just been sent; “The four fembots recovered from the construction site last October have been reactivated,” he muttered, his voice almost toneless. “They broke out of their containment capsules in Reno…” His hand was shaking as he gave the phone to Vicki, who scrolled through the e-mail in a matter of seconds---and was just as perturbed as Anton had been. “Has this information been verified?” she finally asked, after a full two minutes’ worth of silence.

“Yes. By Major Tom and Crystal.”

Vicki stared at the phone; “I think the whole ‘help Kirsten vs stop Robo-Liz’ thing is now irrelevant,” she quietly informed Dawn and MaryBeth, “because those two goals have just become one and the same.” She glanced across the room, hoping Kirsten wouldn’t show up unexpectedly. “How many people are on lookout duty at Raquel Sanderson’s house?” she inquired.

“According to the Major, there’s a team inbound as we speak,” Anton replied.

“They’re not there already?!” Vicki hissed. “The four escaped fembots are after Kirsten’s family, and from what I remember, they’re not just going to---“

“The situation is under control so far,” Anton assured her, “and the fembots are being tracked…if they’re within 500 feet of Raquel’s house at any time---no matter what direction they’re approaching from---there will be a team ready to neutralize them before they get close enough to do any damage.” He glanced at the exit Vicki had been keeping an eye on; “If anything does happen,” he added, “we’ll be able to contain the fembots and get Raquel to safety before---“

A scream from the parking lot split the air.

“Stay here,” Vicki advised. “I’ll take a look and see if---“ A shattering car window, followed by Lizette and two other girls running into Just Below, cut her off. “Never mind….Lizette, are you okay?”

Lizette (who’d long since abandoned the blue dye job she’d worn when Bradford’s idiots had abducted her from the SJSU campus) nodded; “A little shaken up, but otherwise okay,” she replied. “The others aren’t hurt either…though they’re a bit more…weirded out by the whole thing.” Vicki scanned the other two girls, noticing that both were human---and, for some odd reason, tagged on the ALPA database with [R] tags. I’ve never had those pop up before during a scan, she mused. I’ll need to ask Anton about it when this is all over…for now, I need to make sure they didn’t get freaked out. “Ae you two okay?”

One of the girls---a slender blonde, whose name appeared as Josie in Vicki’s HUD---cast a nervous glance back at the door; “I’m f-f-fine,” she stammered. “J-j-just a l-l-little---“

“You might as well tell her,” the other girl---an athletic, red-headed 22-year-old named Shannon---cut in. “We just barely escaped from that blue-haired psycho-bitch who looked like Lizette’s evil twin,” she informed Vicki, “and we may need to get Jo to the hospital---she got a pretty nasty cut on her arm, and she’s not exactly in perfect health at the moment…” Dawn and MaryBeth guided Josie to another exit as Shannon joined Vicki and Lizette at a nearby table; “She’s the one you called to stop your psychobot twin?” Shannon asked Lizette, her gaze never leaving the brunette gynoid. “She saved my life last year,” the French girl replied, “and since Anton told me about what she does---“

“I get the picture,” Shannon replied, her somewhat brusque tone softening. “I had to be sure, since Josie and I are on the list…if either of us got killed before the end of the month…”

“Ah, what list?” Vicki inquired.

Shannon sighed, staring at the ceiling. “Josie’s dad works for some big robotics company out here in Silicon Valley,” she explained, “and after he adopted me back in 2001, I ended up overhearing him talking to some guy from something called the ALPA…instead of yelling at me after I tripped and fell into the den---in full view of the guy he was talking to, no less---Jeff asked if I’d be interested in helping him, and helping the ALPA. I was pretty big on stuff like Nancy Drew at the time, so I figured it’d be fun…” She rolled her eyes.

“I’m guessing it wasn’t as ‘fun’ as you expected,” Vicki mused.

“It was pretty cool, at first,” Shannon admitted. “Actually, it never stopped being cool…it’s just, Josie got really sick in ’06, and….” She stared at the floor. “Leukemia,” she muttered. “Dormant for sixteen years, and then it just….anyways, Jeff decided that he wanted to put Josie---and myself, for some reason---on ‘the list’.”

“And what’s ‘the list’?” Vicki asked.

“The Dyson Institute list,” Anton replied. “Elaine Dyson’s been conducting experiments that involve transferring a living being’s consciousness into a fully robotic frame…of course, she’s hoping to market the procedure to the more…mature crowd, but in theory, someone afflicted with a terminal illness could, indeed, live on in the form of a gynoid---if the transfer works as well as Elaine says it should. She’s only been doing small-scale, top-secret tests thus far---“

Out in the parking lot, a metallic wrenching, tearing sound rent the air.

“You can explain the process later---I’ve got business to take care of.” Vicki sprinted for the door, just in time to dodge a car door hurled by a blue-haired (and thorougly pissed-off) fembot. “Get them to a safe place,” she called out to Anton, “and have a cleanup crew get here ASAP!”

“I’ll do what I can!” Anton replied, leading Lizette and Shannon to the same exit Josie had left through.

“That’s good enough for me,” V.I.C.I. stated, returning her attention to “Robo-Liz”. “Now then…”

The parking lot had already cleared out by this point, meaning that the brunette gynoid would be able to take down the blue-haired fembot without holding back. “What do you want with Tony Sanderson’s family?” she demanded, pacing towards Robo-Liz. “You can tell me now, and not get completely scrapped, or---“

“You will NOT interfere in our mission!” the blue-haired fembot shouted, punching through the windshield of a nearby Kia to rip out the steering wheel. “We will complete our objective, and you will NOT stop us!” Without giving V.I.C.I. time to talk her down, Robo-Liz hurled the steering wheel at her; the brunette gynoid effortlessly batted it aside, sending it careening into a tree. “Strike One,” she intoned. “Either you talk now, or try two more stupid attacks, and---“

Robo-Liz charged at V.I.C.I., preparing to clothesline her head off; apparently, she hasn’t been upgraded since the last time we tangled, the brunette gynoid mused, deflecting the blow with her right hand and slamming her left palm into the fembot’s head. “Strike Two---one more chance to play nice, if you even care…”

Surprisingly, the blue-haired fembot backed away, still glaring at V.I.C.I. with unbridled hatred. “The relatives of Anthony Sanderson must be recruited or eliminated before Epsilon is complete,” she stated, her French accent rendered flat by her almost robotic drone. “Recruited family members will assist those already working to complete Epsilon, and will be discharged when Epsilon is complete. Those who refuse to be recruited will be eliminated.”

“I guess that makes sense,” V.I.C.I. replied, “but what---“

“No connection between Epsilon and Tony Sanderson must be discovered,” Robo-Liz continued. “All relevant information regarding any connection between Epsilon and Tony Sanderson will be expunged from United Robotronics records prior to completion of Epsilon…”

The fembot’s words---or more accurately, how she spoke them---confused V.I.C.I.; I must’ve triggered some sort of automated message with that palm strike to her head, she realized. Good thing my internal recorder is on, so I can just keep doing what I’m doing and catch everything she’s saying…

“…all personnel involved with Epsilon are to report directly to Boris Vlatko,” Robo-Liz continued, staring at the wall on the other end of the parking lot. “Any deviations from this---“ She froze, just as a series of loud, steady beeping noises sounded from in her chest. V.I.C.I. frowned, quietly approaching the fembot; if I can turn her off, she reasoned, I could get her to Tell’s in a few minutes, have him examine her processors…maybe even see the rest of that message---

Without warning, Robo-Liz let out a moan.

“Okay, that was just weird…” V.I.C.I. continued pacing towards the blue-haired fembot, only to stop in her tracks as Lizette’s robotic doppelganger sank to her knees, moaning ecstatically and caressing herself for no apparent reason. Is this Vlatko’s idea of a sick joke?! I mean---wait a minute, I’m picking up something…The brunette gynoid cocked her head, focusing….

“….the HELL is wrong…stupid computer?! Someone’s….this thing…download…don’t even…half of this crap is…interfering with….signal….run a debug…..”

A smirk crossed V.I.C.I.’s lips. So Bradford’s old lab isn’t exactly in perfect order…

As suddenly as she began moaning, Robo-Liz stopped, rose to her feet and gave V.I.C.I. a thousand-yard stare before turning and running out of the parking lot. At least I was able to record most of her message…all I have to do now is get back to Tell’s and have him look over it. With a sigh, the brunette gynoid ducked back into Just Below to retrieve her booksack, then headed for Tell’s workshop. “At least nobody got hurt,” she murmured. “That, and this was a lot less crazy than anything I had to deal with last month…”

Unfortunately for her, the remainder of the week wouldn’t be as peaceful.

Kirsten Sanderson stared at the clock on her wall, thoughts drifting in and out of her consciousness…the knife-wielding man who’d chased Vicki out of the theater at the Eastridge Shopping Center, staring into the eyes of Faceless mere seconds before he’d broken into Glenn Saxon’s Physics class in August, telling Vicki that she was dating Kevin Harding…everything seemed to blur together, with no cohesion or distinction…

A knock on the door jolted her out of her reverie. “Are you feeling okay, Kirsten?”

“I’m fine, Kevin….I’m just…thinking….”

“You seem to have been taking a lot of time out of class to ‘think’ lately,” Kevin’s voice called. “Just let me in so we can talk about this…”

Slowly, Kirsten made her way to the door. “There’s not really that much to talk about,” she murmured sadly, “but anything beats sitting here by myself and staring at the wall…” She sidestepped to allow Kevin into the room as the door opened; “Sorry about the mess,” she apologized. “I’ve been…preoccupied all week…” With a quiet half-sob, she made her way back to the bed.

“The week just started yesterday,” Kevin reminded her. “Speaking of which, I’m guessing you didn’t hear about that fight at Just Below….”

Kirsten arched an eyebrow. “A fight?”

“Yeah…one of those girls from that incident last year got in a brawl with someone in the Just Below parking lot…it wasn’t exactly a ‘fight’, though, from what I’ve heard. Somebody’s car got torn up, but other than that…” He shrugged. “Maybe they were just having a disagreement or something, y’know?” He paused; Kirsten was still staring at the clock. “Ah, maybe we should go somewhere a bit less…moody,” he suggested. “Clear the air, have a nice walk, that sort of thing.”

Another half-sob was the only reply he received.

“Look, Kirsten,” he murmured, “as much as I hate to say it….sitting around waiting for your dad to come back isn’t going to---“

“He has to come back, Kevin. He has to….” Kirsten buried her face in the pillow and sobbed.

Kevin felt like reminding her that the investigations hadn’t really turned up all that much since last August, but at this point, he knew it would either piss her off or lead to more tears. “Look,” he offered, “if there’s anything I can do to help---seriously, anything at all---just tell me, and I’ll do what I can.”

Another sob.

“Kirsten, you have to---“

“Your grand-dad.”

Kevin arched an eyebrow, feeling more than a bit confused; “Ah, what does my granddad have to do with this?” he asked.

“Wasn’t he some big-shot reporter back in Chicago?” Kirsten asked.

Here we go again with that… “Kirsten, that was my great-granddad, Ted Harding….of course, from what Dad and Granddad told me, he preferred to be called ‘Ace’, but that’s beside the point---just because I’m taking classes on criminal justice---“

“Your granddad was a reporter, too,” Kirsten insisted, “and he’s still alive, right?”

Whatever scathing reply Kevin had meant to employ died on his tongue; “You…want him to help find your dad?” he muttered.

“If he can find something the cops didn’t, it’ll be worth it, right?”

“He’s in a retirement home, K! Most of his ‘cases’ these days involve helping people find their pills, reading glasses or where they left their slippers---he doesn’t handle actual police work anymore---“ He stopped, noticing that Kirsten was thumbing through an address book. “Look, Kir, I know you’d give anything to find your dad, and I admire you for that,” he admitted, “but this whole thing is starting to---“

Kirsten nearly jumped off the bed to thrust the address book under his nose. “Ah, what am I supposed to be looking at here?” he asked, confused.

“Mentioning your great granddad’s name got me thinking,” Kirsten informed him. “There’s another ‘Ted’ I’ve heard of…Ted Lawson---“

The mention of Lawson Robotics’ founder brought an audible groan to Kevin’s lips. “Why the hell are you trying to drag him into this?!” he asked. “The guy’s in charge of a robotics company, Kirsten; there’s no reason for anyone to involve him in this!”

“I don’t want to get Ted involved---I need you to talk to his daughter, Vicki!”

“I---“ Kevin stopped. “Vicki?”

“She helped me out a few times last year,” Kirsten explained, “and she might be able to help me now…I just don’t want her to see me like this. She knows about you---I told her in February---so….”

“You want me to ask her to help you out with this,” Kevin finished. Somehow, it wasn’t all that surprising; form what Kirsten had told him about Vicki, she was able to keep a cool head in times of crisis, and had done her part to help plenty of other students over the past semester. “Makes a lot more sense then bugging Granddad at the retirement home,” he admitted. “Where can I find her?”

A few short minutes later, Kevin was heading for Royce Hall with the intent to ask Vicki for help with the “case”, at Kirsten’s request. It was somewhat annoying that Kirsten had joined the legions of people who thought that being related to “Ace” Harding automatically qualified one to be a Grade-A detective, but it wasn’t so annoying that he felt like telling her off for it…and even though he was loathe to admit it, it did give him a bit of a thrill to be carrying on the tradition started by his great grandfather. Even better if I actually figure out what the hell happened to Tony Sanderson…

A few conversations with other students revealed that Vicki was going somewhere off-campus, for reasons unknown. Oddly, it was something she’d done several times a week for the past few months; please don’t tell me this means what I think it means… Hoping that Kirsten hadn’t sent him to look for a potential psychopath, Kevin headed in the general direction of Vicki’s as-yet unknown destination.

By the time he finally caught up with Vicki, Kevin found that her off-campus “wandering” led to what had once been a doctor’s office. Oh, joy…Kirsten’s best friend is either a junkie, or worse---and me without a tazer. He stifled a groan and decided to announce himself: “You’re Vicki Lawson, right?”

Surprisingly, Vicki didn’t freak out and/or run away; “I am,” she replied, slowly turning to face him. “And judging from that half-nervous tone in your voice, I’m guessing you were trying to go for a ‘tough-guy’, ‘private eye’ sort of question…” She arched an eyebrow. “Aren’t you related to that Ace Harding guy?”

Kevin waved away the question; “I’m Kevin Harding, Kirsten’s boyfriend,” he stated. “She sent me to---“

“Kirsten?” Vicki echoed, her teasing tone gone.

“Yeah….she sent me to ask you to help her with something. She’s been looking for her dad---“

“Did she tell you why she wants my help specifically?” Vicki asked, striding towards Kevin. “Any mention of my ‘special talents’ or anything?”

Kevin didn’t flinch. “All she told me is that you helped her last year, and that she didn’t want to face you right now because…well, her life is pretty much a wreck,” he admitted, guilt tinging his words. “She didn’t say anything about ‘special talents’…though I’m starting to wonder why you even brought them up to begin with.” Suspicion crept into his voice; “For that matter, what the hell are you doing so far away from campus---and at an old doctor’s office?”

Again, Vicki’s response surprised him: “You might as well see for yourself. Follow me.”

“Wait,” Kevin protested, “I’m not doing anything illegal---HEY!” He nearly tripped as Vicki steered him towards the building; “I didn’t come out here to break the law,” she informed him. “For me, this is just another part of my routine.”

The two reached the front door, and Vicki removed something from her booksack to slide into the mail slot. “If anyone asks,” she murmured, “you were never here.” Kevin wanted to comment on her earlier remark about not breaking the law, but decided against it; “Why would Kirsten trust you to help her with this whole thing about her dad disappearing?” he asked. “I mean, I get why she wanted my granddad involved, but…”

“Her dad and my dad used to work together,” Vicki replied. “Or did you know that already?”

What else isn’t Kirsten telling me? “I didn’t know until now,” Kevin admitted. “Still, why would she trust you to handle something like this?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time.”

Vicki stared at him; “Are you really here to help her,” she asked, “or is this just your way of playing private eye without pissing off the campus police?” This time, it was Kevin’s turn to not flinch. “I told Kirsten I’d find you and ask for your help,” he growled, “and I’m not just using this as a way to ‘play private eye’ or anything else along those lines.”

After a few seconds of staring at the ground, Vicki sighed; “She was right to tell you to find me,” she murmured, “and I was wrong to think you were just trying to live up to your great-granddad’s legacy…” Her gaze turned towards Kevin, and she allowed herself a smile. “I’ll help you find out what happened to Kirsten’s dad, Kevin,” she promised, “but under one condition---“

“As long as it doesn’t involve me dressing in a grey trenchcoat,” Kevin replied, “I’ll do it.”

“Actually, it’s two conditions,” Vicki corrected, giggling. “First of all, you have to tell Kirsten in advance before you watch The Room from now on---“ Kevin’s groan cut her off before she could finish the sentence. “I was just kidding!” she squealed. “In all seriousness, though, you have to promise that whatever happens during this little investigation of ours, you won’t freak out and bail on me…or leave Kirsten.”

Kevin was stunned; “Why would I---“

“Promise me.”

“…..I won’t leave Kirsten, and I won’t freak out and bail.”

“Good. Now, then, I have a pretty good idea of where we can start our search…”

As Kevin followed her to the nearest bus station, Vicki couldn’t help but silently thank Kirsten for not revealing her secret. If he’s as good at detective work as his great-grandfather was, though, she mused, it might not even matter… She waved aside the thought and turned her attention to the “case”.

“From what I understand,” she informed Kevin, “Tony Sanderson’s last known place of employment was the San Jose branch of a company called United Robotronics.” Had Kevin been “in the know” about her own true nature, she could’ve given him a laundry list of incidents at the building, but she decided to stick to the short version for the time being. “They’ve been around since the 1980s, and---“

“Your dad used to work for them.”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow; “Let me guess, you Googled it?”

“I prefer doing things the old-fashioned way,” Kevin replied. “The records at the library are just as good as any search engine…and even better, considering the library doesn’t have pop-ups.”

“That makes sense….anyways, Tony Sanderson worked with United Robotronics for almost an entire decade, starting in…early 2002, I think. Kirsten told me he was one of their best employees…I’m guessing we can rule out ‘problems at work’ as the reason for him leaving.”

Kevin nodded, writing down the details on a notepad. “What about his, ah, personal life?” he asked

“What about it?” Vicki echoed, frowning.

“Well….did Kirsten ever mention if he had….problems with her mom?”

Vicki’s shoulders slumped. “Really, Kev? Not even an hour into this, and you’re already trying to follow that line of thinking?”

“I’m just following all available lines of inquiry!” he insisted. “If there’s even the slightest chance that it could be related to marital problems, we…have to…..” He withered under the brunette gynoid’s stare. “Never mind,” he muttered. “Anyways, what else did she tell you about him?”

“He always used to call her at 5:30 PM on the dot,” Vicki replied. “No matter where he was---even if it was in another time zone---he’d have his watch calibrated to call her at exactly 5:30 PM; it was something she looked forward to every afternoon.” She sighed; “The day he disappeared, she knew something was wrong when he didn’t call her…and then things got even crazier, because that masked idiot showed up on campus and threw a knife at my roommate…” …and I had to tell Kirsten what I was to keep her from freaking out, she mentally added.

“Did her dad ever miss a call before?” Kevin asked, as the two boarded the bus that would bring them to the UR building.

Vicki shook her head; “Like I said, he made sure his watch was calibrated to tell him when it was 5:30 here in San Jose, no matter what time zone he was in---“ The bus lurched forward, prompting Vicki to grab the nearby handrail. “Anyways, it’s not just about him not calling her---he never showed up at the apartment he’d been staying in.”

“He was staying at an apartment, instead of just going home?”

“From what Kirsten told me,” Vicki explained, “her dad was working on a major project before he disappeared, and the boss wanted him to stay close to the UR building in case of an emergency…” She paused. “I can tell you want to check out the apartment,” she mused, “so how about we split up for now---I’ll call ahead to the front desk at the apartment building and tell them you’re on your way, so you can look there…and I’ll handle the UR building.”

Kevin gave her an “oh, come on” look. “I could search the United Robotronics offices and find out just as much as you could,” he mused, frowning.

“So you have the necessary clearance to get into the records and see just what Tony Sanderson was working on, then?” Vicki countered. “Or did you even know about the new security measures they’ve been putting in place?” She arched her eyebrow again.

After a 20-second pause, Kevin muttered “no”.

“I thought as much,” the brunette gynoid affirmed. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, though…Dad’s been teaching me a lot about the robotics business, and visiting United Robotronics was one of the first things we did after he formed his own company.” Of course, that visit was mainly about him getting my spare blueprints out of the company vault, she recalled, but since Kirsten didn’t let you in on that particular bit of info… “Anyways, it’s not like we’ll be across town from each other---the apartment complex where Tony Sanderson was staying before he disappeared is right across the street from the UR building---“

“---so all I have to do is yell, and you’ll come running, right?” Kevin finished.

Vicki grinned. “If you feel like it.”

“I can handle myself, Vicki,” Kevin assured her. “This whole thing probably won’t take more than an hour or so, at the least; I’ll search his old room, ask a few of the tennants if they remember him, and maybe even take a picture or so---“

“No pictures,” Vicki interjected. “Not yet, at least…if too many people get wind of this, we could be in trouble.”

Kevin leaned back in his seat and sighed. “This is starting to feel like something my great-granddad would’ve enjoyed,” he muttered.

“You don’t have to keep comparing yourself to him, you know,” Vicki informed him. “Kirsten asked you to find me, and you did…and now I’m asking you to help me out, because it’ll be helping her, too…and it’d probably be in our best interests to cover as much ground possible while we have the time.” She smiled; “As for your great-granddad,” she added, “who’s to say he wouldn’t be proud of you for keeping his legacy alive?”

