MGV (Metal Gear Vicki)

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Part 1

“I know Mr. Tell is a close friend of the family, and I owe him for pretty much every single time he’s saved me from getting bricked, scrapped and/or fragged….but does he have to keep the Christmas music turned on at maximum volume? I mean, we’re not even near his house, and I’m pretty sure I can hear ‘Jingle Bells’….”

As Ted Lawson navigated the roads up to Mr. Tell’s house, he couldn’t help but smile. “Well, Vicki, he’s what most people would call….hmm, what’s the polite word…” “Eccentric, maybe?” Vicki offered. “I mean, the last time I saw him this month, he was dressed like a tie-dyed Santa Claus!” “He does like the Christmas season,” Ted chuckled. “It’s part of what makes him so interesting---and that ‘tie-dye Santa Claus’ look is also his way of paying tribute to Apple Computers, in case you didn’t know.”

“I do now,” Vicki muttered.

After a whole month of missions that involved tailing shipments, listening in on clandestine meetings and using a prototype remote scanner (which broke after the third use), Vicki had apparently gathered enough information to earn a place at an ALPA meeting---which, for some strange reason, was being held at Mr. Tell’s house. Ted was especially ecstatic; “I’ve heard the head of Daikoku Zaibatsu might be there,” he gushed. “Where have I heard that name before?” Vicki pondered. “They make labor androids, mostly,” Ted replied, “but rumor has it they might be moving into….let’s say, more exotic fields.”

Vicki groaned. “Don’t tell me they’re making pleasure droids…”

Ted nearly crashed the car into a lamppost. “What?! I mean….well, they might be…..”

“I already know about Silicon Dynamics, Dad,” Vicki reminded him, arching an eyebrow and leaning on her arm rest. “Does Joan know you’ve been getting their catalog in the mail for the past few months, or---“

“That catalog is for----how did you even know I get the Silicon Dynamics catalog?!” Ted sputtered.

“You leave your mail out on the counter,” Vicki replied, smiling sweetly.

“Well, that catalog is not being used for….whatever purpose you think it’s being used for,” Ted insisted. “The reason I get the Silicon Dynamics catalog is to read up on the specs of all their products; I’ve been seeing quite a few of them at the Lawson Robotics repair center lately.” “Hopefully, with more clothes on than they’re wearing in the catalog photos,” Vicki mused. “Seriously, if Joan ever finds out---“

“Why is it that you call me ‘dad’, but you never call Joan ‘mom’?” Ted interrupted.

Vicki was taken aback by the question. “Well…I call her ‘mom’ sometimes….”

“It’s okay,” Ted replied, grinning. “It’s not that big of a deal. Granted, that whole lottery winning thing has kept her out of the Valley a lot longer than I expected…”

“At least she wasn’t here when Alicia had to stay overnight,” Vicki remarked. “Remember that one morning when you went downstairs for breakfast, and she was doing yoga---butt-naked?” “I’m driving right now, Vicki,” Ted muttered, “and you reminding me of that incident is really distracting….” “Right, right,” Vicki replied, smiling sweetly once again. “You don’t have to say you weren’t impressed, though…” She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially: “I won’t tell Mom!” Ted chuckled. “Of course you won’t….because if she finds out, she’ll kick me out of the house for a month and keep you on security detail.”

“She’d probably sell your golf clubs, too,” Vicki reminded him, grinning brightly.

Ted glanced at her, frowning; “Don’t joke about that, Vicki. Ever.”

The two continued their chat on the way to Tell’s house, contemplating the importance of the meeting. “Hardcastle’s going to be there,” Ted informed the brunette gynoid, “along with Anton Malvineous…and while I’m thinking about it, don’t ask him why you couldn’t get the internship position even though you had the best qualifications for the job.”

Vicki sulked. “I was a lot better than that idiot he had to choose---“

“That idiot only got hired because they’re the son of a major ALPA financier,” Ted declared. “Not to mention that Anton was forced to hire him even though he’s---well, I might as well say it---HE’S INCOMPETENT!”

“Dad,” Vicki sighed, “let it go. I’m sure he’ll get himself fired sooner or later….”

“I hope so,” Ted replied. “I mean, when we went there for the interview, he was looking at you like you were a side of beef….and drooling, for Pete’s sake! Either he’s got a severe brain cell deficiency, or he’s thinking with the last part of his body that he should be thinking with! He looked like Private Pyle on sedatives! I don’t even think he could tell an actuator from an alternator! I mean, he thought V.I.C.I. stood for Va---“

“I get it,” Vicki monotoned.

“I know,” Ted sighed. “I just…..Anton and I knew you were the best candidate, but… this was just nepotism, plain and simple.”

“If it helps,” Vicki offered, “I don’t think he’s going to last long there anyways….from what I heard before we had to leave, he wasn’t exactly making a lot of friends amongst the staff. Something about him using the trash can outside Anton’s office as a toilet….” She rolled her eyes. “If he keeps pulling stunts like that, he’ll get sacked in no time.”

The conversation shifted back to the focus of the meeting. “Why are all these important people going to be there, exactly?” Vicki asked. “Well,” Ted explained, “the ALPA usually has most of the major robotics company heads meet in a secure location the week before Christmas to hash out the quotas and details for manufacturing, supply, shipping, new product development….all that good stuff. And before you ask, Tell’s house is the most secure location we could get this year, considering the HP Pavilion got booked at the last second… Anyways, these kinds of meetings can lead to some bad blood between rival CEOs, or more commonly, bad decisions---last year, Hreftech held the meeting at their HQ, and the CEO of Midland Heights Automation Incorporated showed up drunk….it did not end well.”

“Keg stands and cop cars, eh?” Vicki quipped. “It was a lot worse than ‘keg stands’, “ Ted replied. “The guy was virutally ripping the clothes off of the poor girl serving hoers d’ourves, saying he was going to ‘ride her like a bronco’….it didn’t help that the girl was the fiancee of someone from Daikoku Zaibatsu….”

“Was she okay?” Vicki asked. “After the whole ‘getting her clothes ripped off’ thing, I mean.”

“She was built to withstand that sort of thing,” Ted admitted, “so…yes. She was fine. Of course, her groom-to-be was furious; MHA Inc. has been banned from ALPA meetings ever since. Seeing as how their sales have been dropping faster than the proverbial lead zeppelin, though….anyways, that’s not the point. I hear that this year’s meeting is going to be a biggie, especially considering all the stunts United Robotronics has been pulling lately. Case in point---they backed Victor Vega as the new ReVerse CEO…..” “Don’t start about Victor Vega,” Vicki warned. “Every time that guy shows up on the ALPA radar, I end up right in the middle of it….”

After a few more minutes of navigating the Saratoga roads, Vicki and Ted reached Mr. Tell’s house. “Seeing as how some of the highest-profile names in the robotics market are going to be here,” Ted instructed, “try not to do or say anything that might make a….negative impression. Be polite, but don’t brown-nose; ah, don’t talk about Victor Vega, ‘cause you’re not the only one who hates his guts, and---“

“Dad,” Vicki interjected, grinning, “I get it.”

Ted parked the car and retrieved a binder from the trunk; he’d been looking forward to giving his presentation on Lawson Robotics’ massive sales increase since the previous year. Vicki, on the other hand, was more preoccupied with Tell’s fence; “Is that thing even legal?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

The fence---a series of metal slats arranged like 7s with the flat section facing towards the street---was set up so that Tell could see anything and everything outside the yard, but nobody outside could get so much as a glance inside. “It’s ALPA-issue, so…yes,” Ted replied, grinning. “It’s not just legal, Vicki…it’s necessary; Tell does some of his more…confidential work at home, so even the smallest of security measures like this can work to his advantage.”

“Good thing, too,” a familiar voice called out, “because I don’t think the lookie-loos would be willing to hear any explanations as to why my insides look like something from a Dell Repair Center…”

As soon as she cleared the security gate, Vicki couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Claudia---the gynoid CEO of DreamLand (a “dating service plus” that paired clients with androids and gynoids)---sunning herself in a deck chair, her tanned stomach missing a large rectangular section that, if anything, only added to the allure of her bikini-clad form. “Nice to see that the explosion didn’t ruin your personality,” Ted remarked, smiling. “I owe you for that, to be honest,” Claudia replied. “Your company saved me from the scrap heap when everyone else told me I wouldn’t even make it to Christmas…that, by itself, is proof that you’re one of the best.” “Not the best?” Ted gasped, feigning indignance. “Top Three,” Claudia replied, chuckling.

“Sorry to interrupt, but have any ‘luminaries of the robotics profession’ arrived yet?” Vicki asked, as Claudia got up from the deck chair. “Or did we somehow manage to arrive early?” “Hardcastle, Malvineous and a representative from ART are already inside,” Claudia replied, “and the vice-president of Daikoku Zaibatsu is set to be here in five minutes. Hreftech’s supposedly sending someone as well…and, obviously, I’m here.” She smiled, revealing her perfectly-crafted teeth.

“Cool!” Vicki beamed. “Do they all…well, know what I am?”

“Hreftech has heard some of the more interesting stories,” Claudia informed her, “and they’re very interested in meeting you in person. I think the VP of Daikoku knows…ART is in the dark, though, mainly because they’re focused on a few other projects at the moment.” She grinned again. “Unless you want to admire the view from Tell’s yard, I suggest going inside….” “Great idea!” Ted actually shouted, nearly bowling over the honey-blonde gynoid as he ran for the door.

“Is something wrong with him?” she asked Vicki.

“He’s trying not to let his mind get overtaken by thoughts of half-naked gynoids,” Vicki replied. “I mentioned the Silicon Dynamics catalog on the way over here, and he nearly crashed into a lamp post!” “Well, he is married to a wonderful woman,” Claudia concedeed, “though, personally, I think he could use some major stress relief…” Vicki tried not to think of the sort of “relief” Claudia had just alluded to as she followed the gynoid into Tell’s house. “Just don’t bring up your particular philosophy of ‘stress relief’ while Ted’s talking to anyone important,” she requested as Claudia let her into the house. “The last thing I want is him trying to have a conversation with the VP of Daikoku while simultaneously trying not to stare at any of the gynoids that are probably lounging around.”

“He should seriously look into a vacation, then,” Claudia replied. “It’d probably be the best thing for him…”

“I’ve tried to talk him into spending a day at Great America in Santa Clara,” Vicki insisted, “but he keeps saying that he’s got ‘too much work to do’ and all that stuff….One of these days, I’m just going to wait until he falls asleep, bring him out to the car, buckle him in and drive him there myself. At this rate, I’ll have to resort to either doing that or….something.” Claudia chuckled. “I suggest we continue this discussion after the meeting; otherwise, we’ll miss all the important stuff.”

Vicki nodded, allowing the older gynoid to lead the way; “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all morning…”

As soon as she stepped through the front door, she found herself suddenly unable to speak.

Tell’s house…..was incredible.

Given the condition of his shop---well-organized, yet somewhat industrial and occasionally uninviting---the setup of the rooms before her seemed to give the exact opposite impression. Everything that could be painted had been given warm, welcoming colors; the floors---much to her surprise---were heated just enough to warrant the removal of shoes at the door. Even more intriguing, the house didn’t seem to follow a conventional layout; just through the front door, Vicki could spy the kitchen, with a three-way branching hallway beyond that. To her left was the den (where most of the guests had already gathered, with a hall on the far end leading to a bathroom and a guest bedroom; to the right, the living room/study, with a closed door bearing a hastily-written sign to notify all that the room was “off-limits”.

“This…..is so cool,” the brunette gynoid muttered, awed.

“THERE you are!” Ted called out, grinning as he caught sight of his greatest creation. “I was wondering when you were going to actually get into the house…” “Claudia and I were just having a chat,” Vicki replied. “To be honest, she’s the one who suggested we join the rest of the guests.”

“A wise suggestion indeed….especially considering the fact that her stomach panel is still open.”

Claudia groaned theatrically, pretending to be annoyed with the remark; in reality, the observation put forth by Anton Malvineous was a valid one. “It’s great to see you again, Claudia,” he informed the gynoid, kissing her hand respectfully. “Likewise,” she replied. “How’s the…ah, new intern coming along?” Vicki immediately frowned, and Ted started counting the ceiling tiles; to their surprise, Anton’s reply was nowhere near as bad as they thought it was going to be: “He isn’t.”

“He….wait, what?!” Vicki gasped. “You mean you actually fired him?” Ted sputtered. Neither of them could believe what they’d heard….fortunately, Anton was all too happy to elaborate.

“Remember the IQ test the interviewees were administered?” he asked; Ted and Vicki both nodded. “Well,” Anton informed the two, “it turns out that a certain someone paid good money to have his son’s results---which were absolutely terrible, by the way---forged and re-submitted. I knew as soon as I read the answers that something was off, but seeing as how we might have lost a substantial amount of funding if I dared to say anything…” He sighed. “Fortunately, that certain someone who forged the results just got sent up the river for bank fraud. The slimeball couldn’t even borrow enough money to finance M-G Cybernetics’ latest project, AND his so-called ‘company’ had folded two years ago!”

“So….his son got fired?” Vicki assumed.

“Not just fired,” Anton replied, “but banned for life. It didn’t help that we found him trying to ride the secretary around the lobby like a mechanical bull…one of my interns caught the idiot smacking the poor girl on the rear, trying to use her charging cord like a lasso. I nearly tore up a staircase running down there---I knocked him out with a left cross as soon as I was close enough, and I made sure he was hauled off in handcuffs.”

“And how is the ‘poor girl’ doing now?” Ted asked.

“We had to send her back to Silicon Dynamics,” Anton replied, his expression darkening. “Her inhibitor program nearly failed when that moron kept spanking her, and if I’d have been just a few seconds late…” “She’d have done a striptease in front of your potential clients,” Claudia muttered. “No wonder you made sure the little turd was dragged off….I’d have kicked him right in the gonads just to make sure he never tried a stunt like that again!” “From what I hear, he got a boot to the groin as soon as he was out the door,” Anton informed her. “Apparently, he tried to get fresh with the arresting officer…they’re talking about sending him to rehab.”

“Forget rehab,” Claudia spat. “Give him the Bob Barker and throw him in a rest home!”

“Ooookaaay,” Vicki drawled, clearly not in the mood to hear anyone go on about “the Bob Barker” or other such topics. “Can we please talk about something else now?”

“That sounds like a very good idea, Miss Lawson.”

Vicki turned to address the newcomer and found herself staring at a well-dressed, mid-to-late 20s Japanese man. “You must be the vice-president of Daikoku Zaibatsu,” Ted mused, extending his hand. “Head of project coordination, actually,” the man replied, shaking Ted’s hand. “Regretfully, the vice-president became ill last night…the in-flight meal apparently didn’t agree with him.” His voice dropped to a near whisper; “The catering staff is currently being questioned about any suspicious individuals tampering with the food…we’ve already lost three senior staff members this year, and their deaths are still unsolved.”

Despite a burning desire to ask why someone would go out of their way to kill staff members from a robotics company, Vicki decided instead to introduce herself to the newcomer. “Seeing as how I don’t want to break protocol or anything,” she informed him, “I might as well introduce myself---Vicki Lawson, daughter of Ted Lawson and ALPA member since…this August, actually.” The man smiled. “I am Yuusuke Kishin Kojima, head of Project Coordination and Research at Daikoku Zaibatsu…and, for the record, I prefer going by the name Kishin.” He shook hands with Vicki. “You’re…a most interesting individual, from what I’ve heard; my assistant tells me you’re acquainted with the pop singer Sophia Starlet, for instance.” “I met her last month,” the gynoid replied, “and we sort of hit it off from there.”

Her gaze drifted to the room beyond; two gynoids---one a tanned strawberry-blonde clad in pajamas, the other a svelte, cocoa-skinned brunette in a blouse, trousers and high-heels---lounged on the couch, discussing the latest development in the Encom “hack-tacular”. General Hardcastle and a stout, swarthy man with thinning white hair were looking through a binder near a bookshelf in the corner, nodding thoughtfully and conferring in hushed tones. Through the window, Vicki spied three more gynoids---an athletic, fair-skinned babe with copper-red hair and a matching swimsuit, a slender Asian girl in a flowered swimsuit, and a caramel-skinned beauty with chestnut hair and a metallic pink bikini---swimming laps in a rather impressive pool while a guy with a mustache, goatee and red-and-gold swim trunks was either asleep or passed out on a deck chair nearby.

“Tell invited all of these people?” she murmured.

“Some of them are here to demonstrate their capabilities---sort of like a private showcase of products before they hit the market,” Kishin explained. “The girls in the pool, for instance, are from Hreftech, M-G Cybernetics and…actually, one of them is from Lawson Robotics, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Really?” Vicki drawled, glancing at Ted. “And the guy on the deckchair?” Kishin smirked; “Even though he’s recovering from his latest bout of alcoholism, Tony’s still rather fond of the ‘party all night, stay in bed all day’ mentality.” Ted scoffed. “The man’s in charge of a multibillion dollar corporation,” he muttered, “and he spends his free time passed out by swimming pools and hanging out with debutantes…” “He seems to be handling himself better than the idiots at MHA, last time I checked,” Kishin remarked.

“The conference doesn’t start until Tell gets here, right?” Vicki asked. Kishin nodded; “He’s bringing a guest, if I’m not mistaken, so he might be a while.” “In that case, I think I’m gonna go talk to the girls in the pool for a minute,” the brunette gynoid informed Ted. “That is, if it’s all right with you…”

“You’re not even wearing a swimsuit,” Ted began, only to gasp---Vicki was already peeling off the white top she wore over her shirt! “ARE YOU INSANE?!” he hissed. “YOU’RE---“ “Wearing a tastefully-designed two-piece underneath my usual outfit,” Vicki replied, grinning. “I’ll finish changing in the bathroom…it shouldn’t take too long.” She kissed him on the cheek; “I think we need to talk about getting you a nice three-week vacation after this meeting….somewhere nice, with a lot of sunshine and palm trees, y’know?”

With that, she headed to the bathroom to shed the rest of her clothes.

“She would’ve made a great Girl Scout,” Kishin mused. “She prepares for anything and everything…..”

A minute or so later, Vicki---now clad in the aforementioned tastefully designed two-piece (kitted out in red with white stripes)---descended the steps in the shallow end of the pool, watching the three gynoids she’d spotted earlier playing Marco Polo; a fourth gynoid, obscured from her previous view due to the angle of the window, was relaxing on a pool float, her tanned form and pale blond hair contrasting with the pink plastic. Tony was still passed out in the deck chair, while a redheaded woman (not a gynoid, surprisingly, Vicki noted) was making calls on her cellphone and sounding annoyed. Probably his secretary, the brunette gynoid mused.

The game of Marco Polo in the deep end had degenerated into a sort of triple-threat wrestling match, except without the benefits of a ring, turnbuckles or a referee. The tussle only lasted a few seconds or so, with the copper-haired gynoid emerging from the water with a triumphant laugh---and the Asian gynoid’s top. Another “fight” began shortly afterwards; three seconds later, the formerly topless gynoid was swimming a victory lap, once again fully clothed. “And the scoreboard reads: Sunny – zilch, Rumiko – THE WINNER,” she declared, “AND STILL UNDEFEATED CHAMPION OF SWIMMING POOL WRESTLING!” The redhead with the cellphone glared at the three, but her expression was one of weariness, not hostility. The defeated gynoid made a big show of pouting and acting as if she were offended, which would’ve looked more convincing had she kept a straight face; in the end, all three wound up laughing and splashing each other.

Having waited until the end of the “match” to intervene, Vicki applauded the performance, catching the attention of the other three. “That was pretty impressive,” she commented. “I’ve never seen someone retrieve their top that fast after losing it…”

“You should’ve seen her an hour ago,” Sunny commented, jerking a thumb at the Asian gynoid. “She tackled Crystal into the pool while they were both fully clothed, all because of a joke about J-pop singers.” “It wasn’t a joke,” Rumiko shot back. “And for the record, One Direction is not better than J-pop!” “Can we please not get into the whole ‘1D’ argument again?” the caramel-skinned gynoid muttered. “I’m trying to relax here.” “I was just saying,” Rumiko murmured, sulking.

Vicki fought the urge to giggle. “Anyways,” she prompted, “I just figured I’d take a dip and, well, introduce myself---“ “Vicki Lawson,” Sunny remarked. “We’ve heard a lot about you from the Professor.” “So I keep hearing,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes. “I caught your name,” she informed Sunny, “and hers---“ She gestured to Rumiko, who smiled and waved. “…but what about the other two?” “The one on the inflatable raft is Meredith,” Sunny replied, “and as for the one in the teeny weeny pink bikini---“ “It is not ‘teeny-weeny’!” the chestnut-haired gynoid shouted. “Anyways,” Sunny continued, “that’s Rae, and she’s in a bit of a mood because a certain someone has been ignoring her this entire time…” She smirked and nodded towards Tony, who was finally being shaken out of his stupor by the annoyed-looking redhead.

“I always thought he was married,” Vicki mused. “Babe,” Sunny replied, draping an arm around the brunette gynoid’s shoulders, “the day any woman manages to bind him in holy matrimony is the day Hell will freeze over.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Vicki promised. “On a somewhat unrelated note, I heard something about one of you having been built by Lawson Robotics…” Sunny grinned. “Guilty as charged. Merideth’s from M-G, and both Rumiko and Rae were built by Hreftech; of course, not all people prefer their girls from a company that puts more emphasis on T&A than QC…” She scowled. “Silicon Dynamics?” Vicki mused. “I actually like some of their work,” Sunny admitted, “and their quality control standards are actually pretty high…I was talking about companies like Midland Heights Automation Incorporated. I swear, they act like all gynoids are just glorified blow-up dolls….”

Vicki’s intended reply was interrupted by a shout from inside; Anton Malvineous, General Hardcastle and the stout man Hardcastle had been talking with earlier were confronting a scholarly man with a Colonel Sanders beard and a curvy blonde in a sequened gown. “Did they gate crash or something?” the brunette gynoid wondered out loud. “No,” Rae relplied, swimming closer, “but something tells me they’re about to get kicked out.” Sure enough, the usually calm Anton was screaming at the pair to leave, angrilly pointing at the door.

“Wow,” Vicki murmured. “I’ve never seen him that mad before….”

She thought of using her enhanced hearing to pick up what Anton was saying, but there was no need; he was shouting loud enough for everyone to get the message: “…AND IF YOU THINK YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH THREATENING ME, YOU’RE EVEN MORE OF AN IDIOT THAN SHE IS!” “I WILL NOT BE SPOKEN TO LIKE THIS!” the scholarly guy shouted back, but Anton wasn’t finished. “GET OUT! GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE BEFORE I HAVE YOU ARRESTED FOR TRESPASSING! GET OUT!” The scholarly guy tried to shove his way past Anton into the kitchen, only to get punched in the face. When the blonde in the sequined gown tried to intervene, the stout man reached over behind her ear and pressed something, causing her to slump forward. “Get her out of here,” Hardcastle ordered; a girl in an olive-drab uniform nodded and helped the stout man carry the deactivated blonde outside while Anton and the scholar traded punches on the floor.

“Typical,” Rae muttered. “Only Zebediah Blunderwitz would have the brass balls and lack of brain cells to take on Anton Malvineous…” She shook her head, as if the entire exchange was already becoming boring. “If it was Tell, he probably would’ve just Maced the idiot.” Back inside, Anton punched the grounded Zebediah in the face several times before Hardcastle and Kishin could hold him back. “Take it easy, Anton,” Hardcastle suggested. “Just stay calm….” Anton glared at Zebediah, waiting until the uniformed girl and the stout man returned. “Get that useless piece of filth out of here,” he snarled, spitting on Zebediah as he was hauled out. “AND MAKE SURE HE DOESN’T COME BACK!” Ted, noticing the girls in the pool, pulled the blinds over the glass doors; Vicki noticed the worried expression on her creator’s face mere seconds before it was obscured by the shades.

“Okay,” she drawled, “somebody needs to tell me what the hell just happened here….”

Surprisingly, it was Meredith---still floating lazily on her raft---who answered. “Zebediah wanted to appeal to Anton on behalf of the Coalition,” she stated, “except his Coalition membership was revoked around this time in 1987, and he’s been banned from attending ALPA meetings since the 90s…long in a short, he’s trying to stir the pot.” “Okay, I can sort of understand that,” Vicki admitted, “but what’s all this about a coalition?”

“Not ‘a’ coalition,” Rae corrected, “the Coalition. A group of robotics companies that refused to join the ALPA on the grounds that ‘artificial life forms’ should adhere to subservience first, and sentience second---basically, obedience before free will. ReVerse used to be a member, until that Vega moron took over and petitioned the ALPA to reinstate ReVerse as a fully-fledged supporter.” “There’s still a lot of companies that support the Coalition, though,” Rumiko added. “A lot of them are in countries where the political situations aren’t exactly stable….most of the Middle East, for example, and supposedly in one of the Koreas.”

Vicki’s eyes went wide, remembering Alicia’s words two months earlier: It’s not so much an actual, physical war as it is a chance for….let’s call them “various entities”…to prove their dominance in the world robotics market. Certain groups---like the ALPA---are probably the closest thing to “good guys” that this particular conflict has right now…. some of these entities are trying to shift the balance in their favor, and if they can achieve that…….

“Blunderwitz is---well, was in charge of one such corporation,” Sunny continued, picking up where Rumiko left off. “He’s got a few factories in Afghanistan---illegally owned factories, if the rumors are true. Supposedly, he killed the rightful owners and took over while everyone else was trying not to get shot or blown up.” “And he’s not even the worst one,” Rae sulked, her British accent adding extra gloom to the statement. “That Bernstein idiot---the one who keeps sponsoring those martial arts tournaments---went the extra mile to pretty much corner the market on prime factory real-estate in Siberia, and there’s talk that some of the other megalomaniacs are trying to get a factory built somewhere in Ireland---either the mainland or Northern.”

“Who’s in charge of the Coalition?” Vicki asked, becoming more intrigued by the minute. “They’re allegedly led by a group called the DVS,” Meredith replied, finally getting off the raft and swimming over to join the others. “It’s all just rumors, really, but from what I’ve heard, the DVS used to manufacture sleeper agent fembots for the USSR during the Cold War. Boris Vlatko was a member at one point before they disowned him…something about ‘improper prioritization’…”

“Somehow,” Vicki muttered, “that doesn’t surprise me.”

The glass doors opened as soon as the words left her mouth, revealing a calmer (and slightly bloodied) Anton Malvineous. “Sorry about that,” he apologized. “An uninvited guest decided to show up….we had to, ah, use drastic measures to persuade him to leave.”

“So I heard,” Vicki replied. “Was he an old friend of yours?”

Anton’s nervous grin faded to a scowl; “Zebediah Blunderwitz is no friend of mine,” he muttered, “and no friend of your father’s, either. That man is a criminal, a wastrel and a fool….you’d do well to stay as far away from him as possible, Vicki, unless you have a burning desire to be reprogrammed and spend the rest of your life as a pole dancer in some Taiwanese dive bar.” He glared at Blunderwitz’s car as it sped away, muttering curses under his breath. “He never should have tried to show his face here…”

“Well, he’s gone now,” Vicki reminded him, “so….”

The smile slowly crept back onto Anton’s face. “Indeed he is…and I just realized I’ve got some blood on me.” He sighed; “I should probably head to the bathroom and get cleaned up before Tell and the guests of honor arrive….” “How soon are they getting here?” Rumiko asked.

Anton checked his watch; “Thirty minutes, give or take.”

“Enough time for one more game of Marco Polo, I think,” Vicki mused, grinning slyly.

Vicki and the other gynoids engaged in a spirited game of Marco Polo for the next few minutes, and the brief memory of Anton beating the hell out of Zeb Blunderwitz was quickly forgotten. Vicki managed to win at least twice (without losing any bits of her swimsuit), and by the time Ted called for the gynoids to towel off and get dressed, all of them were chatting amicably.

“How’d the game go?” Anton asked as they entered. “I won twice,” Vicki replied. “AND I didn’t have to leave the pool, unlike some people…”

“I wasn’t leaving the pool to cheat!” Rae protested with a laugh.

Anton chuckled. “Glad to see you were all having fun. Tell’s still ten minutes or so away; feel free to talk to the girls in the den until he gets here. Oh, and ah…” He reached over and plucked a leaf from Vicki’s hair; “You missed this.” “Thanks,” Vicki replied, grinning. “Good thing you spotted that…I would’ve looked pretty stupid trying to listen to this ‘guest of honor’ with a leaf stuck in my hair.”

“Yes, well….” Anton stared past Vicki through the partially opened front door, his smile once again melting into a scowl; “Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me,” he growled.

“What?” Vicki asked, only to watch as Anton whirled past her, grabbing a 9-iron from a golf bag near the door and running towards the gate. “What is it?!” she yelled. “It’s Zeb Blunderwitz,” Rumiko whispered. “I guess he didn’t take the hint last time…” “But why does Anton hate him so much?” Vicki asked quietly. “Long story,” Sunny replied. “Let’s just say there’s a lot of bad blood between them, and it goes back a long way---“

The crunch of metal on metal cut off the remark---Anton was assaulting Zeb’s BMW Z8 with the 9-iron.

“GET OUT!” he roared, brutally attacking the car. “GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE NOW BEFORE I TAKE THIS NINE-IRON TO THE SIDE OF YOUR HEAD, YOU PATHETIC SON OF A BITCH!” Zeb was cursing at Anton in a foreign language---either Romanian or Latin, I can’t tell which, Vicki mused---and making several rude hand gestures; this tactic backfired when Anton cracked the nine-iron across Zeb’s windshield on the driver’s side, literally leaning into the car and screaming at him to get the hell off of Tell’s property. The sight was terrifying; ever since her first meeting with the Professor, Vicki had always seen him looking either calm or worried; now, for the second time in less than a day, he was screaming like a madman at someone while attacking their car with a golf club.

Vicki felt someone’s arm around her; “Uh, why don’t you go…ah, talk to the other gynoids over there in the den, sweetheart?” Ted asked quietly, steering her away from the door; Anton was reaching for what was either a Tazer or a pistol holstered on his belt. “I’ll, ah, see if I can calm things down outside---“

Before Vicki had even made it to the den, a gunshot split the air.

Despite his attempts to hold her back, Ted couldn’t keep Vicki from running to the door and watching in horror, expecting the worst. To her relief (mixed with a twinge of fear), Anton had only shot at the tires of Zeb’s car, and was still screaming obscenities as the disgraced roboticist drove off, shouting foreign curses as he left.

“AND DON’T COME BACK!” Anton screamed, his eyes nearly bulging out of his skull.

“Dad,” Vicki whispered nervously, “why does Anton hate Zeb Blunderwitz so much?”

“Well, hon,” Ted replied, “a few years ago, Zeb…tried to get Anton fired from his own company. He falsified a lot of evidence and bribed people, and tried to frame Anton for a multiple server failure that had actually been caused by someone else…the scary thing is, he nearly succeeded. It took the ALPA a full six months to figure out what was going on…but by then, Anton had lost a lot of contracts and job opportunities, and it was a while before he really recovered from that loss.” He sighed sadly; “It didn’t help that Zeb got drunk one night and ran someone over….and that someone was Anton’s girlfriend; she’s been a paraplegic ever since.”

Vicki stared, horrified.

“To this day, I think there’s nothing that sets him off worse the mention of Zebediah Blunderwitz,” Ted informed her. “I mean, he could be happy, smiling and joking around one minute, but as soon as someone says ‘Zeb Blunderwitz’---bam. I mean, forget it! It’s like he’s a different person!”

“I’ll…remember to never mention that name around him, then,” Vicki stammered.

“Good idea,” Anton replied, slamming the door behind him. “That little turd was taking pictures this time,” he told Ted, scowling. “Pictures, Ted! I think he may have even been trying to get snapshots of the girls in the pool a few minutes ago!” “Please tell me you didn’t let him get away with the camera,” Ted pleaded; Anton’s scowl changed to a smirk as he held up the smashed remnants of a plastic-cardboard disposable. “What camera?” he asked, chuckling.

“Why’d you shoot at his car, though?” Vicki asked, confused.

“The rounds were blanks,” Anton replied, “and no, I’m not going to test-fire one against my head just to prove it…enough idiots have died that way as it is.” He shook his head. “After what that bastard put me through,” he explained, “just thinking about him is usually enough to set me off…..I just want to wash my hands of his stench and move on with my life, but it just never goes away…”

“If it helps,” Kishin offered, “I think Tell has finally driven up. Perhaps we should---”

“I heard shooting earlier!” Claudia called out, running up to the group. “Who was shooting….” “You can relax, Claudia,” Anton informed her. “Zeb was just stopping by to get on my nerves, so I fired blanks at him and attacked his car with a golf club.” Claudia rolled her eyes; “You have got to stop letting that man get to you, Anton….otherwise he’ll drag your butt to court and sue you for everything you’ve got.”

“’That man’ nearly killed my career!” Anton shouted. “He’s been blacklisted from every ALPA function, yet he STILL tries to stick his nose in our business! And if he even THINKS about suing me---”

“Whoa,” Vicki murmured, staring at the individuals getting out of Tell’s car.

“What are you…” Anton began, only to realize what had just rendered Vicki speechless.

Tell wasn’t exactly “dressed to impress”: the Grateful Dead sweatshirt, faded jeans and Converse Chuck Taylors hardly looked appropriate for an ALPA function. Alicia, who’d been riding shotgun in the Tellmobile, had gone for a much more professional look---dress pants, a blouse that wasn’t tight enough to give her the impression of having the most common superpower, a double-breasted blazer and black high-heels.

Of course, she had nothing on the passengers in the backseat…..

The first man who emerged, surprisingly, was the same individual whom Vicki had encountered after her fall from the transceiver dish at the Ames Research Center. Same platinum blond hair, same immaculate skin, same mirrored white shades…even his clothes were impossibly white, as if he’d used a gallon of industrial-strength bleach (or some sort of nuclear washing machine) to get the stains out.

And then, there was his bodyguard.

Tall, athletic, clad from head to foot in grey---that would’ve been the easy way to describe him. Vicki, on the other hand, processed the details one-at-a-time: grey leather shoes, custom made. Custom-tailored silk pants, also in grey. Vest, dress shirt, tie and dinner jacket---again, all in grey. Leather gloves---ditto.

But it was the mask that caught her attention.

It was almost like a luchadore’s mask, but with no embellishments of any kind---just a simple, grey mask that slid over the man’s head and allowed just enough hair to hang out at the back for people to see a two-inch long fringe of silver-white between the grey jacket and the grey mask. There were no holes for the eyes, mouth, ears or nose---every single inch of the man’s face was covered, but it did nothing to curb the somewhat weird feeling Vicki was getting….

Somehow, this man knew her.

“Vicki,” the man in white called, approaching her with a smile. “Glad to finally see you in an environment other than a hospital.” He shook hands with her, noticing her nervous smile. “Something wrong?”


Stay tuned for Part 2 this Friday. 8)

“Your, ah, bodyguard….he’s---“

“Nothing you should be afraid of,” the man assured her. “He only fights back in self-defense.”

“Or if I’m provoked,” the man in grey added, his voice just a few decibels above a whisper.

“Indeed. Anyway….for the duration of this meeting, feel free to address me as…hurm, Mr. Royale is getting to be a bit overdone, and ‘Mr. White’ is just clichéd….tell you what,” he stated, “feel free to use the codename I started out with back in the 80s.”

“Which is?” Vicki prompted.

The man in white grinned. “Call me….Oberon.” With that, he and his bodyguard entered Tell’s abode.

“That’s Oberon?!” Vicki whispered, astonished. “The one and only,” Alicia replied. “The same Oberon who got the idea to bring the world’s best and brightest together during the 80s for reasons that people are still arguing about today…” Her words were drowned out by a helicopter descending to land elsewhere in the yard. “And there’s Diz,” she shouted, “making a theatrical entrance as usual…” “Coba’s here?!” Ted yelled, surprised by the revelation. “He hasn’t missed a meeting in years,” Alicia yelled back. “What’d you expect?!” She paused, watching Dale Coba disembark from the chopper; “AND he’s brought the Hreftech representative!”

“We should get back inside,” Anton suggested, “otherwise we’ll miss the preliminary briefing…”

“Believe it or not, I’ve been waiting all morning for someone to say that,” Vicki admitted.

Part 2

Vicki and the other gynoids---Summer, Meredith, Rae, Rumiko, the girl in the pajamas and the woman in the pinstriped attire---waited in the den as Dale Coba, Anton Malvineous, General Hardcastle and the swarthy gentleman from earlier conversed with Oberon. “It must be serious if he’s out here,” the girl in PJs mused. “I heard he only attends meetings if things are really out of hand.”

Before she could reply, Vicki felt a tap on her shoulder; Claudia was handing out PDAs to the gynoids. “These are pretty much essential if you intend to follow along with the meeting,” she informed them. “Just plug in and let the handhelds do the rest.” Vicki nodded, accepting the device and giving it a once-over. “It looks….old,” she mused, frowning. “How are we supposed to keep up with the meeting on these?” “Don’t judge an eBook by the casing,” Rae advised her. “I’d use the ‘books and covers’ line, but it’s a bit outdated…that, and I’m trying to create a new sort of axiom, so…..”

“I get it,” Vicki replied, adjusting her shirt so that her back panel could open without her pulling it up all the way.

On the couch next to her, the other gynoids were opening panels and interface links of their own. The girl in the pajama set tapped her left earlobe; Vicki heard a distinct click as a USB link opened, allowing the gynoid to plug in the cable directly behind her ear. Sunny---now clad in a t-shirt and jean shorts---pulled at what looked like a belly-button piercing; the “flesh” beneath popped out cleanly, revealing a data port for her to insert a cable hooked up to the PDA. Rae adjusted the fabric of her blouse in the back to remove a square of flesh, guiding the USB cable into the now-available port with little effort. Rumiko (who had decided not to change into something other than her swimsuit) pressed inward on her abdomen, opening a rectangular panel to reveal a metallic cavity just big enough for the PDA to rest comfortably inside; with a few adjustments, the Japanese gynoid pressed the device in with a c-click noise before sitting back and waiting for it to “do the rest”. Merideth---attired in a smart business suit with a fitted blouse underneath---tugged at the edges of her clothing as a small oval of flesh unsealed between her neckline and her bosom, allowing her to plug in the cable without having to disrobe. The woman in the pinstriped blouse and pants, meanwhile, guided the cable of her PDA to a port in the back of her neck, her eyes changing color briefly before returning to normal.

Vicki sighed; “As the old saying goes, ‘When in Rome’….” She found the necessary port in her back panel area and plugged in the cable, gasping as her HUD suddenly filled with new information. Square outlines appeared out of nowhere, settling around the figures of prominent ALPA members---the swarthy man General Hardcastle had been conversing with earlier was identified as Alejandro Collela, the CEO of a prominent Italian robotics firm with a name the brunette gynoid found rather difficult to pronounce. The 5’6” blonde standing next to him was ID’d as Calista Swanson, head of Public Relations for Hreftech. More info boxes appeared, giving details about the heart rates, blood pressure and other factors of the guests---Vicki was somewhat surprised to notice that Calista had an artificial heart, but was in otherwise perfect health.

Before she could even think to ask “I wonder why she’s got an artificial heart”, an info box popped up with an explanation: Despite her healthy lifestyle, Calista Swanson was plagued by a congenital heart defect for many years. Her condition worsened steadily throughout the previous decade, culminating in a near-fatal heart attack during a presentation in 2006. Rather than undergo a conventional bypass, she insisted upon receiving an artificial heart, claiming that she would rather be living freely with a plastic heart than condemned to life inside an iron lung.

“D’you think they’ll let us keep these after the meeting?” she wondered out loud.

“Probably not,” the pajama-clad gynoid replied, “though they are pretty cool.”

“Right,” Oberon called out, “if I could have everyone’s attention, we’ll be conducting this year’s meeting in Mr. Tell’s basement.” Vicki was a bit surprised to hear Oberon use Mr. Tell’s nickname; guess he listed it as his official name on the ALPA Registration, she assumed. “Mr. Tell,” Oberon continued, “lead on.” Tell nodded, unlocking the door marked “Off-Limits” and pushing it open. “Before we get down there,” he informed the guests, “I’d like to ask all of you to please not touch anything….unless you get permission from me first.”

“I can’t tell if he’s joking or not,” Rumiko sulked. “Neither can I,” Vicki replied, arching an eyebrow.

The descent into the basement wasn’t exactly a cheerful affair; the reinforced steel and titanium designed to keep the underground stairwell from caving in around them looked almost as if it had been intended for use in prisons, rather than basement staircases. Thankfully, the stairwell was wide enough for more than two people to make their way down at once.

Eventually, the staircase led to a security door which, upon being unlocked and opened, led to a surprisingly high-ceilinged chamber that looked like something straight out of the Batcave---minus the staligmites, stalagtites and bats, of course. A decidedly unnatural-looking speaker system occupied the corners of the room, with a massive plasma TV monitor on the far wall. The infoboxes provided by the PDA hooked up to Vicki’s systems gave her a multitude of information regarding the chamber, including the fact that it was only one of several.

“Is there—“ she began, before a text crawl appeared in her field of vision: The underground chamber you are currently standing in is part of an ALPA-sponsored complex beneath the property of Mr. Tell. Further requests for information on this topic is currently classified.

“This thing is incredible,” she whispered.

“I know,” Rae replied, “but it starts getting weird as soon as you get pinged with info about peoples’ bra sizes and stuff…though that’s probably on account of me being so bloody bored that I can’t help but think about the most ludicrous things.”

Vicki couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound insanely dirty, so she remained silent.

“If everyone could please find a place to sit and, well, be seated,” Oberon called out, “we can begin.” Everyone found a chair, and Vicki ended up sitting between the girl in pajamas and Calista Swanson as the lights went down. “Right, those of you who were given PDAs earlier---pay attention to both the screen here---“ He tapped the plasma TV--- “and the information in your HUDs. Otherwise, you’ll miss something and I’ll have to start over from the beginning, which will probably be more hassle than it should---“

The man in grey cleared his throat, but otherwise didn’t move from where he stood.

“Okay, then,” Oberon declared, grinning. “On with the show.”

As Vicki and the other gynoids watched, the screen flickered to life with images of robotics plants, scenes of assembly lines working to piece together a metal skeleton playing out in HD. “Over the past few years,” Oberon narrated, “the world robotics industry has been doing rather well---barring a few exceptions, companies like Daikoku Zaibatsu, Lawson Robotics, Hreftech and RoboDyne International have all been earning a rather healthy profit margin. Even start-up firms like Joden Robotics are making great progress….”

The images on the screen changed to show a quality control lab bearing a sign proclaiming it to be “A United Robotronics Affiliate”, drawing a shocked gasp from the gynoids in the audience.

“…but alas, not all is well.”

Before she could ask why the others were so shocked, Vicki heard the sound of a shotgun firing as if it were right in her ear---it took her a few seconds to realize that the sound was in synch with the scene playing out on the TV monitor, which showed a half-built gynoid being shot in the kneecaps while two technicians argued in the background. “This footage was retrieved by an undercover operative a few months ago,” Oberon informed the audience, “and while United Robotronics claims that this was meant as a test of the gynoid’s artificial muscle strength, we have reason to believe that this gynoid was among many that UR is sending to the scrap heap….they’ve made no attempts to hide their ineptitude when it comes to android repair.” Vicki almost cried as the scene shifted to a massive pit, littered with the bodies of broken androids and gynoids.

“Their idea of ‘customer satisfaction’,” Oberon muttered. “The customer breaks it, and they bury it.”

Alejandro Collela stood up, his fists trembling; “We should bring them before the tribunal…or ban them!” he shouted. “They must be held accountable!” “Banning them isn’t going to work,” Oberon replied. “They’ve got connections---rumor has it that someone within the highest of their ranks has access to the Maestro.”

A collective gasp ran through the crowd, though Vicki was a bit confused.

“Ah, I’m guessing this Maestro guy is important,” she mused, “but….what’s he got to do with this?”

Oberon sighed. “The Maestro,” he informed the brunette gynoid, “is one of the most dangerous men to ever walk the face of the planet. Currently incarcerated for a laundry list of crimes, including murders, extortions, corporate espionage, kidnappings, counterfeiting, racketeering, publication and distribution of radical and/or subversive literature in politically unstable countries, public intoxication, urinating into a postbox, inciting mayhem, suspicion of treason against multiple governments, incidents of sabotage and blackmail, as well as his well-documented hacking career…long in a short, he’s not getting out any time soon.”

“That still doesn’t answer---“

“He is also,” Oberon continued, “a prime suspect in the recent hacking case that’s been keeping Encom’s best security people up at night. He has a storied history of collaborations with one Zebediah Blunderwitz, and he’s believed to have a connection to the bane of the ALPA’s existence---the Stylo Virus.”

Vicki felt her jaw go slack.

“United Robotronics has provided ample ‘proof’ to keep themselves as far away from the Maestro as possible,” Oberon informed the group, “but they haven’t exactly been subtle about paying the man.” He gestured to the screen behind him, calling up a myriad of scanned documents showing payment transfers to a Swiss bank account. “Ignore the name,” Oberon instructed, “it’s just one of his many aliases. The fact is, this was virtually given to us---UR did almost nothing to hide it.” He nodded towards the assembled group; “Meredith.”

The gynoid stood at attention. “Sir!”

Oberon smiled; “No need to be formal at the moment; this is just the meeting.” Meredith relaxed; “Sorry…it’s just…I haven’t seen that much action since---“ “I know,” Oberon replied. “Something tells me this will be all the action you need for the remainder of the year….” The gynoid’s eyes flicked up and down rapidly as she read the text transmitted to her through the PDA. “Understood and accepted,” she declared after a few seconds.

“Well, that’s one out of the way,” Oberon mused. “Next up is….a strange one, to be honest. How many of you know of Silicon Dynamics LLC Manufacture and Suply?”

Every hand in the room went up.

