Lawson's Eleven

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David Allen Tell’s Workshop – San Jose, California – July 10, 2011, 05:00 A.M

She looked almost peaceful, laying there in the center of the room.

The light caught her eyes at such an angle to make her look like a literal sleeping beauty. She never moved; not even the simple act of breathing stirred her form…

…but not even that illusion of peace, however beautiful it might’ve been, could hide the truth.

For one, the same light that caught her eyes also showed off the gasping, stunned expression that had been frozen on her face since a few hours before. Further, more noticeable proof could be seen right above her eyes---the vicious stab would in her forehead, a jarring reminder of the fate that had befallen her. Another such wound, this one right through her heart (or rather, where her heart would’ve been), had already been covered…nothing more could be done to repair it for now.

Only the Eleven could fix the damage.

These thoughts and more swam through David Allen Tell’s mind as he stared at the unmoving figure of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, wondering how things had gone so spectacularly wrong in the months and days---and hours, if you wanted to get that far down into it---leading up to the brunette gynoid’s confrontation with William J. Rengold III….known, feared and now officially hated as Faceless. Ever since his disappearing act in May, he’d stayed off the radar---at least, in Silicon Valley; he was too busy doing what he did best in other parts of the country, including a return trip to his hometown of Lake Gilmour that ended with a 21-person flash mob being cut down with a chainsaw in broad daylight.

And then…he came back.

The ALPA Monitoring Station in Cupertino. The Fourth of July barbecue in San Jose. Two attacks at Rengold Cybernetics’ corporate offices in Palo Alto. A Coalition security specialist chopped up somewhere in Mountain View and left---in pieces---on the doorstep of an ALPA-funded repair center. Every memory seemed to emerge from the darkness of Tell’s shop in bloody detail…and it took every ounce of resolve the field mechanic had to keep from curling up in the fetal position.

Other than a few hacking incidents and the occasional tangle with the Coalition, the ALPA had never dealt with a crime spree as big as this on their home turf---much less one that had been masterminded (and committed) by a single perpetrator. Even worse was the body count; the aforementioned hacking incidents and tangles with the Coalition never resulted in casualties, much less numbers in the low hundreds. The cherry on top of the cake of maximum suckitude, of course, was Vicki’s incapacitation…

…which, if the Eleven couldn’t do their jobs, would have to be ammended as “Vicki’s death”.

With a sad, quiet sigh, Tell typed something on the iBook he’d hooked up to the brunette gynoid, giving himself direct control over her facial expression management drivers. A few more quick keystrokes closed Vicki’s eyes and drew her lips from a shocked “O” into a look that her OS listed as “At Rest B6”.

Tell wanted to say something---anything---to break the silence, but he couldn’t. Sure, he’d stopped punching holes in the walls and swearing, but that had just been venting. The Eleven would be arriving soon; it’d be in everyone’s best interests for Tell to just put on a brave face and try not to get too emotional…because the time for getting emotional had come and gone already. Now, it was time to regroup, to convene and to prepare for the next phase of the fight.

Now…it was time to bring Vicki Lawson back from the dead.


At the first sound of a car braking in the parking lot of the building, Tell finally allowed himself to smile at Vicki’s unmoving figure. He wanted to say something like “The cavalry’s here”, just to offset the tension, but words failed him yet again; all he could do was give the brunette gynoid a reassuring smile (even if she couldn’t see it, the gesture allowed him to not feel like complete crap).

Of coruse, there was also the matter of him not wanting to burst into tears…

The first of the new arrivals had already entered the lobby of Tell’s shop; the wavy brown hair (with just a smidge of grey at the temples), handlebar mustache and mirrored aviator shades---coupled with a grey silk coat (probably from a long-forgotten three-piece suit) over a tie-dye t-shirt and jeans that were just beginning to fade---announced the presence of Robo Depot’s Inspektor 12 better than any words could. Oddly enough, the newest member of the Eleven, Ashley Tobias Wakefield, had arrived at the same time as the Inspektor; he’d opted for a labcoat over a white dress shirt, grey pants and black dress shoes.

Outside, Jason Heinmann---still clad in his usual coveralls, which he’d worn even after being promoted to chief of engineering at Thales Robotic Systems---was discussing Vicki’s predicament with HrefTech Systems’ PR leader (and neural network programming wunderkind), Callista Swanson. Robert Conroy, the only member of the Eleven to work for a Coalition company (Falchion Robotics), stopped to let William Brightstar have his preferred parking spot (he’d visited Tell’s shop at least fifteen times in 2010, and was actually considering asking Tell to spray-paint “Reserved for Will Brightstar” on the space), and both of them convened with Yuusuke Kojima, the head of Project Coordination and Research at Daikoku-Zaibatsu. Raul Angston, of Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies, looked like he’d just stepped out of a nightclub in Venice; by contrast, Greg Perkins---one of Silicon Dynamics’ most-respected R&D men---looked as if he’d just been to a family barbecue…though it didn’t stop him from shaking hands with Raul and the others, acknowledging the grim reality of their reason for being at Tell’s in the first place.

Greg McDonnell, Aphrodite Technologies’ leading engineer, arrived with the unofficial twelfth member of the group, Anton Malvineous; both men looked calm, but it was easy to see that Anton had been just as enraged as Tell had been a few hours prior. The pair headed into the lobby of the repair shop along with the others, not bothering to engage in the usual pithy talk that accompanied their visits to Tell’s; they all knew that the final member of the Eleven---its namesake, at that---was about to arrive.

Seven minutes later, he did.

Ted Lawson had been crying for most of the night (some thought he hadn’t stopped crying ever since Vicki had been stabbed), but now, even with the visible bags under his eyes and the unkempt look of a man who’d kept himself awake for 24 straight hours, there was no sign of sadness on his face.

There was only an iron-clad resolve.

Nobody spoke a word as Ted emerged from the Lawson family Prius (the same one he’d driven when bringing Vicki to get her official ALPA Field Agent license)…and nobody needed to speak. They’d agreed to call the group “Lawson’s Eleven” for a reason, after all---when each of them had met Ted and forged a friendship with him, they’d agreed that his word would be the first and last each and every time they convened. Even Ash, the “newbie” of the team, knew this; he’d inherited his spot on the Eleven from the CEO of Tri-Solutions (who parted ways with the group due to health concerns), and an e-mail from the former team member explained it all in one simple sentence: “What Ted says, goes”.

As Ted made his way into Tell’s shop, the silence that had greeted his arrival continued to build; all present nodded in his direction as he passed. Finally, he reached Tell, and the two stared at each other for a good three minutes before the ALPA’s star field mechanic stepped aside to let Ted into the shop.

The Eleven followed him inside, waiting for him to speak.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Just as the last of the Eleven had taken their seats, Ted spoke: “We’re going to need a bigger shop.” The sentence barely even had time to resonate with those assembled before he continued; “The bubble memory processor network will need to be developed in a secure environment, and I’ve been noticing a lot of stray WiFi signal origin points around here---I don’t want anything to interfere with the new processors or the network setup and installation---“

“Ted,” Greg gently cut in, “we’ve already got enough of what we need here, and---“

“’Here’ is too open,” Ted snapped. “It’s too exposed, too vulnerable! If Fac---if he finds out we’ve brought Vicki back here for the repairs she needs…we have to get her to a more secure location!” He glanced around the room at the others; “All of you have at least one or two secure facilities we can use for this, right?” he inquired.

Robert Conroy was the first to speak up: “We can use the old Plastech factory out in Cupertino. It’s secure---“

“And the Coalition has it on 24-hour security detail,” Callista countered. “HrefTech has research labs all over the Valley; if we can get Vicki to the closest one---“

“If we get Vicki to the closest one,” Mark Perkins interjected, “Faceless will be able to follow her there, wreck shop and kill as many people as he needs to just to make his point.” He steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair; “I say we send out decoy vans,” he suggested. “One fleet to each of our least-secured---as in, abandoned---factories, and one for our most-secured factories. He hits the least secured ones, he gets bupkiss. He hits the most secured ones…and he’ll get hit with a whole lot more than just a few dozen charges of criminal trespass.” He folded his arms, nodding his approval of the idea. “Hell, we could say that Vicki’s at Silicon Dynamics---he’d be foaming at the mouth to finish her off there, but the only ‘bots he’d find are a bunch of pissed-off pleasure droids waiting to tear him limb-from-limb---“

“And then we’d have a whole new can of worms on our hands,” Conroy finished. “The ALPA’s current take on the Three Laws state that a sentient robot can, of its free will, incapacitate---with or without the use of lethal force---any individual whose presence, actions and/or existence creates a clear and present danger to every human being within the robot’s vicinity---and Faceless most definitely applies. That being said, Vicki had an excuse to kill him because his actions affected her directly---if any of your ‘bots attack him---“

An abrupt cough from Tell interrupted the debate before it could get ugly. “Nobody’s going to sic their ‘bots on Faceless until we get Vicki repaired,” he reminded the group. “Greg, call the plant and tell them to have every available Prix unit on security detail---non-lethal weapons only….you do have non-lethal gear, right?”

“Stun guns, tranquilizers and beanbag cannons,” Greg replied. “And Nerf® bats.”

“Leave the Nerf® gear,” Tell advised, “but tell them to arm up with tranqs and Tazers. And if anyone at the plant has guns, give them ‘shoot to wound’ priority. It’ll probably just piss the bastard off if he shows up, but it’s better than nothing.” He sighed; “As for Ted’s concerns about our security….”

The sound of a chair moving back broke the five-second silence. “We can bring her to the newest Mantronix plant,” Ash finally said, after enduring inquisitive glances from the others. “It’s ALPA property, there’s minimal human staff working the building right now, and it’s right next to the new Gysys factory on the outskirts of Palo Alto. If we have to evacuate, the Gysys crew might let us use their building.” He glanced around the room; “I know that some of you have no reason to trust me, or to believe anything I’ve said,” he began, “but---“

“You’ve done more than enough to prove otherwise,” Anton Malvineous cut in, smiling. “Ted, your thoughts?”

It took less than a minute for Vicki’s creator---her father---to make up his mind. “We’ll do it.”

“Well, that’s been taken care of,” Tell beamed. “And for the record, I’m not pissed about the fact that I have to move all my stuff somewhere else…a change of scenery would be nice right about now. ANYWAY, back on topic: we’ve got a location….now let’s discuss what exactly will be going on at said location.”

With Ted in the lead, the Eleven headed out of the lobby (Tell didn’t want them meeting in the workshop area before they’d settled on a location due to the high potential for tool-throwing that would’ve accompanied any resulting arguments) and into the room where Vicki lay motionless on the slab. “Right, it’s like this,” the field mechanic stated. “She’s been stabbed in the left and right sides---about where her kidneys would be…” He pointed to the gashes on the brunette gynoid’s uniform. “She’s also sustained cuts to her left arm, repeated blows to the head, an attack on one of her underarm recharge ports, bashed and slashed in the kneecaps, temporarily blinded in one eye via a thumb…” He sighed again. “The critical damage, of course, is to her tertiary power sourse and her bubble memory processing network; if the battery starts leaking, we could easily see corrosive damage to other components, and a catastrophic systems failure all around.”

“And what of her processor network?” Raul Angston inquired.

“It’s a good news, bad news situation,” Tell replied. “The good news---the backup mainframe for her memories and personality is already up and running, so she won’t forget who or what she is. The bad news…how do I put this lightly---“

“She’s brain-dead,” Anton muttered.

Tell glared at him, but nodded in agreement. “Technically speaking, everything’s still there, on her internal chipsets…but if we try to boot her up into her normal autonomous mode now, she’d malfunction as soon as her drivers found anything on the damaged processors. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s sort of a larger scale version of a File Allocation Table corruption---her bubble memory processor network has been damaged in such a way that she might be able to load…maybe half of her vital operating system files, or maybe none at all. Like I said, though, the backup mainframe is already running, so….”

“All you need us to do is create a new processor network, remove the old one and install the new one to get her back on her feet,” Inspektor 12 mused.

“Exactly. That, and repair all physical damage she sustained during the fight.”

The Inspektor stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “It sounds…a bit simple, to be honest,” he admitted. “Almost too simple for the Eleven to reconvene…unless there’s something you’re not telling us about the extent of her damages.”

Tell’s sigh was somewhat more reserved this time, with audible undertones of sadness. “Installing the new processors and repairing the physical damage is the simple part,” he replied quietly. “The hard part is getting her new processor network stabilized---otherwise, she’ll be reliving the incident in her nightmares for years to come, or she’ll have traumatic flashbacks in the middle of the day. And actually, I take back what I said about the physical repairs being easy---that tertiary battery’s outer covering will only hold up for another seven hours, and if it’s not taken out of her and replaced in that time, it’ll start leaking corrosive, carcinogenic fluids that could irreparably wreck every single one of her systems and take a few years off of all our lives.”

“Before anyone starts yelling,” Ted quickly added, “the tertiary battery was never designed to withstand the sort of stabbing trauma that Faceless inflicted on it---until now, it’s been just as secure as Vicki’s RTG, and just as reliable, too.”

“Good to know,” William Brightstar replied. “But…wasn’t she stabbed through the back?”

“Yes,” Tell admitted, “and her ventral control panel did suffer damage…but that’s actually the other big reason we called you all out here---we’re not just repairing Vicki, we’re upgrading her. Every part of her that’s been a weakness until now is getting replaced---with components from your companies. The reason the ALPA has chosen to reconvene Lawson’s Eleven is simple---we don’t trust anyone else with this job, and all of you have proven, time and again, that you value quality as much as Ted Lawson himself does.”

Ted nodded proudly. “After today, all of you will literally be part of the Lawson Robotics family.”

Inspektor 12 clapped Ted on the shoulder; “Teddy, m’boy,” he declared, “you’ve come a long way from your days as a faithful roadie…I would be honored to be a part of the Lawson Robotics family---and the Lawson family as well---after all, a girl as talented as Vicki needs a…’cool uncle’ to brag about every once in a while, am I right?”

“Seeing as how Vicki kicked Faceless’ ass out of Silicon Dynamics,” Mark Perkins added, “she’s already an honorary member of our family, too…I’m in.”

“As am I,” Kishin declared. “Daikoku Robotics does not forget debts owed to friends.” Callista Swanson nodded. “Seeing as how a Lawson Robotics-manufactured artificial heart is what’s keeping me alive right now, it’d be stupid of me to not help Vicki right now.”

“You can count me in, too,” Robert Conroy added, “and not just for inter-agency well-being, either: we need more people like Vicki Lawson, regardless of whether they’re human or machine…actually, now that I think about it, maybe this is a time for inter-agency well-being. I mean, Bill had the same idea back in Detroit…” He glanced at William Brightstar. “Think we can bury the hatchet and come together for a common good, Brightstar?” William stood up and shook hands with Conroy. “No time like the present, old friend,” he replied.

“Aphrodite Technologies will support you every step of the way, Ted,” Greg McDonnell declared. “As will the good people of Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies,” Raul Angston added. “The international robotics market will not stand idly by while a lunatic like Faceless runs amok…” “Same here,” Heinmann beamed, “seeing as how my fearless apprentice has been Vicki’s favorite mechanic for a good long while…”

Anton grinned. “Well, I’d say that’s a clear-cut case of majority rules,” he stated. “So….when do we leave?”

“Now, preferably.” Tell checked his watch. “Ladies and gentlemen, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a long day ahead of us.”


Rengold Cybernetics factory ruins – San Jose, California – July 10, 2011, 09:00 A.M

“…and we’ve combed the entire thing about fifteen times by now, so I think it’s pretty freaking obvious that Faceless didn’t get killed by having the building fall on him! I---hello? HELLO?!” Eric Rueben Reaves---also known by his callsign, “Reaver”---resisted the urge to throw his iPhone across the parking lot; he’d already lost a Nokia that way, and he wasn’t about to break his new iPhone. “Damn pencil-pushers,” he growled, “giving orders like they’ve got stars on their shoulders---who the HELL do they think they are?!”

A few feet away, Agents Jennifer Larssen---aka “Hummingbird”---shook her head disdainfully. As the ALPA’s highest-ranking gynoid Field Agent, she’d seen and endured more than enough horrific events to keep any psychologist from sleeping for months on end…but none of them could top this.

For one, none of the older cases ended with the Agent who solved them dying at the hands of a sociopath.

There was something about the way Faceless had said “I win” after stabbing Vicki that just didn’t sit right with Jen; it wasn’t an air of contempt, or that he said it with a sneer in his voice…it was almost like he viewed the entire thing as nothing but a grand game, and that he actually looked upon his killing of Vicki as a pure triumph, rather than a criminal act that had earned him the enemity of the ALPA and the Coalition, both of whom were now sending their best people after him (and, by proxy, anyone who’d associated with him in the past; Victor Vega was rumored to be holed up in his casa, refusing to return any calls about having allegedly harbored the Butcher of Lake Gilmour a few months prior to the incident).

“This takes ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to a whole new level of crazy,” the gynoid muttered, tracing her finger around in the ash outside of the still-smouldering factory. “At least we know that not everyone in the Coalition is a complete monster…”

“Care to bet on that?”

On any other day, the voice of the man known only as the Accountant would’ve prompted Jen to fire about fifty or so rounds in every direction; now, however, she was too tired (or, at the very least, running on a low charge) to care. “I know about your wetwork ops,” she murmured, “so you can stop trying to scare me.”

“Contrary to whatever binary codes that pass for thought might be runnng through those pretty little processors of yours,” the Accountant drawled, “I’m not just here to give you and your fellow Agents a hard time for the sake of my own amusement---we are, after all, working towards a common goal this time around.” He gave Jen a thin smile before turning to survey the wrecked factory. “This structure is probably the greatest symbol of this situation,” he stated, “because it’s a perfect representation of what Faceless has done to the Coalition by going on this little ‘spree’ of his…”

Had the situation been even the slightest bit less serious, Jen might’ve actually rolled her eyes at the remark.

“Think I’m blowing the whole thing out of proportion?” the Accountant asked.

“You worked with Faceless before,” Jen began, only to be silenced with a gesture. “I never worked with that psychopath,” the Accountant corrected, “I worked alongside him---and not voluntarily, might I add. Ever since he and I had our little spat back in ’93---which, for brevity’s sake, I won’t go into here---I have absolutely and completely hated the notion of having anything to do with William J. Rengold III.”

Any reply Jen could’ve made was cut off by Reaver storming over. “The good news is we can finally leave,” he declared, the anger in his voice making it all too clear that this “good” news wasn’t really all that “good”---which, considering the events of the previous night, needed no explanation. “The bad news is that Faceless has already been sighted two towns over, and unless Victor Vega takes down every single roadblock he put up around his property over the past few hours, we’ll be on the road for the rest of the day trying to get out of here.” He glared at the Accountant; “You need to get Vega on the horn and tell him to pull down all those roadblocks of his ASAP,” he growled, “otherwise---“

“You’re not going to sue him for obstruction of justice,” the Accountant calmly replied, “because he hasn’t done anything wrong---at least, not this time. Señor Vega isn’t exactly…comfortable with being linked to Faceless’ past transgressions---“

“Cut the crap,” Reaver hissed. “We already know Vega’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm---“

“---and that has nothing to do with this,” the Accountant insisted, “so he’s perfectly in his rights to---“

The ringing of Reaver’s phone interrupted the conversation before anyone could start swearing (or throwing punches). “Damnit to HELL….Reaver here, what’s---you’re kidding. PLEASE tell me you’re kidding…” Jen and the Accountant watched---one with concern, the other with mild disinterest---as Reaver paced back and forth; “He’s already---SLOW DOWN AND SAY IT AGAIN! He’s killed how many since---I SAID SLOW DOWN! Three---he’s killed three more since last night? You’re sure? Right, right…I’ve got Jen and one of the Coalition reps here---that’s none of your damn business! Look, we’ll be over there as soon as we can, and---I SAID IT’S NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS! GOODBYE!” The call ended with yet another growl from Reaver; “They just found three more bodies at a Tentrex office building in Los Altos,” he mutered. “The son of a bitch must’ve jacked a car after he left here---OH, FOR THE LOVE OF…”

“I don’t get it,” Jen murmured, ignoring Eric’s swearing as he answered yet another call. “I thought this whole thing was Faceless trying to kill Vicki…why would he keep killing after he’s already beaten her?” Even as she spoke the words, a horrible thought occurred to her---

“Vicki was just the first act,” the Accountant intoned, confirming the gynoid’s thoughts---and fears.

Just the “first act”?! The very thought of Faceless treating this whole thing like a grand performance shook Jen to her core---and, even more horrifying, made perfect sense; if the rumors that Faceless treated his “job” like an art form were true, then Vicki’s death was just the opening number….

“Stupid useless pencil-necked SONS OF BITCHES!” The sound of Reaver swearing---and a trash can hitting the ground---jarred the Field Agent gynoid out of her morbid reverie. “They just found a Talon Eagle with four dead bodies inside it a few blocks away from the Palo Alto building where the other three were killed,” he informed a visibly-shaken Jen. “All of them were carved up pretty badly…and that Eagle was registered to someone from the Ando Corporation---Lojack reported it stolen ninety minutes after Faceless left here.”

Jen was more than a bit confused. “Since when did Talon Eagles have Lojack---“

“Since Harrington got permission to install them in all employee-owned vehicles,” the Accountant cut in, his voice cold. “The Ando Corporation employees all had out-of-state licences?”

“International,” Eric replied. “Why---“

“They were here on vacation,” the Accountant muttered. “Harrington was supposed to have this whole 4th of July event on the same day as the ALPA’s barbecue, but when word got out that Faceless had attacked a monitoring station, he shut it down. I guarantee you that if he’d given the go-ahead for the party, the morgues would be full of dead Coalition employees right now…” He shook his head. “Every time I think I’ve got all the answers, that masked freak changes the questions. Attacking Coalition-company employees at their place of employment is one thing, but going after vacationing employees, visiting from another country?” He shook his head; “Even I have the common decency to let a guy enjoy a good vacation before I pay him a visit…”

Eric and Jen exchanged glances. “Faceless has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t care about ‘common decency’,” the gynoid frowned.

“This isn’t about decency,” the Accountant replied, “it’s about the fact that we could’ve---and should’ve---done everything in our power to wipe that psychopath off the face of the planet years ago, and he’s doing everything in his power to mock us for not having the guts to put him down.” He turned on his heel and headed for his car; “If you want a snowball’s chance in Hell at catching him,” the Coalition-employed fixer advised, “get your best people together and have them stake out every inch of the Valley.”

“Why the hell should we trust you?” Reaver shouted.

At this, the Accountant chuckled. “You shouldn’t…but you’d hate the alternative even more than you hate me.”

Reaver scowled at the retreating figure of the Accountant. “The only reason I’m not kicking that guy’s head off his shoulders is because we’re technically working together right now,” he muttered. “Any other day of the week, and he’d already be out cold---“

“Enough, Ben.” Jen sighed as she watched the Coalition fixer’s Rolls Royce drive off. “We’ve got enough to worry about as it is…and trust me, picking a fight with the Accountant would be more trouble than we can afford to fix. I say we just focus on finding Faceless and dragging him back to the nearest prison, and then we might be able to bring our problems with the Coalition to a close…actually, forget about that---after Faceless gets sent to prison, we go right back to what we were doing before his killing spree began.”

Eric’s annoyance faded into a smirk. “I never thought I’d see you looking forward to doing paperwork.”

“I never said I’d look forward to it,” Jen admitted, “I just…I don’t want this whole thing to derail what we’ve been doing…” She sighed again, staring up at the sky with a look that held equal measures of frustration and (as odd as it seemed) hope; “We signed up for this to help people, after all,” she murmured.

Despite his earlier annoyance (and downright anger), Eric decided to just go with the moment. “When you’re right, you’re right,” he agreed, putting his arm around Jen’s shoulder. “Hopefully, this Faceless situation won’t keep us from doing our main jobs for too long…I’d hate to think that we were too busy to protect the rights and freedoms of sentient androids and gynoids all around the world just because some whack-job with a mask got out of---“

His sentence was cut off abruptly as Jen drew him in for a kiss…except that was cut off abruptly by the sound of a car horn. “Duty calls,” he muttered.

“Rain check?” Jen suggested, grinning slyly as she held onto Eric.

“Definitely,” Reaver replied, turning to address the individual who seemed to have forgotten the fine art of not leaning on the horn. “Either get out of the driver’s seat,” he called, “or drive back to HQ on three tires---“

“Easy, easy!” Dominic Sandow replied. “Just wanted to make sure you knew I was here…”

“We sure as hell know now,” Eric grumbled; Jen, not wanting to ruin the moment any further, gently pulled away from Eric and strode over to Dom’s car. “Any new updates on everyone’s least-favorite killer?” she asked.

Dom chuckled mirthlessly as he pulled a folder out from under the driver’s seat. “I just got this from the Data Recovery, Investigation and Virtual Encryption team,” he informed his fellow Field agent, pausing for a second after he handed the folder to Jen; “Is it weird that our data-recovery team has the acronym ‘D.R.I.V.E.’?” Before the gynoid could reply, he waved the question off. “Anyways, this is all dating back to the 90s, before he even knew of Vicki Lawson’s existence…looks like his, ah, extra-curricular activities weren’t his only bad habits back then.”

Jen’s eyes widened in shock (more out of habit than from her own programming; she often wondered how much of Eric’s spontaneous behaviors had rubbed off on her over the years) as she beheld the contents of the folder. “He was stealing from every company his family owned?”

“He wasn’t just stealing from them,” Dom replied. “Turns out he was using company resources to delete any and all traces of his ‘hobbies’ for as long as he could. Any time Faceless was caught on camera back in the 90s, Rengold Electronics would show up to ‘inspect the system’, free of charge---and the security capes would conveniently disappear. Of course, that only worked fourteen times; after people started catching on, he just decided to hack the power grid and mess with their alarm systems…which only worked twice, since hacking the power grid isn’t exactly the hardest thing in the world to trace. After that…it gets ugly.”

The photos that Jen found herself staring at eliminated any need for Dom to explain himself.

“That’s what he was doing in the months before the Board of Directors at Rengold Cybernetics threw him out?” Eric asked, looking somewhat repulsed. “I mean…what the hell was he smoking?!” Jen didn’t say anything, mainly because she was afraid that any sound out of her mouth would’ve been a scream.

“Contrary to popular belief, Faceless never partook of recreational controlled substances,” Dom informed the pair. “I don’t think I need to explain why Lake Gilmour High School hasn’t had a ‘Fall Promenade’ dance ever since these photos were taken...anyways, when the Board of Directors found out about this, they pretty much decided to cut William J. Rengold III loose entirely---except that his own father wanted to give him one last chance.”

Jen cringed as she handed the folder back to Dom. “How long did that one last?”

“A month. After that, the Board told William’s dad to stay out of their business, and…well, you know the rest.”

The two Field Agents nodded grimly. “I still don’t get what this has to do with our current Faceless problem,” Reaver complained. “I mean, all this happened back in the 90s---and Faceless isn’t even going after corporate big shots---“

“Look again,” Dom suggested. “While you’re at it, feel free to peruse this list…”

Eric glanced into the folder again, checking the list as he went---and stopped. “Oh, hell…”

Dom nodded grimly. “If anyone else realizes the connection between Faceless’ victims from his two ‘visits’ to the Rengold Cybernetics building, then they might try something incredibly stupid---and we can’t let ourselves get sidetracked by that sort of stuff while Vicki’s still on the mend.”