After staring at the ceiling of the bus for a few minutes, Kevin nodded. “Being known as the great-grandson of Ace Harding is a lot better than being known for some stupid viral video where someone tries to laser off their chest hair,” he admitted. “And before you even think it, I was the one working the camera---and the one who had that video taken down off of YouTube….not the idiot who was rolling around in a kiddie pool screaming because his chest hair had just been burned off of him by a freaking laser…” He shook his head. “I’m the only one from that group who didn’t get sent to the hospital because of that incident…”

The brunette gynoid fought the urge to giggle. “You were the one who filmed that?!”

“And the one who said ‘Let me get the aloe vera from the bathroom, it’ll help ease the pain’,” Kevin sighed. “I also had to drive Clem and Mark to the hospital, since one of them was screaming his head off and the other one was wasted on wine coolers and stale Zima.” He chuckled at the memory; “I still don’t know where the hell Mark found the Zima,” he admitted.

“Yasky,” Vicki mused, adding “Y ask Y” when Kevin gave her a confused look.

Seven minutes later, the bus slowed to a stop in front of the San Jose office of United Robotronics. “Here’s a map to the apartment,” Vicki informed Kevin, handing him a folded sheet of paper. “My cellphone number’s on there, too, if you need to call me…DO NOT let it fall into the wrong hands.”

“I solemnly swear to keep your phone number safe,” Kevin promised, holding his hand over his heart.

“Fair enough,” Vicki acquiesced, “but if any drunks, frat boys or salepeople call me in the middle of the night, I’m taking it out on you.” She gave him a teasing punch in the arm. “We’ll meet up back here in 90 minutes and compare notes---“

“90 minutes?!” Kevin echoed. “I’ve got a class to get to this afternoon---“

“Then I’ll call the front desk of the apartment building right now so you won’t have any trouble getting in,” Vicki replied. “Hopefully, I won’t run into any weirdos at the United Robotronics building…anyways, we need to get a move on. Ask for Tony Sanderson’s apartment key when you get to the front desk, and tell whoever the clerk is that Vicki sent you.”

Kevin nodded; “You seem to have been preparing for something like this for a while,” he mused.

“A girl’s got to be ready for anything,” the brunette gynoid reasoned. “Anyways, good luck!” With that, she set off for the United Robotronics offices, taking only the occasional glance behind her to make sure that Kevin was headed for the apartment. Once he was out of earshot and visual range, Vicki retrieved her cellphone and dialed Tell’s workshop; “Before you go off on a spiel,” she began, “I’ll make up for the checkup I was supposed to have today some time next week---“

“Figured that,” Tell replied. “And I assume you have no problem with Mr. Harding assisting your investigation?”

Vicki rolled her eyes; “Just send someone over to Tony Sanderson’s old apartment to make sure he doesn’t step on anyone’s toes,” she requested. “And make sure it’s someone who won’t scare the hell out of him or anything---“

“Way ahead of you, V,” Tell replied. “The Starman’s in the area right now, and he can---“

“What the heck is Major Tom doing out here?!”

“Classified ALPA stuff. You know how it is. Anyways, he’ll be on hand to make sure things at the apartment complex don’t get too crazy, or anything…”

After a few seconds’ pause, Vicki nodded; at least it’s him, and not some trigger-happy rookie… “Just be sure to tell him that Kevin doesn’t know all the details about this, and to not say anything that could get us in trouble or anything like that.”

“The Major’s no Jake Brightstar, Vicki…he’s not going to do anything that’ll make the front page.”

“Good.” Vicki had already endured the news of the House’s latest series of losses---several of their most secure strongholds around the globe had been taken out via controlled demolition techniques during the month of April---and had found herself wishing that Jake Brightstar’s televised promise to “wipe out” whoever was responsible had only been a rumor (or a bad dream). Instead, it wound up costing the ALPA a fortune in damage control, and only the revelation that Celeste (who’d been presumed destroyed) had been transferred into a backup body kept Jake from continuing his vendetta against whoever had caused the damages. “Just make sure he doesn’t start getting a Rambo complex or anything…”

“I’ll see what I can do, V…and in the meantime, good luck with your own investigation.”

With that, the brunette gynoid ended the phone call and sighed; “Might as well get it over with,” she murmured, “or I’ll be feeling guilty for the rest of the year…” After one last look in Kevin’s direction, she headed for the United Robotronics offices, hoping to uncover something that could lead her to Tony Sanderson; with any luck, she mused, Kevin and I might actually find out what happened to him, and depending on what we find, we might even be able to bring him back!

Unfortunately, her optimism wouldn’t be rewarded…

“Right…next time, I’m taking the office building, and she gets the apartment…”

Kevin’s first glance into the lobby of the apartment complex didn’t exactly give him a “good vibe”; the place had been built during the tail end of the 80s, and it was obvious that whoever worked on this particular project during its final stages had been a fan of pastels and psuedo-Art Deco furniture. Even more annoying, the desk clerk wasn’t even at the desk---an envelope with “Kevin Harding” hastily scrawled on it was the only evidence that anyone had even received Vicki’s phone call.

After checking to make sure the key to Sanderson’s apartment was actually in the envelope (which it was, along with a map to the room), Kevin headed for the elevators…and, upon finding that the First Floor elevator doors were stuck, headed for the nearest staircase.

Upon reaching the 21st floor (the apartment building actually listed the 13th floor on its brochure/map, though that particular area was primarily used for storage and heating/cooling ductwork hubs), Kevin realized two very important facts about the building: Nobody cared enough to give the place a makeover, and very few people even lived there to begin with. The few sounds that weren’t clattering ductwork or droning air conditioners came from behind closed doors---and most of these were people in the midst of phone calls, either bored out of their minds or too enraged to think straight. Probably more United Robotronics employees, Kevin realized, just as he reached Tony Sanderson’s apartment.

Naturally, when he noticed the door was wide-open, his first instinct was to head back for the stairs…a plan that was only reinforced by the two female voices coming from inside the apartment.

“Keep looking---if we can find something here that will lead us to them, it’ll make our job easier!”

“I’m looking! You do your part and find the records; Vlatko wants as many of them as possible!”

From the sounds of it, Kevin surmised that he’d stumbled upon a professionally-organized burglary---though it was a bit weird that the burglars were hitting an apartment belonging to someone like Tony Sanderson. Also, there was the small matter of the intruders being female; if they had been a bunch of idiotic stoners, drunk frat boys or other primarily-male criminal types, it would’ve been easy for Kevin to barge in and start swinging---

A hand clasped on his shoulder, and for the briefest instant, he thought of swinging a backfist into its owner.

Obviously, the tension in his arm muscles gave away that plan before he could think to carry it out. “Easy, Harding,” a quiet, male voice suggested, “I’m on your side…Vicki Lawson sent me to keep you out of trouble.”

Keven felt simultaneously relieved and annoyed. “Did she know about…this?”

“She had her suspicions, but she needed proof---which we now have.” The hand on his shoulder pulled Kevin back into the hall, where he turned to find himself face-to-face with a blond man in what appeared to be one of those bodyglove-type outfits worn by football players, pro wrestlers and other athletes…except this particular getup had what appeared to be carbon fiber armor over the joints and vital areas. “I’ve been staking this place out for a few days,” the man explained, “namely to help out the cops with their investigation---usually, there’re at least four or five of those girls in there at any given time.”

“How many today?” Kevin asked.

“Just three,” the blond man replied. “The two you heard, and one rifling through the bathroom cabinets…a few of the other tennants have filed a noise complaint, but nobody’s going to do anything about it---they’ve cut the land lines, and the cellphone reception in this place sucks…” He paused, glancing around the corner. “If they would get to the center of the room, where I could friggin’ see them,” he muttered, scowling. “Eh, the hell with it.” He glanced back at Kevin; “I’m Major Tom, by the way.” He extended his hand.

“Kevin Harding.” The two shook hands.

“Well, Kevin Harding,” the Major stated, “looks like this is going to be either simple or stupid, depending on how things go in the next few seconds…if it gets simple, we’ll be able to get out of this with a relative minimum of fuss.”

Kevin nodded; “Makes sense…but what if it gets stupid?”

The Major breathed a heavy sigh; “Trust me,” he muttered, “you won’t want to be around for that part.”

Within Tony Sanderson’s apartment, one of the girls had resorted to breaking apart the furniture to locate the documents she apparently wanted. “If this keeps up,” the Major mused, “she’ll have the whole room trashed before we can even think of looking for anything!”

“Maybe we should try distracting one of them,” Kevin began. “We might be able to---“

“No time, Kev---we need to get what’s in that apartment, and if they’ve torn it, broken it, or otherwise ruined it, it’ll be useless!” Before Kevin could object, the Major sprang from his crouched position and ran towards the apartment, immediately catching the attention of the girls inside---and laying one of them out with a spinning back-kick. “GET IN HERE AND HELP ME OUT ALREADY, WILL YA?!”

I never should’ve left campus… With a groan that sounded just a bit less tired than he actually felt, Kevin ran towards the apartment, hoping that Major Tom had already incapacitated both girls…

…only to be met with something completely and utterly insane.

One of the girls, an athletic brunette clad in a lavender bodysuit, was laying face-up on the floor….except her face was laying a few feet away from the rest of her. The part of her head where her face would normally be was recessed, showcasing a complex array of servomotors, wires, relays and other parts built around two special-effects quality fake eyes and a speaker grille where her mouth should’ve been. Quietly, Kevin made his way over to where her face lay on the floor, turning it over to see intricate mechanisms behind the lips and eyeholes.

She’s….a robot?!

Across the room, Major Tom and the other girl were still fighting---well, Major Tom was the one doing all the fighting, really; the other girl had lost an arm (with wires and sparks trailing out of the socket where it had once been), and was feebly trying to smack the Major in the face with her still-functioning limb. Her efforts were rebuffed with ease, sending her tumbling over the back of the couch to bash her head against the wall; soon after that, she stopped moving.

“I’m guessing you’re going to want some sort of logical explanation for all of this,” the Major mused, moving to stand beside Kevin as he stared, dumbstruck, at the unmasked fembot lying on the floor. “It’s pretty simple, really: They’re fembots. Specifically, upgraded versions of---“ He stopped; Kevin was nodding towards the bathroom. “Damn…almost forgot about the one in there….right, you get the doorknob and I’ll run in and take her out before---“

The bathroom door splintered open, revealing a 5’8” gymnast clad in a bronze spandex jumpsuit, a nametag reading “Marina” sewn over her left breast. Her lips parted in a feral growl as she strode forwards.

“Ah, you’ve got this, right?” Kevin stammered.

“Indeed I do,” the Major replied. “You might want to find something to duck behind….” He stood his ground as the fembot stalked towards him, a faint smile crossing his lips. “And what brings you here?” he inquired, his conversational tone drawing a confused look from Kevin.

“That information is classified,” the fembot coldly replied.

Major Tom rolled his eyes; “Oh, of course…it’s classified.” He glanced at Kevin; “D’you hear that? Her whole reason for being here is classified…” He shook his head and chuckled, further infuriating the fembot. “You and your excuses….they never cease to amuse me.” His smile faded quickly as he removed his mirroded sunglasses; “…except I didn’t come here to listen to your bullroar. My associate and I---“ He gestured to Kevin, who gave a feeble wave. “---are here on official ALPA business, and---“

The Marina fembot leapt at the Major with surprising grace, only to catch an axe-handle smash across the head. “Try that again, and I’ll hit harder,” the former NASA operative growled. “I’ll say it again: We don’t want any trouble, we just---“

Something closed around his ankle just as Kevin shouted “LOOK OUT!”

Seconds later, a searing pain shot up the Major’s leg.

“You will suffer for your interference,” the Marina fembot snarled, raising herself to a standing position. “We will not fail this time---our objectives will be accomplished, and we will deliver the Sandersons to Vlatko…dead or alive.” She turned away from the Major as he took a knee, trying not to put any more weight on his snapped shin. “As for you,” the Marina fembot continued, turning her gaze towards Kevin’s hiding place, “we will---“

She stopped, frowning; Kevin had apparently disappeared. Running trace on subject---


Instantly, the fembot’s vision became a blur of corrupted pixels and meaningless strings of numbers, letters and symbols; she barely had time to turn before a solid steel lockbox was smashed into her again, creating a spiderweb of cracks along her ocular sensors and causing her to trip over the fallen figure of the unmasked fembot. As the bearer of the lock box reared back to strike again, the Marina fembot’s chin struck the edge of a coffee table as she fell, taking her entire head off before she even had a chance to hit the carpeted floor; after a few more spasming movements from her broken body, the spandex-clad fembot ceased moving.

Kevin breathed a sigh of relief and dropped the lockbox, running to assist the Major. “We need to get you to a hospital,” he gasped. “I mean, that crazy robot chick---“

“Forget the crazy robot chick,” Tom cut in, “and forget the hospital---bring that lockbox over here.” He eased himself to a sitting position as Kevin retrieved the box; “This thing’s got a biometric security lock that’s built to withstand an earthquake,” he mused, “and you dented it…” To Kevin’s surprise, he grinned. “Well, that fembot’s titanium dome probably did most of the work…but there’s a gap just big enough to fit a prybar---“

“What the hell were they?!” Kevin demanded, gesturning at the fallen fembots. “These robot chicks….why were they even here?!”

The Major sighed; here we go again… “Kevin, as hard as it may seem to believe, these ‘robot chicks’ aren’t really all that uncommon,” he admitted. “I’ll tell you the whole story after you help me to my car outside…and don’t even think of arguing with me, because my ankle’s going to give out in fifteen seconds if I try to walk out of here by myself.”

“Fair enough,” Kevin reasoned, helping the Major to his feet. “Does Vicki---“

“She’s seen them before,” the Major replied. “Fought them before, too.”

At the mention of Vicki having fought the “crazy robot chicks” before, Kevin suddenly remembered her decision to go to the United Robotronics offices; “If these three were here,” he realized, “she might be…Major, will your ankle hold up long enough to get us to the Untied Robotronics offices?”

“Somehow,” Tom replied with a grin, “I had a feeling you were going to ask that…”

Okay, why didn’t I see this coming before?!

As Vicki ducked into a doorway across the hall, she cursed herself for not having expected the appearance of Vlatko’s fembots. And here, I thought the Robo-Liz incident was just a one-off…what I wouldn’t give for my ES9950 and a few clips of--- A beige blur shot past her hiding place and slammed into the wall at the far end of the hallway, dripping ink and toner onto the carpet.

“Vicki Lawson, surrender or die.”

“Sorry,” the brunette gynoid called back, “but none of those choices are really all that appealing to me at the moment…I’ll gladly settle for a coffee break, though!”

A speakerphone slammed into the wall and came to rest on the shattered remains of the printer.

“Never mind, then…” Vicki mentally kicked herself for having left her Field Agent-issue ES9950 back at her dorm room (her last e-mail from Eric Rueben Reaves, one of the ALPA’s most decorated human Field Agents, had suggested that she only carry it “out of uniform” if a significant emergency arose). “Why exactly can’t we just talk about this?” she called out, hoping the fembot would at least agree to listen to reason. “I mean, I haven’t even done anything to you…” She paused. “We’ve never met before, have we?” she added. “I’m pretty sure I’d remember meeting you---“

“You are an impediment to the completion of our mission,” the fembot replied. “All impediments must be dealt with to ensure---“

She’s persistant, Vicki admitted, I’ll give her that. “Okay, so you think I’m an impediment. Just, ah…” Come on, Vicki, think---you’ve taken down opponents like her before, without any fancy blasters or tazer-gripping to the face….there has to be some way of beating her without breaking anything---that’s it! A devious smile crossed her face, even as the fembot edged closer to her hiding spot; “Ah, before you try to rip me limb from limb or anything,” she called out, “I have something you might want to hear…”

The sounds of the fembot’s footsteps stopped. “Speak.”

I really hope this works… “Consider the following phrase: This statement is false.”


Come on…come on….

“If this statement is false,” the fembot declared, “then it is true….but if the statement is true, then it is false…but if it is false, then it is true…,“ Something inside her neck snapped. “ERROR…ERROR…”

Vicki grinned. YES! Good old logical paradox to the rescue---

Without warning, another fembot emerged from a cubicle behind her malfunctioning “sister”. “Unit Akari,” she stated, her voice calm, “cease inquiry of paradoxical statement and shut down.” Vicki leaned out from the door to see two fembots---one, the aforementioned Akari (Wasn’t she in one of the capsules from the robot lab?), in a pink/silver jumpsuit; the other, a dead-ringer for Chrissy Walker---in a sea-blue jumpsuit---standing in the center of the hallway. As expected, Akari was going into a malfunction-induced stupor as she tried to overcome the effects of the paradox, while the other fembot was instructing her to shut down and engage her diagnostic mode. “Unit Akari,” she repeated, “cease inquiry of paradoxical statement and---“

Akari clocked her fellow fembot across the head; “IF.STATEMENT.IS.TRUE.THEN.IT.IS.FALSE,” she droned.

Okay, Vicki mused, now I’m really wishing I brought the ES9950 with me…

She emerged from the doorway and strode into the hall, glaring at the two fembots…only to find Akari going in circles as she robotically repeated her “if it’s true, it’s false, but if it’s false, it’s true” statement amidst a string of program errors. The other fembot, whose nametag did, indeed, identify her as Chrissy, calmly returned to her feet and unzipped the front of Akari’s jumpsuit to open a panel in her stomach. “Akari, you will return to base as soon as the manual reset completes itself---“

“IF.STATEMENT.IS.FALSE.THEN---“ Akari’s voice faded into a whine as she bowed forward.

With that, Manami sealed the panel, zipped Akari’s jumpsuit back up (Vicki could just barely notice part of what appeared to be a sports bra beneath the suit before it was zipped), and turned to face the brunette gynoid.

“So,” Vicki mused, “that….was…..different…anyways, what do you---“

“You can relax, Vicki,” the Chrissy fembot informed her. “I’m not here to fight you.”

Wait, what?! “Ah, according to my…wild guess,” the brunette gynoid replied, “you’re the same type of, ah---“

“You don’t have to play dumb, either---you know what I am, and I know what you are.” The Chrissy fembot smiled; “If this was last month, we probably would be fighting right about now…”

“…but that’s not going be a problem,” a second Chrissy announced, emerging from another doorway in the hall where Vicki had been hiding earlier, “since we’re all on the same side here.” She strode past Vicki to stand next to her fembot twin, both of them grinning; with the fembot Chrissy clad in a sea-blue spandex jumpsuit and the human Chrissy (Vicki scanned her four times, just to be sure) wearing her usual attire; it looked almost like an ad layout for a new sitcom of some sort.

“Okay,” the brunette gynoid muttered, “someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on here…”

The Chrissys sighed; “While you were on that ‘class trip’ in Reno,” human Chrissy informed her, “Summer and I were…well, taken from the campus by some sleazebag named Vlatko. He’d built fembots that looked exactly like us, and he was going to send them to SJSU to take our places and probably attack you…”

“…except that someone got to us before he could,” the fembot Chrissy finished. “The night before Vlatko was going to send us back to campus, this…guy showed up---he was wearing what looked loke black coveralls, sort of like Michael Myers, except there was red trim down the sides of the arms and legs…and unless I’m sorely mistaken, he wasn’t wearing a mask, or anything…” She glanced at the human Chrissy, who picked up where her fembot dopelganger left off. “This guy did something to the fembot of me, and she did the same thing to the fembot of Summer…and then they both walked over to where Summer and I were tied up, and they…freed us.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “You’re saying this mystery man reprogrammed her?” she asked, gesturing to the fembot Chrissy.

“He didn’t just reprogram me---he gave me something I never even knew I didn’t have.” She glanced at human Chrissy and smiled; “He gave me free will,” she murmured. “The ability to think for myself…to realize that what Vlatko wanted us to do was wrong….and then he let me give that same thing to Summer…” She hugged the human Chrissy. “It felt…beautiful…”

At this, Vicki nodded, a smile emerging on her face. “So you’re not just one of Vlatko’s dolls anymore?”

The Chrissy fembot broke the embrace with her human namesake and turned to face Vicki again. “After we freed Summer and Chrissy,” she explained, “the…other Summer and myself were told to bring them to some place in San Jose that we’d never heard of; when we got there---“

“---this guy in white met us,” the human Chrissy interjected, “and he told us…well….”

“He told you what you needed to know,” Vicki surmised.

The Chrissys grinned. “That’s exactly how he said it!” human Chrissy beamed.

“Well, I guess all that makes sense,” the brunette gynoid mused, “but---“

“Why didn’t Summer and I get scrapped?” the fembot Chrissy offered. “Well, after the whole thing with the guy in white, the other Summer and Chrissy stayed at the place where he was, and we were sent back to Vlatko to tell him that they’d escaped somehow---“

A series of trilling beeps from Akari’s stomach cut her off; “Reboot completed. Reestablishing control uplink---“

“I’ll handle this,” Vicki stated, gesturing for the Chrissys to move aside as she cracked her knuckles. “That control uplink of hers doesn’t work if her head’s not on, right?”

“It should terminate as soon as her cranial module is disconnected,” the fembot Chrissy replied, “but---“

“That’s all I needed to hear,” V.I.C.I. intoned, grinning---and immediately charging forward. Just as Akari’s lips formed the first syllable of the word “Control”, V.I.C.I.’s foot connected with her head and snapped it back, the synthetic flesh of her neck tearing as part of her titanium spine was ripped free of its moorings along with her head. As the Chrissys watched, stunned, Akari’s headless body shook for a few seconds before falling heavily to the floor, just a foot away from her head.

“Right,” Vicki declared, “I might need a trashbag for this part…”

Five minutes later, Vicki and the Chrissys slipped out of a side entrance while police officers ushered dozens of employees back into the United Robotronics building. “Normally,” Vicki mused, “I’d object to someone pulling a fire alarm when there’s not actually a fire going on, but in this case…” She stopped, noticing Kevin Harding and Major Tom coming her way; upon seeing the red stain on the right ankle of the Major’s uniform, she handed the bag containing Akari’s remains to the fembot Chrissy. “What the hell happened at Sanderson’s apartment?!” she hissed. “You were supposed to be watching Kevin’s back---“

“I was,” the Major calmly replied, “and I saved him from getting attacked by two of Vlatko’s vixens…oh, and by the way, it’s nice to see you, too.” He glanced at the trash bag; “Evidence?” he inquired.