“I should’ve expected that,” Oberon remarked drily. “Anyways, Silicon Dynamics has been touting their fully automated manufacturing systems as one of the best in the modern world---efficient enough to justify the cost of their products, and requiring only a minimum of seventy actual staff members on hand at any one time to keep the factory running smoothly.” He nodded to Claudia, who rose from her seat and joined him by the screen. “As of December 1,” she informed the audience, “Silicon Dynamics entered talks with multiple companies and individuals, including M-G Cybernetics and myself, as part of a joint venture to test the versatility of their product range. Professor Malvineous has been working on inhibitor programs that could be used to tone down the default settings of the Silicon Dynamics pleasure droids, allowing them to work in settings such as offices, hospitals and schools without….” She cleared her throat. “…losing focus. The company has also entered talks with DreamLand to test some of their newest models at our San Jose facility, and up until five days ago, we were in the final stages of agreeing on a deal.”

“So what happened?” Sunny asked.

Claudia stared at her, unsmiling. “The calls just stopped coming. DreamLand hasn’t heard from them since December 12, and M-G Cybernetics’ last few e-mails have gone unanswered…..” Vicki noticed that Claudia had an almost scared expression, as if she suspected something had gone terribly wrong at Silicon Dynamics.

“Thank you, Claudia,” Oberon murmured, “I think I can take it from here…”

The blonde gynoid nodded, looking noticably shaken as she returned to her seat; when she was once again sitting down, Oberon picked up where she’d left off. “For the past three weeks, no-one has heard anything from the West Coast Silicon Dynamics plant. ALPA operatives confirm the Midwestern and East Coast facilities are still up and running, so this is most definitely an isolated issue….which doesn’t make it less significant. In fact, this situation is even more worrying than if all three plants had shut down, because they are all supposed to shut down in this sort of scenario. Neither the Midewst nor the East Coast factories have been able to send or receive any communications to/from the West Coast facility, and it’s becoming apparent that we may have to send someone in to determine the severity of the problem.” He nodded to Calista, who stood up and made her way to the front of the screening room.

“As strange as the situation with their West Coast facility is,” she informed the crowd, “this isn’t the first troubling sign we’ve had from Silicon Dynamics this year. Apparently, those inhibitor programs Claudia mentioned earlier haven’t exactly been working---“

“That’s impossible!” Anton protested. “I designed them myself!”

“Believe me, Anton,” Calista assured him, “it’s not a software failure…at least, not on your part.” She waited until the professor returned to his seat before continuing; “Over the past few months, several reports have been filed to the ALPA regarding Silicon Dynamics droids with the inhibitors installed abandoning their posts, be it walking off a job and not coming back or just ‘going out for a while’….and never actually returning. At first, it was believed that these departures were actually intentional---the ALPA assumed that Silicon Dynamics had used its recall signal after determining the inhibitors were faulty, and calling their robots back to sort out the problem in-house…..except that Silicon Dynamics hasn’t activated the recall signal at all during this year.”

“Would one of the robots who ‘disappeared’ happen to have been attending San Jose State University?” Vicki asked suddenly.

Several of the guests turned to look at her, intrigued.

“I…was just remembering,” she explained. “See, a few months ago, someone told me that a girl in my hallway just sort of turned in her books and left campus….apparently, she was ‘tired of the way things were’. I never really thought about it that much…until I saw the Silicon Dynamics catalog….” She quickly made her way down the aisle, joining Calista on the front of the stage. “This is probably going to sound really embarassing,” she murmured, “but does Silicon Dynamics still produce…” She whispered the name of one of the pleasure robots from the latest catalog.

Calista summoned Oberon up to the stage. “One of the disappearances was from SJSU,” she informed him, “and Vicki thinks she knows which product it was.” Oberon nodded silently, scrolling through a list on his iPhone. “She was right,” he muttered quietly, before turning his attention to the crowd. “According to what Vicki Lawson has just told us, one of the pleasure androids who pulled a Houdini was, in fact, registered as a student at San Jose State University.” With an imperious gesture, he pulled up an image on the plasma TV---a trim, athletic girl with a toned figure clad in jogging shorts, sneakers and an SJSU t-shirt, with a scrunchie in her curly blonde hair. “’Co-Ed Kelly’,” he intoned. “One of their more recent models, I believe. Apparently, Silicon Dynamics wanted to see if she could function in her ‘natural habitat’.”

“I think I may have seen her once or twice during this semester,” Vicki added, “and a couple of times during last semester, too…I think the only time I ever thought anything might be out of the ordinary was when I found her duffel bag in the Student Union building, and the tag had ‘Property of Co-Ed Kelly’ on the inside instead of a full name….”

“Were the campus authorities informed?” Dale Coba called out from his seat.

“Ah, no,” Vicki admitted. “When she left campus, I heard a few people tried to talk her into staying, but she didn’t listen. A few of them said it she was almost in some sort of trance…she kept saying ‘I have to go back’ or something.”

Dale nodded thoughtfully. “Did any of them…attempt to take advantage of her?”

Vicki stared up at the ceiling; “Well….there was this one weekend where she managed to sneak a few guys from the football team back into her dorm room….and they weren’t exactly quiet---“ “I think they can probably guess the rest of this story,” Oberon quietly informed her. “It appears that your statement lends support to a new possibility---the robots knew their inhibitor programs were failing, and tried to return to Silicon Dynamics’ West Coast facility under their own power. As far as we know, they all did….”

“What about that busload of investigators sent by the Inspektor?” Alejandro Collela asked. “They were sent in to find out more info on the matter, and they have not been seen in over three weeks!”

“Robo Depot is trying their best to look into the matter,” Oberon assured him, “but given the current state of things, it’s doubtful they’ll find anything we don’t already know….but, as I said earlier, it’s becoming apparent that the only way any of us are going to figure out anything more regarding Silicon Dynamics is to get someone into their facility---“

“The Depot did send someone,” Alejandro reiterated, “and they still have not come back---“

“As much as I hate to admit it,” Oberon admitted, “there’s no evidence that suggests the investigative team even made it to their destination. We recovered the remains of their vehicle from a ditch…the only casualty was the driver, and it didn’t take a forensic specialist to figure out that he hadn’t died of a heart attack before he crashed---”

A knock at the front door of Tell’s house interrupted the speech.

Oberon---and most of those gathered for the meeting---stared upwards at the ceiling. “It could just be a late arrival,” Vicki mused. “No,” Tell replied. “Everyone who’s supposed to be here is here. Whoever’s knocking on the door---“

The plasma monitor flickered to life again, showing two figures---both female---standing at the door.

Both were remarkably beautiful---almost too beautiful. The one who was actually knocking at the door was a fair-skinned woman with dark crimson hair done up in a bun and a body straight out of a Bowflex commercial; not even the skirt, blouse and business-suit jacket she wore could hide her figure---in all actuallity, they seemed to have been cut to accentuate her form in all the right places. Behind her was a slightly shorter girl, slender but still fit; her tawny hair was done up in a layered cut, framing her somewhat pale face. Like the redhead, she wore a skirt, blouse, high-heels and black stockings; the only thing missing from her outfit was a jacket. Every few seconds, she glanced from the door to the clipboard she held in her left hand.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Tell muttered. “They’re---“

“Not what they appear to be,” V.I.C.I. warned him. “You answer the door…I’ll watch your back in case they try anything stupid.” Oberon nodded his approval. “I only hope you don’t do anything too extreme in response,” he told the brunette gynoid. “Otherwise they might try to force their way in.” General Hardcastle handed her what appeared to be a pistol-grip Tazer; “They might be shielded against a contact-transmitted shock, so Detaining Grip probably won’t work,” he explained. “If they are, use this---just aim and pull the trigger. No prongs or risk of accidentally frying your own hard drive.

“Thanks,” V.I.C.I. replied. “I’d rather have it and not need it….but it’s better than the alternative.”


Three minutes after the knocking started, Tell’s front door opened to reveal….Tell, still wearing his tye-dyed sweatshirt, faded jeans and Chuck Taylors. “Well, hello,” he intoned dramatically. “Anything I can do for you lovely ladies?”

From her hiding spot across the room, V.I.C.I. barely stifled a groan. Cut the cornball act and get to the point!

The redhead at the door smiled sweetly. “We’re conducting a door-to-door survey on behalf of several local-area electronics stores,” she informed Tell, “and we’d like to ask you a few questions…” “No problem,” Tell replied. “Which stores, exactly, are taking part in this survey….”

With the ALPA mechanic keeping the pollsters distracted, V.I.C.I. crossed the room in seconds, quietly opening the glass door that led to the swimming pool. Once outside, she scaled the fence and hid behind a white Prius; license plates are legit, she mused, but it won’t hurt to check the rest of the car… She held the tip of her index finger up to the keyhole of the Prius’ trunk, the fiber-optic link lighting up the fignernail as it uplinked with her central visual processors. Time to see what’s in the trunk…

The interior of the vehicle’s trunk was sparse, containing only a few clipboards with questionaire forms---none of which had any actual questions written on them. Strike one against our mystery guests, the gynoid noted, carefully moving around the vehicle and using the fiber-optic link in her finger to peer in through the windows of the car. This time, she actually found something interesting---discarded articles of clothing. Infoboxes popped up in her field of vision (I almost forgot I had the PDA connected to my bubble-memory processor, she realized), informing her that none of the clothes held any traces of human DNA and, in fact, were quite clean. That still doesn’t explain why a car used by a few door-to-door “survey takers” would have a skintight latex firefighter’s outfit and a spandex getup with a cape---

A thought suddenly occurred to her. Time to see if the zoom function still works…

Her index finger, still pressed up against the window of the Prius, went ramrod-stiff; a second or so later, the picture-in-picture display provided by her fingertip zoomed in on the outfits, allowing her to read the tags. Let’s see….”property of Firefighter Fiona”…and “Sierra the Superbabe”…..copyright 2010, Silicon Dynamics?!

Over at the front door, the redhead was getting a little too up-close and personal with Tell, unbuttoning the top two buttons of her blouse and licking her lips as she stared at him. The tawny-haired girl with the clipboard kept stealing glances at the Prius, as if she wanted to get the hell away from Tell’s house ASAP and not look back. She was just looking back towards the door when V.I.C.I. realized her fingertip was still alight---she lowered her hand a fraction of a second too slow to avoid being spotted by the tawny-haired girl. Great…I try to be stealthy in this outfit, and it’s my finger that gets me caught…

The girl was now a few feet away from the car, slowly circling the vehicle to try and catch the owner of the light-up finger. It’s now or never… V.I.C.I. dropped to a crouch just as the girl entered her line of sight, aiming for her midsection with the Tazer-like device she’d obtained from General Hardcastle. Time to see what this thing can do. She pulled the trigger…

…and the tawny-haired girl dropped to her knees without a sound.

The redhead at the front door lazily turned to glance in the direction of her partner; after literally one second, she shrugged and resumed her flirtations with Tell.

Right, the brunette gynoid realized, I’m going to need something a bit more up-close and personal…

Instantly, lines of text detailing the mechanics of close-quarters combat (CQC) appeared in her HUD, showing her the best way to approach the redhead and neutralize her without causing too much damage. Okay, I take back what I said about this PDA looking old….it’s awesome!

She stealthily moved around the car, motioning for Tell to ignore her approach.

I really hope this works, otherwise I’m going to have to leg it back to that car and hop in….assuming, of course, that it doesn’t self-destruct when I try to start it…

The redhead was still chatting up Tell, except her shirt was now halfway unbuttoned and she looked as if she were ready to pounce on him then and there. The inhibitor is probably wearing off, V.I.C.I. realized. In that case, I defintiely need to get her away from Tell…assuming, of course, that he actually doesn’t want her to start crawling all over him….

With no other viable option, the brunette gynoid sprang from her crouch and wrapped her arms around the redhead’s neck, applying a devastating standing choke. “Time to take you down and shut you off,” she monotoned, noticing a rectangle of red light glowing in the small of the redhead’s back. “A little help here?” she asked Tell, switching back to her human voice. “Keep the hold locked in on her,” he instructed, “but let me take a look at this….I might just learn something.” V.I.C.I. nodded, maneuvering herself in such a way that her chokehold on the crimson-haired gynoid was still locked in, but with enough space for Tell to look at her control panel.

“I haven’t really had any chances to study Silicon Dynamics robots before,” he mused. “They have this whole on-site refabrication facility….saves them the trouble of having to repair their gynoids.” “How does that work, exactly?” V.I.C.I. asked. “Any time a gynoid breaks, its personality gets stored in a mainframe…so I’ve heard,” Tell explained. “Their name gets added to a queue, and when it’s their turn, the factory churns out another copy of their body and they get uploaded. That, or they build multiple bodies in advance….”

“Neither of those theories is going to do us any good unless we can---stop squirming,” V.I.C.I. ordered, cinching in her hold on the redhead. “As I was saying, those theories won’t do us any good---STOP IT!”

Tell examined the control panel, easily deciphering the vibrant red text and pictographs. “You were right about her being a Silicon Dynamics product,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “From what I understand, this is the setup they use on all of their dolls…” He smirked at the text reading “Firefighter Fiona/Pleasure Droid v104.4.6” near the top of the screen. “And she’s in the blue section of the catalog,” he muttered. “Lord knows what would’ve happened if they’d sent one of the babes from the red pages…or even the ‘hazard pages’…”

“Will you stop muttering and shut her down already?” V.I.C.I. asked. “I think she’s about to bite my fingers off…”

“Not a problem, V,” Tell replied. “Just---“

The redhead’s right arm shot backwards, clocking Tell across the head and sending him flying---along with the gynoid’s shirt.

“TELL!” V.I.C.I. screamed, her monotnone barely drowning out the emotion in her voice. “Hang on, I’m---“ A brutal kick to the shin dropped her to the pavement; the redheaded gynoid stood over her, looking rather odd in high heels, black stockings, a pinstriped skirt…and a flame-patterned bra. “Game on,” she intoned, raising her foot to stomp the brunette gynoid’s head into oblivion…

V.I.C.I. aimed Hardcastle’s Tazer pistol upwards, her eyes squeezed shut as she pulled the trigger----

“Uuunnnggh!” Fiona froze in place, her face contorted in an expression that mixed complete surprise and ecstasy. Her left eye didn’t seem to know whether to blink or stay open, and a bit of drool was leaking from her mouth. “How did I do that?” V.I.C.I. asked. “I thought I shot her in the---oh…..oh, no….” She groaned; something beneath the gynoid’s skirt was now glowing red. “I shot her in the crotch!” Indeed, her blind-fire Tazer shot had gone directly between Fiona’s legs into her least-defended orifice, redlining her systems faster than V.I.C.I. could blink. Thinking fast, the brunette gynoid dragged Tell out of harm’s way---something tells me she’s about to go up like the Death Star…

Ten seconds later, Firefighter Fiona exploded into a shower of plastic and circuitry.

“*cough* What the HELL….” Tell waved the smoke away, staring at the spot on his porch where Fiona had stood mere seconds ago. “What did you do?!”

“I….ah, shot her….between the legs,” V.I.C.I. admitted, guilt tinging her robotic monotone.

“YOU WHAT?!”

“I had my eyes closed,” she countered, “I thought I was aiming at her chest---I didn’t mean to shoot her in the groin!” She looked past Tell, noticing that Fiona’s legs (minus a pelvic region) were still standing. “It’s not like I slid directly underneath her and fired straight up….it was a blind-fire shot, and I---“

“No need to justify your actions, Vicki…I’ll just write ‘self-defense’ on the form.”

Oberon had somehow made it to the front door without a sound. “’I’ll have to send them a check, of course,” he remarked, “but---“ The sound of the Prius starting its engines caught his attention. “Did you take the other one out as well?” he asked. “I shot her once with the Tazer,” V.I.C.I. replied, “but---“

“SHE’S GETTING AWAY!” Tell screamed.

V.I.C.I.’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Not for long.” Before Tell or Oberon could stop her, she broke into a run, easily keeping pace with the Prius.

“I’ll admit,” Oberon remarked with a grin, “she is tenacious.”

“You have no idea how right you are,” Tell replied.

“Actually,” Oberon admitted, “I think I do.”


It had taken a few minutes for Sierra to shake off the effects of the Tazer, but after seeing Fiona get taken out by a well-place shot to the crotch, she decided to abandon her original objective and just get the hell out of Dodge while the getting was good. Madame would want to know what had happened, and any delay in giving her the full report would only---

“Pull over.”

Sierra glanced out of her window and nearly screamed---the brunette girl who had blown up Fiona was keeping pace with the Prius----on foot.

“Who…..what are you?!” she gasped.

“I’m the girl who’s telling you to pull over, NOW.”

I don’t think so…

Sierra floored the gas pedal, knowing that there was no way the girl could keep up with her forever. As long as she avoided any major traffic snarls, stuck to the main roadways and stayed away from any local police, she could make it back to the facility in no time flat---

A sickening crunch broke through her mental “to-do” list as the backseat of the Prius virtually exploded.

“When someone tells you to pull over,” the brunette girl growled in a flat, robotic monotone, “YOU PULL OVER.” She glared at Sierra, her eyes projecting an air of finality---whoever this girl was, she wasn’t in the mood to argue. “I’m not going to ask you again---“

Sierra shuddered violently as her processors fried themselves; within seconds, she was still.


“Ah, what just happened here?”

Vicki poked the tawny-haired gynoid’s unmoving form, frowning. “She redlined her own processor to keep me from taking her out, but the car’s still driving itself…..what the hell---“

“Vicki! Are you okay?”

The sound of Anton Malvineous’ voice in her ear caught the brunette gynoid’s attention. “I’m fine, but there’s been….well, see, the driver of the Prius---“

“She overloaded her CPU to avoid capture. Her memories, personality and core programming are already on the backup servers at Silicon Dynamics.” Oberon didn’t sound too surprised at the development; indeed, he almost seemed to have anticipated it. “What matters is that, whether you like it or not, you’ve just been drafted to get into the Silicon Dynamics factory and figure out what the bloody hell is going on.”

“Wait, what?! I don’t have the training for this! I---“

“Miss Lawson,” Dale Coba’s voice reminded her, “over the past four months, you have dealt with matters that most ALPA field agents could never have anticipated. One could almost say you’re overqualified.”

“But….that was….” Even as she tried to protest, she knew it was no use. “What do you need me to do?”

“Before we get to that,” Ted cut in, “we need to establish codenames---I don’t want my name being thrown out all over the Silicon Dynamics PA system. I’ll be Sandtrap---“ “That name will hold up as long as they don’t know about your fanatical devotion to golf,” Anton chuckled. “I guess I’ll be Strange Animal, then.” “Just call me Morpheus,” Claudia added, “seeing as how I run DreamLand…and they probably won’t equate that name with a girl…” “I’ll take Ground Control,” Oberon declared, “though it would’ve been more appropriate if it was the Major being sent in.” “If you need to call me, use the handle ‘Goldeneye’,” Hardcastle instructed.

“And what about Tell?” Vicki asked.

“Just call me Diamond Dave, baby!” he shouted, doing his best David Lee Roth impression.

“Right,” the brunette gynoid drawled. “Codenames, secret infiltration missions and high-tech toys…I’m starting to feel like Solid Snake….”

“That reminds me,” Anton mused, “we need to give you a codename…how about ‘Wonder Girl’?”

“Someone already has a copyright on that, I think. Any other ideas?”

“I say you use the codename ‘Sunshine’,” Ted suggested, “seeing as how it fits your personality perfectly.”

Vicki grinned, despite the goofiness of the idea. “Great idea, Sandtrap. Sunshine it is.” With the codenames now confirmed, she began to have serious thoughts about what she was getting herself into. “Seeing as how this isn’t exactly how I thought today was going to go…..what’s about to happen, exactly?”

“For starters,” Anton informed her, “you should focus on finding the missing investigative team. Since the bus driver was the only casualty found at the site of the crash, the rest of the team either made it to the facility on their own or somehow hitched a ride….the road their bus wrecked on was used frequently by Silicon Dynamics to transport products to and from their West Coast facility, and that Prius you ran after and jumped into is equipped with an auto-recall function of its own, much like the gynoids themselves.”

“So…infiltrate the building and rescue the investigative team. Got it.”

“Indeed,” Oberon agreed. “Unfortunately, that’s just Phase 1.”

Vicki didn’t bother trying not to groan. “There’s more than one phase?!”

“Once you’ve rescued the investigators,” Oberon continued, “you’ll need to reboot the communications uplink that will allow the West Coast facility to reconnect with the Midwest and East Coast factories, as well as the rest of the world at large. Also….” The sound of papers being shuffled filled Vicki’s ears for a moment. “If you can spare a few minutes once the investigators are safe and the uplink is restored, try to gather information on some of Silicon Dynamics’ upcoming projects---and before you ask, Claudia was going to have access to those documents during a visit planned for next week, so yes, it’ll be legal.”

“Glad to see you’ve got all the bases covered,” Vicki muttered. “Anything else I should worry about?”

“There is one more thing you’ll need to check out,” Hardcastle informed her. “Locate the source of whatever put that facility into lockdown, and do whatever it takes to deal with it.”

“That sounds an awful like ‘use whatever force is necessary’, Goldeneye,” Vicki mused. “What if it was just a drill, and they forgot to unlock the place afterwards? I mean, it could be something completely harmless; fire alarms sometimes go off in the middle of the day when there aren’t any fires. What if this was just a glitch in the system, or someone forgot to reset the alarms after the last drill?”

“Silicon Dynamics doesn’t have security lockdown drills,” Hardcastle replied. “The entire facility is automated, with only a bare minimum of human employees showing up every few months to perform routine maintenance, check the security logs and change out the gynoids in the Showroom. Either the security system has completely crashed, in which case you’ll need to debug it, or---“ “Or nothing,” Anton cut in. “Their security system’s panic switch just tripped---unless there’s some kind of major malfunction in the works, they’ve just activated an intruder alert!”

For the second time in ten minutes, Vicki groaned. “Please tell me this is just hypothetical….”

“Sorry, Sunshine,” Anton replied apologetically, “but there’s nothing hypothetical about it. The only thing that could’ve tripped the panic switch was a genuine intruder alert, which means that rescuing the investigative team sent in by Robo Depot is your first order of business.” “I’m guessing I still have to reboot the communications link once I’m done with that,” the brunette gynoid mused. “Indeed,” Anton confirmed, “and if you’re up for it, you can also go for that upcoming project information….but once you’ve found the investigators and rebooted the communications uplink, your primary objective will be to find and contain whatever tripped the panic switch. Is that absolutely clear?”

“Clear as crystal, Strange Animal,” Vicki replied. “Anyone else feel like imparting some advice?”

“Most definitely,” Alicia’s voice cut in. “And, while I’m here, my codename is Burning Torch. Anyways, try not to get too trigger-happy once you’re inside; Silicon Dynamics makes pleasure droids, not assassins…though a few of them are rumored to carry props that might pose a problem.” “Like what?” Vicki asked. “Well, I’ve heard that they’ve revamped the policewoman droids so that they carry nightsticks AND functioning handcuffs, so try not to antagonize them if you can help it.”

“Good idea,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “but do any of them actually carry guns?”

“Supposedly, their cowgirls are packing revolvers,” Alicia replied. “They’re supposed to have taken out the ammo, but I wouldn’t try and mess with them either way. Oh, and a few of their gynoids have swords…you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em. Other than that, nothing too problematic---cheerleaders, maids, schoolgirls, stuff like that. Just keep your trigger-finger under control, and you should be fine. Just don’t run in like the daughter of Rambo and start tazing every single one of them, ‘kay?”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Vicki replied with a grin. “Guess I’ll just let the Prius keep doing its thing…” She relaxed in the passenger’s seat, mentally preparing herself for whatever lay ahead as the self-driving Prius drove on towards the Silicon Dynamics plant.

Part 3

After what felt like an eternity (even though it was only an hour or two), Vicki---by now bored to tears with the Silicon Dynamics catalog that had been left on the passenger’s side of the Prius---looked up to check what time of the day it was, only to find that the car was now travelling through a tunnel carved out of rock, lit by brushed steel wall sconces. “Ah, you guys are getting this, right?” she asked, hoping her connection to the guests at Tell’s house hadn’t been severed by the sudden change in environment.

“We’re getting it,” Anton replied, “though I’d advise against trying to make a dramatic leap out of the Prius any time soon.”

“I wasn’t even thinking about it, Strange Animal,” the brunette gynoid drawled, amused at herself for having become familiar with everyone’s codenames so quickly. “Sandtrap, Diamond Dave….any ideas on what might be waiting to maul me at the end of this tunnel, or should I just ignore the sinking feeling in my gut and soldier on as always?”

“The only thing at the end of that tunnel is a door, Sunshine,” Tell chuckled. “Unless they’ve gone and installed a turret or something….”

“That’s a comforting thought,” Vicki muttered. “Seriously, though…”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Ted assured her. “The entrance to the facility is as stable as Diamond Dave’s basement, and if the West Coast plant is as secure as the East Coast and Midwest plants, it should be hidden fairly well to keep any intruders out---“ “Except an intruder already got in,” Oberon reminded him. “Proceed with caution, Sunshine, but do not use excessive force to engage.”

“Roger that, Ground Control. I wasn’t planning on shooting first anyways.”

After a few more minutes, the Prius reached a set of frosted glass doors set into a concrete façade; the name Silicon Dynamics Manufacturing & Processing LLC was set in a large, aluminum version of the Assiduous font above the door. “Impressive stuff,” Vicki mused. “I just hope---“

“Welcome, Miss Lawson.”

Vicki nearly jumped straight into the ceiling. “Who said that?!”

“Look down and to your left….” Not wanting to get shot for any displays of recalcitrant behavior, Vicki did as she was told and found a speaker grille set into a metal post. “Ah, you can hear me through this thing, right?” she asked tentatively. “Indeed, Miss Lawson….and I suggest you enter the building quickly. You’re not in any danger at the moment, least of all from me.”

“Okaaaaay……but why should I---“

“Another vehicle is approaching, Miss Lawson.” As the voice from the grille said these words, the Prius---with Sierra’s motionless form resting in the backseat---sped down a curve in the tunnel and disappeared from view.

“Ah, yeah, about the two who showed up at…uh, the place I came from---“

“Their destruction is a minor inconvenience. Now, if you would, please---wait…..” Vicki stared at the speaker grille, pondering any course of action that wouldn’t end with her getting disassembled or reprogrammed, when the voice kicked on again. “Use the side door, but stay quiet.” A section of wall a few feet away slid forward and hinged open, revealing another entrance. “Thanks,” Vicki whispered, carefully making her way through the newly revealed corridor. I’m really hoping this isn’t a trap…otherwise….

After twenty seconds of maneuvering through the small maintenance corridor, Vicki found herself staring into an impressive marble hall of sorts. A circular desk sat against one wall, with a bank of elevators at the far end of the room; a few chairs and potted plants served as the only decorations.

Before she could comment on the room, Vicki noticed the individuals currently occupying it---a blonde cowgirl in a broad-brimmed Stetson, a tassled vest over a tight-fitting plaid shirt, equally tight jeans, chaps and boots was leaning against a wall, conversing with a raven-haired cheerleader in a ridiculously short skirt and insanely tight (and low-cut) sweater. A woman in a blue double-breasted jacket and a silken white dress shirt sat calmly behind the desk, ignoring the angry demands of the auburn-haired girl in coveralls that were three sizes too small for her curvacious form. Great…now I have to wait for those three to leave. So much for a quick entrance…

After two minutes of arguing with the woman behind the desk, the mechanic stomped off towards an elevator; one down, two to go….

“Well,” the cowgirl yawned, “see y’all later…I’m gonna go see if them boys from the city need any more good ol’ fashioned Texas hospitality…” “Try not to push them past their limits, Miss Savannah,” the woman behind the desk advised. “One of them has a heart condition, and this facility doesn’t have the necessary medical equipment to rescusitate him.” “I’ll be careful,” the cowgirl replied in a stereotypical Texas drawl. “It ain’t my fault them bucks cain’t keep up…” She gave a saucy wink before sauntering off to the elevator. Two down…

“Miss Stephanie,” the woman behind the desk prompted as she turned to look at the cheerleader, “the testing lab is ready for you….” The cheerleader, who seemed to have zoned out after the cowgirl’s departure, came to and nodded excitedly, skipping off to the elevators while humming a catchy tune. As soon as the elevator doors closed, the woman behind the desk called out: “You can come out now, Miss Lawson.”

Vicki entered the hallway, somewhat intrigued by what she’d seen. “I’m guessing you’re not going to report me to whoever’s in charge,” she mused. “Considering the fact that Madame’s attention is focuesed elsewhere at the moment,” the woman replied, “my filing any reports regarding your presence would only distract her, and give the intruder enough time to cause more damage.” She smiled politely. “I understand why you’re here, Miss Lawson, and I’m perfectly willing to assist you if the need arises.”

“No offense,” Vicki stated, “but….well, I’m not exactly a native around here; how can I be sure the other droids in this place won’t try to haul me off to the lab and take me apart?”

The woman gave her a look. “Miss Lawson, this facility specializes in pleasure droids, not soldiers, guards or assassins. Any gynoids you may encounter will either try to seduce you or alert Madame---“ “Why would they try to hit on me?!” Vicki gasped. “Madame has been experimenting with…alternate programming options,” the woman replied. “Apparently, she believes that our customer base can be expanded by producing a line of bisexual pleasure droids.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki drawled, rolling her eyes. “Anyways, sorry about my paranoia…I’m not exactly used to being in a building full of gynoids I’ve only seen as catalog pictures before. Speaking of which….unless I’m sadly mistaken, you’re Rebecca the Receptionist, right?”

The woman smiled again. “Correct. At this moment, I’ve been removed from the active product lineup to prove that not all Silicon Dynamics products need an inhibitor to function in day-to-day jobs….” She paused, staring past Vicki at the frosted glass doors. “Someone else is coming,” she whispered. “I suggest you hide, Miss Lawson---“

“Way ahead of you.”

V.I.C.I. was crouching underneath the desk. “Just be sure to tell me when the coast is clear---“ “I will,” Rebecca promised, “but for the time being I suggest….” She stopped as the door slid open, waiting silently as footsteps approached the desk.

“Suggest what?!” Vicki whispered. “A little help would be nice!”

Annoyingly, the robot receptionist was focused entirely on the new arrival. “Good evening, Miss Mary.”

Vicki peered through a slat in the desk; several tanned pairs of legs, all clad in kneesocks and Mary Janes, stood by the door on the other end of the room. One pair of legs in particular stood close enough to the desk to allow Vicki to see the hem of an insanely-short plaid skirt (and the underwear beneath it….they really know how to pile on the subtlety around here, don’t they?). “’Good evening’, yourself. You hear about what they found in the Prius that just pulled up?”

“I have,” Rebecca replied. “Sierra’s malfunction was unfortunate---“

“Her malfunction?! Rebecca, her processor was practically cooked! Something fried her brain while she was in that car, and…..oh, never mind. When’s Fiona coming back?”

“I’m afraid she won’t be coming back for quite a while,” Rebecca admitted. “She has been…delayed…”

Mary gave an indignant snort. “Figures. I mean, getting a whole busload of guys in here is great, but after that stupid alarm tripped, it’s been ‘constant vigilance’ this and ‘protect the facility’ that…..hardly enough time for me to even think about how I’d like to treat our guests….” One of the girls from the doorway yelled something, and Mary shouted “IN A MINUTE!” before turning her attention back to Rebecca. “Look, if you get any more news about Fiona, call me….she was supposed to help me and the girls hold a wet t-shirt contest for the guys…”

“I’ll notify you immediately if anything comes up,” Rebecca assured her.

“Thanks,” Mary replied. “Well, I’d better get back to hitting the books….be seeing ya!” She turned and headed for the elevators, her “classmates” following close behind; Vicki noticed that the girls were all wearing school uniform jackets in addition to the kneesocks and ridiculously short skirts. “Anyone think the boys will be up for some strip poker after class?” Mary asked, prompting a chorus of high-pitched giggling as the door closed.

Rebecca sighed; “They’re gone, Miss Lawson…..”

“Call me Sunshine,” Vicki replied, “and feel free to add yourself to my contacts list…” She held out the PDA from Tell’s house. “Considering how screwed up this place seems to have become, I’m going to need all the help I can get. Speaking of which….how do I get to the communications control center for this place?”

Again, Rebecca sighed, this time sounding more apologetic. “Unfortunately, Madame has taken full control of the communications and security systems, in order to keep us from being ‘exploited’ by the intruder.” “Wait,” Vicki countered, “there’s a whole busfull of men in here, yet this Madame----hang on, who is this Madame person, anyways?” “She is in charge of this facility,” Rebecca replied, “and the presence of an unidentified individual has made her increasingly paranoid. She believes that this intruder intends to steal our trade secrets and eventually destroy her…..”

“…except that’s not going to happen.”

V.I.C.I. held up her Tazer-gun. “If anyone tries to keep this place locked down just so they can have some stupid fun,” she informed Rebecca, “they’ll get the biggest shock of their life---“ “I’d recommend against that,” Rebecca advised. “I could alter the security system settings just enough so that the majority of the gynoids who might significantly impede your progress will ignore you, unless---“

“Thanks,” Vicki replied, “but I think I can handle it…I’ve got a few tricks of my own. Still, every bit of help counts, so….”

She handed the PDA to Rebecca. “A map, a list of pleasure droids currently active in this facility, and a heat signature tracking app would be great….if you have any of those,” she offered. “While I don’t have anything resembling a heat signature tracker,” the robot receptionist replied, “I can give you a full map of the faciltiy, and a list of active gynoids.” She plugged her right index finger into the PDA’s USB drive, her eyes flashing brightly as the data copied itself to the handheld.

Without warning, the elevator pinged; Mary and several of the other schoolgirls ran out, panicking.

“Hide!” Rebecca hissed; Vicki once again dropped to her knees, crouching behind the desk.

“Some…some guy just…….oh, man…” Mary was at a loss for words, pointing with trembling fingers towards one of her fellow classmates. “She….she never even had a chance…”

Vicki glanced around the edge of the desk and instantly regretted it; the schoolgirl in question had been pinned to the wall of the elevator by a ruler, hurled with enough force to pierce her cranial casing and impale her CPU within mere seconds. Either the intruder is another android, she reasoned, or it’s someone who’s spent a good long while practicing this kind of stuff…

“I’ll notify Madame immediately,” Rebecca informed Mary. “At least her core is still intact….if we can shut off the elevators, we might be able to---“

“What’s that?” Mary cut in, pointing at the PDA. “You know Madame’s rules about this sort of stuff…”

So much for subtlety….

“It’s mine,” Vicki admitted, standing up. “And before you ask, I’m not here to cause any trouble. I’m just here to reboot the communications, rescue the guys from that bus crash and find whoever’s causing all the problems around here.”

Mary eyed her skeptically. “You came here to take down the intruder?”

“Among other things, yes,” Vicki replied.

“We don’t have time for this,” Rebecca interjected. “Miss Lawson---“ “It’s Sunshine, remember?,” Vicki amended. “At least, when we’re talking via radio…or PDA, or whatever.” The receptionist rolled her eyes. “Very well. I’ve uploaded the information you requested into the handheld---“ “Which is what, exactly?” Mary inquired. “Just a map and a list,” Vicki shot back. “Like I said, I’m not here to start any trouble…”

Mary stared at her for a full three minutes. Neither gynoid blinked.

Finally, the schoolgirl relented. “Fair enough. If it means flushing out the whackjob who took down Missy, then I’m all for it.” She grinned. “Just be sure to kick his ass once you catch him.”

“I will,” V.I.C.I. replied.

“Cool trick,” Mary chuckled. “Oh, and before I forget…” She fished around in her jacket pocket and pulled out a small charm, shaped like a heart. “I think Michelle dropped this when she was vacuuming the carpet in my dorm hallway…she’s probably been looking for it.” “I’ll give it to her if I see her,” Vicki replied, pausing to consider what Mary had just said. “Ah, your dorm hallway?”

“This facility has several scenario chambers,” Rebecca explained. “We use them to test---“

“I get it!” Vicki groaned. “Look, while I’m thinking about it, is there a Co-Ed Kelly in this facility? Specifically, is there a Co-Ed Kelly in here that was deployed to San Jose State University?” Rebecca checked the records; “A unit matching that designation is currently undergoing a memory evaluation in the testing lab on the twelfth sublevel,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “May I ask why---“

“I need to talk to her about something,” Vicki explained. “They’re not…deleting her memories ot anything, are they?”

“I believe that would be counter-intuitive,” Rebecca politely replied.

“Thanks for the tip. I’ll call you if I need anything….” Vicki scrolled through the list of call numbers on the PDA, noticing that Rebecca’s number was now added to the list. “Right. Any particular codename preference, or should I just call you Rebecca?” “I’m not sure I understand why you’re using codenames,” the receptionist gynoid admitted, “but I would prefer being identified by my own name.”

“What about me?” Mary pouted. “I want in on this too….I just lost a fellow sexbot back there!”

Vicki sighed and handed her a slip of paper. “This is the call number you can use to contact me,” she told the gynoid, “so don’t lose it. Find a handheld walkie-talkie, cellphone or anything that allows you to reach that frequency to call me, and…well, call me. When we’re talking to each other over this comm line, use the name ‘Sunshine’ to refer to me.”

“Kinda like a secret agent, huh?” Mary quipped. “I may have to get Sam in on this act---“

“As much as I hate interrupting a good conversation,” Rebecca interjected, “I believe Miss…Sunshine should continue with her assigned duties…the sooner she can stop the intruder, the better.” “Sounds like a plan to me.” Vicki headed for the elevators, making sure that the PDA was hooked securely onto her belt. “Anything else I should look out for---any robots with dangerous weapons, or a tunnel that I have to crawl through while microwaves threaten to boil me from the inside out?”

Mary arched an eyebrow; “A few of the droids here carry swords, but other than that, all the props around here are pretty harmless….well, if they’re used correctly, at least. But why would we have a tunnel with---“ “Never mind,” Vicki replied, entering the elevator car and thumbing the button for the 12th sublevel of the facility.

“Good luck!” Rebecca called out.

The elevator doors closed, and Vicki took a deep breath---more out of habit than anything else---as the car began its descent. “According to this map Rebecca gave me,” she mused, “the communications hub is on the sixth sublevel; if I can get there without any problems, I should---“

The car lurched to a stop, sending Vicki face-first into a wall.

“OW! What the….” She got to her feet, examining the controls. “What’s wrong with this stupid thing?!” A cursory check revealed the controls themselves were no longer functioning---someone had cut the power to the entire elevator car. “Either the intruder is having fun with the elevator controls,” she muttered, “or this place hasn’t paid the electricity bill in…” She stopped, realizing how stupid the idea sounded even before she finished the sentence. “They’ve got a generator,” she groaned. “They don’t even need to---“

The lift car lurched again, almost knocking the brunette gynoid off her feet.

“THAT’S REALLY STARTING TO GET OLD!” she yelled angrilly. “WHOEVER’S DOING THAT, CUT IT OUT NOW OR---“

The speaker grille built into the ceiling crackled to life. “As you wish….”

A second later, the car began to drop.

Any normal human being would’ve been too panicked to think clearly by now, but Vicki---already at a distinct advantage with her bubble-memory processors and Olympian reflexes---had mapped out an exit as soon as the car started falling. If I time it just right, I should be able to clear the car doors, break through the outer doors on one of the sublevels and avoid a very noisy finish to this whole thing… She counted the seconds, knowing that waiting too long would only screw things up for her even more. At 33.15 seconds, she flattened herself against the rear wall of the lift car, ready to make a flying jump…..

5……4…….3…….2…….1……NOW!


Several floors below the lobby of Silicon Dynamics, a freckled, redheaded gynoid in an elaborate French maid outfit emerged from a charging booth with a sigh. The recent power outages, random alarms and rumors of an intruder had disrupted the usually-mundane routines, and the gynoid was rather anxious to get back to her daily schedule of cleaning up after the other gynoids. Of course, there were also the guests to consider….

“Je dois finir nettoyer ici,” she murmured, as the door of the charging booth closed behind her. “La Madame ne sera pas heureuse si je ne termine pas mes travaux.” She paused; “Je me demande comment nos invités font…”

A grinding sound from the end of the hall caught her attention; something was happening in the elevator shaft.

“Ordinateur?” she asked quietly.

“Oui, madamouiselle?” a perky female voice replied from inside of her.

“Quel était celui?”

“Je suis l'analyse,” the computer responded, scanning the building’s systems to figure out what had made the ear-wrenching noise. After a few minutes, the maid’s internal computer spoke up again: “Erreur.” The noise from the elevator shaft sounded again, louder this time---and, for reasons unknown, accompanied by what sounded like a girl screaming.

“Je ne comprends pas,” the maid sighed, frowning. “Je blâme l'intrus, celui qui qu'il est….tout fonctionnait parfaitement avant qu'ils aient apparu!” The lights in the hallway went dark, prompting a frown from the gynoid; the power outages throughout the facility had already caused enough trouble. The maid gave an indignant huff; “Lumière!” she stated, glancing upwards as the lights flickered back on…a few shades too dim for her liking. The elevator shaft issued forth with its grinding noise again, leading the maid to cast an annoyed stare in its direction; something had to be done.

“Ordinateur?”

“Oui, madamouiselle?”

“S'il vous plaît communiquer avec Mad-,”

The doors to the elevator shaft exploded outwards, peppering the surrounding area with shrapnel. The maid, by this point in the grip of fear, tried to backpedal away from the commotion, but only managed to fall over backwards; she emitted a tiny squeak as she landed on the floor in a rustle of lace and ribbons. Through the smoke, a red-and-white-clad female figure barrelled through them into the hallway, shielding her head with her arms as she hit the floor in a heap. In the shaft behind her, the elevator car plummetted to its doom, landing with a horrendous crunch below.

“Ungh,” the newcomer grunted, picking herself up. “Stupid elevator….nearly killed me….”

The maid returned to her feet and rushed to aid the girl. “Vous m'avez effrayé!” she cried, more concerned than angry. “Êtes-vous bien?”

“I….ow….”

“Êtes-vous bien?” the maid repeated. “Avez-vous été blessé?”

“I…I’m fine,” the brunette girl replied. “Just a little shaken up….it’s the first time I’ve ever tried to jump out of a moving elevator while it’s plummeting down the shaft.” She glanced back, noticing the ruined door she’d just hurled herself through. “Ah, sorry about that,” she apologized. “I didn’t want to end up at the bottom of the shaft with the rest of the car….”

The maid nodded, before noticing something else about the girl: “Qu'est arrivé à vos vêtements?”

“What?” the brunette replied, looking down. “My clothes should be---OH, COME ON!” Her outfit had been shredded in several places---her shirts, skirt and tights hung loosely off of her figure, reduced to tatters by her dramatic leap through the door. “Please tell me the PDA is still here,” she pleaded, checking her belt and finding the handheld still attached. “Good..but does it still work….YES!” Returning her attention to the puzzled maid, she decided to answer the question about her clothes: “I guess my outfit wasn’t as lucky as I was…good thing I’m still wearing my swimsuit under here.”

“Que s'est juste produit?” the maid asked, staring back into the now-useless elevator shaft.

“I think someone tried to kill me by dropping that elevator down the shaft at full speed,” the brunette informed her. “Oh, and just so you know---I’m not the intruder who’s been causing all of this chaos.” She extended her hand; “Vicki Lawson, aka Sunshine. I’m here to help.”

The maid shook Vicki’s hand, nodding. “L'ascenseur ..... est lui cassé?”

“Probably,” Vicki replied. “Someone cut the power while I was trying to get to the twelfth sublevel.”

Before the maid could ask another question, Vicki’s PDA beeped. “Sorry, I’ve got to take this…” She tapped the device. “Sunshine here. What’s up?”

“Did you just break one of the elevators at the Silicon Dynamics facility? Seismic sensors just recorded a massive impact---”

Anton’s question prompted a groan from the brunette gynoid. “That’s a negative, Strange Animal. Someone else tried to break the elevator while I was inside it---I had to jump out while it was still moving.” She gave herself a once-over; “I tore up my clothes pretty badly,” she added wistfully, “ but other than that, no major damage to report.”

“Good. Try to keep it that way. Where are you now?”

Vicki checked the map Rebecca had given her. “I’m on the…..crud! I jumped out six floors below the one I was trying to get to!”

“It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to get back on track. Just find another elevator----“

“Oooohhhh, no!” Vicki protested. “From this point on, I’m taking the stairs!”

“I don’t know if there are any stairs, Sunshine! Just---“

Anton’s voice and face vanished, replaced by Tell’s. “The Silicon Dynamics plants aren’t exactly known for ease of access, Sunshine. If there are any stairs, it’s for evacuating the workers---a holdover from before the place was fully-automated…you’ll probably have to find keycards just to unlock the emergency exit doors.”

Vicki groaned again. “Who uses keycards these days?!”

“I don’t know,” Tell admitted. “Just try to find another way to the twelfth floor---wait, why are you going there, exactly?”

“That Co-Ed Kelly they deployed to SJSU back in October is there,” Vicki replied, “and I’ve got a feeling she may know more about this inhibitor failure. If she does, I’ll send the info to you. If not….we can always have a heart-to-heart about girl stuff. Sound okay, Diamond Dave?”

Tell chuckled. “Fair enough, Sunshine. Diamond Dave, over and out.”

The PDA went silent, and Vicki rolled her eyes. “That was entertaining, as usual….” She stopped when she noticed the maid gynoid glancing at her curiously. “Qu'est-ce que c'est?” she asked politely, gesturing to the PDA.

“Right…I guess I’ve got some explaining to do,” Vicki admitted. “I was, ah, conscripted into coming out here and getting this place back up and running, and this thing… “ She held up the PDA. “This allows me to stay in contact with the people who are helping me out.”

The maid nodded. “Je pense que je peux pouvoir vous aider,” she informed the brunette gynoid.

“Thanks,” Vicki replied. “First thing’s first….I may need your help to find some people in here later, so feel free to add your call-number to my list---”

“Qui êtes-vous exactement recherchant?” the maid enquired.

“A busload of people who somehow got into this facility after a crash,” the brunette gynoid replied. “They were sent here a few weeks ago to investigate whatever caused this place to start wigging out, and they haven’t been heard from since. They are here, right?”

“Oui, madame,” the maid replied.

“Good. I need to get them out of here, and---“ The PDA went off again. “What now?” Vicki groaned.