“If you don’t want anyone following through on this,” Eric suggested, “then burn the damn folder and just tell the higher-ups you lost it. That, or put it in a safety-deposit box until this whole thing is over with…either way, don’t let this intel get to anyone that could run with it and completely wreck this op.” He shook his head and handed the folder back to Dom; “Why is it that every freaking time I think things can’t get any worse, they do?” he muttered.

Jen rested her hand on Eric’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. “At least we’ve got a good lead on Faceless,” she reminded him.

“Yeah,” Eric reluctantly agreed.

“And Vicki’s being repaired by some of the best and brightest in the ALPA…”

“That’s true…”

“And I still have those tickets to Cabo for next weekend---“

“I get it!” Eric cut in, sounding more relieved than angry. “Wait, you didn’t use up the Cabo passes yet---“

The sound of Dom clearing his throat ended any further inquiries regarding the eventual trip to Cabo. “Unless we help bring Faceless to justice before the week is over,” he reminded the two Field Agents, “you may have to cancel any vacation plans for the time being---“

Something within the burning ruins of the Rengold Cybernetics factor fell to the ground with a crash, startling all three Agents. “Anyone else think we should take this discussion to a safer place?” Jen offered. “And can we please get the fire department out here to clean up what’s left---“ She reflexively flinched as another hollow, droning clang drowned out the end of her sentence. “It’s just burned-out machinery,” Reaver assured her. “The droids on display in the showroom have been taken to a holding facility, and a cleanup crew is already on the way over, so there’s nothing to---“

One of the “burned out machines” deep within the factory erupted in a cloud of fire and billowing smoke.

“I….think we should follow Jen’s advice,” Dom suggested, already backpedalling towards his car. “We can regroup later on---probably at the scene of the latest atrocity committed by the Butcher of Lake Gilmour.” He shook his head at the thought; “I still don’t understand how one man could be so evil,” he muttered sadly.

“What’s not to understand?” Eric countered. “He got bored with having more money than God, so---“

Jen’s withering stare cut off her partner’s wildly-inaccurate theory. “We need to get going,” she reminded Eric, guiding him towards her car. “The longer we stay here and try to guess why Faceless turned out the way he did, the further away he’s going to get…”

The only response her words garnered was a silent nod.

As Eric, Jen and Dom left the smouldering ruins of the factory, all three of them knew their lives were about to be irrevocably changed. Vicki’s defeat at Faceless’ hands had impacted everyone who saw and heard about it---and for those who were now hunting for the Butcher of Lake Gilmour, the pain would run deep. Until they found the masked psychopath and brought him to justice, nobody was safe---and everyone was a potential target.

Only one thing could end the nightmare now…

Mantronix Inc. Factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 11:15 A.M

There was something about the way V.I.C.I. rested on the repair slab that somehow brought out every bit of her inner beauty. Maybe it was the perfect stillness of her limbs, maybe it was the now-peaceful expression that she still wore…

…for many of those present, however, it was something deeper than that.

For them, her inner beauty came from the fact that she’d been laid bare at the most fundamental and technical level---with every inch of her internal framework, power sources and myogel musculature now exposed and open. Even the top and side layers of her cranial module (better known as her head) had been stripped away, with only her face remaining. The juxtaposition of her mechanical nature with that one last vestige of humanity left intact gave her a profound, almost sublime beauty.

Of course, her wounds somewhat diminshed the effect….

“It’s amazing that she was able to keep going after she got stabbed in the sides like this,” Mark mused. “If she wasn’t running on a myogel set, that kind of attack would’ve wrecked every servo in her side…and even with the myogel, it’s a miracle she didn’t bleed out and slow down!”

Inspektor 12 nodded his agreement as he gazed into the open cranial port where V.I.C.I.’s processors were still connected. “The real miracle is the fact that she didn’t collapse after getting smacked in the head so many times,” he muttered. “Getting smashed across the head with a fire extinguisher would’ve killed a human being, and I’ve seen ‘bots start malfunctioning after a good five or six hits---how many times did she get clocked upside the head by that psychopath?”

“Fourteen,” Greg replied, his voice grim as he glanced at Ted. “I don’t know how else to break it to you, mate,” he admitted, “so I’ll just out and say it---there’s a good chance we’ll have to take Vicki’s entire head apart just to remove the damaged processors.”

To Greg’s surprise, Ted didn’t bat an eyelid. “What’s wrong with taking apart her head?”

“Taking apart her head isn’t the issue, Teddy…it’s that her internal hard drives got it just as bad as her bubble memory processors did. The first two drives are still intact, but the third and fourth are completely wrecked. If we just try to copy her memories from the backup network onto either of the busted drives, she’ll---“

Greg’s remarks were interrupted---to his shock---by Ted laughing. “I think he’s finally cracked,” Mark muttered.

“The third and fourth drives were wrecked?” Ted echoed. “That’s…that’s actually brilliant.” As his colleagues stared, horrified at his apparent loss of sanity (among other things), Ted calmly walked over to his deactivated daughter on the slab and stroked her forehead; “Those two drives were part of an experiment I was running back in 2009,” he explained. “Neither of them held system-critical software or anything else important---they were there to test Vicki’s ability to run programs unconsciously….ah, 12, could you pass me a pair of gloves?” The Inspektor nodded and handed over a pair of latex gloves, which Ted slipped on over his hands before gingerly reaching into the brunette gynoid’s head---and yanking out one of the drives.

“Be careful!” Callista cried out. “We don’t know---“

“How bad the damage is?” Ted calmly replied. “As it turns out…Drive 3 is completely shot, just like Greg said a few minutes ago….but…” He pulled a flash drive from his pocket. “32 gigs of data that Vicki didn’t even know she was processing, all from Drive 3,” he proudly declared. “I’ve got another one for Drive 4.”

The others stared at him with relief (and just a bit of annoyance). “You could’ve told us sooner,” Greg frowned.

“If I had,” Ted replied, “it would’ve ruined my next trick…”

“Save the ‘tricks’ for later,” Tell suggested. “Kishin and I have been going over Vicki’s memories from last night in the backup mainframe, and it looks like she was still functioning for a minute or two after she got stabbed through the head…and unless I’m sorely mistaken, she was picking up some sort of signal before her functions shut off completely!”

Ted’s smile vanished. “What kind of signal?”

Kishin glanced at a monitor linked to the backup mainframe. “It’s difficult to say at this point…it could just be a stray radio signal, or it could be---“ He stopped. “Tell, open the memory index at…this point.” He tapped the monitor at a point on the onscreen timeline; “Ah, why do you want to see her memory of looking at the blade in her chest,” he began, only for the realization to hit him like a frisbee upside the head. “If you’re right about this, Kishin,” he muttered, “then we are all in deep dookey…”

“What?” Ted asked, “What means we’re all in deep…stuff?”

“I think Faceless’ sneak attack may have been even more sneaky than we first thought,” Tell replied without looking away from the monitor. “And…freeze it---SON OF A BITCH!” He smacked the desk, staring in shock at the image on the screen. “That bastardy little---TED, GET OVER HERE AND HAVE A LOOK AT THIS!”

Ted jogged over to the monitor---and immediately felt faint. “What….how….”

“That explains why Faceless gave up the blades after the incident in May,” Kishin mused, staring at the circuit relay lines etched into the wristblade portruding from V.I.C.I.’s chest---as seen from her point of view. “I’d bet anything that the one he stabbed into her head was set up the same way---“

“It was,” Anton called out from across the room, “and the bastard was sending data into her mind while the blade was in her forehead!” Tell nearly knocked over his chair as he ran to keep Ted from collapsing to his knees; “The next words out of your mouth better not include ‘Stylo’ and ‘virus’,” he warned, “otherwise our founding member is going to have an aneurysm---“ Anton shook his head. “He didn’t infect her with the Stylo virus,” he assured the mechanic, “but he did leave something just as bad---and Ted, I have a sneaking suspicion that Drives 3 and 4 aren’t as ‘clean’ as you think they are!”

Not even Tell’s grip on his shoulders could keep Ted from falling to one knee, scrabbling at the chair for support. “He…he infected Drives 3 and 4?!” he gasped. “But…those drives were sending data to a private mainframe for months---“

“He didn’t leave anything behind that would infect either drive,” Anton corrected. “He left a Viper.”

Greg, Tell, Kishin, Mark, the Inspektor and Ted all stared, horrified. “He didn’t,” Greg gasped. Before the Stylo virus became the bane of both the ALPA and Coalition’s collective existence, both organizations had learned to fear the word “viper” more than a jobber at a WWE show. Within the world of robotics, “viper”---from the old joke story that ended with “I am the Viper, I have come to vipe your vindows”---took on a terrifying new meaning; the “mythological” program was said to be able to “vipe” the entire operating system of a ‘bot, and unless a precise set of steps was performed, they’d effectively be erased like a VHS tape…and their internal hard drives would be partitioned in such a way that not even a full system restore could save them.

“Son of a bitch,” Tell growled. “Son of a BITCH!” He slammed his fist into the desk again.

“Before you decide to abuse the furniture any further,” Anton calmly informed him, “there is some good news to be had---the viper program was counteracted by another program Faceless uploaded to Vicki. Since we’re replacing the hard drives anyway---oh, and before I forget…Ted, you do have Vicki’s OS backed up, right?”

Ted nodded silently.

“Excellent,” Anton beamed. “As I was saying---“

“Since we’re replacing the drives already,” Greg finished, “all we have to do is format the old drives---“

“No.” The smile had vanished from Anton’s face. “If we format the drives or run any sort of diagnostics on them, the program keeping the viper from activating will be deleted first---and then the viper will trigger, override the formatting process and nuke Vicki’s processors.” His expresion returned to its calmer state; “What I was going to suggest,” he continued, “will involve a little trick I honed during the 90s---you all remember how some Sega Genesis games had these little quirky easter eggs that would trigger if you yanked the cartridges out while the power was still on, right?”

Kishin, Tell, Mark and Callista nodded sagely. “Wait, what?!” Ted stammered. “What’s this about a Sega Genesis---“

“Trust me,” Tell assured him, “if Anton thinks it’ll work, it’ll probably work.”

The famed roboticist nodded. “Seeing as how it’s going to be…complicated, I’ll spare you the details until the time comes. In any case, we’ll do what needs to be done to make sure that Vicki’s new bubble memory processor network won’t be infected by the viper. In the meantime---“

A door on the other side of the room flung open to reveal Angston, Heinmann, Robert and Will with a cartload of tools, safety equipment and unmarked Kevlar-shielded crates. “We’re back!” Heinmann declared, grinning as he wheeled the cart over to the slab. “The folks at Gysys were kind enough to loan us the necessary tools to extract the busted tertiary power cell without causing any more damage, and the rest---“

“Just set it over there,” Ted instructed, already anticipating what Heinmann was going to say. “That’s all of it?”

“It’ll be enough to start setting up the new bubble memory processor network,” Angston replied. “I can call for more to be delivered later, if you want.”

Ted popped the locks on the crates and surveyed the contents, nodding his approval. “These will do for now,” he muttered, “especially those…” His gaze fell upon a gleaming steel box nestled in one of the crates; “How soon can we get started on setting up the new network?” he asked, his gaze never wavering.

“We can probably start now,” the Inspektor began, only to notice a beeping at the terminal where he sat.

“What the hell,” Tell swore. “Ted---I’m getting a signal from the mainframe---someone’s accessing Vicki’s memories! Wait---two signals?! What the FU---“ The Inspektor gestured for the mechanic to calm down as he took the latter’s place before the monitor; “Ted,” he called out, “according to this signal…Vicki’s primary and secondary hard drives---and her bubble memory processor---are active right now…” He glanced over his shoulder; “She’s trying to wake up,” he intoned.

Ted nearly tripped on his way back to the slab; V.I.C.I.’s body was still motionless. “But….how---“

“Also,” the Inspektor continued, “the second signal seems to be emanating from…ALPA Central HQ…”

The other members of the Eleven stopped what they were doing and ran to look at the monitor. “Son of a jumpin’….” Tell’s euphamism trailed off as the Inspektor spoke. “If that signal is being sent by who I think it’s being sent by, then I have a feeling Vicki’s even more incredible than even you could imagine, Teddy.”

Needless to say, Ted was too stunned to reply.

Anton managed to tear himself away from the monitor just long enough to glance back at V.I.C.I.; her body still rested on the slab, never moving…but somehow, within her fragmented mind, she was awake---and fighting to stay that way.

Hang in there, Vicki….just hang in there…..

Vicki Lawson was terrified.

Every single one of her systems was offline, yet she could somehow still see, hear, speak and think (and smell, probably)…but she couldn’t feel, and she had no idea where the hell she was.

What the hell happened to me?! I’m…just floating…except I’m not in water, or falling out of a plane, or doing anything! This…I can’t tell if this is real, or if I’m dreaming, or…I can’t even remember what day it is! Where am I? Why isn’t my HUD kicking on?! Why can’t I call Ted?! Why the hell can’t I feel my arms, or my legs?! How am I still thinking if all my systems are offline?!

“Simple, really….they’re not.”

A dot---a single pinpoint of light---appeared in the distance. “As for where you are…well, that part’s going to be a bit complicated to explain, but just bear with me---“

I don’t even know who you are---or what you are!

“Au contraire, Madame Lawson,” the dot---which was now approaching rapidly enough for Vicki to see that it was a luminous humanoid figure---replied, “you’ve met me more than once before…though it’s understandable that you might not remember me, given the, ah…trauma you’ve suffered recently…” The humanoid’s features began to sharpen and smooth out, until it became a blond man in a white dress shirt, white dinner jacket, white dress pants and white patent-leather shoes, with a white tie, belt and sunglasses completing his ensemble.

“Hello, Vicki,” Oberon murmured, smiling.

Instantly, a flood of memories seemed to rush over the brunette gynoid, almost dragging her further into the infinite blackness of wherever the hell she was. Oberon…I---remember----but how?!

“Well,” the ALPA chairman admitted, “we’re not actually in any physical place…this vast, endless void is, for lack of a better term, a visual representation of your own mind.” He made to sit down, a chair appearing just before he would’ve fallen on his rear end; “You’re stuck in here because of something that happened less than 24 hours ago; I, meanwhile, am using the latest in teleconferencing hardware/software to, shall we say, beam myself into your brain; DuBraul thought it would be a bit of a morale booster, to be honest---“

Why can’t I feel anything?! And how are you hearing my thoughts---

“Give me a minute…” Oberon retrieved something from his pocket; a split second later, Vicki found herself in a perfect recreation of the living room at the Lawson house, circa 1985. “What…how---I can move again! I CAN TALK AGAIN!”

“Technically speaking, you’re not actually moving or talking,” Oberon admitted. “I’ve just sent an extra data packet into your bubble memory processors---and your primary and secondary hard drives---to help you compensate for the missing and/or damaged system components…and there’s that glazed-over look,” he finished, sighing as he beheld Vicki’s confused stare. “You should be able to remember what happened last night that led to…well, this,” he added. “Take all the time you need…”

Vicki sighed, closed her eyes and focused---

---and nearly doubled over in pain, clutching at her chest where the wristblade had pierced her.

“What…the HELL…was that?!” she gasped.

“That,” Oberon replied, “was a very, very powerful memory…and the reason why you’re trapped within your own mind, as it were.” He steepled his fingers; “Last night,” he explained, “you were fighting Faceless…and you intended to kill him.”

“But…that still doesn’t---“

“After you decided that killing him wouldn’t be worth it,” Oberon continued, “you left him to die as the Rengold Cybernetics factory burned around him…except he caught up with you as you were leaving, and…” He stared at the floor. “He stabbed you through your tertiary power source, and through your bubble memory processor chipset,” he finished. “He also damaged two backup hard drives---“

“You mean he killed me.”

Even as she spoke the words, Vicki instantly hated them; they sounded…weak. “He can’t have killed me,” she corrected, “because…I’m here, and---I’m here, and---I’m here---“ Her entire body seized up; “What’s happening to what’s happening to what’s happening to to to----“ A wave of something that felt unpleasantly painful shot through her, and she fell from the couch to the floor.

Oberon was by her side in an instant. “What’s wrong with me?!” she sobbed. “I…I can’t---I…I can’t---“

“You’re still recovering from the beating Faceless gave you last night,” the ALPA chairman calmly replied. “It may take some time for everything to fall back into place…your processors weren’t exactly designed to stand up to a blade through the forehead, y’know…” He helped the gynoid back to her feet. “Until Lawson’s Eleven can get a new bubble memory processor chipset up and running,” he informed her, “you’re going to feel a bit like you’ve been hit by a truck---and that includes momentary glitches from time to time…as I mentioned earlier, I’m transmitting from ALPA HQ to ease you through the adjustment process and give you a bit of a morale boost.”

“That…makes sense,” Vicki murmured. “But…if my processors are damaged---“

“You’ve also established a connection with your memory backup mainframe,” Oberon added, “which should help you fill in any of the gaps…while I’m thinking about it, I just have to ask---you do still have complete knowledge of the fact that you’re a robot, right?”

“Y…yes.”

Oberon gave the gynoid a reassuring smile. “Good. Now, then…” He helped Vicki back to the couch. “If you have any questions about your current physical state, or what may happen to you over the next few days, feel free to ask,” he offered.

Vicki didn’t hesitate. “Why can’t I feel?”

“That, my dear Miss Lawson, is actually a safety measure installed in your RAM to keep you from thinking that this is your actual life,” Oberon explained. “If, for instance, you would’ve ‘woken up’ to find yourself back at home, with everything hunky dory and no memory of Faceless, the ALPA or anything from the past few years, then logic would presume that you would prefer that life to the life you currently have, and when the time would arrive for you to be fully rebooted and restored, you would think that your real life wasn’t real…or something along those lines.” He gave a sad sigh; “It’s all too common among sleepers, to be honest,” he added. “They think their dreams are real, and when they find out the truth…”

“I get it.” Vicki stared at the room around her; “This is right out of my memo-memo-memories, isn’t it?” She shook her head, trying to will herself out of any further glitches. “Isn’t there somesomesomesomething you can do you can do you can---“ Her question ended in a frustrated hiss. “WHY CAN’T I STOP GLITCHING?!”

Again, her question prompted a smile from Oberon. “You can…and you will. Just give it time…”

“I don’t have time don’t have time don’t have don’t have don’t don’t----“ She sank back on the sofa, her face buried in her hands. “He broke me,” she sobbed. “Whatever Faceless did to me last night…he broke me, and now---“

“He didn’t break you,” Oberon corrected. “He damaged critical hardware and attempted to overrwite system software---both of which are parts of you---but he didn’t come anywhere close to actually doing anything that could qualify as breaking you.” He smiled again; “You’re a lot tougher than you think you are, Vicki---if you weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

“What….what do you---“

“Your primary and secondary hard drives were shut down automatically after you were attacked,” the ALPA Chairman continued, “and under normal circumstances, it would’ve taken days, weeks---possibly even months for a ‘bot to recover from that kind of trauma, with the bare minimum of assistance from Tech Support and field mechanics. You, on the other hand…switched yourself back on, for lack of a better term.”

Vicki stared at her hands. “Except this isn’t me,” she murmured, “it’s just…a memory---“

“Memories are good,” Oberon insisted. “Memories are what make you you. And as far as you being ‘just a memory’, who says that’s a bad thing? You’ve still got your personality, you still retain knowledge of your true nature and all the other important stuff…so what if you’re glitching out a bit?” He grinned. “The important thing is, you’re fighting your way back from the brink of death, one step at a time…and, in case you haven’t figured it out, that is the reason why Faceless couldn’t, can’t and won’t break you…and it’s the reason why Lawson’s Eleven is out there, in the waking world, fighting to repair the damage that bastard did to you and bring you back to full operating power.”

A lone tear fell from his eye. “Never forget, Vicki…even if your skin is an enhanced polymer, your bones are titanium and your brain is a superprocessor, you’re just as human as the man who built you.”

Something within Vicki’s mind clicked---and instantly, she no longer felt terrified of being trapped in her mind, or humiliated by her glitching speech. “That’s exactly what I needed to hear,” she replied, smiling. “And if the memory file I’m looking at is correct,” she added, picking up a random photo album off the floor, “that exact phrase was hardwired into me after the fireworks incident in 2007, to give me admin privileges over my own system and help me carry out internal repairs…” She paused. “Is it weird that I found all of that out from looking at a picture of my first day at SJSU?” she asked.

“Not at all,” Oberon laughed. “Though it is a bit odd that the house is turning into a library…”

Vicki glanced at her surroundings, realizing that the Lawson living room had, indeed, morphed into a massive library. “Not a prob---lem,” she replied, rolling her eyes at the pause between syllables. “I just hope I can find a phrase ot pots flesym morf gnihctilg….dna won m’I gniklat sdrawkcab,” she finished, sighing.

“You seem to be handling it rather well,” Oberon mused.

“haeY, tub s’ti llits gniyonna,” Vicki replied. “fI I trats gniklat ni French, I’m going to---“ She groaned.

Oberon chuckled. “At least you’ve got a positive outlook on things,” he beamed. “Now, then…shall we continue onwards through this rather fitting representation of your file allocation table?” He glanced around the vast confines of the library; “I have a feeling this might take a while…”

“We’re just in my mind, aren’t we?” Vicki replied. “All of this is just memories---“

“True…but our progress through your mind depends on the repairs made to your body.”

Vicki sighed; “In that case,” she murmured, “I sincerely hope we don’t get lost in here…as much fun as some of these memories were the first time around, part of me thinks it would be a really, really bad idea to go through a few of them again!”

Especially the one that got me here in the first place….

Ted Lawson’s House – San Jose, California – July 10, 2011, 11:55 A.M

“I should be out there.”

Jamie Lawson stared out the window, the urge to break something already festering in his mind. “I should be helping them track down that psychopath,” he muttered, “not just sitting around here while the Field Agents look for him…Vicki’s my sister, and I should be helping her!”

“You wouldn’t be doing a lot to help her with a knife buried in your chest,” Garth Pierce reminded him. “And for the record, I’m pissed off that Vicki got jumped too…but I know better than to chase after him myself. Hell, even Derrick knows better than to go chasing after that whackjob…isn’t that right, Derrick?” Garth nodded in the general direction of Derrick Snyder---who was too busy reading Michael Crichton’s The Lost World to answer. “Derrick, back me up here!”

“Hmm?” the android mused.

“I said, even you know better than to go out chasing after Faceless,” Garth began, only for Jamie to cut in: “If it was your sister who’d been attacked by Faceless, wouldn’t you want to go after him and kick his ass?” he insisted.

Derrick rolled his eyes. “My sister already died once,” he replied, “and Dad built her replacement to be---“

“That’s not the point!”

A knock on the door mercifully interrupted the argument before it could get too stupid. “Don’t everybody run to the door at once,” Garth deadpanned. “Guess I’ll get it---“ He stopped, waiting to see if either Jamie or Derrick would try to talk him out of it; predictably, they were still arguing. “If someone starts singing ‘That’s What Friends are For’,” he muttered, “I’ll kick ‘em in the shins…” With a half-annoyed, half-amused sigh, he opened the door; “And what brings you three all the way out here from DreamLand?” he beamed.

“A dead body on the doorstep,” Claudia---DreamLand’s CEO (and resident expert in self-repair)---replied. “Is Ted around? I was going to ask him to give Mike and Destiny firmware updates before the end of the week, but seeing as how we’ve got…new problems to deal with---“

“Mike?” Garth echoed, glancing at the figure behind Claudia who looked more than a little like Ryan Reynolds’ long-lost twin brother. “Why do I remember reading a field report that said he was called ‘Nate’…or was that just an off week for me?”

“Apparently, people automatically associated ‘Nate’ with ‘Nathan Drake’,” Mike began, only for Claudia to give him a look. “If Ted’s not here, we’ll just have to call him and schedule an appointment at DreamLand,” she sighed, retrieving her cellphone; Garth immediately opened the door all the way and gestured for her to step inside. “You’ll be a lot better off here than you would trying to get back to DreamLand…just don’t break anything---or get into an argument with Jamie.”

As soon as Claudia and Destiny stepped inside, Jamie immediately broke off the argument with Derrick---and stared at the two DreamLand gynoids. “I…I’ve seen you on TV before,” he stammered; Mike rolled his eyes (thankful that the replacement he’d obtained after the December bus ride incident was still holding up) as Garth introduced the lovestruck Lawson to the two gynoids (and explained that DreamLand was a “dating service plus”, instead of whatever Jamie had originally thought it was). “Vicki saved ‘em both from L.E.S.---“

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jamie interrupted. “L.E.S. came back?!”

“As Leslie Erica Simm,” Destiny informed him, a scowl crossing her face. “That stupid bitch teamed up with some mercenary guy and nearly nuked the hell out of DreamLand---Claudia almost got blown to pieces thanks to those two!”

“And here we go,” Mike muttered, grabbing a TV Guide and doing his best to blend in with the furniture.

Claudia stepped in to keep Destiny from getting too “exuberant” in her recounting of the event. “The important thing is that Vicki kept Leslie from completely wiping out DreamLand,” she informed Jamie, “and that everyone who was damaged by that oversized firecracker they dropped off was back to full operating efficiency within three months---myself included.” She pressed down on her collarbone and removed a patch of skin just above the neckline of her blouse; “I even got a few new USB ports out of the deal,” she added, grinning.

“Back to the topic at hand…” Garth checked the locks on the door to make sure they were all working. “You said there was a dead guy in your parking lot---how long ago was this?”

“Last week, “ Destiny admitted. “We…didn’t want to bring too much attention to it---we almost lost a client to a heart attack last year---but after we heard about the Fourth of July party, Claudia thought it might be worth mentioning at the next meeting…and then it just kept getting worse, and---hang on. Where’s Vicki?” Garth and Derrick stared at the floor. “Nobody’s told you?” Jamie asked, his voice oddly flat.

“Told us….what?”

The next words out of Jamie’s mouth came with an uncharacteristically angry edge: “Faceless killed her.”

Claudia gasped; the TV Guide fell out of Mike’s hands, and Destiny nearly fell over. “He…killed her?!” the DreamLand CEO echoed.

“He stabbed her through the chest, and then through the head,” Jamie muttered, his fists trembling. “He tore the blades out, let her fall to the ground…and then he said he won…”

“Jamie,” Garth began, “just---“

“MY SISTER IS DEAD, GARTH!” Jamie thundered. “I DON’T NEED TO ‘CALM DOWN’---I NEED TO FIND FACELESS AND RIP HIS FUCKING LUNGS OUT THROUGH HIS FUCKING NOSTRILS!” He punched the wall, not caring that his fist hurt like hell---or that he’d just left a crater in the drywall. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to all this bullshit about ‘letting the professionals handle it’, or ‘not letting it get to me’,” he growled, “because that’s not going to do jack shit---I’M GOING TO FIND FACELESS, AND---“

His profanity fueled rant was interrupted by the phone ringing; Mike picked it up---and nearly dropped it. “It’s for Jamie,” he whispered; as soon as he heard his name, Jamie stormed over to the phone, grabbed it out of Mike’s hand and had to force himself not to scream: “Who is this?”

“Just the man who killed your sister.”