“Sort of. Another of Vlatko’s ‘vixens’ was waiting for me in the office, but---“

“Chrissy Walker?!” Kevin gasped. “Two Chrissy Walkers?! Okay, what the HELL is going on here?! I mean, why are we---“ Something clamped onto his shoulder, and he instantly lost interest in the two Chrissy Walkers standing before him. “Sorry, Kev,” Vicki apologized, “but I promise I’ll explain it all later…” She glanced back at the Major; “Right now, we need to get back to HQ and report about what we found….” She paused. “You did actually find something, right?”

“You say that like I haven’t found anything for the past few years,” Major Tom countered. “I mean, yes, my record has been hit-or-miss lately, but---“

“Major,” V.I.C.I. warned.

The ex-astronaut sighed. “Kevin and I did find something,” he admitted. “A whole lot of somethings, actually.”

“Good enough for me.” With that, Vicki hoisted Kevin’s unconscious form onto her shoulders. “Want me to call Tell and have him send the car around to get us,” she asked, “or d’you think you can walk all the way back to campus on a busted ankle?”

“Do I even have to answer that one?” the Major replied.

Tell stared at the data on the monitor before him, rubbing his eyes and failing to stifle a yawn; ever since Vicki had paid a visit to United Robotronics’ San Jose offices the previous day, he’d been going over the details with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.

What he found was….somewhat disturbing.

Before his disappearance (or death---by this point, the two might very well have become one and the same) in August of 2010, Anthony Sanderson had been working on something that the ALPA and the Coalition had been trying their damndest to distance themselves from---a fully-functioning, fully-living human/android hybrid, with all of the strengths possessed by man and machine and few (if any, judging from the initial hopes of the researchers) of the weaknesses. The concept itself was nothing new; cyborgs (human beings with artificial components in them) had been around since the 60s, and even Jake Brightstar himself had undergone surgery to install cybernetic implants into his body (not that it did him a lot of good during the April Incident)…

…but if Tony Sanderson’s documents were any indication, the project that he’d been working on was as far from a conventional cyborg as one could conceivably be.

“You know,” Anton Malvineous’ voice called out from the far end of the room, “you could always take a break from looking at that data…” The man himself strode over to Tell’s desk and sighed; “It’s 3:00 in the morning, Dave,” he reminded the mechanic. “Unlike most of your clients, sleep isn’t a luxury for you---it’s a necessity. If you keep going with this---“

“I’ll burn out, crash, fall off the chair and bang my head against something,” Tell rattled off. “I know.”

Anton sighed; “So let someone else take a look at the data,” he insisted. “Give yourself the rest of the night off, or something…”

Tell turned to face him, a frown crossing his face. “Have you seen some of this, Anton?” he asked quietly. “I’m still on the first notebook, and it’s just…” He shook his head. “Every single principle that the ALPA established on the ethical use of cybernetic implants---ignored! I mean, look at this---“ He called up five scanned pages from one of Sanderson’s notebooks, zooming in on them and gesturing at the sentences. “They’re talking about disengaging certain portions of the brain, shutting off entire neural pathways…extracting and altering things…and here, this entire paragraph---they go on about a drug regimen that could effectively supress all emotional and empathetic responses, basically deleting the concept of ‘compassion’ entirely…and this one, going on about ‘Pavlovian conditioning mixed with modern-day subliminal trigger insertion’…’entrenchment into the mind of directives and orders, to be prioritized above all else, including the subject’s survival’….”

He slumped into his chair. “They’re trying to play Frankenstein,” he muttered, “and if these notes are as up to date as I think they are….they’re succeeding.”

“Last time I checked,” Anton mused, “the ‘in’ thing to do was play God---“

“Except God wouldn’t be pulling crap like this,” Tell growled, calling up another page. “Full test logs on how to condition their ‘subjects’ to obey orders given by their handlers---even when those orders involve the willful slaughter of incapacitated, helpless opponents…” He fought to keep the anger out of his voice. “I’ve only seen a few of the pictures, but….damnit to hell….they threw old people to these things! Handicapped people, sick people…they locked them in a room, and….”

A sob punctuated his sentence.

“I’d love to say I’ve seen something like this before,” Anton admitted, “but to be quite honest, I haven’t….even the stuff Rykkard was trying to do doesn’t come close.” He scrolled through more of the pages, occasionally flinching at what he read; “No wonder he never told his family what he was working on,” he murmured.

“Indeed…and it’s a bloody miracle we were able to find all of this.”

Anton nodded; “I take it you’ve read it all by now, Oberon,” he called out, as the white-clad ALPA chairman approached.

“I have, and it sickens me to think that the Coalition itself doesn’t even know the full scope of the problem…I just got off the phone with Harrington, and they’ve been pulling files and questioning researchers for the past few hours, just to get a good picture of how big this is…” Oberon’s hand brushed against one of the notebooks Tony had been hoarding in his apartment. “How many did they find?” he asked.

“Twenty-one in the bathroom, ten under the living room floor, two in the kitchen and nine hidden around the building in ventilation shafts.”

Oberon shook his head. “He knew he’d disappear,” he muttered. “He knew he was next, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do except hide the books and wait for us to find them…” He thumbed through the book he’d picked up, only to recoil; as Anton watched, he stumbled towards a nearby trashcan and leaned into it, wretching violently. Anton himself gingerly picked up the notebook, glancing carefully at the page---and feeling a slithering, ice-cold chill shoot up his spine as the book fell from his hands.

“Now they are all sons of bitches,” Tell muttered. “Every damn one of ‘em.”

After a few seconds of coughing, Oberon managed to keep himself from collapsing as he made his way back to the desk. “Harrington doesn’t even know how many of his people are working on this,” he muttered, “and Clive is checking to see how many of ours might be involved---“

“Don’t,” Anton muttered. “I don’t even want to think of any of our people working on….that….”

“We have to assume that they might already be working on it,” Tell droned. “This isn’t just Coalition stuff or just ALPA stuff---I’m seeing technology from the House in here as well---“

“DO NOT drag them into this,” Oberon warned. “It’s bad enough Celeste lost thirty of her backup bodies over the course of last month…and that Jake Brightstar nearly died thanks to Faceless’ stupid little ‘game’…” He stared at the notebook Anton had dropped. “If anyone from the House is even remotely connected to any of these….travesties,” he spat, “they will be dealt with accordingly.” He loped over to a recliner a few feet away from the desk and collapsed into it with a sigh; “As it stands, we have other things to worry about.”

Anton nodded his agreement. “I analyzed the objectives from Akari’s central processors…apparently, Vlatko’s been sending the fembots out after Sanderson’s relatives---and his research. Three at the apartment, one at the office….if this keeps up, we could be dealing with a fully-coordinated attack here, Oberon.”

“I don’t doubt that,” the chairman admitted. “Even with the two that were…delivered to us, for lack of a better term, it’ll take a lot to keep Vlatko’s girls from getting to every single one of Tony Sanderson’s family members in the San Jose area.” He started at the ceiling, another sigh escaping his lips. “I’ve got three strike teams watching Raquel’s house in shifts, and Field Agents shadowing Tony’s brother….the only one I haven’t been able to find on the entire surveilance network is Kirsten Sanderson---other than the occasional appearance on campus. Vicki’s volunteered to look after her, but….” He shook his head. “Even she might not be able to help Kirsten if Boris Vlatko gets to her before we can.”

“You think he’ll try to wipe her out?” Anton inquired.

“I think he’ll try to recruit her,” Oberon replied. “Or, to be more accurate---and blunt---I think he’ll turn her over to Faceless, let him break her…show her what she really is…and then offer to be her new guiding light, or some bollocks like that…” He gave a disgusted snort.

“Whatever he’s going to do,” Tell interjected, “he’s going to do it in two months’ time---and in Japan!”

Silence filled the workshop.

“What exactly is he going to…” Anton began, only to stare, horrified, at the paragraph Tell was pointing to on the monitor. “Dear God…this….this is…” He turned away from the screen, shaking his head. “If they actually go through with this---“

“They won’t,” Oberon declared. “We will stop them before then.”

Tell scrolled through the pages; “In that case, you’d better start planning now,” he informed the chairman of the ALPA, “’cause if their Tokyo Experiment succeeds, they might very well start working on a way to crank out these abominations faster than McDonald’s cranks out Big Macs---and that’s just Phase Two.” He scrolled through several more pages; “Oh, it gets even better,” he drawled, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Phase Three involves harnessing geothermal energy from dormant volcanoes---then setting off said volcanoes, and collecting the survivors for, and I quote, further testing and experimentation opportunities…I think someone’s been watching Our Man Flint a bit too often---oh, and Phase Four starts talking about seizing control of the space program---“

“We get it,” Oberon and Anton declared.

“I know, I know….” Tell returned his attention to the monitor. “If I find the phrase ‘More Human than Human’ anywhere in this thing, I’m going to throw---“

“Your next words had better be ‘the computer across the room’,” Oberon cautioned, “because I really don’t feel like spending the rest of this hour leaning into a trashcan and emptying my stomach into it.” He held a hand to his abdomen, easing himself further into the chair; “This whole thing needs to be contained soon,” he muttered, “otherwise we could be dealing with an even bigger catastrophe since the Bloody Valentine incident…”

Anton and Tell shuddered at the mention of the most infamous day in ALPA history---the day that had driven a wedge between the ALPA and the Coalition, and set them on opposite paths.

“Nothing from those notebooks leaves this room until I give the go-ahead,” Oberon informed Tell and Anton. “If anyone gets even a whiff of this, it could turn into a full-scale panic---and I think we can all agree that it would be in our best interests to prevent anything of that nature from happening in the near and/or distant future.” He sighed as he rose from the chair; “Tell, I’ll leave you to finish analyzing the data---“


Oberon stopped, glancing over his shoulder. “Hmm?”

“If this research…these tests…have actually been conducted,” Tell stated, “and this….thing…can actually be brought into existence….” Fear crept into his words as he spoke: “What happens if we can’t stop it?”

To his surprise, Oberon smiled. “We will be able to stop it, David,” he quietly replied. “There is no doubt in my mind that any atrocities they can create can and will be conquered…” …no matter what the cost, he mentally added. “You have my word that the ALPA will do their best to contain and/or neutralize anything created as a result of the twisted experiments depicted in these tomes…we’ll launch them into the bleeding sun if we have to, really---if that’s the only way to get rid of those things, then I’ll sign the forms myself.”

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that,” Anton advised. “More importantly---“

“If Vicki has to face one on her own terms,” Oberon cut in, “she will…and she’ll find a way to emerge victorious, and we’ll all live happily ever…oh, well, you get the general idea.” With that---and a quiet chuckle---he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

Tell yawned; “Feel like taking the next shift, Anton?” he asked.

“Might as well,” the famed roboticist replied. “I have a feeling the rest of this week is going to be…interesting.”

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Wednday, May 4, 2011. The time is 6:10 AM

With a yawn, Vicki rolled back the covers of her bed; that is the last time I volunteer to drive the Major to the hospital, she mused, rolling her eyes at the memory of the ex-NASA operative screaming his head off while she tried to navigate through traffic. Actually, strike that---it’s the last time I drive him to the hospital and back home…fifteen more minutes of that, and I’d have crashed a few seconds before the car…

Another yawn preceded her exit from the bed, as well as her customary glance across the room to make sure that her roommate was still asleep. Sharon had forgiven Vicki for skipping out on the end of their conversation from Monday, but there were other issues that any respectable college student who planned to sleep in had to deal with---the Twitter Twins’ early-morning appearance from two months prior---and while she trusted Sharon enough to not lock her closet (the two had already agreed on a “no clothes ‘borrowing’” clause immediately after Sharon moved in), the brunette gynoid couldn’t afford to risk letting her in on her secret---

Further down the hallway, someone’s door was kicked open.

Oh, you have got to be kidding me… Her bemused grin melting into a scowl, Vicki carefully made her way to her own door, glancing through the peephole to see Dawn (or rather, the Dawn fembot created by Boris Vlatko) dragging someone out of their room by their shirt collar and demanding to know where they had last seen Kirsten Sanderson.

“This is just getting insane….” With an annoyed groan, Vicki retrieved her ES9950 from her booksack, holding the barrel right up to the peephole and waiting for the Dawn fembot to kick her way in. Game on, you crazy---

Before she could even finish her thought, the window above Sharon’s desk shattered, the snarling face of the Lizette fembot briefly visible through the ruined glass. Just as quickly as she caught sight of Vicki, she climbed further up the outside wall, presumably to break someone else’s window. For half a second, I thought she was actually going to drag Sharon out through the window…and I don’t think ‘I can explain’ would be nearly enough to calm her down after something like that! Even as the thought crossed her mind, Vicki realized that the Dawn fembot was still prowling around in the hallway outside.

Right…I’ve had enough of this stupid waiting around… With one last glance at Sharon, Vicki carefully unlocked the door to her room and managed to open it just enough for herself to get into the hallway without tearing her sleepwear off---which would’ve been somewhat embarassing, considering the two panicked students who were just now reentering their dorm room.

The Dawn fembot was looking in both directions at the other end of the hall, her head robotically turning to the left and right before she made her way to the stairs. I’ve got to take her down before she meets up with Robo-Liz, the brunette gynoid realized, otherwise they’ll kick in every door in this building! A quick inspection of her ES9950 revealed that it was, indeed, fully loaded (with standard rounds; Eric “didn’t trust her enough” to loan her any of the spcialized ammunition types), and the safety was still engaged.

So far, so good…better kick on the supressor just to be safe. Her thumb brushed up against a switch on the grip and toggled it, causing a rifled portion of the barrel to emerge---just as she remembered that the supressor itself was still tucked away inside a pocket of her backpack. SCRAP…

After mentally kicking herself (again), Vicki decided she didn’t need the supressor and chose to continue without it creeping down the hallway and trying desperately to not make any noise. The last thing I need is for Dawn to notice me right before I can---

A familiar riff blared from the dorm room whose occupants had been dragged out into the hall earlier; one of the residents’ cell phone, with the Black Sabbath classic “Iron Man” as the ringtone, was ringing---and, with the volume turned up to the maximum, the sound was sure to wake every single person in the dorm up if it wasn’t answered in the next few minutes.

More importantly, it completely wrecked Vicki’s effort to get to the end of the hallway without being noticed.

The Dawn fembot backpedaled, her steely gaze turning to regard the hall---and Vicki---with equal measures of disdain and triumph. As the owner of the cellphone quickly tried to silence the thing, the fembot strode down the hall towards Vicki, obviously intending to break her in half; so much for her not remembering our last fight at the Student Union construction site, the brunette gynoid realized. I guess this one isn’t going to end clean after all…

Before the Dawn fembot could even get close enough to land a punch, Vicki pounced, tackling her into the hallway. As the spandex-clad fembot tried to throw her off, she managed to hold the ES9950 up to the fake Dawn’s chin and get her finger near the trigger. “Why are you after me?” she growled.

“We are not pursuing you, Vicki Lawson,” the fembot grunted.

“Who are you ‘pursuing’ then?”

“That information---“

“Is classified, I figured that---but you’re going to tell me anyway, unless you want to see what an SCEMP round can do to your processors at point blank range.” Vicki glared at the Dawn fembot, hoping her intimidation tactic would actually pay off; “I’ll ask you again---“

The Dawn fembot’s mouth opened, revealing what appeared to be a minature aerosol dispenser rig set up at the back of her throat. A hiss filled the air as she exhaled a pink, lavender-scented vapor directly into Vicki’s face; knockout gas, the gynoid realized, her internal chemical detection software keying in on most of the main components of the gas and analyzing them even as the fembot continued to spew the stuff. After twenty seconds, the stream of gas ceased, and the fembot’s mouth closed; her face bore a slightly stunned look.

“Right,” Vicki mused, “seeing as how your bad breath isn’t enough to take me down, how about you---“

Something in the fembot’s right leg twitched, followed by something in her left arm. Within seconds, her limbs and head were all moving in jerky, spastic motions as a littany of buzzing, grinding noises emanated from her body. This just keeps getting more insane, doesn’t it? Without stopping to answer her own question, Vicki grabbed the stricken Dawn fembot under her arms and hauled her towards the nearest bathroom, using her enhanced hearing (internally altering the settings to focus on heartbeats) to make sure it was empty before she kicked the door open and dragged the fembot inside. As soon as she set the malfunctioning Dawn on the floor near the sinks, Vicki barred the door by moving the trashcan in front of it in such a way that it served as an oversized doorstopper.

“Now, as I was saying,” she mused, turning to face the malfunctioning fembot, “who are you and the rest of Vlatko’s fembots ‘pursuing’?” She knealt down by the stricken Dawn, staring into her eyes. “Are you going to talk, or are we going to have to do this the hard way?”

Thick, black smoke poured from the fembot’s mouth and nostrils.

“I didn’t even fire the ES9950 at you,” Vicki muttered, frowning, “so what’s screwing you up so badly that you can’t even answer a simple question?” Since she didn’t have the fembot Chrissy’s expertise with taking apart Vlatko’s fembots, she decided to scan Dawn’s hard drive instead; “Hopefully, this will turn up something---“

A rapid beeping began to sound, followed by the Dawn fembot rising to her feet in jerky, halting motions.

“Okay, all I did was run a scan,” Vicki protested. “I didn’t even open any of your panels---“

“Unit.Dawn.Has.Been.Compromised,” the fembot declared, her voice now a distorted staccato as she headed for a stall. “Self-Destruct.Protocol.Non-Responsive.Unit.Must.Self-Terminate---“

Vicki grabbed the fembot by the shoulders, holding her firm. “You’re not ‘self-terminating’ on my watch,” she declared, “so scan whatever files are still intact on that hard drive of yours and give me a straight answer: If you’re not looking for me, then who are you looking for?”

The motors in the Dawn fembot’s shoulders strained under the brunette gynoid’s unrelenting grip; she tried to turn her head to stare directly at whatever or whoever was holding her in place, but her neck servos had begun locking up as she moved. “This-unit-is-malfunctioning-and-must-be-returned-to-Boris-Vlatko,” she stated, her voice rising in pitch. “Failure-to-return-this-unit-to-Boris-Vlatko-will-result-in-in-in-in---“ A loud buzzing sound in her neck cut off her sentence. “Inininininininininininininininin—ERRRRRRORRRRRR….” The source of the buzzing in her neck came loose with a sproing, tearing through flesh and spandex; further within her body, a cooling fan kicked into overdrive, its quiet hum rising to an angry whine.

Instinctively, Vicki backed away. “If you can hear me,” she called out, “cycle down your power output and---“

A loud bang from inside the fembot’s body confirmed Vicki’s suspicion that the fake Dawn wasn’t going to be hearing anything anymore. Soon after, the cooling fan conked out, its annoying whine stuttering for a few seconds before dying completely. A few short seconds later, the fembot collapsed to the floor, twitching and spitting out random strings of syllables as smoke poured from her mouth. In less than three minutes, even those movements began to wind down.

“Okay,” Vicki murmured, “what the hell just happened?”

Carefully, she approached the fembot, stopping a few times when sparks shot out of the hole in her neck (and an additional hole in her torso, where the cooling fan had burnt out). After checking to make sure her trashcan doorstopper hadn’t failed, she knealt to examine the damage done to the Dawn fembot, turning her over to see if anything had hit her in the back during the brief confrontation in the hallway. “No residual energy from a long-distance shock stick, or impact points from a remote laser scrambler,” she mused. “No darts, no bolts, no projectiles of any kind on her….whoever or whatever did this must’ve used a WiFi or infrared signal to make her short circuit…unless….”

She turned the Dawn fembot over again, running her fingers along the edges of her fallen opponent’s face to find the seam that would allow her to remove it. After a few seconds, the Dawn fembot’s face rose with a click, and Vicki allowed herself a grin. “Now, then, let’s see what’s behind the mask…” She lifted the faceplate away….

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!”

Embedded within the servo relays and other assemblies inside of the fembot’s head was a 3-inch square black cube, the letters R.C. barely visible on each surface. “Rengold Cybernetics,” Vicki muttered. “So they’re in the killswitch business now…” With an annoyed sigh, Vicki clicked the fembot’s facemask back into place and made a mental note to call Tell about the development as soon as she could; he’d already been given permission to analyze what was left of the three fembots from Tony Sanderson’s apartment, as well as Akari’s remains from the United Robotronics offices. I just hope nobody takes out the trash before he can come get her, the brunette gynoid mused, dumping the fembot’s ruined form into the trashcan.

Thirty minutes later, the “San Jose Municipal Refuse Disposal Saftey Department” (aka ten to fifteen ALPA volunteers, with a noticably tired Mr. Tell in the lead) cordoned off the bathroom due to the presence of “an animal carcass” in the trashcan. To most of the students present, the scene was strange….

For Vicki, it was just the ALPA doing what they did best.

“…and as much as I hate to admit it, V, the fact that Rengold Cybernetics actually made this thing isn’t enough to link them to…well, this.”

Vicki didn’t bother trying to stifle the groan that came to her lips; the sense of elation she’d felt at seeing the Dawn fembot retrieved by Tell and his pals was swiftly evaporating with each new dismissal of her claims that Faceless was somehow connected to the whole thing. “I know they make components for every company registered with the ALPA and the Coalition,” she acquiesced, “but that still doesn’t mean they can’t be linked to this! And wasn’t Dawn in ALPA custody for at least a full year before---“

“I know what you’re about to say, V,” Tell warned, “so let me stop you right here: The ALPA agreed to hold the four captured fembots from last year’s incident for observation, not---“

“So you never even bothered checking under the hood?!” Vicki scoffed. “That’s almost…I can’t believe this, Tell. You’re actually admitting that you could’ve studied what makes them tick, and you didn’t.”