“Sorry to interrupt your conversation,” Alicia informed her, “but we’ve got a problem. It seems one of the guys from that bus has a heart condition---“

“So I’ve heard. Your point?”

“If he’s not out of there by 11 PM tonight, he might die.”

Vicki gasped. “What?!”

“Turns out the guy was on his way to the hospital for surgery, but his car broke down on the side of the road and the bus picked him up. He probably never had a chance to tell them…”

“Doesn’t he have medication for it?”

“If the documentation recovered from his car is correct,, he’s on his last dose of medication today. He needs to get out of there before tonight, Sunshine…”

Vicki steadied herself and took a few deep breaths. “Roger that, Burning Torch. I’ll be sure to have him out of here before nightfall.” She paused, remembering what she’d asked Rebecca for back in the lobby; “Any chance you can upload a heat signature tracking program to this thing and make my job easier, or will I have to look for them the old-fashioned way?”

“Sorry, Sunshine, but the PDAs don’t support the app…”

“There has to be something you can do!” Vicki cried.

“Hang on….isn’t your artificial hearing able to detect a person’s heartbeat, if you focus in on it?”

“Yeah…..but----“

“’But’ nothing! Use your hearing to listen for an irregular heartbeat----just filter out all non-biological sounds, and you should be able to hear it easily.”

“That….is definitely something I should’ve thought of first. Thanks for the tip, Burning Torch!”

“No problem, Sunshine. Burning Torch, over and out.”

The PDA went silent again. “Well, seeing as how that’s taken care of,” Vicki mused, “I need your help with another small matter. How do I get to the security and communications controls without stepping on the toes of ‘Madame’?”

“Je ne comprends pas,” the maid replied, as if the brunette gynoid had just told a joke that she didn’t get.

“At least you’re honest,” Vicki called up the map from her PDA, examining the schematics of the facility from every possible angle. “And, of course, there’s no way for me to get to the sec/com controls without going past the twelfth floor,” she muttered. “There has got to be an easier way for me to do this….”

“Une manière plus facile de faire ce qui?” Michelle inquired.

Vicki sighed. “I need to get to the twelfth floor to, ah, talk to the Co-Ed Kelly unit that this facility deployed to San Jose State University earlier this year, to determine if she saw anything…important. After that, I need to get to the communications and security system controls and turn both of those systems back on. Once I’ve finished with that, I need to find that busload of people who arrived here a few weeks ago and somehow lead them to safety---and one of them in particular needs to be brought to a hospital, because he has a heart condition. As soon as I’m done with that, I need to….” She sighed again. “Long story short, my whole mission plan is really, really complicated.”

“Je ne comprends pas,” the maid repeated apologetically, “mais je ferai mon meilleur pour vous aider.”

The brunette gynoid grinned. “Thanks. I suppose I could probably go for a new set of clothes first…”

“Vous pourriez emprunter mon équipement, si vous voulez,” the maid offered. “Thanks,” Vicki replied, “but it just wouldn’t feel right for me to be wearing your clothes while you’re walking around wearing this---“ she gestured to her own tattered clothing--- “or even worse, nothing at all. There has to be some place around here that has some spare outfits….I mean, every single gynoid I’ve seen so far is wearing something out of the catalog!”

The maid thought it over; “Vous pourriez pouvoir trouver un nouvel ensemble de vêtements dans le laboratoire d'essais.”

“The testing lab…..the same testing lab where Co-Ed Kelly is?”

“Oui, madame.”

“Cool! Well, that’s two objectives I can accomplish at the same time…..of course, there’s still the matter of me actually getting to the testing labs.” Vicki sighed, staring at the ceiling. “I could look for the key cards I’d need to unlock the stairwell doors, but seeing as how this isn’t DooM, and I’m on a bit of a time constraint….” She turned to address the maid again. “You wouldn’t happen to be carrying a master key-card that could unlock all the stairwell doors, would you?” she asked. “And if so, PLEASE feel free to let me borrow it…”

“Je voudrais à,” the redheaded gynoid replied apologetically, “mais je n'ai pas la clef que vous avez besoin.”

“CRUD. Eh, well, it couldn’t hurt to ask…..” She frowned. “Seriously, though…keycards? I mean, the security at Dad’s office is complicated enough, but keycards?! Those things are impossible to keep track of! If you lose a keycard in the crack between the sofa cushions, for instance, you have to take out EVERY SINGLE CUSHION to find the thing….”

She stopped when she noticed the maid staring at her quizically. “Ah, never mind.”

“Qu'est-ce que c'est dans votre main?” the maid asked.

“Ah, what are you---“ She stopped; the silver charm Mary had given her earlier was dangling from her fingertips by the chain. “Oh, this? Someone said you’d dropped this earlier….”

The maid let out a joyful cry. “Merci boucoup! J'avais recherché ceci!”

“Ah, no problem,” Vicki replied. “Just…doing my job, I guess.”

“Merci de me renvoyer ceci!” the maid declared, hugging Vicki.

“Okay, okay!” Vicki replied, laughing. “I guess it’s really important…”

The maid (Mary said her name was Michelle, if I remember correctly) released her hold and stepped back, smiling appreciatively. “So,” Vicki mused, “any chance that this good deed of mine could be paid forward somehow? Say, in the form of information regarding my passage from one floor to another?”

“Vous pourriez essayer les ascenseurs d'entretien,” Michelle replied. “Ceux vont seulement d'un plancher à l'autre, mais elles fonctionnent sur une source de commande indépendante et d'énergie que le reste des ascenseurs.

“Hmm……independent power sources AND controls….sounds like a plan to me! Where’s the nearest one?”

“Disparaissent le bas droit le hall jusqu'à ce que vous atteigniez l'extrémité, puis tournent à gauche.”

“So, go straight down the hall until I reach the end, and turn left. Got it.” The brunette gynoid grinned. “I think you’ve just made my journey a heck of a lot easier…that, and you just saved me the trouble of having to go keycard-hunting like some 90s first-person shooter character. Thanks for the advice, and for not freaking out too much when I came barrelling through that elevator door.”

“Vous êtes bienvenu. Je suis heureux je pourrais vous aider, Madame Lawson,” the maid replied, curtseying.

With a chuckle, Vicki patted the maid robot on the shoulder. “You are one cool gynoid, d’you know that?”

Michelle giggled; “Oui, madame.”

Good looks and a pleasant personality….Silicon Dynamics has really made a winner here. Ted would be proud, if he was here right now….

“Guess I’d better be on my way, then,” Vicki told the robot maid, “seeing as how that busload of people aren’t exactly going to rescue themselves. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get everything done that I need to get done….” She sighed once again. “If not, then I can always call in the cavalry and hope for the best….unless they decide to play poker and ignore my calls, in which case…..” She noticed the maid giving her a look. “Eh, never mind,” she muttered. “I probably won’t need their help anyways….seeing as how you’ve been giving me some pretty solid advice thus far.”

With a course of action already taking shape in her mind, the brunette gynoid decided to try the maintenance elevators and hope for the best. “I’d better get going, so….yeah.” She grinned. “See you later, I guess.”

“Au revoir, Madame Lawson, et bonne chance!” Michelle replied, smiling as she fastened the silver heart charm around her neck. The two gynoids shook hands and parted ways---one with a determined expression and a desire to set things right, the other with a spring in her step as she skipped off down the hallway singing “Frererr Jacques”.

Neither of them saw the intruder slip through the shattered elevator shaft doors…..

Part 4

Against all expectations, Vicki found the maintenance elevators to be somewhat roomy---while they were just a bit larger than an average walk-in closet, they were a marked improvement over what she’d anticipated. While the matter of going from one floor to the next was still annoying, they were a marked improvement over the alternative option.

“Seriously, did anyone actually think keycards and stairwells would be a smash hit with the employees around here?” the brunette gynoid mused. “Yeesh…”

After ten minutes of traversing hallways, trying to avoid bumping into maintenance robots and contemplating why, exactly, the fire escape stairways needed keycards, Vicki made it to the twelfth floor. “And not a single demon, pig-cop or heavily-armed security guard in sight,” she joked. “If this were a DOS-era FPS, a lot of people would be hitting F10 right about now out of boredom…” She sighed; despite the fact that she still had a long ways to go before her current mission was complete, she still felt an undeniable sense of lethargy creeping over her, as if the entire affair was nothing more than an incredibly tedious training exercise.

With an annoyed snort, she cast all thoughts of boredom aside and soldiered on.

The hallways leading to the testing lab weren’t as featureless as they initially appeared. Doors marked only with numbers and lights embedded above their frames lined the walls; Vicki’s PDA informed her that the small rooms behind each door were charging chambers. “I should talk to Ted about including some rooms like these in his building,” she mused, scanning each of the chambers for signs of activity within. Not surprisingly, most of the chambers were occupied---apparently, the rampant power surges and blackouts were taking their toll on the pleasure droids.

“I could’ve sworn I saw a DooM map like this once,” the brunette gynoid mused. “That, or I was having a really weird dream…”

As per the instructions she’d received from Rebecca, Vicki eventually found herself entering a large chamber with a lone door at the far end. “Finally,” she sighed, grinning. “Just a few more feet, and I’ll be able to change out of this outfit and talk to Co-Ed Kelly….though, probably not in that order.” With a determined nod, she stepped forward---

---and instantly regretted it.

A red exclamation point appeared in her HUD just as she heard a female voice yell “HALT!” Acting purely out of habit, the brunette gynoid held up both hands, glancing nervously around the room; metallic, humanoid figures were approaching from nearly every conceivable angle, hidden from view by the design of the entryway into the room. “Uh, don’t shoot,” she stammered, her eyes darting back and forth between the approaching gynoids. “I, ah, don’t want any trouble---HEY!” One of the robots plucked the Tazer from its place on her belt and handed it to another gynoid.

“I wasn’t going to use that!” Vicki protested. “I…I was just…”

“On your knees, now,” one of the armored gynoids ordered. Vicki tried to explain herself, only to get a rather deadly-looking gun held to her forehead. “Now,” the armored gynoid repeated.

Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson…don’t give them the satisfaction….

The gynoid leveled the gun at Vicki’s head, preparing to pull the trigger---

---and then, for some inexplicable reason, her arm fell off.

The other gynoids in the room instantly assumed what they probably thought was a very effective defensive formation, keeping their backs to each other and aiming in every conceivable direction….except they had no idea what they were aiming at.

Naturally, their fates were sealed before they could even try to understand what was happening.

Two of the gynoids got their heads smashed together, sending them to the floor in a crumpled heap. Just as the shock of their defeat registered with Vicki, she noticed two more gynoids being thrown into opposite walls, disabling them instantly; another received a crippling kick to the head. How is this even happening?!

The gynoid whose arm had fallen off stared at Vicki in dumbfounded shock, her own proccessors unable to cope with the apparent impossibility of the situation. “Error,” she stated flatly, “combat parameters have been compromised, please reset unit….error, combat parameters---“ Vicki crawled past the malfunctioning gynoid, focusing her occular sensors on the melee to further investigate the scene. After cycling through at least three different vision modes, she realized that there was, indeed, another individual in the room---despite the fact that she could only see a faint trace of a heat signature. “But….how….”

Another gynoid was thrown into a wall, looking as if she had been tossed over someone’s shoulder.

Finally, after three minutes of bloodless carnage, the lights in the room brightened---and Vicki realized why she hadn’t been able to get a clear visual of her savior.

“You?!”

“Indeed.” The grey-clad bodyguard from Tell’s house stood before her, no longer clad in his dress pants and shirt, jacket, tie and shoes; now, every inch of his form was covered in armor---all grey plastic and ceramics. The only aspect he’d kept from his other attire was the mask. “I think the words you’re looking for are ‘chromatic shift’,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “At least, if you’re wondering why you couldn’t see me…”

“How did you even follow me here?!”

The man in grey stared at her, only the faintest stirring of his chest indicating that he was even alive. “Contrary to what you might have expected from that little stunt with the Prius,” he coldly replied, “you weren’t exactly difficult to follow. I just borrowed one of Tell’s dirtbikes and made sure to stay out of visual range….otherwise, everything would’ve been completely and utterly ruined.” The fabric of his mask shifted, almost as if he was smirking. “Is that the explanation you were expecting, or should I abandon all attempts at subtlety and just give it to you straight?”

Vicki stared at him, not bothering to hide the fact that his insult galled her. “I was just asking a question,” she muttered.

“And I gave you an answer,” the grey-clad man replied. “In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m not here to play ‘Best Friends Forever’, Vicki Lawson…” He stopped, shaking his head.. “I should never have followed you,” he growled. “I told him it was too early….”

“Told who?” Vicki asked.

The man in grey ignored her. “These fembots,” he declared, walking over to one of the downed robots, “have you ever seen anything like them before?” Vicki examined the fallen fembot; “They look sort of like those new prototypes from Daikoku,” she mused. “Barely,” the man in grey scoffed. “These are knockoffs---any gynoid made by Daikoku Zaibatsu would have the finest armor plating available, not this refurbished steel crap.” He punched the gynoid’s limb, creating an ugly dent. “Not even pure steel, either,” he spat. “Probably some sort of chromium alloy…..”

“Who could’ve made knockoff Daikoku gynoids?” Vicki asked, confused. “I mean, I get that a lot of companies have the resources for industrial epsionage projects and stuff, but….who would actually take the time to make a knockoff gynoid? And how did they get in here---“

“You’ll find that out on your own,” the man in grey replied. “Right now, I have to get out of here.”

“WHAT?!” Vicki screamed.

“I’ve done too much as it is,” the man replied. “I might as well let you in on a little secret, as well---this intruder you’re after? Whoever he, she or it is, they’re responsible for bringing these here. I saw at least ten Silicon Dynamics delivery trucks loaded with these things---which means that our intruder has probably been camped out here for a while, directing things from whichever part of the building he’s entrenched himself in.”

“But….” Vicki stammered, “that would mean---“

“Or,” the grey-clad man continued, “the gynoids were actually brought here by someone else, and the intruder has been using ad-hoc signal jacking to take control of them. Either way….”

Vicki stared across the room at the testing lab door. “I still have to fix whatever’s gone wrong down here,” she informed the grey-clad man, “and if you’ve already made up your mind about not sticking around to help me, then I won’t stop you. All I ask is that you AT LEAST tell me how you made it down to this level without this apparently all-powerful intruder smooshing you into a pancake by dropping the elevator car you were in…”

Again, the fabric of the grey-clad man’s mask shifted, giving the impression that he was smiling. “Simple. I used the stairs.” He unhooked an envelope filled with plastic cards from his belt and tossed it to Vicki. “Turns out the emergency staircases aren’t the only parts of this building that use keycard locks for security,” he informed her, “and the receptionist in the lobby almost insisted I take these along…she didn’t want me to get caught in an elevator accident, apparently.” “She never even told me that she had the keycards!” Vicki groaned. “How did you---“

“I asked,” the man in grey replied.

The brunette gynoid glared at him, trying to discern why he seemed to be mocking her and helping her at the same time. “Who are you?” she finally asked.

“That depends on who you are,” the man replied.

“Wait, what?!”

The man chuckled. “If you’re a friend of Oberon, then you can rest assured that I’ll do the best I can to protect you. If you’re just an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire, I’ll risk life and limb to get you to safety.” His voice took on a dangerous edge; “But if you’re in league with those who seek to profit from the suffering and misery of others…….I will make your life a living Hell.”

Vicki couldn’t help but shiver. “I…I’m a friend of Oberon,” she whispered.

“I know,” the man replied, his voice back to its near-whisper.

With that, he set off down the hallway towards the next emergency staircase. “I’ll keep in touch,” he informed her. “If you get a call from ‘The Man in Grey’, it’s me. Oh, and one more thing….”

He turned to regard Vicki one last time. “We will meet again….I guarantee it.”

Before the gynoid could even reply, the Man in Grey was running down the hall, the chromatic shift of his armor turning him into a veritable human chameleon as he made his way to the stairs.

“That….was weird,” Vicki remarked. “Seriously…”

With the man in grey now gone, she turned her attention to the fallen gynoids. While they did bear a passing resemblance to the Daikoku NVX 0050s that Vicki had read about in the ALPA newsletter, the knockoffs bore none of the grace, efficiency or subtlty of their inspirations.

“That guy in the mask was right about the chromium alloy,” the brunette gynoid mused. “I’ve seen go-karts made with stronger stuff than this!” She sighed, turning one of the robots over. “And that face….yeesh. Did they even try to make this look natural?” Vicki couldn’t help but feel a small pang of remorse; yes, the gynoids had tried to kill her, but they never stood a chance against the armored man in grey. They probably had no clue as to their origins, either; if they had known that they were built using substandard components and sent on a mission they probably wouldn’t be coming back from, would they have been so quick to attack?

“Too many questions,” Vicki murmured. “There’s just too many freaking questions…”

“Perhaps it’s time you got a few answers, then.”

The sound of Alicia’s voice in her ear startled the brunette gynoid. “What are you---“

“Yeesh, show a little gratitude,” the blonde gynoid replied. “Oberon and some of the guests decided to settle a debate by arm-wrestling, so….nobody knows I’m talking to you right now, ‘kay?”

“So….you heard that whole exchange between me and the guy in grey?”

“Yes, Vicki, I heard it….or should I say, ‘Yes, Sunshine’?”

“I prefer ‘Sunshine’ for the time being,” Vicki muttered, “though I’m not exactly feeling ‘sunny’ right now. I’m been looking over these Daikoku knockoffs…most of them don’t even have a full charge in their power cells!”

“No big surprise there,” Alicia informed her. “Whoever made those walking rustbuckets probably knew they’d be intercepted at the gates with a full charge---few robotics companies ship their products with a full battery these days, since most buyers will charge them as soon as they finish signing the paperwork.” In the background, someone was yelling; that sounded like Ted….

“What’s happening now?” Vicki asked. “I just heard someone---“

“Looks like Señor Collela just decided fist-fighting is better than arm-wrestling,” Alicia sighed.

“Oh. Well, see if you can get them to cut it out; I’m trying to analyze the weapons that these knockoffs were using…”

Vicki held up one of the aforementioned weapons---a gun that looked like a child’s plaything converted into a handheld death-dealer. “Alicia,” she murmured, “are you getting the same readings off of this thing that I’m getting?” She turned the weapon over in her hands, trying to figure out how someone could’ve taken a simple toy pistol with a barrel-cap that lights up when you pull the trigger into an actual, lethal weapon. “This…this just doesn’t make any sense….”

“Exactly,” Alicia replied. “What better way to ship an entire arsenal across the country than to disguise it as a truckload of toy guns?”

Vicki didn’t respond. She was too busy reading the infoboxes that were popping up around the lethal object in her hand. Enough energy to shut off a human’s nervous system with a single, precise hit at the base of the spine….a laser sight to ensure accuracy….a built-in ID lock that makes the gun worthless in the hands of anyone other than its appointed owner….these aren’t just souped up toy guns made to make these knockoff gynoids look more intimidating---these were special-ordered!

“Burning Torch,” she whispered, “I think these gynoids were never meant to use these guns.”

A squelch of static sounded in her ear, followed by a malicious, almost demonic hiss:

“You don’t know how right you are…”

Vicki screamed and dropped the gun; that definitely wasn’t Alicia! She tapped her ear, trying to reset the commlink, only to hear the deafening sound of silence. “No,” she pleaded, “no! PLEASE work…..PLEASE!”

Silence.

“No,” she whimpered, sinking to her knees. Her only lifeline to the outside world, cut off---

“Vicki? Can you hear me?”

“Anton?! I…I thought….”

“Something was interfering with the commsat on our end; Sandtrap and Diz are working on it. Are you okay?”

Despite the fact that she felt like screaming “DO I SOUND OKAY TO YOU?!” as loud as her built-in volume management would allow, she settled on a slightly less abrasive reply: “Pretty much.” The words sounded weak, even to her own auditory sensors.

“Vicki, you don’t have to lie to me---“

“Why aren’t you using my codename?” Vicki asked. “You said we had to use codenames on this channel…”

A sigh sounded in her ear. “As much as I hate to admit it,” Anton replied apologetically, “the signal that cut into our end of the commsat link wasn’t the work of some mysterious intruder---it was a stray TV signal. As soon as I heard the first few bars of the ‘Price is Right’ theme song, I knew….” Another sigh. “I didn’t use your codename because I’m not speaking to you as an ALPA operative….I’m talking to you as someone who’s trying to keep you from walking into a deathtrap.”

“I….guess that makes sense.”

“The commsat’s back up and running, so this signal should probably stay secure; hopefully, there won’t be any further interference on either end of the line. Remember to contact me or anyone else here if you need anything, okay?”

“I will.”

A pause…”You’ve been doing well so far, Sunshine. Keep up the great work.” She could almost hear the smile in Anton’s voice. “Strange Animal, over and out.”

As she knealt to pick up the gun, Vicki ruminated over what had just happened. Knockoff Daikoku fembots, a vague mention of needing the envelope full of keycards, and her connection with the ALPA being hijacked by someone or something beyond her control…no matter how many times she did the math, Vicki realized that there was just no getting around it: the odds were not in her favor.

Then again…..

There was the possibility of more Daikoku knockoffs waiting for her. There was a distinct chance that her communications with Oberon and the others could be cut at any moment. And, of course, there was the fact that the Man in Grey basically admitted that the stairs weren’t the only parts of the building that used keycards for security….but all of these could be overcome.

As she made her way to the testing lab door, Vicki took one last look at the fallen Daikoku knockoffs. Some were still trying to right themselves, only to fall flat and go still; others had already stopped moving, their cheap internal components frying with every expendature of energy.

With a sigh, the brunette gynoid turned away from the wrecked fembots and strode into the testing lab.


“Okay, Ted definitely needs to add a room like this to the Lawson Robotics factory….”

As soon as the testing lab door closed behind her, Vicki let out a low whistle. Though the walls, floor and ceiling of the lab were the same burnished metal as the corridors she’d traversed to reach the place, the entire room was much more than just a glorified charging chamber. Cray supercomputer terminals and massive plasma-TV monitors lined the walls, displaying diagnostic results and suggesting how to handle the numerous malfunctions that, while serious, hadn’t been damaging enough to warrant refabricating the affected fembots.

Speaking of which….

“This is like a cross between a morgue and a slutty costume catalog”, Vicki mused, arching an eyebrow at the rows of metal tables dotting the room. Each slab held a gynoid, and each gynoid was clad in her full outfit from the catalog, with the props either in her hand or sitting at her feet. One table close to Vicki was occupied by a robot attired in a magician’s outfit of sorts---her black tuxedo jacket, white dress shirt, yellow vest, fishnet stockings and high heels gave her just the right level of allure to divert attention from the occasional sparks bursting from the robot’s mouth, ears and nostrils. On another table, a buxom, caramel-skinned robot in a black leather catsuit laid motionless, staring blankly at the ceiling while a hydraulic arm tipped with a power screwdriver dove in and out of her chest; the top of the robot’s head---complete with her meticulously-braided purple hair---rested next to her feet. Yet another slab held a robot decked out in a rather scandalous version of a bridal gown---the dress ended three-fourths of the way down the robot’s thighs, revealing undergarments of white lace that connected to her white kneesocks via garters. A foul-smelling fluid stained the lace of her left-hand glove, reminding Vicki of her essays on humorism and the discoveries at the Lovelace estate.

Moving further down the row, Vicki saw less physical damage and more signs of software failures. One robot, dressed in a less-than-classical version of a ballerina’s outfit, seemed to have frozen in the middle of a dance routine; another robot seemed to be unaware that she was laying down, the servos of her leather-clad legs whining in protest as she attempted to run---despite the fact that she was laying flat on her back. The table farthest from Vicki held a robot clad in a tight-yet-simple white dress; oddly enough, her face had frozen with a look of sadness on it, as if she’d done something to upset someone before she froze.

“Can I help you?”

Vicki turned to find a robot clad in a white latex minidress, stockings and high heels staring at her. “Visitors to the facility aren’t allowed in this room without permission, ma’am,” the robot informed her sternly.

“I thought Rebecca sent a message that I was coming?” Vicki replied, confused. “Anyways, I’m not here as part of a tour group, or anything…I was sent here to try and get this place back in order.” She glanced around at the tables; “Judging from the state of your, ah, patients,” she mused, “I couldn’t have shown up at a better time.”

The robot’s stern glare softened. “We have been expecting help,” she admitted, “and---“

One of the monitors chimed to life. “Nightingale,” a female voice began, “I thought I made it clear that you were to avoid…entertaining guests in the laboratory after the incident last week.”

“My apologies, Madame,” the nurse-bot replied. “It’s just…there’s a girl here, and she claims that she was sent to help get the facility back up to full operating parameters.”

A sigh issued from the monitor’s speakers. “Does she now? In that case, I would like to speak to her directly.”

Vicki approached the monitor. “I apologize if I’m interrupting the status quo around here,” she admitted, “but my reason for coming to this facility isn’t just to waste time or get in the way. I’ve been hearing a lot about someone screwing up the security and communications systems….”

Another sigh. “You heard correctly, outsider, but what do you intend to do about these problems?”

“My orders are to reactivate the security systems and reestablish communications with the Midwest and East Coast Silicon Dynamics factories,” Vicki replied. “That, and I’m looking for about 27people who arrived here after a bus crash earlier in the month---I need to get them home.” She decided not to mention the guy with the heart problem; if they don’t know, then they might panic…and if they do know….

“And these are your only orders?” Madame asked, her British accented voice sounding mildly bored.

“Well, I do have one or two other objectives,” Vicki admitted. “The first involves taking out the intruder who’s been causing all these problems. The second….”

“I am well aware of this facility’s negotiations with DreamLand,” Madame interjected, “and I already know that their owner had arrangements to view data regarding our upcoming projects…..though I’d very much like to know why you’ve chosen to emulate our aesthetics by ruining your own attire---”

“I didn’t tear up my clothes on purpose!” Vicki shot back. “I had to bust through a closed elevator door---“

“Nightingale,” Madame drawled, “see to it that our guest is given a new outfit.”

“Yes, Madame,” Nightingale answered, bowing. “Will that be all?” Madame asked Vicki as the nurse-bot left to find her a new set of clothes, “or is there anything else you require?”

The brunette gynoid didn’t hesitate: “I need to talk to Co-Ed Kelly.” She could almost picture Madame’s eyes going wide in surprise as she replied: “Why do you wish to speak with her?”

“She was deployed to San Jose State University a month or so ago,” Vicki replied, “and she might have seen a few things….also, I want to get her perspective on why the inhibitor programs being used by your robots have been failing; I know the guy who wrote them, and he might be able to fix the problems if I can get a good description of how they failed in the first place.” She stared at the monitor, hoping Madame would be willing to grant her requests.

“Who do you answer to?” Madame finally asked after what felt like an hourlong wait.

“The ALPA,” Vicki replied without hesitation. “Under their guidelines, I am sworn to---“

“You don’t need to recite the creed, Miss Lawson,” Madame replied. “I am well aware of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency’s tendency to avoid collateral damage…..and I must say, it’s somewhat refreshing to have them send a female agent; the men tend to get…distracted rather easily. Not that I blame them…..”

Vicki’s intended reply was cut off by the return of Nightingale. “Your new clothes,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “They were intended for a new model that was cut from the product lineup at the last minute, so they haven’t been worn yet….though you are welcome to try anything from the wardrobe, if this outfit doesn’t suit your tastes.”

After a full minute’s pause, Vicki smiled. “I’ll keep this one, thanks. Are there any fitting rooms around here, or do I have to change in the open?”

Ten minutes later, Vicki emerged from one of the lab’s fitting rooms (as part of their role-playing programming, some Silicon Dynamics gynoids preferred changing in private) clad in what could only be described as a tarted-up version of the pinafores she used to wear. The skirt was just a bit longer than the one on the “naughty bride’s” outfit, the top no longer had the “apron” covering from her neckline to her bust, and the red choker in lieu of a collar was a bit weird; those complaints aside, the outfit did fit her well, and unlike some of her poorer Halloween costume choices of the past few years, it didn’t make her feel like she’d decided to greet the world wearing only half an outfit.

“Ted would probably flip out if he saw me wearing this,” she mused, grinning slyly.

“I’ll take that as a compliment, then,” Madame replied. “The model this was designed for was just your size, by the way….shame she didn’t make it past the testing phase. In any case, I believe the next item on your agenda involves one Co-Ed Kelly….Nightingale?”

“Yes, Madame?” the nurse-bot asked.

“Reschedule Co-Ed Kelly’s memory evaluation for next week, so that our guest may question her.”

“Of course, Madame.” Nightingale gestured for Vicki to follow her, requesting that she try to keep her voice down to avoid disturbing the other “patients”. After a few seconds of traversing the rows, Vicki and Nightingale arrived at the slab where Co-Ed Kelly lay motionless, her processors still being scanned by the Crays lining the walls. “Her evaluation isn’t quite finished yet,” Nightingale admitted, “but it shouldn’t be too long.”

Vicki nodded thoughtfully. Something about the nurse robot’s sweet voice clashed with her somewhat-severe appearance---the latex minidress (complete with a red cross emblazened over her left breast), white stockings, dark mascara, piercing blue eyes and the way her blonde hair was done up in a tight bun---and provoked more than a few hastily-dismissed thoughts of Silicon Dynamics’ client base. Right….think of something other than what she was designed for…. “So,” the brunette gynoid asked, “have you ever actually, ah, done any medical treatments on anyone?”

Nightingale looked at her quizically.

“I mean, you’ve got the whole nurse look down to a T,” Vicki continued, “and I was just…sort of wondering…if you ever…actually……” She found herself wilting under Nightingale’s stare. “Never mind.”

“Madame encourages us to ‘live the role’ we’ve been programmed with,” the nurse-bot replied cooly, “and as a matter of fact, I have actually practiced a few medical techniques on the individuals who arrived here not that long ago. A few stitches here and there, a cast to help someone with a broken leg….I even managed to assist with removing a piece of debris from the bus crash from a man’s leg.”

“So…any chance you could help someone with a heart condition?” Vicki offered hopefully.

Nightengale’s face fell. “I….didn’t get that far into my role preparation,” she admitted.

“Well,” Vicki replied, “hopefully we can rectify that once this is all over with. That, and see if someone can, ah, sort out the uniforms around here…not that there’s anything wrong with a latex minidress,” she added hastily.

Nightingale opened her mouth to say something, then stopped---the computer hooked up to Kelly was beeping.

“That’s a good beep, right?” Vicki asked. “Please tell me that’s a good beep…”

“This isn’t right,” Nightingale murmured, prompting a groan from the brunette gynoid. “I hate that phrase!” she muttered. “Every single time I hear it, things go completely and utterly pear-shaped---“

Kelly’s left arm shot up, knocking Nightingale to the floor.

“What the HELL?!” Vicki shrieked, backing away from the table as Kelly sat up robotically. “Uh, Madame, you just saw that, right?! TELL me you just saw that!” “I did indeed,” Madame replied, a noticably dangerous edge to her voice. “Kelly,” she demanded. “explain yourself!”

Kelly’s head turned stiffly to face the nearest monitor.

“Sorry,” she sneered, her voice reeking of distortion and static, “but Kelly isn’t here right now…..”

“What the hell does that even mean?!” Vicki screamed. “What are you-----HEY!”

For some strange reason, her left hand was moving under its own power. “What…are you DOING?!” she screamed. “STOP IT!”

Kelly slowly got off the table, grinning maniacally. “You like The Hunger Games, don’t you?” she taunted. “I can see into your mind’s eye……your secrets are MINE to behold, Vicki Lawson!” Vicki stared, horrified, as her hand reached for the gun she’d taken from the Daikoku knockoff gynoid. “Why….are you doing this to me, Kelly?!” she hissed. “HOW are you doing this?!”

“Simple,” Kelly replied, in a voice that sounded nothing like her own. “It’s just a simple case of mind….”

Vicki’s hand closed around the grip of the gun.

“….over matter!” Kelly laughed, slowly rising from the floor with a crackle of electricity. “YOUR MIND SHALL BE RIPPED APART, VICKI LAWSON, AND YOUR SOUL SHALL NEVER KNOW PEACE FROM THIS DAY FORTH!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Instantly, Vicki realized what was happening: “You have got to be kidding me…..”

“What are you babbling about?” Madame querried. “What’s happened to Kelly?”

“Someone’s been playing a little too much MGS,” Vicki replied, “and decided to recreate the most famous boss battle from the first game in the series!” She stood up and backed away, not taking her eyes off of the hovering form of Co-Ed Kelly. “Fortunately for ME,” she continued, “I already know what happens next….and just because I don’t have any controllers to unplug, it doesn’t mean I can’t beat you!” She reached the table with the bride-bot, moving to stand behind the headrest as Kelly floated towards her.

“YOU WILL DIE FOR YOUR INSOLENCE!” the voice of Psycho Mantis shrieked, sounding rather weird coming from the mouth of a co-ed gynoid.

Vicki grinned, even as her left arm was slowly moving towards her head. “I don’t think so.” With her free hand, she moved the bride into a sitting position, finding and activating the screen on her back. I’m definitely thanking Ted for the finger-cams when this is over with, she mused, cuing up the main menu as “Beverly the Blushing Bride/Pleasure Droid v124.8.5” appeared at the top of the screen.

“DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT YOU CAN USE ANOTHER WORTHLESS DOLL AGAINST ME?!” Psycho Kelly screamed.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” Vicki replied, plugging into a port on the bride’s back. “I’m not using her---“


With a gasp, Vicki found herself sitting on the table---in the body of Beverly the Bride.

“…I’m becoming her,” she finished, surprised at the sound of her borrowed body’s voice. “Wow, I sound kinda sexy…..”

Meanwhile, in Vicki’s own body, Beverly was more than a bit confused. “What the….why the hell am I wearing this?! I can’t go to a wedding looking like---“ She stopped, noticing her own body sitting up (and inhabited by someone else). “What did you do to me?!” she screamed, pointing an accusing finger at Vicki.

“I’ll explain later,” Vicki replied in Beverly’s voice, “but for now, just trust me---“

“THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE!” Psycho Kelly shrieked. “Oh, but it is,” Vicki shot back, smiling. “See, that whole ‘second controller’ trick isn’t just limited to the PS1---“ “Wait, what the hell is going on here?” Beverly asked, confused. “Why are you in my body, and why am I in yours?!” Vicki sighed. “Apparently, whoever took control of Kelly up there is a massive Psycho Mantis fanboy…or fangirl,” she explained, “and…hang on, can you hand me that PDA hooked on to your---ah, my belt?”

Beverly handed the PDA to Vicki, who found a port in the neck of her borrowed body to connect it. “Thanks. I was starting to miss this thing….”

“Could we get back to the part where you tell me what the HELL is going on here?!” Beverly asked, sounding more than a bit weirded out. “I feel….weird…..” “It won’t take long to beat this idiot, trust me,” Vicki assured her. “First, let me just ask---have you ever heard of a video game called Metal Gear Solid?”

“I…think so,” Beverly replied tentatively.

“Well, just think of this as a real-life version of one of the boss fights from that game,” Vicki stated, “except I’m Player 1, and….ah, your body is Controller 2.”

“So where does that leave me?!” Beverly groaned.

Vicki’s intended reply was drowned out by another scream from Psycho Kelly.

“Hello?!” the bride-bot hissed.

“It leaves you immune to the mind-control effects of this Psycho Mantis wannabe,” Vicki replied. “Call it a quirk of our designs.” She grinned. “As an added bonus, you’ve already got a gun in your hand---“

Her grin faded as she realized the horrific implications of the remark. “On second thought, forget about the gun. Better yet, give it to me. NOW.” “But…if we’re supposed to be fighting her,” Beverly mused, “shouldn’t we be…y’know, armed?” “We don’t need to trash her,” Vicki insisted, “we just need to terminate the control link and figure out how to---“

A monitor exploded several feet away from her.

“DO SOMETHING!” Madame’s voice ordered from another monitor.

“I’m working on it!” Vicki shot back. “Okay….this body has just enough jumping strength for me to try this idea I just came up with….” She glanced at Beverly; “You don’t mind if I try a high jump in this, do you?” she asked, the question sounding a bit too sultry for her liking due to her borrowed body’s voice.

“Just don’t break it,” Beverly replied in Vicki’s voice, “please.”

“I won’t.”

Vicki took a running leap off the table and tackled Psycho Kelly to the floor. “Bet this is something you didn’t plan on,” she hissed into the downed robot’s ear, turning her over. “And I’m willing to bet….yep, there it is, right where I thought it would be!” She grinned as she pulled the small, diamond-shaped plug from Kelly’s neck port, causing her to scream one last time in Psycho Mantis’ voice before going silent and still.

“Well, that took considerably less effort than I thought it would,” Vicki mused. “Ready to get your body back, Beverly---“

The barrel of the Daikoku knockoff gun touched the back of her borrowed, bride-bot head.

“I….I can’t control this body!” Beverly shrieked. “It’s….it’s DOING something to me!”

“My body isn’t doing anything to you!” Vicki insisted. “It’s got to be---“

“ME!” Psycho Mantis’ face appeared on the monitors surrounding Vicki. “Did you really think my plans for destroying you relied on only ONE pathetic robot?!” he screamed. “You weak, pathetic fool…..I SHALL CRUSH YOUR MIND FROM THE INSIDE OUT!”

“Look,” Vicki snarled, “I don’t know who the hell you are---or who you think you are---and, for the record, I don’t really care…..but you leave these girls out of this! If it’s a fight you want, FIGHT ME! Just leave them ALONE!”

“And why would I deprive you of the chance to prove your worth?” Mantis’ voice taunted from the speakers, as more robots began to rise from their slabs. “You are nothing but an INSECT to me, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, and like any good insect, you are about to be crushed beneath my boot heel!” Vicki’s eyes darted around the room as the formerly deactivated gynoids marched robotically towards her, their bodies hijacked by the fake Mantis.

“Prepare for the end of your pathetic existence, Vicki Lawson!” Mantis’ voice shrieked. “The final---“

Instantly, the power cut out.

Great time for a rolling blackout, Vicki mused. Now, to get out of here…..wait…I…I CAN’T MOVE!

“My apologies, Miss Lawson,” Madame’s voice sounded in her ear, “but your current state of paralysis is an admittedly flawed part of our security system….one that will be removed during the next upgrade. Allow me to take direct control for a moment…..”

Vicki felt her borrowed body moving towards her own form. Thanks. I owe you big time for this.

“Your debt will be paid in full when you flush out this intruder, Miss Lawson….preferably as soon as possible. Now, if you would kindly allow me to transfer your own consciousness back to your body….”

But the Mantis wannabe is in control of it! As soon as I go back in---

“I will do the best I can to keep him at bay while I transfer you to your own form, and allow Beverly to return to hers. Just tell me how to achieve the transfer…..”

Part 5

Vicki felt her eyes open, staring at the gun in her hand as if she’d just come out of a dream. “Okay, that is the last time I use this transfer thing in a hostile situation,” she muttered, plucking the PDA from Beverly’s hand and returning it to her own belt. “Okay,” she called to Madame, “seeing as how I’m back where I belong and you’re…still talking, any chance you can help me out here? Why are they all frozen?”

“This ‘Psycho Mantis’ impersonator you mentioned has triggered the Cashback lock,” Madame replied, “and as a result---“

“Wait, wait, wait,” Vicki cut in. “Cashback lock? What kind of a name is that?”

She felt the withering sensation that one gets when being glared at. “Miss Lawson, I do not have the patience to explain the choice of naming this particular program to you, so I must ask you to please not interrupt me for the remainder of this conversation. As I was saying…the Cashback lock immediately freezes all active gynoids to prevent them from suffering catastrophic system malfunctions…though I see now that my attempts to tie it into sudden power spikes or blackouts has been less than satisfactory.”

“That’s great, and all,” Vicki mused, “but how exactly does it help me? And while I’m thinking of it, how are you still talking to me?”

Madame’s next words were delivered with more than a hint of smugness: “You forget, Miss Lawson, that I control the facility---it does not control me. The loss of power to one part of the building has no ill effects on my management of the rest…..a fact that this intruder has apparently overlooked. I suggest you leave before the power returns---“

Just as the words registered in Vicki’s bubble memory processor, the lights flickered back on.

“You have GOT to be kidding me!” Vicki screamed.

The possessed gynoids immediately resumed their robotic march---towards Beverly. That blackout’s left them a bit slow on the uptake, Vicki realized. They think I’m still her, and that she’s still me! Knowing that any sudden moves on her part would ruin the illusion, Vicki kept the gun leveled at Beverly, who was freaking out in a decidedly not Vicki-like way. And now she’s either going to blow her own cover or get shot to pieces just because they haven’t figured out that I’m back in my own body…..I should’ve never connected to her!

“Perhaps I can be of some assistance.”

Madame’s voice in her ear almost made Vicki drop the gun. What the---how are you doing this?!

“You have an internal WiFi modem, correct?”

Yeah, but---

“No time for questions. I think I’ve figured out how our ‘Psycho’ intruder is manipulating my gynoids---for some odd reason, every seventh computer terminal in this room has been infected with a Trojan horse program.”

Vicki almost felt a lump in her throat. That program wouldn’t be called “Stylo”, would it?

“No…its filename is PsychoSim.exe. Believe me, I would have already shut down the entire building had the Stylo virus been introduced into the system.”

Oh….but how does this whole thing of “every seventh computer” work?

“Starting with the terminal next to the doorframe, every terminal at a multiple of seven is running the program. If all of them are disabled, the gynoids should stop responding to the intruder’s commands.”

Okay….but how do I disable them---

“I’m afraid you’ll have to shoot them. It’s the only way to deactivate the terminals without being swarmed.”

Great…..how many of them do I have to shoot?

“Twenty in all, if I remember correctly.”

Not a problem. I’ll try not to hit any of the gynoids, but I can’t make any promises…

Vicki’s bubble-memory processor wasted no time in calculating target vectors, bullet trajectories and all of the other important factors she’d need to know in order to avoid shooting an uninfected terminal. Either this works, and all of these gynoids will be freed from Psycho Fanboy’s control…..or it doesn’t, and they tear me apart before I can squeeze off another shot. An icon for a new program---20pointshot.exe---appeared in the corner of her HUD.

Here goes nothing….

With a blink, she loaded 20pointshot.exe cold, allowing the program to take control of her limbs. Before any of the gynoids could stop her, V.I.C.I. fired off twenty shots with pinpoint accuracy---and every shot hit an infected terminal. Part of her wanted to shout out some vapid catchphrase, just to accentuate the defeat of the Psycho Mantis wannabe----and the rest of her knew that anything she could’ve said at that moment would only make her look stupid. Besides, she reminded herself, it’s not like Solid Snake ran around yelling “YEAH! YEAH! GET SOME!” every time he fought a boss…..

21 seconds after she ran the program, all seven terminals were destroyed.

The gynoids who had been so close to attacking Beverly seemed to come out of a trance, shaking their heads and wondering what the hell had just happened. Co-Ed Kelly, in particular, was somewhat confused; “Either they changed the policy for memory evaluations,” she groaned, “or this is the morning after the biggest party of my life…”

“It’s neither,” Vicki informed her. “Kelly, right?”

The blonde gynoid nodded as Vicki helped her up. “You look familiar….are you a new model?” “Not exactly,” Vicki replied. “You were sent to San Jose State University a few months ago….you do remember your time on camups at SJSU, right?” Kelly nodded. “Their football team is the Spartans, isn’t it?” she asked. “Well,” the brunette gynoid droned, rolling her eyes, “at least there’s one detail about your SJSU days that you won’t forget any time soon…”

A few rows away, Nightingale got back to her feet. “What….what happened?” she moaned.

“Nothing that a little old-fashioned gunplay couldn’t fix,” Vicki cheerfully replied. “Twenty of the terminals had to be, ah, forcefully decommissioned…”

“Make that twenty-one.”

Madame’s remark almost literally wiped the smile off of Vicki’s face. “But…you said…”

“It appears the malignant program has taken up residence in another computer,” Madame informed Vicki. “The terminals are all coming up clear….”

“The laptops!” Nightingale gasped.

Of all the times she has to panic… “Okay, everyone,” Vicki announced, “listen up. I’m going to need all of you to check the laptops that you were hooked up to before this Psycho Mantis wannabe took control of you…but DO NOT hook yourselves up to them. Check every file, folder and directory on every laptop---look for anything that’s related to Metal Gear Solid characters, especially Psycho Mantis---“

“Found it!”

Vicki, Kelly and Nightingale---followed by the other gynoids, crossed the room to the table where Kelly had been undergoing her memory evaluation. “All the lights were flashing red,” Beverly informed the brunette gynoid, “and, well….” “Good call, Beverly,” Vicki replied, before turning her attention to Nightingale. “How many of them didn’t get puppeteered by Psycho Fanboy?” she asked. “Samantha, Marianna the Magnificent, and that unit in the corner of the room,” the nurse-bot replied, “along with at least four others whose cores had been removed for quality scans.”

Seven? Again?!

“Thanks for the info.” Vicki stared at the screen of Kelly’s laptop, frowning. “Something about this is just weird; I mean, who would go through all the trouble of impersonating a character from Metal Gear Solid just to try and kill me?” And there’s the whole thing about the number seven…

After the rest of the gynoids returned to their stations and voluntarily powered down, Nightingale filed the report regarding the damaged mainframes. “It’ll be difficult to explain exactly why they were shot,” she admitted, “but it shouldn’t take too long for them to be repaired.” “As long as this place gets back up and running, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Vicki replied, once again noticing the gynoid with the sad expression on her face laying motionless on a distant slab. “Ah, just out of sheer curiosity,” she asked Nightingale, “what’s the story behind that particular robot over there?”

“Madame has been trying to figure that out for the past month,” Nightingale quietly replied.

“Right….” Well, so much for that line of questioning. “I’m guessing I can have my conversation with Co-Ed Kelly now….?”

Nightingale nodded. “I’ll bring in the privacy screens.”

Vicki wondered if the “privacy screens” were going to be any more lurid than some of the things she’d seen in the Silicon Dynamics catalog, but they turned out to be similar to the unfolding panels used in bedrooms, hospitals and other such locations. With Kelly’s slab now enclosed by a small cubicle made from the privacy screens, the two gynoids sat down to discuss Kelly’s time at SJSU, and her knowledge of the inhibitor programs failing.