Jamie felt his blood run cold. “What….do you---“

“I want you to stop talking, now…and to pay very, very close attention…I’m three blocks away from your house, and I couldn’t help but overhear your…shall we say, vitriolic remarks regarding your…” A chuckle emanated from the earpiece. “…misguided desire to inflict vengeance upon me…”

The next word out of Jamie’s mouth sounded like a squeak, even to him: “So?”

“So…consider this call as an invitation. You catch me by 7 PM tonight, and you’ll get your revenge against me. If, however, I catch you by 7…” The chuckle sounded again, only this time it was a bit…clearer, almost as if---“

Something hit the window from outside, and Jamie turned to see a bloodied handprint on the glass.

“You join your pathetic sister in Hell,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour sneered.

In that instant, Jamie felt as if the blood in his veins had turned to ice. “You…you can’t---“

“Oh, but I can, and I will. I’ve already destroyed your precious sister, Jamie…and once I’ve finished with you, Mom and Dad will be happy to---“

“YOU STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM THEM!” Jamie shouted. “YOU DON’T TOUCH THEM---“

The chuckle on the other end of the line turned to a full-blown laugh. “Funny, how quickly you forget your place…I’m the hunter, and you’re the prey---you don’t tell me what to do…unless, of course, you want to die…” An almost bored-sounding sigh issued through the earpiece. “I suggest you make your choice quickly, otherwise I may have to get…creative…” Again, the dry, humorless chuckle sounded in Jamie’s ear. “Oh, and one final bit of advice…”

Faceless’ voice degenerated into a near-demonic hiss: “Don’t run, don’t hide…fight, or die.”

The phone clicked off.

“Jamie,” Claudia warned, “don’t do anything stupid. Faceless is---“

“Faceless,” Jamie quietly replied, “just signed his death certificate. He wants me to find him by 7 PM, or he’s going after Mom and Dad….and I won’t let that happen.”

Mike groaned; “You actually bought that crap? He’s not going to do anything---“

“Because I’m going to kill him before he gets the chance,” Jamie coldly replied. “That son of a bitch is going to DIE tonight---and I’ll be the one who kills him.” He strode over to the door, stopping only to turn and glare at everyone else in the room; “If any of you follows me,” he warned, “I’ll kick the crap out of you right after I finish tearing Faceless apart---and don’t give me any of that crap about ‘Vicki wouldn’t want you to do this’. Faceless is as dangerous as a rabid dog…” He turned away. “…and rabid dogs get put down.” Without another word, he stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

“Okay,” Mike muttered, “I think we need to call Ted and tell him that his son is going on the warpath against a psychotic masked murderer---and WHY are you dialing a number that I know for a fact isn’t Ted’s cellphone number, Claudia?! If Jamie gets to Faceless---”

“Jamie’s the least of our concerns,” Garth interjected. “Okay, I take that back---“

Claudia’s annoyed look persuaded Garth to stop talking. “I’m not calling Ted until we have a definite lead on Faceless and Jamie…which means that we need to get out there and make sure Jamie doesn’t do anything completely and utterly insane.” With that, she strode out of the room, heading into the kitchen and closing the door behind her to block the conversation from being heard elsewhere in the house. “Well,” Mike sighed, “I’m guessing this is the part where we kiss our asses goodbye---“

“Like hell it is,” Garth shot back. “We need to get to Jamie before he gets to Faceless…”

“…otherwise,” Derrick finished, “Vicki won’t be the only Lawson at death’s door.” Mike sighed again. “I won’t blame Claudia if she decides to wipe my memory after this,” he muttered. “Before we decide to embark on this wonderful expedition of derring-do, can I just ask one question? HOW THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO FIND JAMIE BEFORE HE GETS TO FACELESS?!”

“Simple,” Claudia replied, emerging from the kitchen with a smile. “We just let my friend here lead the way…”

She stepped aside, revealing the Man in Grey.

“So,” the masked man rasped, “Claudia tells me you’ve been having problems with Faceless?”

Mantronix Inc. Factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 12:35 P.M

“…well, the good news is the new hard drives are ready, and everything’s been copied to them from the old ones without a problem.” Tell sighed as he looked down at V.I.C.I.’s face; “The bad news,” he continued, “is that the bubble memory processors, even with repairs, won’t hold up enough for her to do anything more than basic human emulation and functions. We could just upload everything from the backups onto them and let her go like that, but…”

“But what, Dave?!” Ted insisted.

Tell’s stare didn’t waver. “If we switch her on with her current processors still installed,” he replied, the calm in his voice matched by a coldness that Ted had never heard from him before, “she’ll think and act like the Vicki we all know and love…but she won’t be that Vicki.”

Ash nodded gravely. “It’s basically what some call the cloning effect,” he added. “If you were to pick a random person off the street and managed to make a perfect genetic clone of them, with the exact same neural pattern as the original, they wouldn’t be an exact clone---their neural pathways and impulses would be completely unique, making them their own person. If we tried to reactivate Vicki without swapping the damaged neural processors, we may very well end up---“

“The processors don’t matter!” Ted snapped. “Everything’s backed up on the hard drives---“

“Everything that makes her a machine,” Callista countered. “You said it yourself, Ted---you wanted us to help streamline Vicki by removing anything that could be considered a weakness, and those hard drives definitely fit the bill…”

Greg handed Ted a printout; “This is what we’ve been able to read off of the processors so far,” he informed Ted. “The bubble memory processors that are still in her have an isometric image of her last running neural configuration---a snapshot of her ‘self’, if you will---that’s about 85% intact. If we were able to somehow copy it over to a blank processor, we could very easily bring her back with minimal memory loss, and she’d definitely be the same Vicki we all know.”

“And before you whine about the hard drives,” Tell added, “the new control panel in her back will have at least a full terabyte’s worth of storage space in the portable drive I’ve built into it. Also, it’ll be smaller, less intrusive and easier to access if she wears certain outfits---anything backless, for instance---so…yeah. Win-win!”

Will Brightstar shook his head. “It sounds too risky. I say we just reactivate her as-is.”

Angston nodded his agreement; “I’ve seen ‘bots damaged by processor swaps before,” he mused, “and if any mistakes are made in the handling of this procedure, Vicki could be rendered inoperable---or worse, she may only regain a fraction of her original self.”

“I’m with them,” Robert stated. “If we copy Vicki’s memories onto the damaged processor, they’ll shore up the holes in her memory and let her get back to normal a lot quicker.” He glanced over at the slab; “Even if she does lose a few memories here and there,” he added quietly, “that might actually turn out to be a major help in the end---you don’t want her having nightmares about getting killed by Faceless for the rest of her college years, right? And, even if it’s ‘not really her’, it’s the next best thing---97% accurate, at the very least.”

“Technically, in terms of her inner workings and firmware,” Will informed Ted, “it’s a guarantee that she’s back.”

Tell stared at the floor, trying his damndest not to glare at anyone. “What you’re all saying,” he muttered, “is that you’d prefere to have Vicki running on a damaged processor with gaping holes in her memory and a pale imitation of her original personality, rather than trying something that could fully restore her?”

For a full three minutes, Ted was silent, choosing only to stare at the unmoving form of his artificial daughter.

“Ted,” the Inspektor intoned, “this is your call to make, and none of us are trying to rush you…”

“THEN STOP TRYING TO MAKE UP MY MIND FOR ME, DAMNIT!” Ted screamed, collapsing to his knees and sobbing at the foot of the repair table. “I…I just want her back,” he moaned.

Will nodded. “That settles it. Robert, go find Vicki’s exo-skin covering, we’re switching her back on---“

“You’re not doing a g__damn thing,” Tell growled. “If it was Jake on that table, and his implants were leaking into his veins---“ He stopped, the mention of “leaking” suddenly reminding him of another danger to Vicki’s revival. “SHIT---WE FORGOT ABOUT THE TERTIARY BATTERY---“

“Not a problem,” Callista called out, holding up the Gysys-issue extraction tools. “Just keep her steady,” she advised, “and don’t do anything to make me drop the power cell once I get it out of her.” With the cell removal tool in one hand and a new power cell in the other, Callista leaned over V.I.C.I.’s opened chest cavity with the air of a world-class surgeon about to perform a triple-bypass. “I’m going to need a receptacle for the damaged power cell,” she informed the group. “A common trash can will do---just be sure to dispose of it with any other e-waste you may have laying around.”

Inspektor 12 retrieved a garishly-decorated trashcan (plastered with photos from Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and Central Park West, for some reason) from beneath a nearby workbench. “Someone here was a fan of 90s soap operas,” Callista mused. “Right…I’m disconnecting the damaged cell…”

With the precision of a stamp collector, Callista maneuvered the cell removal tool over the wires connecting the damaged power cell to V.I.C.I.’s systems; a small, plier-like gripper at the end of the tool took hold of each wire (with the weilder of the tool expertly manipulating the gripper via a built-in set of switches located in the handle of the tool) and carefully pulled each wire out, moving them off to the side before releasing the plug ends from the gripper. Soon, only one wire remained connected; “Tell,” the Hreftech PR guru called out, “get ready to shut off Vicki’s connection to her tertiary power cell---I’m about to unplug the main wire.” The ALPA’s star field mechanic quickly tapped a few keys on his MacBook; “Third cell’s powered down---wait, hang on…” A quiet curse escaped his lips. “Ah, Cal? We seem to have a slight problem here…”

“Vicki’s processors aren’t able to correctly switch off the battery,” the Inspektor muttered, frowning as he beheld the error message on the MacBook’s screen. “Something about a damaged sector…”

“Brute-force your way past it,” Callista replied. “I have to take this thing out---“

“If they override the battery removal failsafes with a brute-force program,” Ted hissed, “they might damage her root code program and screw up the processors even more!” He turned his attention to Tell and Inspektor 12; “Let me take a crack at it,” he offered. “I’m the one who built Vicki, after all---I can navigate her internal OS better than most people can navigate the national highway system.” Tell and the Inspektor exchanged rather amused looks, but nodded. “She’s yours, Teddy,” Inspektor 12 intoned.

Ted nodded as he slid into the now-vacant chair in front of the MacBook. “Right…time to make the donuts.”

As Tell and the Inspektor watched, Ted opened about 14 menus, submenus and applications to bypass any and all corrupted programs within V.I.C.I.’s damaged processors. “I think we can say goodbye to that viper problem, by the way,” he gleefully informed the group. “The file isn’t even a valid executable program!” Tell glanced over Ted’s shoulder---and nearly fell over laughing. “The source code is in Russian,” he gasped, shaking his head. “A text file in Russian, with no Russian characters---no wonder the damn thing couldn’t run correctly!” Inspektor 12 nodded. “Strange how Anton never told us that the viper program was written in Russian,” he mused, “or that it wasn’t even what he thought it was---“

A realization struck him. “Ted,” he warned, “don’t---“

“And, there! Callista, pull the battery out now!”

The Inspektor nearly tripped over his own feet trying to get to the slab. “WAIT---“

Just as the tool touched the tip of the battery, a surge of electricity shot through the damaged cell through the tool---and straight into Callista. As Lawson’s Eleven watched, horrified, a sound clip---hidden in the “viper” program---began playing through the speaker V.I.C.I. used as her voicebox as the gynoid’s body convulsed.

“Well, well, well…isn’t this a surprise,” Faceless’ voice crooned. “Good job spotting my…tricked-out blades, even if you misjudged their intended purpose. Before you jump to any hasty conclusions, allow me to make something very clear---this isn’t me waving the white flag. This is me telling you the truth: that your precious Vicki Lawson is dead, and that nothing you do will save her. Depending on who’s removing her damaged battery, you may lose another 'precious' team member…but it makes little difference to me. Vicki Lawson has been rendered utterly useless, and if any of you can ‘fix’ her….”

A dry chuckle issued from the speaker. “You’ll end up with her…in Hell.”

Faceless’ taunt ended just as the surge of electricity from the damaged battery did; V.I.C.I. stopped convulsing on the tabel, and Callista nearly fell face-forward onto the slab, only to be pulled back by Robert and Will. “She’s alive,” Robert declared, “but her pulse is weak; I think that shock may have thrown her artificial heart out of whack---“

Will tapped him on the shoulder, nodding towards the tool---and the now-removed battery---in Callista’s hand.

“She held on long enough to pull it out,” Tell muttered. “That woman is something else…”

Heinmann, Angston and Greg examined the components near the area where the damaged battery had been connected; “No scorch marks or electrical damage,” Greg reported. “Looks like Faceless wrote that program specifically to channel all of Vicki’s power through the battery and into whoever was holding it---“

“Then get the replacement in there now,” Ted instructed.

Greg nodded, retrieving the replacement cell from its crate. “Y’know,” he mused, glancing over his shoulder at Ted, “I think I know where Vicki gets that tone in her voice from, whenever she say something and doesn’t leave any room for arguing….”

He grinned. “Like father, like daughter.”

The words had a profound effect on Ted; “I’ll take that as the highest of compliments,” he replied, a lone tear snaking down his cheek. “I just hope that she can leave her own legacy on the world someday…hell, maybe even Jamie could---“

A door flew open on the other side of the room, revealing a thoroughly-terrified Anton.

“Jesus, man!” Tell exclaimed. “What the hell’s wrong---“

“It’s Jamie,” Anton croaked. “Faceless…he called Ted’s house…he wants Jamie to find him…”

Every eye in the room was fixated on Ted. “Does anyone know where Jamie is now?” he asked quietly.

“He left to find Faceless,” Anton replied. “Claudia just called…she tried to talk him out of it---“

“Get every Field Agent who isn’t already on patrol looking for Jamie,” Ted ordered. “Tell them to observe and report, nothing more. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt by that psychopath…” Anton nodded and went for his cellphone.

As the others went about their business, Ted stroked Vicki’s forehead. “Hang in there, sweetheart….”

Vicki sat on the nonexistant floor of the nonexistant library, feeling (or not feeling) a nonexistant shiver of pain run up her technically nonexistant spine. “Why….does everything hurt?” she murmured.

“Well,” Oberon replied, “if you’re inquiring as to the sudden upswing of pain that you felt a few seconds ago that consequently led you to lapse into a seizure…I have a feeling your damaged tertiary battery has been removed, to prevent it from leaking all over your other components.” He sighed; “You’re not in any real danger from that sort of thing---“

“Then why do I feel so scared?!” Vicki shot back. “Why is it---is it---is it---is it---“

Oberon knealt beside her, putting his arm around her shoulder and drawing her in for a hug. “I know this is hard to handle,” he whispered as the gynoid cried into his shoulder, “and I know it must be terrifying…”

“It…is,” Vicki sobbed.

“I also know,” Oberon assured her, “that even with a damaged bubble memory processor and a glitchy imprint of your neural configuration, you’ll be able to pull through this in no time at all.”

[Care to place a bet on that?]

Vicki looekd up from Oberon’s shoulder---and instantly wished she hadn’t.

Standing before the two was a figure that, quite literally, looked as if it had stepped forth from the brunette gynoid’s worst nightmare. First and foremost, the entity was Faceless---if Faceless had somehow figured out a way to exist as a literal nightmare. Every part of him was made up of the most ethereal substances---his jacket was a swirling conflagration of black smog, his hair now looked like wispy tendrils of bluish-black smoke, and his shirt, pants, gloves and shoes were all dark grey fog. Even his mask looked as if it were an intangible mass---almost as if someone had remade it using glass, and injected dry-ice mist into it, giving it a ghostly sort of look….but the eyes were definitely worse.

Behind the eyeholes of his mask, Faceless’ eyes were black holes in a white void.

“Nice trick,” Oberon casually remarked, positioning himself in front of Vicki. “And what exactly do we call you? The Shape---no, that one’s been taken….the boogeyman, perhaps? Or maybe we should just call you what you are---“

[The Faceless Nightmare,] the figure replied. [A perfect description of who I am.]

“So you’re nothing more than a dream, then?” Oberon countered. “Funny…a wise man once said that ‘only a dream can kill a dream’…” He smiled as he threw off his coat---and the business suit beneath it, revealing a suit of gleaming white armor trimmed with gold. “And right now,” he intoned, “I’m your worst nightmare.”

A dry, hissing laugh was the only response his gesture received.

“So you don’t think I can stop you?” Oberon asked, his voice now supernaturally deepened.

[I know you can’t stop me, Oberon,] the Faceless Nightmare growled. [You’re plugged in from the ALPA’s servers…there’s no way you can defeat me!] Two-foot long blades of dark light emerged from the Nightmare’s wrists; […and you didn’t even bring a sword,] the Nightmare taunted, shaking his head and tsk, tsking.

“Who says I didn’t?” Oberon beamed, reaching up into the air---and pulling down a claymore. “Now then…”

The Faceless Nightmare growled. [Party tricks won’t save you…or her.]

“This is no trick, monster,” Oberon coldly replied. “This is the part where I kill you.”

As Vicki watched, simultaneously awed and terrified, Oberon charged at the figure of the Faceless Nightmare and swung the massive claymore as if it were a baseball bat. The blade hit the Nightmare’s abdomen---and connected, to the surprise of the gynoid. “Er, der durch helle Furcht nicht die Schwärzung reist und er,” the white-armored warrior intoned, “der in der Schwärzung lebt, sterben I'm Licht.”

I’m hearing German because---because---FOCUS! Vicki cleared her thoughts; he’s talking in German because my processors are still sorting themselves out, she realized. This is too too too…never mind.

[Вы не выиграете,] the Nightmare replied, recovering from the attack and slashing at Oberon with an overhanded thrust meant to cut off one of his arms.. [Ничего вы можете сделать ведет к моему поражению.] He sidestepped another slash from the claymore and roundhouse-kicked Oberon in the gut; [Только когда вы падали на мои ноги завещайте меня позвольте вам умереть. К мне, вы ничего но насекомое.]

Oberon smirked. “Даже насекомое может убить с одиночным укусом.”

If either of them starts talking in French, Vicki mentally groaned, “I may just---“ Her hands flew to cover her mouth; I’m in my own head, and I’m thinking out loud! This is---is---is….insane!

[You will not protect her from me,] the Nightmare sneered. [I’ll break her mind and her body---]

His taunt was cut off by a brutal uppercut to the jaw. “The only thing that’s going to break here is your face,” Oberon replied. “Your trick with the viper didn’t work, and Callista’s still alive---the monitoring chip in her artificial heart survived the jolt you tried to put through her, and she’s going to make a full recovery.” He pulled the Nightmare in close, grinning defiantly; “Oh, and for the record,” he added, “trying to use a pirated WiFi modem to transmit this pathetic virus of yours into Vicki’s systems…not a very good idea.”

The Nightmare was undeterred. [Perhaps I’ll just put the Stylo virus---]

A solid knee to the chest left the threat hanging. “The only thing you’re going to do,” Oberon intoned, “is get the bloody hell out of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson’s systems NOW…unless you want me to find you in the real world…where what I’m about to do will be considerably more painful.”

[And what, exactly, are you about to---]

Anything the Faceless Nightmare could’ve said next faded into silence as he stared at the blade of Oberon’s claymore, watching as a pure, bluish-white flame consumed it. “I believe you were mocking me earlier for not having brought a sword,” Oberon mused. “Well…as luck would have it…this isn’t just a sword…”

He glanced over his shoulder at Vicki and smiled, his eyes blazing with a white light.

“It’s the best weapon I could find for vanquishing troublesome nightmares.”

The brunette gynoid stared, transfixed, as the Faceless Nightmare charged at Oberon, blades extended to impale him---only to be decapitated by the flaming blade as it swung downwards, taking his head off in one swift, fluid stroke. The headless body collapsed to the floor, dissolving into a thick, noxious vapor just as it made contact; the head---still screaming, even after it had been severed from the body---burst into flames in mid-air, leaving only the ghostly mask behind.

Oberon strode over to the mask, staring down at it. “Sic semper tryannus,” he intoned, crushing the mask beneath his heel. He turned to see Vicki staring at him as if he’d stepped out of a J-RPG; “I take it you’re okay?” he asked, his voice reverting to its less-imposing tone.

“I…I….guessssssss so,” Vicki slowly replied. “What.did.you.dotohim?”

“Technically speaking, I didn’t do anything.” Oberon shrugged, the sword in his hand dissolving into a pillar of butterflies that flew past him and seemed to dance around Vicki’s head before soaring towards the nonexistant ceiling. “He was trying to wirelessly hack into your OS and crash a few programs, which would’ve bricked you as soon as you’d been reactivated…but I was able to perform a rather cunning maneuver of my own that turned his resources against him. The Nightmare getting decapitated wasn’t just for show, either---that was his link to your internal OS being severed as cleanly as the Nightmare’s head was severed from its body.” He grinned. “A bit morbid…but it was an appropriate visual, if I do say so myself.”

“That’s truuuuuuuee,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes at her slurred voice. “How long do I have before I stop glitching up like this?”

Oberon sighed; “Until your neural pathways can rebuild themselves enough to allow for a method of bringing your memories and neural configuration imprint onto another processor,” he replied, “I don’t really know what kind of timeframe to give…” He helped Vicki up off the floor. “In the meantime, let’s keep going and see if we can’t help the repair process along a bit.”

“How are we supposed to do anything about it from here?”

“Well,” Oberon mused, “we are in a library---well, a metaphorical library that serves as a visual representation of your file allocation table, if we’re going to be precise about it---which means---“

“LOOK OUT!”

Even if Vicki hadn’t pointed it out, Oberon wouldn’t have been able to miss the roaring, demonic screech of the newly-reconstituted Faceless Nightmare if he’d tried. “Hold that thought, will you?” he requested. “I have to take care of something…” He winked and glanced over his shoulder. “I thought I made it clear that you weren’t welcome here,” he informed the Nightmare. “Or was getting beheaded not a strong enough---“

The spectral figure roared angrily, the sound filling the entirity of the virtual library.

“I thought as much,” Oberon muttered. “Well then…” He closed his eyes, turned around…

“Let there be LIGHT!”

The minute Oberon’s eyes opened, Vicki had to turn away---a blinding light was filling the room, reaching into even the darkest corners and crevices of the cavernous allocation table, slowly but efficiently removing any traces of damaged code from the allocation tree paths and reconfiguring search result responses to lead away from incomplete or corrupted data. The reconfiguring of the paths was somewhat spectacular to watch, as each bookshelf seemed to rebuild itself from---wait, what the hell am I seeing here?!

“Sorry about that…seems your perceptual filters are a bit knackered.”

Vicki blinked at the sound of Oberon’s voice, watching as the “library” faded into a bizarre landscape filled with floating command-prompt windows and other technical stuff. “What---what---what didididididid you do you do you do?!” she gasped. “Again, I didn’t do anything,” Oberon calmly replied. “This is what the architecture of your bubble memory processors actually looks like---“ He flinched as one of the floating windows fell to the ground with a crash; “Granted, it’s a bit…less welcoming than it should be,” he admitted, “but that’s only because you’re still running off of the damaged processors….and I’m guessing you prefer the library metaphor to all of this crazy Matrix stuff, right?”

“Ask to you have do even?” Vicki replied, shaking her head at the mangled sentence.

Oberon sighed as the “library” faded into existence. “I hope Ted gets this sorted out soon,” he muttered.

“That makes two of us,” V.I.C.I. replied.

Coalition-owned Rengold Cybernetics factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 01:05 P.M

Alicia 1 stared across the factory floor at the entrance door, shaking her head in disbelief. “I fly all the way back here from Japan, on urgent orders from Celeste herself,” she muttered, “and what do they tell me to do as soon as I get off the plane? They tell me to go watch a door.”

“Lighten up, Steak Sauce,” Alicia 5 suggested. “It’s not that bad---“

“Both of you, stay quiet,” Jake Brightstar ordered. “Celeste is taking a big risk by pulling both of you from your normal assignments for this…and if she has any reason to regret that choice, I can pretty much guarantee that she’ll take it out on all of us.”

Alicia 5 smirked. “So you spend a month sleeping on the couch. Big whoop---OW! Why’d you hit me?!”

“Because that remark was completely uncalled-for,” Alicia 1 replied, “and---“

Jake shushed both of them. “Someone’s coming!”

“Yay for them,” Alicia 5 droned. “At least one person around here is having a good time---OW! If you hit me again, Steak Sauce, I swear---“ The front door opened before Jake could reprimand either of the Alicias. “Wait for my signal,” he whispered, “then attack.”

“I’m about to ‘attack’ Steak Sauce if she doesn’t stop punching me,” Alicia 5 growled.

Alicia 1’s reply was cut off by Jake glaring at her---a gesture that was then interrupted by a figure stepping into the factory. “That…doesn’t look like Faceless,” Jake muttered. “Unless he got extensive plastic surgery and a haircut since Detroit…”

“That’s not Faceless,” Alicia 1 whispered. “That’s Vicki’s brother, Jamie!”

“FACELESS!” Jamie shouted. “I KNOW YOU’RE HERE!”

Alicia 5 rolled her eyes. “Hate to break it to you,” she murmured, “but Faceless isn’t---“

“Directly in your line of sight….yet,” a malicious voice hissed from over her shoulder. “Don’t turn around, or you all die.” Both Alicias sat perfectly still as the Butcher of Lake Gilmour maneuvered his way past them on the ceiling support beams, a remote clutched in his hand. “And as for Celeste’s new golden boy,” he crooned, aiming the remote directly at Jake’s skull, “a little…trick, from Señor Victor Vega.” He smiled behind his mask at the shocked expression frozen on Jake’s face.

“What did you do to him?!” Alicia 1 hissed.

Faceless stared at her. “I shut off all of his implants,” he quietly replied. “He’s still alive…he just can’t move. Or talk, or do anything else, really…until my business with Jamie is finished.” With that, he pressed another button on the remote, lowering himself down to the factory floor by way of a ceiling-mounted chain pulley.

The Alicias glared at the Butcher of Lake Gilmour as he descended. “I hate him,” Alicia 1 muttered.

“Get in line, sister,” Alicia 5 quietly growled.

Down on the factory floor, Faceless strode towards Jamie, his arms spread in a casual, almost-welcoming gesture. “Jamie Lawson…what a pleasant, unexpected surprise.” He chuckled darkly; “And what brings you all the way---“

“SHUT UP!” Jamie thundered, drawing a Desert Eagle from the waistband of his jeans.

Both Alicias gasped; “Where the hell did he get that?!” Alicia 5 cried.

“From the ALPA’s evidence room,” Alicia 1 replied, her voice shaking. “That’s the same gun Tori Hartwell used to shoot Faceless back in May!”

To his credit, Faceless didn’t seem all that concerned by the reappearance of the Desert Eagle. “So you got your hands on that,” he intoned, “and now you think you’re Mack Bolan---“

“SHUT UP! You….you don’t get to talk to me….you shouldn’t even get to breathe the same air I breathe---you don’t even deserve to LIVE, you worthless piece of crap!” The tears stung as they trailed down Jamie’s cheeks, but he did his damndest to ignore them. “This is how things are gonna go from here,” he muttered, never once looking away from his intended target. “You take off your stupid wristblades and fight me hand-to-hand---“

“No!” Alicia 5 whispered. “He’ll---“ Alicia 1 clamped her hand over her twin’s mouth; “This is his fight, sis,” she murmured sadly. “He has to handle it.”

“…and if I…refuse to discard them?” Faceless inquired.

Jamie clicked off the safety on the Eagle. “Then I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”

“You mean, you’ll try,” Faceless corrected, swinging his left arm out and allowing the wristblade to lock into place as he strode forward. “To be fair….I think you’ll have a slight problem…trying to shoot what you can’t see!” Before Jamie could even think to get off a shot, Faceless slashed a hose hanging off of a massive metal tank to his left; within seconds, a thick fog was rolling over the factory floor as Jamie ran forward, hoping to get in a few good pistol-whip hits on the masked killer.