After a few seconds of silence, Tell’s reply wasn’t as cold as expected: “V, if we would’ve even tried to analyze the fembots’ internals and go over what makes them tick, Vlatko and most of his associates would’ve sued us for everything they could get, and they’d still be suing us today. This whole thing between the ALPA and the Coalition is a veritable powder keg waiting to go off, and a wrong move by either side could be enough to set it all off---case in point, Boris Vlatko. If we’d even breathed on ‘his girls’ the wrong way, he would’ve had the lawyers on us---“

“THE LAWYERS CAN GO TO HELL!” Vicki screamed. “I am sick and tired of Boris EFFING Vlatko’s stupid fembot army invading campus for some inexplicably stupid reason---“

“….you didn’t get the e-mail?” Tell asked quietly.

The brunette gynoid’s rant ended before she could throw something. “What e-mail?”

“Turns out the fembots aren’t just randomly visiting the campus to kick in doors and act stupid,” Tell informed her. “They’re apparently after Tony Sanderson’s family members---“

Vicki nearly dropped the phone. “What?”

“Anton just finished analyzing the processors from that Akari unit you kicked the head off of back at the United Robotronics building…seems she was programmed to ‘recruit or remove’ any member of the Sanderson family she might have come across; one of his cousins works there as a janitor, and we think Akari would’ve probably gone with the ‘remove’ option if she’d found him. As for the ones Kevin and the Major ran into at Sanderson’s apartment, they were---“

“Is anyone stationed near Kirsten Sanderson’s house right now?” Vicki asked quietly.

“Vicki, we’re trying to---“



“Tell,” the brunette gynoid muttered, “Kirsten Sanderson is one of my best friends on campus, and for the past few months, I’ve done my best to keep her from having the truth of her existence revealed to her…because if it was, she might very well lose her mind from the strain. If these stupid fembots are here looking for Anthony Sanderson’s relatives, it’ll only be a matter of time before they get to her, and when they get to her, they won’t hesitate to reveal---in the most brutal fashion possible---what she really is….so I’m going to ask you this question one more time: Is there anyone, whether it’s a single Field Agent, a six-person squad or a whole damn fireteam, stationed near Kirsten Sanderson’s house?”

Again, silence.

“Tell,” Vicki half-muttered, half-sobbed, “just tell me if there’s anyone there---“

“She’s not at her house, Vicki.”

A crack split the air as the gynoid’s grip tightened around her cellphone. “What?”

“She hasn’t been at her house for the past few days, and we don’t know where she went…we’ve got teams all over campus looking for her, and we’re thinking of asking the campus police to help us out with the search, but to be honest---“

“Leave the campus cops out of this,” Vicki growled.

Tell’s voice took on a dangerous edge; “This isn’t Basic Training anymore, Vicki,” he warned the gynoid, “and that Field Agent badge of yours isn’t going to mean a damn if you go out there and get someone hurt. Let the campus cops establish a peremiter around the Sanderson house, and we’ll have our people find Kirsten---“

“Oh, that’s a great idea,” Vicki drawled, “since they’ve done such a good job of that so far---“

“Wearing a Field Agent uniform doesn’t give you the right to mock those who don’t,” Tell stated, anger slowly creeping into his voice. “There are other Agents out there besides you, and they could do just as good of a job at finding Kirsten as you could, so don’t you dare let me hear you saying they can’t do their jobs better than you could…” The anger in his words faded into a pleading tone; “I spent months talking to Oberon and DuBraul about letting you on as a Field Agent,” he added, “and I really don’t want to start regretting that choice because of some minor disagreement---“

“THERE’S NOTHING ‘MINOR’ ABOUT IT!” Vicki thundered. “You don’t want me to go after Kirsten myself, because you’re afraid I’ll get hurt, just say it---“

“I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO TELL TED THAT YOU GOT YOURSELF KILLED JUST TO PROVE ME WRONG!” Tell shouted. A slow, wailing sob ended the rant; “I…I don’t want to see you get scrapped just because you got pissed at me…it’d kill me.”

Vicki stared at the phone, instantly feeling like an idiot. “I….I didn’t…..”

A sniffle, followed by Tell blowing his nose (loudly), cut her off. “I’ve been your personal mechanic for almost half a decade,” he mused, “and Ted himself has told me that I’m only the second person he’s ever trusted to fix you whenever you get too busted up…if I ever let anything---and I do mean anything---happen to you, he’d never forgive me, and I’d never forgive myself.”

After what felt like an eternity of silence, Vicki spoke: “I get it.”

“Good, I’m glad you…that’s good, V.” Even though she couldn’t see his face, Vicki knew that Tell was relieved to hear her say those three simple words. “Like I said, Ted would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you, and…well, you already said you get what I’m trying to say here, so….yeah.” A nervous chuckle issued from the phone speaker.

“So, now that we’ve established the fact that you don’t want me to get scrapped,” Vicki mused, “what’s next?”

“For starters, we find Kirsten. Get her some place safe, possibly out of state, and have our people---including you---take on the fembots and get rid of as many of them as they can, but we leave one standing. We trace her control signal back to wherever Vlatko is hiding---“

“And we spring the trap,” Vicki finished, grinning. “Any chance we could just hide Kirsten in Palo Alto?"

Her question prompted a sigh from Tell; “As much as it pains me to say it, V, I think we may have to pass on hiding her anywhere in Silicon Valley, period. Vlatko’s got connections almost everywhere in California, and if we keep Kirsten around here---hell, even if we put her in Cupertino, Palo Alto or Mountain View---the fembots will just find her and force her to either go with them or…be removed.”

“They’re not ‘removing’ her while I’m around,” Vicki stated, the tone of finality in her voice leaving no room for argument. “If they even think about it---“

“Point well taken,” Tell stated. “Still, we both know what Vlatko’s fembots are capable of---if they think Kirsten’s left the state, they will follow her wherever she goes…and you’ll probably insist on following them, and it’ll turn into this whole big thing…are you absolutely sure you want to go this far to keep them from getting to her, Vicki?”

Again, the air of finality in her words left no room for debate. “She’s my friend, Tell…of course I’m sure.”

“Figured that…and I also just remembered that tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, and it’ll be damn near impossible for our surveilance teams to get anywhere near Kirsten without attracting the unwanted attention of everyone within a 500-mile radius.” Tell sighed; “I keep forgetting to check the calendar before major ops…and by the way, Ted asked me to remind you not to get completely stupid during the festivities tomorrow, no matter how drunk everyone else gets---“

“I get it!” Vicki laughed. “I’m not going to get wasted like everyone else…”

“Good. The last thing I want to have to worry about is you getting wasted on…well, anything, really…anyways, just keep an eye out for Kirsten, and if you hear anything from her, call up the Major, Reaver, Anton or even me, and we’ll do what we can to help you.”

“Sounds like a pretty good plan…though there’s one thing I need to know.”


“If you couldn’t analyze the fembots in detail last year,” the brunette gynoid inquired, “how exactly are you able to analyze them now?”

After a somewhat noticeable pause, Tell cleared his throat. “To be honest, the lawyers weren’t the only reason we didn’t do any in-depth testing or other stuff with the fembots because most of them had been made in the image of students from the SJSU campus, and until we found and returned the actual students, we didn’t want to damage any of the fembots---“

“In case you needed to have them reprogrammed to be sleepers,” Vicki finished, sighing as she rolled her eyes. “I should’ve figured that…and now I feel like an idiot for yelling earlier.”

“Well, at least you didn’t throw the phone,” Tell offered. “That would’ve been a bad move…”

Vicki nodded her agreement. “Just let me know if you find anything on Dawn’s hard drive, so I can plan ahead and not get ambushed by Vlatko’s idiot squad. I’ll try and see if I can get Summer and Chrissy…both Summers and Chrissys, really….to meet me at Just Below before the end of today.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Bye for now!”

“Be seeing you…” Vicki sighed as she ended the call; “Why are the fembots going after Kirsten’s family with this whole ‘recruit or remove’ thing?” she pondered. “This whole scenario just stinks…I thought I was done with Vlatko and his fembots after last year….”

Another sigh preceded yet another cellphone call. “Some things just never change, I guess…”

By the time Vicki arrived at Just Below (to find the windows shaded and more “SJMRDSD” personnel stationed outside, one of whom allowed her into the building after she presented her ID), both Chrissys and Summers were waiting for her. “And what excuse did you come up with for all the uniforms?” the brunette gynoid asked, gesturing to the door.

“Mountain lion,” Summer (the human Summer, specifically) replied. “Crawled in through a roof vent, fell and bashed its head against the floor and, well…” She shrugged.

“We were thinking about putting in a smell generator,” the fembot Summer added, “but Tell said it would be going too far…” She made a face; “After he demonstrated the scent cartridges for ‘dead mountain lion’, I have to agree with him on that…”

Vicki stifled a giggle. “Well, at least we’re here…” Her expression turned serious. “…which is definitely good for all five of us. From what I understand---“

“The fembots are going after Anthony Sanderson’s family,” the fembot Chrissy stated matter-of-factly. “We still have the programming installed---‘we’ meaning Summer and I…” She glanced at the fembot Summer. “…but thanks to your friends at the ALPA, both of us are able to function independently of that programming and the stupid control signal.” She started to say something else, but stopped, exchanging another glance with the fembot Summer and grinning.

“And you’re sure you’re free of the signal?” Vicki asked, steepling her fingers.

“Oh, let’s just tell her already,” the fembot Summer insisted. “She has a right to know!”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow. “Tell me what?”

Both fembots sighed; “To be honest,” the fembot Chrissy admitted, “the four of us weren’t the only escapees from Boris Vlatko’s stupid laboratory…after Oberon brought us back to the facility, we did one more job for him that cemented our place in the ALPA…and I think it’s one you’ll definitely approve of.”

“There was another capsule in the room where we were being kept,” the fembot Summer added, “and since we’d never had anything even resembling curiosity before, we never thought about what---or who---might be in it…but Oberon told us to open it, so we did….” She and the fembot Chrissy exchanged another round of grins. “We never even knew Vlatko had found her after the incident last year,” she confessed, “so it was pretty much a surprise to both of us---and it’ll probably be just as big of a surprise to you---“

“It’d help if you’d tell me who you found,” Vicki mused.

“We would,” the fembot Chrissy giggled, “but we figured you’d rather hear it from her…” At this, both fembots turned towards the “Employees Only” entrance door of Just Below, grinning nervously as it slowly opened. “If this is some stupid joke,” Vicki began, “I’m going to---“ The words died on her tongue as she beheld a slender, dirty-blonde figure kitted out in a white tank-top over an aqua-blue shirt, khaki jeans and Converse Chuck Taylors, smiling nervously as the brunette gynoid stared, dumbstruck. “I….I don’t….how…” Vicki’s jaw worked silently for a few seconds. “I thought you were dead!”

“I guess this is my extra life, then,” Tori Hartwell replied, smiling.

Vicki blinked back tears for a few seconds, then surprised the Summers and Chrissys by running to hug Tori; “I knew you’d make it back,” she sobbed joyfully, “I just knew it…” She pulled away, wiping her tears with her sleeve; “How did you even survive?!”

“Well,” Tori admitted, “as much as I hate to give him credit…Boris Vlatko had a lot to do with it---“

“As did I,” Anton Malvineous called out, striding in from behind the counter. “Care for a smoothie?”

“I…I just want to know how Tori survived the fall,” Vicki stammered, “and how Vlatko got his grubby mitts on her instead of the ALPA---“

“To be fair,” Anton informed her, “we had our ‘mitts’ on her first, and had every intention of bringing her back to a certified ALPA repair facility for a complete analysis, repair and even upgrade---but the few fembots you didn’t completely trash during the initial operation re-emerged, ambushed the convoy and spirited Tori off, presumably for a reprogramming…or scrapping, if Vlatko couldn’t fix her.”

Tori nodded. “When I got out of that capsule, it felt like everything after the fall had been one really long, really weird dream,” she murmured, “except…”

“You were aware of everything that happened?!” Vicki gasped.

“Her CPU was still functioning, despite the severe damages to her internal framework and other components,” Anton stated. “Unfortunately, while the blast you channeled through her did, in all matter of fact, deactivate the Stylo virus code within her system, it also scrambled her memory processors and even inflicted minor damage to her sleeper programming…from what she told the ALPA techs after we recovered her from Vlatko, she believed that she’d been in the hospital for the past few months---specifically, in the Intensive Care ward---after a particularly nasty skiing accident. Even more troubling, she had particularly vivid ‘nightmares’ about being chased by a shadowy, smokelike, red-eyed version of herself through a barren landscape---“

“It was following me all over campus,” Tori whispered, “except all the buildings were…wrong….”

The human Chrissy and fembot Summer put their arms around Tori’s shoulders as Anton continued. “We were able to run a debug on her REM generator, and it appears that her nightmares were residual aftereffects of the Stylo virus. We removed the file from her system---nothing we had could delete the core file, but we did manage to clean out the rootkits and other nasty surprises---and stored it on a secure, solid-state drive---“

“That’s all well and good,” Vicki admitted, “but how did you rebuild her?” She gestured to Tori.

“Funny thing, that,” Anton admitted. “Just after we recovered her from Vlatko, a package was delivered to my offices---with the names ‘Matt and Jeff Hardy’ on the ‘Senders’ line. Considering the fact that the package held Tori’s blueprints, I knew that it couldn’t have been sent by a pair of professional wrestlers…” He chuckled. “As it turns out, there was one fingerprint on the thing, and it was a confirmed match for the individual currently known as McMire…but that’s another story for another day. In any case, the rebuilding process itself was rather simple after we received the blueprints---“

“I get it,” Vicki laughed.

“Indeed,” Anton nodded, bristling slightly at the interruption. “Still, there was the small matter of ensuring that Tori wasn’t under Vlatko’s control…which proved to be easier than expected when Chrissy and Summer---and their fembot duplicates---arrived.”

“Someone rigged the cameras at Vlatko’s lab to show us still in our capsules for the whole night,” the fembot Chrissy explained, “so we didn’t even get in trouble for it when we got sent back!” She grinned and high-fived the Summer fembot. “Even better,” Summer added, “we were able to use the same program that had freed us from Vlatko’s control to keep Tori from being controlled by him!”

I owe you one for this, Oberon… “Well, with all three of you on my side,” Vicki mused, nodding at Tori and the Summer and Chrissy fembots, “I have a feeling our odds of helping Kirsten out of this have just gone up…and for the record, I’m really, really glad to see that you’re okay,” she added, grinning at Tori.

“Well, since you didn’t break your promise to me,” Tori replied. “I promise to do whatever I can to help you.”

Vicki nodded her approval. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

“Speaking of plans,” Anton interjected, “I’ve been working on one that could keep Kirsten out of harm’s way during the Cinco de Mayo festivities tomorrow…if you’re interested, of course---“

“You already know we’re all interested in it,” Vicki theatrically groaned, “so just say it!” Her exaggerated scowl gave way to a grin; “Besides,” she added, “with three fembots---two of whom have incredibly awesome human counterpars---helping us out, pulling off this plan of yours shouldn’t be a problem.”

Anton nodded. “Seeing as how four of you are rather well-suited for an operation of this type,” he informed the gynoids, “I’ve specifically drafted this plan to capitalize on your strengths and minimize potential exploitations of your weaknesses. Summer and Chrissy---the human Summer and Chrissy---will be covering the parade tomorrow morning along El Paseo de Cesar E Chavez, with the help of the girls who were rescued from Vlatko last year. Should you spot ‘twins’ of any of the girls working with you, you are to notify the fembot Summer and Chrissy, who will move into position under the pretense of interviewing them for a story in the Spartan Daily, thus keeping them from being able to enact their orders.”

The Summers and Chrissys nodded. “Got it.”

“Tori, your role is going to be a bit more…risky,” Anton admitted. “I’ve requested---and received---permission to have you on a float of your own in the parade, for the purpose of celebrating your return to campus after a life-threatening injury. Now, I don’t want to discourage you from participating in this operation, but there’s a strong chance that your presence will attract the attention of Vlatko’s fembots---“

“If they’re stupid enough to try and jump me during a parade,” Tori replied, “bring ‘em on.”

The remark drew a sigh from Anton; “I was hoping you’d be a bit more…reserved….about the possibility of them showing up….” He shook his head. “In any case, if they do move in to attack, or if they decide to ignore any questions from the Chrissy and Summer fembots, Vicki will move into position to neutralize them before they can---“ The sound of Yaz’s “Situation” emanating from Vicki’s pocket interrupted the conversation; “I thought I turned this thing off,” she frowned. “Vicki Lawson here---“

“Do you honestly think I would’ve called this number if I even thought you wouldn’t answer?”

Faceless’ voice sent a chill down the brunette gynoid’s spine. “How…how did you---“

“My methods of procuring your cellphone number are none of your business at the moment. I just wanted to tell you that, since I’ve already become rather bored going after Russian roboticists, I’m on a red-eye flight back to the States…a flight that, coincidentally, might very well be landing in good old San Jose, California. Or Haddonfield, Illinois…apparently, the pilot has a fondness for the place---anyways, I just wanted to say that you can look forward to this year’s Cinco de Mayo being much more…interesting than last year’s, even if I’m not around to add my particular brand of ‘fun’ to the proceedings. Oh, and before I go…tell your six friends that they might want to check under their chairs for a few ‘presents’ I’ve left…”

One worried glance from Vicki was all it took to convince Tori, Anton, the Chrissys and the Summers to check under their chairs---where each of them found a replica of Faceless’ mask taped to the underside. Upon further inspection, each mask had a flash drive hidden inside it via spirit gum.

“Combine the data on these, and you’ll see why your plans are bound to fail. Bye for now…”

Vicki terminated the call and turned off her phone. “Anton,” she murmured, “I think there’s been a major breach of security within your office…and I think it might be tied into what happened last month. Run background checks on every android and gynoid from the House currently working for you---“

“Checks for what?” Anton asked, confused.

“For everything,” Vicki replied, heading for the door. “As for tomorrow…we play it by ear.”

Clive DuBraul frowned as he stared at the binder on the desk before him. “You’re saying this data was just corroborated last night?” he inquired.

“Corroborated, verified and sextuple-checked,” Oberon replied, scowling. “Every House facility Faceless didn’t wipe off the face of the earth has been turned into a veritable treasure trove of data---for him, and anyone who can pay his obscenely-high finder’s fees.” He shook his head; “I told Celeste this would happen if she put her trust in Brightstar---“

“Jake Brightstar isn’t the problem here,” DuBraul reminded him. “He lost 90% of his team, he nearly went mad after he thought Celeste had been destroyed, and he survived being tortured by Faceless himself for the last week of the month…anyone else would’ve snapped under those conditions.” He opened the binder and sighed; “As it stands, he’s lucky we didn’t have to remove his cybernetic implants,” he muttered. “If Faceless had tried to infect him with the Stylo virus---“

Oberon held up a hand. “I do not want to think of that possibility right now,” he stated flatly.

“Fair enough…still, this data you’ve brought me is…troubling, to say the least.” DuBraul thumbed through the binder, shaking his head. “Our entire plan to scope out the parade tomorrow---which, by the way, was thought up by Anton Malvineous in his own building, away from the watchful eyes and ears of the ALPA surveilance network---was somehow completely leaked to Faceless…and, quite possibly, to other parties.” His brows furrowed as he regarded the binder; “We have to assume that, despite our best intentions, our plan of action has been irreparably compromised,” he intoned, “and that to carry out this plan would endanger our operatives, the lives of innocent civilians---“

“And ourselves,” Oberon muttered. “It’s bad enough that Faceless has been spared from Death Row by some misguided sentimentality on the part of his own parents---both of whom were killed by him---but as if that isn’t enough…he has to go and be a complete, insufferable prig…”

DuBraul’s intended reply was cut off by the speakerphone on his desk buzzing; “Miss Crystal has arrived,” a clear, calm female voice stated.

“Send her in,” DuBraul replied; seconds later, the door opened to admit Oberon’s secretary, Crystal. “We just got another package, sir,” she informed the ALPA Chairman. “It’s…from Rengold Industries---“ She stopped as Oberon took the box from her, opened it….and flung it to the ground. “Call Reaver,” he growled, not even bothering to look at DuBraul as he spoke, “and tell him that I want his team on full alert today---and off the parade route.”

“I assume Faceless has sent another threat?” DuBraul inquired.

“You ‘assumed’ correctly,” Oberon spat, holding up a uniform meant to be worn by the SJSU Spartans’ band during the parade. “The blood isn’t real, but that’s not the point---look at the name stitched on it.” DuBraul stared at the uniform, arching an eyebrow when he noticed it; “Why’s he fixated on Vicki Lawson, if Vlatko is focused on the Sanderson family?” he asked.

“As far as Faceless is concerned,” Oberon replied wearily, “there’s only one true prize worth having---tying up that one loose end he could never get when he was briefly in charge at United Robotronics…a loose end known as Project Apollo, aka the Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant….and we all know what and who that is nowadays.” He stared at the half-crushed box on the floor again; “Seeing as how you’re going to ask how we should handle this,” he mused, “allow me to impart my ideal strategy: Pull all of our agents from the parade route, have them focus on finding Kirsten Sanderson and keeping her away from Vlatko’s fembots, and most importantly, do not mention the possibility that Faceless might be back on campus.”

DuBraul nodded. “Anything else?”

“Call the Brightstar family and have them screen their employees; do the same for all of our companies.”

“That sounds like overreacting,” Crystal mused. “I mean, we don’t even know---“

“Faceless has been using captured agents from the House to do his bidding ever since he started playing Guy Fawkes with their buildings last month,” Oberon reminded her. “It’s not exactly an over-reaction to consider that he’s turning agents from other companies, as well---or possibly not even turning them, just putting bugs in them and letting them go.”

“A daunting situation indeed,” DuBraul added.

Crystal was unphased. “Well, that could be the case…but---actually, why the hell are we even mentioning this right now?! Faceless isn’t the issue---“

“Technically speaking,” Oberon interjected, “he is. The killswitch devices found in the remains of Boris Vlatko’s fembots came from Rengold Cybernetics, and Faceless himself has probably had a hand in making them…so it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that he and Vlatko are at least co-conspirators, or something along those lines.”