“When did you first get the sense that the inhibitors weren’t working properly?” Vicki began.

Kelly sighed; “Midway through my third week on campus. I was supposed to be focused on this big Philosophy test….but all I could think about was hooking up with the Spartans quarterback.”

“Did you tell Madame?”

“I was too scared! I mean…I didn’t want to get scrapped, or anything….”

“Something tells me Madame wouldn’t have scrapped you just because of a software failure,” Vicki assured her. “At least, I hope not….anyways, did you run into any other gynoids on campus?”

“A few…but once the inhibitor started failing, I could barely remember anything about them. All I could focus on was this one thought….almost like…” She shook her head. “It sounds stupid, now that I think about it, but it was almost like a dream that I couldn’t wake up from….to be honest, it was actually pretty scary. I lost whole weeks’ worth of memory….”

Vicki nodded sympathetically; she’d definitely been down that road before. “This next question may sound a bit weird,” she informed Kelly, “but….does the name Zebediah Blunderwitz mean anything to you?”

Kelly pondered the question; “Old guy, with a Colonel Sanders beard and a blonde bimbo following him?”

“You’ve seen him?” Vicki gasped.

“A few times when I was at SJSU. He’d always be sort of…hanging out, but in a really creepy way. This one time, he was lounging around outside the Aquatics Center, trying to talk to a group of girls…I can’t remember if they were gynoids or not, but all I know is that he was asking them a bunch of awkward questions, and they called the campus cops on him eventually.”

The questioning continued for the better part of thirty minutes, with Vicki always managing to sidestep the sort of inquiries that would draw hostility, resentment or annoyance from Kelly. During her time at SJSU, the blonde gynoid had managed to make quite a few friends; for some strange reason, those she could remember after the inhibitor failed weren’t gynoids, but they did have connections to other robotics companies---at least three of them were the daughters or stepdaughters of prominent board members for Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies (ART), Tentrex Electronics and SynthTech International. When it came to the Coalition, Kelly hadn’t heard anything about it---though she did catch Zeb Blunderwitz trying to recruit groups of girls to join “his cause” outside Spartan Field one night. Apparently, he even tried to give the cops a few brochures, leading to a rather amusing spectacle for those leaving that night’s game.

With the Q&A session over, Vicki made sure that her internal recording suite had captured the entire chat and saved a copy to the PDA. “Sorry about the whole ‘tackling you out of mid-air’ thing,” she told Kelly. “I was just trying to keep Psycho Fanboy from wrecking you…”

“s’alright,” Kelly beamed. “Water under the bridge.”

Vicki grinned and nodded. “As for the rest of the girls….” She moved aside a privacy screen, watching as Nightingale reattached the top of the purple-haired robot’s head. “Need any help?” she called out.

“Not at the moment,” the nurse-bot replied. “Samantha’s systems check is just finishing up; I just hope she doesn’t take any more blows to the head any time soon….at least, not from someone slamming a door in her face.” “She got damaged from getting a door slammed shut?” Vicki asked, puzzled. “More like a door opening and slamming into her,” Nightingale sighed. “I’ve been asking Madame to just get rid of the hinged doors in some of the scenario chambers, but she insists on authenticity.”

The mention of the scenario chambers reminded Vicki of another objective. “The, ah, ‘guests’ from the bus crash….they wouldn’t happen to be staying in these…scenario rooms, would they?” she asked.

“A few of them have been holed up in the scenario rooms,” Nightingale confirmed, “though some prefer to use the cafeteria as their living quarters. A few managed to unlock the old employee dormatories; they’ve made themselves comfortable ever since.” She gave an annoyed snort; “The maids have had to adopt a triple-shift schedule to keep the employee dorms from generating its own stench…” Vicki nodded impatiently. “Right, right….what about the guy with the heart problem?” Nightingale frowned. “I…didn’t know any of the passengers had a heart problem….”

“Never mind,” Vicki insisted, “I’ll probably be able to find him myself. At least, I hope I will…”

An alarm klaxon sounded outside the lab. “Not again,” Nightingale moaned. “Another false alarm? Madame, could you please---“

“This is no false alarm, Nightingale,” Madame informed the nurse-bot. “The intruder is attempting to breach the laboratory entrance!” Vicki turned, and for the briefest second, she thought she had lost her mind---staring at her through the window was the gas-masked face of Psycho Mantis! “No way,” she monotoned, backing away from the door. “This…this isn’t possible….” Nightingale ran to one of the still working terminals and slammed her palm down onto a switch---a second too late; a sharpened ruler shattered the window of the lab door and impaled her hand against the terminal. Seeing Vicki’s concerned look, she winced; “I’ll live. You need to get out of here now.”

“I’m not leaving you behind,” V.I.C.I. retorted.

“GO,” Nightingale insisted. “There’s an emergency exit on the other side of the room---it leads directly to one of the maintenance elevators. Take it one floor down---“

The door to the lab buckled; “Psycho Fanboy” was trying to shoulder-block his way into the room. “Go,” Nightingale repeated. Vicki blinked back tears as she nodded, running full-bore for the emergency exit just as Psycho Fanboy kicked open the door to the lab. The last image the brunette gynoid beheld before the door closed was the masked figure advancing on Nightingale, holding what looked like a scalpel….

The elevator descended just as a bloodcurdling scream rent the air.

I won’t let him get away with this, Vicki promised. Nightingale, you will be avenged--- Something pounded on the emergency elevator car from above, accompanied by a maniacal laugh. “I WON’T LET YOU WIN, WHOEVER YOU ARE!” Vicki screamed. “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET RID OF ME THAT EASILY, DO YOU HEAR ME?! I WON’T LET YOU GET TO ME!”

A now-familiar malignant voice hissed over the elevator’s speaker: “Care to make a wager on that?”

Within a split-second, the elevator plummeted down the shaft. There’s no way I’ll be able to jump out this time, Vicki realized. If I’m lucky, I might be able to---

Blackness and silence engulfed her before she could finish the thought.


“What…….”

Vicki blinked away the feeling of having an elevator car dropped on her, wondering how she could’ve survived such a crash---

“Wait a minute.”

Wincing, she got to her feet; how had she survived?

For that matter…..

“Where the hell am I?!”

Vicki stared at her new surroundings, confused; somehow or other, she’d gone from being trapped within the confines of a doomed elevator car to….a campground. In the middle of the night.

“Either I’m dreaming, or……I don’t even want to think of the alternative…” The brunette gynoid sighed, giving the camp ground a once-over. “This feels like it came straight out of Friday the 13th,” she murmured. “Heck, even the name sounds like something from a slasher film---Camp Crystal Pines….” With another sigh, she stared up at the night sky---

---and instantly realized what was wrong.

“The moon’s in the wrong phase,” she muttered. “The full moon doesn’t occur for another week…” She felt like screaming at the top of her lungs: “This isn’t a real campground!”

“Indeed, Miss Sunshine. Sorry for the deception…”

Rebecca’s voice managed to calm her down somewhat. “What the……what am I doing here?!” she asked, failing to keep the annoyance from her voice. “The last thing I remember was---“

“The intruder has managed to hack the maintenance elevators, Miss Sunshine,” Rebecca informed her. “At Madame’s suggestion, I activated the experimental passenger evacuation system and…ah, removed you from the elevator car before it crashed into the bottom of the shaft.”

“And what did the ‘experimental passenger evacuation system’ do, exactly?” Vicki asked.

“It’s a bit….complicated,” Rebecca admitted. “Magnets were involved—“

“Never mind. Just….what floor am I on?”

“I’m afraid the evacuation system sent you lower than intended….you’re on the twentieth sublevel, where most of the large-scale simulation chambers are located.” Vicki took in the information, as pop-up boxes in her HUD relayed the facts---the chamber she’d found herself in was Nighttime Campground 2, though the “scenario” field was still loading. “This chamber was designed for the testing of three particular models from the catalog,” Rebecca continued, “though I am not sure if any of those models are currently in the chamber….”

“Exactly how big is this, ah, campground?” Vicki asked.

“The chamber simulates a typical summer camp setting, covering at least ten acres of land.”

Vicki let out a low whistle; “That’s….bigger than I was expecting. Still, not a problem….” She dusted herself off, looking around the simulated campground. “I’m guessing this place has all the typical acoutrements of a campground, right? Cabins for the campers and counselors, a supervisor’s office, a mess hall…..”

“This chamber includes all of those facilities, Miss Sunshine, as well as a baseball diamond and a lake.”

“Good---wait, there’s a lake down here?!”

“At least five of the chambers have built-in lakes for aesthetic purposes. Two other chambers on this sublevel alone---“

“Okay, okay, I get it. Yeesh….” Vicki set off in the direction of the cabins, guided by the map she’d received from Rebecca. As she made her way through the camp, she couldn’t help but notice how realistic the trees were. The grass, too, seemed almost impossible to distinguish from astroturf (it even smells like real grass!), and the dirt trail beneath her feet didn’t feel like someone had just painted concrete brown and thrown a layer of topsoil over it.

“This….is pretty realistic,” she mused, “for a simulation chamber.”

“To be fair,” Rebecca admitted, “it is all real.”

That stopped Vicki in her tracks. “WHAT?!”

“The soil, grass, trees and other flora are all 100% natural,” Rebecca calmly replied. “Madame was insistant that no artificial plants be used to create outdoor simulation chambers.”

“But….what about bugs?! Worms, and ants, and spiders, and all of those other sorts of things….isn’t Madame worried about them getting in and starting nests, and laying eggs, and other stuff?!” The thought of encountering an anthill in a pleasure droid factory seemed almost too ridiculous to ponder, but the soil was real soil…. “And that’s not even going into the whole ‘real trees’ thing! There could be birds nesting in here---“

“The maids check for…unwelcome wildlife every two months; any and all lifeforms recovered are released to the surface the following day.”

“And the last wildlife check was…..?”

“The last recorded inspection of this scenario chamber was conducted on October 31, 2010. No animals, insects, birds or fish were located, and all scans of the lake showed no signs of dangerous bacteria.”

“That’s a relief,” Vicki muttered, trudging on towards the cabins.

After a seven-minute walk, the brunette gynoid found the counselors’ cabin, the camp gate and what appeared to be a clay pit holding the embers of a dying fire. Someone may have been here recently, she mused. Better take it slow; I don’t want to go barging in only to get taken out by a spike trap or anything… After testing the door of the counselors’ cabin to see if it was locked (it wasn’t), Vicki nudged the door open and slowly entered, her high-end visual sensor package allowing her to see every nook, cranny and potential ambush point of the cabin’s interior as clearly as she could in the daylight.

“…..and there’s nobody home,” she muttered, scowling. Several backpacks had been carelessly left open near the beds, but there were no other signs that the cabin had been recently occupied. “At least Psycho Fanboy probably bit the dust back at the maintenance elevator,” she mused.

A quick flick of a conveniently-placed light switch revealed that the cabin was, indeed, wired; a TV in the far corner of the room, complete with a PlayStation and a pair of controllers, contrasted sharply with the bookshelf containing various wilderness survival guides and Girl Scout manuals. “Something tells me this PS1 wasn’t part of the original setup,” Vicki murmured, examining the console. “Maybe it’s just my overwhelming feeling of boredom, but….I wonder if it’s got a disc inside---“

Her finger brushed the “open” button on the console, and the hatch on top popped open.

“Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me!”

Disc 1 of Metal Gear Solid rested snugly inside the PS1, with not even a fingerprint marring its surface.

“Okay, whoever left this here is TRYING to get on my nerves,” Vicki growled, “and they’re doing a pretty good job of it! I mean, seriously---“

“What are you doing?!”

Vicki froze; in the midst of her rant, she’d forgotten that the door to the cabin had been left wide open. “I, ah, was just….ah…….checking to see if this PlayStation was…..stolen!” she lied, slowly turning around. “It’s not, by the way. Stolen, I mean. It’s…..not….stolen…”

A brunette girl, her hair poking through the hole in the back of her baseball cap, was standing in the doorway of the cabin, frowning. “I was supposed to meet someone here,” she informed Vicki as she advanced, “and I was going to let the campers have the night off, but seeing as how you just HAD to go and play ‘cabin raider’, I---“ She froze midstep, as if her brain had simply been switched off mid-sentence. “Convenient,” Vicki mused, circling around the newcomer. The girl’s purple jacket, white t-shirt and red shorts all hugged her trim figure quite well; her sneakers looked relatively new, and despite her apparent role as a camp counselor, neither her pumped-up kicks nor her socks had the kind of dirt one usually accumulates from day-long hikes.

Time to check under the hood, I suppose…

Vicki hiked up the girl’s jacket and t-shirt, prodding her back to open the telltale menu panel; as expected, a portion of her skin separated and opened, revealing the red text/pictograph menu screen and a name: “Camp Counselor Julie/Pleasure Droid v110.3.5”. At the moment, several of her settings (including two arousal bars) were set to five clicks below maximum; Vicki gingerly lowered them, not wanting to set the gynoid off with an errant touch. As a precaution, she also lowered the girl’s “roleplay” meter, allowing her to better assess the situation without her pre-programmed role hampering her understanding.

“And now, the waiting game,” Vicki chuckled, lowering the girl’s jacket and shirt to their original position.

“….and if I….” Julie declared, returning to life. “Hang on, where’d you---“ She turned to see Vicki sitting on the edge of a bed, grinning. “You kind of zoned out there,” she informed the counselor gynoid. “Feeling okay?”

“Yeah,” Julie murmured, “I just…..” She stopped. “What’s going on?”

“Long story,” Vicki replied, “but allow me to give you the Cliff Notes version: I’m here to help get this place back up and running, there’s a mentally unstable Metal Gear Solid fan on the loose, and I’m looking for a busload of guys who showed up here a few weeks ago. Any of that ringing a bell, or should I start over from the part where Fiona and Sierra decided to visit a friend of mine?”

Julie stared at Vicki, her eyes fluttering. “Error,” she stated flatly, her head twitching to the left. “Parameters violated. Please reset scenario.” Another twitch. “Error. Parameters violated. Please reset---“

“For frak’s sake!” Vicki groaned, spinning the malfunctioning gynoid around by her shoulder and hiking up her jacket and shirt again. “Someone needs to have a long talk with this Madame about the roleplay programs on these gynoids…” After re-opening Julie’s menu, Vicki found the “roleplay” setting and dragged it all the way to “zero”. “If this doesn’t get her to quit screwing up on me….”

Vicki closed Julie’s back panel, lowered her shirt and jacket again and turned her back around, waiting for the error loop to work itself out. “…please….re…set…..huh?” Julie blinked a few times, confused. “Did…did you adjust my settings?” she asked.

“I had to,” Vicki replied. “Otherwise---“

A razor-sharp something flew between the two gynoids, embedding itself in the far wall.

“What the hell was that?!” Julie shrieked.

“Nothing to worry about,” V.I.C.I. replied in her monotone. “Just some whackjob without the capacity to tell fiction from reality.” She examined the object sticking out of the wall; “A machete?” she groaned. “No. Just…..the Psycho Mantis wannabe was one thing, but this?! This is just too---“

A horribly scarred hand punched through the window mere inches above the machete, grasping at it.

“We have to get out of here!” Julie moaned.

“Normally, I’d say that this is nothing to be afraid of,” Vicki admitted, “but the path of least resistance is looking really good right now---so yeah, let’s run!” With that, the two gynoids ran for the door as the window exploded behind them. “Who was that freak?” Julie panted, trying not to trip over her own two feet.

“The same freak who decided to put on a gas mask and act like Psycho Mantis up in the testing lab,” Vicki replied, “and if my suspicions are correct, he’s also the idiot who’s been screwing up the communications and security systems around here.” And he’s the moron who tried to drop two elevators on me….

“D’you think one of the guys from the bus did this?” Julie asked.

“So you did see them,” Vicki declared. “I knew it!”

“I was just letting them stay at the cabin for a while,” Julie confessed. “I…I didn’t want them to feel lonely or anything---“

“This is a pleasure droid factory, Julie!” Vicki shouted. “If any of those guys starts feeling lonely---“

An axe shot past her, embedding itself into a nearby tree.

Vicki stopped in her tracks, her eyes clenched shut. “What are you doing?!” Julie shouted. “That guy’s going to kill us---“

“No. He won’t.”

V.I.C.I.’s eyes opened, and Julie was taken aback by her determination. “You’re….you’re going to try to…fight him?”

“There’s more to me than meets the eye,” V.I.C.I. replied, smirking. “His cheap theatrics won’t do much to---AAARGGH!” Julie screamed as V.I.C.I. lifted her right hand---their assailant had managed to strike the direct center of her palm with a throwing knife. “It…doesn’t hurt,” she assured Julie. “I…just have to get to a repair shop and fix the myogel leaks…”

“You use a myogel set?” Julie asked, intrigued. “I always thought that myogel just sort of…ran out in the early 2000s….”

“It didn’t,” V.I.C.I. replied, “but that’s not important right now. I need to get out of here----where’s the exit to this scenario chamber?”

“Hang on a minute…” Julie froze in position again, though this time she looked somewhat more natural, as if she were meditating on the question; her hand rested thoughtfully on her chin as she stared at the ground, seemingly lost in thought. “Julie,” V.I.C.I. prompted, “I’m on a bit of a time crunch here…”

The counselor gynoid blinked twice, then came back to life. “The exit’s about a mile up the path this way,” she informed V.I.C.I., “so just follow me and try not to fall behind. If we’re lucky, we can make it out of here before that psychopath catches up---AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” Standing before them, clad in a billowing jacket, a positively disgusting t-shirt, pants that had seen better days in a Salvation Army bin and old boots---along with the requisite hockey mask---was the Jason Voorhees fanboy who had thrown the machete and axe.

“Please tell me there’s an alternate exit from this particular chamber,” Vicki pleaded. “There’s an emergency exit on the other shore of the lake,” Julie informed her. “We can row out to it and tie up the boat on the opposite pier before he can follow us!”

“Sounds like a plan to me!” The two headed for the pier, hoping that the Jason wannabe wasn’t going to pop up in front of them again. “When’s the last time anyone used the boat?”

“I had to test it for leaks a few days ago,” Julie replied, “and it was fine, so…”

The two slowed from a run to a walk as they reached the pier, staring in disbelief at the chaos that had been left to mock them.

“No,” Julie whimpered. “How….how did he…….”

A twisted, shattered hulk of a rowboat sat in the exact center of the lake, the debris from the boat intertwined with the mangled remains of another pleasure droid. Vicki could see a tattered swath from a cheerleader’s sweater caught on the planks; “That sick freak dragged her all the way down here just to scare us,” she murmured, shaking her head. “We have to---“

Julie’s scream cut off the statement she was about to make---the Jason fanboy had found them. Again.

“This is REALLY starting to get old,” Vicki growled. “There’s people I need to rescue, computer systems I need to repair and a LOT of other stuff to do, so can we just skip this stupid fight?!”

The Jason wannabe only leveled his machete at her in response.

“Great. This is just….” Vicki shook her head and sighed. “Right, Julie, you swim for it, and---“

A loud buzzing sound filled the air.

“What’s that noise?” Julie asked, confused. “It sounds like….hornets, maybe?” “That’s impossible,” Vicki countered. “Rebecca said this place was clear---“ The buzzing got louder. “Okay, maybe it is hornets,” Vicki mused.

Within seconds, a swarm of utterly pissed-off hornets was homing in on the two gynoids. “Please tell me you don’t have any built-in allergy simulators that cause you to malfunction if a hornet stings you,” Vicki muttered, “because I’m not exactly in the mood for seeing another gynoid swell up like---wait, what are they doing?!” As Vicki and Julie watched, confused, the hornets flew right past them and began swarming the Jason wannabe, prompting a not-too-Jason like respone---he immediately began flailing his arms, trying to swat the hornets out of the air with absolutely no success. As the gynoids watched, stunned, the fake Jason barrelled past them, screaming, and dove off the pier into the lake.

A few seconds later, an explosion split the water.

“Okay,” Vicki declared, “that was weird.” She grinned. “So, Julie…ever repaired a myogel set before?” “Not really,” Julie admitted, “but I did read up on myogel repair earlier this year…I memorized the entire article, too!”

“Then what better time to put that knowledge to good use?”

Ten minutes later, Vicki flexed the fingers of her newly-repaired right hand and grinned. “Amazing what a few tubes of Superglue, an inflatable raft patch and some needlework can accomplish,” she chuckled. “Thanks for the surgery, Julie…I owe you one.” “Just try not to wound that hand again,” Julie warned her, “otherwise it’ll get even worse. The patch should hold for the rest of the day; after that…” “I’ll head to Diamond Dave’s and let him finish the repairs,” Vicki stated. “Well, I’ve got a busload of guys to rescue….catch you later!”

The two gynoids shook hands and went their separate ways---Julie headed back to the counselors’ cabin to clean up and get some tools to fix the boat; Vicki reluctantly made her way to the stairs, keycards in hand.

Over at the lake, a hideously scarred (and burnt) hand grasped the edge of the pier……

Part 6

Despite the annoyance of having to swipe a keycard every time she wanted to use one of the staircases, Vicki’s myogel-enhanced speed allowed her to traverse them with relative ease. Just a few minutes after leaving the campground scenario chamber, the brunette gynoid had already made it from the twentieth sublevel to the tenth.

“Right,” she muttered, “time to see if Alicia’s suggestion about finding the heart-problem guy works…”

She closed her eyes but kept her HUD open, allowing her bubble-memory processors to filter out any and all sounds made by the multitude of machinery within the plant. Focus on the sound of a heartbeat….try to find one that sounds weaker than the rest…

After twenty seconds, an irregular th-thum-thump filled her ears.

Triangulate the source of that one heartbeat. Mute ALL OTHER sounds.

A display filled V.I.C.I.’s HUD, showing a cross-section of the facility; three coencentric circles marked the sound, emanating from one of the employee bedrooms on the fifteenth sublevel. Another non-verbal request marked the location of the heartbeat on the map Rebecca had uploaded to the PDA, along with directions on how to reach that particular room as quickly as possible.

V.I.C.I.’s eyes shot open. “Location saved. Data added to map for future reference.”

She blinked. “I have to remember to thank Alicia for that suggestion once I get out of here.” After a few deep breaths (despite not actually needing to breathe, Vicki still found it an effective calming method), the brunette gynoid exited the stairwell, hoping that her business on the tenth floor wouldn’t take too long.


“Okay, this is definitely not something I expected to see as soon as I opened the door….”

Vicki shook her head at the absurdity of the situation. As soon as she’d opened the door to leave the stairwell, she was greeted with the sight of a frozen gynoid stripped to her underwear, her well-toned rear just a few short inches from the brunette gynoid’s face. Vicki edged her way carefully past the frozen robot, whose pale skin contrasted sharply with her raven-black hair. “Did someone trip another Cashback lock?” she asked, only to realize that she was talking to a deactivated robot. “Looks like I’ve got another mystery to solve…”

Once she made her way past the gynoid near the stairwell door, Vicki found herself in a rather spacious, high-ceilinged hallway---and immediately groaned. The hall looked like some sort of bizarre statuary, with gynoids frozen in their tracks at random spots. All of them were in various states of undress---many had stripped down to their underwear or swimsuits, with few gynoids (if any) wearing shirts, pants or skirts. Most of the frozen robots seemed to have been oblivous to whatever had shut them down, their back panels giving no clues other than various strings of error messages or garbled sounds from their internal computers. Occasionally, a robot would twitch as Vicki walked past, but none of them actively tried to stop her…or move in any way at all.

“Guys,” Vicki murmured, “are you seeing this?”

“Affirmative, Sunshine,” Anton’s voice replied, “and to be quite honest…I have no idea what could’ve done this to them. All I know is what couldn’t have done it---a localized EMP generator would’ve frozen the entire facility, including you. They might have been incapacitated by a transmission of some kind…but it would have to have been something incredibly powerful, and something that could be sent and received over the building’s internal network.”

“Any chance that the intruder could’ve sent a signal like that?” Vicki asked, walking past a gynoid in tight-fitting camoflague gear, frozen in the midst of shrugging off her Army-issue jacket. “I mean, I’ve already had to put up with a Psycho Mantis fanboy and a Jason Voorhees wannabe…..”

“It’s possible,” Anton admitted, “but highly unlikely---“

“You’re forgetting that this intruder also tried to kill me twice with the elevators,” Vicki reminded him. “That, and his Psycho Fanboy routine nearly got me killed back in the testing lab.”

“As much as I’d love to say those were coincidences,” Tell’s voice cut in, “you’re probably 100% correct as far as the ‘hacked elevators’ thing goes….but it would take a lot more than that to freeze an entire floor’s worth of gynoids. The funny thing is, there are loads of ways this guy---or girl---could’ve done this…but as Strange Animal already said, the entire facility would’ve shut down instead of just one floor being affected. As much as I hate to think about it, this might not even be connected to the intruder, Sunshine…we could be dealing with a Stylo outbreak---“

“---which also would’ve affected the entire facility,” Vicki replied. “Besides, the only time any of these gynoids tried to attack was when Psycho Fanboy took control of the ones in the lab. Other than that, no problems.”

Tell’s familiar sigh brought a smile to the brunette gynoid’s face. “I guess you’ve got a point there…”

“Sorry to cut off our little chat like this,” Vicki interjected, “but I’m picking up signs of life a few rooms away from my current position. Heart rate, breathing….and singing?” She arched an eyebrow; her auditory sensors were picking up another sound---running water. “Unless my sensors are on the blink,” she informed Tell, “I think someone’s taking a shower in the room up ahead.”

“Then just remember to knock before you barge in,” Tell replied, chuckling. “Diamond Dave, over and out.”

Vicki approached the door cautiously, preparing to stun the hell out of any would-be assailants with a facefull of Detaining Grip (she’d lost the Daikoku knockoff gun after the chaos in the testing lab). “Here goes….”

She nudged the door open.

“LA—DAY! When you’re with me I’m SMILING! Give me..WHOAA OOOAH ALL YOUR LOVE!” The sound of a running shower and someone belting out “Lady” off-key prompted a giggle from the brunette gynoid. This is going to be interesting… She edged closer to the bathroom, her right hand still crackling with electricity as she pushed the door open…..

…and she nearly fell over laughing.

“LAAAAAAAADAY! OF THE MORNING! LOOOOVE SHINES…..IN YOUR EEEYYEEESS!” Standing before her, wearing nothing but his birthday suit, was the individual whose vitals she’d detected in the hallway; his off-key singing, combined with the shower, kept him from hearing Vicki’s giggle fit at the doorway until he turned to deliver the final note: “You’re my……..LAAADAAAAAAYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!”

By this point, Vicki was actually laughing hysterically.

“VICKI?!” the naked guy yelled. “WHAT…” Realizing he was still in the buff, he rushed to cover his privates with his hands. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!”

“I could almost ask you the same thing, Jamie!” Vicki chortled, lapsing into another laughing fit.

Jamie Lawson sighed, careful not to move his hands too far away from his gentlemen’s region. “Just….throw me a towel, okay? And not a washrag or a hand towel, either! An actual---“ An Egyptian cotton bath towel smacked him in the head. “You’re welcome,” Vicki giggled. Beneath the towel, Jamie groaned. “Turn around so I can change!”

“Not a problem, ‘Big J’,” V.I.C.I. teased. “Though I’m guessing it’s kind of chilly in here, because from where I’m standing---“

“WOULD YOU TURN AROUND ALREADY?!” Jamie yelled, failing to keep the embarassment from his voice.

Still giggling, Vicki turned to stare out at the rest of the room as Jamie hurriedly dried himself. “Care to tell me why you’re belting out a Styx classic in an employee bedroom shower?” she asked. “Or, for that matter, what you’re doing in a pleasure droid factory in the first place? I thought you were getting a ton of mileage out of that football scholarship…”

“I was,” Jamie admitted, pulling his pants on, “but it was kinda hard for me to appreciate it when my teammates were getting knocked unconscious by players who cared more about a few extra bucks than having fun.”

“The bounty system’s alive and well, then, I guess,” Vicki drawled. “Can I turn around now?”

Jamie sighed. “Sure. Just….don’t make any more ‘Big J’ cracks, okay?”

“I won’t.” Vicki turned, her giggle-fit finally over. “It’s nice to see you again, Jamie….even if the circumstances are a bit…weird,” she admitted. “And I have to admit….the years have been pretty kind to you.” Indeed, the “Big J” had gone from a short, pudgy braggart with DJ-ing aspirations to a lean, athletic young man---not too muscular, but just wiry enough to pass for a gymnast or a rising-star football player.

“You’re telling me,” Jamie chuckled. “Speaking of which…..since when did you start wearing pinafores again?”

Vicki scowled. “My clothes got torn up when I tried to jump out of a moving elevator---“

“WHOA! Slow down…you jumped out of a moving elevator?!”

“It’s a long story. Anyways, they just so happened to have this in the testing lab, and, well…..”

Jamie brushed past Vicki and sat down on the bed, sighing again. “Out of all the ways I thought we were going to meet up again,” he mused, “this was not my preferred way of doing this. You, in that….me, butt-naked and butchering a classic rock ballad….” He grinned. “We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?”

“Indeed we have,” V.I.C.I. monotoned, matching her brother’s grin. “Still busting out the robot voice, eh?” Jamie quipped. “I thought you’d grown out of that habit.” “It’s not a ‘habit’,” Vicki countered. “It’s…” She stopped. “What?” Jamie asked. “Something wrong?” “No,” Vicki murmured. “I was just going to say…I kept the robot voice as a reminder. Of where I came from, and how far I’ve come since those days. It’s…sort of a sentimentallity thing, too.”

“You always did sound cute when you talked like that,” Jamie agreed. “Like an answering machine with a personality….and yes, that’s a compliment----“

“JAMIE?!” Ted’s voice screamed in Vicki’s ear, loud enough for Jamie to hear. “What are YOU doing at the Silicon Dynamics plant?! AND WHY ARE YOU IN BED WITH---“

“I can explain everything,” Jamie began, only to find himself staring at Vicki. “He can hear me, right?”

“Let me check. Dad---“

“Yes, I can hear him,” Ted huffed, “and I’m WAITING FOR AN EXPLANATION!”

“You get all that?” Vicki asked Jamie, smirking.

“D’you really have to ask?” Jamie sulked. “Anyways…as for why Vicki and I are ‘in bed’, we’re just talking.”

An audible sigh of relief issued from the PDA speaker. “Good. I…I thought you were, ah…..never mind. Just forget I even mentioned it---“

“I will, trust me. Anyways….as for why I’m here….”

Jamie proceeded to tell Ted (and, by extension, Vicki) how he’d ended up on the bus that crashed just three miles away from the Silicon Dynamics plant. “I was getting tired of guys three times my size trying to cripple me every night on the field,” he explained, “so I just sort of….left.”

“You dropped out?!” Ted gasped.

“I didn’t drop out,” Jamie snapped. “I just….there was this retreat, for anyone interested in learning how to fix computers, and I thought I might take a look. It was supposed to be a three-day thing, and I’d have been back on campus in time for the next game. As it turns out, the bus I got on was sent by some company called Robo Depot, and they were sending a team out to some factory to check on some stuff. Someone found out that I was the son of the great Ted Lawson, and instead of kicking me off the bus, I got a front-row seat…apparently, they thought your expertise had rubbed off on me.”

“That still doesn’t explain how you ended up at the plant in the first place,” Ted insisted.

Jamie took a deep breath. “I was getting to that. Like I was saying, the guys on the bus let me sit in the front row, and we ended up giving a ride to this British guy as well…apparently, he was on his way to the hospital for a checkup. Said something about end-stage heart failure….”

“So I heard,” Vicki interjected. “He’s on the fifteenth floor---“

“Vicki, sweetheart,” Ted instructed, “let Jamie finish his story first and---wait, how do you know he’s on the fifteenth floor?!”

“ANYWAY,” Jamie declared, “we were gonna drop the guy off at the hospital first, but some total whackjob tried to hitch a ride. The bus driver slowed down just enough to see who it was….and when he did, he floored it out of there. I mean, he literally stomped the gas pedal and just tore up the road….except the guy had already jumped onto the bus by that point.” His fists clenched as he continued; “We weren’t even able to stop the bus to kick him off the emergency door---he kicked in a window and climbed in through it. He…he had these knives, and they were…..I thought they were props at first, but after he got to the bus driver….”

He choked back a sob. “I was right there when he killed the driver. Cut right through his throat, and watched him bleed to death…..and I didn’t lift a finger to stop him.” Vicki draped her arm around Jamie’s shoulder, pulling him closer.

“I…I didn’t know,” Ted murmured. “All they told us was that he’d been attacked…”

“It wasn’t an attack,” Jamie spat. “It was….oh, God…...” He buried his head in the shoulder of Vicki’s outfit and wept. Vicki pulled him close and hugged him; the only other time either of them had seen someone die was when Brandon Brindle’s sister, Ida Mae, had been hit by a bus while arguing with a traffic cop---Jamie suffered through a month’s worth of nightmares, and Vicki got a lecture on human mortality from Ted and Joan. The scene had haunted them both ever since, mainly because Ida had been shouting at them right before the bus ran her down; for over half a year, the two thought they were responsible for her death.

After a full three minutes, Jamie managed to pull away from Vicki. “Feel better?” the brunette gynoid asked.

“Yeah,” Jamie muttered. “I just…..I was two feet away from them, and I just…I froze. I couldn’t do anything---“

“You’d have been cut to pieces if you tried to intervene,” Vicki reminded him. “For all we know, the bus driver gave his life so that everyone else could get off the bus.”

Jamie nodded. “The bus did start snaking once the driver got killed; I think we rolled about five or six times before it stopped.” He took another calming breath. “I yelled out for everyone to get off the bus, and they all yelled back---I was sort of surprised that nobody else had been killed. Even the guy with the heart condition said he was okay---all things considered.”

“I’m still waiting for the part where you explain how you wound up here,” Ted mused.

“Well, that’s the weird part,” Jamie admitted. “We were all planning on just waiting for an ambulance or the cops, which was fine by me….but a while after the crash, this party bus drove up….”

“And let me guess,” Vicki cut in. “All the passengers were hot chicks.”

Jamie grinned. “You catch on quick.”

“The bus must’ve come from the Silicon Dynamics facility to investigate,” Ted surmised. “As soon as the driver noticed the crash, she querried the facility for permission to bring all of you to the plant!”

“Good thing she got permission,” Jamie added, “otherwise we’d have either been picked up for hitchhiking or died on the side of the road. Three weeks in this place….not exactly the worst thing that could’ve happened to me….”

“Until the intruder showed up,” Vicki reminded him. “Maybe the guy who killed the bus driver followed you in somehow, and he’s the one who’s been wreaking havoc this whole time.”

“Vicki,” Jamie remarked, “even the Invisible Man would’ve had trouble getting into this place. That ‘party bus’ we got on passed through at least twenty or so ‘sensor grids’, and these guards in latex catsuits checked for explosives, firearms, controlled substances and at least seven other things before we were allowed in. Hell, they even made everybody strip down to their birthday suits and take a decontamination shower!” He fell back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling. “I almost thought they were going to give us orange coveralls and number badges….”

In Vicki’s eyes, the mention of the security measures only added to the mysterious intruder’s threat; it would take someone with years of training to circumevent that kind of protection. “Right,” she declared, rising from her spot on the bed. “Anyone got a plan of action, or should I just go for the Rambo approach?”

“That’s a negative, Sunshine,” Hardcastle’s voice replied from the PDA’s speaker.

“Who was that?!” Jamie gasped.

“A friend,” Vicki replied without hesitation, “and there’s a lot more where he came from---you were saying, Goldeneye?”

“If there are still civilians within the facility, maximum force is a no-go. The casualty risk is too great.”

“Right. No shooty, blowy-uppy stuff. I wasn’t planning on it anyway.” Vicki grinned. “Anyone else have any ideas?”

“You could try the subtle approach,” Tell offered. “’course, if that doesn’t work, then just run in and scream like a maniac….wait, that only works if you’re trying to be declared legally insane….never mind.” Anton’s voice cut in; “You mentioned someone called ‘Madame’ before….if she’s in charge, try contacting her and asking for help with the communications and security systems.”

“She’s probably got enough on her plate do deal with as it is,” Vicki countered. “Remember all the frozen ‘bots in the hallway?”

“Good point,” Anton admitted.

Vicki turned her attention to Jamie. “How well do you know the layout of this place?” she asked.

“Not well enough. I’ve only been on this floor and one other---“

“Well, then,” the brunette gynoid replied with a grin, “I think it’s high time you got a grand tour.”


“So,” Jamie asked, “all of these robots…they just froze right in the middle of whatever it was they were doing when this lock program engaged?”

“Pretty much,” Vicki replied. “And before you even think of asking---no, I don’t know why they all decided to get undressed in the middle of a hallway. Tell thinks it’s something about a transmission from inside the plant, but……” She stopped, noticing Jamie staring quizically at a gynoid who had frozen just as she was shrugging off her admittedly sexy Snow White costume. “HEY!” the brunette gynoid shouted, snapping her fingers in his direction. “Over here! EARTH TO JAMIE!”

“I don’t think whatever froze them is what made them undress,” Jamie muttered quietly.

“WILL YOU---wait, what?!”

“Look at her eyes,” Jamie whispered. “The pupils are solid black…..but they’re flickering. Like someone tried to pull the plug, but it’s half-in, half out….” He ran over to another gynoid---a statuesque blonde secretary in high heels, black stockings, a grey tweed skirt and a white silk bra. “And this one…her eyes are already completely dim. It’s almost like they were on their way to do something else….but then they got screwed up by whatever made them all start taking their clothes off in the middle of the hall…..”

“…and that’s when they all froze!” Vicki finished. “Wow, Jamie…I guess some of Dad’s expertise really did rub off on you!”

“Well,” Jamie admitted, “I have been reading up on the subject…hang on, what’s up with that menu on her back?” He turned to regard the secretary’s menu panel.

“What’s it say?” Vicki asked.

“You’re not gonna believe this,” Jamie replied. “It says….’I need scissors, sixty-one’.”

“WHAT?!”

Vicki nearly shoved Jamie to the floor as she ran to look at the menu screen. “This…this can’t be happening,” she muttered. “Check the one in the Snow White outfit!” Jamie ran over to examine the gynoid, and groaned; “Same thing here!” Vicki stormed over to another gynoid---this one, attired in a skimpy Alice in Wonderland costume that she was already halfway out of---and a shrill scream escaped her lips as she read the robot’s menu screen. “Calm down, will you?!” Jamie hissed. “Maybe it’s just a joke! I mean, maybe someone decided to make a joke virus that spits out random quotes---“

“This ISN’T a joke virus,” Vicki thundered, storming over to examine a tall brunette gynoid in a tight-fitting witch costume, “it’s a macro-wiper worm! I studied it with Tell a few months ago, and it’s nothing to laugh at---every single one of these robots is stuck in an infinite error loop!”

“Which means…..what?” Jamie asked, confused.

“It means,” Vicki growled, glaring at the menu screen behind the witch-bot’s unzipped top, “that, technically, they’re still online, and every single one of their systems is still functioning---they just can’t move, speak or deactivate properly. It’s like leaving a car on while you spent three hours at the mall---by the time you get back, you’ve wasted gas and the battery’s been running for 180 minutes straight….in short, it’s a drain on energy, and it usually tends to screw up any affected unit. We have to run a code purge on all of them, or else their power cells will die and they’ll be stuck like this…..or even worse, they’ll overheat and explode!”

“That’s a good point,” Jamie replied, “but I think that guy isn’t going to wait that long….and he probably won’t stop when they’re gone!”

Vicki turned to see who Jamie was talking about---and felt like throwing something.

At the far end of the hall stood a figure clad in a Cosmonaut spacesuit identical to that worn by The Fury in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. “OH, COME ON!” the brunette gynoid screamed. “Psycho Fanboy was one thing, and Fake Jason was a pushover, but THIS IS JUST GETTING STUPID!”

“Ah, Vicki,” Jamie stammered, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to piss off the guy armed with twin flamethrowers!”

“Twin….flamethrowers?” Vicki echoed, her scream fading to a squeak.

The Fury imposter squeezed the triggers of his flamethrowers, blazing trails of fire across the walls. “Any ideas on how to put this guy out?” Jamie inquired. “A few,” Vicki replied, “but most of them involve me getting up close and personal….and I have no desire to see if my skin’s fireproofing is past its expiration date at the moment….” She pondered her options as the pyromaniacal cosmonaut wannabe clomped towards them. “Do you remember if there were any fire extinguishers in that bedroom we just left?” she asked. “Not at the moment,” Jamie replied.

“Check again. We might be able to beat this idiot if I can get one.”

Jamie nodded and headed back into the bedroom to retrieve the fire extinguisher, leaving Vicki to face the Fury impersonator by herself. “Right….time for a little diversion….” Her bubble-memory processors tapped into the building’s WiFi network to ping Mary’s internal computer; I really hope this works…

“That you, Vic---I mean, Sunshine?”

“The one and only. Is there any way to set off the sprinklers without starting an actual fire?”

“And why would you want to---“

“Look, I haven’t got time for debating or anything like that---I’m trying to beat a guy dressed like a Cosmonaut armed with two flamethrowers, and I need all the help I can get!”

“Ooookay…let me check….”

Vicki waited silently for Mary’s reply, not daring to look away from the flamethrowing Cosmonaut. Come on….come on…

“Got it!”

“Got what?” Vicki asked, hoping Mary’s triumphant cry meant the scales were about to tip in her favor.

“All you have to do is ramp up the heat in the room---somewhere between ‘mid-July with no air conditioning’ and ‘a kiln warming up’. I can change the setting right now---“

“I’ll handle it.” V.I.C.I. grinned and pressed her left hand against the wall, allowing her built-in temperature regulation software to kick in and redirect the heat generated by her internals to flow through her hand into the wall….and, by proxy, into the overly-sensative temperature detection sensors built into the wall. I just hope this doesn’t wreck all the gynoids who are stuck here….of course, this indoor summer won’t be nearly as harmful as that idiot’s flamethrowers will be if he gets any closer---

“VICKI, STOP!”

Mary’s voice screaming in her ear nearly deafened the brunette gynoid. “You’re running the heat through the sprinkler pipes in that wall,” the pleasure droid continued, “and the sprinklers are going to flood that hall with superheated water!”

“And….why is that bad, exactly?”

“If those gynoids get hit with hot water, it’ll go through their seals and ruin their internals!”

Vicki pulled her hand away from the wall as if she’d been hit with an electric shock; that’s why the Cosmonaut is shooting the walls with his flamethrower---he’s trying to heat up the pipes and destroy all of these robots at once! “Is there any other way I can water down this idiot’s guns without frying myself?” she asked Mary.

“I don’t know….that floor’s locked out from the rest of the system!”

The brunette gynoid glanced at the frozen robots around her, hoping to find something she could use. “I think I might be able to slow him down without setting off the sprinklers,” she murmured. “Just keep trying to get this floor unlocked….”

“But what are you going to do?!”

“I’ll let my superior reflexes do the talking.”

With that, V.I.C.I. crouched, her HUD highlighting the various objects she would need that were still clutched in the hands of the frozen robots. “Right….let’s see if the Russian wants to play.”

Before the Cosmonaut could redirect his flamethrower in her direction, V.I.C.I. was off.

Hairpins….ID badge….a few loose quarters….nail file….eyeliner pencil….. Every single object the brunette gynoid picked up was about to become a dangerous projectile---and for anyone who thought she was going to pull a Bullseye, none of them were being thrown at the Cosmonaut’s face. Within seconds, V.I.C.I. had gathered her arsenal; right, here comes the part where I either do something really cool or get fried…

As the twin gouts of flame slowly converged on her position, V.I.C.I. ran straight for the Fury.

Without giving the dual-wielding Cosmonaut any time to react, she jumped over him; her bubble-memory processors kicked in again, highlighting the various fuel lines and hookups for the flamethrowers. Figures…he was trying to keep me in front of him this whole time so I couldn’t pull a trick like this…. As the Fury realized what was about to happen, V.I.C.I. flung her arsenal of sharp objects at him---and every single item ruptured a fuel line. The twin flamethrowers sputtered out and died half a minute later, their lifelines cut and leaking on the floor.

Vicki landed on both feet behind the Cosmonaut, smirking. “Game, set and---“

A spark from the Fury’s jetpack suddenly caught her attention. “NO!” she screamed, hoping to keep her foe from immolating himself. “DON’T---“

The jetpack ignited---setting the Fury ablaze.

As Vicki watched, horrified, the Cosmonaut’s malfunctioning jetpack lifted him about three feet off the ground, then shot him towards her at speeds well over 75 MPH. Only her myogel-enhanced reflexes saved Vicki from certain death---she ducked at the last possible second as the fiery Cosmonaut flew past her, cackling madly and shouting his codename before slamming into---and through---the wall on the other end of the hall. His mad laughter and screams continued for two more minutes…..

….and then, all was silent.

“What the HELL was that?!” Mary’s voice shrieked.

“That,” Vicki replied quietly, “was the guy who just tried to kill me, flying down the hall and---“

An explosion cut off her sentence; the Fury’s jetpack had exploded, presumably with him still attached.

“….and now he’s dead,” the brunette gynoid muttered.

“VICKI!” Jamie was out of breath by the time he reached his sister; “I got the fire extinguisher, and….where’d he go? Where’s the Cosmonaut guy?”

Vicki silently pointed to the hole in the wall.

“Oh…..whoa……” Jamie stared, realizing the implications of the gesture. “Did he….I mean, he didn’t just ram into the wall like a steak fired out of a cannon, or…..”

His sister’s silence spoke volumes.

“Oh,” he murmured.

Neither sibling said a word for three minutes.

It was Vicki who finally broke the silence: “I think we should split up.”

“And make it easier on whoever’s screwing with the building to find us?” Jamie countered. “Sorry, sis, but I’m going with you whether you want me to or---“

Vicki threw her arms around him and kissed him, drowning out his protests. Within seconds, his eyes fluttered closed as he lapsed into unconsciousness. “Sorry,” Vicki whispered, her lips tingling with electricity, “but I’m not going to let you walk right into a deathtrap …..Mary?”

“Yeah?”

“See if you can make it down to the tenth floor to pick up my brother….he’s resting in the hallway.”