Alicia 5 tried to yell “IT’S A TRICK!”, but her sister’s unyielding grip muffled the sound.

On the factory floor below, Faceless was slashing more hoses and pipes, filling the air with a thick vapor that, while not as toxic as smog, was still impossible to see through. The sounds of intermittent gunfire were a testament to Jamie’s tenacity---even if he couldn’t actually see the bastard who’d struck down his sister, he’d put enough lead in the air to at least wound him. Unfortunately for Jamie, none of his shots were even coming close to wounding Faceless---the only thing they were actually hitting were the pipes and hoses that had already been disconnected, thus laying down an even thicker layer of fog than before. Several seconds---and a few hollow, empty clicks later---the Desert Eagle was out of ammo…but that didn’t seem to deter Jamie in the least. “I DON’T NEED A GUN TO KILL YOU, FACELESS!” he shouted. “I CAN---“

A sick, wet sklitch---followed immediately by Jamie screaming---cut off the threat.

“What you ‘can’ do is now irrelevant,” Faceless’ voice stated matter-of-factly from somewhere in the fog. “As of now, you will stand still---“ A light thud, followed immediately by a much heavier one, served to punctuate the sentence. “You have no ammunition in your weapon,” Faceless intoned, “and no hope of leaving here alive…”

“Who said…I wanted to leave?” Jamie taunted.

Something within Alicia 5’s field of vision pinged; “I think he just put a---“

“Shut up!” Alicia 1 hissed. “I know he put a tracker on Faceless, so just---“

In the fog below, Jamie was thrown to the floor. “You can thank fate for your survival,” Faceless growled. “We will face each other again, Jamie…unless you don’t care for your parents---“ An angry shout from Jamie was all that the Alicias could hear…

…and then, the fog cleared to reveal Jamie standing alone, glancing around the empty factory.

Almost instantly, Jake fell backwards---into the waiting arms of Alicia 5. “What…happened?!” he gasped.

“Faceless turned off your implants,” Alicia 1 sulked. “And he got away.”

Jake shook his head; “He…didn’t…get away,” he corrected. “This….give me a minute…” He took several deep breaths. “DAMN, that was annoying,” he muttered. “Anyways…this was never going to be anything more than a hit-and-run for him. I think his plan was to lure Jamie here, weaken him and then leave---“

“Speaking of Jamie and leaving,” Alicia 5 cut in, “Jamie’s…well, leaving!” She gestured towards the door.

“Doesn’t matter,” Jake replied. “He put a tracker on Faceless, and that means the ALPA can follow him---“ He stopped. “Oh, no,” he moaned. “Oh, no, no, no…”

“’No, no, no’, what?!” Alicia 5 insisted. “What’s the big---“

Jake buried his face in his hands. “No, no, no,” he muttered, shaking his head. “We’ve got it all wrong, we’re looking at it all wrong…this is just too much…we just let Jamie make a huge mistake.”

“What, letting him leave?” Alicia 5 asked. “Why is that---“

“THE TRACKER!” Alicia 1 shouted, punching the nearest rebar. “Damnit to HELL…we shouldn’t have let him put the tracker on Faceless!” She nimbly jumped down from the rebar onto a crate; “We have to find Faceless and get that tracker off of him before the ALPA catches up with him,” she called up to Alicia 5, just as Jake descended the chain that had carried Faceless to the floor earlier.

Alicia 5 looked confused; “I thought we wanted Faceless to get caught,” she murmured.

“If any Field Agents catch up with him,” Alicia 1 replied through clenched teeth, “then he’ll kill them. Have you already forgotten about the Fourth of July barbecue?! From LAST WEEK?!”

That stopped Alicia 5 in her tracks. “I…sorry, I must’ve spaced out there…I was just---“

“My fault,” Jake cut in. “Faceless’ remote screwed up my implants---must’ve triggered my bliss state and made it harder for you to focus.” He stared at the window Faceless had shattered to escape; “We blew it,” he muttered. “We really blew it. This whole time, we were worried about helping the ALPA catch Faceless, and it turns out the bastard wants them to catch up to him…this is just sick. We have to call the ALPA and get them to---“

“To what?”

The raspy, half-whispering voice of the Man in Grey made the hairs on the back of Jake’s neck stand up as he turned towards the door. “A great man once said that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” he intoned, “and in this case, that’s the absolute truth---“

“Those Field Agents will be heading straight to their deaths!” Alicia 1 shouted. “They can’t---“

“They signed up to protect the rights of sentient androids and gynoids, whatever the cost,” the Man snapped, his hidden gaze turning on her. “I’m only here to keep you three from getting pulled further into this nightmare than you already are…and as for what the higher-ups at the ALPA think, it’s not my call.” He turned on his heel and headed for the door; “I’m not with the ALPA anymore,” he added bitterly, “but that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of their tactical choices…no man should ever be sent away to die without a good reason…”

A choked sound, almost like a sob, escaped his throat. “…especially when they have everything to live for.”

Without another word, he walked out, leaving Jake and the Alicias to ponder his words.

Mantronix Inc. Factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 01:37 P.M

Eleven sets of eyes stared at Ted Lawson. Eleven gazes locked onto him with laser-like intensity.

Ted couldn’t meet a single one of them.

Before the kerfuffle with the damaged tertiary power cell, Ted and the others had been arguing about which of the two possible methods could be used to bring Vicki back from the dead---letting her damaged bubble memory processors repair themselves as much as possible and then bringing her back online, or performing Anton Malvineous’ risky (and as-yet unexplained) “yank the cart” save, patterned after the old trick of pulling a cartridge out of a Sega Genesis and allowing the stored RAM within the base unit (the Genesis itself) to interact in a completely different way with the ROM of another cartridge.

Both options were risky, and both had their definite disadvantages; with the “reactivate Vicki” option, the end result would be a gynoid that---at best---would think and act 90% - 94% similar to how Vicki thought and acted before her incapacitation at Faceless’ hands…except she wouldn’t really be Vicki. The neural patterns would be completely different…and her personality would be a mere shell of its former self.

As for the “yank the cart” option….

“Anton,” Greg mused, “if we’re going to go with your idea, we need something better than ‘trust me on this’ to go on…namely, an explanation of how it’ll work. I mean, the Genesis analogy is great, and all, but Vicki’s not a Sega Genesis---“

“I know,” Anton replied, a wry smile crossing his face.

Inspektor 12 steepled his fingers. “You’ve given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?”

“Plenty of thought,” Anton beamed. “Everything from success rates to the number of ways it could go horribly wrong---but let’s not focus on the negative.” He retrieved a folder from under the table and slid it to Ted; “I’ve taken the liberty of writing down the exact steps for the process,” he explained.

“Then why not give us the Cliff Notes version?” Callista asked. “Let us in on this grand idea of yours---“

Anton clapped his hands together, still grinning. “I was hoping someone would say that…” He excused himself from the table and almost danced across the room, ignoring the quizzical stares of the others. “This had better be one hell of an idea,” Robert groaned, “otherwise---“

“Otherwise you’ll all think I’ve lost my mind,” Anton called out, returning to the table with a Smartboard and several dry-erase markers in tow. “Now, then…the way I see it, Vicki’s resurrection, as dictated in the Book of Genesis---that’s Sega Genesis, mind you, right next to the Gamepro Mortal Kombat strategy guide on my shelf at home---requires three key components to emulate the functions of the cartridge and the Genesis base unit itself…and luckily for us, we have all three.” Something in his eyes seemed to twinkle as he spoke, as if this entire thing was something he was particularly adept at dealing with and was no more troublesome than re-lacing a shoe. “Component one---the RAM. In our case, we have the damaged bubble memory processor that’s already installed inside Vicki, holding an equally-damaged snapshot of her neural patterns right from the moment she was attacked, and will be serving one final purpose before we remove it.”

The Eleven nodded silently, waiting for Anton to continue.

“Component two---the ROM. In our case, Vicki’s memory backup mainframe will suffice, alongside the older version of her neural configuration stored on it---and Ted, before you say anything,” he added quickly, “I do, in all matter of fact, have a very good plan, so please save all questions until the end of the lecture.”

Despite his growing unease, Ted nodded.

“Component three is perhaps the most important component of all---the Sega Genesis itself. Now, most of you may think that Vicki counts as the Genesis in this case…but most of you would be wrong.” Again, the twinkle in his eye suggested that Anton had worked this out long in advance. “The component that will be playing the part of the Genesis in this scenario is a blank bubble memory processor that, if all goes according to my brilliantly thought-out plan, will bring the whole shebang together and, hopefully, recreate a perfect continuance of Vicki’s mind as it was before her defeat. Everyone following along so far?”

Again, the Eleven nodded.

“Good,” Anton beamed. “Now, for this to work, we’re going to need to rely on something that’s not exactly a definite thing---the self-repairing nature of neural plasticity. Human beings with severe brain damage have been known to recover thanks to parts of their brains almost literally rewiring themselves to fill in the blanks, so to speak, and compensate for the damaged---or, in some extreme cases, missing---pieces. With Vicki, it’ll take less time---and she’ll have a bit of help; we can run both bubble memory processors concurrently along with the backup, allowing the older configuration file to be written to the undamaged system along with the new one, meshing and rewriting where the need arises. Now, seeing as how this is a yank-the-cart maneuver, we will have to do something insanely risky---at exactly the right moment, the damaged bubble memory processor must be removed---“

Instantly, the meeting degenerated into shouting, pounding on the table and protests.

“LET ME FINISH!” Anton thundered; when the noise quieted down, all present (even Ted) were astonished to see that the smile had never left his face. “If we let both processors run for too long, the entire setup will destabilize, and Vicki’s gone. The same goes for ending the connection too quickly---if we pull the damaged processor out too soon, the transfer to the new processor won’t be complete, and---again---Vicki’s gone…but before anyone says anything else, I just so happen to have an ace in the hole….”

An image on the Smartboard grew to the size of a graphic novel cover. “Everything holding up?” Oberon’s voice asked; within the image on the board, he was locked in what appeared to be a gyrosphere.

“We’re doing just fine on this end,” Anton replied. As the Eleven stared, unsure of what to say, the Professor calmed their fears: “Oberon is connected to Vicki’s systems via a secure internal WiFi link,” he explained, “and as for his…interesting fashion choice---“

“I heard that!”

Anton laughed it off. “The suit and the gyro-rig are just there to allow him full freedom of movement inside the simulated environment of Vicki’s damaged mind,” he continued. “ALPA techs usually don’t take this measure when repairing a damaged ‘bot, but due to the…unique nature of Vicki’s case, Oberon gained the necessary clearance to requisition the equipment and get it set up for exactly this occasion.” He returned to his seat, his smile fading somewhat.

“As it turns out, Vicki’s consciousness---her ‘self’---is still technically awake,” he informed the Eleven, “but with the damage to her bubble memory processor, she can’t manipulate her physical body or even communicate with us. Even if we had her connected to the best computer we have, we’d still be working blind to locate and rectify every single error in her system…which is where Oberon and the VR link come in.” His smile returned. “With him ‘on the inside’, so to speak, we’ll be able to know exactly when to yank the processor---“

“How?”

The single word from Ted stopped Anton in his tracks; “Ah, ‘how’, what?” he asked, confused.

“How is she still…awake? Even if she’s trapped in that processor…how is Vicki even existing as an entity right now?” Ted rose from his seat, looking more terrified than relieved; “She’s been deactivated for hours,” he moaned. “She…she might still be feeling---“

“Rest assured,” Oberon promised, “she’s more comfortable now than she was before I first established the uplink. Granted, she’s a bit…glitchy, but that’s to be expected with the level of damage inflicted upon her by the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. Oh, and I’ve taken the liberty of rendering the inner paths of her mind as a sort of library; the visuals help her to cope with the overall lack of feeling or usual perceptions. If this all goes well, she’ll remember it as nothing more than a very detailed dream.”

Anton nodded proudly. “Even that fake viper program didn’t do that much damage to her systems,” he added.

“It could’ve done a lot more damage to me,” Callista muttered, “and it probably would’ve killed me if I’d still had a natural human heart in me…still, if she remembers the whole thing as a dream, than that’s even better!”

“So,” Anton inquired, “think the cart-yanking save is worth it?”

Ted stared at the table in silence.

“Ted, this isn’t a time to let sentiment get in the way of logic,” Oberon stated. “As much as I hate to admit it---"

“She’s not yours.”

The three words stunned everyone in the room. “Ted,” Greg gasped, “we never---“

“Vicki Lawson isn’t your property,” Ted declared, “and she isn’t mine, either…” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he looked up; “She isn’t just a machine,” he sobbed, “she’s…she’s more than that! She’s part of my family now…” He buried his face in his hands. “She’s my daughter….”

“And we’re trying to help you bring her back from the brink of death,” Oberon reminded him. “Lawson’s Eleven was convened for a reason, Ted…and right now, all of them are doing everything in their power to keep Vicki from being rendered inoperable by Faceless’ actions. If Anton didn’t think the ‘cart-swapping’ idea was worth trying, he wouldn’t have proposed it…”

Somehow, not even that assurance was all that comforting to Ted. “What if it fails?” he whsispered, stairing at the dull metal surface of the table. “What if we lose her?” Anton sighed and knealt next to Ted’s chair; “We won’t lose her, Ted,” he gently replied. “If we followed the idea of just turning her on as-is, then we’d be losing her---she’d be nothing but a pale imitation of the Vicki you know and love, and I know in my heart of hearts that you wouldn’t settle for anything less than the genuine article.” He placed his hands on Ted’s shoulders. “You have my word, Theodore Lawson, that nobody here will do anything to take Vicki away from you…” Slowly, Ted looked up. “You’re positive?”

“Cross my heart, hope to die.”

Ted’s gaze travelled around the table, at the faces of his colleagues and compatriots. “And them?”

“They’ll work for a full month if they have to,” Anton replied. “All of us want Vicki to be brought back…”

With a slow, uneasy rhythm, Ted rose from his seat and made his way to the repair bench where the figure of V.I.C.I---Vicki---rested. “First,” he muttered, “we upgrade her---the new control panel and everything else get installed before we do anything with the processors. After that…”

He stroked the forehead of his artificial daughter. “…after that….we bring Vicki back.”

Cheers filled the room, and Anton smiled once again. “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” he declared. “And as for our friend on the inside, so to speak…” He glanced at the Smartboard; “Think you can keep her stable for another hour or so?”

“If I had to keep her stable for another year…”


“…then I would.”

“Glad to hear it. Keep us posted on her condition.”

Oberon nodded towards the floating window; “Not a problem.” With that, the window vanished. “Everything okay with you?” he asked Vicki. “Other than the glitching, I mean…”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “I…I just feel like---“ She froze for a second; “---like I’m going to…to…to…to just freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee---“ Again, she stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds, until her head jerked to the left. “---just freeze up completely,” she finished. After noticing Oberon’s concerned look, her face fell; “I did it again, didn’t I?” she murmured sadly.

“It’s not something you can control,” Oberon reminded her. “The glitches are just side-effects---“

“What-what-what-whaaaaaaatttttttt---“ Vicki’s head jerked to the left again. “What if they keep going after they bring me back---bring me back---bring me back---bring me---“ A frustrated buzz, similar to the sound of servos rizzing, filled the air as Vicki seemed to be locked in a loop, her face moving as if she were about to utter the word “back” again, but unable to actually say the word.

“It’s getting worse,” Oberon muttered. “The damage to her original processor is becoming harder and harder to just keep patching up…” With a sigh, he tapped Vicki’s forehead, and she froze in place; an iPad-sized screen of sorts appeared to float in the air, directly in front of her head. “And this is what I love about the virtual uplink,” the white-clad ALPA chairman mused. “It makes this sort of thing so much easier…not unlike the ‘desktop’ seen on every computer since the Macintosh, to be honest.” On the screen before him, a series of pipes---many with gaps in their structure---appeared, looking like a weird version of Pipe Dreams. As he watched, the pipes began shoring up; many of them simply moved closer together to close the gap, or took as many undamaged bits from damaged areas as possible to repair themselves.

A smile crossed the chairman’s face. “A bit of a childish metaphor, to be honest,” he admitted, “but one that fits the situation perfectly.” He tapped the side of Vicki’s head, causing another screen to appear. “If she remembers anything about this, I sincerely hope---“

“That she won’t hate your guts?”

Oberon frowned as the image of Charlotte Birgitta Harrington stepped out of thin air---wearing nothing but a towel---to stand before him. “Either make yourself decent,” he intoned, “or leave…I don’t need you leaving photos of yourself like that in her memory.”

Charlotte shrugged; “Fair enough,” she acquiesced, as the towel faded into a revealing bikini.

“More than that….”

With an annoyed sigh, Charlotte turned in place as a pair of jeans and dark brownish-red shirt appeared over her from nothing. “If this isn’t good enough,” she taunted, “I’ll gladly throw on a parka and some ski pants, if you want…” She grinned. “In any case, I was just browsing the interwebs, minding my own business, when I came across a rather powerful signal and decided to see what it was. Lo and behold, it’s a virtual uplink data stream---“

“So you decided to hop aboard uninvited,” Oberon finished, “and potentially muck up the whole operation?”

“Just because my dad’s the Coalition chairman,” Charlotte countered, “it doesn’t mean I want to see Vicki get deep-sixed by the masked wackjob.” Her smile faded; “I came here to help you get her back in the game,” she added, “and if that means going hands-on…then so be it.”

After a few seconds of silence, Oberon nodded. “In that case…have a look at this.”

Charlotte glanced at the monitor floating by the side of Vicki’s head; “I knew Faceless messed her up,” she murmured, “but I never thought it was this bad…”

“Indeed,” Oberon agreed. “Oh, and nice job borrowing Coalition-funded equipment to join me,” he added, a wry grin crossing his face. “Does James know you’re using his gear without his permission, or is this one of those times where---“

“I’d leave out any remarks about her being a rebellious type,” the voice of James Harrington called out from the vast nothingness. “She didn’t ‘borrow’ the equipment---I gave it to her so that she could provide assistance in bringing Vicki back from death’s door. Your presence at the meeting a few days ago was proof enough for me to justify shaking out the mothballs and working with your people, for a change…and considering Vicki’s…shall we say, unique standing in regards to this situation---“

A groan from Charlotte cut off the speech. “Daaaad, you said you’d let me handle this one myself!”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” James chuckled, “but I just don’t think---“ His words were cut off abruptly.

“You don’t think what?” Oberon asked, concerned by the sudden silence.

“---ave a problem!” It was clear that James wasn’t talking to Charlotte or Oberon…and that something had gone horribly wrong. “That---on of---bitch ju---cked th---signal! He’s trying to---nto a---cure system!”

The only sound from Oberon was a low, quiet hiss.

“What the hell is going on here?!” Charlotte demanded, stepping away from Vicki. “Why the hell is the link with my dad’s office---“

Oberon gripped Charlotte by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Listen to me very carefully,” he intoned, never looking away. “I have a feeling that Faceless is attempting to hack into Vicki’s systems again, and I’m going to need you to stay here and monitor her debugging while I hold him off.” He reached into the air above Charlotte’s head and pulled down a sword; “Don’t step away from her,” he instructed. “Not even for a moment, d’you understand? If Faceless so much as thinks he has a chance to continue his assault against her, he’ll throw everything he’s got at you---“

“I can handle it,” Charlotte coldly replied. “I’ve got a lot more going for me than just my looks, y’know…”

Again, Oberon gave her a wry smile. “If I didn’t know that, you wouldn’t be here.”

Horrifying sounds echoed through the virtual space---gutteral, ferral growls and laughs, all of them targeted at the frozen figure of Vicki. “Why the hell is Faceless even doing this?!” Charlotte demanded. “I mean, he’s already beaten her---“

“He’s incapacitated her physical form,” Oberon corrected. “For him to attain a true victory, her mind must be broken as well…except the ALPA won’t let that happen.” A circular energy field sprang up around Charlotte and Vicki; “The firewalls protecting her system will hold out as long as my connection to her CPU isn’t broken,” the ALPA chairman continued. “If anything does break the connection, the link will automatically transfer to your terminal, and it’ll be your duty to keep Vicki’s systems from failing---understand?”

Charlotte nodded silently.

“Good,” Oberon replied, his voice once again supernaturally deepened. “Now, if you’ll excuse me….”

He turned, wings of light sprouting from his (or rather, his avatar’s) back.

“Okay,” Charlotte mused, “that’s just bad ass….”

As the wall of energy around her became opaque, Charlotte never looked away from the terminals floating near Vicki’s head. I’ll hand it to the ALPA, she admitted, the idea of designing the virtual runtime environment inside of Vicki’s OS to actually work with the “virtual” part is pretty good. Her fingers flew over the tablets before her, rerouting neural configuration files through undamaged pathways and allocating as many system resources as she could to the repair processes.

“Just hang in there, Vicki,” she murmured. “Don’t you dare die on me…on any of us…now……”

With every stroke of the virtual keyboard, Charlotte noticed subtle twitches and spasms of movement within Vicki’s form. Outside of the opaque energy field , the demonic howls were getting closer, only to be silenced in a blast of light and a roar of thunder.

“Charlotte,” the Stinger’s disembodied voice declared, “I really hope you know what you’re doing in there---“

“Dad,” Charlotte replied, “Oberon said it himself: if I didn’t know,I wouldn’t be here.” She smirked as several of the system errors that had clogged the virtual screens before her vanished; “And another one bites the dust,” she smirked, only to recoil as something smashed into the field that separated her from whatever the hell Faceless was trying to send into Vicki’s systems. Fortunately for her---and for Vicki---the thing was already ruined; a vague, formless mass slid to the ground with a sick wet squelch before fading into a putrid vapor.

Time seemed to stand still, even as Charlotte furiously worked the virtual keyboard and eradicated a dozen more errors. Vicki herself was slowly recovering as well; her arms, formerly resting at her sides, bolted up, clutching at her shoulders as if she were shivering. Almost done here, Vicki, Charlotte mentally promised.

Outside of the energy field, Oberon cried out, then fell silent.

Don’t stop, Charlotte. Don’t you dare stop…don’t even look away from the keyboard…

Despite the fact that something was getting closer to the energy field, Charlotte’s posture never shifted. “Just a few more seconds,” she whispered, “and you’ll be that much closer to coming back…” She resisted the urge to kiss Vicki’s forehead as she worked; maybe we’ll do that later, she reasoned. Hell, maybe---

Something slammed into the energy field, cracking it. Charlotte nearly jumped, but calmed herself. Just ignore it…act like it’s not there, and maybe--- The thing slammed into the energy field again, sending a spiderweb of cracks through it. “PISS OFF!” Charlotte yelled, watching as the last fourteen system errors began disintegrating, one by one. “You want Vicki Lawson, you’ll have to go through me first---and I will kick the shit out of you if I have to! YOU HEAR ME?! YOU’RE NOT---“

Her words were drowned out as the energy field disintegrated…revealing a tired---but victorious---Oberon.

“Well done,” he intoned, smiling. “Sorry about the whole ‘hitting the energy field’ thing, by the way…”

”Why, it wouldn’t turn off?”

“No,” Oberon admitted, “I just felt like being dramatic---and before you hit me, you’ll be glad to know that the last of Vicki’s system errors has just been rectified…meaning that her neural avatar should be returning to full operational status…now,” he finished, just as Vicki stumbled forward. “What…” she gasped, “what just---“

Oberon gestured towards Charlotte. “A friend stopped in to help out,” he informed her.

“Th…thanks,” Vicki stammered. “I…I still feel….weird…”

“It’s to be expected,” Oberon replied. “Right now, we need to get you as far into your systems as possible---to the very heart of your damaged bubble memory processor.” His smile faded. “I have a feeling the next bit is going to be a tricky one…”

ALPA Storage Facility – unknown location south of Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 01:51 P.M

“Stop the car---STOP THE CAR, MIKE!”

Claudia’s order was the only thing that kept Mike from overshooting the driveway of the building Faceless had apparently retreated to; a strategic bit of landscaping was all it took for the owners of the building to hide the dirt path that led to it. Of course, Claudia and her associates had no need to worry about getting thrown off by such landmarks---thanks to the tracker Jamie had placed on the masked murderer, it was easy to follow him across Silicon Valley as he continued his killing spree.

Keeping him from slaughtering more Field Agents, on the other hand, would be a different matter entirely.

A veritable fleet of cars---all of them bearing the markings of ALPA Field Agent vehicles---had been parked outside the warehouse for just under half an hour by the time Claudia’s group arrived. The CEO of DreamLand approached each vehicle hoping the agents were still inside, merely conducting surveilance.

Within seconds, her hopes were dashed.

“They’re inside,” the Man in Grey rasped, barely turning his head to acknowledge a scream from the direction of the warehouse. “Standard Field Agent Protocol dictates that any tracker signal leading to a known enemy of the ALPA must be responded to by no less than…35 Field Agents. Considering Faceless’ expertise with his chosen weapons---“ He stepped aside as Claudia brushed past. “His ‘expertise’ isn’t going to save him from a world-class beating,” she growled. “Mike, see if you can find any handcuffs in the Agents’ cars---“

The Man in Grey shook his head. “Detaining him won’t be enough. We have to---“

Inside the warehouse, a pained cry abruptly transitioned into a choked death-rattle.

“Everyone back into the car,” Claudia ordered. “NOW!” Mike headed for the driver’s seat, only to scoot over to the passengers’ side after receiving a withering glare from his employer. “Please tell me you’re not thinking of doing what I think you’re thinking of doing,” he muttered.

His boss’s reply was brief: “Shut up and buckle your seatbelt.”

Once Mike had done as he’d been told, Claudia started the car and revved the engine just loud enough to catch the attention of the psychopath in the warehouse. “Once we get inside,” she declared, “everyone stay with me---I don’t want that bastard picking us off one by one!” Any reply Mike, Destiny, Garth or Derrick could’ve made was drowned out by the roar of the engine as the car shot up the driveway like the proverbial bat out of hell, straight through the plate-glass windows of the warehouse---and into a nightmare.

28 of the 35 Field Agents had already been killed, with many shackled together (by their own handcuffs) at the wrists and ankles. A few of the dead Agents were missing limbs; seven of them had been decapitated. Three of the worst cases had been chained to ceiling-mounted pulleys and suspended above the floor like choice cuts, all while the Butcher of Lake Gilmour had lived up to that gruesome moniker and hacked away at them with various tools that now lay strewn about on the concrete.

The seven remaining Field Agents, meanwhile, were in their own special kind of Hell.

Three men and three women---all of whom had been blindfolded, beaten with their own batons, handcuffed and gagged---knealt on the floor next to a folding table where the seventh Agent---the team leader---had been put through surgery---without the aid of anesthesia; his right leg ended in a bloody stump below the knee.

“Oh, my God,” Claudia gasped, stepping out of the car and walking towards the table.

From behind, a voice: “God’s out…but you still have me.”

Sheer instinct---and a well-timed forward roll---were all that kept Claudia from meeting Vicki’s fate; thus, the blade that had been meant for her head ended up going through thin air. Her agility wasn’t enough to save her from a downward slash at her shoulder, unfortunately; the strike pierced her synthetic flesh just as she rose out of her rolling crouch.