“Even if they’re co-conspirators, or co-anything,” Crystal conceded, “it doesn’t mean we should shift our focus to just stopping Faceless---especially since we don’t even know what he’s going to do.” She deposited a folder into Oberon’s lap; “Kirsten Sanderson has been unaware of her own nature for almost 25 years,” she declared, “and if Faceless or Vlatko get a hold of her, there’s no telling what might happen if she finds out that her life is just a series of---“

“Lies?” Oberon offered. “Half-truths? Fabricated memories?” He steepled his fingers, glancing at Crystal from beneath furrowed brows; “If I recall correctly, you yourself had a spot of trouble recalling your own true nature after a run-in with a blender,” he mused. “Funny how one frayed wire can throw your whole perception of reality out of whack…” He glanced at DuBraul, a smirk playing at his features. “She was under the impression that she was a 21-year-old college cheerleader from Miami, Florida, if you’re wondering…completely forgot who and what she was. None of the conventional reboot methods worked---in the end, it took dropping her into a swimming pool with a plugged-in TV to reset her systems and restore her memory---“

“And fry my hair,” Crystal muttered.

“The point is, a sleeper’s memory---fabricated though it may be---isn’t just something to casually discard…or disregard,” Oberon reiterated. “You remember John Lane calling in about his youngest daughter? How she begged him not to reset her to sleeper status after she found out what she was?”

Crystal sighed. “I remember…”

“Then allow me to impart a bit of wisdom unto you,” Oberon suggested. “The ALPA knows how vital it is for sleeper androids and gynoids to hold onto their memories, their lives---everything they have that makes them, well, them---even after they realize what they truly are….” He sighed, his weight shifting in the chair as he stared up at the ceiling; “Sadly, a few rare cases end up with them deciding that they’d rather not know the truth,” he murmured. “They prefer the empty walls of a life that, for a brief moment in time, they knew to be a fabrication…and so they remain, until….” He stared at the floor, unwilling to continue.

“I think it would be better for us to focus on the other problem Kirsten might face,” DuBraul advised.

“What other problem?” Crystal asked. “If she gets caught by Vlatko---“

DuBraul arched an eyebrow.

“I…you mean….”

“I do indeed,” DuBraul replied. “Vlatko did, after all, program his fembots with a ‘recruit or remove’ option…”

“We’re not letting them use the ‘remove’ option,” Oberon stated, “and you can quote me on that one. I bloody well know what Vlatko intended to do with Tori Hartwell if he’d have finished repairing her himself, and I will not allow him to carry out such tests and/or experiments on Kirsten Sanderson…” He shook his head. “It’s bad enough she doesn’t know why her father didn’t call her that day, or what happened to him….”

“She’ll find out soon enough,” Clive mused.

“And then, she’ll panic,” Oberon added, “and she’ll start questioning everything under the bleeding sun, and if that doesn’t completely fry her systems….” He sighed.

Crystal retrieved the band uniform from DuBraul’s desk. “Ah, before I leave, is it okay if I take the rest of the week off?” she asked. “Ossie agreed to take my shift if you need someone to cover for me….and I kinda sorta already made plans…”

Oberon sighed; “Ossie”, the casual designation for MYTH-OS-1138, a mass-market, “bargain bin” gynoid made as part of a market test in Detroit, had proven to be a rather interesting new hire in the ALPA after she and Field Agent Calum Greene saved Anton Malvineous from a death squad; at her insistance, Ossie took a desk job, rather than assignment as a fully-fledged Agent in her own right. “She’s already covering your paperwork for the weak, isn’t she?” the ALPA Chairman inquired.

The gynoid secretary’s silence spoke volumes.

With a chuckle, Oberon waved aside the issue. “Your off-time starts now, by the way,” he stated, “so I humbly suggest you put it to good use. OS-1138 will take your place until next Monday, at which time I expect you to be at your desk precisely at 6:30 AM…or, if you feel like it, a few minutes earlier than that.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Crystal replied, turning to head for the door. “And---“

“You can borrow the ‘Vette, as long as you don’t redline it,” Oberon informed her. “And don’t get any scratches on it, and don’t muck up the seat covers, and---“

“I GET IT,” Crystal thundered, slamming the door on her way out.

Oberon couldn’t help but grin. “And that’s why I didn’t leave her in that accidentally activated sleeper mode I was talking about earlier,” he reminded DuBraul. “Her personality is just too irrepressible to ignore…and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Perfectly understandable,” DuBraul agreed. “Though I don’t know if I’d have given her the ‘Vette---“

“She’s driven it before,” Oberon assured him. “It’s not like she’s going to put it through a telephone pole within five seconds, or anything…and if she does, well, I’ve got more than one car.” He grinned. “And if she ends up crashing every single one of those, I’ll just ride a bike---hell, I’ll even start walking to and from work if I have to; it’ll give me more exercise!”

“Somehow,” DuBraul intoned, “I can’t picture you just walking to work…”

After a few seconds of chuckling, Oberon rose from his seat. “Well, we’ll just have to see about that, Clive,” he replied, shaking hands with the ALPA President. “In the meantime, Kirsten Sanderson isn’t out of the woods quite yet…and if Faceless’ latest taunts are correct, either he or Vlatko will try something today.”

“And if they don’t?”

DuBraul’s question only earned him ten seconds of Oberon’s time, just as he was about to step through the door. “I have a feeling that you and I both know the answer to that question,” he quietly replied, “and that I won’t wait around for that to happen.”

“Okay, some of these floats are just….stupid. Seriously.”

Vicki stared at the brochure for the Cinco de Mayo parade at SJSU, frowning. “Are they just trying to offend as many people as possible with this stuff,” she asked, “or did they all start throwing back Coronas last week and just let their minds wander?”

“I wouldn’t dwell on it,” Tori advised, “especially since we have more important things to worry about---“

“I know,” Vicki insisted. “I just…” She sighed, staring up at the clouds while she tried to explain just what it was that had been nagging at her since Faceless’ taunt. After what felt like ten minutes (even though it was only 20 seconds) of thinking, she finally spoke: “I just have this feeling that something’s going to go terribly, horribly wrong when we get to Kirsten, and then I’ll have way too much to answer for---“

“Aside from the fact that you didn’t call me about this?”

Kim DeFalco’s mock-angry question shook Vicki out of her funk; “I was going to call you last night, Kim,” she admitted, “but---“

“Water under the bridge, Vicki,” Kim replied, hugging the brunette gynoid and Tori in turn. “I’m just glad to see Tor back on her feet again…I honestly thought she was never going to make it back after what happened to her at the construction yard.”

“Glad to see I proved you wrong, then,” Tori teased.

“As happy as I am to see you two reunited,” Vicki cut in, “we still have a pressing matter to attend to. I---“ She stopped, glancing at Kim; “Tori may have to get you up to speed on what’s been happening…if you want to help us out, that is…”

Kim grinned. “Do I get a cool hat?”


“NICE. I’m in.” She flung her arm around Tori’s shoulder. “Just like the old days, Tor,” she beamed. “Except this time, we don’t have to worry about getting in trouble for rowing every canoe except one all the way to the middle of the lake…” She noticed Vicki’s puzzled glance; “It was at summer camp in 2008, when Tori and I were both working as counselors,” she explained, “and---“

A harsh, grating tone issued from the cellphone in Vicki’s pocket. “That’s for me,” she muttered, raising the phone to her ear as Tori and Kim exchanged confused looks. “Vicki here, what’s---“

“They’ve cornered Kevin.”

Major Tom’s voice was almost completely flat; “Ah, sorry,” Vicki mused, “but---“

“Vlatko’s fembots tracked him to his dorm room and kicked in the door,” the Major continued, his tone grim. “If they break through the bathroom door, they will kill him…and if you don’t get your ass over there and stop them from breaking through the damn bathroom door---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied. “How soon do I---“

“NOW, VICKI!” The sound of splintering wood rang out through the phone’s speaker.

“Wait, you’re---“

“I dropped in to see if he was okay, the damn fembots showed up, and one of them broke my other shin!”

The brunette gynoid couldn’t help but wince; “I’ll be there in a minute,” she promised. “Just…don’t die on me, okay?”

For the first time in the conversation, she could hear the faintest trace of a chuckle in the Major’s voice: “I’ll do my best to stay alive until you get here,” he deadpanned. “Bring Tori and Kim along, too---assuming Kim’s actually with the group at this point…”

“She is.”

“Good. Her car’s less conspicuous than a bus would be---“ A loud crack interrupted him. “Just get here, Vicki,” he insisted, “otherwise---“

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Vicki replied. “I’m on my way.” With that, she ended the call; “Kim, can your car get us to Kevin Harding’s dorm in less than three minutes?” she asked. “It’s kind of an emergency, and stuff…”

Kim nodded. “Not a problem, Vicki. Just---“ She sighed as Tori and Vicki ran for her car; “…mess up the stuff in the backseat,” she finished, shaking her head. “If this wasn’t an emergency, I’d be really, REALLY annoyed right now,” she muttered, heading for the car. “AND DON’T CHANGE THE RADIO STATIONS!” she called out. “I HAVE IT SET….”

Six minutes later, the trio exited Kim’s car and headed into Washburn Hall, Vicki’s internal GPS guiding her towards Kevin’s dorm room. “If anyone asks, we’re just here to…conduct a survey,” she told the other two gynoids. “We’re doing a study on….the, ah, impact of Canadian recording artists on the North American music industry, and it’s for….extra credit….” She groaned; “How is it that Tell can come up with really convincing alibies in seconds, and I can’t even think of an excuse for asking questions about Canadian singers?!” she hissed.

“We could just say we were checking up on him,” Kim began, only for Tori to shake her head. “I’ll go find us some Housekeeping uniforms, and---“

A scream, followed by something heavy hitting the walls of the stairwell, drowned out the end of her sentence.

“No time!” Vicki insisted, heading for the nearest stairway. “We need to get up there now, or---“

The sight of Major Tom’s unconscious form rolling down the stairs like a bowling pin stopped her in her tracks; Tori and Kim had just enough time to hoist the Major up by his shoulders and carry him to safety before a figure appeared at the top of the stairs---not surprisingly, it was the Oksanna fembot, one of her ocular sensors already gouged out. “You will take us to Kirsten Sanderson,” she intoned, “or---“

“Or nothing,” V.I.C.I. coldly replied. “I’m sick of you and your cut-rate knockoff ‘sisters’ storming all over campus, attacking whoever you want…” Her head turned only slightly to the left, just enough for her to glance back at Tori and Kim; “Is he okay?” she asked, reverting to her human voice.

“He’s still breathing,” Kim whispered, “but he’s unconscious…”

“Good enough for me,” the brunette gynoid stated, returning her full focus to the Oksanna fembot. “You’re lucky that trip down the stairs didn’t kill him…actually, forget I said that. You’re not leaving this dorm in one piece---“

“If you destroy me,” the fembot warned, “my sisters will---“

“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN WHAT YOUR STUPID SISTERS WILL DO,” V.I.C.I. growled. “Every single one of Boris Vlatko’s useless fembots will be torn to pieces before this week is over with…and I might as well start with you….”

Before Oksanna could even think to signal for help, the brunette gynoid’s myogel-enhanced reflexes sent her up the stairs and directly behind the statuesque fembot. “This one’s for Kevin,” she intoned, delivering an axe-handle smash to the Oksanna duplicate’s left shoulder; servomotors buckled under the pressure, giving the fembot a somewhat lopsided appearance as she staggered away, her useless arm hanging limp.

V.I.C.I. caught up with her in three steps, grabbing her by the hair; “This one’s for the Major,” she hissed, right before rearing back and slamming the fembot’s face into the wall. Tori and Kim watched, horrified, as the now-heavily damaged duplicate drunkenly stumbled backwards, her faceplate cracked in several places. “This uni-uni-uni-uni-uni-uni-uniiiiiiiiiiiiiiii---“ Her attempt to declare a fatal system error ended with a distorted, staticky whine as she fought to keep from falling over, her right hand brushing against V.I.C.I.’s face as she moved.

A split-second later, the Oksanna fembot’s hand was crushed in the grasp of the brunette gynoid.

“…and this is for Kirsten Sanderson,” Vicki whispered, her other hand rearing back.

Kim closed her eyes, and Tori forced herself to look away as Vicki drove her fist straight through the fembot’s head, shattering her facemask and obliterating whatever vital components lay between her fist and the back of the Oksanna duplicate’s skull. Before the ruined fembot even had a chance to fall to the floor, the brunette gynoid tore her fist out of her opponent’s head and rammed it into her stomach with the force of a jackhammer, driving it cleanly through her torso and destroying even more parts. She drew her fist back again, letting the fembot’s right hand fall from her grasp as she stepped back. “Now,” she murmured, “for---“


Tori’s shriek gave Vicki just enough time to block an axe-handle smash from the petite, blue-clad figure of Cindy (or rather, her fembot duplicate). “You will not interfere,” she stated, her polite voice rendering the words in a somewhat comical light. “We WILL---“

“Shut up,” V.I.C.I. droned, slamming her DG v2.7-charged palm into the fembot’s face, sending current into her processors through her eyes. “Nice fembot…now sleep…” Within seconds, the Cindy fembot sank to the floor and quietly shut down, just as two more fembots vaulted over the railing to land in front of and behind V.I.C.I., the nametags on their matching beige jumpsuits identifying them as Kathy and Sienna. Kathy---who looked like the stereotypical “college girl working as a stripper to pay tuition” right down to the obviously-dyed blonde hair and curves that were just toned down enough to avoid looking cartoonish---barely had enough time to order the slim, toned Sienna to “Subdue the girl” before “the girl” caved in her throat with a backfist and sent her into the wall with a hook-kick. Sienna, not surprisingly, began backing away…only to run into Tori and Kim. “Up,” Kim ordered, nodding at the stairs. The olive-skinned fembot turned to see V.I.C.I. mere inches away from her; “Time to send you to Fembot Hell,” the brunette gynoid intoned, cracking her knuckles.

The raven-haired fembot went catatonic: “Failure in critical task---conceal non-human---“ An axe-kick to the face ended her sentence---and effectively broke her neck, sending her into a whirlwind of critical system failures and malfunctions that ended with a small electrical fire blowing her faceplate off of her head, followed soon after by a panel in her stomach tearing through her jumpsuit as she fell to the floor in a smoking, shivering heap. A brief string of nonsense syllables spilled from her exposed speaker for a few seconds; eventually, even that faded into silence.

Tori and Kim stared, awestruck---until Vicki spoke: “Kim, dial the number for Tell’s workshop and make sure he answers the phone himself; when he does, ask him to bring a containment team out here to pick up what’s left of the busted fembots---and to get Cindy. Tori, go upstairs and see if Kevin’s okay; if he is, bring him down here, and you can both leave with Tell and the Major---“

“What about you?” Tori managed.

“I’ve got a robot lab to destroy,” Vicki replied tonelessly, turning on her heel and heading for the door.

As she approached the location of what had once been Drake Bradford’s robot lab, Vicki forced herself to not think about the eerie silence, especially in comparison to her previous visit. That time, she’d been dropped off by an EDF/ALPA convoy and sent in to deactivate the fembots before they could be deployed…

…this time, of course, things were just a bit different.

The service elevator looked as if someone had taken a bat to the controls, but it still supported Vicki’s weight as she entered. Hopefully, the controls haven’t been rendered useless… Carefully, she pressed the button that would bring her to the subterranean lab; a few tense seconds later, she breathed a sigh of relief as the elevator descended. The fact that the thing was moving incredibly slow was a minor inconvenience, compared especially compared to any as-yet unseen traps that might still be laying in wait for her. And there’s the small matter of that thing in the spare-parts cabinet….

With a groaning, shuddering clang, the elevator care came to a stop…

…and Vicki let out an annoyed groan of her own as the doors failed to open.

“Of all the stupid…” Supressing the urge to swear, she forced her fingers into the seam between the steel door panels, her myogel-enhanced strength allowing her to pry them apart effortlessly.

Something in the corner of the elevator car squealed to life right next to her ear; “Oh, well done,” an all-too familiar voice taunted. “You opened a door. That must’ve been exhausting…” A dry chuckle punctuated the sentence. “Since you had the foresight to actually show up here, instead of heading for the parade or, say, Kirsten’s apartment---“

“Cut the crap, Faceless,” Vicki demanded. “What the hell---“

“It seems you’ve forgotten the fact that I hate to be interrupted,” the murderer’s voice growled, only to mellow out into another chuckle. “Still, seeing as how your question was so predictable---‘what the hell are you doing here?’ tends to be something invoked rather frequently in this sort of scenario---I might as well just answer it and get that whole issue out of the way now…” Rustling noises (does he have a script for this?! Vicki mentally groaned) filled the elevator car for a minute or so. “My affiliation with Boris Vlatko is one of…necessity, to be honest, and it is a task that gives me no joy whatsoever. Even the fembots’ option to ‘recruit or remove’ any member of the Sanderson family they encounter was watered down by the ‘remove’ option only allowing them to render someone unconscious---and even then, only be means that can allow for easy resusscitation…not the way I would’ve gone about things, had I been allowed full control of---“

“Is there a point to this whole thing,” Vicki cut in, “or is it just more of you being annoying?”

No chuckle this time. “You should consider yourself lucky that there is, in all manner of fact, a point to ‘this whole thing’…and the point is that Boris Vlatko wasn’t the only one to take Dr. Franklin’s designs into the new millenium and update them…to be quite honest, Rengold Cybernetics---“

“Has been dipping their toe in the pool as well,” Vicki finished. “The killswitch in Akari’s head gave it away.”

A barking laugh emerged from the speaker as the brunette gynoid edged her way into the lab. “Very clever!” Faceless declared. “And I didn’t even have to drop any stupid hints…in any case, my company---despite its many shortcomings---has been working on Franklin’s designs for the past few years; even without the benefit of official Coalition support, my lackeys have been doing a damn sight better than Vlatko’s underpaid hacks could ever dream…” A pause; “I am a bit annoyed that you trashed Kathy and Sienna so quickly back at the dorm,” he admitted, “seeing as how I was going to---“

“Save it,” Vicki spat. “I don’t know what the hell you stand to gain or lose from all of this---the only words I want to hear out of your mouth are an explanation for this, for your attacks on Jake Brightstar and the House, and for this stupid obsession you have….”

“Go on,” Faceless drawled. “You want me to explain this ‘stupid obsession’ I have with…”

Vicki couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

“You know, as hard as it may seem to believe,” the masked killer observed, “you and I actually have quite a few things in common…I gave up my worthless birth name to accept the title of ‘Faceless’, and you’ve all but abandoned that stupid acronym of yours in favor of a ‘normal’, ‘human’ name that’s just as bland and lifeless as you are…we both prefer dual-tone wardrobes, though mine is just a bit more monochromatic than yours is…we’ve both beaten the living hell out of each other---“

“I HAVE NOTHING IN COMMON WITH YOU!” Vicki screamed, already wanting to beat the hell out something just for having shown up.

“We ALSO,” Faceless continued, ignoring her outburst, “have nothing but contempt for the Franklin-designed fembots Vlatko seems to love employing…except you just beat them into a worthless pile of metal and plastic, while I have the luxury of…refining them…”

The lights in the room slowly kicked on, revealing a pair of black-clad fembots standing exactly twenty-one feet away from Vicki. Other than a few small differences---facial structure, hair color, makeup---the two could’ve passed for twin sisters…and each fembot’s stance indicated that she had been programmed to do one thing, and only one thing: do anything and everything in her power to beat the mortal piss out of whoever it was she was programmed to beat.

“Paradox-shielded, impregnable firewalls, internal WiFi modems set to the highest possible security level…in my humble opinion, these girls could eat Franklin’s fembots for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and probably tear into that Stacy Tanque idiot for desert.” Faceless’ boast didn’t seem too far off track, as the fembots icy stares locked onto Vicki with unveiled malice. “I almost forgot to congratulate you for having pinpointed the control signal’s origin,” the killer added, “though you’re a bit late to catch Vlatko red-handed---he’s already moved his equipment to a far more secure location, and given me the task of clearing this place of any intruders, repo men and/or assorted other morons…which, at the moment, includes a certain brunette gynoid…”

Vicki ignored the mocking laugh that rang through the room as the first of the fembots charged at her, pivoting on her heel to allow the black-clad attacker to overshoot her mark and crash into a computer console. The move only gave her a few seconds’ worth of respite, however, as the second fembot was quick to follow up on her “sister’s” failing, hurtling forward in a tackle that would’ve knocked any running back senseless. The move didn’t give Vicki enough time to get out of the way; with dodging no longer a viable option, she met the charging fembot head-on, grabbed her by the waist and suplexed her into another console, sending sparks, metal and glass flying. Even as she started to turn away, the brunette gynoid noticed the first fembot returning to her feet, relatively undamaged---and severely pissed-off. Oh, come on! Give me a---

Her thought was rather brutally cut off as the first fembot pounced on her, knocking her to the floor in a heap; as she struggled to throw the black-clad robot off of herself, Vicki was just able to see the figure of the second fembot rising from the obliterated console and stalking towards her. They have to have a weakness… She focused her energies on the room around her, searching for anything that might give her an edge (even if it was only for a few seconds) against the implaccable fembots. Across the room, a laptop with a strip of duct-tape over the badge sat rather invitingly on a desk. If I could just scan it---wait a minute, I can scan it! Vicki expanded her focus even further, accessing the laptop’s WiFi modem to---

“I’d love to keep watching my fembots tear you limb from limb,” Faceless’ voice drawled, “but I have a rather pressing engagement to attend to on the other side of town…” With that, the intercom box in the elevator car clicked off.

The fembot who had been trying to strangle Vicki cocked her head, almost looking confused….