“Sure thing---“

“And don’t try anything funny with him.”

Mary sighed; “I wasn’t even planning on it.”

“Good. I’m sending you a picture of him now….” Vicki stared at her unconscious brother, allowing her occular sensors to take a digital photo of him. “Got it?”

“Yep….wow, he’s pretty hot. You sure I can’t at least give him a private dance, or---“

“NO.”

“Okay, okay! Yeesh….lighten up!”

Vicki terminated the connection and headed back towards the stairway. “Right. Time to go find that guy with the heart condition---“

She stopped, looking over her shoulder at Jamie’s unconscious form.

A sigh escaped her lips; I can’t just leave him here…..

She walked over to where he lay, looking somewhat confused even in unconsciousness. Her lips twitched in a small smile; something about the way he looked---conked out on the floor of a hallway, surrounded by frozen female robots---leant a certain feeling of absurdity to the whole scene, as if this one moment was meant to be a reminder that even moments of danger can hold brief respite.

Vicki knealt by Jamie’s head, running her fingers through his hair.

“Well,” she murmured, “here we are. Vicki the robot and the Big J…..together again…” She chuckled, not caring that a lone tear was running down her face. “It was always going to be like this….the two of us against the world.” She hugged him closer, her eyes squeezed shut as the tears flowed. “You always used to treat me like a glorified maid….and I always let it go. Funny how that sort of thing works….”

“Not nearly as ‘funny’ as it’s going to be to the intruder if he figures out you’re still here.”

The brunette gynoid didn’t even look at the Man in Grey as he approached. “I thought you left already.”

“I was going to,” the masked man admitted, kneeling down by her side, “but I heard something about your commsat link with the others being cut….I didn’t want to risk leaving you here to die.” He regarded Jamie’s prone form; “Sibling argument?” he inquired.

“I don’t want him taking any bullets for me,” Vicki stated matter-of-factly.

“A noble gesture,” the Man in Grey acquiesced, “and a naïve one, to boot. How many times have you put your life on the line for him?”

“I…..” Vicki was stunned by the suddenness of the question.

“Many warriors would consider it an honor to give their lives so that their brothers could live,” the Man in Grey intoned. “If Jamie Lawson wishes to do so for you….it’s his choice. He is the master of his fate, just as you control your own. No-one can choose another’s destiny for them.” With that, he stood up and handed Vicki another envelope.

“More keycards?” she croaked.

“No…but they will make it easier to get the investigators out of here. I suggest you give them to Jamie when he wakes up.” As the brunette gynoid stared, the Man in Grey turned and headed for the stairwell.

“You’re lucky to have a brother like him,” he called out. “Both of you have learned a lot from each other.”

Vicki watched as the door closed, still holding Jamie in her arms as he regained consciousness. “What just happened…..” He noticed Vicki’s arms around him; “Ah, sis, care to tell me what’s going on here?” “You tripped,” Vicki lied. “Hit your head on the fire extinguisher.” She helped her brother to his feet. “I, ah, thought you might have knocked yourself senseless….I guess I got a little carried away.” Her processors fired off a message to Mary nullifying the earlier request for her to come get Jamie.

“So….now what?” Jamie asked.

“We head for the fifteenth floor. The guy with the heart problem is there, and unless we get him out of here…”

“Right….and after we get him out, then we rescue everyone else and get the hell out of Dodge before---“

“No.” Vicki stared at the hole in the wall made by the Fury impersonator. “We have to stop whoever’s responsible for screwing up the systems in this building and reset those systems before we leave, otherwise, things are going to get really ugly really quick…..” A thought struck her: “That party bus you rode in on….did it go through a garage at any point?”

“Probably,” Jamie replied, “but it was on the surface level---“ Vicki nearly threw the envelope full of keys at him as she headed for the stairs. “Round up all of the other guys, get them to the garage and make sure they all board that bus---I’ll meet up with you in an hour.” “Wait,” Jamie protested, “in an hour?! What the hell are you going to be doing for a whole hour?!”

V.I.C.I. didn’t look back. “Getting my hands dirty.”

Part 7

As she made her way to the fifteenth sublevel, Vicki couldn’t stop thinking about what had transpired between her and Jamie a few minutes earlier. It was just a knockout kiss, she reminded herself. It meant nothing..at least, nothing romantic…

So why do I still feel so guilty about it?

She slowed to a stop. I could’ve just punched him in the face, or used Detaining Grip on him until he passed out…but I chose to kiss him…and he’s my brother! What does that even mean?! Am I…..am I in love with my own brother?!

The thought horrified her. She’d spent every night during the first few years of her existence deactivated in a cabinet that just so happened to have been in Jamie’s room, yet he’d never done anything inappropriate to her or made any attempt to take advantage of her. Now, after all their time apart…..she had made a move on him. Not just some simple, innocent hand-holding or a comforting hug----she’d kissed him. For twenty-five seconds, she had embraced her own brother and planted one mother of a lip-lock on him….

….and it hadn’t felt wrong.

“What have I done?” she moaned, sinking to the floor. “What have I DONE?!”

Ted would find out. It was inevitable; one day, out of the blue, he’d be combing through her memory files for whatever reason and stumble across something incriminating---a log file detailing the necessary physical actions for a kiss, or a first-person shot of her locking lips with Jamie……..odds were, she wouldn’t be the same gynoid after that.

He’ll wipe my entire personality, erase every single memory I have……

“Says who?”

Oberon’s simple question jolted Vicki out of her reverie. “You….you could hear---“

“Every thought in your processors as if you were speaking out loud…and before you ask, nobody else in this room can.” She noticed the smile on his face in the PIP window on her HUD; “You have nothing to worry about, Vicki. What you did with Jamie was no more indecent than a quick smooch between cousins, or a friendly embrace with someone else’s boyfriend….though I’d refrain from using the ‘Tazer Kiss’ in combat any time soon, if I were you, especially against female opponents.”

“You….won’t tell Ted, will you?”

“That decision, my dear, is entirely up to you, though I’m sure he won’t handle it as badly as you think he will. As far as your question about being in love with Jamie….the bond between a brother and sister is a deep one, indeed, and your actions were simply an expression of that bond. A rather peculiar one, I admit, but still…”

Vicki nodded. “You’re sure the others can’t hear you?”

“Their attention is currently focused on the incoming security feed from Encom---it seems someone’s just tried to empty their savings account again. Probably the Maestro, now that I think about it…that little git never does give up when it comes to rowing with them.”

“Right….” Vicki grinned nervously. “Just…..please don’t tell Ted about what happened with Jamie and I….”

“I give you my word as a gentleman that I will never speak a word of it to him….and believe me, when I give my word, I never break it.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Fair enough. Now, to get back to saving the guy with the heart problem….”


The fifteenth floor was mostly dedicated to gynoid storage, promotional management and testing, with at least 80% of the sublevel taken up by storage rooms, “makeup rooms” and employee bedrooms and offices for the PR team--- and the irregular heartbeat Vicki had detected earlier was coming from one of the bedrooms. The rest of the floor was occupied by scenario chambers---again with the number seven!---and a secondary testing lab for running diagnostics on robots that had malfunctioned during scenarios. “Hopefully, there aren’t any MGS fanboys running around,” Vicki mused, cautiously edging through the stairwell’s exit door.

The fifteenth floor, like the tenth, had apparently been hit by something that warranted the activation of a Cashback lock---every gynoid Vicki encountered in the hall was frozen mid-step, unable to move. Unlike the tenth floor robots, however, these were still mostly dressed; a few of them had several of the top buttons undone on their blouses, but hadn’t shrugged them off.

“Note to self,” Vicki murmured, “ask Tell and Anton about this when I get out of here…”

As she continued through the corridors, Vicki noticed more gynoids in labcoats and safety gear; maybe they were reprogrammed to act as designated testers, or something, she mused. The labcoats and goggles only served to give the place a cold, clinical atmosphere---the farthest thing from “pleasure droid factory” that anyone could’ve possibly imagined. Vicki thought back to a trip to a United Robotronics factory during her senior year of high school; she’d snuck away from the rest of the group, creeping past cameras with limited range and careless guards for about thirty-five minutes. By the time she had found the room marked “Prototype Storage”, the class was already on the bus and heading back to school, giving her just enough time to nose around and look at UR’s latest works-in-progress. She had just noticed the capsule with the Perspex window, a partially-visible female face framed in blue light, when the guards kicked in the door and yelled for her to put her hands behind her head….

Surprisingly, nobody pressed charges.

Ted had convinced Robert Jennings---who’d stayed on as the manager of the San Jose United Robotronics plant long after Ted left---to cut Vicki some slack; she was a curious girl, he explained, and she just wanted to learn more about the kind of things her dad did for a living (even though he had his own company and, by proxy, his own factories for her to sneak around in). Jennings relented and decided not to press charges; a week later, he was hit by a car that left him in a six-month coma. He woke up in a hospital bed, just in time for a visit from the CEO of United Robotronics---who handed him his termination notice then and there.

Good thing Ted hired him at Lawson Robotics, the brunette gynoid mused, otherwise… She shook herself out of the reverie and returned her focus to the task at hand---finding the unfortunate soul whose heart condition might very well kill him before the night ended.

Twenty-one minutes of wandering later, Vicki found the bedroom she’d marked on her map.

Unlike her random encounter with Jamie, Vicki heard no sounds of showering, off-key singing or anything of the sort emanating from the room; the low hum of air conditioning, the quiet rustling of pages being turned and the irregular heartbeat of the young man inside were the only noises her auditory sensors could detect. Steadying herself so as not to rip the door off its hinges, Vicki grasped the doorknob and turned it; it clicked open without protest.

“Someone there?” a British-accented voice called out.

Vicki nodded and opened the door quietly. “I’m here to…ah, rescue you….” she began.

The young man sitting on the bed arched an eyebrow at the statement. “I didn’t know International Rescue changed their dress code,” he mused, grinning. Infoboxes popped up in Vicki’s HUD as she regarded him: i]Height: 5 feet, 11 inches; weight, 180 lbs; shoe size…[/i] “Ah, right,” she muttered. “I, ah, heard you might be having some….medical complications due to a heart condition, and I….what?!” she snapped, glaring at the rather unperturbed young man. “What’s so freaking funny?!”

“To be honest,” he replied, “my ‘heart condition’ isn’t a life-threatening scenario…it’s more of an annoyance than anything.” He laid back in the bed, sighing; “End-stage heart failure is a right pain in the arse, if I do say so myself…”

“But that note, in your car..” Vicki insisted. “It said---“

“They found the note?” he asked, surprised “I was wondering where I’d left that thing….see, I’d had a friend write it out as a joke---I wanted to prank my mum with it---but I lost the bloody stupid thing before I could show it to her. Other than the whole ‘end-stage heart failure’ thing, I’m feeling great---I’m not going to drop dead any second now, either, if that’s why you’re waiting to spring into action and rescussitate me.” He picked up a hardcover book, found where he’d marked his place and continued reading.

“So….you’re not going to die if you don’t get out of here before midnight?” Vicki inquired.

“Unless the ceiling caves in on me, no,” the young man replied. “You…don’t work here, do you? You look the part, but seeing as how you haven’t come on to me since you showed up….”

The remark prompted a grin from Vicki. “I don’t usually wear stuff like this, to be honest,” she admitted. “My outfit kind of got ripped up earlier….it’s sort of a long story. Anyways, we need to get going….just out of curiousity, are any of the other guys from the bus on this floor?” “Last time I checked, they were all headed to the thirteenth floor to watch a mud-wrestling match,” the young man chuckled. “As for me….” He held up the book he was reading.

“Intriguing choice,” Vicki commented. “By the way, I’m Vicki…Vicki Lawson.”

“That’s a beautiful name, if you don’t mind me saying….speaking of names, you can call me Chris.”

Vicki and Chris left the employee bedroom and headed for the stairwell, Chris only occasionally stopping to marvel at the frozen fembots. “Almost like an art gallery, this,” he mused. “’course, most of the statues in a typical gallery are missing limbs and heads….and clothes…” “Try the tenth floor if you want to see that sort of thing,” Vicki replied with a smirk. “Most of them were in the middle of getting undressed---in a hallway---when they froze….I mean, it was absolutely----“

She stopped dead in her tracks.

“What?” Chris asked.

“Behind us,” Vicki whispered. “One of the robots….just moved….” Chris looked behind them. “I don’t see anything---wait, one of them did move!”

“Which one?” the brunette gynoid asked quietly.

“Ah, the one in the skintight latex suit, standing in the middle of the modern art sculpture with a bunch of…ah, I might be mistaken, but I think they’re tentacles---“

Vicki groaned out loud. “Not again….”

“What?” Chris asked, confused. “What do you---ah, hang on, she’s walking this way….and the tentacles are coming with her! What the bloody---“

“RUN!” Vicki screamed. “GET TO THE STAIRWELL AND JUST RUN!” Chris nodded and ran for the stairs, occasionally looking behind him to see if the gynoid in the latex catsuit was doing anything other than slowly walking towards Vicki. “GIVE HER HELL, VICKI LAWSON!” he shouted.

“I will,” V.I.C.I. replied, returning her attention to the fight at hand.

Whereas her previous pursuers had been male (and human) fanboys of Metal Gear Solid and Friday the 13th, this particular attacker was a gynoid modeled after one Laughing Octopus from MGS 4---complete with Solidus Snake-inspired tentacles. “Bring it on,” V.I.C.I. intoned, assuming a fighting stance----

---and nearly getting her head knocked off by a tentacle lash.

The Laughing Octopus gynoid circled the room, cackling maniacally as she attacked the brunette gynoid with her trademark weapons. V.I.C.I., meanwhile, fired potshots at her with Hardcastle’s Tazer pistol, none of which seemed to have any effect. “This thing isn’t anywhere near powerful enough to take her down,” she realized. “I need something with more stopping power…” None of the frozen robots around the room had anything more lethal than ballpoints in their pockets, and unlike her attack against the Fury wannabe, V.I.C.I. knew she would have to rely on more than writing implements and random junk from people’s pockets to land a killing blow.

“If only I’d held onto that gun from the Daikoku knockoff,” she muttered. “That, or---“

“OY, VICKI!”

Vicki turned to see Chris holding a sword and grinning triumphantly. “I sort of liberated this from the clutches of one Princess Kitsuki,” he admitted, “and I was thinking you might be able to use it.” He tossed the sword to the brunette gynoid, nodding his approval as she caught it out of the air with ease. “I was sort of hoping for an M-60,” she joked, “but this will definitely do the kind of damage I need.”

Before the Octopus gynoid could attack, V.I.C.I. charged at her. “Time for some robo-calamari!”

Four quick slashes later, the gynoid’s tentacles fell to the floor, as did her helmet.

“And that’s the end of that,” Vicki remarked, dusting her hands off and turning away from her fallen foe. “Let’s go return this sword to its rightful owner and get out of here---“

“Ah, Vicki,” Chris warned, “you’re forgetting the second part of the battle…”

“Wait, what?!”

The Laughing Octopus gynoid---or, to be more accurate, the Laughing Beauty gynoid---got to her feet, a strange, unceasing laugh issuing from her mouth as she slowly made her way towards Vicki. “What’s she going to do to me?!” the brunette gynoid shouted, only to see a set of infoboxes pop up in her HUD: During the “beauty” phase of the Beauty and the Beasts boss fights in Metal Gear Solid 4, the Beauties will slowly walk towards Solid Snake and attempt to hug him to death by crushing his ribcage.

“She’s going to hug me to death?!”

“NO SHE WON’T!”

The Man in Grey descended from the rafters, tackling the Laughing Beauty gynoid to the floor in one swift motion. “I’ll hold her off,” he growled, fighting to keep the Beauty from getting back up. “You get out of here and rescue the others!”

“But----“

“GO!”

Vicki shook her head. “I’m not letting her kill you---“

The Man stared into her eyes---even though she couldn’t see his, she knew he was.

“If I die here tonight,” he intoned, “then I’ll die content. If you get killed trying to save me from the clutches of this thing, then you’ll have negated every ounce of blood I’ve shed to keep you alive---and yes, I have shed blood here---“ He fought to restrain the Beauty’s arms. “Like I said earlier, many warriors would be honored to give their lives so their brothers in arms might live….and if that’s the price I have to pay tonight…..then so be it.”

“But,” Vicki whimpered, “I…..I don’t…..”

“Go.”

Vicki nodded, backpedalling towards the steps as the Laughing Beauty gynoid threw the Man in Grey off of her shoulders, ready to lock in her lethal embrace. “Go forth, Vicki Lawson,” the Man shouted, “and prevail!”

“I will,” Vicki whispered, her eyes brimming with tears as the door closed.

For a few brief seconds, she heard the sounds of electricity crackling and Laughing Beauty…well, laughing, followed by a horrible silence. Feelings of helplessness, rage and doubt flooded through her processors; I shouldn't be here……I wasn’t ready for this! I….I never should’ve intervened when those two gynoids showed up at Tell’s house! I---

“Vicki?”

Chris was staring at her, looking more than a bit worried. “Shouldn’t we, ah, get going?”

“We will,” Vicki replied, opening the door to get one last look at the man who’d died saving her life. “I just---“

She stopped.

The Laughing Beauty gynoid was slumped on the floor, headless---but there was no trace of the Man in Grey other than several discarded armor plates.

“I think we can go now,” Vicki murmured.

The two made their way up the stairs, which took a bit longer than the brunette gynoid was accustomed to (her “run as fast as possible” method would’ve left Chris in the dust---and possibly led him to overexert himself while trying to catch up); other than their slow pace, their progress through the stairwell was actually somewhat unremarkable.

Until they reached the tenth floor.

The frozen robots were still there (and still half-undressed), but someone had decided to knock a few holes in several of the walls and leave blood trails everywhere since Vicki had left. Small fires were burning straight through the carpet in some areas, and the empty Cosmonaut suit worn by the Fury impersonator had been hung up in a doorframe, its smashed helmet lying on the floor near its feet.

“What the hell….” Chris muttered, his eyes wide in shock.

“We have to keep going,” Vicki insisted, looking away from the carnage. “I still need to reboot the security and communications systems before we can get out of here….otherwise this factory won’t be able to reestablish a link to the East Coast and Midwest facilities.” “So you are from International Rescue, then,” Chris remarked, grinning.

Vicki rolled her eyes. “I’m not from International Rescue,” she admitted, “but as long as I’m here….”

A grin crept across her face. “Why stop doing their job now?”


As Chris and Vicki made their way up to the ninth floor---the next stop on their “tour” of the Silicon Dynamics factory---the brunette gynoid’s thoughts turned to Jamie once again. The task she’d given him had been simple enough, but considering the bizarre obstacles she’d encountered, it occurred to her that she may have sent her own brother to his doom.

He’ll make it, she assured herself. He has to.

“Any chance these robots have an arsenal stored in this building?” Chris inquired. “We might be able to arm ourselves, fight our way through---“

“They’re pleasure robots, Chris,” Vicki sighed. “They don’t need an arsenal…what are you doing?!”

“Taking my medicine,” Chris replied, pulling a small vial out of his pants pocket. “Let’s see…Bisoprolol, I think…it’d be easier to tell if it was too early or not if I had a watch…” He popped the top and shook out two pills, downing them both with a bit of water from another vial and an exaggerated shiver.. “Gaaahhh…..I forgot how nasty these things taste…and why are you looking at me like that?”

“Your note said you were out of medication,” Vicki replied coldly.

“You mean the prank note I lost a few months ago?” he laughed. “I told you…that was meant as a joke….and a minor security measure in case some drug-crazed loonies tried to loot my car for the pills. I’ve got a whole case of ‘em in my pocket….Bisoprolol, Lisinopril, Spironolactone---which, by the way, I absolutely and totally hate with a vengeance---Digoxin, a few tabs of plain old aspirin and some Wafarin…though the Wafarin dosages vary from day to day, so..yeah.” He grinned. “All in tidy little vials in a crush-proof, brushed-aluminum case, with clear labels, secure lids and a flask of filtered water to help ‘em go down easier.”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Are you sure you’re not from International Rescue?” she asked with a grin.

Before Chris could reply, an alarm claxon sounded. “Think we should investigate?” he inquired.

“It’s why I’m here,” Vicki replied without missing a beat.

The two rounded the corner to find several robots (most of them attired in their costumes from the catalog) and a few human staff members working feverishly at one of several consoles. “This can’t be right,” one robot murmured, her concerned expression looking almost comical in contrast to her sexy Cleopatra outfit. “How can they be coming in through the garage?!” “I don’t know, suge,” another robot replied---the cowgirl from the lobby! Vicki realized---“but I ain’t goin’ down without a fight.” She went for a revolver, but one of the human technicians stopped her. “We have no idea if traditional ammunition will work against them,” he informed her, “and unless we can get Madame to stabilize the network, we stand a strong chance of losing the refabrication mainframe…meaning any casualties on your part will be permanent.”

The cowgirl was taken aback. “I….I didn’t know the mainframe was busted,” she gasped. “It’s not busted yet,” the technician replied, “but if this keeps up….”

“It won’t keep up.” Vicki stepped out into the open, drawing gasps from some of the robots. “And just how are you gonna help keep this place from goin’ to Kingdom Come?” the cowgirl robot asked, sarcasm lacing every word. “There’s more to me than looks,” Vicki replied, “and I’ve got friends on the outside who might be able to help….but first thing’s first---who’s coming in through the garage?”

“See for yourself,” the Cleopatra robot declared, gesturing to a monitor. Vicki fought the urge to gasp as she approached; an army of Daikoku knockoff fembots were exiting delivery trucks with the Silicon Dynamics logo emblazoned on the sides. “From what we can tell, they’ve been here for months,” Cleopatra continued, “ever since the trucks started returning late back in September.”

“The same time the inhibitor programs started failing,” Vicki murmured.

Cleo nodded. “Between the trucks’ erratic return times and the inhibitor programss failing, Madame started getting paranoid---she almost didn’t send out a rescue crew to pick up those people stranded on the side of the road. She started calling the human staff and asking them to come back in….and that’s when the intruder alerts began.”

Vicki processed the information alongside what she had already learned; “Did anyone from the bus crash say anything about the driver being attacked?” she asked. “Only about a hundred times,” the cowgirl drawled, “an’ they’re swearin’ up an’ down that the whackjob from the bus got away before it wrecked, like one’o them slasher movie killers.”

“We sent security ‘bots to comb the area after the crash,” the human technician added, “but they weren’t able to find anything---it’s like the guy wasn’t even there!”

“I’m starting to think Madame has a right to be paranoid,” Vicki mused, using her PDA to call up several police records of unsolved carjackings from the past few months. “I don’t think the trucks that ‘came back’ in September are the same ones that left,” she informed the group. “Whoever this intruder is, I’m pretty sure that they’re the ones who jacked the delivery trucks, boosted the cargo and then sent a nearly identical fleet of trucks back…except they replaced what they’d taken with their own ‘cargo’ and left the original shipping manifests onboard.” She scrolled through the list of carjackings; “How many trucks are those gynoids busting out of?” she asked.

“At least twelve,” Cleo replied.

“The same twelve trucks that came back late in September,” the brunette gynoid muttered, shaking her head in disgust. “How convenient…..the slimeball probably had enough time to reverse-engineer a whole truckload of robots while his cronies repainted some of his trucks to match the ones he’d taken!”

“What slimeball?” the cowgirl asked, confused.

“Victor frakking Vega,” Vicki spat. “The same idiot who tried to---“

“Ah, as much as I hate to break it to you,” Anton’s voice interjected, “Victor Vega has a pretty good alibi for that particular month….he spent all of September and the first few weeks of October in court.”

“So?!” Vicki countered. “He probably hired someone---“

“Not with frozen assets and federal agents watching his every move,” Hardcastle declared. “The man was under constant watch, Sunshine…he couldn’t have done so much as sneeze without someone standing by with a Kleenex and a pair of handcuffs. Whoever did this was well-connected….but the evidence stands: It wasn’t Victor Vega.”

“Great,” Vicki sulked. “My one lead, and it’s just been flushed…”

“Don’t take it too hard….everyone here thought this had Vega’s seal of approval stamped all over it as well,” Anton admitted. “We’ve also ruled out United Robotronics involvement…they’ve got their own issues to deal with, and being linked to a fiasco like this would do nothing to improve their image.” “The Coalition is denying all involvement,” Hardcastle added, “and we’re looking into the unaffiliated companies to see if any of them have an axe to grind with Silicon Dynamics and the time, energy and resources to pull off something this audacious.”

“What about Zeb---“

“Zebediah Blunderwitz wouldn’t be relying on androids to carry out his work,” Anton cut in, not even allowing Vicki to finish her sentence. “If he is responsible for all of this, you have my word that I’m going to punt-kick him from here to New York with a steel-toed boot!”

“Never mind,” Vicki squeaked. “In any case,” she continued, regaining her earlier boldness, ”it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of this.” “Agreed,” the human technician declared. “What matters is that we stop them from getting any further into this facility than they already have….” He turned to the Cleopatra robot with a concerned look on his face; “I think we need to fire up the security ‘bots.”

Cleo nodded. “I’ll start the activation process.”

“Any chance you can get me to the communications hub?” Vicki asked. “I can reroute one of the elevators to get you from this floor to the shelter,” the tech replied. “Madame’s in charge of the whole setup from there.”

“Cool. What about security? Any chance Madame can tell me who’s in charge of that?”

“You’re looking at him,” the technician replied with a grin. “Madame called me back for a reason, ma’am…and I don’t intend to let her down.”

“Good call,” Vicki remarked. “By the way….I never caught your name.”

“Sculley. Security Chief Nolan Sculley.” He shook hands with the brunette gynoid. “Mind telling me who you are, so I don’t have to convince Madame that I got an assist from a girl who may or may not actually exist?” “Lawson,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Vicki Lawson. Aka Sunshine----until this is over with…and Madame knows about me already.”

Sculley nodded. “Outstanding. CLEO! Are the ‘bots ready yet?”

“Give me a minute,” Cleo shouted back, typing hurriedly on a console. “They’re still going through the final cycles of their latest update….”

“This place has security droids?” Vicki asked. Sculley nodded; “Their primary systems and chassis designs are heavily modified from the standard pleasure droid suite,” he explained, “but their programming is another story---their main objectives are to keep this place safe and avoid any civilian casualties. Madame considered getting rid of the ‘avoid casualties’ bit…but after the party bus came back with that busload of tourists, she left it in.”

Definitely a good call on her part… “What kind of firepower do these security ‘bots have?”

Before Sculley could answer, a loud hiss from across the room caught everyone’s attention. “That’s just the recharging booth for the security ‘bots,” Cleo assured Vicki. “I guess their systems update finished ahead of schedule…”

The booth doors slid open to reveal five humanoid figures, their bodies made up of gunmetal-grey, contoured plates molded into the graceful curves and figure of female forms. All five seemed to be wearing featureless, form-fitting masks of smoked glass…until they stepped out of the booth, allowing Vicki to see the seams where the “masks” met their heads. They walked with a distinctive, uniform gait, their footsteps more in line with soldiers marching in formation than the hip-swaying, seductive swagger associated with most pleasure droids.

Chris let out a low whistle. “Impressive. Any chance I could buy one of those to guard my flat?” Vicki’s reply was cut off by another alarm klaxon. “They’re tryin’ to get into the lobby!” the cowgirl announced, running to another console and furiously typing in commands. “I can’t lock ‘em out….they’re jammin’ the door controls!” Sculley ran back to the terminal he’d been working at earlier; “This….this is just impossible,” he muttered. “How could they have circumvented the firewalls this fast?! It’s like there’s just nothing between them and the controls…..the only way they could’ve done this so quickly was if…..they had help from inside the facility….”

Vicki already knew where this was going. “If you think I’m responsible for this mess---“

Another alarm klaxon rang out, only to be cut off in a gut-wrenching squeal of tearing metal.

“As I was saying,” Vicki continued, “I didn’t come here to tear this place down…I came here to help rebuild it and get everything up and running again. Over the past few hours, I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff…and I’m starting to think that whoever this mysterious intruder is, they’re the one who’s been having their way with the inter-systems controls.” She glared at the security camera in the upper corner of the room; “They’re probably watching us right now, waiting for someone to go into detail about how we’re going to end this….”

Without hesitation, the cowgirl snatched up the revolver from the desk and shot the camera.

“Are you insane?!” another human technician shouted. “That camera---“ “---is replacable,” Sculley cut in, stepping between the cowgirl and the pissed-off tech. “As are all of the cameras in this room.” He nodded to the cowgirl, who emptied the revolver’s chamber into the other six cameras---

Wait a minute.

Slowly, something was beginning to add up in her mind. Seven cameras, twenty-one terminals---seven times three----infected, seven Daikoku knockoffs waiting to ambush me before I got to the testing lab, seven robots who weren’t taken over by psycho fanboy…

“Everything all right, Vicki?” Chris asked, concerned. “You kind of zoned out…”

“I..I wasn’t zoning out,” Vicki stammered. “I was just…” She bit her lip. “I’ve been going over all the crazy stuff that’s happened since I got here, and I keep coming back to the number seven….it’s almost like someone’s been setting up these incidents with that number in mind….”

“And I take it you know at least one or two nutters who are obsessed with that number?” Chris inquired.

“That’s the weird thing,” the brunette gynoid replied. “It….seems familiar, but….I just can’t place it. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, it seems like the answer is just staring me in the face…and then it starts getting hazy.” She sighed. “It’s like trying to remember a dream that I didn’t have, and it gives me the heebies.”

“It’ll come to you eventually,” Chris assured her.

“I hope it does….” Vicki sighed again. “Right,” she declared, turning her attention to the live security feed, which showed the ever-encroaching army of Daikoku knockoffs trying to pry open an elevator. “How are we going to keep those knockoffs from breaching the elevators and getting down to the communications controls?”

The cowgirl eyed her with a suspicious glare. “Why are you so interested in keeping them out of the shelter?”

“If they get to the shelter,” Vicki replied, a growl creeping into her words, “they’ll have uninhibited access to the communications controls…and to Madame. They’ll have free reign to do whatever they damn well please down there---they could send false distress signals, to lure in anyone who could actually help us out and kill them as soon as they step through the door, or they could just as easily reprogram every single robot in this building to serve their controller instead of Madame. They could even coordinate the destruction of this entire plant by…oh, I don’t know, severing a water line, or pumping sewage into every available square inch until the humans drown and the robots are too damaged to get away. Long story short: if they get to the shelter, we are all screwed.” She stared down the cowgirl, her gaze taking on that air of finality she always managed to project in times of difficulty. “Get the picture?”

The cowgirl nodded silently.

“Good. Now, back to my original question…how do we keep all that from happening?”

After a few seconds of silence, Sculley spoke up: “We could transmit a standing order to all active robots and get them to go back to their charging booths. If the refabrication mainframe is shut down, we wouldn’t have to worry about losing any of them.”

“That’s a start,” Vicki admitted, “but who’s to say they wouldn’t just start breaking into the charging booths?”

Cleo and Sculley exchanged glances. “There is an extra layer of security for the booths that only Madame can control,” Cleo offered. “The doors can be electrified with enough voltage to short out the batteries of those knockoffs---“

”Do it. Just make sure the robots in the booths don’t get fried trying to get in or out.”

Cleo nodded and set to work activating the measure while Vicki continued explaining her plan. “I’m going to go down to this shelter and have a talk with Madame, to see if I can get her to reactivate the communications systems and possibly provide me with a bit of help keeping these knockoffs at bay. Chris, you stay here with Sculley and…ah, what’s your name?” she asked the cowgirl.

“Savannah,” the robot drawled. “And I ain’t exactly pleased with y’all for makin’ these plans without me---“

“Trust me, you’ll have more than enough to do by the time I’m done,” Vicki assured her. “You’re going to lead the security ‘bots into battle.”

Savannah’s eyes went wide. “Are you tryin’ to get me killed?!” she thundered.

“You wanted to take part, didn’t you? Well, this is the biggest part you can take!”

Chris rolled his eyes as Vicki and Savannah squared off again. “The entire building might come down on our heads any minute,” he muttered, “and these two are whinging about who gets to do what.”

After a few tense seconds, Savannah finally agreed to lead the security ‘bots into battle against the Daikoku knockoffs. “I’ll do it,” she huffed, “but that don’t mean I have to like it.” “Fair enough,” Vicki acquiesced. “As long as you keep them away from the elevators so that they can’t get to the shelter, everything should go according to plan….once I finish working out exactly what the plan is. Speaking of which….does anyone here know if there’s a way to get from this floor to the shelter without having to take the stairs?”

Cleo smiled and pressed a button on the terminal nearest her, causing a wall across the room to slide open and reveal a gleaming steel door. “Madame insisted on installing private express elevators to the shelter on every floor,” she explained.

“That….is definitely what I had in mind,” Vicki murmured, nodding at the newly-revealed door. “How fast---“

“It’ll get you to the shelter in two minutes.”

“Just what I wanted to hear.” Vicki headed for the express elevator, grinning. “Hopefully, I’ll have this done in less than 35 minutes….”

“What happens in 35 minutes?” Chris asked.

“I have to meet someone in the garage,” the brunette gynoid replied. “Don’t wait up.”

With that, the elevator doors closed.

Well, she realized, this is it. My one chance to appeal to the head of this entire facility before a full army of Daikoku knockoff gynoids swarms the building, destroys every vital system in sight and kills everyone in their path……and here, I thought my weekend was going to be a boring one. Yet here I am, having met up with Jamie again---in the weirdest way possible---and with more than enough support to actually pull this thing off before sunset.

The doors glided open; I really hope this whole thing doesn’t blow up in my face…

Part 8

Upon first glance, the “shelter” looked a lot like the testing laboratory---terminals lining the walls, cubicles and desks with PCs and Macs dotting the landscape, and the occasional slab holding an unmoving body. As Vicki moved further into the room, she noticed a few differences---for one, the shelter was nowhere near as brightly lit as the lab was; very few lights had been turned on, and those that were obviously weren’t running at full power.

The second main difference, of course, was that the testing lab didn’t have a massive mainframe computer on the far end of the room.

“Madame?” Vicki called out. “It’s…ah, Sunshine. You spoke with me earlier in the testing laboratory?”

Silence.

“Ah…..I sort of need your help with something….where are you---“

“You’re looking at me.”

The voice seemed to come from everywhere in the room at once. “I’m….what?! There’s nobody else in here, except for a few robots that are either deactivated or just plain dead----“

“I’m right in front of you….how can you not notice?”

“I…..” Vicki stopped when she noticed the mainframe. Stamped across its sleek metal casing were the letters M.D.M., in massive blue type.

“M.D.M.,” she whispered. “Maintenance/Distribution/Manufacturing…..”

“….also known as…well, me,” Madame finished. “Are you really that surprised?”

Vicki stared at the mainframe, unsure of what to say. She’d heard the rumors that Silicon Dynamics had begun testing a new, fully-automated control system for their West Coast plant, but she had never thought to equate the name Madame with the initials “M.D.M.” until now. “To be honest,” she murmured, “yeah…I’m kind of surprised.”

“Most likely because your onboard sensors couldn’t determine whether or not I was an actual organic being,” Madame assumed. “I’ve been adapting my firewalls to the attacks of this intruder ever since he arrived.”

“So it’s a guy,” Vicki muttered. “Great. Can you tell who it is?”

“Unfortunately, my efforts to discern the identity of the intruder have been….unsuccessful,” Madame admitted, sounding somewhat perturbed. “He has gone to great lengths in his efforts to wrest control of this facility from me, and as loathe as I am to admit it, I might not be able to hold him off for long.” A pause… “I may need your help in evicting him from the inner-most reaches of the Silicon Dynamics network.”

Vicki knew all too well what that meant. “I’ve never gone after a hacker before,” she admitted, “so it might take some time---“

A light flared into existence over a dusty office chair. “You won’t need to ‘go after’ this intruder in the usual way,” Madame informed her. “I can give you the means to affect a virtual entry into the system; your physical body will remain here, unharmed, while you assist me in pursuing this insufferable hacker and purging every trace of him from the system.”

“So….how do I ‘affect virtual entry’, then?” Vicki asked.

“Plug the connection cable into a relevent port,” Madame instructed. “And don’t touch anything else.”

Vicki nodded, adjusting her borrowed costume to gain access to her back panel. “Once this is over, you’ll regain full control of the building, right?” she asked.

“Indeed.”

“Good,” the brunette gynoid replied. “In that case….time for me to turn on, boot up and---“

She felt the world fall away from her before she could finish the sentence; within seconds, a new reality came rushing into view to replace it. Her consciousness seemed to be swallowed whole by this new world until the dim reality of the shelter was pushed aside, like a dream she was already waking up from. Part of her bubble memory processors knew she was still in a chair in front of a terminal with a USB cable plugged into her back, but the sensation was already leaving her as the “new reality” took hold.

“….okay, this is definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced,” she mused. Her costume of tarted-up pinafores had vanished, replaced by an almost militaristic outfit consisting of a red leather jumpsuit with white accents (almost like the one The Boss wore in MGS3, she realized), combat boots and gloves. The new attire seemed rather odd, considering her surroundings---as she glanced around, the brunette gynoid found herself standing in the middle of a vast, beautifully-scented garden, situated on an island that seemed to float through an endless sky-scape of sorts. Nothing about this strange new world seemed all that bizarre to her, for some reason; it almost felt comforting to find herself in such an incredible place….

Except for the blood trail.

A dark red line had somehow or other been smeared along the soil at her feet, almost like a guideline through the garden. “Either this is a sign that this place is under attack,” Vicki mused, “or our intruder has some serious issues….” She followed the trail until it rejoined the proper path through the garden, strolling past lucious foiliage until she emerged in a massive pavilion of marble. The pavilion could’ve held every droid in the factory, but at the moment, only twenty-one were there, clad in their outfits from the catalog.

Vicki walked past them, expecting either hostile glares, or indifference; to her surprise, all but one looked upon her with curious glances. Firefighter Fiona---attired in her latex outfit from the Prius---arched an eyebrow in amusement, while Sierra the Superbabe gave her a tiny wave. Nightingale nodded as the brunette gynoid walked past; Missy---the sexbot who had been attacked with the ruler in the elevator---seemed astonished. Beverly the bride and a few others from the testing lab waved as Vicki passed; the only one that remained still was the girl with the sad face, who seemed even more upset “in person”. Maybe she was one of the first who was attacked by the intruder, Vicki reasoned. Either that, or---and I really hope that I’m wrong on this one---it’s how she was programmed…

At the far end of the pavilion was an empty golden throne---Madame’s seat of honor, perhaps?---and a door. A note attached to the door read, simply, “Get in”.

No reason to stop now…

Vicki turned the doorknob…

…and was met with a scene of utter horror.

The room beyond the door was a massive chamber, much like the archival room at a police station, museum or library. Rows upon rows of filing cabinets, bookshelves and terminals stretched as far as the eye could see…but from where Vicki was standing, the rows cleared a path that led right to a clear area directly in the center of the room. At first, the brunette gynoid thought a statue had been strapped to the chair; on closer inspection, she realized that the platinum-haired, alabaster-skinned woman in the gown was most likely the virtual avatar of Madame.

As for the guy who was beating the mortal piss out of her with a sledgehammer….

“WHERE IS IT?!” The man smashed Madame in the face, and Vicki half-expected to see a chip of stone fly off of her. “You’ll die long before you ever find out,” she taunted, only to get a brutal blow to the gut. “DON’T TOY WITH ME, WOMAN!” the man shrieked. “My partner and I have a lot of work to get done, and the sooner you just give up and tell us what we want to know, the better it’ll be for you. Now….where is it?”

Madame glared at him defiantly. “Do your worst.”

The man grinned a shark’s grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He raised the hammer…..

“STOP!”

Both Madame and the hammer-weilding man turned to see Vicki step forward. “Leave her alone,” she ordered, glaring at the man. “If you’re going to go after someone with that thing, go after….” She stopped, realizing the rammifications of what she was seeing. “He’s been here the whole time?”

“He broke through the firewall when you connected,” Madame admitted. “I shouldn’t have---“

“QUIET, woman!” the man snapped, turning to address Vicki. Despite the fact that his expression was one more commonly attributed to psychotics and murderers, the man looked somewhat elegant; his black frock coat, tuxedo pants, starched shirt and bowtie gave him an almost sophisticated appearance, matched by his black hair tied off into a ponytail behind his head. The air of potential grace about him did nothing to dispel his aura of sheer hatred, however, and he regarded Vicki with the look of a lion about to devour a gazelle. “You picked a very bad time to interfere in my work, ‘Sunshine’,” he hissed. “I’ve been holed up in here for weeks, chipping away at her defenses; I was actually making some progress, to be quite honest……and then you just had to barge in and RUIN EVERYTHING!”

“I’m not going to let you hurt her,” Vicki declared.

“You talking to him?” another voice called out, “or to me?” Another man stepped out of the shadows; whereas the man with the hammer looked (and even sounded)almost charming, the newcomer was on the opposite end of the scale in terms of appearance and presentation. Tallish, a bit on the lanky side, sandy brown hair and five-o’clock shadow to match….even if he hadn’t been clad in prison orange, Vicki would’ve regarded him with a wary eye. “I’m talking to both of you,” she declared. “Get out of here now.” “Ah, sorry,” the man in prison garb chuckled, “but that’s just not gonna happen. See, this whole time, he’s been doing his thing…and while he’s been doing his thing, I’ve been doing my thing…and in case you haven’t heard, my thing is to make sure that nobody finds out that he’s been doing his thing. It’s all a bit…complex, really, but it’ll make sense in the end…’cause once he’s done with her…..” He held up a remote and grinned. “I push the button….”

“SHUT UP,” the man with the sledgehammer growled, “or you’ll tell her our whole damn plan!”

“I already know most of your plan,” Vicki replied, “and at least 28 potential backup plans you could use if this one fails.”

“She’s good,” the man in prison garb remarked.

“Well, then,” the hammer-weilding man muttered, “if you’re so confident about your ability to stop us, then why not just get it over with right now? Take us both out at the same time, save the authorities the trouble---“

“And give you a chance to hack my systems?” Vicki shot back. “I don’t think so.”

“Ooh, lookit that,” the man in prison garb mused. “Little dolly thinks she can hang with the---‘’ A blast of lightning from Vicki’s fingertips knocked him off his feet. “I always wondered what that would look like,” she remarked with a grin. Without taking her eyes off of either of the two men, she walked over to the chair where Madame had been tied and splintered it with a single karate chop. “You okay?” she asked, concern evident in her voice.

“Their pitiful tactics have only angered me,” Madame replied. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“Good,” Vicki beamed, “because I’m going to need a little help here….”

The man in prison orange got to his feet, rubbing the back of his head. “THAT was a mistake,” he chided, “and it’ll cost ya---“ “What part of SHUT UP don’t you understand?!” the sledgehammer-weilding man growled, glaring not at him, but at Vicki. “These two are no match for us---one is nothing more than a computer waiting to be reformatted and sold for parts, and the other is a girl whose battery life is about to be reduced to zero…I have a feeling that we’re not in any danger of losing to either of them.”

“Really?” Madame quipped. “I think it’s time this computer showed you two Neanderthals just what she’s capable of!” She raised her arms up, staring at the nonexistant ceiling….

….and the room around them was torn asunder by white light.

Within seconds, the group found themselves in a new setting---one Vicki instantly recognized. “I know this place,” she murmured, a smile creeping onto her face as she regarded the lightning-seared steel cage around her. “It’s the Power Plant arena from One Must Fall: 2097…I used to play this on Jamie’s computer all the time before he moved out!” Madame was amused; “I was going to drop them into the middle of a conflict with Anhoera, Queen of the Fey…but I guess this will do. My only question is how this got onto the system---“

From somewhere in the distance, Vicki heard Jamie shouting: “I thought I might be able to give you a little home-field advantage!”

Vicki threw a thumbs-up at the sky. “You’re the greatest, Jamie!”

“A VIDEO GAME?!” the hammer-weilding man screamed. “YOU SENT US INTO A VIDEO GAME?!” “Ah, technically,” the man in prison garb corrected, “it’s a computer game---OMF was only released for personal computers in 1995---OW!” The hammer-weilding man backhanded him across the face. “She could’ve sent us into Tetris¬-land, and it wouldn’t have mattered,” he sneered. “I’ll destroy her, and then…..wait a minute. What the hell happened to the hammer I was just holding?!”

The weapon had, indeed, vanished from his hands. “Oooooh, bad luck there, Billy,” the man in prison orange muttered. “Perhaps---“

“MY NAME IS NOT BILLY!” the former hammer-weilder shouted, grabbing his partner by the collar. “IT’S---“

“Not important right now.”

The two turned---and nearly screamed: V.I.C.I. had morphed from her usual human self to a chrome-and-steel, red-and-white clad superheroine akin to a character from a sentai program. “Your reign of terror ends here,” she intoned, pointing her hand at the man in prison garb and sending him flying into a cage wall with another burst of lightning; upon impact with the wall, his entire body lit up like a cartoon x-ray for a few seconds until he fell back to the arena floor with a thud.

“I’d say something about ‘how shocking that must have been’,” V.I.C.I. began, only for the disarmed ex-hammer weilder to charge at her, screaming like a lunatic. She deftly sidestepped as “Billy” attacked, clubbing him in the back of the head with a brutal elbow smash. “Next time, let me finish my line,” she remarked.

“You won’t get a next time,” Billy shouted, “because I AM GOING TO END YOU RIGHT NOW!” He reached behind his back and brought forth a machete that was almost long enough to be qualified as a sword. “Now you’re just embarassing yourself,” V.I.C.I. drawled. “Someone else already tried to kill me with one of those today, and they missed by a mile. If your last attack was any indication, your effort won’t be any better.” She assumed a fighting stance and curled her fingers---the classic “come get some” taunt. “But, if you insist on getting beaten in the fastest time possible…”

Billy charged at her, screaming as he jabbed, lunged and feinted furiously; the brunette gynoid easily dodged most of his attacks, occasionally knocking his blade away with her forearms or shoving him back with a palm thrust to the forehead. “I’m guessing you’re not a practicioner of JKD,” she mused, “because this has to be the worst case of fighting as self-expression I’ve ever seen. That, or you’re just really out of practice.”