“So,” Faceless hissed, “you want to join the rabble---“ His dry chuckle ended with a hacking cough as the Man in Grey smashed both fists across his head. “You burn in Hell tonight,” he rasped, grabbing the sociopathic killer by the collar and throwing him to the floor. “Vicki didn’t deserve to be defeated by the likes of you,” he growled, “and neither did any of your victims! You’re nothing but a pathetic, worthless---“ A strangled cry escaped his lips as a cruel steel spike pierced his leg; “Your silence,” Faceless replied in a sarcastic sneer, “for want of a nail…” He savagely backhanded the Man, removing another spike from a hidden pocket in his jacket. “Now, then…who’s next to get pierced?” He glanced back at Claudia and Destiny, turning on his heel…

….except the Man in Grey wasn’t quite done with him yet.

Just as he was within range to hurl the spike at the gynoids, Faceless was tackled to the floor. “Free them,” the Man shouted, pointing towards the captive Field Agents. “Get them out of here---“

“We’re not leaving you,” Claudia protested. “We---“

“GO!”

Even as Garth, Mike and Destiny raced to free the imprisoned Agents, Claudia shook her head. “You go,” she stated, helping the Man to his feet. “I’ll finish off this piece of trash.”

Her determination was met with anger. “You’re consigning yourself to death,” the Man spat.

“I’ve helped people find happiness in their lives for the past decade,” Claudia calmly replied. “Even if I don’t make it out of here, the last thought going through my processors will be that, in my last functioning moments, I helped eleven people escape the wrath of a murderer…and that’s more than enough for me.” As Faceless scrabbled to his feet, Claudia lifted the Man’s mask and stared into his eyes; “You’ve suffered enough because of him,” she whispered. “Go….help the others free the Field Agents…I’ll handle Faceless.” She smiled; “You’ve earned your reprieve…at least from me.”

Twin trails of tears ran down the Man’s unmasked face. “Why….?”

Claudia brushed the back of her hand across the Man’s cheeks. “Because you’re so much better than you know,” she replied, smiling. “Now….” She pulled his mask back down, concealing his visage from view once again. “Go---‘

She shoved him away just in time to intercept Faceless’ lunging stab. “Get…them…home…Publius….

The Man in Grey half-limped, half-ran to help the others, fighting the urge to look back at Claudia.

“So,” Faceless hissed, “the whore does have a heart…” Slowly, he withdrew his right-hand wristblade from the stricken gynoid’s torso. “Too bad for you that it’s…broken,” he sneered, flicking the blade out; a few drops of honey-gold fluid flew from the blade to hit the floor. “Let’s see how well you’ve been built---“

“Do…whatever you want…to me,” Claudia stammered. “I’m…not….afraid…”

A dark chuckle sounded from behind Faceless’ mask. “Let’s see if we can’t change that.”

He held both blades to Claudia’s neck, like a set of oversized gardening shears. “Time to see what will break first,” he crooned. “Your iron resolve…or your worthless neck.” He pressed inward, the blades biting against the gynoid’s neck and drawing more vital fluids from her internal workings. “Feel free to scream, by the way---“

“I’M…NOT…AFRAID!” Claudia thundered, staggering forward. “I---secondary power cell leakage, systems damage critical---WON’T…SCREAM---warning: failure to replace---“ Servos in her neck buzzed angrily as she stumbled forward, barely able to stop herself from falling to the floor face-first. “You…are…nothing,” she breathed, rising to her knees---

---only for Faceless’ blades to pierce her chest, just above her bosom.

“Then ‘nothing’ has ended your pathetic existence,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour whispered, tearing one of the blades out of Claudia’s chest. “Just to be on the safe side…." He reared back, savoring the anticipation.

In the distance, Destiny turned, saw the flash of steel…

…and watched, horrified, as Faceless stabbed the wristblade through the center of Claudia’s head.

Mike and Destiny both felt a spasm of pain shoot through them as Claudia’s processors erupted in sparks, her internal drivers and chipsets now rendered completely useless by the wanton cruelty of the black-clad, white-masked killer. “And that,” the sociopath declared, “is someone reduced to ‘nothing’!” He pulled the other blade out of Claudia’s chest and drove it into the back of her head; “Now,” he cackled, “what’s say we open your mind?!”

It took the Man in Grey, Garth and Derrick holding her in place to keep Destiny from running towards the killer as he pulled the blades apart---while they were still inside Claudia’s head. Within 90 seconds, the gynoid’s skull had been torn in half, and her body sank to the floor, sparks shooting out of her neck.

“Another broken doll,” Faceless spat, “destined for the junkyard.” He turned on his heel, heading for the door.

Destiny nearly shoved Garth and Derrick to the floor as she ran to kneel at the side of her fallen employer, sobs wracking her body with every step. Every single mechanism and component inside Claudia’s head had been destroyed; the chipsets that governed her memory and personality were cracked in half, her facial animatronics reduced to twisted piles of plastic and metal. The most horrible aspect of her demise, however, was the horrifying gash that now separated her once-beautiful face, making it look like an impressively-made mask torn that had been torn in half. The amber-gold fluid that had spilled from Claudia’s wrecked secondary battery leaked from her chest wound like the blood of a goddess, spreading on her shirt like a black hole.

Garth, Mike and Derrick bowed their heads as Destiny cradled Claudia’s broken form in her arms, sobbing.

“She gave her life to save ours,” the Man in Grey croaked. “She died…a true heroine.”

“Can’t we just rebuild her, though?” Derrick whispered. “I mean---“

“Her memory backups got wiped out after the DreamLand incident last year,” Garth quietly replied. “The files they used to restore her after that were sent straight from the factory that built her…and that factory got closed down back in May.” He shook his head sadly. “She’s gone, Derrick.”

Five minutes later, the ambulances arrived to bring the surviving Field Agents to the closest available hospital for treatment. All seven---including the team leader who’d lost his leg to Faceless’ “surgery”---briefly thanked the Man in Grey (and the others) for helping to rescue them from the psychopath. After the last of them had been carted off, the Man stared at the ground. “Twenty-nine die,” he muttered, “seven live. As painful as it is to admit….Claudia did what had to be done.”

Nobody spoke for three whole minutes. Finally, Garth suggested getting back to the car and heading back for Ted’s house. Mike and Derrick nodded silently; Destiny didn’t even speak. It took the Man in Grey’s guiding hand to lead her back to the car with the others…and even as they drove away, all of them knew one thing.

Unless Vicki was brought back soon, the body count wouldn't end with Claudia's death.

Mantronix Inc. Factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 02:05 P.M

“…and one full carbon-titanium endoskeletal framework,” Tell declared, opening the last of the crates brought in by Robert and the Inspektor. “If this isn’t enough to make Vicki better, faster and stronger, I don’t know what is.”

Ted frowned. “We’re not giving her the carbon-titanium frame yet,” he reminded Tell. “We still have to pull off Anton’s ‘yank the cart’ trick, if you remember---“

“So transfer everything over to the new framework and run it from there!” Tell insisted. “It’s been built to the exact same specifications as her existing frame---well, except for the new back panel---so every single one of her cranial hookup points is the same as they are in her current body. The skin will fit just like it does now, the myogel set will fit just like it does now---actually, speaking of the skin…” He opened another crate and lifted out what looked like a flesh-colored glove. “Upgraded fireproofing, waterproofing and WiFi protection,” he declared, “but that’s not the best part…” Without warning, he grabbed a sharp probing tool and stabbed it into the limp arm.

“What the hell are you….” Ted began, only to stop as he noticed the arm’s skin stretching, but not tearing or breaking. “Faceless won’t be stabbing her again any time soon,” Tell beamed. “Combine this with the new carbon-titanium endoframe, and she’s almost literally bulletproof!”

After a few seconds of hesitation, Ted spoke: “Show me the face.”

Tell lifted the synthetic skin out of the crate (allowing Ted to see that someone had “dressed” the…intimate areas of V.I.C.I.’s upgraded covering with a coat of aerosolized latex polymer). “Exactly like the one she’s got now,” the field mechanic informed Ted, striding over to the slab where V.I.C.I. lay. “See? Not a hair out of place on the new one.”

It didn’t take nearly as long for Ted to make the call this time. “Do it.”

Lawson’s Eleven carefully extracted the repaired myogel set and vital components from V.I.C.I.’s original frame, being doubly cautious so as to avoid further damaging the bubble memory processors (which was switched to standby for the transfer, and succesfully switched out of that mode after being hooked up to the new endoframe). Once the required original parts and components had been transferred from the old frame to the new, Ted glanced at the crates containing the state-of-the-art gear that would replace all of the brunette gynoid’s obsolete parts. “Time to get to work,” he declared, pulling on a pair of gloves and removing items from the crates.

On any other occasion, the unpacking and installation of so many new components would’ve felt a lot like Christmas; the high-definition ocular sensors, the upgraded chemical detection package that would greatly increase V.I.C.I.’s sense of smell, and even the latest version of the PolyNucleoPeptide Processor reminded Ted of so many holidays past where “some assembly required” actually proved to add even more fun to the morning than anything else.

Now, though…it meant the difference between V.I.C.I.’s return and her demise.

Thirty minutes later, V.I.C.I.’s new-and-improved body---still running the damaged bubble memory processor chipset---was nearly complete; her external synthetic flesh covering (minus the top of her head; Anton had requested that the “skinning” remain unfinished until his “yank the cart” trick could be performed) was in place, and the gynoid now looked to be merely asleep, rather than in a state of near death. The Smartboard linking Oberon (and Charlotte Harrington) to the building was wheeled over to the repair slab where the brunette gynoid lay; all were silent as Anton made a few last-minute preparations before the “big moment”. The time had come to see if Vicki could truly be saved…

…or if she was doomed to a half-life, a hollow shell of her personality and fragmented memories.

“Right,” Anton declared, “this is the part where we either save her or break her. Inspektor 12, ready the new bubble memory processor.”

The Inspektor connectedthe processor to a secondary set of wires trailing out of the gynoid’s head. “Ready.”

Anton smiled. “Now, then---“

His sentence was interrupted by the doors on the far side of the building being flung open. “TED!” The raspy, half-strangled voice sent a shiver of fear down every spine inside the cavernous chamber, made even worse by the sight of the Man in Grey limping into the room. “We have a problem---“

“Indeed we do,” Oberon’s voice intoned from the smartboard. “Your employment with the ALPA was terminated---“

“THE HELL WITH MY EMPLOYMENT!” the Man thundered. “Claudia’s been…she’s gone, Ted.”

Every soul in the room froze where they stood.

“Claudia from DreamLand?” Oberon inquired, his voice grim.

“YES, Claudia from DreamLand!” the Man in Grey snapped, the harsh rasp of his voice adding an extra layer of ugliness to the words. “Faceless…he…he put both his blades through her head, and….” Muted, choked sounds were coming from his throat. “The factory can’t find her memory backups, and they stopped making her model seven years ago. She’s…gone.” He sank to the floor, pulling off his mask as he fell into a kneel by a tool bench. “She’s gone…she saved seven Field Agents…and now she’s just gone….” Gutteral, animalistic wails escaped his lips; his chest heaved with every sob forced from his lungs through his ruined throat.

For two full minutes, the only sounds in the room were the Man’s pained cries.

“Publius,” Oberon finally intoned, “get up.”

The Man rose to his feet, his body still wracked by sobs as he pulled his mask back on.

“Bring Derrick, Garth, Mike and Destiny to a safehouse, and make sure that no other ALPA operatives know of their location. Afterwards…book a flight to another part of the country as soon as possible. You’ve lost all Silicon Valley privileges---“

“WHAT?!” Every set of eyes in the room turned to stare, stunned beyond belief, at the speaker of that word.

“Callista,” Oberon muttered, “this isn’t your concern---“

“He risked his life to save Vicki back in Detroit,” Callista declared. “He just saw Faceless kill someone who we all knew as a good friend, and you spring this on him?! He’s---no, Ted, let me finish! This man has done more for our organization---“

A hand on her shoulder ended Callista’s complaining. “He’s right,” the Man in Grey muttered. “I’m done here.”

Without another word, he turned and left.

Once the Man was out of the room, all attention turned to the smartboard. “Now, then,” Oberon continued, “I notice you’ve already moved Vicki’s damaged bubble memory processor into a new endoframe, and that it was put into standby mode in order to survive the transition…” His image on the screen nodded. “A very smart move, on your part---my uplink to Vicki’s internal memory went dark for just a few seconds, but it’s back up and running now. As for the girl in question, she seems to be resting---"

“Resting?!” Ted echoed incredulously. “She’s---“

“Trapped,” Oberon reminded him. “A prisoner within her own broken mind. Faceless’ attack rendered her in a state similar to a human coma---she can’t hear, see, or otherwise interact with the real world, so her internal personality drivers and memory files have created an avatar within her bubble memory processors…an avatar that, until the very uplink I spoke of earlier was established, was trapped within a limbo from which there was no escape. Faceless knew his assault on her would break her body…but his intent was to shatter her mind as well---and that, esteemed associates of the Artificlai Lifeform Protection Agency, is why every single one of you is here today: to see to it that Vicki emerges from this deathlike state with her mind and body intact…”

A smile played at his face. “…or, in this case, upgraded.”

The rest of the Eleven were reassured by the ALPA Chairman’s words, but Ted himself was horrified. “She’s been…trapped…in her own mind…this whole time?!” he gasped. “I…I thought she was just---“

“Trying to wake up?” Oberon offered. “To be quite honest, she was…but the damage to her systems was too great to allow for anything even resembling a return to consciousness. Professor Malvineous made a great point with his ‘cartridge-yanking’ analogy, and even with high level of risk that such a move would bring, it’s in your best interests to---“

MIDI-fied strains of an 80s synthpop classic filled the room; “Sorry,” Ted apologized, grabbing his phone from his pocket. “Ted Lawson here, how can I---what?! He went where?! How long ago?!”

Every smile in the room faded; the Eleven knew that this wasn’t going to end well.

“…well who else knows? Joanie, just----just calm down---this isn’t a complete disaster…if we can get a team out there to stop him before he does anything stupid, we might---Joanie, please, just….I’ll have DuBraul send a team, they’ll get to him before he….no, they’re not going to shoot him! Just…don’t leave the house, Joan---I promise I’ll have someone find him before anything happens!”

Ted ended the call and turned off his phone, shaking his head. “Jamie’s gone after Faceless,” he muttered.

Shouts of disbelief, protest and downright anger filled the air for the next few minutes.

“EVERYONE SHUT UP!” Ted thundered. “Faceless is the one who started this whole thing when he called my house and threatened Jamie’s life…if anything, we should be….supporting…Jamie---OH, WHO THE HELL AM I KIDDING?!” He nearly threw the phone across the room; “I shouldn’t have left Jamie at the house by himself after Vicki got attacked,” he moaned. “I should’ve had an ALPA team guarding the place as soon as I got back---I shouldn’t have---“

“‘Of all the words from tongue and pen, the saddest are ‘what might have been’,” Oberon’s voice intoned from the smartboard. “A better man than myself uttered that very phrase in response to a situation not unlike this one, Ted…you can’t beat yourself up over this.”

Anton nodded his agreement. “We’ll have every Field Agent available---“

“Every Field Agent available will be maintaining their current posts,” Oberon cut in. “We’ve lost too many as it is…in any case, you lot should be focusing on the task at hand---fully switching Vicki’s bubble memory processors out of standby mode in an hour’s time, so we can begin Anton’s process to save her.”

Fifteen seconds of silence lapsed before Ted replied: “We’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, Oberon.”

“Good. I’ll try to wake her from her internal slumber in an hour…” The smartboard went silent.

“Well,” Anton muttered, “if anyone has any ideas on how to pass the time for the next hour or so…”

Nobody in the room spoke.

Rengold Estate – Mountain View, California – July 10, 2011, 02:46 A.M

Jamie stared at the front door of the house he’d last seen an hour beforehand (thanks to Google Maps), his fists clenched in rage. The place looked like one of Donald Trump’s summer homes gone to seed…

…not that it mattered to the one about to head into it.

As he strode up the walk, Vicki Lawson’s brother reflected on how he’d reacted when he first heard that Vicki had been struck down---shock, denial, grief, anger and acceptance had flooded through his mind in rapid, unrelenting succession…well, all of them except the acceptance part, at least. There was no way he could accept what had happened, to be honest---not now, not ever. Faceless had been lucky to escape…

Now, however, his luck was about to run out.

The front door was unlocked; a simple push allowed Jamie to enter “Newblood Manor” unfettered. He ignored all of the flyers strewn about that had been put up each time the house had been scheduled for demolition; this wasn’t the time for a history lesson in Mountain View’s real-estate policies, after all. His deliberate ignorance extended to the pictures lining the walls, many of which had been cracked, shattered and even stabbed. A few of the faces were familiar---mostly because they’d been friends with Ted at one time or another---but Jamie paid them no mind. They were all dead now---killed by the same bastard who’d tried to kill Vicki.

Now, more than ever, Jamie welcomed the feeling of pure hatred in his mind.

He’d stuck up for Vicki countless times before, going back to her “walking appliance” days…and even now, with her life (he couldn’t think of her as anything but a person anymore) hanging in the balance, the “Big J” was prepared to do whatever it took to make Faceless suffer for having tried to kill her. He’d been through too much to just lay back and let his artificial sister be scrapped.

…and if she does get scrapped, Jamie realized, that son of a bitch will deserve everything that I’m going to do to him when I find him. The brief thought that he might have to kill Faceless swam through Jamie’s mind---and was accepted within seconds. If it came down to it, Faceless would, indeed, meet his end---he’d told Jamie to eitehr “fight or die”, after all---and there’s no way in Hell I’m going to let him kill me….but if I have to, I’ll take him down with me when I go…

…and hopefully, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour will just be a bad memory in 20 years’ time.

The living room was spacious, well-furnished and somewhat inviting, but Jamie ignored the ornate radio, the TV and the magazines---along with every single representation of Faceless’ wealth and power that had been put out on display like so many Christmas ornaments. The furniture looked tacky at best (and downright disturbing at worst), and nearly everything about the place screamed “I have money, and I’m perfectly willing to throw it away on a bunch of shit that I neither want, need nor care about in the least”. It could best be summed up as a vulgar display of wealth (and power, considering how Faceless had broken at least seven zoning laws by annexing property around the manor)…and Jamie hated it.

When I’m done here, this place is getting razed.

A line of debris, “carelessly” strewn across the floor of the living room, leading to a corridor and past a room that looked to be a study. Jamie silently made his way through the halls, ignoring the rec room and the kitchen as he walked; for a brief moment, he considered going up the staircase and ambushing Faceless---only to realize that he could easily be ambushed as well. He turned away from the stairs and followed the debris trail towards a patio door, leading out to the back lot of the property.

The sight that greeted him was…disturbing, to say the last.

Oh, hell….

Folding tables had been laid out in the yard, all of them “decorated” with pictures of the Lawson house…and, for some unknown (and probably sick) reason, the eviscerated remains of dead birds, cats and other animals that had been briefly seen in the neighborhood of the Lawsons.

Surprisingly, that wasn’t what caught Jamie’s eye.

He moved past the tables to what looked like a dried-up well---if dried-up wells had custom-built elevators in them. A few discarded portable pylons surrounded the thing, but anyone with half a brain---or even anyone with a pre-frontal lobotomy---could’ve figured out that Faceless wanted Jamie to take the lift ride to see what was at the bottom of the shaft. As if the “welcome party” set up in the back lot of Newblood Manor wasn’t enough to make someone want to get the hell out of dodge, a note had been taped to the door of the lift; the only words on it were “Descend, and join your sister in Hell.”

Jamie tore the note in half before entering the lift car.

Pure, undiluted rage crept through him as the car descended; he’d never actually felt the urge to kill anyone before in his life…but then again, he’d never had to deal with anyone like Faceless before. Hell, the guy had kidnapped him back in 2007 and tied him up in a fireworks shed---if anything, the “Butcher of Lake Gilmour” deserved the beating he was about to get! The ALPA and the Coalition could do whatever the hell they wanted, but it wouldn’t matter in the end.

As the car slowed to a halt, Jamie clenched his fists.

This ends here, Faceless…

Within seconds, the car glided to a stop, the doors opening with a ping. Jamie stepped out, scowling as he beheld the pure white walls of the chamber.

“FACELESS! I’M HERE! YOU WANT ME…COME GET ME!”

A dry, humorless chuckle filtered through the speaker system installed in the chamber. “So…Vicki’s big brother wants to play…” Lights flickered into existence, revealing racks of tools and “safety gear” that would’ve looked right at home in Dexter Morgan’s garage. Orchestral music filled the room, turned down just enough for Faceless’ voice to be heard: “I was going to wait until tonight,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour admitted, ”but seeing as how you’re here now---“

“SAVE IT,” Jamie spat. “Get your ass in here now, so we can finish this!”

He stepped over the threshhold---and flinched reflexively as a cage lowered from above, revealing the chained figure of Kylie Lyndon. “I caught her trespassing here earlier today,” Faceless’ voice drawled. “I was going to kill her myself…but I think you’d do it better---“

“YOU LET HER OUT OF THE CAGE NOW,” Jamie roared, “OR---“ A paralyzing jolt of electricity shot through the floor into his body, sending him to his knees. “Don’t interrupt me again...or you’ll fry,” Faceless warned. “If you want to free Agent Lyndon, you’ll have to play by my rules.” A particularly bright light shone onto a table bearing a leather jacket and…a gimp mask. “Put on the jacket and the mask,” Faceless ordered. “They’re wired, just like the floor is…so if you disobey, you get roasted.”

Jamie glared at the speakers, but pulled on the garments anyway.

“Agent Lyndon was…sedated…after her capture,” Faceless continued. “Before I allow you to unlock her cage, you’re going to…” Another dry chuckle interrupted the sentence; “…leave a detailed message.” The chuckle faded out; “Go to the farthest knife rack, now, and grab the second-longest paring knife---“

“NO! I’m NOT going to---“

Jamie’s body convulsed as Tazer-level shocks flodded through him. “This isn’t like Sunday school classes, unfortunately,” Faceless chided. “You don’t just get markers for disobedience…anyways, get the knife from the rack, open the cage that holds Agent Lyndon…then carve ‘Send Help’ into her back. A simple-enough task, even for you.” Jamie could almost sense the sneer in those words; “Why…didn’t you just…carve her up…yourself…you sick fu---“

Another shock jolted him. “I want you to do this job,” Faceless leered. “To take a walk in my shoes---“

Even though every nerve ending in his body felt like it was on fire, Jamie staggered over to the rack on the far end of the room and grabbed the aforementioned paring knife. As he made his way to the cage that held Kylie, however, he could see that she wasn’t even remotely sedated---her eyes were wide with fear, and every inch of her bare arms and legs bore purple-and-black bruises, as if she’d been kicked around like a hackey-sack before being put in the cage.

“She’s awake….YOU SAID YOU SEDATED HER, YOU BASTARD!”

“So you actually want to harm her?” Faceless taunted. “Now this is what I call progress…one minute, you want to kill me; the next, you’re cutting up Field Agents---“

The paring knife was hurled across the room. “The hell with this,” Jamie snarled, “and the hell with you---“

A shock coursed through the cage, and Kylie’s eyes welled with tears. “Then I guess I’ll kill her now, and get that out of the way,” Faceless spat. “You’re just as pathetic as your sister…she couldn’t bring herself to kill me, and you refuse to kill this bitch…”

Jamie ignored the taunts, removing the gimp mask and setting to work unlocking the cage.

“If you let her out of there,” the sociopathic killer warned, “you’ll be even worse off than her…no, worse off than your precious sister!” Jamie didn’t even turn around to flip off the nearest speaker; “This doesn’t make me worse than anyone,” he called out. “It just proves that I’m a better human being than you’ll ever be.” The cage door swung open just enough for Kylie to squrm free. “Thank you,” she tearfully whispered.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Jamie muttered. “Just run, and don’t look back---“

Rachmaninoff’s Third blared through the speakers around the room.

“GO!” Jamie shouted, gesturing to the door. “Take the elevator up, get out of this house however you can, and get to my dad---tell him not to send any more Field Agents after Faceless!” Kylie nodded and ran, silently praying that Jamie could survive the hell he was about to face.

As the lift car doors closed, the lights began flickering out. The far side of the room was engulfed in darkness while Jamie watched the elevator ascend; by the time it was out of his line of sight, the entire chamber had gone dark. “What’s the matter, Faceless?!” he taunted. “Can’t face me without being able to hide?! You made me waste all my shots with the fog…but I don’t need a gun to kick your ass! I’LL BREAK YOU IN HALF WITH MY BARE HANDS IF I HAVE TO!”

The only response to his words was a low, quiet hiss from the far end of the room. A portion of the wall slid upward, revealing a rectangle of red light; for a few seconds, Jamie expected the Butcher of Lake Gilmour to appear, standing in the newly-opened doorway……but he didn’t.

“GET OUT HERE AND FACE ME, YOU COWARD!” he shouted. “GET OUT HERE NOW, OR I’LL---“

A knife slid into his side from behind, sending a wave of pain shooting through his entire body.

“’Or now you’ll’ what?” Faceless sneered into Jamie’s ear. “Bleed on me?”

Even with one hand pressed to his side, Jamie was still able to swing backwards with one hell of a backfist; it didn’t matter that his attack was off the mark by a considerable amount---all that mattered was getting the killer to move. “This…isn’t going to end well for you,” he hissed. “The ALPA knows where I am, and---“

“Liar,” Faceless breathed. “They only know you’re in danger…and that your sister won’t save you.” He drove a clubbing elbow into the back of Jamie’s head, sending him crashing into a stainless steel workbench. “This is my territory,” the murderer declared, “my natural habitat…and you’re just waiting to get carved!” He lunged forward, expecting to slash his “victim” across the shoulder blades---but Jamie rolled sideways and kicked out at what he hoped was Faceless’ legs.

Fortunately for him, his hopes proved correct.

The masked sociopath barely flinched from the blow, but it gave Jamie enough time to head in the direction he’d thrown the paring knife earlier---

---except every light in the room flared back into existence at once, temporarily blinding him.

Those critical few seconds were all it took for Faceless to close the gap between himself and Vicki’s brother, grabbing him by the collar and sending him head-first into a metal cabinet door. A smear of blood trailed down the metallic surface as Jamie sank to the floor; “A few more hits like that one,” Faceless casually remarked, “and you’ll be certifiably concussed in minutes…” Another dry, sinister chuckle punctuated his words; “Of course,” he added, “my way is more fun---“

Something bit into his ankle, terminating his taunt in a shocked gasp. A brief glance at his now-injured leg revealed the culprit: the paring knife he’d told Jamie to use against Kylie a few minutes earlier.

“How’s that for fun,” Jamie hissed, “you sick fu---“

An enraged roar cut off the profanity; Faceless had torn the knife from his ankle and was staring silently at his intended prey. “So….this is the way you play….” The angered shout quickly gave way to an unhinged laugh; “I have a feeling you’ll be…interesting,” he leered, “once this little game really gets started…” He tossed the paring knife aside and stalked across the room, grabbing something from a rack just out of Jamie’s line of sight. “You’re really going to enjoy this one,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour called out.

Despite the fact that he knew he’d hate the answer, Jamie couldn’t help but wonder: “Enjoy” what?

A few seconds later, an all-too-familiar buzzing sound roared to life. Oh shit---he’s got the hedge trimmer?!