With a shout that would’ve made John Rambo proud, Vicki threw the fembot off of her and sprinted across the room towards the laptop, diving behind the desk as she grabbed it. The fact that the duct-tape “label” had “DO NOT USE” scrawled hastily across it did little to sour her mood; if anything, it only increased the laptop’s value in her eyes. “C’mon, come on,” she muttered, hoping the thing would finish booting quickly so that she could use it to take down the black-clad fembots with minimal fuss. “Hurry up already….”

Behind her, one of the fembots flipped a table over, sending its contents crashing to the floor. The other chose to simply kick her way through the furniture instead, breaking it in half with frightening speed.

Silently praying that she wouldn’t be the next victim of the fembots’ attacks, Vicki let out a small cheer as the laptop finished booting up. As she’d expected, the thing had been used to develop, refine and a number of viruses, including (rather alarmingly) an audio-transmissable version of the Stylo virus. A few seconds’ worth of scrolling through the folders on the desktop allowed the brunette gynoid to find a Stylo-infected MP3 file that was exactly twenty-one seconds long (Faceless probably made that one himself, she mused); her fingers flew over the keyboard, opening up a .BAT file and editing it to play the infected MP3 seven seconds after someone double clicked on it.

Just as the fembots appeared on either side of the desk, their target streaked past in a crimson/white blur; a few seconds later, a voice taunted them from across the room: “HEY, MORONS!”

The fembots turned as one to glare at Vicki.

“CATCH!” The brunette gynoid hurled the laptop like a frisbee (something no human being could’ve hoped to accomplish), not surprised in the least when one of the fembots caught it; she was equally unsurprised to note the fembot’s pained reaction, her hands going immediately for her ears, only to press inwards a bit too hard, causing the sides of her head to cave in like an empty milk jug. The other fembot (the one who had tackled Vicki to the floor) was too busy grabbing her own arms, her legs and even her chest---all in jerky, mechanical motions---to notice; within seconds, her entire body was caught in the midst of a sort of stacatto St. Vitus’ dance as she robotically jumped in place, her hands clenching and unclenching at random…at least, until the fembot who had mangled her own head into a twisted mound of plastic, metal and synthetic hair grabbed her by the head and pulled, ripping her entire head clean off her shoulders. Both fembots’ bodies then spasmed uncontrollably as sparks shot from their shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles before collapsing into smoking heaps on the floor.

The entire spectacle had lasted just a bit shorter than twenty-one seconds.

Good thing I turned my hearing off before I threw the laptop, Vicki mused, striding over to the pair of ruined figures on the floor and closing the laptop. After a quick glance around to make sure the elevator car wasn’t descending again, she sighed, turned away…and then drove her right foot into the laptop with a savage stomp, grinding it into the floor beneath the sole of her shoe. After a full two minutes of effectively jumping on the thing, she stepped back and nodded approvingly; the laptop had been reduced to a pile of keys, glass and chips, not even viable as spare parts. Tell probably would’ve wanted to study it, but desperate times call for desperate measures…

With another deep breath (and a mental note to turn her hearing back on as soon as she reached the surface), Vicki headed for the secret exit she’d utilized after having rescued Tori Hartwell during her last visit to the lab; her processors were already working on tracing the fembot control signal to Vlatko’s new hideout, even as she continued running through the hidden corridor. If I can get back to campus soon, I might just be able to catch up with him---or at least give Tell a good idea of where to look…assuming, of course, that Faceless and his goon squad haven’t already caught up with Kirsten and tried to do anything stupid to her…

Even as she tried to dismiss the possibility, she remembered Major Tom’s unconscious form falling down the stairs at Washburn Hall---and realized that time was most definitely not on her side.

Just hang in there, Kirsten….I won’t let Vlatko get to you before I can…

“…and I’m amazed that you even bothered leaving her intact, V---especially considering what you did to the rest of them; I mean, she’s pretty much factory fresh!”

Tell’s assessment of the undamaged Cindy fembot would’ve brought a smile to Vicki’s face on any other day, but at the moment, she was deep in thought---specifically, thinking about why Faceless had gone through the trouble of making a threat related to the Cinco de Mayo parade (which was going off without a hitch), but not following through on it.

“…the ocular processers aren’t even scorched, and---ah, V? Earth to Vicki?”

“Hmm?” The brunette gynoid glanced at Tell; “Oh, sorry,” she apologized. “I was just thinking about….stuff…”

Her lame attempt to cover for her inattentiveness didn’t go unnoticed; “V, ‘thinking about stuff’ is how you pass the time when someone changes the channel to Lawrence Welk and leaves the room without putting down the remote,” he informed her. “You don’t ‘think about stuff’ when I’m fawning over a Franklin-designed fembot in pristine condition…what’s up?” He rested his chin in his hands and stared into Vicki’s eyes. “Something has attached itself to your craw with industrial strength superglue,” he muttered. “Care to let me in on what it is that’s bothering you so much?”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “’Attached itself to my craw with industrial-strength superglue’?” she echoed.

“It’s better than just saying it sticks in your craw,” Tell replied. “Anyways, what’s bugging you?”

The brunette gynoid sighed. “I’ve been trying to go over Faceless’ whole stupid thing with the Cinco de Mayo parade threat,” she explained, “and it just doesn’t add up. He claimed it would be ‘more interesting than last year’, and….” She stopped. “We didn’t have a Cinco de Mayo parade last year,” she murmured.

Tell considered her words; “Now that you mention it….I do remember the parade being cancelled on account of some traffic issues on the proposed route,” he admitted. “So…Faceless brings up a parade that didn’t even happen, and says this year’s will be even more interesting…you think he’s trying to throw you off-track?”

“I think he’s messing with us,” Vicki replied. “Also, the numbering is all wrong---Faceless’ number is seven, so any date with the number ‘5’ wouldn’t even mean anything to him…” She closed her eyes. “If I can find any trace of Faceless doing something notable on Cinco de Mayo within the past two decades,” she informed Tell, “I might be able to figure out why he bothered name-dropping the date at all…” One of her eyes opened just enough to spot Tell heading for a closet across the room. “And what exactly are you doing?” she asked, more than a bit miffed. “I’m trying to search the servers for---“

“Any record of Faceless doing something notable on Cinco de Mayo during the past two decades, I heard you the first time.” Tell grabbed a stack of notebooks and headed for a nearby desk; “I don’t think Faceless is the thing we should be name-checking,” he called out. “Try cross-referencing ‘United Robotronics’ with ‘Cinco de Mayo’, and see what turns up.”

“You came up with that from looking through a bunch of old notebooks?”

“If you remember, there were ways of storing information before the Internet was invented,” Tell reminded her, thumbing through one of the notebooks. “Find anything?”

“Actually, I did,” Vicki replied, her eyes still closed. “Apparently, United Robotronics had a lot of mass firings on Cinco de Mayo through the years…starting with William J. Rengold III’s first day on the job as the new owner of the company.” She pulled a face, which looked more than a bit odd; “I was there when he fired fourteen people for stupid reasons---one for giggling, one for clearing his throat, and a bunch of others for reading a financial magazine article about Rengold Cybernetics’ financial problems.”

“Interesting….but try adding ‘Sanderson’ to the cross-referencing list.”

The suggestion prompted a confused look from Vicki; “So, now we’re looking for something Tony Sanderson did at United Robotronics on Cinco de Mayo?” she inquired. “That’s….kinda weird…”

“Just trust me on this one, V,” Tell assured her, “I think I’ve got something…”

If you say so… “Running search now---WHOA.”

Tell chuckled. “Told ya.”

Even with her eyes closed, the shock on Vicki’s face was unmistakable; “’In the midst of a May 5, 2010 board meeting, Anthony Lewis Sanderson laid out a proposal to the Board of Directors that would divert funding from all cancelled projects to Project Epsilon, and be distributed evenly throughout all research and development teams attached to it’…” She frowned. “What’s Project Epsilon?”

“Project Epsilon,” Tell informed her, “is one of United Robotronics---no, the entire Coalition’s most heinous, abhorrent and detestable projects, and the one that’s been the object of every ALPA President and Chairman’s ire since 1987. Unlike Project Apollo, which was meant purely for the domestic market and developed into some rather promising offshoots---one of which just so happens to be you, V----Project Epsilon was meant solely as a military venture, and summed up everything wrong with Project Oberon…which probably goes a long way towards explaining why some of the most twisted minds in the robotics community decided to jump on the bandwagon when their time came…” He shook his head in disgust. “The worst part was that even after the ALPA realized what the hell Epsilon was capable of, and started disavowing their knowledge of it, the idiots who signed on for it kept on waving the flags and proudly proclaiming that they would donate every last cent they had….”

“But what is it?” Vicki insisted.

Tell let out a theatrical sigh and plopped down into a nearby chair. “Trust me, V…you don’t want to know. I’ve been going over notebooks and other materials related to it for the past few days, and I want to forget most of what I’ve found out…y’know how some of those old sci-fi films have some professor or scientist guy who says something along the lines of ‘perhaps there are some things man was not meant to understand’?”

“I guess, but---“

“Well, this is one of them. Probably one of the biggest ones ever, to be brutally honest. This is what folks like Anton Malvineous, Calista Swanson and even your dad have nightmares about…”

Something Dad would have nightmares about? “That does sound pretty extreme,” Vicki admitted, “but…what exactly does it have to do with Kirsten, and Boris Vlatko’s obsession with finding all of Tony Sanderson’s living relatives?”

“If Vlatko has access to Sanderson’s relatives,” Tell explained, “he can pretty much have them order the courts to turn over everything related to Project Epsilon that they can find---and with that…I don’t want to think about the possibilities. He could start up research on it for himself, or hand the files over to United Robotronics for an ungodly amount of money…hell, he could sell the stuff to the highest bidder and use it as his retirement fund, and I guaran-DAMN-tee you that we’ll all be screwed if that’s the route he takes with this…” He glanced at Vicki, who still had her eyes closed. “I just don’t want to see this thing get out of hand, really,” he murmured.

“I won’t let it get out of hand,” Vicki replied, finally opening her eyes. “If we can stop Vlatko before he gets to Kirsten, then we can keep this whole thing from escalating any further than it already has…and from what you’ve told me, we need to keep it from escalating any further, otherwise….”

“I get it,” Tell muttered.

“Normally, I’d say something about that being my line,” Vicki deadpanned, “but you can have it this one time.”

“We still need to figure out Faceless’ angle for this whole thing, you know,” Tell reminded her. “Other than the fact that he’s a complete douchebag who deserves to be dropped into the lowest trench in the ocean with a lead weight around his neck…”

“Whatever he’s planning,” Vicki stated, “it’d probably be a good idea to keep him from pulling it off some time before midnight this Saturday. He didn’t lay all these clues about Cinco de Mayo and ‘interesting things’ just to taunt us---if I’ve learned anything from fighting him, it’s that he really, really wants to make me feel stupid for missing the most obvious solution to whatever problem he creates.”

Tell arched an eyebrow. “You learned that from fighting him at the Silicon Dynamics plant?”

“No, that’s when I learned that even I have my limits,” the brunette gynoid admitted. “All the times I’ve dealt with him over the semester, he’s thrown ‘riddles’ at me that---“ She stopped. “Tell, call up the security camera footage from around the campus during September 10, 2010,” she requested. “Focus on any reports of a figure in all-black, around Faceless’ height and build---and focus on similar records around San Jose around the time L.E.S. made her little ‘reappearance’ as Leslie Erica Simm.”

“Way ahead of you, V.” Tell threw himself into a rolling chair and glided to his desk, stopping just short of hitting himself in the gut. “Any particular reason why---“

“Faceless wasn’t just trying to insult my intelligence when he gave me those ridiculously simple riddles,” Vicki replied. “Remember how I tapped into every microphone, speaker and security camera on campus to find him after he kidnapped Kirsten, Raquel and Capri?”

“Yeah, but---“

“I have a sneaking suspicion that he tweaked the results, and that he wanted me to find them as quickly as I did---and when I played back the recording of his ‘phone call’ to me, I noticed a few sounds in the background that couldn’t have come from anything off-campus! He had someone else kidnap the Sandersons and Capri, and he wasn’t even on campus until 6:00 PM!” Her theory prompted yet another arched eyebrow from Tell. “If he wasn’t on campus---wait, I’m getting a few hits on the security camera search…” He scrolled through the listing. “Well, I’ll be dipped in ranch dressing and served with a side of fries---we’ve got at least fourteen positive matches for Faceless leading up to your ‘meeting’ with him at 6:25 in the Corporation Yards! Very interesting stuff, here…a noise complaint call from Tony Sanderson’s apartment complex, a visit to the public records section of the library, break-ins at a few United Robotronics-owned buildings---V, I have a feeling Psycho McCrazyMask isn’t as crazy as we’d both like to believe….”

“And you’re just figuring that out now,” Vicki drawled. “He was gathering information, Tell---and I’ll bet you a week’s worth of smoothie coupons at Just Below that everything he looked up or ‘borrowed’ was pertaining to the Sandersons, Project Epsilon and Boris Vlatko.”

“Right on all three counts, as per usual,” Tell acquiesced, “but there’s also the small matter of a firewall breach on a Lawson Robotics server---a breach followed immediately by someone accessing files for Project Apollo.”

The news didn’t stun Vicki as much as she’d expected it to. “Is Kirsten still online right now?” she asked.

“Online, unaware of her true nature and somewhere around Barstow,” Tell replied. “The trackers just caught her signal along the edges of the desert---WAIT, that’s a false positive, she’s in….Cupertino! 95% sure she’s in Cupertino---where are you going?!”

“Have one team head out to Barstow,” Vicki replied as she walked out, “and another to Cupertino.”

“But what about---“

“I’m going to where Kirsten really is,” V.I.C.I. intoned. “Don’t wait up.”

Boris Vlatko’s “command center”---the ambitiously-titled structure appropriated by the Russian roboticist at Faceless’ suggestion---was only staffed by seven fembots at the moment, to prevent the entire operation from being completely derailed. The MaryBeth duplicate, the first fembot to have escaped ALPA custody, was “in charge” of the operations at the building, for all intents and purposes; she was still slaved to the control signal that was, at the moment, emanating from the very facility she was supposed to be running, but was given the authority to make any and all “major decisions” regarding operations---i.e., whether or not to deploy her fellow fembots against intruders.

At the moment, her “fellow fembots” included the Lizette, Simone and Cassandra duplicates, all of whom had been given a substantial firewall upgrade to keep from being felled by the same trick that had taken out the “custom designed” fembots Faceless had left at Bradford’s old lab (in reality, they had been two spares built by Vlatko and given more than enough programming to hold off any human opponents). Manami, an Asian fembot meant to accompany the now-destroyed Akari as an elder sibling, was in charge of communications with Vlatko, who refused to enter the building himself for “security reasons”. Other than firewall upgrades and an emergency killswitch installed to prevent them from being controlled by a rogue signal, none of the four fembots had been given any special enhancements or add-ons to aid them in a potential fight against would-be intruders.

This…was not the case for the other two fembots in the building.

Whereas the posthumously-named Demi and Angelina (Faceless’ black-clad fembots from Bradford’s lab) had been given only enough programming to hold their own against a reasonably-sized assault squad, the units labeled Harmony and Melody---a gesture Vlatko had almost literally fought for, on the grounds that they deserved to have names “befitting their status”---could easily have taken down seven such squads within as many hours.

Harmony---a light-brunette whose tanned skin made a nice contrast against her neon pink mesh “shirt”, tube top and miniskirt with matching pumps (and lipstick)---had been designed and built without a factory-standard limiter chip---a component that, by law, had to be installed within any gynoid or android built after 1983, to prevent programming code/chipsets meant to allow them to inflict incapacitating blows (i.e., bodyguard, soldier or police) from being altered and/or re-prioritized be means of any virus, “prank”, hidden program (the ALPA alone spent well over twenty billion dollars a year to perform scans on manufactured ‘bots to ensure that their hard drives hadn’t received any “surprises” from disgruntled employees or hackers). Melody---a pale, raven-haired beauty in a sheer red slip and matching pumps---still had her limiter chip, but made up for it with a custom-written set of programs that allowed her to use any and all loopholes in the “three laws” to incapacitate a target without killing them---which, generally speaking, was just as painful as getting one’s neck snapped, but worse.

All of Vlatko’s fembots, even Harmony and Melody, had been equipped with a seven-step program (Vlatko had originally made it a five-step, but Faceless insisted on seven) that would shut them down when/if any and all other methods failed; each step was also meant to supplant its predecessor in extreme emergencies. Step one locked their motors, freezing them in place no matter what they were doing; step two rebooted them into standby mode, erasing all precached commands and/or objectives. Step 3 reset their CPUs to read-only mode, which would allow them to only respond to commands from their control signals; step 4 disabled their CPU entirely, effectively turning them into remote-controlled puppets. Step 5 shut down all high-to-mid-level functions, cutting off their senses and crippling their intelligence; step 6---the “heart attack” button---flashed their BIOS chipset and intentionally overloaded their power cores, effectively rendering them comatose.

Step 7, Faceless’ self-professed favorite, detonated a set thermite charges implanted where a human being’s brain stem would be, effectively obliterating the fembots’ CPUs and destroying them beyond any hope of repair.

Despite his fondness for the fembots, Vlatko didn’t want to be murdered by his own creations.

Had he realized his “business partner” was more of a threat, things might have turned out differently.

The building itself was an unofficial Step 8; in the event of Steps 1-7 somehow failing, the entire place would be swallowed up by an artificially-created sinkhole---not that there was much to swallow up. The place was the size of a high school gymnasium, and it was just “out of the way” enough to keep anyone too important (or too dangerous) from stumbling upon it by chance, luck or accident.

Anyone…except a certain brunette gynoid with a score to settle.

Razor-wire fences that would’ve shredded an ordinary college girl to bits were torn through in seconds; a set of speakers blasting sub-sonic frequencies meant to turn inner ears to jelly got taken down by a few well-placed rocks. The “automated intruder repellant” drones---cheap, plasticky humanoid figures that had last been tested in the early 1990s---found themselves missing limbs after stumbling head-on into a crimson/white blur of fists and feet. An M16 on an auto-rotating turret, with a trigger-pull randomizer that would ensure a guaranteed unpredictability rate of 90%, missed with every shot and had its barrel bent backwards.

Vicki Lawson was not playing around.

Her scanners locked onto the MaryBeth fembot standing by the front door with Simone; judging from their ramrod-stiff postures and robotically-turning heads, Vlatko had left them in “guard” mode. Once Vicki was seven feet away from the door, however, they “snapped out of it” and began walking towards her, MaryBeth flashing her signature smile as she strode to greet the gynoid first. “Well, isn’t this just sweet,” she beamed, “you coming all the way out here to---“

Simone didn’t feel any of her creator’s fear as she watched Vicki’s face plow through the center of MaryBeth’s head, ending her sentence---and her existence---in exactly three seconds. “This facility is private property,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “Leave now, or---“

Her myogel-enhanced reflexes allowed Vicki to move from the still-falling figure of the MaryBeth fembot faster than a human being could blink; the Simone fembot had just enough time to utter the word “or” before her entire world faded into static and gibberish---the consequences of getting kicked in the side of the head by Vicki’s devastating roundhouse. The kick neatly caved in the left side of her head, crushing her ocular sensors and shattering circuit boards in seconds; as she fell to the ground, the last image her shattered eyes recorded was a white-soled shoe descending upon her face---

Silence. Blackness.

No action-movie quip she could think of would’ve lightened the mood for Vicki; if her calculations about Vlatko and Faceless’ “master plan”, there was no time to waste on stupid film references. Thus, it was with a grim silence that she entered the building---and immediately countered an attack from the fembot named Manami, hurling the athletic ‘bot halfway across the lobby without even blinking. “You-you-you-you can-can-can-can not-not-not-not---“ Manami’s malfunction-induced stammer was already becoming grating; Vicki zeroed in on her and scanned for any exploitable weaknesses that would allow her to permanently incapacitate the already-doomed fembot without attracting the attention of anyone else in the building. Lo and behold, a patch of skin on the back of her neck was a few milimeters thinner than Vlatko’s regulations required…

…making it the perfect point of contact for a well-applied Detaining Grip to the neck.

The charge rocketed through the fembot’s body, straight up into her cranial module---or, more specifically, up into the thermite charges installed as per Faceless’ requests. The voltage was more than enough to set off Step 7 of Vlatko’s “foolproof” plan; Manami’s form shivered and stuttered as her CPU was melted from the inside out, giving her a few final seconds of stumbling around before her smouldering remains fell, smoking, to the floor. Vicki gave her fallen opponent one last glance before heading into the main building, a sense of calm flooding through her with every step. There was no feeling of “What have I done?!”, no fear, no remorse for having brutally destroyed three fembots in just under five minutes.

There was only the objective…saving Kirsten Sanderson’s life.

Cassandra, Lizette, Melody and Harmony were all going about their business inside when the door caved in under the force of Vicki’s myogel-assisted punch; the four fembots turned as one to see the gynoid staring at them, her composure surprisingly calm in comparison to the spontaneous display of violence. None of the four spoke a single word as Vicki strode into the center of the room, stopping right in front of the gargantuan control console that allowed Vlatko to direct their every move.

For three whole minutes, none of them moved or spoke.

The first phrase that split the silence was a simple question…just three words:

“Where is she?”

Harmony and Melody exchanged curious glances; clearly, this wasn’t the script Vlatko had expected to run in this situation. Lizette and Cassandra were more direct---both fembots slowly made their way towards Vicki, preparing to do whatever it took to---

“I said, where is she?”

The Lizette and Cassandra fembots stopped in their tracks, scowling. “Why should we tell you?” the Cassandra fembot inquired. “You are not our controller, nor are you a member of Boris Vlatko’s staff; there is nothing you can do to us that will---“

Had the Cassandra fembot chosen to stop speaking after “Why should we tell you?”, VIcki might not have done as much damage as she ended up doing---then again, it wouldn’t have mattered either way; the angle at which her left arm rested near her side was effectively the perfect angle for an enterprising attacker to snap her arm right below the elbow in such a way that it couldn’t be reattached, and Vicki wasn’t about to let such a window of opportunity go unexploited. The distance between herself and the Cassandra fembot shrunk from feet to inches in seconds, allowing her to grab the vulnerable limb with one hand and drive her other downwards in a knife-edged chop that took the arm off in a decidedly not-“clean” manner.