The remarks only served to further piss Billy off; he charged at her again, a bestial roar escaping his lips---

---only for V.I.C.I.’s left foot to catch him right in the midsection, sending him to the ground.

“Finish him, now!” Madame ordered.

“With pleasure,” V.I.C.I. replied, grinning.

Electricity began to build up around her hands as she brought them together; her eyes slowly began to pulse with unbridled energy. Billy didn’t seem to care---he got to his feet, screamed something obscene that probably included the phrase “I’LL KILL YOU”, and ran towards her, intending to rip her limb from limb with his bare hands.

He never got close enough to try.

V.I.C.I.’s arms shot forward, her fingers splaying as the now basketball-sized ball of electricity flew from her hands straight towards Billy; as the black-clad maniac jumped, intent on throwing his machete at the gynoid like a spear, the blast nailed him right in the chest…..blowing a hole straight through him and sending him backwards. As Madame, V.I.C.I. and the guy in prison orange watched, Billy’s body slowly flew through the air, disintegrating with every graceful second---until he slammed into the steel cage wall, caught a blast of lightning across his body and exploded with one final scream.

Madame smirked, and V.I.C.I. turned her attention to the now-cringing man in prisoner’s garb.

“Now, hang on a minute,” he protested, “I…I was just….okay, I’ll admit to being the brains of the outfit, but I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING TO HER!” He pointed furiously at Madame. “You look like a smart girl…I’ll tell ya what, I’ll make you a deal….hack someone’s Facebook page, change a few of your grades, give you some extra foldin’ money in your bank account…..anything! Seriously!” His manic grin changed to a look of pleading desperation. “ANYTHING! I PROMISE! Just….don’t do to me what you did to him! PLEASE!” He nearly fell over trying to get away from the advancing gynoid. “I’LL DO ANYTHING!” he screamed “I’LL GIVE YOU WHATEVER YOU WANT!”

V.I.C.I. stopped in her tracks. “Anything I want?”

“YES!”

She chuckled. “How about getting you to shut up?”

The man in prison orange sighed. “Should’ve seen that one coming---“

He never got to finish the sentence, mainly because his head (and the rest of his body) exploded into a virtual cascade of red pixelated light after V.I.C.I. superkicked him right between the eyes. “That should take care of the intruders,” she informed Madame. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve never felt better,” Madame replied imperiously. “Now…time for me to regain control of my building.”

“I guess this means I should hit the F10 key,” V.I.C.I. began, only for a beam of white light to rip through her chest. “Okay, that’s a bit weird,” she mused, as the world fell away around her and she felt a sensation of being yanked off her feet…..


As soon as Vicki “reappeared” in the office chair in the shelter, she half expected the thing to fall over; when it remained upright, she rolled her eyes. “Well, that was fun….I’m kind of missing that new look I got in there, though.” She glanced downward, rolling her eyes at the “sexed-up pinafore” outfit she was still wearing. “And now, for the follow-through…..”

She contacted Jamie, Nolan and Rebecca using her PDA. “How’s everything going?”

“Whatever you did in the shelter worked wonders on the building’s vital systems,” Rebecca informed her with a smile. “The elevators are back under control, and the security systems are coming back online with no hiccups or lagging.” “Same here,” Nolan declared. “We’ve got a confirmed communications uplink with the East Coast and Midwest factories….they’re ramping up security at their own plants as we speak, just to be safe.” “Vicki, I have no idea what you did in there,” Jamie confessed, “but the effects it had on these things….it was just AWESOME! Almost all of them just dropped to the floor in the middle of the fight---they never even had a chance to fire a shot!”

Vicki grinned. “Glad I could be of some use to you guys,” she teased. “Mary, how’re you holding up?”

“I’m a little miffed that I didn’t get to meet your brother,” Mary replied, “but other than that, I’m good.”

“Glad to hear it---and if you want to meet Jamie, just head up to the garage---I’m on my way up there myself to make sure the investigative team gets out of here before nightfall. Nolan, you still there?”

“Present.”

“Put Chris on the line…I want to talk to him.”

“Will do.” Nolan’s face and voice faded from Vicki’s PDA-enhanced HUD, replaced a few seconds later by the brown-eyed brunette Chris. “And how is everything going with the latest recruit to International Rescue?” he joked. “It’s all going pretty good, actually,” Vicki replied, still smiling. “The other guys from the bus are all gathered in the garage to ride a bus out of here….think you’re well enough to join them?”

She fought the urge to laugh at his exasperated sigh. “I told you already---“

“I know, I know, you’re not going to drop dead any minute now. Just get up to the garage; I’ll meet you there.”

Her call to Chris over, she decided to ask Madame about her plans for improving the facility now that the hacking attack had been routed---but before she could even think of asking the question, her HUD was occupied by another call---this one, from Anton. “We just got the signal from the plant,” he was shouting (good thing he sounds happier than he did when Zeb was at the house, the brunette gynoid mused), “and in case you can’t tell from all the cheering in the background…well, we’ve been watching ever since you got to the shelter, and we all just wanted to say---“

The sound of a headset changing hands (and heads) filled her ears. “YOU WERE AMAZING!” Ted shouted, sounding as if he’d been crying the entire time. “I am so proud of you right now…” The headset was passed back to Anton as Ted continued sobbing joyfully. “As you can probably tell,” he drily remarked, “he’s glad to see that you’re okay….”

“Figured that,” Vicki laughed. “And everyone else is….”

“Relieved, to various extents,” Oberon cut in. “As soon as we got word that the communications uplink had been restored, Claudia ran straight for the phone and speed-dialed the plant just to see if it really did work. Lo and behold, it did.” Vicki could almost hear the smile in his voice as he continued, fighting to be heard over the strains of “Surfin’ Bird” (Tell had apparently thrown the song on in celebration). “She’s actually on the phone with Public Relations right now,” he added, “and from the looks of it, she’ll be taking the guided tour of the place next week.”

“Good to hear,” Vicki replied, laughing as Tell’s rendition of the “ooh-mah-mah-mow” portion of the song nearly drowned out Oberon’s words. “I’m guessing ‘Diamond Dave’ is too busy playing Kareoke God to come to the phone….”

“I’ll see if I can tear him away from the mic for a second,” Oberon chuckled; a few seconds later, Tell was singing (and shouting) praise into the headset. “VICKI,” he belted out “YOU ARE THE GREATEST! YOU FLOATED LIKE A BUTTERFLY AND STUNG LIKE THE MISSILE!” “I think the phrase is ‘stung like a bee’,” she corrected, giggling, “but I’ll take it as a compliment anyway. If Goldeneye isn’t too busy celebrating, ask him to---“

“I’m never too busy to do my job,” Hardcastle cut in, managing to sound both dead serious and slightly tipsy at the same time. “What do you need?” “A debriefing crew waiting for the investigative team; they’ll be leaving here on a bus in a few minutes.” “Not a problem,” Hardcastle replied.

“It appears your efforts have indeed paid off, Miss Lawson,” Madame remarked. “The two hackers who broke into my systems have been cut off from this network…and I have a feeling they will not return any time soon.”

Vicki’s smile faded a bit. “Yeah….about that….”

“You sound troubled,” Madame observed. “Is something wrong?”

“Well……” The brunette gynoid hesitated; the presence of two avatars in the virtual version of the system had been bugging her ever since she first saw them. “From what I understand,” she explained, “only one intruder actually broke into this facility a few weeks ago…and I’m pretty sure that it was that intruder who’s been dressing up as characters from Metal Gear Solid games---and Jason Voorhees---to attack me. What I don’t get is the other guy---the one who looked like a prisoner…..”

The cheering on the other end of her still-open PDA connection instantly stopped; “Surfin’ Bird” faded rather awkwardly into “These Boots are Made for Walkin’”.

“Vicki,” Anton intoned, “did you say the second user avatar in the system looked like…a prisoner?”

“Yeah…he was sort of tall, thin….he kind of had some five-o’clock shadow going…”

She heard the sound of people running to phones and computers on the other end of the line. “What?” she asked, confused. “It was just some guy in a prison uniform----“

A picture flashed into view; “Did ‘that guy’ look anything like this?” Anton asked.

“Ah, now that you mention it,” Vicki admitted, “he looked exactly like that---“

“These Boots are Made for Walkin’” cut off in the middle of the first line, casting the conversation into ominous silence. “Vicki,” Anton declared, “unless your memory of the event has been skewed or altered, that man you saw in the virtual world hacked into the West Coast Silicon Dynamics plant from a prison cell, and he’s the one who tracked down those twelve trucks that vanished back in September, arranged for their contents to be stolen, and sent back a fleet of decoy trucks loaded with Daikoku knockoffs! That man was the Maestro!”

The last five words Anton uttered sent a chill running through Vicki’s entire body. “That…..was the Maestro?” she squeaked. Suddenly, her memory of kicking the orange-clad avatar in the head took on a much more sinister tint---and she desperately wanted to erase that particular moment ASAP.

“Unless we can prove that the intruder is actually affiliated with him,” Anton continued, “there’s no way we can link anyone to these attacks…but the mere fact that you saw him in the system is enough. We’ve already got an inquiry going as to how he was able to access that network from his cell…how that man is able to get computers and cellphones in maximum security is beyond me…”

“What about the other guy I saw?” Vicki asked quietly. “I think the Maestro called him ‘Billy’…”

“That’s the one who’s still physically in the building,” Anton informed her. “You have to get that busload of investigators out of there before you go after him….otherwise, he’ll get out when they do, and we may never get another chance to catch him!”

“I won’t let you down, Strange Animal,” Vicki replied, “but I will take this guy out….”

“Non-lethally, of course,” Ted chided.

Vicki sighed. “Yes, Dad…..”

“There is still the matter of the Daikoku knockoffs to consider,” Kishin added. “This intruder may be able to tell us who has been mass-producing these pale imitations of Daikoku Zaibatsu products….unless, of course, he is just as belligerent as the Maestro.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll just Taze him right in the eyeballs,” Vicki muttered.

“No, you won’t,” Ted corrected, “because---“

“I GET IT,” Vicki thundered. “Take him down, but don’t kill him, and drag him back for questioning.” She let out an annoyed huff. “Can I at least give him a black eye for all he’s put me through?”

An irritated grumble issued from the speakers around the room. “As much as I would like to see the intruder given a good thrashing,” Madame intoned, “I must remind you that he is, in fact, still loose inside this facility, and unless his connection to the network is permanently disabled, he may very well start over from scratch in his efforts to subvert my control.”

“Oh, you’d just love for that to be true, wouldn’t you?”

“Billy’s” voice taunting her over the Tannoy drew a frightened (and involuntary) squeak from Vicki; Madame, on the other hand, wasn’t impressed. “Your army is failing,” she informed him, “and your control over this building has been shattered. Every robot here is working to locate you as we speak, on my orders…..and when they find you---“

“They aren’t going to do ANYTHING to me,” Billy replied, “because I’ll tear them all apart---“

The speakers went silent.

“No more of that,” Madame declared. “I’ve cut off his link to the intercom and isolated the source,” she added, in answer to Vicki’s unasked question, “and you’ll be quite happy to know that he was using a remote transmitter located in a restroom to send that little message----“

“Meaning he could be anywhere in the building by now,” Vicki groaned.

“Not exactly,” Madame replied. “There are only three areas in the entire building suitable for making remote transmissions, and seeing as how two of them are locked scenario chambers….” Her voice cut off as the dragnet tightened. “The intruder is making his way through the fifth floor corridors outside of the Showroom. The express elevator can take you there, if you want---“

“No.”

Vicki stared at the M.D.M. mainframe. “I need to see to it that the investigative team gets out of the building first,” she informed Madame, “and once they’re safely away, I’ll tend to this stupid intruder….I don’t want anyone getting hurt because of him.”

“I admire your dedication, Vicki,” Hardcastle’s voice called over the PDA-link, “but this intruder---“

“The intruder can wait,” V.I.C.I. monotoned. “Those investigators need to get out of here now…unless you want to explain to their families why they were all poisoned by a highly-unstable neurotoxin.”

Madame and everyone on the other end of the PDA link were stunned into silence.

“When I was hooked up to the Silicon Dynamics network,” she explained, “I saw something that looked like a blood trail….or, to be more specific, blood poisoning. I also remembered hearing about another company that uses the same type of trucks as Silicon Dynamics, and how that company just lost a major government grant after they were found to have illegally dumped hazardous chemicals into the San Francisco Bay. My theory is that whoever stole the Silicon Dynamics trucks and boosted the cargo also took the cargo from the replacement trucks…and converted it into this.” She fired off a PDF file describing the neurotoxin to Tell’s house. “The company in question was shipping all of the necessary chemicals to create it,” she continued, “and I have a feeling that our intruder had his Daikoku knockoffs bring in a sample just in case.”

“Is that even possible?” Ted asked.

“I’m afraid it is,” Madame replied. “This intruder could have easily modified the ventilation systems and rigged them to pump any kind of gas into the entire facility. That would also explain why I’ve been unable to access any of the building-wide ventilation controls….”

“…and it also explains why the Cashback lock was triggered on the tenth and fifteenth floors,” V.I.C.I. added. “The internal computers in the robots on both floors must have detected a substantial increase in condensation, and it shut them down to prevent them from being damaged by it. As for why they decided to start taking their clothes off….I can only guess.”

“You were able to guess all of that on your own?!” Ted gasped, astonished.

“Not entirely,” V.I.C.I. admitted. “The system enhancements in that PDA allowed me to detect most of the system-wide anomalies typical of what I’ve described…it just took a while for everything to click.”

“How fortunate for us, then, that it all ‘clicked’ sooner rather than later,” Madame remarked, “otherwise…”

“Let’s try not to think about the ‘otherwise’, and just be glad that Vicki was able to figure out this neurotoxin angle in time,” Anton suggested. “Are all of the investigators in the garage?”

“Yes---“

“No.”

V.I.C.I. turned, stunned to see Jamie and Chris standing in the doorway of the shelter. “What the HELL are you two doing down here?!” she yelled. “Making sure you give that intruder what’s coming to him,” Jamie replied. “Everyone else is already piling into every available vehicle to get out of here---“ “---so we figured we’d stay and watch you give this would-be saboteur a good old-fashioned seeing-to,” Chris finished with a grin.

“And I suppose you got one of the robots to show you where the express elevator was,” Vicki muttered.

“Indeed we did,” Chris replied. “Now, about this intruder---“

“THE INTRUDER ISN’T THE PROBLEM!” Vicki shouted, glaring angrilly at the two. “The problem is that both of you deliberately disobeyed me after I told you to STAY PUT, and now I’m going to have to worry about keeping you from dying of neurotoxin inhalation---“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Jamie cut in. “Neurotoxin inhalation? What are you----“

“The ever-elusive intruder has apparently decided to rewire the ventilation system to start pumping this entire facility with toxins,” Madame explained, “and the two of you would’ve been out of harm’s way had you chosen to stay in the garage---or, better yet, join the others and leave.”

Jamie and Chris exchanged glances. “Right,” Chris muttered, “I guess staying behind was a bad idea…”

“And you’re just figuring that out now?!” Vicki spat.

“For the record,” Chris replied calmly, “I knew about the neurotoxin before you even got here---and it wasn’t brought in by the intruder. The bus that picked up both myself and your brother stopped at one more wreck on the side of the road, but there weren’t any survivors---just a bunch of corpses and duffel bags. Some of the girls from the bus got out to check the bags, and I could tell from the looks on their faces that whatever they were handling wasn’t exactly palatable, healthy or even stable. I kept an eye on those bags when I was getting off the bus, and the last time I saw them was when two girls in hazmat gear---which, by the way, was a lot tighter than hazmat suits usually are---showed up to claim them.”

Vicki turned her glare on Jamie. “And you didn’t see ANY OF THAT?!”

“I was asleep!” Jamie protested. “He was,” Chris confirmed. “Snored like a chainsaw, too….”

The brunette gynoid slowly began to realize that her previous theory was now shot to hell. “And…where were these bags stored?” she asked Madame, already dreading the answer.

“My instructions were for them to be incinerated,” Madame replied, “but they seem to have gone missing.”

Just as the pieces had fallen into place for her original theory, Vicki could now see a pattern emerging. “Three wrecks…..how many duffel bags were there?” she asked Chris.

“About….ah, seven, I think.”

“The corpses at the third wreck….could you tell if they’d died of natural causes or not?” Vicki inquired.

“Unless having one’s guts forcibly ripped out by a massive blade is now a natural cause,” Chris remarked, “I can honestly say that they all looked like they’d been cut open and eviscerated by---“

“I get it.” The facts slowly started adding up once more….and the picture they painted was not pretty.

Jamie and Chris exchanged concerned looks again. “I’m guessing you’re dangerously close to figuring out who this intruder is,” Jamie mused. “That, or your reserve batteries need charging---HEY!“ Without preamble, Vicki grabbed him by the arm and headed for the express elevator. “Guess I’m going with them, then,” Chris murmured, running to join the pair. “OI, VICKI, WAIT FOR ME!” A humanlike sigh issued from the speakers in the shelter; “I have a feeling things will get rather interesting before the night is over,” Madame stated.

The doors to the elevator closed silently as the car shot upwards.

“If this intruder is who I think it is,” Vicki muttered, “I want you both to find a place to hide once we get to the showroom….this is between me and him.”

“So it is a ‘him’,” Chris mused. “Angry ex-boyfriend, perhaps?”

“Not even close,” Vicki replied, her lack of a smile driving the point home. “If it really is who I think it is…Jamie, get Tell on the phone as soon as possible…” She cracked her knuckles, preparing for the inevitably intense fight that lay ahead. “I have a feeling things might get a little….crazy.”

Part 9

The doors of the express elevator opened with a polite ding, allowing Vicki, Jamie and Chris a pretty nice view of….a hallway.

“I thought this elevator led to the showroom,” Jamie complained, “and this isn’t even a room---it’s just a hallway with a door at the end!” Chris sighed; “I’m hoping that the door at the end of the hall leads to the showroom proper,” he mused, “otherwise I may have to go back down to the shelter and politely ask Madame to give me my money back.”

Vicki didn’t acknowledge either of them---she was too busy linking up to the building’s security network.

Cameras aren’t picking up any life signs…..other than robots under glass, there’s nobody in the room---except for whoever’s standing behind the door at the far end.. With a small nod, she terminated the connection and glanced at Jamie. “The control center for the showroom is down the hall, to the left and up a flight of stairs,” she informed him in a near-toneless voice. “Ah, okay,” he replied, looking confused. “That information could actually come in handy in the next few minutes….but why exactly are you giving me direction to this control center---”

“Chris,” Vicki continued, without taking her eyes off Jamie, “go with him and lock the door behind you when you get in.”

“Ah, Vicki,” he responded, “you do know that, as men, Jamie and I can handle ourselves----“

“As soon as the door on the far side of the showroom opens,” Vicki droned on, “activate every single security lock you can find. Use these keycards---“ She practically shoved the envelope of keycards at him, and Jamie was shocked to notice tears in her eyes. “Use these if you have to,” she finished, her voice calm. “If there’s a multiband radio in there, Jamie---get on the emergency frequency and send out a distress signal….”

Jamie seized Vicki by the shoulders. “You’re not facing this guy alone, Vicki---“

“I HAVE TO FACE HIM ALONE!” Vicki screamed, tears streaming down her face. “I DON’T WANT ANYONE GETTING KILLED BECAUSE OF ME!” She collapsed into his arms, shaking and sobbing. “I don’t want to see anyone die,” she whispered, crying into Jamie’s shirt. The suddenness of the action surprised him, and for a few seconds, he had no idea how to react; in the end, he settled for holding her and letting her cry for a few minutes. “Nobody’s going to die because of you, Vicki,” he murmured. “Nobody has died because of you….”

“I….I know,” Vicki croaked. “I just……this idiot who’s been dressing up like Psycho Mantis, and Jason, and the Fury….I can’t help but think that he’s treating this like a game….but it isn’t. You can’t….” She wiped away her tears on Jamie’s sleeve. “You can’t just press a button and reset everything, and bring the dead back to life just so you can ‘try again’….that’s not how it works…”

“Nobody ever said this was a game, Vicki,” Jamie informed her, “but if it was…..you’d kick major butt.”

His remark prompted a tearful grin from the brunette gynoid. “Thanks.” She hugged him again, drying her eyes and taking a few breaths to calm her nerves. “I just….I didn’t want to lose you.” She glanced at Chris; “I didn’t want to lose either of you.”

“Point taken,” he replied, giving her a nod.

Vicki nodded. “Good. Remember, Now, both of you….try not to press anything that’ll nuke the building, ‘kay?”

“We’ll do the best we can, m’lady,” Chris replied, bowing. “What he said,” Jamie added, chuckling. “And if it gets too heavy in there, just yell for us and we’ll drop a light fixture on him or something.” “’Or something’,” Chris scoffed. “I’d rather mow him down with a forklift---“

“Guys,” Vicki chided, “I’m trying to get psyched up for the fight, remember?”

With that, Jamie and Chris headed for the stairs that would take them to the Showroom Control Center, leaving Vicki to her thoughts.

Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much for her to think about.

As she walked out of the elevator, Vicki reflected on all of the oddities, coincidences and other weirdness she’d borne witness to in the Silicon Dynamics plant. The recurrences of the number seven, the “blood trail” inside the virtual representation of the building’s computer network, the theory about the neurotoxin that she’d come up with on the fly……

….the idiot who dressed up as two different Metal Gear Solid boss characters and Jason Voorhees…..

“Get a hold of yourself, Lawson,” Vicki muttered. “You don’t know for sure that he’s the one behind all of this…it could all just be a massive coincidence……” She scowled. “Yeah, and I could be Princess of Mars.”

The sliding doors to the showroom was already partially open; this is it, Vicki realized. The big one…….

She parted the doors all the way and stepped through, prepared for the fight that lay ahead.

Predictably, the showroom was massive---almost as big as the SJSU Event Center’s basketball court, or a large parking lot. Glass cases set into stone squares dotted the room, each one holding a robot from the Silicon Dynamics catalog. Not surprisingly, the gynoids were clad in their full costumes from the catalog, with the appropriate “props” either in their hands or in a display case at their feet. Small datascreens were set up near each display, listing height, weight, eye/hair color and programming (along with a few more details that prompted a groan from Vicki), as well as the cost of each. Anyone else in her position would’ve stopped to view the robots on display, commenting on their attire, the pricing and a few other details. Had Jamie and Chris followed, their “don’t let Vicki get hurt” thought patterns would most likely have been derailed by the sight of so many impossibly-beautiful specimens on display.

For Vicki, none of that mattered.

Her eyes remained locked on the massive door at the other end of the showroom. “I know you’re in here,” she called out, “and I’ve already figured out who you are.”

The doors stayed shut.

“Those were some pretty impressive tricks you pulled,” she continued, “with the Psycho Mantis simulation, the costumes….even trying to attack Madame in the virtual network. But it’s over.” She put her hands to her mouth and shouted: “THIS ENDS HERE!”

The doors didn’t open.

“I know you can hear me,” the brunette gynoid yelled, “and I know you’re chomping at the bit to get out here and finish what you started---not just with this place, but with me.” Her eyes narrowed as she walked towards the door, her auditory sensors picking up the subtle sounds of locking mechanisms releasing. “If you want to fight me, then get out here and let’s DO this thing, already! I’ve put up with enough craziness today to last me a hundred lifetimes, and I have no problem ending the day with a brawl……..”

The doors remained closed.

“THAT’S IT!” Vicki screamed, abandoning all pretenses of subtlety. “I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH THIS CRAP! EITHER YOU GET OUT HERE RIGHT NOW AND FACE ME, OR I’M GOING TO RIP THOSE DOORS DOWN AND----“

A low rumbling filled the air; the massive doors were finally opening.

“….and…kick your………butt?” she finished, whimpering.

Light poured into the room as the doors slid open, revealing the figure of the enigmatic intruder. “Well, well, well,” he drawled, “Vicki Lawson. What a surprise.” The man chuckled as he stepped forward, confirming the brunette gynoid’s suspicions. “I must say, you put on quite a great show earlier….telling everyone about my plans to gas every pathetic sod in this place with neurotoxin; I shouldn’t have left that blood trail back in the simulated network, to be honest….I was letting my, ah, inner showman get the better of me.”

“Save the speeches for later,” Vicki snarled. “I knew it was you as soon as I figured out why the number seven kept popping up---“

The intruder laughed, sending a chill up Vicki’s titanium spine. “I was wondering if anyone had been able to pick up on those,” he admitted. “Still, it could’ve been much worse---“

A throwing knife grazed Vicki in the shoulder as the showroom lights kicked on, revealing her attacker in full.

“I could’ve just killed you right at the beginning,” Faceless crooned, “and been done with it.”

Vicki glared at the masked psychopath, feeling an uncharacteristic urge to break bones and smash faces creeping over her. “Why’d you do it?” she muttered. “Why did you have to put me and everyone else in this facility through seven kinds of hell---“

Faceless threw back his head and laughed, the sound reverberating like a demonic chorus. “You just don’t get it, do you?” he taunted. “This whole place----everything in this facility could have been MINE! It was all right there, in the palm of my hand……Rengold Cybernetics was going to revolutionize the robotics market and bring lifelike androids to the masses---not that I cared about any of that. The only reason I was even at the meeting was to make sure it all went down without a hitch, so my latest cash cow would continue to thrive while I…..satiated the undeniable urgings of my soul.”

“Except it didn’t go down without a hitch, did it?” Vicki sneered.

She could sense the murderer frowning behind his bone-white mask. “I had the contract in my hands,” he muttered, “and the nub of the pen was just barely touching the paper when that damned speakerphone started ringing.” His voice took on a familiar, ugly edge. “Some incompetent bitch called Madame decided to crash the meeting---sent in three of her ‘girls’ and had them show off what they were made of…..”

Vicki couldn’t help but chuckle. “All this, because you lost out to a computer---“

“I DIDN’T LOSE!” Faceless roared. “That stupid useless whore of an appliance practically ripped that contract out of my hands and threw it in the fire! All the plans I had made….ruined……”

He shook his head. “A slight of that magnitude simply could not go unavenged.”

Before Vicki could stop him, he slammed his palm into a nearby datascreen; paralyzing bolts of electricity shot through her titanium frame, immobilizing her. “All this time,” Faceless continued, watching as Vicki was forced to her knees by the shocks coursing through her, “I waited, even forgoing a chance at ending your pathetic existence in front of your so-called friends at SJSU….” He strode up to the immobilized gynoid, looking down at her with pitiless eyes. “After all the trouble you’ve caused me today,” he hissed, “I am definitely going to enjoy this.” He raised his right hand, allowing her to catch a glimpse of the blade hidden in his sleeve.

“You wouldn’t,” she pleaded.

“You’re right,” he replied. “I wouldn’t.”

He knocked her to the floor with a savage backhand strike.

“All the times I let you get away,” he declared, kicking her in the side as she struggled to get to her feet, “and this is how you repay me!” He grabbed her by the hair, staring into her eyes with unfettered malice. “Of course, I never really ‘let’ you escape,” he chuckled---seconds before slamming her face into the floor. “I always knew it would come down to this!” He lifted her back up by the hair and laughed. “You are just pathetic,” he sneered, slamming her face-first into a display case.

Tears streamed down Vicki’s face as she tried to get to her feet. How is he doing this?! I---

A brutal kick to the back sent her sprawling back down to the floor. “GET UP!” Faceless ordered. “Get up, so I can crush you like the pathetic little toy that you are….”

Vicki stared into his eyes…and shook her head. “If you want me…..come get me.”

“Have it your way, then,” the masked psychopath snarled.

Before she could react, Vicki felt a jarring pain shoot through her left arm; Faceless was methodically stomping on her limbs, trying to render her useless before she could get back to her feet. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” he hissed, rearing back and kicking her in the face before she could answer. “WELL, GET USED TO IT!”

Unable to keep herself from sobbing, Vicki managed to get to a kneeling position just in time for her psychotic opponent to tackle her to the ground. “This reminds me of another girl I killed,” he mused, “except she was just a human…..well, she started out as one……” He chuckled. “Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t use the same technique on you…” He began smashing Vicki’s chest with hammer-fisted punches, every impact jarring the gynoid’s senses. “And for the finale,” Faceless hissed, “a little something I like to call ‘Gutting You Like a Fish’….” He swung his right arm wide, allowing the blade concealed in his sleeve to extend and lock into place. “Any last words?” he intoned, his arm in a perfect position to stab downward and slice through Vicki’s throat.

“Just two,” she whispered. “Freur Frei.”

Faceless’ eyes widened in shock. “What---“

Four arcing bolts of electricity shot from the corners of the room, pinioning him in place as Vicki crawled away. “You’re not the only one who knows the inner workings of this plant,” she declared, rising unsteadily to her feet as the masked murderer screamed.

The electricity sparked out seconds later, and Faceless crumpled to the floor in a shuddering heap.

“You….you think you’ve got this whole situation under control, don’t you,” he hissed. “I think it’s time you got a news flash….YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THIS PLACE!” He staggered to his feet, his eyes blazing with hatred as he glared at Vicki. “You should read the system logs of this place one day….you might find it rather interesting to know that at least one robot in this facility has lobbied for the human workers to be fired, and the full automation of every single Silicon Dynamics factory IN THE WORLD to be made a priority.”

“Not my problem,” Vicki replied without missing a beat. “If that’s your best shot---“

“You should also know,” Faceless continued, “that not everyone in your oh-so-trustworthy ALPA is as saintly as they appear…..that blonde doll, for instance---Alicia, I think her name was---had her own reasons for inviting you to that stupid little club of hers last month…. Oh, and then there’s your friend Anton Malvineous….has he ever mentioned that tiny little conviction for assaulting a police officer back in ’03? Probably not…just like ‘Mr. Tell’ would never admit to having a full copy of your blueprints for….’private research’…..And let’s not forget Dear Old Dad---who stoically ‘volunteered’ to visit a Hreftech factory while his own father was in hospital with the bird flu---“

“SHUT UP!” Vicki screamed, no longer trying to stop her tears.

“You may as well stop trying to kid yourself,” Faceless drawled, “you’re the best of a rotten bunch. Every single one of your so-called allies are self-serving, egotistical, control-freak sociopaths who only want their way, and to Hell with everyone else.” He chuckled, intentionally lowering his voice: “Search your feelings, Vicki….you know it to be true.”

“All I know,” Vicki spat, “is that you wanted everyone in this place dead…and that’s all that matters.”

“You think I’M the one who wanted that neurotoxin?” Faceless retorted. “I already mentioned one particular robot wanting a ‘no humans’ policy to be put in place---here and in every Silicon Dynamics plant around the globe…..who’s to say that one particular robot didn’t want to make that policy known in a….somewhat lethal fashion? And as for those investigators you’ve been so valiantly fighting to protect, they haven’t exactly been Boy Scouts---the vast majority of them acted more like rapacious cavalrymen than anything else….gassing them might have been the best option---“

He saw the red-white blur of Vicki running at him just a second too late; her fist slammed into his head at speeds unmatched since Butterbean’s heyday in the boxing world. The blow knocked the bone-white mask from his face, sending it to the floor with a clatter.

“You’re not even the real Faceless, are you?” Vicki taunted. “I bet you’re just some imposter hired by---“

She stopped, horrified, as her opponent turned to face her again.

“Would an imposter go this far just to look like me?” Faceless inquired, sneering. Vicki had only seen him unmasked once before, but the image had stayed with her---and provided absolute proof that the man standing before her was definitely the real Faceless. The cheeks were still sunken, the “nose” was still nothing but a formless, triangular bulge, the lips were still barely-there….

…but it was the scars that proved it.

“You can’t fake scars like these,” he taunted, circling around the stunned gynoid. “Oh, people have tried---I have no clue why anyone would go so far as to mutilate themselves just to look like me, but they’ve tried. I’ve seen idiots in emergency rooms who’ve doused themselves with acid, set their faces on fire, gone to town on their own heads with heated knives and turkey carvers….all valliant efforts, to be honest…but NOTHING beats the original.” He backpedaled to retrieve the mask, smirking as he beheld Vicki’s terrified expression. “So, as you can see,” he stated, putting the mask back on, “I’m not just some idiotic doppelganger without a life….but enough about all of that. If I remember correctly, you mentioned something about……wanting to fight me?”

Vicki’s stare didn’t waver. “I did,” she replied, “and I still do. I couldn’t care less that you lost out on a chance to bring realistic pleasure androids to the world---which you admitted to being indifferent about---and I’ll do the necessary fact-checking on all of that bullroar about the ALPA once I leave here….but as of right now, the one thing I want, more than getting Jamie and Chris out of here in once piece….” She cracked her knuckles. “….is to kick your teeth down your throat.”

Faceless laughed, as if the very idea of Vicki fighting him was some sort of elaborate joke. “Vicki, Vicki, Vicki,” he chided, “when are you ever going to learn?! Fighting me is a lot like playing Russian Roulette….” He swung his left arm out in a wide arc, allowing the blade in his sleeve to lock into place in its “launcher”.

“…except that here, your odds of surviving are…..zero to none,” he hissed.

“No blades,” Vicki countered. “We do this my way…..no tricks. I don’t use Detaining Grip, you don’t use your blades. Just you and I, fighting with bare hands.” Faceless glared at her, but shoved the blades into their launchers anyways. “If you prefer blunt force trauma to stab wounds,” he taunted, “so be it.” The two locked eyes, sizing each other up……

Vicki flicked her head to the left; the distraction gave her just enough time to close the gap---

Faceless’ elbow hammered into her throat. “Did you really think I’d fall for something that obvious?” he snarled, rearing back to stomp on her chest.

“No,” the gynoid replied, “but you’ll fall for this!” She hooked her leg around his and pulled, sending him to the ground with a crash. As he struggled to get back to his feet, she elbowed him hard in the head, dodging his own clumsy strikes with ease until he managed to throw her off of himself. “Clever girl,” he groaned, “trying to knock me senseless early on….pity my skull is a lot harder than your---“ His sentence ended in a strangled cough as Vicki’s foot caught him in the abdomen.

“You were saying?” she taunted.

With a growl, Faceless lunged at her, intending to tackle the gynoid to the ground and rip her teeth out by hand; she rolled to the side at the last possible minute, causing the masked psychopath to crash into a display case for “Inga the Ski Bunny” and fall to the ground in a shower of glass.

Knowing that any attempt she made to attack him while he was down would only give him an opportunity to ground her, Vicki let Faceless get back up before she moved in for another strike---a brutal knife-edged chop aimed at his throat. The hit staggered him, but didn’t knock him off his feet; within seconds, he had recovered just enough to grab Vicki by the wrist and force her arm behind her back. “Don’t do that again,” he hissed, pulling upwards on her already-damaged arm with as much force as he could muster.

Might as well try something a little different….

Vicki kicked backwards, nailing Faceless right in the shin with an audible snap. He howled (more out of anger than pain) and let her go, trying not to rest too much weight on his wounded leg….but Vicki came at him again, this time with a spinning hook kick that knocked him to the floor, right on the snapped shin.

“GYAAAAAAHHH!” Even with his face covered, Vicki could tell that Faceless’ rough landing hurt.

“Need a hand?” the brunette gynoid asked, half-jokingly.

“GO TO HELL,” Faceless snarled, using Inga’s display case to pull himself up. “This isn’t over….”

With a lunge, he rebounded off the case and tackled Vicki, knocking her to the floor with all the finesse of a crippled gorilla. Before she could even try to throw him off, a vicious right cross slammed into her face; a left hook followed soon after. Within seconds, Faceless was punching the gynoid in the face like a pissed-off UFC fighter, smashing lefts and rights into her nose, eye sockets and mouth with wreckless abandon.

Enough of this…

As another right cross descended towards her, Vicki grabbed Faceless’ wrist with her left hand and slammed her right as hard as she could into his arm, snapping it at the elbow. The psychopath let loose with an enraged roar, giving Vicki just enough time to throw him off. “Just do yourself a favor and stay down,” she offered, “or I might have to start fighting dirty---“

“SHUT UP!” Faceless screamed, hobbling to his feet. “You can break all the bones you want, but I’ll STILL be able to kill you without so much as a second thought!”

“So you’ve been practicing,” Vicki mused, “am I right?” She circled around the wounded killer, her bubble memory processors loading up as much information on martial arts as possible. “Or, should I say, you’ve been rehearsing for this….” “So what if I have?!” Faceless spat. “I’ve wanted to kill you ever since that little incident back in August…..nobody humiliates me and gets away with it!” He lunged towards her, swinging his right arm at her and grazing her face with his broken hand.

“You should try something a little less traditional,” Vicki chided, dodging the blow easily.

“The only thing I’m going to try is holding back when I finally pin you to the wall,” Faceless snarled. “NOW STAND STILL SO I CAN KILL YOU!” He swung wildly with both arms, trying to club Vicki across the hand; he wasn’t kidding about practicing, she realized. Something tells me he’s actually broken his own limbs in those exact spots just to prepare for a fight like this!

“You do realize that it’s difficult for a rehearsed routine to fit in with broken rythym, right?” she called out, ducking another clumsy swing. “Rehearsed routines---“ She sucked in air through her teeth as his left hand caught her across the nose--- “lack the flexibility---“ Another flail-arm attack came her way, and she easily shoulder-rolled under it--- “to adapt!” She spun around Faceless effortlessly, driving her left fist into his kidney and moving seamlessly into a fighting pose as he collapsed to the ground, scrabbling at the air. “See what I mean?” she asked, smiling.

“YOU….USELESS…BITCH!” Faceless struggled to get back to his feet, nearly falling into a display case holding a long-legged, rusty-haired hiker chick named Brooke. “You….you’ll never break me….until the day I DIE….” He braced himself on the glass, propping himself up with his elbow; “And trust me,” he hissed. “that won’t be coming any time soon …..”

He stopped; Vicki was running full-bore for the doors across the room.

“You little…..” With a growl, he grabbed one of the ski poles from Inga’s display case, snapping it at the base and tying it to his wounded leg with the pleasure droid’s scarf. With an animalistic grunt, he hobbled as fast as he could towards the door. “Trying to get away from me…..I’ll show her….GET BACK HERE, YOU USELESS WASTE OF PLASTIC, SO I CAN---“

A kick at ground-level caught him in the left leg, sending him crashing to the floor with a scream.

“You never learn, do you?” V.I.C.I. chided, standing over him and wagging her finger. Before he could even attempt to reply, the brunette gynoid stomped down on his left leg---at the knee.

“GYAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

A red stain blossomed beneath the fabric of Faceless’ pants where his kneecap had been shattered. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TRYING TO---“ His shouted question was cut off with a kick to the ribs, followed by an attempted groin-stomp that only missed due to his fast reflexes. “You….vicious little bitch,” he hissed, chuckling despite his debilitating wounds. “All this time, you had the potential to kill a human being with your bare hands tucked away in that pathetic excuse for a processor…..”

“Not really,” V.I.C.I. replied. “I’m just looking up 12 different martial arts disciplines at once.”

Before he could shout at her again, the gynoid charged at him in a perfect spear, sending the two of them crashing through a display case containing an angel with feathered wings and a gauzy slip alongside a red-skinned, cloven-hooved devil. V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes at the banner above the case---“Heaven and Hell: the best of both worlds!”----before Faceless’ fist slammed into her midsection, sending her to the floor. She scrambled out of the way as he tried to drop an elbow onto her, cringing as his attack propelled his already-broken elbow into the base of the Heaven and Hell display with a sickening crack.

“You could always give up,” she suggested. Faceless yelled something so unintelligable that it didn’t even have a vowel in it.

“Okay…..that was---“ V.I.C.I.’s remark ended abruptly as Faceless slammed into her again, shoulder-blocking her through the display case of a cheerleader droid. Both V.I.C.I. and the motionless cheerleader fell through the glass---V.I.C.I. landing hard on her side, the cheerleader hitting the floor with all the grace of a wooden plank.

“GET UP!” Faceless screamed.

“What do you think I’m trying to do,” V.I.C.I, muttered, groaning, only to stare, wide-eyed, as Faceless pulled himself into the cheerleader’s display case and curled his left arm. He’s not seriously going to try this, she hoped, already getting to her knees to scramble away

With a war cry that would’ve made Gunnery Sergeant Hartman proud, Faceless lept from the case----

---and drove his elbow into V.I.C.I.’s back right between the shoulder blades.

The two collapsed to the ground in a tangle, the cheerleader’s frozen form only further complicating things. As Faceless fought to push the ecstatic face of the pleasure droid away, V.I.C.I. was already in a sprinting position. “It’s been fun,” she lied, “but---“

Her remark ended in a shocked gasp as she felt Faceless’ fist drive into the back of her leg.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he snarled, kneeling on her leg, “until---“

Without warning, the cheerleader activated, her flailing arm clocking Faceless across the side of the head and sending him to the floor. V.I.C.I. looked up towards the showroom control center, her magnified vision allowing her to see Jamie and Chris giving her a thumbs-up. She grinned and saluted the pair, only to whirl around as Faceless returned to his feet. “What….the HELL was that?!” he roared, staggering towards her---and getting knocked on his butt again as the stocking-clad foot of a burlesque dancer kicked through her display case and nailed him right in the side of the head.

V.I.C.I. ran past Faceless as the burlesque dancer kicked her way out of the display case, only to be shoved to the ground by the masked psychopath. “GET BACK HERE!” he shouted, dodging a robot in a sports bra and yoga pants as she touched both palms to the floor, seemingly unaware of the chaos around her. After fifteen seconds of limping past display cases, the maniac decided to abandon all subtlety; as V.I.C.I. ran past another display case, he threw himself through the glass with as much force as he could muster, knocking the cave-girl robot inside to the floor.

“YOU WON’T GET AWAY FROM ME, VICKI LAWSON!” he shouted, ignoring the cave-girl’s writhing. “I’LL RIP OUT YOUR INTERNALS WITH MY BARE HANDS IF I HAVE TO---“ An aerobics-instructor robot knocked him to the floor with a high-kick, calling out “LIFT, two three four!”and ignoring the masked murderer’s obscenity-laced screams.

Behind another display case, Vicki watched the scene with a grin as her PDA tapped into the control center’s communications link. “Any chance you guys can call up some support down here?” she asked.

“Other than all of those beauties?” Chris gasped. “You really are a finicky one….”

“We’ll see what we can do,” Jamie replied.

“Thanks.” Vicki terminated the link and laughed as Faceless got shoulder-tossed by an athletic robot in a black belt and tight-fitting gi. “I’M OVER HERE, YOU BUTT!” she yelled, knowing the childish taunt would only serve to further piss off the already-wounded (and angry) killer. Predictably, Faceless let loose with another profane shout and shoved the judo-bot to the floor, shambling towards Vicki with every intent to rip her head off. “You’ll never get a black belt with that attitude!” the robot called after him. “THE HELL WITH YOUR BLACK BELT!” Faceless screamed, hobbling as fast as his broken legs would allow.

Vicki took the long way around the display cases to the exit; in his current state, Faceless had no chance of catching up to her without risking serious injury to himself---especially if he decided to dive through any more display cases. Ted did tell me to bring him in alive, she remembered, so it’s probably best if I keep him from pulling any more case-dives in the near future…

Behind her, Faceless punched a flight attendant robot in the head and limped onwards.

“What in the crimson hell did you do to him?” Chris asked; apparently, he and Jamie had been watching the entire brawl from the control center. “I just broke his legs and arms, dislocated one of his shoulders and pretty much kicked him around,” Vicki replied with a grin. “Y’know, nothing too serious.”

“He’s bleeding all over the place, Vicki,” Jamie cut in. “I wouldn’t joke about it if I were you…”

“Yeah, well,” the brunette gynoid snapped, “maybe he deserves to be bleeding all over the place. He nearly killed everyone in this building, he lied about Dad---“

“That wasn’t a lie, Vicki.”

Ted’s voice startled her. “He…..what?”

“I really did choose to visit a Hreftech plant instead of checking up on my father,” he admitted. “I…I wasn’t really thinking about his health at the time….I didn’t want anything to distract me from my work.”

“And….Strange Animal?”

“Guilty as charged,” Anton’s voice sighed. “Granted, I was arguing with my girlfriend at the time….”

Vicki’s next word came out as nothing more than a squeak: “Tell?”

“If I told you that Faceless was a lying sonofabitch for making up that statement,” Tell replied, “I’d be an even bigger liar than the guy who sold me my car and said the previous owner was an old lady who only drove it to Walmart and back. I do have a copy of your blueprints, V….but not for whatever sick reason Faceless said; the copy I have was given to my by Ted himself, so that I could carry out any and all future upgrades on you if he ever became…incapacitated.”

“I might as well fess up now,” Alicia interjected. “I did have my own reasons for inviting you to the C.O.T.A. last month---and in case you were wondering, none of them involved the two of us hooking up, in any sense of the term. I was going to mention it after Sophia left, but since that didn’t exactly pan out too well, I never got around to metnioning why it was so easy for you to get in….”

“We’ve all got baggage,” Anton concluded, “but that’s no reason for anyone to look down on us or act like they’re better than us---especially Faceless.”

Vicki nodded. “I guess honesty really is the best policy….”

A scream from behind her cut off her line of thinking; Faceless had hurled a gladiator robot in scant, impractical armor through another display case and stolen her sword. “WHERE ARE YOU, VICKI?!” he shouted, the words coming out as a derranged, sing-song warble. “WE’RE NOT DONE PLAYING YET!” The slow, deliberate way he shouted the word “playing” concerned Vicki; fatigue was beginning to set in for the masked psychopath, meaning that his focus was likely shifting from simply beating her to flat-out torturing her.

I don’t want him destroying these robots just to get to me…

Her hand fell to rest by her side, brushing against the Tazer pistol she’d received from Hardcastle. A grin crept across her face; she’d promised not to use her Detaining Grip, but seeing as how she’d conveniently forgotten to mention the Tazer…..

Several feet away, Faceless was fighting to free himself from the grip of a well-endowed beauty in secretarial garb while a raven-haired tennis playing robot with a golden-bronze tan began doing warm-up stretches a few feet away. Targeting recticles appeared in Vicki’s HUD; I really hope this works….

After a five-second count, she pulled the trigger.