The demonic scraping of the trimmer’s blades against metal drowned out Jamie’s thoughts---and gave him a reasonable bearing on where Faceless was in the cavernous chamber. All I have to do is keep moving in the opposite direction of that stupid trimmer, he realized, crawling between a set of low-lying shelves, and I’ll---

His reasoning was brutally interrupted by the trimmer stabbing through the hanging tools on the lowest shelf, cutting an ugly gash in Jamie’s leg as he moved. “Trying to worm your way out, Jamie?!” Faceless hissed, his eyes gleaming with a malicious light. “You won’t be leaving here that easily…at least, you won’t be leaving INTACT!” He stabbed forward with the trimmer again, just barely missing the mark as Jamie moved out of range. Ignore the pain, don’t think about it, just don’t think about---

A hollow, resounding clang echoed behind him; Faceless had kicked over the entire shelf.

“JAMIE LAWSON!” he shouted. “TONIGHT, YOU DINE IN HELL!” He stabbed upwards with the trimmer, hitting a low-lying light fixture and throwing off a shower of sparks. What the hell---he’s gonna fry himself if he keeps that up! Jamie shook his head and managed to crouch-run through another row of shelves.

“You can’t keep running from me, Jamie!” Faceless taunted. “THIS IS MY WORLD…WITH MY RULES!”

Yeah, well, your rules suck… As he pulled himself into a surprisingly spacious cabinet, Jamie tore off strips of his shirt and began tying them around his wounds. Not nearly as hygenic as a Band-Aid, he reasoned, but they’ll have to do for now…

Outside the cabinet, Faceless was kicking over more furniture and dragging the hedge trimmers across the metallic tables and shelves for the sole purpose of driving his target out of hiding. Ignore it…don’t give let him realize he’s getting to you…just keep moving… Jamie slowly opened the cabinet door, looked around for a few brief seconds, and crawled out, hoping to get to the lift car before Faceless realized he was still on the move---

---except every light in the room cut out at exactly that moment.

Ten bucks says he can navigate this place in the dark, Jamie mentally groaned. And me without a set of night-vision goggles…

Without the benefit of the lights, Jamie had to feel his way towards the elevator. In any other building, that task by itself wouldn’t have been a challenge, even in the darkness…but after a few seconds of blindly grabbing his way across the room, Jamie began to realize that Faceless wasn’t just blowing smoke with his “my world, my rules” line earlier…the makings of a fever were building up with every step he took. What…the hell is going on here?! A reddish haze filled his vision, as a dark crimson light began to illuminate the room; within seconds, he was sweating profusely and finding it hard to focus on what he was doing. More than a few times, he nearly lost his grip on the furniture around him…

A few seconds later, it was all too apparent that he wasn’t just locked in the grips of a delirious episode.

The feeling of sickness remained, but the red haze and light turned out to be quite a bit more…tangible than he’d expected---Faceless had started a fire! Even worse, it wasn’t an uncontrollable blaze that would reduce everything in the room to ashes---the entire chamber was lined with pipes that spat jets of flame, and (if one didn’t watch one’s step) could easily roast a human being alive.

Obviously, that was exactly the fate that Jamie would likely meet…

…except he wasn’t planning on getting turned into a Kentucky Fried anything any time soon.

“Nice trick,” he called out, rising from his crouch, “but it’ll take more than fancy pyro to---“ Something heavy smashed into the back of his head, and he faintly remembered something about concussions as he fell to the floor…and looked up to see Faceless standing over him. “Still think you can beat me, Jamie?” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour inquired. “Or do you finally realize you can’t?” He hefted the stone cutting board he’d used to bash Jamie across the head; “Your answer, of course, is irrelevant now,” he added. “You will die here, alone, in pain…and your ‘sister’ will join you afterwards.” His eyes narrowed; the bastard’s probably smirking behind that stupid mask of his, Jamie realized.

“Any last words before I kill you?”

“Just four,” Jamie quietly replied. “KISS THE FLOOR, FREAK!”

Every single neuron in his brain fired at once. Adrenaline coursed through his body as his leg shot out to kick the white-masked killer in the shin with the force of a nine-iron across the kneecaps---and the results were just as spectacular. The cutting board fell from Faceless’ grasp as he toppled forwards, his forearms taking the brunt of the fall. Jamie backpedaled away from him as fast as he could, hoping to rise to his feet and break into a run before---

Faceless’ black-gloved hand closed around his ankle. “You’re going to pay dearly for that…”

“Like HELL I will!” Jamie kicked at his attacker, trying desperately to escape.

After a few seconds of apparently fruitless scrabbling, he finally managed to smash the killer’s fingers with a solid kick, turning himself over and breaking into a limping run just as Faceless let go. Get to the door, just keep running and don’t look back, don’t even think of looking back…just run, and keep running until you can’t run anymore…

Fortunately for him, that plan managed to work out quite well.

At least, it worked until a column of fire shot up less then seven centimeters away from his face.

Reflexively, Jamie stumbled backwards---though it was more of a controlled reflex, due to the fact that he didn’t feel like getting his face burnt off by a massive pillar of flaming-hot death---and tripped over his own feet as he tried to turn away. Get up, get up, get up---

“You’re not trying to leave…are you?”

It was hard to say what was more terrifying, from Jamie’s perspective---the calmness in Faceless’ voice as the entire chamber seemed to burn around them, or the odd reverberation effect. “I’d advise against any further escape attempts,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour crooned (though, to Jamie, it sounded more like an echoing voice in a solid steel tunnel). “Seven steps outside, and you’d lose consciousness…thanks to the hallucinogen coursing through you.” Jamie scrambled to move away from the black-clad killer, no longer caring that the extra arms and seven-foot-tall legs he was seeing were mere drug-induced delusions.

“Of course,” Faceless continued, his mask melting to reveal Jamie’s own face as he spoke, “you could try to fight…” Jamie tried not to throw up as the image of his own face on Faceless’ head split in half down the middle and dissolved into a gory mess, revealing the killer’s trademark mask. “…but in your…condition…you’d probably lose. Therefore, I’d highly suggest…just giving up.”

Despite the fact that he could barely feel his tongue, Jamie managed to spit on Faceless’ shoes. “That,” he blurted, “is…” An almost-crippling wave of nausea washed over him; even speaking was becoming difficult.

“That was, without a doubt, utterly pathetic.” Faceless grabbed Jamie by the ankles; “I was going to kill you here,” he admitted, dragging his prey towards the red-lit door at the far end of the room, “but after that display of…pointless stupidity, I think you deserve to suffer more.” He savagely jerked Vicki’s brother by the ankle, smashing his head into a nearby shelf. “I’m hoping you really felt that one,” he whispered. “It’s the least painful thing you’ll get…if you’re lucky enough to actually survive….”

Jamie was already half unconscious, but the hallucinogens in his veins really didn’t help. To him, the gouts of fire reflecting off steel looked like pillars of light shining off of water…and come to think of it, there was a steady rush of water building underneath him….

Faceless chuckled darkly as Jamie thrashed around, trying not to drown in a nonexistant flood. “Your mind is as broken as Vicki’s,” he crooned. “What little of it you still have will be utterly decimated before this ends…if you’re lucky, you’ll die before then.” He chuckled again as Jamie batted at something he perceived as having latched onto his leg; “I’m glad you’re enjoying my new blend,” he casually remarked. “A potent mixture of popular hallucinogenic substances…mixed in with a few…secret ingredients…all mixed up and combined to make what can only be called ‘Nightmare Fuel’.” He grinned at the thought; “…and you’ll be having plenty of nightmares,” he added, “assuming you survive…or if I’m generous…”

By the time he reached the red-lit door, Jamie was horrified to discover that everything around him was now a formless, shapeless blur of color, noise and even smell. The figure beside him was either the Grim Reaper or some other avatar of death, and the confined space was likely going to close in on him and mash him to paste.

As the elevator car rose, a blood-chilling scream rang out.

And so, Faceless mused, Jamie Lawson ascends to Hell…

Mantronix Inc. Factory – Palo Alto, California – July 10, 2011, 02:50 P.M

Anton stared at the slab holding V.I.C.I.’s upgraded body, already dreading the words he’d have to say in a few short seconds. Everything had worked in the theoretical tests…but that was just it---they were theoretical. If even the slightest variables changed between the tests and the actual procedure…

The famed roboticist took a deep, calming breath.

Hopefully, this wouldn’t end in tears…

A few seconds later, the Eleven were gathered around the slab. “Right,” Anton declared, “you’re all here…and now is as good a time as any to do what we’re about to do.” He resisted the urge to stare at the brunette gynoid’s lifeless form as he spoke; “In a few minutes,” he continued, “Ted will fully connect Vicki to her memory backup mainframe, reactivate her and allow her to run the damaged bubble memory processor---but she’ll also be running the new processor. With both chipsets concurrently active alongside the backup mainframe, Vicki’s neural plasticity should be able to repair itself enough to pull off my little ‘yank-the-cart’ trick.”

“What’s the catch?” Greg inquired.

“Catches,” Anton corrected. “The first is that the damaged processor must be removed at exactly the right moment, otherwise the transfer to her new processor won’t be complete…and she’ll be gone. The second is that if we leave both processors running for too long, the entire thing will destabilize, and…well, you get the idea. I know some of you have expressed a desire to just reboot her as-is---“

“Because it’ll work,” Will insisted. “She’ll be up and about---“

Anton’s cold, unforgiving stare silenced him. “If we reactivate her as-is,” he quietly reminded the Brightstar Industries CEO, “she won’t be Vicki. She’ll be a very close copy, but not the Vicki we all know and love…and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve been pushing for my ‘yank-the-cart’ solution to this matter: if we can pull it off, Vicki will have her personality, memories and everything else that makes her…well, her…intact. Also, we have a rather unprecedented advantage in this case…namely, Oberon’s connection to Vicki’s systems, which should allow us to pull the damaged processor out at exactly the right time.” He wrung his hands as he glanced at V.I.C.I.; “Of course,” he added, “this is one of the most dangerous procedures I’ve had to perform on a ‘bot in the last decade or so…I’ve written entire reams of notes on this, and simmed the whole thing dozens of times…”

He looked away from the brunette gynoid. “…but if we screw up here, we don’t get to start over.”

The feel of a hand on his shoulder snapped Anton out of his morbid thoughts. “You’re not going to screw this up,” Ted assured him. “None of you will screw this up…and I know damn well that I won’t screw this up…so what the hell is everyone so afraid of?!” He gave a noticably nervous chuckle.

“He’s right,” the Inspektor agreed. “The more we worry…the longer Vicki stays under.”

With that, Anton hooked up the necessary monitoring gear and connected both processors to V.I.C.I.’s cranial unit. “We’re ready to start the process, Oberon,” he called out, turning his attention to the smartboard. “Is everything set on your end?”

“I’ve been waiting to hear you ask that for the last five minutes,” Oberon replied.

“Guess that’s a ‘yes’, then,” Anton mused, grinning. “Oh, and can you get her out of standby mode before we start this? It might cause a few…complications if her damaged processor is dormant during the procedure, and I---“

“Say no more, Professor. I’m waking her up as we speak…”


The world faded back into life before Vicki’s eyes. “Wha…..what happened?”

“Technically,” Oberon’s voice informed her, “you were sleeping…in literal terms, though, your damaged bubble memory processor was in standby mode so that it could be implanted into a new carbon-titanium endoframe, and…you were sleeping. Funny how the figurative term matches the actual explanation so easily…but that’s beside the point.”

Vicki glanced around the half-formed landscape. “So…I’m still in my head?” she murmured. “Nothing here is real…that errrorundefinedobject over there, it doesn’t actually exist?” She pointed at a wireframe tree.

“It’s a representation of your neural pathways repairing themselves,” Oberon replied, flickering for a moment before solidifying. “In a few minutes, it’s going to go from bare and leafless to…” His voice dissolved to static for a second. “…and full of---what? Why are you---wait, hang on…” He looked down and sighed; “Anton,” he called out, “my avatar seems to be missing the entire lower half of its body…care to boost the WiFi signal from HQ so that I can actually get back to having legs?”

“Just a second,” the disembodied voice of Anton Malvineous replied. “…and…there!”

Oberon’s legs faded back into view. “Much obliged!” he called out, smiling. “Now, then…in a few minutes, you might feel a rather…unpleasant sensation, almost like…well, there’s nothing I can really use as a basis for comparison or analogy, but what’s basically going to happen is---“

“My damaged bubble memory processor will be running concurrently with a new, unused bubble memory processor,” Vicki droned, “until such time as you send a wireless signal for the damaged processor to be removed from my cranial casing---“ She clapped her hands over her mouth; “I wasn’t even thinking that!” she gasped. “How…how did I---did I---did I---did I---“ Her body froze for a few seconds as the error worked itself out of her systems. “How did I know that?!”

“You know because I just sent the information to you,” Oberon admitted.

“You’re…manipppppppppppppulatulatulatulatulat---“ Vicki’s head twitched to the left. “You’re messing with my mind?! I thought you were trying---trying---trying---trying---trying---“ She grabed a hold of her head with both hands, tears streaming down her face; “I thought you were trying to help me!” she pleaded.

“I am,” Oberon replied, his voice once again deepened. “That tree you saw earlier…what is it now?”

“That errorundefinedobject is a…” Vicki stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “It’s a bookshelf?!”

Oberon gave her a reassuring smile. “Your neural pathways are repairing themselves as we speak, even with your mind in its dormant state.” He sighed sadly; “Unfortunately,” he admitted, “the next part---the one that, in all probability, will restore you to normal---is also going to be the most painful for you to experience. Until now, your bubble memory processor has been running independently of all other systems…but in a few short seconds, Ted will reactivate you---“

“NO!” Vicki shrieked. “He…he….he….he…he…” She stumbled forward, clinging to Oberon for support; “He can’t,” she insisted. “I…I…I…won’t bebebebebebebebebe---“ Her entire body shuddered with every glitching repetition. “I won’t be me,” she whispered.

“After this procedure is finished,” Oberon assured her, “you will, indeed, be you.”

The brunette gynoid stared into his eyes…. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

For the first time in what felt like forever, that air of finality returned to her voice: “Then tell them I’m ready.”


“Not a problem, Vicki…” Oberon’s image on the smartboard turned to face those staring at the board; “She’s ready for the procedure,” he informed Lawson’s Eleven. “It’d be best to do a countdown, or something…give the girl time to prepare herself for the shock of it before you go throwing the switches.”

Anton nodded his agreement. “Does a countdown from 30 sound fair?” he began, only for Ted to nearly throw him to the floor. “Can…can she hear us?” he asked, his voice shaky. “Can Vicki hear us right now? I…I just wanted to ask, because I want to know if she’s okay…if she’s, y’know, anxious about this whole procedure…if you could somehow get her on the connection---“

“I would if I could, Ted,” the ALPA Chairman admitted, “but she needs to prep for the processor sync-up.”

Ted nodded solemnly. “I…I understand,” he muttered. “I…I just wanted to tell her something…I wanted to tell her…that I’d be waiting for her when she wakes up…” Tears streamed down his face.

Nobody in the room made a sound.

A sudden noise---a voice---from the smartboard caught Ted’s attention: “D…dad?”

That single word was all it took to wipe the pain from Theodore Lawson’s face. “Vicki?!”

“I…I heard what you said,” Vicki’s voice (which, despite sounding weak, carried that familiar---and, in this case, welcomed---tone of finality to it) replied, “and…I wanted to say some---some---something too…” A burst of static (which sounded remarkably like a sniffle) emanated form the smartboard’s speaker. “I’ll…be waiting…to see you, too….”

Everyone conveniently found an excuse to turn away, apparently due to a microscopic cloud of dust getting in all their eyes at once. Even the usually stoic Anton wiped a tear away from his eyes, smiling as he helped Ted to his feet. “Vicki,” he murmured, glancing back at the smartboard, “I think that’s exactly what he needed to hear.” After letting Ted compose himself (which took a few more minutes), Anton finally brought it upon himself to ask the question both of them had been waiting for---and halfway-dreading---since the day had begun: “Are you ready?”

The reply he received pretty much sealed the deal: “No…but since when has that stopped any of us before?”

“Never has,” Anton replied, smiling as the remaining members of the Eleven declared, “AND NEVER WILL!”

Ted nodded. “Then let’s get this started. Dave, get ready to reactivate Vicki.”

“Remote activation switch primed and waiting for the green light,” Tell replied. “Reactivation of V.I.C---sorry, of Vicki Lawson will commence on your signal…” He grinned. “Just give me the all-clear, and we’ll get this gravy train a’rolling.”

After one last glance at V.I.C.I.----at Vicki---Ted gave the thumbs up.

“Commence countdown!” Anton declared.

“Reactivation to begin in T-minus 30 seconds,” Tell called out.

Ted grasped Vicki’s hand and kissed it. “We’re all waiting for you, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Just…please, don’t make us wait too long…” His eyes squeezed shut as he pressed Vicki’s hand to his forehead; “I know you can come back, Vicki…please prove me right…”

“T-minus 20 seconds to reactivation…”

As the countdown continued, Ted knealt to kiss his daughter’s cheek, a lone tear splashing onto her face…


Within the confines of her mind, Vicki felt something salty on her cheek. “Is it…raining?” she asked.

Oberon couldn’t bring himself to tell her what it really was. “The room up ahead is a representation of the process you’re about to undergo,” he informed her. “Approach the mirror, but don’t touch it…at least, not until I give the command. You’re going to see, hear and feel things in there that may be…a bit distracting, but you must ignore them, and focus only on the mirror.” He pushed the door open and allowed Vicki to enter the room; a tall, ornate mirror was the only bit of furniture held within the massive chamber.

“So…all I---all I---all I have to dododododododo---“ The gynoid flinched. “All I have to do is touch the mirror?”

“When I give the signal, yes.”

“Thaaaaaaaatt….makes sense.” Vicki steeled herself and approached the mirror, as Oberon had instructed; a voice from somewhere she couldn’t see called out “T-minus 15 seconds to reactivation.”

She held her hands up, ready to touch the mirror….


“She’s ready to begin,” Oberon informed the Eleven.

“Good,” Anton replied. “Let’s make this count, people!”

Tell monitored the action: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one---REACTIVATE!”

Ted keyed in the sequence, Anton threw the switch, and everyone held their breaths…


The room around Vicki erupted into a vortex of light, sound and sensations from just over two decades of her operating lifespan, all of them swirling by too quickly for her to make any of them out…

…well, all but one…

[So, the broken doll isn’t quite so broken after all…] The figure of the Faceless Nightmare stepped out of the vortex, looking even more ethereal than he had before. [A pity, really…I was going to just watch as you were reduced to a gibbering, whimpering wreck within this fractured mind of yours…] He stopped, realizing his prey wasn’t even paying attention to him. [You…you dare ignore me?! I AM THE SUM OF EVERYTHING YOU FEAR! I’M THE REASON YOU’RE TRAPPED IN YOUR OWN MIND TO BEGIN WITH! I CAN CRUSH EVERY FIBER OF YOUR BEING WITH A SINGLE GRASP! I---]

“Am really starting to get on my nerves.”

The Faceless Nightmare turned, stunned beyond belief to see a second Vicki standing behind him. “Now, if you don’t mind,” the gynoid requested in her robotic monotone, “I have an appointment to get to…” She brushed past him, disappearing from view---

---and reappearing in the mirror that the first Vicki had just placed her hands on.


“Transfer link has been established!” Tell declared. “It’s starting, Ted, it’s starting!”

Anton’s eyes never left the monitor before him. “There’s something else in there,” he muttered, “something that’s not part of her system, and definitely not ALPA issue…” His stare widened in fear; “It’s a signal from a Rengold Cybernetics terminal,” he gasped. “It’s---“

“It’s not going to be a problem,” Inspektor 12 replied, “because one signal is no match for Lawson’s Eleven!”

Everyone not already at a terminal pulled up a seat in front of one and got to work…


[This…this is cheating,] the Nightmare growled. [Two of you, against one of me…hardly the kind of odds---]

Something smashed into him before he could even hope to finish the sentence.

[WHAT---HOW---]

“Hey, assclown!” The ghostly image of Ash Wakefield appeared before him. “Word of advice: Don’t try to hack Vicki Lawson unless you’re willing to deal with her friends…”

The Nightmare reared back, preparing to strike---only to get clubbed in the back of the head. “…and when one friend shows up,” Callista Swanson’s voice called out, just as her own image appeared, “the rest are sure to follow.” Her words infuriated the Nightmare and prompted him to charge---only to get kicked back by the twin images of Raul Angston and William Brightstar. “Don’t try that again,” Will warned, “or we’ll kick even harder next time.”

[THIS…THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!] the Nightmare roared. [HOW CAN YOU---] Another clubbing blow sent him sprawling to the nonexistant ground; “Simple, mate,” Greg McDonnel cheerfully replied. “We’re Lawson’s Eleven…” Yuusuke Kishin Kojima, Jason Heinmann, Mark Perkins and Robert Conroy materialized before the Nightmare. “…and unless you feel like taking on every single one of us,” Kishin suggested, “you’ll leave now.”

Not surprisingly, the Nightmare laughed off the threat. [I will NEVER leave---]

“Really?” The voice of Inspektor 12 preceded a brutal axe kick to the Nightmare’s head. “Well, then, I guess we’ll have to get a bit more…aggressive with our negotiations, won’t we?”

As Lawson’s Eleven used every antivirus trick they knew of, Vicki found herself somehow being made whole once again. So…this is---is---is it, then…the part where IIIIIIIIIIII----

The part where we come back.

Vicki stared, shocked, at her reflection---which looked exactly the way she’d looked before the July 7 fireworks explosion that had led to the “big makeover”. We’ll get through this, Lawson…and by the time it’s over, “we’ll” be you, and that’s all that matters. Her reflection smiled, and slowly began to change to resemble Vicki’s current appearance; how…how can you talk to me?! the confused gynoid inquired. You’re---you’re---you’re just my reflection---

A reflection with a somewhat older version of your neural pattern, actually…and right now, we’re on our way to becoming one and the same gynoid. Just remember, no matter what happens, don’t look away from the mirror, and don’t take your hands off of it---

[VICKI LAWSON!]

The Faceless Nightmare’s voice sent a shiver of fear through Vicki, but she followed her own (or rather, her reflection’s) advice. I won’t…look look look look---back…I won’t let him get to me---me---me…again! I have to make it back…for Dad….

She could feel the intangible blade slice through her, but it didn’t hurt---it didn’t even register as anything that could remotely be called pain. All she felt was a sense of tranquility, a feeling of oneness with her second self…and with every passing second, she realized that the mirror was starting to fade away, but the reflection was still there, still in front of her…and somehow, even as the “room” around her began to fade into binary numbers and the most abstract data, she was able to steady her gaze, locking it onto the reflection.

In the digital void, the Faceless Nightmare screamed, faded away……

Dad…I’m coming home….


“Faceless’ connection just got bitch-slapped!” Tell shouted, cackling with unfettered glee. “He’s out of Vicki’s systems!”

Anton nodded. “It’s all on you now, Mr. Chairman---get ready to give the signal!”

“I will,” Oberon’s voice replied from the smartboard’s speakers, “in another 10 seconds…”


“Vicki…”

Without looking away from her reflection, the brunette gynoid called out: “Yes?”

“At the count of three, close your eyes and pull your hands away from the reflection.”

A pause…. “It…won’t hurt, will it?”

“I can’t really say if it will or not…you just have to trust me.”

Vicki saw her reflection nod. “I…I trust you, Oberon.”

“Glad to hear it. Now…on the count of three….ONE…”

This is it…this is what I’ve been waiting for…

“TWO…”

Dad…I love you….

“THREE!”

Vicki closed her eyes, pulled her hands away…and, for the briefest fraction of a second, felt herself back in that cold, terrifying void…


Anton pulled the chip out, and every monitor in the room went black.


….and just as quickly, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson felt herself fly right out of that void.


Ted stared at the monitor before him, too awed by what appeared on the screen to speak. “Her neural pathways,” Raul whispered. “They’re…changed…” He shook his head in disbelief. “It’s…it’s almost like she’s---“

“A completely new Vicki,” Ted whispered.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s completely new,” Anton replied. “Her personality and memory files are all completely intact…except her personality directories are more…substantial than they were before…it’s like she’s had 20 years’ worth of learning experience in an hour, which is…it’s just fantastic, really! It’s---“ He stopped, his grin fading; “The process is still going,” he muttered. “It should’ve stopped when we yanked out the damaged processor! Why isn’t it---“

Without warning, the entire room went dark.

“NO!” Ted’s voice rang out in the chamber; “Somebody start up the generator!” he shouted. “Call the power company, call the landlord---do SOMETHING!” He edged his way along a desk, making his way to the slab in the center of the room. “We have to get the power back on, or Vicki---“

“Or I’ll what?”

One by one, the lights in the room clicked on. “Y’know, Dad,” Vicki’s voice chided from every speaker in the room, “you really need to do something about this anxiety of yours…you always expect the worst, when you should be looking forward to the best.” The lights over the slab blazed back into existence, revealing a peaceful smile on Vicki’s face.

“Vicki?” Ted gasped. “Is it…really you?!”

“No, it’s the ghost of Stephen Foster---of course it’s really me!” A playful laugh resounded throughout the room as Lawson’s Eleven cheered, a few of them shaking hands (and embracing). “I’ll admit, being stuck inside my own head---my own mind---was a bit…sobering, but a little bit of self-introspection never hurts. In any case, I’m back now---well, at least mentally; for some reason, I think I’m manipulating the networked PCs and Macs in this room just through…sheer force of will, I guess you’d call it…ah, is this normal, for any ‘bot who undergoes this procedure?”

“Not really,” Anton admitted, the smile never leaving his face. “To be honest…you’re actually the first sentient android it’s been tested on---“

“Gynoid,” Vicki’s voice corrected. “The first sentient gynoid…” A remarkably humanlike sigh filled the room; “I just got brought back from the brink of being scrapped, and here I am obsessing about pronouns…please tell me this is just some kind of quirky side effect!”

Tell nearly fell over laughing. “Ah, you were a stickler for proper grammar before today,” Anton recalled.

“Oh, right…anyways, just give me a minute to get back to…well, me…actually, while I’m thinking about it---and I’m so glad I can say that right now, because being trapped inside my own head didn’t count as me ‘thinking’, especially since I was running a damaged processor at the time---how exactly am I able to link up to any random network and just talk through it like I’m on the phone? I mean, don’t get me wrong---it’s really cool, and all…but how do I control it---“

“We’ll get the kinks worked out once you’re back in your body,” the Inspektor assured her. “And may I be the first to formally welcome you back to the land of the living,” he added with a smile.

“Thanks…and that goes to all of you. I literally wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for you.”

Raul nodded proudly. “We were all honored to help you back from the edge of defeat, Miss Lawson.”

Again, the playful giggle sounded; “Is it weird that I’d be blushing if I could right now?” Vicki’s voice asked. “In any case, just give me a minute…this whole thing feels like a cross-country vacation in the middle of the night, so any help getting me back to…me would be really appreciated.”

“Not a problem…” Anton tapped a few keys on a terminal, and Vicki’s eyes---which, for some unexplained reason, were now glowing blue---opened. “That should speed up the process a bit,” the famed roboticist declared, “though I don’t know why---“ He stopped, the realization hitting him. “You’ve added yourself to the network,” he gasped. “This…this is brilliant---instead of just using your internal modem to connect to every computer in this room, you connected yourself---your own systems---to the network!”