As her “sister” staggered backwards, the Lizette fembot moved in for the proverbial kill; her plan, by this point, was to grab Vicki by the shoulder, spin her around and then beat the ever-loving hell out of her with a series of rabbit-punches to the face. Had she known that the odds would’ve been more in her favor if she’d favored her left hand (the real Lizette was a southpaw, while the fembot had been programmed with limited ambidexterity) instead of her right, the gesture would’ve given her five extra seconds to get in a free punch.

Seeing as how she grabbed Vicki with her right hand, however, the resulting elbow smash to the gut/backfist to face combo that followed was all the more devastating---her facemask cracked in half right along the vertical line, and something in her stomach began making a ping sound at twenty-second intervals.

Harmony and Melody stepped forward, their half-smiles already beginning to fade as Vicki strode past the two fembots she’d just crippled. After a few sceonds, the two stood in the center of the facility, a roughly 20-foot square of shelves, tables, desks and mainframe computers surrounding them.

After twenty seconds, Vicki spoke again…and this time, it wasn’t just a three-word question.

“I didn’t come here for some lecture on how Boris Vlatko isn’t ‘the bad guy’,” she intoned, “and I definitly have no intention of listening to either of you go on about how you’re ‘superior’ or some bullroar like that…the only reason I’m in this building, right now, is that for the past four days this week, I have been on the proverbial wild goose chase to find out why Boris Vlatko---a man who should’ve given up after I beat his first project in a spelling bee---and William J. Rengold III---who you two probably know better as Faceless---are obsessed with either ‘recruiting’ or ‘removing’ all living relatives of Anthony Sanderson. I’m not leaving until I get answers, and I will not accept any stupid excuses from either of you…”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “You’ve got seven minutes. Start talking now.”

“A valid suggestion, to be fair…but why would you waste your time asking her when you could ask…oh, I don’t know, me?”

The brunette gynoid didn’t bother turning around. “So Vlatko really is the one running the show…not really all that surprising, considering your track record with this sort of thing.” She turned just enough to see Faceless shaking his head. “Hanging around here, instead of just going with Vlatko and seeing his plans through to the end…you must be a glutton for punishment---“

“I am the least of your worries at the moment,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour sneered. “And yes, I’m more than happy to admit that right now, because in a few short minutes---“ He stopped himself midsentence, chuckling darkly. “Almost gave away the ending of this little escapade too early,” he muttered. “But it doesn’t matter, really, because you’re not going to see the end…you’ll be stuck here, begging me not to rip you in half as I---“


Vicki’s glare was more than a match for that one word. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to the usual schtick about making me suffer, or ripping me in half, or teaching me a lesson, or ANYTHING YOU HAVE TO SAY THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE KIRSTEN SANDERSON.” The air of finality in her words was only a few shades below that of a command, and her cold, unwavering stare left no doubt in the murderer’s mind that his only options involved telling Vicki what she wanted to know and either being allowed to leave or punt-kicked in the head. “You get just as much time as they do ….seven minutes, starting NOW.”

Faceless stared at her, half-enraged, half-awed. “So….the robot girl finally learns to take charge…” He gave a dry, humorless chuckle. “Vlatko and….Kirsten, whatever her name was, are both on their way to the San Jose International Airport---Kirsten, because she’s received a text from someone claiming to know where her father is, and Vlatko---“

Right on the second syllable of “Vlatko”, the masked killer felt a pair of hands gripping him by the collar. “Who sent her the text?”

“Only two choices for that one, really---“


If the threat actually intimidated Faceless by any means, he was doing a great job of hiding it. “I’m surprised you haven’t just blurted that part out already by now,” he taunted. “You’ve effectively dissected my entire plan up until this point, you’ve massacred an entire army of fembots just to get here---and you’re still demanding that I tell you this one stupid insignificant---“ The brunette gynoid lifted him higher; “Of course,” he mused, “I’d rather just ruin the surprise right now than risk getting hurled across the room….Vlatko sent the text, just as I told him to---“

“I don’t believe you.”

“What’s not to believe? Vlatko and I are both on thin ice with the Coalition---he’s on the chopping block for one failure too many, and my contractual obligations with most of their companies are in jeopardy. I made him an offer to help me obtain something, under the pretense that the Baron wouldn’t have him dumped into the nearest river when/if he was able to acquire it, and he accepted that offer.” Behind his mask, the murderer’s scarred face twisted into a smile; “The way I see it,” he chuckled, “Vlatko is my employee now…and if his work impresses the Coalition enough, they might actually choose to spare his life…”

Slowly, Vicki’s grip on Faceless’ collar lessened as she lowered him to the ground.

“Smart choice…of course---“

A rib-shattering gut punch cut off his sentence.

“Given your history of lying to people,” Vicki intoned, “this whole thing is making a lot more sense---and since I already know why you wanted Vlatko to get to Kirsten before the ALPA did, I’m not going to waste any more time here---“

Faceless’ wheezing, hacking, blood-spitting laugh cut her off. “You knew all along, didn’t you? Ever since you and I crossed swords at your stupid little college…” He shook his head, allowing his laugh to trail off into a groan. “Yet you never bothered to tell your stupid little friends in the ALPA why I was there to begin with…how long did it take you to figure out that I wasn’t on campus just to kill you?”

“Longer than you think,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “but after I started doing some cross-reference searches to see if there were any connections between Tony Sanderson, Cinco de Mayo and United Robotronics, it all came to me…and, more importantly, I realized why you were after Kirsten---and all the other gynoids you killed at the start of the semester---to begin with.” She stared down at the masked psychotic, never moving from her spot as she spoke: “You gave the last one an outfit like mine just to throw off the ALPA task force that was after you….they’d waste all their time protecting me while you found the real prize: the Project Epsilon unlock codes stored on Kirsten Sanderson’s CPU.”

Her statement was greeted with a harsh, almost barking laugh; “And all this time,” Faceless gasped, “I thought you were just another useless, vapid ‘pretty face’…” He rose to his feet, his breathing uneven. “And to think, most of your human colleagues would still be trying to figure out why I was ‘coming after you’,” he muttered.

“Sanderson left whole notebooks of research on Epsilon at his apartment,” Vicki stated, ignoring Faceless’ outburst, “and he hid files from it on half the computers in his office building---but the research notes and files were useless without the unlock code---oh, and by the way: next time you book a flight to Russia, book private, or don’t bother going at all.” She withdrew a folded up sheet of paper from her pocket; “The only reason you didn’t get busted for using Vlatko’s credit card is that the ALPA was tracking you the whole time,” she informed him, “and they didn’t want you running off just because---“

“Vlatko gave me that credit card,” Faceless drawled, “because my own card was seized, at the Baron’s orders, and I had no intention of paying in cash for some stupid flight. Besides, who says I was even on the plane to begin with---“

“Fifteen ALPA guards at the airport, security footage and eyewitness accounts, all corroborated and verified.”

A lesser man would’ve been terrified by this point, but Faceless, as per usual, laughed it off. “Funny…I only stayed in the country for two days, and yet it seems my every move was being monitored by your friends, just to make sure I didn’t’ try anything funny….if only they’d---“

“You can stop trying to make me think I’m forgetting something,” Vicki snapped, “because as far as your role in this whole stupid thing is concerned, the jig is up. You set up Bradford’s robot lab so that I could disable the fembots without trying---and so that you could sap every last bit of data from the computers before I even got there. You told Vlatko not to show up at Bradford’s lab or this place because you didn’t want him to crack and start spilling your secrets, AND you left the killswitch component inside Akari to intentionally put focus on yourself, so that nobody would bother going after Vlatko…” Her voice took on a dangerous edge; “You went through all this trouble to set yourself up for the fall, but you kept Vlakto in the clear….why?”

“It’s simple, actually,” Faceless replied. “Whoever gains the unlock key to Epsilon can control it…or, if they so desire, destroy it…and I, for one, am not about to let my place within the Coalition be supplanted by some stupid pet project of the Baron’s---“

“You know Kirsten’s a sleeper,” Vicki hissed, “and that extracting the code from her---“

“---would be the least of her problems,” Faceless finished. “If I don’t show up at the airport in…two hours, then Vlatko will drag her onto a plane headed for Russia, find someone else who can extract the code and then have them dispose of your idiotic friend after all is said and done---“

The brunette gynoid’s grip closed around his wrist. “You’re a worse liar than Jamie,” she intoned. “That little message of yours from two days ago? You called from the airport---and I have a feeling the security guards will be on the lookout for you if you even think of going back---and you can tell the fembots over there to STAY RIGHT WHERE THEY ARE,” she added, glaring at Harmony and Melody. “You were going to send them to the airport, and have them meet Vlatko instead, and they’d bring Kirsten to Russia to have the unlock code extracted from her---“

“You figured all of this out from one phone call?” Faceless mocked.

“No---my ‘useless allies’ found it on what was left of the laptop at Bradford’s robot lab. They had to delete most of the other files on there, since there were about twenty or so different Stylo variations, but they got a few screengrabs of your itenerary before they formatted the hard drive.”

Another chuckle, this one not quite as pained as the first few had been, escaped Faceless’ lips. “And thus, we come to the part where you have to choose, “ he drawled. “Save your copper-top friend, or drag me back to the ALPA---“ His words ended with a grunt as the brunette gynoid shoved him to the floor; “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WHERE THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE---GET AWAY FROM THE FEMBOTS! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THEM---“

“Sorry,” Vicki murmured, “but you’re not running the show anymore.” She retrieved her iPhone from her pocket with one hand, lifting Harmony’s hair away from her left ear with the other; “The fembots will meet Vlatko at the airport,” she informed Faceless, plugging a cord hooked up to the iPhone into a port behind Harmony’s ear, “but they won’t be following his script…and just so you know, keeping the control signal generator in an abandoned laboratory is a really, really stupid idea…” Harmony twitched slightly, then became motionless as Vicki unplugged the cord and moved over to Melody, who made no move to stop her. “If they were still running on the original signal,” the brunette gynoid added, “they’d have attacked me as soon as I grabbed you by the collar…or did you even notice?” She plugged the cord in behind Melody’s ear, driving it home with a click.

“You….you can’t---“

“Your seven-part plan to keep them from turning on you failed when the control signal was switched,” Vicki mused. “Like I said---leaving your itenerary on a laptop in an abandoned lab is one of the dumbest---“

Despite the fact that Faceless was charging towards her, blade extended to stab her right in the center of the forehead, Vicki didn’t even bother turning around as she sidestepped him. Indeed, her only other movement was to stick her leg out just enough to trip him, a move that ended with the murderer barely able to stop himself from colliding head-first with a nearby workbench. “My advice? Don’t try that again.” The brunette gynoid gave a polite grin as she disconnected the cable from behind Melody’s ear.

“After all this time,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour muttered, “you still don’t get it, do you?! Even if you do send them to the airport, and even if Vlatko does think they’re following my orders, Kirsten Sanderson WILL be destroyed! NOTHING you can do will change that---“

“Who said I had to do anything?” Vicki casually replied, holding her iPhone up. “Tori, Kim---I’m nearly done with Faceless here; how’s the retrieval operation going?”

“It’s going pretty good, actually,” Tori Hartwell’s voice replied. ”That Russian guy is still following us, just like you said he would…do you really want us to drive all the way out to---“ The phone on Tori’s end of the call changed hands; “We’re on our way, Vicki,” Kim DeFalco stated. “You are going to be there by the time we show up, right? I mean, this whole plan is your idea to begin with, and---“

“I’ll be there,” Vicki assured her. “Be seeing you.” With that, she ended the call, not surprised in the least that the emergency exit of the facility was just closing.

Next time, Faceless, you won’t get a chance to run…right now, though, I have other things to tend to.

Kim couldn’t help but grin as she noticed the red-and-white clad figure leaning on a guardrail, miming the act of checking her watch; “Out of all the places she could’ve picked for this to go down,” she mused, “it had to be a parking garage…” She slowed her car to a stop a few feet away, clicking open her seatbelt just as the vehicle lurched one last time before the engine shut off. “Everything okay back there, Kirsten?” she asked.

“….I guess so.”

“Your dad wasn’t going to meet you at the airport,” Vicki informed her. “It was all part of some convoluted plan to lure you there and then throw you on a plane to Russia, or something…” She helped Kirsten out of the car, turning her attention to Tori as the backseat passenger door closed. “Did you give Vlatko a hard time on the way over here?” she whispered.

The dirty-blonde gynoid smirked; “We cut through a few parking lots, doubled back twice and maybe ran a red light,” she replied quietly. “He won’t think we made it easy for him---”

“He stopped at a gas station on the way, though,” Kim added. “Didn’t get out of the car, but we were only able to circle around the block once---“

“Fair enough. Ah, Kirsten? You might not want to wander off…” Vicki gently guided her friend over to Kim’s car. “In a few minutes, this whole stupid thing will be over with,” she assured her. “The guys who were after you will be here soon, and we will make them regret ever having come up with this stupid plan to begin with…but before this gets too crazy, I want you to promise me something---Kirsten, look at me…” The brunette gynoid redirected Kirsten’s nervous stare from the floor to her face. “I want you to promise me something, Kirsten,” she repeated.


“No matter what happens in the next few minutes, promise me that you won’t freak out.”

Kirsten nodded silently.

“Good….and, oh joy, he’s….not alone…….” Vicki’s sarcastic remark trailed off into a groan as she noticed that Vlatko had brought someone with him. “Kim, Tori,” she warned, “stay back---I don’t want Vlatko trying to hurt either of you.” Slowly, she made her way over to Vlatko’s car, frowning as she noticed the illegal tint on the windows; knowing Vlatko, they’re just as resistant to scans as they are to random glances… She sighed, choosing to focus on the matter at hand rather than complain about the windows. “We don’t have to make this any harder than it’s already been, Vlatko…just step out of the car, and we’ll talk it over---“

“You and I have nothing to talk about, Vicki Lawson,” the Russian roboticist replied from inside the vehicle, going for a menacing sound, but coming off as more than a little panicked. “Give me the girl, and we will leave this place at once---“

“How about you both get out of the car?” the brunette gynoid countered. “It’s over, Boris---you can either give up now and get a few years knocked off your inevitable prison sentence, or keep dragging this out and face a courtroom full of Tony Sanderson’s relatives? The ALPA is tracking them down as we speak, and they will testify against you if this gets brought to court---and I think it’s safe to assume that neither of us wants this little meeting to end before a grand jury---“

From inside of the car, something hit one of the windows with a thud.

“I’m trying to make this as easy as possible,” Vicki insisted. “You were led to the Winchester Parking Garage at Santana Row so that nobody else had to get caught up in this…your fembots aren’t even operating on your control signal anymore…” She leaned in close to the driver’s side window. “Boris, just give up---“


The brunette gynoid barely had just enough time to glance sideways in the wake of Kim’s shriek, allowing her to duck underneath the blade that would’ve easily carved a gash into the side of her head if she hadn’t dodged it---but her momentum wasn’t enough to carry her away from the car in time to avoid the shattered glass from the backseat window, which dug into her legs as she backed away. The locked door dented outwards just as Vicki moved, and a second blow knocked it off its hinges entirely---revealing the black-clad, black-masked figure that had haunted the darkest corners of her REM processor since she’d returned from Detroit.

“Hiya, Vicki,” the Human Animal taunted, the buck knife in his left hand glinting in the dim light. “Miss me?”

Kim and Tori scrambled to hide behind their car (and bring Kirsten with them) as Vicki and the Animal locked eyes; “I thought you’d gone your own way after I wrecked Faceless’ plans back in Detroit,” she growled, never allowing her gaze to stray from the man who’d nearly violated her. “Why the hell---“

“Funny thing, that,” the Animal mused. “See, he actually wanted me to hit the road for a while, do my own thing---make people think I didn’t want to work for him anymore. And it paid dividends.” His voice no longer sounded electronically distorted from behind his gas mask---which now had a narrow, more angular (and more lupine) appearance to it---but it was still filtered just enough to throw off Vicki’s internal recording software, thus making a positive match to John Lee Lassiter more difficult for the ALPA to ascertain. “He had me follow the Russian all over San Jose, making sure everything was set up just the way he wanted it…hiding the fembots in Harding’s dorm room to jump him when he showed up, preparing that laptop at Bradford’s lab, even bribing the security guards at the United Robotronics building to not do a damn thing when the fire alarm got pulled---“

“So now he’s leaving you in charge of bringing in Kirsten Sanderson,” Vicki finished, backing towards a parked Volvo. “Typical…I beat him one time too many, and---“

A fist shattered the Volvo’s glass, grabbing her by the arm. “That’s the beauty of ‘convoluted’ plans,” Faceless hissed. “After the first few steps stop making sense, you never even bother to try and read the rest of it…”

For the second time in just under three months, Vicki felt completely helpless.

“If you hadn’t been playing with your phone back at Vlatko’s command center,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour continued, “you might have noticed me escaping sooner---and you also might’ve spotted my car in front of the building, had the security systems been deactivated beforehand, as I suggested….in any case, we’re all here, so let’s follow your advice and…make this as easy as possible.” He released Vicki’s wrist; “Tell your friends to let Kirsten step forward,” he ordered. “Now.”

Vicki glanced back at Kim’s car; “Let her go,” she called out. It took less than a minute for Kirsten to emerge from behind the vehicle, trembling as Faceless emerged from the Volvo. “Now, then…tell her to get over here, face Vlatko’s useless car, and kneel,” he instructed.

“Do what he says,” Vicki murmured.

“Vicki,” Kirsten stammered, “I…I don’t want to---“


Vicki didn’t flinch. “Kirsten, just do it,” she intoned. “Please…”

Kirsten sobbed uncontrollably as she approached the vehicle, turning away from the Butcher of Lake Gilmour and kneeling. “D-d-d-don’t let him hurt me,” she whimpered, looking up at Vicki---only to get smacked across the back of the head. “YOU DO NOT LOOK UP UNTIL I TELL YOU TO!” Faceless shouted, swinging his left arm out and bringing the locked blade to bear against Kirsten’s throat. “Stare at the floor,” he hissed, “and keep your mouth shut…”

He glared at Vicki, a sadistic chuckle punctuating his words: “As for you…just stand there and look pretty.”

The Human Animal loped over to the Volvo, handing Faceless a PDA-sized device; “Want me to off Vlatko and get rid of that stupid ‘bot of his?” he inquired.

“I’ll deal with them after this is all over with,” Faceless replied, unspooling a cable from the device and yanking Kirsten’s head to the side, prompting her to scream. “SHUT UP!” The backhand to her friend’s head was more than Vicki could take; both of her hands flared to life with Detaining Grip, and she had no compunctions about grabbing the sides of Faceless’ head and shocking him into unconsciousness---except the Human Animal was angling his buck knife towards Kirsten’s throat. “Go ahead,” he taunted. “I dare you.”

A growl fought its way loose from Vicki’s lips as she powered down Detaining Grip.

“…where the hell is the port….damn it, why didn’t Sanderson---THERE!” Faceless pulled out a patch of skin on Kirsten’s neck, and the gynoid couldn’t help but whimper. Since her captor was too busy jamming the cable into her newly-exposed port to notice, she didn’t get hit again…

…not that it would’ve mattered, considering what was about to happen to her.

“Vicki….what…what’s he doing to me?! I…I can see…what is all of this?! All these numbers, and----what the hell is going on?!” Kirsten was now in the grips of a full-blown panic; “What the hell is happening to me?! I…I can’t---“ Her expression blanked out for a second or two. “Copying files from hard drive to portable---what the hell was that?! I---progress: 5% and---STOP IT! VICKI, MAKE HIM---7%---STOP IT! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME?! WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING TO ME?!”

Vicki fought back tears as she watched; I’m sorry, Kirsten….I’m so, so sorry…

“Personality driver off---MAKE HIM STOP! PLEASE---conflict with direc---I DON’T WANT TO DIE! DON’T DO THIS TO---warning: proceeding with file copying could result in catastrophic damage to memory---VICKI, PLEASE---corruption, personality allocation---STOP IT!”

“Are we almost done here?” the Animal drawled. “I’ve got stuff to do…”

“Just a few more minutes,” Faceless crooned, undoubtedly smiling behind his mask.

“This unit is---Vicki, help me---ivers corrupted, please call a United Robotr---make him stop it, plea---for a detailed guide to rebooting your andr---I…I can’t feel---Kirsten Sanderson personality file corrupted. Warning: continu---Vicki…help---this unit is suffering a critical system error, please---I…I can’t….”

“Just seven more seconds,” Faceless declared, “and---“

“LET HER GO!” Vicki screamed, both her hands closing around the murderer’s throat. “You’ve done enough damage to her as it is, and if you finish copying that file, her entire personality driver set will be too damaged to function---just end the process now, so I can bring her to Tells and get her repaired before you completely wreck her---“

“Not going to happen,” Faceless jeered. “I’ve come too far---“


Vicki turned, shocked at Kim’s outburst---only to find herself even more shocked to see her friend aiming a Desert Eagle directly at Faceless. “Borrowed it from my stepdad,” she intoned, “and I know how to use it---so get the hell away from Kirsten, or---“

The Human Animal’s arm shot out, hurling the buck knife straight into Kim’s chest.

“What the f….” Her stunned question ended in silence as she slumped to the floor.

The Animal laughed; “Now that is how---“

A red/white streak knocked him to the floor, ripping the gas mask from his face and flinging across the parking garage; Tori, kneeling beside Kim’s fallen form, forced herself to look away as Vicki’s fists hammered into John Lee Lassiter’s exposed face, pummelling his handsome features into hamburger meat. Vicki herself was barely aware of a wordless scream coming from her mouth, but at this point, it didn’t matter---

One of Faceless’ wristblades dug into her back. “Time to pay you back for the Silicon Dynamics job,” the killer hissed. “I’m going to do to you what Lassiter could never---“

Vicki’s arm rocketed backwards, slamming into his knee with the force of an 18-wheeler.

“NYAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!” The Butcher of Lake Gilmour fell forward, landing right on his ruined knee as Vicki tore the blade from her back and held it above the Human Animal’s groin. With a growl of “Never again”, she drove the weapon right into Lassiter’s crotch, hammering it in---and not flinching as Lassiter howled in agony. “That’s one of your weapons gone,” she intoned, standing over her fallen foe. “Now---“

Faceless lunged at her from the concrete, tackling her into a support pillar. “You are going to DIE for this, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson!” he snarled, angling his blade towards Vicki’s back panel. “I have wanted to do this for so long---“

His sentence ended with a gunshot, followed soon after by his body hitting the pavement with a thud.

“I…thought he was going to kill you,” Tori murmured, helping Vicki to her feet. “Kim, she…she’s not moving, and I think….” Tears flowed from her eyes. “Vicki…” Without another word, she buried her face in the brunette gynoid’s shoulder and wept.

“Tori,” Vicki whispered, “run.”

The dirty-blonde gynoid pulled back; “But---“


V.I.C.I.’s command prompted Tori to run back to the car, carefully loading Kim into the backseat; all the while, the brunette gynoid strode over to Kirsten, who was now balled up in the fetal position, twitching and stuttering on the pavement. “Kirsten,” she murmured, her monotone voice softer than usual, “I’m sorry I never told you this before now, but…you’re an android, like me. All this time, ever since we first met, I’ve known, but…I couldn’t tell you---“

“I…I rem-remember,” Kirsten sobbed. “So….much…..why…why do I-do I-do I----“ An angry buzz cut her off; “Why do I remember?!” she gasped.

“There was a real Kirsten Sanderson,” V.I.C.I. explained, “but…Faceless killed her years ago. Her father had access to United Robotronics technology, and he copied her memories and personality into an artificial form….you.”

“But…these…these memories I have-I have-I haaaave----“ Her head turned to the right with every repeated word; only her own grip on it kept her from going into another error loop. “All of these memories…how do I know they….aren’t fake…..”

“It doesn’t matter,” V.I.C.I. assured her. “What matters is---“

“YES IT MATTERS!” Kirsten shrieked. “Everything I am…everything I was….all just ones and zeroes, all put on a chip….I’m…I’m a thing! Everything I thought I was…everything I wanted to be…all just a big stupid lie, and---“


Kirsten felt Vicki lifting her to her feet; “You are not just a thing, Kirsten Sanderson,” the brunette gynoid stated, “you’re my best friend…and all these thoughts, these memories? They’re not what define you. Yes, some of them are from the human Kirsten, but…she’s gone, and nothing can change that---Kirsten, look at me!” She drew her fellow gynoid’s gaze upwards again; “The human Kirsten may be gone,” she gently informed the gynoid, “but….you’re just as real to me as she was to those who knew her.”

“You…you knew, all this time,” Kirsten muttered, “and---“

“If I’d have told you, Faceless or someone else would’ve come after you,” Vicki finished. “At first, I thought he attacked you on campus to finish the job he started when he killed the human Kirsten, but…” She held up the device the Human Animal had given to Faceless. “…he just wanted some stupid code that was inside you.” Her finger hovered over a button on the device. “Correction---was inside you.”

As Kirsten watched, stunned, Vicki hit the key marked “Delete”.

“Now, he has no reason to keep attacking you,” she assured Kirsten, “but…”

“But what?!” Kirsten pleaded.

“This is the part I never wanted to have to go through,” Vicki admitted. “Right now, I have to present you with a choice that I hoped and prayed I’d never have to give….” She took Kirsten’s hands in her own. “After we leave here, you can either inform the ALPA that your status as a sleeper gynoid has ended, and that you know the true nature of your own existence….or you can have this entire week of your memory erased, including what’s happened here, and what’s happening right now---“

“So you can stick more fake memories in my head?!” Kirsten sobbed. “I….I can’t---“

“Listen to me, Kirsten,” Vicki commanded. “This isn’t the way I wanted this to go---you have to trust me---“

“I TRUSTED YOU SINCE THE FIRST DAY WE MET,” Kirsten screamed, “AND YOU LIED TO ME THIS WHOLE DAMN TIME!” She shoved Vicki away and stomped towards the Human Animal, tearing the blade from his now-bleeding crotch (and getting a yelp from the Animal in response) and holding it over her wrist; “If I were human,” she muttered between sobs, “you’d be begging me not to do this---“

“It doesn’t matter that you’re not human, Kirsten!” Vicki insisted. “You’re my friend, and---“

“FRIENDS DON’T LIE TO EACH OTHER ABOUT THINGS LIKE THIS!” Kirsten screamed. “I…I’m not real…I was never real---“

Faceless’ other wristblade tore through her chest, right where her heart would’ve been; Vicki stared, horrified, as brightly-colored fluids stained the fabric of Kirsten’s shirt.

“….and now,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour growled, “you’re dead….again.”

Kirsten fell to the floor as Vicki screamed, tears streaming down her face as she ran to her fallen friend; “Don’t die, Kirsten,” she pleaded, “please…” She could barely sense the looming shadow of Faceless over her, but she didn’t care---all that mattered was---

“Get up.”

Vicki hugged Kirsten to her, sobbing---


The brunette gynoid stood, turned---and screamed again; Tori’s shot hadn’t hit him in the center of the head, but it had knocked his mask off, revealing his mutilated visage---and a new scar, a puckered line across his left cheek, which looked as if it had been made with a heated blade; a charred, blackened “B” rested at its center.

“Why….why did you do this?!” Vicki pleaded. “Kirsten---“

“Is completely worthless to me now,” Faceless snarled, his gloved hand wrapping around Vicki’s throat, “which means that the next time I show my face to the Baron, he’ll likely take my head….” His grip tightened. “Only one thing can make up for this now,” he intoned, “and that’s ripping you apart, limb from limb, and dumping the pieces on his desk…just like I should’ve done years ago…” He reared back with his right arm, wristblade poised to stab the gynoid straight through the forehead; “Die,” he muttered---

---just as another gunshot split the air.

Faceless collapsed to the ground, blood seeping out of a bullethole seven centimeters away from his spine; as he fell; Vicki saw Boris Vlatko, staring at her with a look of remorse mixed with an eerie calm.

“You?” she whispered.

“Me,” Boris muttered. “He threatened to destroy my dushechka…my Elena….” He gestured at the interior of the car, allowing Vicki to get a glimpse of Elena Vlatko’s motionless form in the passenger seat. “Ever since the concert, she has been…like this,” Boris explained. “I….I only helped Faceless because he promised to save my life…to help rebuild her…”

“But…you hated me,” Vicki protested. “After the spelling bee---“

“Time heals all wounds, Vicki Lawson,” Boris replied quietly. “These, however….” He glanced at the fallen figures on the ground around him. “I do not know if anything can heal them. For now, I will say this: You have nothing more to fear from me.” With that, he returned to his car, ignoring the muttered profanities of the Human Animal as he stepped over him.

Seconds later, Boris sped off, leaving Vicki alone with the wounded.

Her hand trembled as she retrieved her iPhone from her pocket, her fingers barely able to dial the number for the ALPA’s emergency hotline. “This is Field Agent Vicki Lawson,” she stated, her voice just barely above a sob. “There’s been an incident at the Winchester Garage at Santana Row…I have…two gynoids---one aware, one….former sleeper---both incapacitated, and they need immediate repairs…I also have two human males, wounded; they’re both wanted by the ALPA for various crimes, and are to be considered dangerous until contained….”

Her voice broke. “…I…I need help here…”

Anton Malvineous’ voice replied from the other end of the line. “Stay calm, Vicki---Reaver is on the way with a cleanup crew. Just sit tight and make sure neither of the wounded males tries anything stupid…we’ll be there as soon as we can---“

“He…he got Kirsten,” Vicki sobbed. “Stabbed her…right in the heart….” The brunette gynoid sank to the floor, her back to the Volvo as a wordless howl escaped her lips. “I…I couldn’t save her…..Anton…I….” The phone fell from her hand, clattering to the concrete.

Kirsten’s eyes stared sightlessly up at the ceiling. The Human Animal winced and tried to turn himself over.

Faceless, predictably, had somehow escaped.

And Vicki Lawson, pride of the ALPA, felt completely and utterly alone.

“Kim’s going to be fine; it was just a simple matter of removing the knife without hitting any major components, repairing what did get hit, and sealing up the wound. As for the ‘Human Animal’….well, he’s getting a trip to the nearest emergency room, followed by a one-way ride to the state penitentiary. Faceless…well, this isn’t exactly the first time he’s pulled a Houdini---I guess we could call it a ‘Michael Myers’, in his case---so it’s just a matter of waiting for him to pop up again---“


Obreon glanced up from the report, frowning; “Hmm?”

“Don’t try to cheer me up,” Vicki muttered. “Faceless got away, Kirsten nearly got killed, and this entire thing turned out to be a complete disaster…” She dug in her pockets until she found her Field Agent badge; “I’ll have the uniform mailed back to HQ by tomorrow.”

“For what?”

Vicki glanced up at Oberon; “I screwed up big time on this one,” she intoned. “I made a bunch of assumptions that just so happened to be correct, and then I find out Faceless was waiting for me at the damn garage, and…” She stared at the floor. “Just fire me and get it over with already,” she muttered. “Delete this whole week from my bubble memory processor, too, while you’re at it…I don’t even want to think about it anymore.

With a theatrical sigh, Oberon sat down on the bench next to her. “As the chairman of the ALPA,” he stated, “it’s my duty to inform you that your requests to be discharged from the ALPA and to have this entire week’s worth of memories deleted are both…denied.” He gave her a reassuring smile; “This isn’t the worst thing that’s happened in the history of the organization, Vicki,” he admitted. “It’s not even on the Top 50 list of the worst things in the ALPA’s history…Top 100, maybe, but not Top 50---“

“I get it,” Vicki snapped.

“I know,” Oberon replied, sighing again. “The fact is, this entire week has, by my own admission, been a bit of a cock-up…on all fronts, mind you---not just yours. ALPA recon teams should’ve been tracking Lassiter’s movements after the Detroit incident; Vlatko should’ve reached out to the ALPA for help instead of accepting Faceless’ offer; I should’ve been more concerned with everything happening here in San Jose, instead of cleaning up after the latest insanity the House has managed to dump on everyone’s laps…it takes a collective failure for something like this to happen, not just one.” He rested his hand on his chin, staring at the ceiling. “If it’s any consolation,” he added, “you did a hell of a lot better than---“

“I don’t want to hear about Jake Brightstar,” Vicki muttered. “Or Alicia, or anyone else….none of them ever had to put up with what I’ve dealt with, and I hope to hell none of them ever have to.”

“I wasn’t going to mention any of them,” Oberon informed her. “I was going to say that you did a hell of a lot better than any of the higher-ups here at the ALPA---myself included, of course---could’ve ever expected of you…and yes, that’s a compliment.” He smiled.

His words were met with another frown from Vicki; “Kevin Harding and the Major are still in the hospital,” she droned, “Kim’s going to be out until next week, and I have no idea if Kirsten is even going to survive this…and you’re still complimenting me?”

“I could always switch to Russian reversal jokes, if you want,” Oberon offered. “Learned about 1500 of ‘em from Yakov Smirnoff---and yes, I have actually met him….” He chuckled. “If you’re wondering whether or not I’m angry with you at how this whole thing turned out, I can assure you that I’m not. That being said, I’m not a fan of the fact that you stabbed Lassiter in the crotch with one of Faceless’ blades…” The ghost of a smile played at his features. “…granted, you could’ve done a lot worse---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied, sighing. “Oberon?”


“Why is everyone else in this lobby standing around like a bunch of mannequins?”

The ALPA chairman grinned. “Technically speaking, they are,” he informed her. “Some of our finest agents are hired out as ‘living mannequins’ to various shops around the world; it’s great for intelligence-gathering, since nobody ever suspects a shop window dummy of looking over their shoulder as they walk past. That one in the corner, for instance---“ He pointed to a woman in her early 30s, her red hair tied back into a ponytail so as not to hang in front of her glasses. “Spent most of last week as a ‘display model’ in Encom’s lobby---she helped catch fifteen employees who were cracking into the company’s finances.”

Vicki glanced at the gynoid, noticing that she looked rather smartly attired in her white dress shirt, black vest and pants (with matching tie). “Did they ever catch on?” she asked.

“Most of them were too busy trying to give themselves an early Christmas bonus,” Oberon mused. “Of course, there was that one idiot who tried to stick his cameraphone down her shirt…got quite a shock when she went to grab his arm…” He chuckled. “In any case, they’re rather effective at what they do---and speaking of which, I think one of them has a message for us…” Another redheaded gynoid---this one in a black dress with lace gloves and a large sun-hat, blinked a few times before noticing Oberon and Vicki. “Any news from Casualty?” Oberon inquired.

“Mr. Tell is still working on Miss Sanderson,” the gynoid informed him. “Other than the chest wound, there’s no physical damage…but---“

“Her personality drivers are as scrambled as Rocky Balboa’s egg smoothie,” Oberon finished, frowning. “I thought as much….Faceless’ stupid code extraction tool dug through her systems like an armadillo on crack, tunnelling through every firewall in its path until it burst through at the other end…” He sighed. “Has Tell been able to recover anything from her memory files?”

“He has an audio log, sir,” the gynoid in the hat replied. “I can send it to your phone---“

“Do it.”

The gynoid blinked several times; “Log file sent,” she stated.

“Well, then,” Oberon beamed, “let’s see what it says…” He retrieved his phone and pressed “play”.

“Right now,” Vicki’s voice spoke from the phone speaker, ”I have to present you with a choice that I hoped and prayed I’d never have to give….after we leave here, you can either inform the ALPA that your status as a sleeper gynoid has ended, and that you know the true nature of your own existence….or you can have this entire week of your memory erased, including what’s happened here, and what’s happening right now---“

Oberon hit the “stop” button.

“I can explain,” Vicki began. “I…I didn’t want her to---“

“Was this log file created before or after Kirsten had the code extraction tool hooked up to her?” Oberon asked the gynoid in the sun hat, ignoring Vicki’s question. “After,” the gynoid replied. “Judging from the damage to her systems, Miss Sanderson was stricken by multiple system errors---“

“That’ll be all,” Oberon replied, turning his stare upon Vicki.

“I…I didn’t want her to panic,” the brunette gynoid stammered. “I was just trying to give her a chance to…I….” Her sentence trailed into silence, a lone tear snaking down her face. “I was just trying to help her make the right choice,” she whimpered.

“And you believed that you had the authority to present her with that choice?”

“She was malfunctioning!” Vicki insisted. “I…I didn’t want her to….” She turned away from Oberon.

“Vicki…” A hand touched her shoulder. “I know.”

The brunette gynoid forced herself to turn around; “And?”

“And what?” Oberon asked, smiling

“You’re….not mad?”

“Vicki,” Oberon replied, “the only way I could possibly be mad at you for this would be…actually, there is no way I can be mad about this,” he realized. “Sleepers across the globe have been offered that exact choice---or one similar to it---countless times; I myself have presented that choice to more than a few sleepers in my time, and I’ve never felt guilty, angry, remoreseful or anything along those lines for having to say it.” He placed his arm around Vicki’s shoulder; “As it stands, Agent Lawson,” he declared, “you did a damn good thing. Your friend Kim, on the other hand….well, we’ve already sent her stepfather his monetary compensation for the Desert Eagle that ‘mysteriously’ went missing from the scene, so that won’t be a problem---“

“You took the Desert Eagle?” Vicki gasped.

“Had to. Kim and Tori’s fingerprints were on it, and if the wrong people find out that either of them had been holding a weapon of that caliber…” He shook his head. “Let’s just say you should be glad that the gun isn’t going to be turning up any time soon, Vicki.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Good idea…and it appears that one of our other lobby models has some news to share.” Oberon grinned as the ponytailed redhead moved out of her pose, blinking a few times before crossing the room. “I take it the repairs on Miss Sanderson are going well?” he inquired.

“They are,” the gynoid replied, “and Mr. Tell may be able to reactivate her a bit earlier than expected.”

Vicki’s eyes widened. “How much earlier?” she asked.

“Tonight, possibly.”

“Are you serious?! I mean, will she be fully functioning, and able to remember---“ Vicki stopped. “….she’ll be able to remember what happened at the parking garage,” she realized, “including….when she said she hated me….”

“And you can use the opportunity to explain to her exactly why you didn’t tell her before,” Oberon reminded her. “Hopefully, it might be enough to rebuild the trust between you that might’ve been lost due to this incident, and if it does…well, that’s a pretty amazing thing. If not….don’t let it get to you.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Vicki replied quietly, just as the door across the room opened.

“Right,” Tell stated, “it’s like this: Her sensory package is online, so she can hear, see, smell, taste and feel, but she’s still got a ways to go before she’s back up and running at anything higher than 35%. If you’ve got anything you want to say to her, say it now, while her hard drive is active---tomorrow, it’s going to Japan for a full read/write check, scan and data recovery procedure; I was only able to get about 25% of what was on there to begin with….that enough for now?”

“More than enough,” Vicki replied, following Oberon through the door.

Appropriately enough, Kirsten looked as if she was on life support---an arrangement of leads trailed out of her head, connected to various monitoring hardware and other equipment. Her chest cavity was open, revealing the damaged component that Faceless had stabbed through in the garage; her eyes were half-closed, giving her the impression of someone on a massive dose of anesthetics.

“Kirsten,” Vicki whispered, “I…I don’t know if you’re going to remember this in a few days’ time, but I just came by to tell you….I’m sorry.”

She barely noticed Oberon standing by the door, or Mr. Tell checking the various monitors around the room; as Tell brushed past her, she gently took Kirsten’s hand in her own. “I know I should’ve told you what you really were sooner,” she admitted, “but….the choice I gave you---to live with the knowledge of what you really are, or to have that memory erased and keep living the way you’ve been living for the past few years---is still viable, and….” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I really, really hope that when the time comes, you make the right choice…”

Oberon’s hand touched her shoulder. “Vicki….”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Sweet dreams,” she whispered, following the ALPA Chairman out.

By the time they returned to the lobby, Vicki was already crying again. “You want me to bring her to Ted’s?” Tell asked. “I mean, she could use a break after everything that’s happened…”

“Call him first,” Oberon advised. “Make sure he knows you’re bringing her…” Tell nodded, retrieving his phone from the ponytailed gynoid (who’d once again frozen in the midst of a pose); as he left the lobby to make the call, Oberon took Vicki by the shoulders and guided her to a chair. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he assured her. “Kirsten will choose her own path when the chance arises, and---“

“I…I know,” Vicki sobbed. “It’s just….what if she chooses not to remember?”

“It won’t be a ‘reset button’ type of scenario, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Oberon assured her. “This entire week will be erased from her memory---and she’ll still think she’s an ordinary human college student…she’ll remember that her father is missing, and that she misses him, and everything from the her human namesake’s childhood to last Friday will be preserved---but this entire week will be sort of like a missing reel. Whether or not she gets fake memories to replace what she’ll forget---“

“What if she doesn’t choose to forget all that?” Vicki insisted. “I…I just want her to be like she used to be….”

“To be quite honest, Vicki,” Oberon replied, “it’s up to her---not you….it’s her choice to make.” He glanced at the door separating the lobby from the workroom where Kirsten was being repaired; “Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss,” he murmured. “Then again…”

The door on the other side of the room opened; “Just got off the phone,” Tell stated quietly. “Ted’s waiting for you, Vicki.”

“Indeed…I think we could all use a good night’s rest after this.” Oberon nodded to Vicki; “Take care, Agent Lawson,” he intoned, “and sleep well…hopefully, the next time we meet, this whole sordid affair will be done, and we can go back to what we do best.”

“Thanks….” Vicki hesitated for a few seconds, then headed for the door.

Outside the building, a car door slammed, an engine revved to life, and the TellMobile sped off into the night, leaving Oberon alone in the lobby of Tell’s workshop with only the “mannequins” for company. He strode over to the door leading to the main work area, staring at Kirsten’s unmoving form.

“Choose wisely, Kirsten….for all our sakes….”

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary

Looking back on the week I just went through…I can honestly say that Cinco de Mayo is now my least favorite day of all time.

Actualy, I take that back---May 6 is my least favorite day of all time.

Kirsten’s in Tell’s repair shop, halfway dead…I nearly turned the Human Animal’s face into Hamburger Helper, Faceless got away again…

I just don’t want to talk about it right now.

All I want is for Kirsten to make the right choice.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Okay, boys and girls, this is where it gets interactive. The next story within The V.I.C.I. Diaries takes place a full two months after “Kirsten’s Choice”, so it’s time for you people to decide the fate of Kirsten Sanderson: Does she accept her true nature as a gynoid and keep the memories of this hellacious week, or does she have them all erased, and go back to living in blissful ignorance? Choose the answers from the poll that’ll be up in a few seconds; the winning option will become a plot point in the next story!

Speaking of which…

Vicki Lawson has endured five days of chaos trying to keep Kirsten Sanderson safe…but her troubles are far from over!

Two months have passed since Kirsten’s life-changing choice, and Vicki---having chosen to keep her Field Agent license---is deployed on a diplomatic ALPA mission to Japan to investigate a series of murders committed with almost-inhuman precision…murders rumored to have been carried out by a gynoid!

BUT…an even bigger problem is looming….

(No, it’s not Godzilla---that would just be silly!)

With the disappearance of the unlock code that would’ve allowed Faceless to destroy his pet project, the Baron has chosen to deploy his most powerful---and dangerous---creation: Project Epsilon. No android or gynoid is safe with this cybernetic abomination on the loose, and fighting it might very well prove to be Vicki’s undoing! Can she hold her own against this beast without succumbing to its deadly power?

Stay tuned for the most epic battle of V.I.C.I.’s life, in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Epsilon”, coming to Fembot Central just in time for Christmas!

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