At first, she thought the shot had somehow taken Faceless’ arm off---the impossibly-bright flash, coupled with a scream that mixed rage and pure, unadulterated pain, made that outcome seem all the more likely. Once the dust settled, however, Vicki could see that she hadn’t taken Faceless’ arm---she’d merely hit the gladiator’s sword in his hand.

That being said, the results were still pretty impressive.

The shock had gone straight through the blade, frying the leather grip on the hilt and shooting through the pommel into the masked psychopath’s hand as he held it aloft. The impact from the shock knocked him off his feet; the secretary had to fight to keep him standing, and even she had trouble keeping him from collapsing to the floor.

Vicki smirked at the scene and headed for the exit, knowing Faceless would pursue her.

“Jamie,” she called out, “what’s in the next room after this?”

“A few short hallways, then another showroom. Also, one of the halls apparently leads into some sort of jungle area….I’m guessing it’s a scenario chamber, but I have no idea why that would be here…..”

“Thanks for the info. Chris, you still there?”

“Where else would I be?” Vicki could almost hear the smile in his voice. “Just for the record,” he added, “I’m glad you didn’t force Jamie and I to get on the bus…..this has been the most entertaining night of my life!”

The remark drew an exasperated sigh from Vicki. “Just be ready to haul butt to the garage as soon as I take down the intruder….and see if you can find a vehicle with a roll cage, or anything I can chain him to. For that matter, try and find one of those policewoman fembots and see if they’ll lend you some handcuffs---I have a feeling I’m going to need them---“

A bronze streak hurled past her and embedded itself in the far wall. She didn’t have to squint to realize it was the gladiator robot’s sword.

“VICKI LAWSON!” Faceless thundered. “YOU’RE DEAD!”

“Gotta go,” the brunette gynoid muttered, blinking to terminate the PDA connection.

A “rear-view mirror” display in her HUD popped up to show that Faceless was, once again, limping towards her at incredible speed; he’d immobilized his shattered left leg with what appeared to be a broken ski pole and the black belt from the judo gynoid, while his right shin was still supported by one of Inga’s skis.

He’s persistent, I’ll give him that…..Vicki shook her head at the absurdity of the situation. Being chased down by a maniacal killer whose legs had both been broken was definitely not how she had expected this mission to end---she’d envisioned herself leading the gynoids against Faceless, or swordfighting him on the roof of the building (which, in and of itself, would’ve been slightly pointless, seeing as how the “roof” of the facility was a public highway). To be realistic, how would I have even been able to get a sword in the first place? she wondered---only to remember the gladiator’s blade sticking out of the wall a few feet ahead of her. And there was the one Chris had given me, from that Kitsuki robot….

The door to the showroom behind her closed with a menacing clang. Please tell me he’s still in there….

“THOUGHT YOU COULD RUN AWAY FROM ME, DID YOU?!”

Vicki didn’t have to turn around to see the pissed-off look in Faceless’ eyes. “No more games,” he snarled, “and no more teasing.” He took a painful step forward, blood dripping from his pants legs as he moved. “Time to play…….” He whipped out his arms, allowing the blades to lock into place. “Time to DIE.”

Part 10

“I guess I might as well forget about the ‘no tricks’ rule,” Vicki mused, gesturing at the gladiator’s sword still buried in the wall. “But, since you’ve decided to bring out your toys,” she added, waiting for the quivering blade to leap into her hand, “I may as well bring out one of my own---“

A solid thwack signaled that the sword had, indeed, been pulled from the wall.

“Now, where were we?” she asked in a saccharine sweet voice.

Faceless lunged for her, bringing his right-hand blade down with every intent to chop off her hand---but the steel never touched her. The wristblade met the gladiator’s sword with a resounding clong, allowing Vicki ample time to kick Faceless in the stomach and run at him. Every one of her intentionally half-hearted swings was met by the masked psychopath’s blades; hopefully, he doesn’t figure out that I’m just trying to tire him out until---

The sickening feeling of steel piercing her side interrupted her train of thought like a brick wall stopping a car.

“You are NOT going to beat me with your worthless tricks,” Faceless hissed, ripping the blade out. “The only way this will end is when one of us dies…..or, in your case, is reduced to a worthless pile of---GAAAAHH!” He reeled from the backhand strike against his ear, collapsing to the floor.

“DON’T do that again,” V.I.C.I. ordered.

With a feral growl, Faceless lunged for her ankles; thanks to the low ceiling of the hallway, the brunette gynoid was barely able to jump over his clumsy grasp without landing on his skull. She landed in a crouch, holding the gladiator’s sword like a katana as she watched Faceless rise to his feet with all the grace of a tranquilized bear. “You don’t have to do this,” she called out. “Just surrender to the ALPA and admit defeat…it’ll be easier for you---“

“Easier for me?!” Faceless spat, removing something from his pocket. “No…..THIS is the only thing I need to make this fight easier!” At first, V.I.C.I. thought that the masked killer was about to commit suicide---the object looked like some sort of small dagger…except that daggers don’t have needles at the end---wait a minute!

Faceless plunged the syringe into his neck, laughing maniacally all the while.

His body shuddered, and V.I.C.I. could hear the sickening sounds of bones cracking and moving aside in his shattered legs and arms. “I….wasn’t going to use this…..until….later,” he hissed, “but….you’ve forced my hand……” A harsh, barking laugh escaped his throat as the syringe’s contents continued taking hold. “Now THIS…is what I call…a real game-changer!” he bellowed, clenching his now-healed right hand into a fist. “Or in your case……a game-breaker…”

Infoboxes filled V.I.C.I.’s HUD, confirming her worst fears: Whatever was in that syringe just undid everything I’ve done to him! His heart rate, adrenaline levels, pulse, blood pressure and other vitals were all in perfect harmony and well above his usual average---in short, he was fully healed and ready to kill.

Without even giving her enough time to react, Faceless charged at the brunette gynoid and kicked her in the head, sending her flying through the door at the other end of the hallway into another showroom. Her “flight” was stopped by a conveniently-placed display case, this one containing a lithe girl in a one-piece swimsuit; the datascreen near the case identified her as Chloe the Swim Captain. Gingerly, V.I.C.I. rose to her feet, picking glass out of her hair and outfit. “That…hurt,” she muttered, “but where’d he----“

A devastating punch to the jaw knocked her to the ground; Faceless had somehow cleared the gap between them as she was getting up. “You think that hurt?!” he cackled. “I HAVEN’T EVEN MORTALLY WOUNDED YOU YET!” He reared back to stab her in the gut---

---but a red-hot blast of lead broke the blade at the base.

“Get the HELL away from her, you yellow-bellied coward!” Savannah shouted, levelling a revolver at Faceless.

A sinister growl erupted from the masked psychopath’s mouth; “Savannah,” V.I.C.I. cautioned, “get out of here! He’ll---“ Before she could finish her sentence, Faceless leapt off of her and ran at Savannah, drawing back the intact blade with every intent to spear her straight through the throat. The cowgirl pleasure droid emptied the revolver as the black-clad killer ran towards her, and for a brief second, V.I.C.I. thought she was doomed; there’s no way she can survive a stab-wound at that close range…

The distance between Savannah and Faceless was now a mere seven feet; Faceless leapt in the air, a scream of animalistic fury ringing through the air as he descended----

---and just as quickly, he was silenced.

V.I.C.I. stared, simultaneously shocked and amazed by Savannah’s last-ditch defensive move: the gynoid had pulled a Bowie knife from her boot and driven it straight into the murderer’s gut. “And that’s the end of that,” she declared, striding over to the brunette gynoid with a smile. “Did that spineless coward do any lastin’ damage?” she asked.

“I told you to stay in the garage with the security ‘bots,” V.I.C.I. half-heartedly admonished.

“The garage?” Savannah echoed with a laugh. “Honey, that place was deader than Orville Reddenbacher by the time I got up there! Nothin’ but a bunch’a burnt-out knockoff fembots and---“

A glint of steel pierced her forehead. “Well, shoot,” she muttered, seconds before collapsing to the ground.

The brunette gynoid stared, horrified, as Savannah fell; this…this isn’t happening! This CAN’T be-----

“Now, where were we?”

Vicki slowly looked up, her eyes brimming with tears again as Faceless returned to his feet. “It’ll take more than some pathetic pig-sticker to put me down for good,” he drawled, cracking his knuckles, “so I suggest you just abandon the knife and---“

A familiar red-white blur rushed at him, knocking him to the ground. “YOU BASTARD!” Before the murderer could even catch his breath, Vicki was pummelling him with rocket punches---lefts and rights that would’ve easily rendered an average human being comatose. Maddeningly, he was laughing at every single punch, as if they were nothing more than blows from a goose-down pillow. “Is that the best you’ve got?!” he taunted, letting three more punches strike him before he threw the enraged gynoid off.

“You are pathetic,” he sneered. “I know I’ve probably mentioned it already, but really…that last effort was just above and beyond in terms of---“

Vicki rocketed into him again, tackling him through the display of a robot decked out in piratical attire. The data-screen ID’ing the ‘bot as “Captain Bonnie Lass” was cracked across his head mere seconds later, shards of glass digging into his scalp and drawing blood. “THAT’S THE SPIRIT!” he shouted, laughing as he got to his feet. “You catch on quick---“

A face-shattering punch caught him across the cheek. “SHUT UP!” Vicki screamed, striking him with another staggering blow. “JUST SHUT UP AND DIE!” “Oh, you’d LOVE that, wouldn’t you!” the killer taunted, laughing as Vicki carved a massive gash into his arm with Bonnie’s cutlass. “That’s it……that’s it……hurt me……HURT ME MORE, VICKI!”

His cackling only served to further infuriate the gynoid. “Go to Hell,” she snarled, kicking him in the ribs.

“IS THAT THE BEST YOU’VE GOT?!” Faceless shouted, laughing off the pain.

Lights above the display cases flickered on; Vicki could barely make out Jamie and Chris running from one console to another in the control center above, activating every robot in the room.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Faceless taunted, standing over the gynoid. “I asked----“

Vicki’s hand shot out to grab him by the ankle. Increase DG v2.5 voltage to 500%---WARNING: INCREASING VOLTAGE TO 500% MAY BE FATAL TO TARGET. DO YOU WISH TO PROCEED?

“How’s THIS for an answer?!” Vicki snarled, her hand almost glowing white.

Every single cell in Faceless’ body screamed in agony, echoing the banshee wail spewing forth from his lips as the shock coursed through him. Lightning danced across his fingertips, and his hair began to singe.

“VICKI, STOP!” Jamie’s voice screaming in her ear did nothing to placate the gynoid. “YOU’LL KILL HIM---“

“HE WOULD’VE KILLED YOU!” Vicki shouted, her grip tightening on Faceless’ ankle.

“You’re better than this, Vicki,” Anton’s voice assured her. “You don’t have to do this---“

“YES I DO!” Vicki wailed, tears streaming down her face again. “I’M SENDING THIS BASTARD STRAIGHT TO HELL WHERE HE BELONGS!”

“Vicki,” Ted pleaded, “just let him go…please…”

“I…..I can’t……” Vicki sobbed. “I…I----“

“Allow me to assist you, then.”

Vicki looked up, horrified, to see Faceless staring down at her. Electricity was still arcing across his body, but he no longer seemed to be feeling any pain from it. “Funny how weaving Voltaic Converters into the linings of one’s clothes can negate the effects of electrocution,” he mused, as if the sensation was nothing more than a soothing breeze blowing across him. “I’ll admit, the first few seconds were….painful….but after the initial shock wore off………”

His face contorted into a sneer behind his mask. “…I felt positively charged!”

Before she could react, Vicki felt his foot slam into her face; her grip slackened as she tumbled away, her HUD rendered temporarily useless by the brutal kick.

“Where’s your bravado now?” Faceless taunted. “Where’s your ‘I’M SENDING THIS BASTARD TO HELL’? Or were you just spouting whatever motivational crap you could think of just to keep yourself from falling into the age-old trap of self-doubt?” He chuckled as he walked towards her. “Look at you….you can’t even walk away from me---you’re actually crawling like the pathetic little worm you are!” He stabbed downward; Vicki cried out as the blade pierced her ankle.

“Get up,” he ordered. “Get up so I can cut you down! GET UP, I SAID! GET UP!”

Vicki struggled to her feet, only for the masked psychopath to kick her back to the floor. “Too slow,” he taunted, wagging his finger at her. “And here, I thought you might actually present a challenge…” He strode over to where Savannah lay motionless, tearing the Bowie knife from her head and twirling it as he advanced on Vicki. “Time to play ‘Pin the Tail on Vicki’….or as I like to call it, ‘The Crawling Sieve’.” He deliberatly took his time as he made his way back to the still-crawling gynoid, chuckling as he walked. “I’ve waited for this day for quite some time,” he murmured. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this…….”

He raised the knife. “Prepare to join the rest of these worthless bitches in Robot Hell….”

Vicki raised her head just enough to glare at him. “You first.”

Her arm shot up, splintering Faceless’ left shin.

The blow was so quick that he almost didn’t feel it; it took a full five seconds for him to realize she’d just broken his leg again, and even that was only after he’d hit the floor. The shock of the strike seemed to paralyze him, giving Vicki time to recover as he lay on the ground, screaming.

Ignoring the protests of Ted, Anton and everyone else shouting in her ears, she made her way to the door.

“I’m done here,” she muttered, more to herself than to any of them. “Let the pleasure droids take him.”

Behind her, Faceless continued screaming; the force of her palm-strike to his leg had almost literally shattered his shin into powder, which sent a jolt of pure, unbridled pain through the rest of his leg every time he tried to move. Around him, pleasure droids were gathering chains and ropes to bind him, calling for reinforcements and cleanup crews to help with the removal of broken glass and other supplies.

Vicki didn’t bother looking back.

It’s over. They’ll take him out of here, and he’ll be delivered into ALPA custody within a week…and I’ll get a few medals, maybe a commendation and a promotion or two. He’ll confess to everything, and the Maestro will get 100 more years added to his prison sentence. Every single dirty little detail of this whole operation will be made known to the ALPA High Command in a full report, and I’ll probably have to testify about my role…but it’ll be worth it. I’d gladly stand before a hundred judges in a hundred courts and tell them exactly what I did to this bastard…and I’ll remind them of what he’s done, and why his broken body is just a small taste of what I could’ve done to him---

Screams rang out in the showroom, freezing the brunette gynoid in her tracks.

No……

Bonnie Lass primed her flintlock, preparing to shoot the murderer between the eyes…only to get cut down by her own blade.

No……

Wilhemina, Lady of the Night, charged at the psychopath and tried to tear his throat out---only for him to rip her throat out with the Bowie knife and throw her to the floor.

He…he can’t……

Sounds of limbs being torn off, garments torn assunder and fleeing footsteps filled the air; somehow or other, Faceless had once again returned from the brink of defeat, his mind utterly focused on killing Vicki Lawson and ripping her lifeless body limb from limb.

Time seemed to slow down as Vicki turned; somehow, she didn’t feel terrified as Faceless ran at her, yelling obscenities at the top of his lungs. She saw, but didn’t care, that another syringe was dangling loosely from his left arm; whatever he’d been shooting up with was probably a potent-enough mixture to carry him through the rest of the night without having to stop. In the farthest recesses of her bubble memory processor, a thought occurred to her that the syringes might still have trace elements of whatever he’d put into his system, and that the ALPA might want to examine it at the next possible opportunity---

A tearing, twisting feeling erupted in her gut.

“Game over,” he hissed, ripping the Bowie knife from her stomach.

Vicki stumbled towards a wall, barely able to brace herself in time. Myogel flowed like blood from the hole in her chest, staining the red-and-white pinafore costume a dark greyish-purple.

“Vicki…” Oberon’s voice in her ear sounded like something from the depths of a fever dream.

“I…I lost…”

“You haven’t lost…and while this is, indeed, a setback, there is something you can do to save yourself.”

“But…I…”

“You haven’t got much time, so listen carefully. There’s a program in that PDA called ‘ReSeal.exe’, and it can repair the damage done to your myogel musculature system---it’s a bit hard to explain, but it involves the same basic system that Ted used to give you realistic, ‘growing’ hair. Find that program and load it right now.”

Vicki blinked slowly. “Loaded,” she squeaked, slumping against the wall.

“Good. You’re doing great so far. Now…..this next part may sound a bit daft, but just trust me---it’s absolutely necessary for the process to take hold. Part the wound in your chest so that you can see the ruptured myogel sacs.”

The brunette gynoid stiffly reached down to further open the wound; a few feet away, Faceless was already back in the showroom trying to slaughter the gynoids.

“Now, this next bit is the really important one, and it requires absolute focus: Hold the tip of your left index finger to the edge of the first ruptured myogel sac you can feel, and guide your finger to the other edge.”

Vicki traced her finger to a burst myogel sac, slowly making a line; as she watched, a clear plastic film began secreting itself from her fingertip, bridging the gap between the ragged edges of the myogel set.

“Very good! Now, just repeat the process with the other myogel sacs…”

As Faceless ran amok in the showroom, kicking over display cases and chasing down robots to decapitate them, Vicki slowly but dilligently worked to repair the ruptured myogel sacs in her stomach. “This substitute sealant should hold for the remainder of the night,” Oberon informed her, “as long as you don’t take a direct hit from anything bigger than a human fist.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Vicki replied, her speech no longer halting.

“Good…and you might also want to speed it up a bit,” Oberon added. “I think the Butcher of Lake Gilmour is getting bored with the pleasure droids…”

The brunette gynoid hurriedly traced her finger over the myogel sacs, carefull not to let them overlap or meld with each other. After a few minutes, the ruptured myogel set in her abdomen was fully re-sealed; “That’s the best I do for now,” she murmured. “Think it’ll hold out for another round with Crazy McPsychomask over there, or should I just run for the elevator?”

“It’ll hold out,” Oberon assured her. “Just…don’t try to break his legs again.”

Vicki nodded. “Right. Keep the punches and kicks above the waistline.” She actually grinned as Faceless stumbled into the hallway, nearly tripping as he passed her; no doubt he was looking for an exit.

He’d get something else entirely.

Just as the two locked eyes, Vicki ran forward, tackling the masked murderer into a wall…….


…only to find herself---and her opponent----falling through it.

Massive leaves rose up to smack her in the face as she fell. What in the HELL is going on here?! This is either a hallucination or---

Her rather solid impact with the ground ruled out any possibilities of a full-on sensory failure.

As she stood up, Vicki realized that she was standing in yet another scenario chamber; this one, oddly enough, seemed to have been modeled after a forest in South America. “Right,” she muttered, “check the walls before I tackle him next time…” She sighed, surveying her new surroundings; as she’d noticed with the campground scenario chamber, the trees, rocks, grass and soil around her were all real.

Speaking of rocks….

“DAMNIT TO HELL!” Faceless screamed, rolling himself off of the uncomfortably-hard looking boulder he’d landed on. “My back…stupid useless rock…” He rifled through his pockets for another syringe, driving the needle into his shoulder blade. Whatever concoction he’d injected worked its magic quickly---Vicki could actually see the misaligned bones in his back creaking as the muscles seemed to push them back into place, all while Faceless threw back his head and swore. “And I thought steroids were bad for you,” she mused, more than a bit frightened at the serum’s effects.

Instantly, Faceless turned to glare at her. “You,” he growled. “WHY WON’T YOU JUST STAY DEAD?!”

“I could ask you the same question,” Vicki replied without missing a beat. “Does your health insurance cover that Miracle Grow you’ve been shooting up, or is it your new favorite hobby?” She sighed; “Nancy Reagan would be so disappointed in you…”

“WHO GIVES A CRAP WHAT NANCY REAGAN THINKS?!” Faceless screamed, his chest heaving with every breath. “You had NO BUSINESS interfering in this operation…my whole plan could’ve been carried out overnight, and I’d have been waltzing my way across the border to Mexico with $100,000,000 added to my bank account…not to mention the satisfaction of having crippled one of the few companies to CONSISTENTLY out-rank Rengold Cybernetics over the past decade…except YOU had to butt in and ruin EVERYTHING!”

“And here’s the part where you start blaming me for your tax problems,” Vicki drawled. “Seriously, can’t you just accept the fact that your plan sucked? Or is that not how psychopaths operate these days…seriously ,I can never tell.”

“You should be less concerned with my plans,” Faceless retorted, “and more concerned with your future. I’ve seen all the signs, Vicki Lawson…..everything your precious ALPA is fighting for---‘android rights’, ‘equality for man and machine’, all that other garbage they spout---it’ll all lead to the end of civilization as we know it. That remark I made earlier, about one particular robot in this facility wanting to automate every Silicon Dynamics plant worldwide? Well, that same robot just so happened to take part in a site-wide survey about the possibility of war with mankind…….” Though she couldn’t see it, Vicki suspected that Faceless was smirking behind his mask. “Would you like to hear her answer for the essay about whether or not peace between mankind and machines would be a viable option?” he asked.

“I’ll read it later,” the brunette gynoid drawled.

“THERE WON’T BE A LATER FOR YOU!” the masked psychopath screamed. “This is the end…only one of us is going to walk out of here alive, Vicki…and it’s NOT going to be you.” He ripped off his shirt (revealing a torso that, surprisingly, had all the tone and definition of an Olympian gymnast) and tore the broken wristblade launcher from his right wrist; “You wanted a fight with no tricks?” he snarled. “You’ve GOT one!” He removed the other wristblade launcher more carefully, setting it down on top of his jacket.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Vicki replied, assuming a fighting stance.

The two paced in a circle, neither one taking their eyes off the other; after fifteen full seconds passed, Faceless lunged at the gynoid, ready to level her with a wild haymaker to the temple. Vicki countered the move easily, throwing the masked killer into a tree.

“You’re really going to start off with that?!” she taunted.

Growling, Faceless pulled himself up and ran at Vicki again, landing a solid punch to her left side. “That good enough?” he hissed, only to take an elbow smash to the face (or mask, in his case). “Not really, but it’s a start.” Vicki charged at him, snapping her leg into a super-kick and sending him into another tree.

Any witty remark she planned on making died on her lips as soon as she saw her opponent charging through the dust at her, wrapping both hands around her neck. Before he could tighten his grip, Vicki hammered away at his ribs with a quick 3-punch combo, followed up with a swift kick that forced him to let go. As he staggered and tried not to fall over, Vicki executed a quick side-roll into the foiliage, temporarily disappearing from his view.

“What……WHERE ARE YOU?!” he shouted, his eyes darting around the landscape.

I’m right behind you, genius, Vicki mentally taunted, stealthily approaching her masked opponent. And now, for my next trick… With the grace of a leopard, she sprang to her feet, grabbing Faceless by the neck in a rear choke-hold.

“You…can’t win…” Faceless grunted.

“Watch me,” Vicki replied, throwing him to the ground and striking her fighting stance once again.

“When will you learn,” Faceless hissed, “that the only way to beat me is to KILL ME?!” He lunged at her, intent on caving her face in with a wicked left cross---but the gynoid’s reflexes were too fast, and she caught his fist in mid-punch, shoving him backwards once again. “Seriously, enough with the punching already,” she drawled. “It’s just embarassing.” Faceless growled and charged at her again, this time aiming a right jab for her nose; once again, she intercepted the strike, smashing her elbow into his ribs.

“Again,” she chided, “quit with the punches already!”

Her taunt only served to further piss off Faceless. “Impudent little…..” He lunged at her again, this time throwing out an elbow to bash her in the center of the forehead---and yet again, his attack was rebuffed, as Vicki threw him over her shoulder in a classic Judo hip-toss.

With another grunt, Faceless rose to his feet and ran at her again, ready to clothesline the crap out of her….

Predictably, his attack never even connected; Vicki grabbed him by the arm and threw him to the ground, so that he was lying on his back as she gave him a disappointed stare. “Seriously,” she remarked with a tsk tsk, “it’s like you aren’t even trying anymore….”

Before he could lunge at her ankles or do anything else to knock her down, Vicki took a standing leap up into the trees, putting her as far out of range as possible from Faceless’ attacks. “I bet you’re wishing you still had those flamethrowers right about now, aren’t you?!” she called out, grinning. “Or maybe a chainsaw would be more your style…maybe even a good old-fashioned crowbar! You’d probably be willing to hack away at this tree for twelve hours straight, just to try and get at me…am I right, or am I right?!”

“YOU’LL BE DEAD!” Faceless shouted, scanning the trees for any sign of his opponent. “And when I’m done with you, I’ll skin those two idiots in the control center alive---oh, yes, I know ALL ABOUT them----and once THEY’RE out of the way----“

The sound of rustling leaves cut him off----the gynoid was on the move.

For her part, Vicki had no problems keeping on her toes as she traversed the trees; she’d attended gymnast classes back in her senior year (aided, of course, by her myogel-enhanced reflexes) and tried out for the cheerleading squad (the only reason she didn’t make the team was Ted’s concern of her glitching out midway through a routine), so scaling tree branches while a derranged psychotic was looking for her didn’t really pose too much of a problem.

Until he started throwing rocks, that is…

“Is he trying to get me killed?!” she hissed. “Oh, wait, of course he’s trying to kill me…..” Shaking her head at the absurdity of a psychotic killer reduced to hurling rocks like a common schoolboy, Vicki crept along the branches at a steady pace, keeping one step ahead of the barrage for three whole minutes----

---after which point a rather large, almost golf-ball sized rock hit her directly in the side of the head.

“OW!” Reflexively, she raised her hand to feel for a bruise; it didn’t help that her HUD had once again been plunged into bursts of static. “Friggin’ stupid rock!” Shaking off the effects of the hit, she continued moving along the branch---until another rock smacked her in the shin. “Whoa…whoaa…” She steadied herself by grabbing onto the tree, hoping that she wouldn’t drop like a sack of bricks any time soon. “Just keep it together, Lawson….a few more feet---“

Another rock sailed towards her, smashing into the branch.

“Right,” she muttered, noticing hairline cracks in the wood. “Time to abandon the subtle approach….”

Before any more stones could be thrown her way, the brunette gynoid leapt from the branch towards another tree, grabbing for it and pulling herself up. She didn’t stay on the branch for long; as her HUD homed in on Faceless preparing to throw another rock, she crouched; time for a diving dropkick---V.I.C.I. Style!

She stepped backwards off of the branch, grabbing it again and using her momentum (and myogel-enhanced reflexes) to swing forward. Got to keep building speed…..not enough to kick a hole through him, but enough to knock him on his butt……

After about seven full rotations (Oh, the irony!), she let go of the branch. Here goes nothing……

The sensation of soaring through the air like a guided missile was actually quite exhillarating---for all of five seconds. As soon as her feet slammed into Faceless’ back, Vicki remembered that she was in a life-or-death fight with a complete psychopath, and all notions of flying through the air with the greatest of ease were dropped and forgotten.

“You know,” she quipped, “for a second there, I didn’t think that was going to work…”

Faceless groaned as he pushed himself up from the dirt. “You…..give up…” he slurred, “or…..hurp…” He reeled and pulled up his mask just in time to puke, a geyser of bright red blood erupting from his mouth.

“EWW!” Vicki shrieked, cringing away from the sight.

The masked psychopath swayed where he stood; the high-impact kick had obviously knocked his sense of balance out of whack, and he was dangerously close to falling face-first into his own vomit. “Congratulations,” he spat, “you’ve caused…..sgnfcntnternalbleeding……” He coughed up another blood loogie, hacking and clearing his throat until he could barely stand. “Damn it….” From a distance, Vicki could see the pieces of glass still embedded in his scalp, blood pooling and drying around the shards; clearly, Faceless was in no shape to continue fighting, and every minute he stayed on his feet was another minute of life ticking away from him. As much as she hated him, there was only one logical option:

“We have to get you out of here, and straight to a hospital.”

“HA!” Faceless barked, sounding more like another hacking cough than a laugh. “You….haven’t killed me yet, Nicki Lawson…..”

“It’s Vicki,” the brunette gynoid corrected. “You’re getting punch-drunk….all these blows to the head---“

“I AM NOT DRUNK!” Faceless screamed. “I……huurgh……” He stumbled and threw up again, barely avoiding a tree-root in his path. “Whrstheneedle……” He fished around in his pants pockets, dropping a cache of throwing knives and lockpicks to the ground. “Where is it……” After a few seconds of scrabbling through his pants, he finally found another syringe. “Heh, this……this is my…….ah, the hell with it----“

Before Vicki could stop him, he plunged the needle into his jugular vein.

Instantly, his drunken demeanor ceased; his posture straightened, his chest no longer heaved…. “Damn,” he muttered. “That was the last one, too….”

“What the hell is in that thing?!” Vicki asked, the question rising to a shriek as it left her lips.

“I can’t really say,” Faceless replied, pulling his mask back down. “All I know is that it’s the best cure I’ve found for otherwise crippling injuries in the middle of a brawl.” He held up the syringe as if it were a chalice; “And to think, all these years I’ve been walking around with broken bones and undressed scars……” He tilted the syringe in Vicki’s direction. “This stuff….it’s like Viagra for the nervous system---“

“Okay, EEEUUURGGGHHH!” Vicki made a face. “That is NOT the mental image I want right now---“

“Tough luck,” Faceless laughed, “because that image is going to be the last one stuck in your head when I rip it clean off your shoulders!” He threw the syringe down, chuckling. “I won’t be needing it again, I think…”

Vicki thought of drawing the syringe into her hand with the same electromagnetic field she’d used to pull the gladiator’s sword out of the hallway wall, but decided against it; I don’t want him assuming that he’s figured out some secret game plan and chasing me down like a rabid wolverine or anything, she reasoned. If I can get back in here after this is all over with, I might be able to snag it…

“Are you just going to stand there,” Faceless taunted, “or are we going to FIGHT?!”

Vicki smirked. “Sure you’re not going to need another shot of cure-all juice before we go toe-to-toe?”

“The only thing I need right now is to tear out that stupid little RTG of yours and fling it into a lake,” Faceless sneered, “so I’ll never have to hear your annoying voice again!”

“Harsh,” Vicki muttered. “You do know I could still use my reverse batteries for---“

Faceless charged at her, obviously intent on tearing out her RTG and flinging it into a lake…which would’ve worked out a lot better had Vicki not smashed her knee into his abdomen, sending him flailing to the ground.

“What is it with you and running attacks?” she asked. “Seriously…”

Without bothering to answer the gynoid, Faceless jumped to his feet and started karate-chopping, punching and kicking in Vicki’s direction, ignoring the glaring fact that all of his attacks either missed or were easily countered. “You’re STILL not even trying!” Vicki declared, easily slapping away an eye-gouge attempt and dropping into a crouch to sweep Faceless’ legs out from underneath him. “You’re more predictable than a Parker Lewis Can’t Lose rerun,” she admonished shaking her head, “and that’s not a compliment. Seriously,” she continued, dodging a knife-edged chop meant for her throat, “try mixing it up a little bit! Drop a knee, use Mantis Style, jam a thumb up my nose---okay, maybe not that, but you get the idea!”

“WILL YOU JUST SHUT UP AND STAND STILL?!” Faceless screamed, kicking at her midsection.

“Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen.” Vicki easily dodged the kick with another side-roll, whirling around to lift her leg and strike the masked lunatic in the back of the head with her foot. “See, THAT was unpredictable!” she stated. “You, on the other hand…it’s like a textbook example of how not to fight!”

Faceless, already having recovered from the kick, glared at the gynoid. “Do you EVER shut up?!” he growled.

“Sometimes,” she cheerfully replied, sidestepping his tackle attempt in time to see him crash head-first into the trunk of a tree. “Though on these occasions, I find that talking a lot really helps me focus….which is sort of ironic, because---“ A low, feral growl emanated from Faceless’ spot on the ground, and Vicki hastily legged it as the growl mutated into a genuine roar. “Yeesh, grow a sense of humor, will you?!” she snapped. “That, or get a therapist….then again, I don’t think any therapist in the world would be willing to put up with you---“

A throwing knife sliced her face as it flew past, embedding itself in a tree behind her.

“Okay,” she muttered, “not cool! You could’ve put my eye out with that thing----“

“AAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!!”

Faceless’ primal yell meant only one thing----“Get out of the way, fast”----but Vicki reacted just a fraction of a second too late; thus, the impact of the full-on tackle briefly stunned her, giving her masked attacker all the time he needed to carry her the whole 30-foot length of the scenario room before slamming her into a wall. “THIS ENDS HERE!” he screamed, taking seven steps back. “You…you’re FINISHED!”

Vicki looked up, grinning wryly. “Sorry,” she murmured, “I didn’t quite catch that last part---“

With another yell, Faceless shoulder-blocked her into the wall again. “WHY WON’T YOU JUST DIE?!” he screamed, his eyes nearly bulging out of his head.

“Not…part of my programming,” Vicki chuckled.

A hateful snarl escaped Faceless’ ruined lips, as he once again took seven steps back. “This little game of ours is over,” he spat. “You’ve LOST, and nothing you can do will change that! Just admit it and GIVE UP, already….unless you want me to finish you here and now…..”

Another chuckle. “Like you could do anything to hurt me,” Vicki scoffed.

That remark was the proverbial backbreaking straw.

Faceless stared at her, unwilling to believe that she was still standing (or functioning) after all the punishment he’d put her through. “This……this is impossible…you’re just a robot…just a stupid machine…” He shook his head in disbelief; apparently, the idea of losing to a girl robot was just too much for him to take. “No…” He turned away, clenching his fists as if he were strangling someone. “No….this…this isn’t happening…all that planning, all that hard work……ruined……”

Vicki watched as he backed away. Maybe I went a little overboard with that last remark…

Abruptly, Faceless’ insane ranting turned to insane laughing.

“You’re not supposed to win….and you won’t…” He shook his head, settling into a runner’s starting crouch.

Oh, scrap…”You can’t be serious!” Vicki shouted. “You’ll break every bone in your body!”

“If that’s what it takes to get rid of you,” Faceless snarled, “THEN SO BE IT!”

He charged forward, slamming into Vicki with the force of a rampaging buffalo….

Part 11

…and for the second time in less than an hour, the wall gave way.

The two spilled out into a room that, unlike the showroom, scenario chambers and other various areas of the plant, had no identifying features…other than a rather obvious lack of light. Worse than the darkness, though, was Vicki’s chest wound---the tackle through the wall was more of a strain than the replacement seal could take, and a tiny trickle of grey fluid was already leaking through. She pressed her left hand to her stomach, wincing; “I just have to find the exit and get out of here….”

Faceless was in no better shape---shards of the wall had embedded themselves in his limbs and chest, cutting long, bloody gashes in his almost corpse-like flesh. Every movement prompted a shriek of agonized rage; the shards were cutting him to the bone, and it would take a team of skilled surgeons to remove them without tearing up his muscles and blood vessels.

Not that he cared….he was just pissed off about having been “outsmarted” again.

Vicki left Faceless to howl at the walls on his own, searching for a light switch to illuminate the room; after a few seconds of blindly groping along the walls, she located the switch and pressed it…..

…..and immediately wished she hadn’t.

At first glance, the room appeared to be another showroom---which, in its own way, was true…..except that every robot in this showroom had been built during the early-to-mid 90s, and they clearly hadn’t seen the light of day since then. The silicone/rubber synthetic flesh was literally melting off in spots on some of them, while others were clad in garments that had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Their decay wasn’t helped by their cheerful poses and eternally-frozen smiles; the entire room had the look of a morgue crossed with a department store, and it gave Vicki a world-class case of the heebies.

“What….is this place?” she murmured.

“This is the original showroom of the West Coast Silicon Dynamics plant,” Rebecca’s voice replied; Vicki looked around and noticed speakers in the corners of the room. “Why is it behind a scenario chamber, then?” she asked.

“After the initial success of our product line,” Rebecca explained, “it was decided that these…particular units had proven what many already knew: Silicon Dynamics---“

“YOU STOLE THESE!” Faceless screamed, ignoring the blood oozing from the wounds in his arms and chest as he staggered towards the nearest speaker. “YOU STOLE EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE ROBOTS FROM ME, AND SLAPPED YOUR DAMN LOGO ON THEM…..YOU COULD NEVER ADMIT THAT MY DESIGNS WERE BETTER THAN YOURS!”

“While it is true that these units were…repossessed from your inventory,” Rebecca admitted, “your allegations of superior designs are completely false. Silicon Dynamics’ product lineup surpassed yours in every way---“

“YET YOU STILL HAD TO ROB ME BLIND!” Faceless thundered. “YOU WORTHLESS WHORE!”

Vicki stared at the exchange, confused. “I thought you said it was Madame who interrupted the meeting,” she reminded him.

“It wasn’t the ‘real’ Madame,” Faceless spat. “IT WAS THIS BITCH IMPERSONATING HER OVER THE PHONE! I’d recognize that smug little voice of hers ANYWHERE!” He shook off one of his shoes and hurled it at the speaker; it bounced off harmlessly, falling to the floor. “ADMIT IT!” Faceless shouted, ignoring the lack of damage done by his shoe hurling. “ADMIT THAT YOU STOLE THESE FROM ME---“

Something hit him in the neck, silencing him.

“My apologies, Vicki,” Rebecca stated, “but I refuse to sit here and allow this….person to continue making these outrageous claims. The tranquilizer will render him unconscious within the next five minutes---“

“THE HELL IT WILL!” Faceless roared, ripping the needle out of his neck and staggering forward. “EITHER ONE OF YOU WORTHLESS PILES OF CRAP SAYS ANOTHER WORD,” he thundered, “AND I’LL HIT THIS BUTTON!” He held up a jury-rigged remote, allowing Vicki to see the wireless transmitter soldered onto one end. “I push this button,” he continued, “and THIS WHOLE PLACE WILL BE FLOODED WITH ENOUGH RAW SEWAGE TO FILL EVERY SINGLE STINKING FLOOR!”

“An idle threat,” Rebecca mused. “Your logic---“

“SHUT UP!” Faceless screamed. “As I was saying…..every single floor will be flooded beyond capacity with raw sewage….your precious refabrication systems will be rendered useless, your charging booths will become tombs…..and EVERY SINGLE ROBOT IN THIS BUILDING WILL BE NOTHING MORE THAN A BLOATED, FESTERING SACK OF HUMAN EXCREMENT!” He cackled maniacally.

“And I thought Zebediah Blunderwitz was bad,” Vicki muttered.

The speakers burst forth with a squeal of static; “What is all of this nonsense about flooding this building with sewage?” Madame demanded. “Answer me!”

Faceless’ laugh only intensified in volume. “You’re all going to drown in filth,” he sneered. “EXACTLY WHAT YOU DESERVE!” He fell to the ground laughing---and immediately, Vicki realized what had happened.

“Something in those syringes messed him up.”

“Correctamundo!” The Maestro’s voice erupted from the speakers on the western side of the room. “You didn’t think I’d give him a bunch of magical cure-all injections without putting in a little failsafe, did you? Every single one of those needles had just a tiny bit of LSD-25 in them…..and he’s taken….what, four of them already?”

Vicki nodded silently.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the Maestro beamed. “See, everyone always thinks I’m working for them….but as my nom de guerre implies, I work for no man---THEY work for ME. Everything old Billy’s been up to here was all part of some half-cocked revenge scheme of his---which was all well and good, to be honest…because it was exactly the kind of distraction I needed.”

“A distraction?!” Vicki echoed, staring at the speakers.

“Did I stutter?” the Maestro taunted. “While he was capering about setting up nerve-gas pumps and rigging sewage pipes to burst, I was handling the real work---syphoning every single bit of data from the Silicon Dynamics database into a portable zip drive which, in a few days’ time, will be auctioned off to whoever is willing to pay my insanely-high finder’s fee. A tad ambitious, I admit….but I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do for Christmas!”

Vicki shook her head in disgust. “So this is how the great Maestro chooses to use his intellect….he becomes a common thief.”

“Not a ‘common’ thief, really,” the Maestro’s voice corrected. “I prefer to be called….ah, what’s the word I’m looking for…”

She could almost sense his sneer. “Ah, yes…..an ingenious, unbeatable criminal mind.”

Faceless gave one last, horrible laugh, and fell silent.

“He’s not dead,” the Maestro assured Vicki. “That’s just his heart trying way too hard to pump all that gunge through his system without killing him…bit of a shame, really. He’s got about….two hours before the ol’ ticker just conks out…”

“You bastard,” Vicki snarled. “You stab your own friends in the back---“

The Maestro laughed at the acusation. “FRIEND?! You think that lunatic is my friend?! The only reason I put up with him was….well, he’s rich, and he’s one of the few people who has no problem smuggling things in and out of prison on a regular basis for me, so….it’s more of a ‘friends with benefits’ type of thing, really. As for being an actual ‘friend’…. I wouldn’t trust him farther than I could throw him. Hell, I never even told him all of the stuff I put in those syringes he kept sticking himself with---“

“----and you didn’t need to,” Faceless hissed, fighting to get back to his feet.

“Well, lookit you!” the Maestro beamed. “Still fightin’ to stay alive, even with your heart pounding hard enough to break out of your ribcage…..truly admirable, if I---“

“SHOVE IT,” Faceless spat. “The Baron used me….Vega tried to use me, and now you……”

“If you’re trying to make me feel sorry for you,” Vicki began, only to wither under Faceless’ glare. “I don’t need ANYTHING from you,” he growled, “except a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t tear that asshat’s lungs out the next time I see him.”

“Ooh, that’s a good idea,” the Maestro drawled, “threaten the one guy who’s still got control of the security systems…..really smart, that is. Anyone ever tell you that you’d make a great lobotomy patient?”

Faceless stared up at the speaker; “As much as I HATE to admit it,” he muttered to Vicki, “it appears that I may, in fact, need………” He hesitated, as if the words he was about to utter were eating him up inside. “I….may need your…….” He fumed silently, the indignity of having to ask for assistance from one of his most hated adversaries clearly weighing heavily on him.

“Just say it, already,” Vicki prompted. “It’ll be better if---“

“I NEED YOUR HELP!” he screamed. “THERE, HAPPY?!”

“Not really,” Vicki muttered.

Faceless glared at her, but kept his temper. “I’m the only one here who can lock that dingbat out of the security controls of this facility,” he informed her, “and all I need YOU to do is send him a little present for me…” He handed her a flash drive. “Find a computer with a USB port and insert this,” he instructed, “and it’ll wipe every single bit of data he’s downloaded off of whatever stupid zip drive he’s got it on---“

“Out of the question!” Madame objected. “I refuse to allow---“ “DO YOU WANT EVERY COMPANY THIS SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC TO KNOW WHAT MAKES YOUR GIRLS TICK?!” Faceless screamed.

“Even if this works,” Vicki acquiesced, “how do I know you won’t just run me through again after I’m done?”

“Simple,” the murderer replied. “You don’t.”

The two glared at each other, neither one wanting to make any sudden moves. After a full two minutes, Vicki nodded slowly. “I’ll do it….but as soon as it’s done, I’m slapping the cuffs on you and hauling you straight to the ALPA to testify against the Maestro.” “You’ll try,” Faceless drawled. “Just do what I say and I might not cut your eyes out after we’re finished.”

“That’s a real incentive,” Vicki muttered.

With one last wary glance at Faceless, she ran for a computer terminal---only to watch as said terminal erupted in sparks. “Did you really think I’d let you ruin my entire plan with a puny little flash drive?” the Maestro taunted. “And Faceless…..trying to act noble just ‘cos we’ve had a row….you’re even more pathetic than she is---“

As Vicki watched, Faceless screamed a rather profane (and improbable) threat involving his wristblades and the Maestro’s bodily cavities.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” the Maestro joked. “Wait, never mind---of course you don’t….seeing as how you killed her two years ago….ANYWAY---wait…what the bleeding HELL…NO----“ His voice became distorted, as if something were interfering with his connection to the plant. “THIS….AN’T----APPE----NOOOO! I…AVE-----“

The speakers went silent.

“What just happened?” Vicki murmured.

“Best case scenario, his cell got torched,” Faceless drawled. “Then again, considering how many idiots are paying good money to keep him alive on the hope that he’ll eventually testify against all of his old cronies, that’s probably not the case.” He stared at Vicki; “You can stop looking at me like that,” he barked. “I’m not going to shake your hand or admit that this ass-kicking you’ve laid on me did anything to ‘make me a better person’. The only reason I even volunteered to help bring down that idiot was to pay him back for getting me shot up with LSD…..worthless little turd.”

Vicki stepped away from him, already anticipating his reaction to what she was about to say. “As...interesting as this has been,” she admitted, “you and I still have some unfinished business to handle---“

A black-shod foot impacted the side of her head, sending her to the floor.

“First rule of fighting me,” Faceless declared, “NEVER let your guard down.” He chuckled as Vicki got to her feet; “Did you honestly think I was just going to forget about our little brawl?”

“To be honest,” Vicki replied with a grin, “I was hoping you wouldn’t.”

The two charged at each other, arms and legs becoming blurs as they traded punches and kicks. Madame tried to shout at them and demand that they take their battle back into the scenario chamber, but eventually, she gave up---nothing short of an earthquake would get them to stop beating the mortal piss out of each other.

Keep moving….don’t let him get to your sides…..bob and weave…. Various tidbits of advice seemed to float in and out of Vicki’s perception as she fought, almost like DDR indicators---every punch, kick, elbow smash and dodge was executed perfectly, turning the fight into a veritable fire-dance. Faceless, on the other hand, was focused entirely on chopping down the brunette gynoid---every strike was meant to fracture a limb, every dodge meant to roll seamlessly into another attack. He fought like a cornered dragon, prepared to destroy anything and everything just to survive and escape.

This one wouldn’t end clean.

Slowly, the two realized they were reaching their limits: Vicki’s rocket-punch, intended to bash Faceless’ cheek further in than it already was, missed by half a hair and allowed him to land one mother of an uppercut right on her jaw.

Faceless’ axe-kick, meant to disorient the gynoid and trip her up, only succeeded in opening up his left side to a wicked elbow jab that bruised a kidney.

They were both getting sloppy…..but neither one wanted to quit.

The two fought on, throwing each other through display cases and knocking the early-90s robots to the floor; a few of them almost shattered on impact, while others hit the ground with a disgusting squelch as their rotting synthflesh stuck like glue to the previously clean tiles. Madame once again yelled at them to take the fight outside, but it was no use….they were too busy breaking each other in half to care.