“So…I can actually do that now?”

“Apparently,” Greg replied. “Ted, you want to do the honors…?”

Ted nodded silently as he eased Vicki into a sitting position, her new back panel opening silently. “Just one more connection,” he whispered, opening a smaller, internal panel and connecting the last remaining wire inside it. “Ready when you are, sweetie!”

“Glad to hear it…now, then, let’s see if I still remember how to boot myself up…”


Wake-up cycle initiated. Loading V.I.C.I. BIOS……….BIOS loaded. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. RAM: OK ROM: OK Testing Neural Network Settings…Neural Network Settings OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 99.6% Good afternoon, V.I.C.I.; today is Sunday, July 10, 2011.

Vicki felt her eyes flutter open; “Well,” she murmured, “waking up still feels the same…” A smile crossed her face as she looked up at the circle of faces around her. “Either you’re all glad to see me,” she teased, “or someone forgot to put my clothes back on me before this whole thing started---“

Dermal Sensor Check: Clothing is currently…on.

“That’s new,” the brunette gynoid mused. “Well, it beats finding out the hard way…” She eased herself off the slab, taking a few slow steps. “I can still walk, then…and I can obviously still talk, so…I’d say this whole thing was a resounding success!”

“It most certainly was,” Anton replied, clapping her on the shoulder. “Is it weird that I just got a PSI reading from that clap?” Vicki inquired. “Actually, come to think of it…all of my sensory capabilities are…better, now; I can hear every individual heartbeat in the room---well, as background noise, at the moment---and I can tell what the condensation level is inside…” She glanced over her shoulder; “…and I just heard a certain someone let out a rather surprised gasp,” she added, turning to smile at Ted. “Well…are you going to say it, or am---“

Without another word, Ted ran forward and wrapped Vicki in a hug. “Thank you,” he sobbed, crying into her shoulder.

The gynoid gently pulled back; “I told you I’d be waiting for you,” she reminded him. “And for the record, I’m the one who should be thanking you---as in all of you.” She glanced at the other members of Lawson’s Eleven. “Seriously, I don’t know where to begin…though I should start off with the fact that I now feel a hell of a lot lighter,” she mused, holding out her right hand and flexing her fingers. “Also, I just realized that I’ve got a background process for keeping track of my individual components…and a few of them are missing---“

“They’re not ‘missing’,” Kishin corrected, “they were swapped out.”

“Ted’s idea,” Callista added. “Everything in you that could be used against you was removed.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Really? You did all that---“ She felt Ted draw her back into the hug; “I didn’t want to lose you again,” he whispered. “Not now, not ever…I…I didn’t want to give him anything he could---“

“Dad…you can say his name. It’s not like he’s Voldemort or anything.”

“Indeed,” Anton agreed. “In any case, we swapped out all of the unnecessary tech to ensure that you had the lowest possible number of weaknesses for Faceless---or anyone else---to exploit in the near and/or distant future. Your endoskeletal framework is now carbon-titanium, and your external skin is a higher-grade polymer than before, with more chemical treatments to resist cutting, slashing and stabbing attacks. As for your power cells---“

“One thing at a time, Professor!” Vicki laughed. “So…when do we call Jamie and Joan to tell them….”

She stopped, noticing every smile in the room fade. “What? What’d I say?”

“As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Oberon’s voice intoned from the smartboard, “your brother saw fit to go after Faceless himself, to avenge your…defeat at his hands.”

The full spectrum of emotions---shock, fear, grief, a smidgen of anger---ran through the brunette gynoid’s new bubble memory processors for the briefest fraction of a second, sorting themselves just as quickly. “If this were any other day,” she admitted, “I’d either be freaking out or getting pissed at him for doing something so stupid…but, seeing as how he might’ve thought that I wouldn’t be coming back…” She sighed. “Is there any way we can find him right now?”

“Give me a minute,” Oberon replied.

Vicki nodded, looking herself over. “I don’t know whether to be thankful that someone already dressed me in my Field Agent uniform,” she mused, “or just the slightest bit creeped out---wait, hang on…apparently, I had ‘aerosolized latex polymer’ sprayed over…myself…so nobody saw anything…okay, seriously, this new sensory package is just wicked.” She grinned; “And the new HUD for my OS…this is just unbelievably detailed! I can tell what temperature I am right now---down to the exact degree, even! Speaking of which…” She closed her eyes and focused. “Well, all of my new internals are really, really quiet,” she murmured, “so that’s yet another big plus over the old me---“

Something on the smartboard beeped furiously. “What the hell is that noise?!” Raul groaned.

“It’s a message from Oberon,” Anton replied. “The webcam connection just went down, but he sent this e-mail right before…” His voice trailed off. “Dear God….this…” He stepped aside, allowing Vicki to get a good look at the screen.

Saying that she was disturbed by what she saw would be putting it mildly.

Jamie was duct-taped and shackled to a chair, with thin cuts at the corners of his mouth; Vicki’s built-in ocular enhancer suite allowed her to see similar cuts between his fingers and toes. Both of his eyes were almost swollen shut, and his shirt was nearly torn off of him as it was. “A low-quality videocapture from a private webcam,” the brunette gynoid murmured. “Faceless was probably going to send this to us, but his connection must’ve timed out…” She shook her head. “Right…get me my ES9950, my phone, and a car with a full tank of gas---I’m going to need---“

“Vicki, you can’t go after him!” Ted cried. “You just recovered from---“

An intentionally-exaggerated throat-clearing noise from Anton was enough to convince Ted to stop talking.

“Jamie and I have gotten each other in trouble for years,” Vicki reminded him, “but we’ve always bailed each other out just as many times…” She glanced back at the smartboard, not bothering to supress the shudder that ran through her. “If I don’t help him this time,” she murmured, “there might never be another next time ever again…” A smile crossed her face. “Besides,” she added, her robotic monotone sounding just a bit less robotic than usual, “what kind of sister would I be if I didn’t pull his bacon out of the fire?”

Ted nearly collapsed, but chose instead to wrap Vicki in yet another hug. “I’ll get Jamie back, Dad,” the brunete gynoid whispered. “And before you ask…I don’t want to kill Faceless anymore.” The Eleven were more than a bit surprised; “After all he’s done,” Anton mused, “you don’t want to kill him?”

“It would just bring me down to his level,” Vicki reminded him. “I’m better than that….” She hesitated.

“Something wrong?” Greg inquired.

“It’s….this may sound stupid,” Vicki admitted, “but after this is over…any chance I can see a shrink?”

Anton and the Eleven exchanged looks. “I think we might be able to arrange something…”

Rengold Cybernetics Factory – Mountain View, California – July 10, 2011, 03:40 P.M

Everything hurt.

That was the only feeling---and thought---that Jamie Lawson could grasp, thanks in no small part to the cuts in the corners of his mouth and the edges of his eyelids, as well as those that laced the skin between his fingers and toes, and a pair of gashes behind each ear. Those 28 cuts sent waves of pain---sheer, undilluted and unmistakeable pain---through him with every movement, no matter how slight.

Not surprisingly, the one who’d inflicted the aforementioned cuts wasn’t exactly being…sympathetic.

“So,” Faceless intoned, “you think this is real pain?” That maddening dry chuckle emanated from behind his mask; “No, this pain you’re feeling right now,” he continued, “is nothing…compared to what comes next.” With a flourish, he pulled a thin sliver of metal---a razor blade, Jamie realized with a growing sense of dread---from his coat pocket. “This is what put those on you,” the masked killer informed Jamie. “You weren’t…awake for most of it; thankfully, that won’t be a problem now.” He gestured to an IV drip in Jamie’s wrist. “The highest-grade medical stimulants I have, coursing through your veins…keeping you awake…”

As his intended victim watched, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour crossed the room and pulled an old towel off of something, revealing it to be a radio. “I prefer to have music while working,” he explained. “In this…particular case…a certain tune will….set the mood for this auspicious occasion.” He flicked a switch, and the radio buzzed to life.

“…and this is KFBC, Silicon Valley Classic Radio,” an overly-hammy voice declared, “playing the best hits from the 60s and 70s to the late 90s. And now, here’s a classic from the disco era: ‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA!”

Faceless’ usual dry chuckle escalated to a full-blown laugh as he circled around the chair where Jamie was restrained, a scalpel in hand. “A…special request, from Agent Lyndon,” he hissed. “And now….we get back to business.” He backed away, only to lunge forward and savagely slash Jamie across the face, circling the chair rapidly and dragging the scalpel across his bound captive’s shoulder blades. As he returned to the front of the chair, the song hit the chorus….

…which was soon drowned out by Jamie’s blood-curdling screams as Faceless descended upon him with the scalpel. Slick, wet cutting sounds accompanied the shrieking as the Butcher of Lake Gilmour lived up to his infamous moniker, carving Jamie with a precision usually reserved for Thanksgiving turkeys. By the time the song reached its second chorus, Jamie’s shirt had been completely shredded---and Faceless had carved a horrifying network of gashes into his helpless captive’s chest. “PLEASE!” Jamie screamed. “JUST KILL ME AND GET IT OVER WITH!” He didn’t care that he’d just pissed his pants (for the third time in less than three hours), and he didn’t care about the possibility of getting an infection…he just wanted the pain to stop.

“But then you’ll miss the Sunday Replay!” Faceless countered, gesturing to the radio…

…just as “Dancing Queen” started again. “Lucky for you,” the killer continued, “today’s a triple replay….”

This time, Jamie started screaming before the blade---an electric bone saw, this time---even touched him.

Everything he felt in the next four minutes was even more horrific than the pain he’d already felt---the backs of his kneecaps and the insides of his elbows were sliced open just enough to break the skin, but not get at the muscle, and both shoulders bore a veritable criss-cross of deep cuts from the bone saw.

“And now, to add the artist’s signature,” Faceless proclaimed, the scalpel poised to slash Jamie’s forehead---

---and then, just as the song hit its chorus again, the radio died…along with every light in the building.

“Damned power company,” Faceless growled, “always ruining my work…”

For his part, Jamie was still terrified. He knew just enough about blood loss to realize that, unless he was brought to a hospital within an hour or so, he’d be too weak to get out under his own power…which, knowing his captor, wasn’t even going to be an issue.

“You…just stay here,” Faceless muttered, grabbing a flashlight. “I’ll fix this…”

Without another word, he stalked off towards the security door, slamming it behind him.

Three seconds after the door slammed, Jamie finally caved. A long, wordless howl escaped his lips, laying his pain bare in the rawest, most primal form. Every decision he’d made over the course of the day was coming back to haunt him now---he’d run off to avenge Vicki’s defeat on his own terms, never once thinking about what might happen to everyone else he cared about…and now, here he was, carved like a side of beef and waiting for his killer to return.

In all his years, he never thought his life would end this way---

“If you’re finished wasting your worthless breath,” Faceless’ voice barked from an intercom speaker in the corner of the room, “you may or may not care that I’ll be out…longer than expected. The power company repossessed my private generator; I intend to deal with this personally.”

The last sound from the speaker was the squeal of tires against gravel.

Now, even moreso than before, Jamie felt his body wracked by sobs. The idea of being killed by Faceless was bad enough, but this---being left to die alone, while his tormentor headed off to make an unscheduled visit to the nearest power company for shutting off a stupid generator…he’d never imagined having to suffer like this, even in his darkest nightmares. He’d either bleed out, succumb to the hallucinogens pulsing through his system and try to eat his own arms, or slowly fade out of consciousness as his organs failed.

Whichever way he left this mortal coil, it wouldn’t be pretty.

Another howl left his throat as he realized how badly he’d failed Vicki---and, by extension, his entire family. His stupid, blind desire for vengeance had tripped him up, leading him right into the lair of the monster that had attacked his sister…and now, here he was, effectively caged in that same monster’s newest den of despair. If ever there was a time to wish for a rewind button that could let him go back and “fix” the stupidity of his actions, this would be it…but even that wouldn’t bring Vicki back---not unless he was willing to go back to the night before and throw himself in front of the blades before Faceless could’ve struck. Hell, if it would’ve meant a quick and easy end, compared to what he was going through now, he’d gladly have chosen to sacrifice himself if it meant saving Vicki…but he didn’t, and now he never would, because Faceless---the spineless, gutless bastard---had chained him to a chair and left him to die.

The only thing he could feel---over anger, denial, acceptance or any of that tired-old BS---was shame.

He’d let Vicki down, he’d let his parents down, and he’d let the entire ALPA down…

…and now---

A slow, quiet creak interrupted his morbid reverie---the security door was opening.

“Go ahead,” he muttered. “Do what you should’ve done in the first place and just kill me…” He didn’t bother to wait for a response; as he heard footsteps approaching, he finally lost his will to endure: “JUST FUCKING KILL ME ALREADY!” he screamed. “YOU’LL JUST KILL ME WHEN IT’S ALL OVER WITH ANYWAYS, SO QUIT WASTING TIME AND JUST FINISH ME NOW…” He sobbed again. “I…I can’t take it anymore,” he gasped. “Please…just kill me…”

A chuckle---a feminine chuckle---sounded; “If you didn’t want to see me again, you could’ve just said so…”

“Vicki?!” Even with his vision clouded over in a red haze, Jamie strained to get a look at his sister---who, by all intents and purposes, shouldn’t have even been there. “But…Faceless---he---“

“Faceless did the most damage he could do to me without tearing me apart,” Vicki admitted, “and yes, I am still a bit…weirded-out…by it…but that doesn’t mean he did anything that Dad couldn’t fix.” Her grip closed over the chains lashed around Jamie’s abdomen; “Try not to move for a few seconds,” she advised. “These chains are pretty freaking tight, and I don’t want to break your ribs or anything---“

Jamie gave a weak cough. “Faceless…already did…”

The brunette gynoid didn’t falter. “Then that’s one more injury he’ll have to answer for.”

“Your…your robot voice,” Jamie wheezed. “It…it sounds….”

“Less menacing?” V.I.C.I. offered.

“Cooler.”

The word prompted a grin from the gynoid as the chains were pulverized in her grip. “Right…try to stand up, slowly,” she advised, “and the chains should just fall off of you.” Her brother rose, weakly, from the chair…and as he stood, the chains fell to the ground with a hollow, resounding clang.

A second later, Jamie himself nearly collapsed.

“Easy!” Vicki admonished. “You’re losing a lot of blood…there’s an ALPA car outside waiting to take you to the hospital---“

“NO,” Jamie insisted. “I….I want to see ….I want to see you beat him…” He staggered, nearly falling back into the chair; only Vicki’s iron grip kept him upright. “You’re not sticking around here to see my rematch with that walking nightmare,” she informed him, her words bearing that familiar air of finality. “You’re going to the car outside, and then you’re going to the hospital…” Her tone softened; “Dad just barely managed to avoid losing me to Faceless,” she murmured, “and if he loses you…he won’t be able to just swap out a few parts or fix a few busted pieces to bring you back.”

Jamie’s only response was to pull Vicki in closer, holding on like a drowning man clinging to a buoy.

Three more people---Maisie, the beautiful chief of security at Robo Depot, accompanied by a pair of ALPA Field Agents---entered the room, one of them putting a medical blanket over Jamie’s shoulders. “Glad to see you’re back on your feet, Vicki,” Maisie informed the brunette gynoid. “After last night…we all thought---“

“I get it,” Vicki interjected. “Everyone thought I was a goner…even me…” A smile crossed her face. “Fortunately, my habit of proving people wrong paid off in dividends.” The grin faded as she watched Jamie being stretchered out. “They can do all the skin grafts and stitches they want,” she murmured, “and he’ll still have the scars…nightmares, flashbacks---something tells me he’ll never be able to hear ‘Dancing Queen’ the same way again.”

“How can you---“

“Heard it on the radio when I was driving out here. A Triple Replay request from Kylie Lyndon…” Vicki shook her head in disgust. “Faceless is going to have a lot to answer for when he gets back here,” she stated. “Is Jamie secure?”

Maisie glanced over her shoulder. “They’re putting him in the ambulance now.”

“Good.” Vicki gave a low, quiet sigh; “Something tells me this next part is going to be…a bit tricky…”

Rengold Cybernetics Factory – Mountain View, California – July 10, 2011, 04:30 P.M

The parking lot of the recently-commandeered Rengold Cybernetics factory was empty by the time Faceless returned---which was just as well, seeing as how his earlier annoyance had boiled over to a full-blown rage the moment he’d reached the power company…or, rather, tried to reach the power company. Apparently, some organization or another had chosen that very day to hold a parade that, as luck would have it, blocked off each and every road that one would’ve needed to take in order to reach the power company before their offices closed.

Worse than the traffic jam, however, was the fact that his usual solution for such problems---grab a random cutting implement from the back of the car, jump out and just let things go from there---was off-limits thanks to every single car having been parked on the sides of the road. Worse still, the occupants of said cars were lining the streets, making the usually-simple act of just backing the car up into a Herculean chore.

And then there was the drive back…

Faceless swore to himself that every single pencil-pusher who’d approved of the “parade” would be drawn and quartered by the end of the year. Someone, somewhere knew exactly what his plans had been---likely the power company idiots themselves, considering they’d already overstepped their boundaries and shut off a privately-owned generator---

Somewhere in his mind, something snapped.

Rengold Cybernetics factories, even in the days before Faceless had taken up the mask full-time, ran on their own generators for the sole reason that the electric companies couldn’t shut off the power whenever they felt like it. That single, solitary fact burned in the mind of the black-clad killer as “his” car (in reality, the property of a hapless Rengold Cybernetics employee who’d been in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time) idled in the parking lot---the generator going offline was deliberate sabotage. Someone had known about him commandeering the factory, and had seen fit to remove him from the premesis…

“So Jamie Lawson isn’t worthless after all,” he muttered.

It was a simple conclusion to reach, actually. The ALPA had already lost one Lawson thanks to the Butcher of Lake Gilmour; losing a second---even a lowly, insipid sack of meat like Jamie---would likely spark a call to arms for all, and then things would start getting complicated.

Still…who among them would actually be stupid enough to try a stunt this brazen?

The Mercedes-Benz fell silent as Faceless stepped out (the car had been specially-designed to shut off its engine when the driver left the vehicle), allowing the killer to gather his thoughts. He’d been out long enough for someone to have tried a rescue attempt…but if they’d tried and failed, they might still be around.

Wouldn’t that make for a wonderful evening’s entertainment…

Calm flooded through the murderer’s thoughts once again, just as it had a few short days ago. If there was a stalk to be had---if some idiot really was cavorting around inside the factory---then it would probably be a good two or three hours’ worth of hunting, leading up to that final, pristine moment. Few people could possibly hope to understand what it was about his chosen calling that Faceless preferred; some had tried to say it was just a more aggressive strain of the old “man hunting man” urges from prehistoric days---and maybe, in some small part, it was---but for a true master of the craft…it was anything but a primal urge. In the right hands, it became art…

…and, as with any art, this tended to have its fair share of masterpieces.

Hopefully, tonight would lead to the latest such work from the Butcher of Lake Gilmour.

As soon as he stepped through the door, all thoughts of “making a masterpiece” left Faceless’ mind---clearly, something had gone wrong. The lights had been reactivated, which put the theory of the electric company turning off the generator even more unlikely. Even more damning than this, however, was the trail of blood leading outwards, towards the exit door…

….and starting from….

The sprint that carried Faceless from the “security entrance” of the factory to the room where Jamie had been restrained was fueled by one primary emotion: rage.

Unfortunately for him, that same rage was blinding him to something else in the corridor…

He passed right by it---her---at least three times as he examined every inch of the blood trail; had he looked towards the walls, between the labyrinths of pipes, he might’ve seen a figure that no longer feared him or his dreaded wristblades. Had he even bothered to glance over his shoulder, he might’ve noticed a glowing blue pair of eyes staring back at him, almost daring him to turn around…but he never did. His anger, by this point, was all-consuming, his wrath clouding his mind and blocking out anything that didn’t involve killing whoever this damned stupid intruder was.

“I KNOW YOU’RE STILL HIDING IN HERE!” he shouted. “This…is MY DOMAIN, so leave now….and I may spare your worthless life!” That always worked---make them think they have a chance of survival if they just play along.

Silence.

“GET OUT HERE NOW,” he bellowed, “OR YOU DIE!” An uncharacteristically illogical statement, to be fair---if the hypothetical intruder didn’t show themselves, they could very well hide---Faceless shook himself out of the distracting train of thought; he was here to kill, not to debate with himself. “Just come out and show your face,” he called, “and I’ll consider letting you leave here…”

His own voice was the only one that reverberated off the walls.

“Fine,” he hissed, “you want to play this way?!” He swung his arms out, allowing the wristblades to lock into place. “Just so you know before we begin,” he growled, “I have a tendency to…fight dirty…” That dry chuckle he’d become fond of over the past few days filled the air again, sounding just a bit more deranged this time than it had before. “I can keep this up all night!” he shouted, the word “night” bouncing back at him from every direction like a psyhcotic chorus. “I’LL HUNT YOU TO YOUR DYING DAY! YOU’LL NEVER KNOW PEACE AND CONTENTMENT AGAIN!” Trailing echoes of “AGAIN” followed him down the winding hallways, only dying when the hideous screech of the wristblades against the metal pipes drowned them out.

With every step, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour began to feel like someone was playing him for a fool. His own taunts were still sounding throughout the halls, slowly grating on his nerves. Somehow, something about the insanity of this situation was making his own voice sound annoying to him….

…and it didn’t help that he felt the creeping, ice-cold sensation of a man being watched.

A ragged, hissing breath sounded from behind his mask as he turned on his heel, expecting to see a full squad of Field Agents storming down the hall from the opposite direction; the relief of seeing nothing was almost tangible. Still, there was something…off about the whole thing, almost as if someone were about to “flip the script” on him and put him through a gauntlet of positively hellish proportions. He turned around again---and every light in front of him went out.

When he turned back around, the lights behind him had gone out as well.

Something like a scream fought its way past his lips as he turned once again---

---and at that moment, he saw her.

If she’d been a mere silhouette in the doorway, the sight wouldn’t have been as horrifying as it had been---and that concept in and of itself, of anything horrifying the legendary Butcher of Lake Gilmour, was an idea that, in all honesty, had been quite alien to the man behind the mask until that moment. But no, it wasn’t just the figure of the 20-something girl standing in the doorway that made him think he was losing his mind.

It was her eyes.

Every part of her was hidden from view, nothing but shadow, except for those damned eyes. Glowing blue pinpoints in the darkness, spotlights that locked onto him and pinioned him to the ground where he stood.

Those eyes…knew him.

The girl took a step forward, and for quite possibly the first time in his life, Faceless…took a step back.

Wait, no….this wasn’t right---he never took a step back!

Defiantly, the white-masked killer strode forward. He wanted to say something along the lines of “I don’t exactly know who you are, or what you are, for that matter,” but something between his mouth and his brain wasn’t quite working the way it should’ve. A terrifying realization struck him (again, the feeling of being afraid almost overwhelmed him---thanks to his chosen line of work, he’d been on the giving end, rather than the receiving end, of such nightmares) that, as insane as it may have sounded to a rational mind such as his, he might very well be facing a ghost.

Seconds later, the girl spoke---and, for lack of a better term, proved him right.

“Hello, Faceless….remember me?”

That voice---that stupid, flat, electronic, robot voice---it couldn’t be! There was no way in HELL---

“You killed me last night, Faceless.” The girl was walking forward, the lights behind her clicking on with every step she took. “Stabbed me through the heart…” Her hand brushed across her chest. “…and right through the head, too….then you stood behind me and you watched me fall, with about three-dozen ALPA Field Agents watching you.” Her voice, still synthesized and electronic as it was, turned cold: “Do you remember what you said after that? The two words you said right after you killed me, and let me fall to the ground like a broken toy?”

Every neuron in Faceless’ brain failed him at once.

“I believe your exact words were….’I win’.” Vicki Lawson stepped forward into the light, her eyes returning to normal as she stared at her killer with a look that held equal measures of fury and….calm? “You stabbed me in the heart, and then you said that you won,” she reiterated.

The wristblades felt like lead weights at the end of Faceless’ arms.

“You won….” Vicki shook her head, smiling (an expression that sent yet another jet of fear shooting up the killer’s spine). “Out of all the words in the English language you could’ve used at that exact moment, you just had to say that you won….but you didn’t. What you did was traumatize everyone who watched me fall, and lead my brother to a nearly-suicidal course of action…and by the way, trying to send data directly into my processors with those specially-designed blades of yours?”

Her eyes glowed blue again. “Really bad move.”

Once again, Faceless took a step back. “I….broke you…”

“You tried to break me,” Vicki corrected. “You studied every note you could find about me, read up on all the details for Project Apollo that you could steal or find on Google…you went over every scrap of information that you had, and came up with a plan that was meant to kill me forever…” She smiled again. “…and hey, if you’d tried it five, ten years ago….it might’ve worked.”

Her smile faded. “…except you tried it last night…..and it didn’t.”

“I….I BROKE YOU!” Faceless stammered. “You can’t have survived…you weren’t supposed to survive!”

“And why not?” Every metallic fixture on the wall seemed to hum as Vicki strode past. “Why exactly wasn’t I supposed to survive last night---“

A knowing grin crossed her face. “Ah. That explains it.”

She arched an eyebrow at her would-be murderer; “You were so caught up in the moment,” she reasoned, “so fixated on driving those blades through me, that you never once stopped to realize the fundamental difference between myself and every other victim you’ve ever gone after…something so simple, so easy to remember, but just not important enough---“

The faintest glint of silver flashed in Faceless’ hand. “YOU WILL DIE THIS TIME, VICKI LAWSON!” Without even giving the brunette gynoid time to blink, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour threw the knife…

…only to watch, terrified beyond all rational thought, as it stopped in midair.

“That’s the beauty of electromagnetic fields,” Vicki murmured. “If you know exactly what you’re doing, and have absolute, total control over them…it can make something as simple as catching a knife…” She grinned as the blade rotated until its point was aimed at the floor. “…look like magic.” Her gaze remained locked on the knife for a few more seconds as it hovered, spinning in the air like an ornamental dart…and then, she ever so briefly looked down at the floor.

A split-second later, the knife embedded itself in the concrete.

“Now, then, where was I---“

Her words were cut off as the black-clad psychopath charged forward, obviously abandoning all strategies that centered around throwing knives in favor of a far-more direct approach: tackling her to the ground. Of course, his plan would’ve had a far better chance of succeeding against Vicki pre-upgrade…

…this time, he lunged forward and hit the floor just as a red-white blur vanished into the dark corridor ahead.

“This…THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!” Faceless screamed at the retreating form. “I BROKE YOU!”


You didn’t break me, Vicki corrected, you damaged me…there’s a really big difference between them.

She stopped in the middle of another corridor, silently thanking whoever among Lawson’s Eleven had given her a set of upgraded proximity sensors; without them, her dramatic backwards dash would’ve consisted of her running into every jutting pipe fixture behind her. Not that this part of the building has that problem, she mused, glancing at her new surroundings. Because this Rengold Cybernetics factory was owned by the actual company, instead of Faceless, everything was built to hold up to the most recent health and safety codes.

Not that Faceless cares about that sort of thing…

The factory floor gave her plenty of space to maneuver around Faceless, including a few catwalks she could easily reach with a standing jump. It’s weird, though, she realized. Last night, I actually wanted to kill him, and now I’m just planning on outwitting him…I guess I’ve reached a new plateau of emotional maturity---

A door on the far end of the room flew open. Damn---I keep forgetting Faceless used to be in charge of this factory… Without hesitating, the brunette gynoid took a standing 21-foot leap, grabbing onto an overhanging catwalk and pulling herself up. Your move, Psycho-man…

“YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME FOREVER, VICKI!” Faceless screamed. “I broke you once, just last night…and I’ll break you again tonight---permanently!” He dragged his wristblade across a pipe, expecting the usual “nails-on-chalkboard” screech that accompanied such a gesture…but, to his annoyance, the pipe turned out to be PVC with an aluminum outer coating. That would be funny, if Faceless wasn’t such a psychotic…and even if he wasn’t, this isn’t just me fighting because I’m bored…

Her newly-repaired (and upgraded) processors set to work calculating the probability of Faceless being able to reach her current position from where he was; not surprisingly, all available outcomes turned up negative for him. Let’s see if he’ll take the bait…

“FACELESS!”

On the floor below, the black-clad murderer’s glance snapped up, searching the catwalks.

“You were wrong about ‘breaking’ me last night…you didn’t even do any lasting damage!” Ooh, a hit below the belt… “That little trick with the blades and the ‘viper’ program was a complete waste---and yes, I know about what you tried to do to Callista with that program! Your stupid program could’ve killed her---and it would’ve killed her, if her heart was organic---“

“SHUT UP! JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!” Something below Vicki’s position was kicked over---probably from him climbing on it, she realized.

Several levels below, Faceless was stalking the catwalks. “You…you don’t deserve to face me,” he growled, “and you couldn’t have survived without…help….” His familiar (albiet slightly more unhinged) chuckle echoed through the room; “As soon as we’re done…playing here,” he taunted, “every single one of your father’s friends…will be rounded up, tortured and killed…and their deaths are just the beginning! Your family will never know peace again…they’ll spend their lives running from me, with no hope of escaping my wrath---“

A searing jolt of electricity surged through the railing---and very narrowly avoided hitting Faceless.

“See, that’s why you don’t taunt the girl with the tazer grip,” Vicki called out. “I’ve got auditory capabilities and abilities most human beings could never even dream of.” She threw in a chuckle of her own, just to further antagonize the killer; “And another thing,” she added, “that outfit---lame much? I mean, seriously---“ Her intended taunt ended in a surprised gasp as the catwalk began shaking uncontrollably. Again, this is why I should’ve studied the blueprints---the supports for these walkways are set up to be sturdy when someone’s on them, but if they get shaken from too far below… Her scanners set to work identifying the pressure points of the support lattice.

“You will SUFFER for every purile taunt,” Faceless intoned. “Every word out of your worthless mouth---“

“Let me just stop you right there,” Vicki called out, perching on the railing of the walkway in preparation for her dramatic (and, hopefully, successful) descent, “and give you a question from a great man: ‘Would you please SHUT THE HELL UP?!’”

Before Faceless could reply, the brunette gynoid dropped down, landing seven feet in front of him.

“Actually, allow me to correct myself,” she requested. “See, earlier, I said you didn’t break me…which is still true…but for the better part of a day, I was---for lack of a better term---dead. And d’you know what? Being dead gave me an opportunity to get a whole new perspective on things…”

Her eyes blazed forth with a blue glow. “…like how killing you is too easy,” she finished in her robotic voice.

“Too….easy?!” Faceless echoed. “KILLING ME IS TOO EASY?!”

“Too easy,” V.I.C.I. repeated. “And not worth my time. I have more important things to do than this---“

Faceless charged at her, all subtlelty going down the proverbial drain as he flailed about with uncharacteristic abandon. For V.I.C.I.’s part, the whole thing wasn’t so much a fight as it was a highly-complex dance, albiet one where a single wrong move would get her cut. “You had the upper hand last night,” she admitted, pirouetting around the killer as he lunged at her, “because I was afraid of what I might end up doing to you…but now, I’m not afraid, because I know exactly how this is going to end---“

The tip of a wristblade darted past her cheek. “THIS ENDS WHEN YOU’RE MELTED FOR SCRAP!”

“Your hatred is becoming a stone around your neck…you’re so focused on killing me that your own survival isn’t even a priority anymore…” V.I.C.I. dropped into a crouching roll, moving under yet another wild slash and striking Faceless in the kneecaps with a closed fists. “You’re in no shape to fight me now---“

Anyone else in her position might’ve actually been hit by his second tackle attempt…but then again, it was highly unlikely that “anyone else” would’ve had the sort of audio/visual software (or, in human terms, a “sixth sense” of sorts) to be dodge, grab Faceless by the collar and hurl him over the edge of the railing---right into a large (and distinctfully painful-looking) mass of pipes. His enraged roar quickly gave way to a howl that held equal parts frustration and sheer, impotent fury---none of his previous victims had ever dogged him this much.

“Like I was saying,” Vicki continued, casually dropping down to the ground level, “you can’t hope to beat me if all you have to go on is your anger…”

“I….I broke you,” Faceless muttered, scrabbling to his feet. “I broke you…why didn’t you stay broken?!”

Vicki arched an eyebrow, her ocular sensors zeroing in on the masked murderer’s spine (so I have medical imaging software now? Sweet!) “Speaking of ‘broken’,” she mused, “your spinal column won’t stand up to another impact like that…just give up now, and I guarantee you’ll be brought to a hospital….and then the nearest maximum security prison---“

“I WILL NOT LET YOU DEFEAT ME!” Even with his nearly-broken back, Faceless still managed to look menacing as he struggled to his feet. “You…you’re nothing…” He tried to stalk forwards, or at the very least lumber towards Vicki in a somewhat-threatening way, but all he could manage was a pathetic stagger.

“This isn’t about what you’ll ‘let’ me do,” Vicki replied. “It’s about you being too stupid to---”

Predictably, her remark had as well an effect as could be expected from calling a masked psychotic “stupid”: in what had to be some kind of record for adrenaline-based recovery (regardless of whether said recovery was temporary or not), Faceless’ stagger turned into a full-on run towards the brunette gynoid, both wristblades extended to stab her through the gut. It was almost too easy for her to spin out of his way, shoving him in the direction of the nearest wall as she went.

I can’t keep redirecting him forever…then again, I won’t have to if he can’t even see me…

As Faceless stumbled away from the wall he’d been thrown into, Vicki focused her energies on linking up to the building’s computer systems, just as she had at the Mantronix lab. If this works, she reasoned, I won’t even have to lay a finger on him! Within her vision, boxes and charts appeared, showing her the network trees and paths available to her---including a few that controlled various valve pressures throughout the room she was in at that moment. And thus, a plan has formed… She allowed herself a grin as she tricked the system into overloading a few of the pipes; let enough pressure build up, and it’ll turn into a steam room in here as soon as he hits a pipe. He won’t be able to see anything coming….

The sight of Faceless charging at her again ended her reverie. …but I will.

She didn’t even bother throwing him in the direction of a wall this time; instead, she dodged to the side, letting the black-clad psychopath “accidentally” strike one of the pipes---releasing a gout of steam in the process. A few other pipes began whistling, their bolts coming loose and flooding the room with thick vapor that even the most hawk-eyed of human beings wouldn’t be able to see through….including a certain masked lunatic.

As Faceless stumbled in the fog, Vicki’s eyes glowed blue again. Time to end this---

The shrill sound of a throwing knife barely missing her head cut into her thoughts. “Trying to play tricks on me, Vicki?!” Faceless taunted. “You’re starting to feel the Fear again…the old terrors returning to haunt you---“

“Fear is an illogical emotion,” V.I.C.I. called out---not caring that she was lying through her teeth. She had no reason to be afraid of Faceless at that moment, but she knew better than most people that fear was anything but illogical; in some cases, fear was downright necessary, especially compared to stupidly charging forward in the name of “being macho” or whatever cockamamy excuse people might come up with…but that whole debate could be held with Ted, Jamie and whoever else wanted to talk to her about it some other time. As of now, she was trying (and succeeding, so far) to psych Faceless out---and she couldn’t stop yet. “If one of us should be afraid of the other,” she added, ”you should be afraid of me---“

“I WILL NEVER FEAR YOU, VICKI LAWSON!” Faceless roared, throwing another knife; this one glanced off a pipe that hadn’t been shut off, clattering against the floor after it hit.

V.I.C.I. scoffed at the killer’s claim. “Maybe you should fear me,” she remarked, her thermal imaging suite allowing her to see Faceless rearing back to throw more knives. “Even you have to face the fact that one day, your body will be as broken as your mind…and on that day, you’ll know what true fear is, because something tells me there’s a special place in Hell for---“

“YOU DON’T GET TO TALK TO ME ABOUT HELL, YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF TRASH!” Faceless roared, hurling a knife in the gynoid’s general direction. “When I’m done with you here tonight, you’ll wish you were sent to Hell…” He pulled yet another knife out of his jacket pocket, unaware that V.I.C.I. had used the same electromagnetic field “trick” from earlier to catch his last throw. “…and once they find your broken body, the ALPA will NEVER be the same again---“

A silver streak flew past Faceless’ arm, slicing him deeply---and prompting a shriek of rage.

“First rule of fighting me,” V.I.C.I. declared, “don’t monologue.” She circled the masked maniac, “catching” more knives with her EM-field (and drawing in a few of the ones that had missed their marks when originally thrown). “You already tried to kill me once---you had a shot, you took it, and you missed. Even if you think you beat me last night, you didn’t…the only thing you really accomplished was giving my dad and his friends a reason to come together and make me strong enough to do what nobody else has been able to do….” She smiled, knowing that if Faceless could see her, the expression would just drive the point home that much more: “…and make you scream.”

“You want to hear me scream, Vicki?!” Faceless sneered. “I’ll scream when I rip your head---“

Another blade flew past him, cutting off a sliver of his ear.

“Whoops, my bad….I honestly wasn’t trying to do that,” V.I.C.I. halfheartedly apologized. “Of course, the next one could go even lower, and take the rest of your ear off---“ Her EM-field caught another blade, mere inches away from her eye. “Let me guess,” she deadpanned, “you’ve practiced for this?”

Faceless’ breathing was becoming more ragged with every step. “You’ll pay for every single stupid taunt…”

“Somehow,” V.I.C.I. mused, “I doubt that.” She redirected the last caught blade---

---and couldn’t help but flinch as it buried itself in Faceless’ side.

“If you were anyone else,” she admitted, still circling around him as she spoke, “I might feel a little bit sorry for what I’m doing…but seeing as how this is you we’re talking about…” The knife extricated itself from the killer’s side---prompting a pained gasp from its target---and flew back towards V.I.C.I., landing directly in her outstretched hand. “What’s say I do this one the fair way?” she offered.

The reply she received was unintelligible to the point of not having a single consonant in it.

“Right…I’ll just ignore that…” Without waiting for Faceless to scream something else at her, she threw the knife---and flinched again as it hit the exact same spot as before. “And I wasn’t even aiming that time,” she lied, quickly sidestepping to avoid the inevitable retalliatory throw. “You can just give up now,” she called out to her wounded opponent, “and I’ll consider letting you walk to the nearest police station before you bleed out all over the floor…or you can just throw the rest of those knives you’ve got in your pockets, and give me fourteen more chances to hit you.”

Another wordless howl split the air; if this was last night, the gynoid mused, that might have scared the hell out of me…

“Well, have it your way, then…” V.I.C.I. sighed and assumed a fighting stance.

Faceless’ howl turned into an inarticulate roar as he palmed seven knives in each hand. “WHY WON’T YOU JUST FUCKING DIE ALREADY?!” With every word, two knives flew from his grasp towards the brunette gynoid….

…and exactly none of them hit their marks.

V.I.C.I. cocked her head as she regarded the seven blades floating before her; “You know,” she murmured, going back to her human voice for a moment, “there was a time---right after you busted through my window and tried to kill me in my own house---that I was terrified of you…just thinking about the face that was behind that mask of yours made me want to curl up into a ball and never go anywhere ever again…” She blinked, her head tilting back to its normal angle as she continued. “Now…I look at you, and I see someone who had all the potential in the world…and I see that you choose to throw it all away just so you can pursue this sick fixation with ending lives and causing pain. You could’ve been better than this, William, but you chose to be the monster…”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “…and since this is my happy ending, the monster gets vanquished---“

The shout that drowned out her words was one of blind, hateful rage; it was all too clear that Faceless had no intention of just letting Vicki get the last word in edgewise. That primal, fight-or-flight part of his brain had kicked into overdrive---obviously, he wasn’t settling for “flight”.

In retrospect, it might’ve turned out better for him if he had.

V.I.C.I. only had to splay her fingers, and the knives she’d “caught” in the EM-field were sent flying back at the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. Fourteen blades soared through the air, carving fourteen gashes into the limbs and torso of the black-clad killer; within seconds, his full-bore charge had slowed to a stumbling run, which in turn slowed to him collapsing to the floor. The brunette gynoid didn’t even need to blink to cycle through her visual filters; within seconds, she spotted him kneeling in the center of the room…coughing up blood.

Okay, maybe that last part was a little too much…

“I…I broke you,” Faceless spat. “I broke you….why…didn’t you stay broken….” He stared up, trying to see his hated target through the fog that still permeated the room. “WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST STAY BROKEN?!! WHY?!” A torrent of blood surged forth from his mouth, like a macabre waterfall behind the mask.

“I wasn’t designed to stay broken,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Simple as that.”

Slowly, carefully, the sociopathic killer rose. “You…will…stay broken…” he muttered, taking a halting step forward. “This…ends---“

“Just stop,” Vicki warned. “The whole seven words thing, this obsession with breaking me…you can stop now, and spend the rest of your natural life behind bars, or keep going and die…or do you even care?” Deep within her bubble memory processors, the idea that Faceless actually wanted to die proved to be repugnant on a deeply personal level; anyone who sought their own end at another’s hand, as Faceless apparently did now, was destined for self-destruction…

…except Faceless wasn’t going to get what he wanted.

“I’ll stop…” he growled, “when you DIE!” He half-stumbled forward, swinging his right arm in an arc to propel the wristblade out of his sleeve---not that it mattered, since Vicki’s EM-field guided it into her hand without incident. “I broke you once…” A half-choked breath caught in the killer’s throat; “I broke you once,” he repeated, “and…now….” He raised his left arm to throw the wristblade…then fell to his knees.

“You’re only human, William,” V.I.C.I. called out. “You can’t expect---“

“MY NAME…IS…FACELESS!”

The left-hand wristblade flew through the air like a dart---and was stopped within seconds by V.I.C.I.’s right hand, which closed around it like a vise. “Those were your last two blades,” she declared. “You have no more weapons to use against me, no hope of escaping alive---“

“Who said….I wanted to….escape?!” Faceless leered. “I’ll…burn the factory….raze it…to the ground…”

“No you won’t…this ends now, Faceless.” Calibrating targeting sensors…if I can time this right….

“IT ENDS WHEN I SAY IT ENDS!”

“Then say it.”

Faceless’ gaze darted back and forth across the room. “You…you don’t tell me---“

NOW!

Something long and sharp pierced Faceless’ back, three centimeters to the left of his spine.

Exactly seven seconds later, another long, sharp object hit him three centimeters to the right of his spine.

“But….how….”

As his world began to fade out into a red haze, a figure approached him from the fog. It took every ounce of strength in his body just to look up, staring through the infinite void that seemed to fill the room…and in that instant, he saw the face of his hated nemesis, his “victim”…. Vicki Lawson. She stared down at him with a mixture of pity and disgust, as if she was waiting to say something…and finally, after a full minute of silence, she spoke.

“You lose.”

With that, Faceless’ vision clouded over with red, and he sank to the floor. The Butcher of Lake Gilmour had finally been defeated. “Agent Lawson to base,” Vicki intoned, knowing her fellow Field Agents could hear. “Target is down…”

The makings of a smile played at her features. “Time to go home.”

Ted Lawson’s House –San Jose, California – July 10, 2011, 10:06 P.M

It was hard to say who was happier when Vicki walked through the front door at Ted’s---every single friend of Ted’s who’d helped put her back together, Joan and Ted…or Vicki herself.

After a few seconds, it didn’t really matter.

The impromptu “Vicki’s Back” party lasted for a good portion of the night, even though everyone involved had to go back to work the next day and try to forget that they’d effectively brought Ted Lawson’s daughter back from the brink of death. Still, she enjoyed chatting with them, and hearing about what, exactly, they had done that gave her enhanced networking abilities and Zen-like levels of control over her electromagnetic field, among other things.

In the end, though, they were all just happy to see her the way she was meant to be: alive.

By the end of the party, Joan had promised to do all the cleaning, and Vicki headed upstairs to get ready for a good night’s sleep in her own bed…at least, until someone knocked on her door. “It’s unlocked” she called out, just shucking off her Field Agent uniform jacket.

The door opened to reveal Ted, smiling proudly. “Vicki…I don’t know what to say, really…”

Vicki chuckled nervously. “You don’t know what to say?” she replied. “I thought you were going to puke when you saw Faceless get stretchered out at the factory…but then I remembered what he did to Jamie, and to all the other people he’s hurt---or killed---and I just…I didn’t want to kill him anymore, but I wasn’t about to let him walk all over everyone in Silicon Valley.” Her smile faded; “After what he did to them…to me…I didn’t want him hurting anyone else.”

“I know,” Ted agreed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as if the mere thought of seeing Faceless riddled with cuts was enough to make him want to empty his stomach into the nearest trashcan. “I just…”

“Didn’t think I’d take it as far as I did?” Vicki called back from her seat at the vanity mirror

Ted nodded silently.

“Well…oh, for Jobs’ sake, you can come sit on the bed, Dad!” Vicki put down the brush she’d been using on her hair and walked over to the doorway, planting her hands on Ted’s shoulders and steering him towards the bed. “Like I was saying…I didn’t want to kill Faceless anymore when I fought him at the factory… what?”

Tears were streaming down Ted’s face; “Nothing…it’s nothing…”

“I didn’t dislocate your shoulder or anything, did I---“

“No, no….it’s….Vicki, this might sound really, really dumb, coming from me, but---“

“Just answer me this, then,” Vicki interjected, sitting on the bed next to Ted and putting her arm around his shoulder (more as a gesture of support than anything else). “These tears you’re crying…are they happy tears, or sad tears?” She grinned, reminding Ted of one of the flash card-supported lessons he’d taught her a month after she’d first received the Big Upgrade. “C’mon, you don’t have to keep up the whole ‘macho dad’ act just because you’re glad I’m back…”

Ted actually chuckled at that. “Since when have I ever been a ‘macho dad’?” He sighed, drying his eyes; “The tears were happy tears, by the way,” he added. “I’m…I was just happy because you didn’t kill Faceless back at the factory, that’s all.”

“Even after what happened to Jamie?”

“Especially after what happened to Jamie. I…I didn’t want you lowering yourself to the kind of depths that Faceless has already embraced, Vicki---if you would’ve killed him, even after what he did to you…” He stared at the floor.

“I get it,” Vicki quietly replied.

Ted nodded. “Good…” Without another word, he drew his daughter in for a hug.

Vicki went with the moment, once again thankful that she’d been given the Big Upgrade, so that she could better appreciate moments like this father-daughter bond. He almost lost me last night, and he nearly lost Jamie today, she recalled. Sometimes, even the smallest gesture can be enough to keep someone from going over the edge…

The two broke their embrace and stared at the floor for a minute. “So….how’s Jamie doing?” Vicki asked, after a minute or so of silence.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Vicki,” Ted replied somberly. “If you hadn’t shown up when you did, he might’ve died in that factory…as it is, he’s lost a lot of blood, and the scars may take more than just stitches to heal up properly. Chances are, he may end up not looking the same when he comes out of surgery.”

Despite the grim news, Vicki actually grinned. “So we finally have something in common…we both got a makeover thanks to Faceless.” Ted’s initial shock gave way to a relieved laugh; “I…I never thought you’d be able to joke about that,” he admitted. “I mean…something like this…” He shook his head and hugged Vicki again. “Vicki….don’t take this the wrong way, or anything, but after that whole ‘cart-swapping’ thing Anton did, it’s like you’re…”

“Different?” Vicki offered.

Ted nodded. “You’re more…fearless. Almost like---”

“Don’t say ‘like you have nothing to lose’,” Vicki warned, ‘because I do…I still have you, and Mom, and Jamie, and all my friends at SJSU…and I’m starting to sound like the lead character in some crappy teenage romance novel, aren’t I?”

“Language, Vicki,” Ted chided, laughing it off. Vicki rolled her eyes. “I’m just glad you and the rest of the Eleven were able to get me back to working order as quickly as you did,” she sighed. “Seriously…though I still have one favor to ask before we can officially declare this whole thing to be over with….” She sighed again, staring at the floor; part of her was almost afraid to look Ted in the eye as she spoke: “I want to see a psychiatrist, first thing tomorrow morning.”

“You…you want to see a psychiatrist?!” Ted gaped. “Vicki, that’s…I---”

“Last night,” the brunete gynoid continued, “I promised myself that I was going to kill Faceless---not restrain him, not incapacitate him, but kill him. Right now, just thinking about it scares me---I was perfectly willing to take a person’s life, and that’s inexcusable.”

After a few seconds of silently staring at her, Ted nodded.

“Thanks,” Vicki quietly replied. “I just hope everyone else will be able to get over this soon…”

“Well,” Ted murmured, “so far, I think we’re doing just fine.” He smiled, embracing Vicki once again; “You’re more than my greatest creation,” he whispered tearfully, “you’re my daughter…and as long as we’re both alive, I want you to promise that you’ll never forget that.”

Vicki Lawson smiled through the tears. “I’ll never forget it, Dad…and I’ll never stop loving you.”


Secure medical facility – undisclosed location in Silicon Valley – July 10, 2011, 11:58 P.M

“So…the Butcher has finally been struck down…”

Oberon stared at the bandaged figure of Faceless in the hospital bed, shaking his head. “If he’d put anyone else through the hell Vicki Lawson went through, and they came back,” he muttered, “they’d have just killed him and been done with it.”

“He didn’t get off easy,” Major Tom reminded the ALPA chairman. “A lot of those cuts went deep---and those two blades lodged near his spine? If either of those had been a centimeter off, he’d have been paralyzed…or in a pine box.” His gaze returned to the figure in the bed; “As it stands,” he continued, “Vicki showed a hell of a lot of self-control by putting those blades where she did. Just deep enough to incapacitate him, but not enough to kill him….speaking of which---“

“Every doctor assigned to this facility has been background-checked,” Oberon stated, “and none of them will be allowed to operate on Faceless without signing the usual forms. If anyone tries to ‘finish him off’ here, they’ll only be finishing their own careers off instead.

The Major nodded. “If it was anyone else in that bed,” he muttered, “I might feel sorry for them.“

Oberon sighed. “I’m not going to argue. Not tonight…for now, William J. Rengold III is contained, and there’s no way in hell he can get out of here to wreak havoc on anyone…and despite the losses we’ve sustained, that’s the closest thing to a ‘win’ we get.”

The ex-NASA operative nodded somberly. “You forgot one thing…Vicki made it out alive.”

At this, Oberon actually chuckled. “Damn….sometimes, I hate it when you’re right. Vicki Lawson did, indeed, make it out of this whole thing alive. Maybe not unscathed…but definitely alive.” He glanced up at the wall clock; “Feel like playing a round of air hockey in the rec room?” he inquired.

“Only if you don’t bash the puck into my knuckles,” the Major laughed. “I’ll pay for the first round…”


Coalition HQ – undisclosed location in Europe – July 11, 2011, 12:05 A.M

The Baron stared, silently, as the security footage from the parking lot of a certain Rengold Cybernetics plant replayed on the monitor before him. ALPA Field Agents, accompanied by uniformed police and a few men in dark suits from an organization that had no business meddling in such matters, were carting the Butcher of Lake Gilmour out of the building on a stretcher---not even on his back, but rolled over on his side, so that the two blades embedded near his spine wouldn’t be driven further in.

From the darkness behind his desk, the Baron’s golden eyes blazed.

Faceless…had failed.

Everything he’d promised, everything he’d sworn to do, had come to naught. Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson was still alive, the Coalition had joined forces with the ALPA, instead of driving them out, and the House---weak as it was---still stood.

“The Butcher falls, and the girl survives…and the wheels of fate spin on…”

It was inevitable, in the end; Faceless had been obsessed with destroying one individual, just like McMire had been before his dismissal. Still, not all was lost…this round may have ended in disaster, but the grand game wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.

The night was still young…and maybe---just maybe---Faceless’ mistakes could be rectified….


V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary: July 10, 2011

Well…now I know what it feels like to be dead.

Last night, Faceless…actually, I take back what I just said, because Faceless didn’t kill me. He damaged two of my critical components to the point where I couldn’t function anymore, but both of those components---as well as a few other things---have been swapped out, upgraded and replaced. So, what I should be saying is: now, I know what it feels like to be reborn.

The sad thing is, that rebirth came at a pretty high cost to the ALPA.

Twenty-eight more Field Agents were killed, and Claudia…nobody deserved to die the way she did (and yes, I’m saying she “died” even though she’s “just a machine”). Even Jamie didn’t come out of this whole thing unscathed---Faceless sliced him up pretty badly, and the doctors are saying they may need to use extensive plastic surgery to fix his face. He might not even look the same as he did before tonight…then again, that does give me some new material to joke with him about---and no, I’m not saying that to be cruel. Whatever it was that Professor Malvineous did to restore me, it’s…changed me, for the better. I’m a lot more attuned to the way things are---both in the world around me, and with myself. Hell, I can tell exactly how much power my RTG is putting out right now---I never even knew that was possible!

Also…and this may sound a bit weird, but it needs saying…I feel more human now than ever before.

It’s kind of weird, really…I can literally count every running process in my systems right now, but I’ve got an appointment with a psychiatrist tomorrow morning, just to make sure this whole thing with Faceless didn’t screw me up too badly. I guess, in a way, what I said about knowing how it feels to be dead was sort of true: before Faceless did what he did to me…part of me never really felt alive.

Now…I feel like the next big thing to hit the ALPA might be the end of me…and it feels normal.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson ---------------------------------- Faceless has been vanquished (for now), and Vicki has returned! All seems right within the world of the ALPA…

…but a storm is on the horizon, and Vicki Lawson’s world is about to be changed forever!

Fembot Central is in for one HELL of an epic adventure for the next four months, as Vicki and her friends find themselves fighting against the demented machinations of Prof. Matthew Hannsen, aka the Maestro. But this tale can’t just be contained to ONE story: the battle that will change the course of the ALPA’s history forever will be chronicled in not one, not two, but FOUR EPIC CHAPTERS!

You won’t want to miss the four-part finale of The V.I.C.I. Diaries, Season 1: “A Criminal Mind”, coming in March; “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, coming in May; “Things Fall Apart”, coming in June; and “Valley of the Damned”, coming in July! Epic battles, shocking twists, and revelations that will BLOW YOUR MIND…all of this, PLUS a truly awesome final fight in “Valley of the Damned”, will be hitting Fembot Central over the next four months!

And where Season 1 began the epicness, Season 2 will take everything up to eleven…

The Season 1 finale begins in March, when “A Criminal Mind” hits Fembot Central!


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