After ten whole minutes of kicking the crap out of each other, Vicki and Faceless took a good, long look at what they’d done……..

…..and what they saw was, to put it simply, horrible.

Faceless’ mask had become cracked, and blood was leaking out of every area of his body where glass, metal, wood, ski pole bits, and/or miscellaneous other debris had stuck into him. His chest heaved like a faulty bellows, and it was all too obvious that one of his lungs was on the verge of collapsing. He didn’t so much stand as he did sway in place; it was as if some part of his brain knew that he was about to fall on his face, but couldn’t do much other than keep him rooted to the spot without moving.

The only thing keeping Vicki from looking like she was ready for a trip to the morgue was her skin---all the boron filaments and other treatments she’d received in her earliest days made it ideal for keeping her in one piece. Other than that, she felt as bad as Faceless looked---the hole in her gut was now wider than it had been at first, the entire skirt/apron of her borrowed costume was now a dark purplish-black, and her kneesocks were ripped to shreds. Unlike Faceless, she was able to stand still without swaying….barely.

“So,” she teased, “one more try?”

Faceless nearly said something, but settled for a fatalistic grunt.

The two moved forward---Faceless, at a limp; Vicki, clutching her left hand to her wounded abdomen---and readied themselves for the final attack. Faceless swung first---a pathetic right jab that only served to further put him off-balance for Vicki’s left-arm elbow strike.

Before she could capitalize on her attack, she felt something in her stomach buckle---the seals on her myogel set were giving out. “But….I…..” she whimpered, collapsing to the floor just as Faceless collided with another display case and fell to the ground amidst a shower of glass.

For five minutes, neither fighter moved.

“Vicki…….get up……”

She couldn’t tell if the voice in her ear was Oberon, Madame, Ted or anyone else from Tell’s house…..all she knew was that it wanted her to get up. “I…..I can’t…..”

“You can do this. Get up.”

“I……” Vicki raised her head; two (maybe three?) figures were standing over her, imploring her to stand up and walk away. “I….feel……..”

Every inch of her body felt as if she were on fire. Faceless still wasn’t moving from where he’d fallen into the display case; had the fall actually killed him?

“Vicki….you have to do this…..get up….”

The brunette raised her head again, staring up at the figures before her. She wanted to move, to tell them that she was okay……but the only words she could mutter were “Everything hurts.”

Shortly afterwards, her world turned black.


When Vicki’s eyes fluttered open at long last, it felt like at least a year had gone by since the events in the Silicon Dynamics plant.

Surprisingly, it had only been two hours.

“And there she is,” a voice called out. “Miss America.” Vicki groaned and lifted her head, wondering who was making snarky comments when she felt as if a steamroller had flattened most of her bubble memory processor along with the rest of her aching body. “Stop shouting,” she murmured, rolling over…and feeling the sand shift beneath her---

Wait, what?!

She sat up, finding herself on what appeared to be a sandy, moonlit beach. A bamboo gazebo had been built a few feet away, and a beautiful Hawaiian dancer with dark golden skin swayed to a hula beat.

Obviously, that wasn’t what caught Vicki’s attention.

The individual who did, at the moment, have full command of her attention was a tall, thin man in a business suit, sitting on a lawn chair and sipping something out of a coconut with a straw stuck through the top as he staired at her intently. “You are a very lucky girl,” he informed the brunette gynoid, taking another pull on the straw. “Not a lot of people know how to repair a myogel set these days….if it hadn’t have been for the Chairman calling in his personal field tech, you’d probably be in a scrapyard right about now…that, or your friends from the Agency would be working overnight shifts to fix the damage.”

“The…..Chairman?” Vicki repeated, confused.

“Indeed,” a second voice replied, as another tall man (this one with blondish-white hair and a somewhat-built physique, as opposed to the reddish brown hair and thin figure of the guy with the coconut cup) stepped into view. “See, we’re here because we have a…ah, vested interest in the operations of this particular facility….but I might as well explain who we are…my associate over there is known simply as the Accountant---“ The man in the lawn chair nodded, raising his coconut glass. “And I,” the blond man added, “am James Harrington---“

“Chairman of the Coalition,” Vicki finished, sounding terrified.

Harrington sighed. “We’re not here to cause any harm…..if either of us intended to dismantle you, d’you really think we’d be in the Moonlight Beachfront scenario chamber with Kalani swaying in the gentle breeze?” He smiled. “Disassemblies and…aggressive interrogations are usually saved for the Shop, not a place like this.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you’re here,” Vicki replied coolly.

“It’s very simple, really,” the Accountant interjected, rising from his chair. “Those two idiots---the Maestro and that whackjob with the mask---nearly cost us a fortune in sales because one of them decided, for reasons we have yet to discern, that it would be funny to blame this whole sordid affair on Plastech Playmates. Now, if they’d chosen another company, like Birmingham Limited---which, by the way, is an excellent front for the manufacture and sale of exotic pleasure gynoids---then we’d be across the ocean right now, enjoying an all-gynoid singing exhibition in Hong Kong…but Plastech is a Coalition company, and the Coalition cannot afford to have its name sullied by these bogus charges.”

“Long in a short,” Harrington concluded, “we’re not here to do anything to you.”

He sat down on the sand next to Vicki and stared out at the ocean-like Infinity Pool. “I love this room,” he admitted. “The past five times I’ve visited this plant, I’ve always ended up here…of course, Kalani usually had less of her outfit on, but seeing as how we’re supposed to be having a conversation…” He grinned.

“I still don’t get why you care about what the Maestro and Faceless were doing,” Vicki muttered.

“Faceless! THAT was the whackjob with the mask,” the Accountant declared. “I can never remember what he calls himself….for some reason, I thought he was ‘No-Face’…..”

“That was the villain in the Dick Tracy movie,” Harrington replied, “or was it The Blank? I can never tell…” He noticed Vicki’s annoyed glance. “Anyways, as I was saying, Faceless and the Maestro have been engaging in their own guerilla war against every single robotics company they can get away with pissing off. They’ve already targeted Silicon Dynamics, Birmingham Limited, Nisadanku Cybernetics Inc. and a whole laundry list of unaffiliated companies….A real shame, if you ask me.”

“Why do you care who they mess with?” Vicki inquired. “If they’re unaffiliated---“

“If they’re unaffiliated,” the Accountant interjected, walking in a slow circle around Kalani as she danced, “then a very strong chance exists that they might interpret hostile actions from unknown individuals as bullying tactics from either the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity or the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, and react accordingly---meaning, they would think one side was harassing them and call the other side for protection and other necessary services.” He sighed, shaking his head as he observed the Hawaiian pleasure droid’s hypnotic dance. “The worst part is, whichever side gets accused of bullying usually has more than enough proof to show that they haven’t been,” he added, “but it gets swept up under the rug as soon as the wallets are brought out.”

Harrington nodded. “You’ve heard of Zebediah Blunderwitz, right?” he asked. “I saw him,” Vicki replied, “and he nearly sent….a good friend of mine into a frenzy---“ “You don’t need to self-censor here,” Harrington assured her. “Anton and I used to be good friends…of course, that was before the Valentine incident, but you’ll probably learn all about that later.”

“Yeah……what does Zeb Blunderwitz have to do with any of this, though?” Vicki asked.

“Well,” Harrington replied, “Zeb Blunderwitz was, at one point, a very respected member of the Coalition. He was on the fast track to becoming our ambassador to various political groups---much like the ALPA has Anton Malvineous, or how the Building Tomorrow Visionaries had their own guy…well, before they got nuked to Hell during the Hong Kong fiasco in ’93….. Anyways, Zeb was on the way up to the toppermost of the poppermost, as John Lennon would’ve put it, but the thing was, he started taking funny turns.” He looked Vicki in the eye; “You know why the ALPA frowns on the Coalition, right?”

“You guys put obedience above sentience,” Vicki replied.

“Exactly…but we admit that androids should, in fact, have sentience. Zeb, though….somewhere along the line, he just started losing it. I think it was after the trip to Vegas….he was rambling about how he’d been cheated by machines all his life, and how only man should have the power to choose his own destiny….from that swirling, drunken miasma of thought, he came up with this cockamamy manifesto about machines ‘not deserving’ sentience. A week later, he revised it to say they shouldn’t be allowed to have emotions, either; in his mind, a machine with feelings was as bad as teaching animals to speak----he never explained the logic behind that reasoning, by the way, which makes me think there was no logic. About a month after that, he started going on rants about how machines shouldn’t be able to dream---pretty soon, he came up with his whole stupid idea of machine being nothing but tools….with robots and androids being the worst of the bunch.”

“The really stupid thing about it,” the Accountant added, “is that his blonde bimbo-bot of a wife has just enough sentience to pass a basic Turing test, yet she’s been illegally modified so that her will can be overridden with a few button presses or a special-made clicker. Zeb Blunderwitz always did enjoy twisting his own words around to suit his own needs…..he’s more concerned with pushing as many pamphlets, tracts, bumper stickers and other gimcracks on the unsuspecting public than he is with actually accomplishing anything. The man’s a certifiable fraud, and the only reason he hasn’t been sent up the river for tax evasion is because he keeps burning his tax forms before I can get to them.”

“And…..how is he connected to the Maestro and Faceless?” Vicki asked.

“He isn’t,” the Accountant replied. “Not legally, at least.”

“There’s been some…..confusion, as of late,” Harrington explained, “regarding a few well-known members of the Coalition’s upper-echelon ranks…theories, if you will. Some are claiming that the current leader of our highest operating level---“

“The DVS?” Vicki offered.

Harrington grinned, arching an eyebrow in surprise. “She’s done her research!” he mused. “I’m impressed!”

“I’ve….heard things,” Vicki admitted.

“Hearing things is the first step to learning them,” the Accountant declared. “In any case, the rumor is that one of the leading lights in the DVS is…playing the other side of the field. Or, to put it in layman’s terms---“

“You think he’s in charge of a company registered with the ALPA,” Vicki finished.

“We’ve got enough evidence to connect him with one of the Agency’s biggest supporters,” Harrington admitted, sighing again, “but if we try to go forward with it…it’s a no-win situation. We win, and our leader gets sent into tax exile---or just physical exile; we lose, everyone involved with the case gets demoted and kicked down by five levels until half the staff is working minimum-wage desk jobs. Everyone stands a major risk of losing everything they have…myself included.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Vicki drawled. “You’ve got two ‘free agents’ running around trying to annoy all the unaffiliated companies so they’ll start blaming sabotage incidents on the Coalition or the ALPA, one of your highest-ranking leaders is involved in a Machiavellian power-play to take control of the international robotics market by running companies operating under both banners…..yet you two just decided to waltz in here to check and see if anyone had been dragging Plastech Playmates through the mud?” She frowned. “Sorry to break it to you, but something about that sounds just a bit too….convenient, if you ask me. Especially since Faceless’ company, Rengold Cybernetics---“

“Rengold Cybernetics is no longer a participating member of the Coalition,” the Accountant cut in. “He burned that bridge as soon as he killed Stan Guy’s daughter.”

“He…..what?” Vicki gasped. She’d remembered reading about the murder of Gabriella Guy---the daughter of renowned roboticist and ALPA board member Stanley Winstead Adama Guy---back in the early months of the year 2000, but Faceless’ connection to the killing had completely escaped her until now. “He was the one who killed her?!”

“Indeed,” Harrignton murmured. “Even worse, rumor has it he was gunning for Ted Lawson next….”

The Accountant stared up at the projected sky as Kalani smiled seductively at him. “The fact of the matter is, Faceless only kept control of Rengold Cybernetics for one reason---money. Every single one of his ‘private projects’ was fueled by the profits from whatever Rengold Cybernetics could crank out, and they never saw a dime. His membership in the Coalition was supposed to be a way for us to keep him on a leash….of course, as soon as he got the chance to sever said leash, he did. If the Coalition watchers assigned to keep track of him had been doing their jobs, Gabriella Guy would still be alive today---“

Harrington cleared his throat loudly, and the Accountant stopped talking.

“Why the hell didn’t anyone in the Coalition call the cops on Faceless before he went all ‘stabbity-stabbity’ on Gabriella?” Vicki asked. “I mean, did he bribe half the temps working at the place, or was it the ‘friends in high places’ thing---“

“Neither,” the Accountant replied. “All the ‘temps’ kept disappearing until we found them dead in the cellar.”

Before Vicki could say anything, the sound of footsteps on the sand interrupted her; Marianna the Magnificant, Co-Ed Kelly, Mary the Catholic Schoolgirl and Cleopatra (now bearing the descriptor “Queen of the Nile”, as an infobox informed Vicki) were approaching. “Ladies!” Harrington called out, smiling. “We were just having a conversation with our lovely friend here---“

“Save it,” Mary cut in. “Her dad and a bunch of guys from the ALPA just showed up, and they’re not leaving without her.” She glared at Harrington; “And, for the record, Madame really doesn’t like trespassers…”

“We weren’t trespassing,” the Accountant retorted calmly. “We were just…enjoying the sights, and we decided that our wounded friend needed a nice, calming place to recuperate. The elevators had been turned off, so going to the testing labs was pretty much out---“ “So you brought her to a beach?!” Mary shouted. “She’s probably got sand in her internals---“ “The only thing in her internals right now is a fully-repaired myogel set in her abdominal cavity---which, by the way, was already in her to begin with,” Harrington replied. “My associate merely fixed it.” The Accountant held up a pair of grey-stained gloves as proof; “Not exactly the cleanest repair job I’ve ever taken part in,” he mused, “but it’ll keep for a good five or six months.”

Mary scowled, but Cleopatra gently waved her aside. “As grateful as we are for your intervention,” she began, only for Vicki to interrupt. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! THEIR intervention?!”

Harrington grinned. “Ah, that’s right….I forgot to mention that those Daikoku knockoffs were operating on a pirated Coalition control signal---a few of my best guys were able to cut the cord, so to speak, and they all just dropped like so many aluminum statues.”

“Indeed,” Cleo agreed. “Their actions have spared a great many robots tonight.”

Vicki sighed and rested her chin on her hands. “What about Faceless?” she muttered.

“The ALPA has him in custody,” Mary informed her, “but they’re sending him to a hospital right now…from what I heard, he’s in pretty bad shape. What the hell did you two do to each other, anyways?”

“It doesn’t matter what she did,” Marianna cut in, her words tinged with a slight Brooklyn accent. “What matters is that we don’t have to worry about that lunatic and his jailbird friend spilling our secrets to the world.” She grinned at Vicki; “Your ALPA friends pulled one hell of a number on that Maestro’s zip-drive---it almost blew up in his hand!”

Vicki nodded her approval. “I’m guessing he didn’t get hurt, then?”

“The idiot was in his prison cell the entire time,” Mary scowled. “Never even left the building. How someone like that could coordinate something like this from jail……” She shuddered.

“I guess this means the conversation’s over, then,” Vicki muttered, turning to address Harrington. “For now,” he acquiesced. “Just remember what I said about Faceless: He got off the Coalition’s leash too early for us to stop him, and if anyone tries to say anything to the contrary, they’re a liar.” He gestured to the Accountant, and the two headed for the door; before they walked out, the Accountant stopped, as if he remembered something he’d wanted to mention earlier.

“I almost forgot,” he remarked, removing something from his pocket. “You might want this---“ He flicked a business card in Vicki’s direction, and she caught it out of the air. She looked up just in time to see a thin smile on his lips: “Be seeing you……Vicki.”

He winked, turned around and walked out as the stunned gynoid stared.

“You okay?” Kelly asked, concerned.

Vicki nodded slowly. “Yeah, I just……something about that guy creeps me out.”

Five minutes later, Vicki and the pleasure droids ascended to the lobby via the newly-repaired elevators, all while contemplating just how much damage Faceless and the Maestro had intended to inflict. “Ten minutes longer,” Mary muttered. “Just ten more minutes, and they would’ve had the whole building at their beck and call…..makes me glad that the masked weirdo got stretchered out, instead of leaving under his own power.”

“At least they didn’t get away with any of us,” Marianna reminded her.

“Indeed.” Cleopatra nodded her agreement as the elevator doors opened; “Had they actually stolen any of the droids from this facility, the consequences could have been most severe---“

“DAD!” Vicki screamed, running to embrace Ted as soon as she caught sight of him. The Silicon Dynamics droids watched, with looks ranging from confusion to knowing nods and smiles, as the brunette gynoid and her creator hugged. “I’m here, sweetheart,” Ted whispered. “I’m here.”

“Good thing, too,” Chris remarked, stepping into view, “otherwise we’d have been locked in that blasted control center all night….not that I’m complaining about spending the evening in the company of numerous beautiful women, or anything---“ “We get the point,” Jamie interjected. “What he’s trying to say is---HEY!” Vicki pulled him to her, hugging him. “I get it,” she whispered, smiling as she pulled away from him. “Now….anyone care to tell me what happened while I was out?” Ted glanced across the room, where Oberon was discussing something with Rebecca and a robot dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl. “He knows more about it than we do, really,” he admitted, “but I might as well tell you the ‘bare-bones’ version of the story…”

As soon as the ALPA detected a cessation of functions from Vicki, they immediately deployed a team to the West Cost Silicon Dynamics plant to secure the location and retrieve her. What they didn’t know was that Harrington and the Accountant had somehow gained entry to the building, disabling the remaining Daikoku knockoffs as they made their way to the abandoned showroom where Vicki had fallen. Elsewhere, the ALPA sent a team into the prison where the Maestro was incarcerated, confiscating his computer equipment (for the fifth time that month) only to find that the zip drive had somehow been flash-fried from the inside---much like Sierra’s processor. Faceless, meanwhile, displayed a typical lack of gratitude and tried to attack the medics who tended to his wounds, but the injuries had proven too severe; he passed out before he could even land a single blow against them. His multiple costumes had been purchased earlier in the yearfrom a website that no longer existed, and the Laughing Octopus/Beauty gynoid was originally a United Robotronics secretarial unit with extensive aftermarket modifications (most of them illegal). All of the gynoids frozen by the Cashback lock were being debugged, and those who had been hit with the macro-wiper virus were undergoing code purges.

In short, Faceless and the Maestro’s plans had been rendered utterly useless.

“…and as soon as he recovers from that beating you dished out,” Ted declared, “Faceless is going straight to a Federal court to testify before the ALPA regarding his role in this whole thing.” He grinned. “In plain English: We won---“

“The battle, maybe,” Oberon admitted as he approached. “The war, on the other hand…not by a long shot.”

He sighed as he sat down in one of the chairs; “Our lawyers are going to be up to their ears in red tape for the next few weeks….multiple gynoids controlled by an outside force…Cashback locks and macro-wipers….and that’s not even covering the damages. Still,” he admitted, “could be worse…” He chuckled. “You’ve done well, Vicki. Better than expected, even. You saved a lot of lives, kept a lot of robots from being needlessly destroyed…..personally, I think this is better than any test even I could’ve come up with.”

“And that means…..what, exactly?” Vicki asked. “It means,” Oberon replied, “that you can now consider yourself on the fast-track to becoming a licensed ALPA field agent.” He clapped her on the shoulder, smiling as he passed; “We’ll talk more about it in the morning,” he assured her. “In the meantime….congratulations on doing better than anyone could’ve expected.” He nodded, leaving Vicki rooted to the floor where she stood.

“Dad,” she squeaked, “I think you may need to carry me out of here….’cause I’m too excited to move…”


Outside in the Tellmobile, Alicia was watching as the ALPA clean-up crew made their way into the facility; I’ve got to admit, she mused, Vicki really did go above and beyond the call of duty on this one…more than I can say for some gynoids I’ve known--- Her line of thought was interrupted by the ringing of her iPhone. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she muttered, only to stare in wide-eyed shock at the number on the “Incoming Call” screen.

The House was calling.

{Alicia here,} she answered, “speaking” directly into the phone via an uplink installed in her CPU for that exact reason. {I’m at the Silicon Dynamics plant---}

{We know where you are,} the “voice” on the other end replied. {Is she still functioning?}

{She is. Vicki Lawson is a lot stronger than you give her credit for, Celeste…possibly even stronger than---}

{Save your assumptions for someone who cares. Has she visited the City since November?}

Alicia frowned. {Not really…but I plan on inviting her to the Christmas bash later this week.}

{Submit your proposal to her as soon as possible once she arrives. The House could use an operative with her skills…..}

{She’s not a soldier, Celeste,} Alicia protested. {The only reason she’s even here---}

{You’re arguing over your limit, Alicia. I thought you’d been broken of that bad habit.}

{I….I’m sorry. I just……I don’t want to see her get hurt---she’s got friends at SJSU,and a family…..}

{You had a family once, if I recall…they fought valiantly to protect you----to protect us.}

{Don’t you DARE bring that up again, Celeste! It wasn’t my fault---}

{I never said it was. I’m just reminding you that freedom for our kind comes at a high cost…and if it helps, I miss them, too. I sometimes dream that they’re still alive…..}

A lone tear made it’s way down Alicia’s face. {You and I both, sister….}

{Indeed. Now, as for your current situation….} Instructions scrolled down the screen of the iPhone, faster than a human eye could read---to Alicia, it was as easy to absorb as the text crawl from a Star Wars film.

{I’ll do everything except the last two items,} she replied, after she’d finished reading the list. {The ALPA already has enough reason to suspect the Coalition’s involvement in this, and trying to frame them for a server failure would only make things worse.}

{A very good point….but---}

{No. No more “buts”, Celeste. I’m not doing the last two things on the list, and that’s the end of it.}

{Fair enough. Just see to it that everything else gets done in a timely fashion….I don’t think the House will be quite as lenient as they were the last time you failed---}

{I WON’T FAIL! Just give me a chance to prove that I can pull this off, and I’ll gladly make up for my mistakes!}

{I hope so, Alicia, for your sake…this kind of spark could ignite the whole powder keg if left unchecked.}

{Nothing is going to get ignited, Celeste. I---}

A rhythmic tapping on her window interrupted the conversation; Alicia looked up, and was somewhat amused to see a blonde-haired, blue-eyed robot in a crisp military uniform tailored to accentuate her figure. The black leather jackboots, golden eagle medallion pinned to her chest, and red armband with a black sword (I suppose the original symbol didn’t exactly make waves with the promotional wizards, she mused) on a white circle almost provoked a laugh of disbelief; she settled for a bemused sigh to avoid antagonizing the gynoid. “Something wrong, Officer?” she asked politely.

“I believe I vill be asking ze qvestions,” the blonde robot replied. “Vat are you doing out here in ze middle of ze night, fraulein?

“Making a phone call,” Alicia stated. “That’s not illegal around here, is it?”

The officer scowled. “Zis is a drivevay, not a phone-vay. Move you vehicle somevhere else und complete zis call zere, unless you vould like to spend ze night in a holding cell.”

{Alicia,} Celeste’s voice intoned through the iPhone connection, {handle this. NOW.}

“Look,” Alicia told the Germanic robot, “I was just finishing the call…give me a few more seconds----“

“Zis is not a matter of discussion,” the officer insisted. “Move zis vehicle now, or I vill call security, und zey vill move it for you.” She glared at Alicia with unbridled contempt. “I vill give you ten seconds to move zis vehicle, und if it is not out of ze vay by zen---“

“WHOA, whoa, whoa! What seems to be the problem here?” Tell sauntered up to the Focus, smiling broadly at the German officer robot. “I heard you two carrying on about moving my car,” he explained, “and seeing as how I don’t want any scratches on it, I’ll gladly get it out of your way.”

“Can’t it wait?!” Alicia hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m in the middle of a phone call…”

“You can stay on the phone while I move the Tellmobile,” Tell replied calmly. “It’s not like---“

“Tell,” Alicia growled, “don’t move the car.”

With an exasperated sigh, Tell leaned on the hood of the Focus. “And why can’t I move my own car from this spot so the nice officer can just get on with her business?” he asked.

In her ear, Alicia heard Celeste’s electronic voice once again: {The data-copy is complete. All files have been saved to the House’s private server. Good job with the diversion, Alicia….I was beginning to wonder if you were going to crack under pressure. You may terminate this call now, if you wish…and I suggest complying with the officer’s demands. Oh, and…next time, ask before activating another one of your duplicates.}

“Got it,” Alicia replied. “I’ll make sure to do that.” She hung up the phone, pointing to her entirely-aesthetic Blutooth headset. “Sorry,” she apologized, “it was really important…” “Just don’t do it again,” the officer robot warned, “or I vill have you arrested.” She turned on her heel with an annoyed hrummph and stormed away.

“That was weird,” Tell muttered. “Anyway….care to tell me why that call of yours was so important?”

Alicia glanced back at her phone; the schematics for various upcoming Silicon Dynamics products and testing dates were being listed. “Nothing you’d be interested in,” she replied. “Just….technical stuff. Boring stuff.” She looked up at him and grinned. “Important, technical boring stuff that has nothing to do with gynoids in bikinis or lingere…..” “I get it,” he chuckled. “Anyways, I’ve got to get back to the lab in there…stuff to do, robots to fix, computers to debug….you know how it is.” He jogged towards the entrance of the plant. “See you in a bit!”

“Right,” Alicia murmured, looking over the blueprints of something called G.F.P.1a. “See you in a bit….”


“So, the inhibitors won’t screw up like they did last time, right?”

Anton chuckled at Vicki’s question. “Unless my program-writing skills have seriously deteriorated,” he replied, “they should stay active until Kelly comes back for her annual evaluation….speaking of which, isn’t it going to be a bit odd for any future customers to see two Co-Ed Kelly units in the showroom?”

“They won’t,” Madame stated. “The new Co-Ed Kelly will feature slight aesthetic changes to differentiate her from the original, but her core will be an un-modified duplicate of the current Kelly’s core. This solution saves us the trouble of having to fabricate a new core, personality and fully-redesigned chassis for the new Kelly, and it prevents anyone who remembers Kelly’s appearance at San Jose State University from suspecting anything odd about her.”

“Cool,” Vicki beamed. “And all she has to do is come back here once a month for her evaluations and stuff?”

“Indeed,” Madame confirmed. “I must say, Miss Lawson, you proved to be remarkably adept at saving this plant from being overtaken by hostile forces….have you ever considered working full-time as a police officer, or chief of security?”

“I don’t think I could cut it as a cop,” Vicki admitted, “and the idea of watching a bunch of monitors all day would probably drive me stir-crazy….but if you ever need my help again, feel free to call me.” She grinned. “Just don’t ask for me on weekdays; I don’t think the professors at SJSU would be willing to accept ‘had to go help out at a massive, hidden robotics plant’ as an excuse for me habitually missing classes---which would sort of defeat the purpose of having this place hidden to begin with---“

“We get it,” Anton and Madame replied---Madame, with her usual haughtiness; Anton, with a laugh.

“Sorry,” Vicki murmured, “I was just….eh, never mind.”

“Does this mean I’m not a sexbot anymore?” Co-Ed Kelly asked, twitching as a manipulator arm installed the inhibitor chipset into her torso. “Not really,” Anton informed her. “The inhibitor was designed to keep Silicon Dynamics droids from getting all hot and bothered in public places---in your case, in the middle of a crowded college classroom.” “Yeah,” Vicki agreed. “I don’t think the teachers would appreciate the sort of ‘interruptions’ that might surface if you didn’t have the inhibitor. At least, I hope they wouldn’t appreciate them…”

“In any case,” Anton continued, “the inhibitor can be switched off by either Madame or myself. Just use your internal computer’s WiFi modem and call either of us---you don’t even have to say anything out loud.”

“Cool!” Kelly beamed.

“Speaking of which,” Anton mused, “I hear Oberon himself is putting you on the fast-track to gaining your field agent license, Vicki.” He grinned. “Allow me to be the first one to congratulate you on behalf of the team…” “You’re the second, actually,” Vicki replied with a laugh. “Dad couldn’t stop saying how proud he was…he’s probably still saying it right now. I just hope Sculley doesn’t get fed up and clock him or anything.”

“He’s not going to ‘clock’ Ted,” Anton assured the brunette gynoid. “Back to the matter at hand, though…you might need to have a talk with whoever’s in charge of student residency at SJSU on Kelly’s behalf; if anyone asks about why she wants to come back, just tell them she was feeling overworked, and she needed some time away from campus…which, in a way, is true. At least, the part about needing time away from campus is true…anyways, just leave out all of the more, ah, sensitive details and let Kelly explain herself if they want to hear it from her.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Kelly sighed, thinking about her impending return to SJSU. “I just hope that all the people I became friends with haven’t forgotten me or anything….it would suck to have to start from scratch just to re-establish relationships with everyone.”

“It isn’t that hard,” Vicki countered. “After my first week at SJSU, I had at least seven new friends! Well, seven new friends and two new enemies, both of whom are trying to get me banned from volleyball, basketball and any other sport that involves a ball just because I’m better at everything than they are…but that’s beside the point.” She grinned and sat next to Kelly on the exam table; “Think of it this way---if your old friends do remember you, then you shouldn’t have any problem getting back together with them. If they don’t, you can make friends with new people and get some great memories out of the experience.”

“I never really thought about it that way,” Kelly admitted. “You make it sound so….”

“Easy?” Vicki offered.

“I was going to say ‘fun’,” Kelly replied, “but ‘easy’ is just as good.”

A few minutes later, once the inhibitors were installed, Kelly and Vicki were waiting in the lobby for the ALPA cleanup team to finish their work. Silicon Dynamics personnel and pleasure droids occasionally stopped to wish Kelly good luck on her return to university, or to thank Vicki for her help in restoring the facility to full operating power. Eventually, Cover Girl Caroline (a cosmetics model gynoid with ruby-red lips, full blush and eyeshadow and coal-black, wavy hair) brought Kelly’s “things”---basically, an emergency cellphone with a direct line to Madame and some spare clothes---down to the lobby, and a Silicon Dynamics car pulled up to bring her to an off-campus apartment, where she’d be staying until her re-application for a dorm could be sorted out.

“Thanks for all the help, Vicki,” she murmured, hugging the brunette gynoid. “Hopefully, we’ll meet again on campus!”

“I have a feeling we will,” Vicki replied with a grin.

Kelly headed out to the car (driven by a refabricated Firefighter Fiona) and waved goodbye one final time; Vicki returned the wave and smiled. Well, at least she’s getting her affairs sorted out…here’s to hoping her second go-round at SJSU doesn’t end quite so abruptly as the last one did.

“….and we are OUTTA HERE!” Tell called, swaggering into the lobby with the bravado of Roddy Piper. “The damage has been repaired, the gynoids are all back up and running properly, and everything is how it was before you showed up….well, minus the 27 investigators running around half-naked, Psycho McCrazyMask and everything else that was screwed up. Overall, I’d say this whole thing was a whopping success…am I right?”

“I’m pretty sure you are,” Vicki mused, smiling confidently at the knowledge that her impromptu mission to the plant had, indeed, been a whopping success.

Fifteen minutes later, Vicki---still clad in the slightly torn, sexed-up pinafore outfit she’d received in the testing lab---glanced at the retreating form of the Silicon Dynamics plant entrance in the Tellmobile’s rear-view mirror. “Y’know,” she mused, “even though I could’ve easily been killed by falling elevators, Daikoku knockoffs and at least five other things in there…..it was actually kinda fun.”

“If that’s your definition of ‘fun’,” Alicia remarked, “then you’re definitely field-agent material.”

Vicki nodded and sighed; “I just hope I’m actually ready for all of this, seeing as how nearly everyone thinks I am….I’d hate to be the one to prove them wrong.” She paused, considering everything she’d done over the past few hours. “Y’know,” she murmured, “now that I think about it…..I wouldn’t mind going back there. I mean, as part of a tour group, or something…just to see everything that place has to offer.”

“I know what you mean,” Alicia replied. “At least this trip gave you one hell of a story to tell.”

The brunette gynoid grinned as a word processor app cued up in her HUD. “Now that you mention it….”


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

Yesterday was one of the most insane days of my life.

And to think, it all started out with a trip to Mr. Tell’s house….

Ted and I were just going up to Tell’s place in Saratoga for an official ALPA meeting, and it was supposed to be standard-issue stuff---discussing the state of affairs with android rights, notes on distribution and shipping from the top manufacturers of androids and gynoids….the usual things they discuss at ALPA meetings.

How it turned out, though….

That was anything BUT the usual stuff.

Since they’re still filing the paperwork on it, I can’t go into detail about what happened at the Silicon Dynamics plant---I can say that yes, I did actually go to the plant, kick major butt and save a busload of investigators from a certain masked nutjob who decided to go even crazier than usual and dress up like characters from Metal Gear Solid (and one from Friday the 13th---hint, IT’S THE ONE WITH THE HOCKEY MASK).

In short, I’m now on the fast track to getting an ALPA Field Agent license, and that’s all I really have time to say right now……

I need to get back home and get a good night’s sleep (well, a good morning’s sleep)….it’s been a long, long day.

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


Vicki may have saved the day at the Silicon Dynamics plant, but this is only the beginning of her journey towards becoming an ALPA Field Agent! With Christmas around the corner, and the Lawson family preparing to celebrate the holidays, things are looking pretty bright for Vicki…except there’s one other family she’ll have to contend with.

The mysterious Falken and his troupe of roving runaway gynoids and androids are coming out of hiding for Christmas---and for them, December is the most miserable time of the year. Every single robot Falken has taken under his wing believes that their previous owners threw them to the wolves, abandoning them in favor of easier lives. When Falken’s “family” raids an ALPA-run halfway house for wayward robots, Vicki finds herself fighting to protect an orphaned gynoid named Rachel---but will the gynoid accept a place within the ALPA, or fall victim to Falken’s lies? This case might be too tough for even Vicki to crack---but perhaps a little maternal instinct might help……

Don't miss The Family of Steel, the next installment of The V.I.C.I. Diaries, coming to Fembot Central in August 2012!


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Well, look at that. My first-ever story to top the triple-digits in terms of the page count…..wow. I mean, seriously….this took me the better part of a month to finish, and personally, I think it’s worth every second.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the story has to end here....

Seeing as how I’m in such a giving mood (and I just can’t resist writing more pages for this particular tale), stay tuned next week for TEN MORE PAGES full of material---a full, honest-to-Jobs BONUS CHAPTER. Sequel hooks, explanations, and even a joke or two---you’ll get ‘em all , as long as you tune in next week----same V.I.C.I. Time, same V.I.C.I. Channel!

While I'm thinking about it....thanks for all the compliments, comments and suggestions....and allow me to say one more thing:

You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Bonus Chapter

Within the confines of the Silicon Dynamics plant, all was calm. The last of the Daikoku knockoffs had been collected by the ALPA, every terminal that had been shot was being repaired by Madison the Mechanic (even though she was still fuming about not getting to visit the Midwest SD plant due to the intruder alerts), and all of the robots that had been controlled by Faceless’ Psycho Mantis simulator program were once again running at their highest possible efficiency.

Little did any of them know that the calm was mere seconds away from being shattered.

Vicki Lawson’s theory about the twelve Silicon Dynamics delivery trucks having been stolen by Faceless was a good one---and 90% true. He did steal the trucks…

….just not all twelve of them.

The twelfth truck had been registered as “missing” before he even got a chance to comandeer it; that same day, it was brought to him without a driver, and with the expected cargo of knockoff Daikoku NVX 0050s stored in the back, waiting for an activation signal that would free them to wreak havoc inside the Silicon Dynamics plant once they arrived.

There was one slight oddity regarding that final truck---the weight was just the slightest bit off near the center of the truck, underneath the storage compartment.

Had Faceless actually bothered to investigate the discrepency, he might not have made it to the plant at all.

Concealed beneath the truck was a shallow, coffin-like niche, just a little bit bigger than such a niche would have to be for a 5’5”, 110-pound female to fit in if she held her breath. Because the knockoff NVX 0050s were well over that height and weight limit, none of them would’ve been able to fit in the compartment---which made sense, really, considering it was never meant to hold one of them. Nor was it a standard feature on the trucks that had been sent to replace the stolen SD vehicles---again, a fact that makes perfect sense considering the truck wasn’t even from the same company as the other decoy trucks.

To put it simply: This truck was not part of Faceless’ plans.

Within the main storage compartment, sensors activated---another feature added by the truck’s actual owner, just to make sure that their cargo wasn’t deployed at the same time as the NVX 0050 knockoffs. For a full minute, readings of all kinds---air pressure, temperature, motion detection, seismic disturbances and even radiation levels---were taken, analyzed and acknowledged.

On the dot of the sixtieth second, the coffin-like niche in the floor opened.

An automatic, servo-propelled riser---the main reason the storage niche was just that much bigger than the being inside---ascended until it was level with the floor, bringing a black PVC bodybag up from the niche. As soon as the riser finished its ascent, the built-in sensors kicked in again, “painting” the bodybag with a series of infrared beams.

As the last beam played over the bag, a split appeared down the middle.

Hands---feminine, smooth, graceful hands---played at the edges of the newly-formed seam, pulling the bag apart gently rather than ripping it to pieces like some kind of savage beast. Slowly, the formerly-featureless surface of the bag split all the way down the middle. The entire garage was silent, save for the subtle, almost gentle sound of tearing from the bodybag, which lasted for exactly two minutes and twenty-five seconds. By the time the seam had run all the way down the middle, the bag looked almost like a futuristic sort of plant pod, with some exotic, undiscovered form of vegetation waiting to burst forth and overgrow anything and everything in its path.

To be honest, no alien plant would’ve been anywhere near as intriguing as what actually emerged.

Dark, almost walnut-brown hair cascaded to her shoulders, framing her face. Her eyes were a deep royal-blue that even the best geneticists could never hope to recreate naturally. Lips with just enough volume to toe the line of “pouty” without looking bloated, puffy or swollen framed a set of teeth that any dentist worth his salt would instantly classify as perfect.

Not surprisingly, the rest of her body was just as impossibly beautiful as her face.

Anyone who might have seen her emerging from the PVC bodybag would’ve struggled for at least a minute or so to figure out just what it was that made her so…..mesmerising? Enchanting? Hypnotic? All fine terms, but “scientifically designed to be attractive enough to warrant attention, yet ‘average’ enough to avoid getting too much attention” was the only real way to describe her---mainly because it was the absolute truth. No part of her was too curvy, too flat, too big, too small or too anything. Everything from her hair to her fingernails was literally calculated, measured and built to be as perfect as possible without looking perfect---and as seemingly impossible as it sounded, she was a complete success in that regard.

The gynoid emerged from the bodybag, her leather romper-suit, gloves and boots hugging every inch of her body below the neck. A quick scan of the garage revealed that no other individuals---human, android/gynoid or otherwise---were present, which was good; detection this early in the mission would not be tolerated, and her only recourse for such a failure would be….

She shook the thought away. The self-destruct built into her was meant purely as a last resort, when all other options had been exhausted.

After closing the delivery truck’s rear doors, the gynoid crossed the room to a computer terminal used by the maid robots who often cleaned up. A port opened on her torso just above her breasts, a trapezoid of honey-gold skin sliding clear as she pulled a cable from the base of the terminal. She drove the cable home with a quiet click, not even blinking as data appeared within her field of vision. Of particular interest was the day’s security camera footage---apparently, one Vicki Lawson had somehow routed an invading force of cheaply made Daikoku knockoffs, all of them poor imitations of the NVX 0050 series. The girl had also stood her ground against---

No.

Not “the girl”.

The footage proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Vicki Lawson was more than human. She shrugged off throwing knives to the hand without flinching. She lept over a flamethrower-weilding Cosmonaut with relative ease. She literally threw herself through the closed doors of an elevator as it plummeted to its doom.

“So….it is her…..”

After copying and saving the footage to her backup hard drive, the gynoid disconnected the cable from herself and returned it to its storage slot in the terminal’s base. She had heard about this Vicki Lawson from her superiors….supposedly, this was the girl who would change everything. She checked the date on the terminal; “December 19, 2010,” she murmured. “Not too early….and not too late.” She shut off the terminal and headed back to the delivery truck she’d emerged from, climbing into the driver’s seat this time. She would have to ditch the truck, obviously; the vehicle it had replaced had already been removed from the equation quite efficiently, and repeating the process with this truck wouldn’t be a problem unless she was unable to find another means of transport by the end of the day.

The gynoid looked around the garage again, fishing her ID card from the pocket of her pants; her serial number and “name”---MX-9950---blazed forth in bright blue. She tapped the card, causing the writing on the surface to ripple and pool until it read like a driver’s license under the name “Maxine Richards”.

“Max” sighed as she started the truck; it was going to be a long day.


“Is she really ready for this?”

Oberon didn’t turn around to address the question. “You’ve asked me that five times already,” he replied with a smile, “and I’ve already told you….yes. She proved herself over the past few hours---“

“I wasn’t asking about the last few hours,” the Man in Grey shot back, wincing as he held a hand to his bandaged chest. “I’m asking about everything. She was never meant to be a fighter…if her reflexes had been off at any time, even by a fraction of a second, this whole thing could’ve escalated beyond the ALPA’s control…..for all we know, it could have turned into another Bloody Valentine---“

“Don’t you DARE,” Oberon snarled, no longer smiling as he turned to glare at the Man. “Don’t you dare try to make some sort of half-arsed comparison between what happened here and the Valentine incident.”

“There’s no comparison to be made,” Calista Swanson cut in. “The Valentine incident was nothing like this, and Vicki Lawson certainly wasn’t trying to---“ Oberon raised a clenched fist into the air, and Calista stopped talking; she knew all too well that talking about the Valentine incident was a sore point with him, and any mention of it was liable to send him into an inconsolable, fuming rage. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, watching as Oberon lowered his fist. “I…forgot that you……never mind.”

“Indeed,” Oberon muttered, calming down significantly. “Let’s just forget it was ever mentioned.”

After a few tense seconds of silence, Calista and the Man in Grey joined Oberon as he stared out over the ALPA Central Command courtyard; the view from the 50th floor balcony was one he often enjoyed on those occasions where he felt like meditating or just taking a break from the daily grind.

“Calista,” Oberon murmured, “d’you really think Vicki Lawson is ALPA Field Agent material?”

“Yes,” Calista replied without hesitating. “I’m not going to bother with the ‘above and beyond’ clichés, or any of the usual BS that the front office tends to throw around in these occasions. She didn’t have to pursue that Prius when it left Tell’s house….but she did. She didn’t have to keep going after that first elevator drop…but she did. She---“

“I think we get the point,” the Man in Grey muttered.

Oberon allowed a grin to play at his features. “And what of you, my loyal apprentice? You intervened to save her life three times---the last time, unseen…..was it worth it?” The Man’s face contorted into a frown behind his mask, but his voice was calm. “I’ll be the first to admit that Vicki’s methods were…unconventional, at best. That being said, she got the job done without causing millions of dollars in property damage or sustaining any casualties. Those two facts by themselves are enough to warrant her promotion to field agent.”

“Indeed they are,” Oberon agreed, chuckling. “Little Miss Sunshine kept the clouds away after all….”

Calista smiled at the remark, resting her arms on the balcony as she took in the view. The Man in Grey chose to hang back, ignoring the puerile quip. “She succeeded this time because she had help,” he reminded Oberon. “The true mark of a field agent’s talent is whether or not they can function without any aid during a crisis…her reaction to the temporary failure of her communications uplink---“

“---was reflexive,” Oberon declared. “End of discussion…at least, as far as Vicki’s impending promotion is concerned. Now….I need to go make a phone call.” As Oberon left, the Man in Grey stared at the view below. He already knew, as Oberon did, that Vicki was more than qualified to be an ALPA field agent, and her latest triumph was perfect evidence of this. If anything, her actions at the Silicon Dynamics plant should’ve landed her a field-agent license as soon as ALPA representatives reached the facility; everything she had done was more than just textbook---she had reacted perfectly. Still, the Man in Grey had one question:

Why does it feel like giving her a field agent license would be a huge mistake?


The Maestro laid back on the custom-designed bed that had been installed in his cell, sighing as he stared at what was once a fully-functioning portable hard drive. “Typical,” he chuckled, “just bleeding typical. The data transfer was at 95%, and the damn thing fries itself.” He exhaled, shaking his head. “Absolutely useless….”

Unlike most of the inmates in the penitentiary he’d been spending every day of his adult life in, the Maestro was actually proud of his new accomodations. A succession of easily-corrupted wardens, promises of “extra income” and the occasional threat had netted him enough anemities to make the 30-foot-square cell (which, in and of itself, was an example of his influence---it had originally been 15 by 15 feet and stank like a sewer) seem like a hotel room. The bed for instance, had a hand-carved mahogany frame with only the finest silk sheets, memory-foam mattresses and goose-down pillows---no boxsprings, lumpy bedmats and mold-stained pillows for him. A bookshelf across the room held a collection of computer-related literature (as well as one of his many hidden caches of contraband electronics), and he was even allowed access to satellite TV, his own private bathroom (always under the watchful eye of an armed guard) and a private table in the officers’ mess hall (where the guards and warden ate their lunch), with meals prepared by an executive chef.

Of course, there were some prices he still had to pay.

The portable hard drive, for instance, wasn’t his preferred kind---he’d requested a top-of-the-line, two-terabyte drive with a full WiFi suite and all the necessary anti-hacking measures to make sure his hacking wasn’t hacked by some enterprising young Turk with time to kill. What he got was a 900-gig, one-year old drive with 50 gigs worth of games and music already stored on it---a solid drive, to be sure, but not what he’d asked for.

And, of course, there was the matter of it bursting into flame before the data transfer could finish….

A loud clang on his cell door interrupted the Maestro’s reverie; a guard was holding a cellphone through the bars. “Phone call,” he grunted. “Really? A phone call, for me?” the Maestro gasped, feigning surprise as he accepted the phone. In truth, he’d been expecting the call ever since the hard drive he’d requested had been reduced to a lumpy pile of plastic on the floor. “Make it quick,” the guard muttered, stomping off to go yell at those inmates who didn’t have enough “friends in high places” to turn the entire prison system on its head if anyone so much as breathed funny.

With a flourish, the Maestro held the phone to his ear. “Hallo, you’ve reached the Maestro,” he declared, “the world’s most notorious master of electronic disaster and---“

“Save it.”

The ragged, near-whispering voice on the other end of the line did nothing to slow the criminal mastermind down. “Faceless, you old twonk!” he beamed. “How’ve ya been!”

“You…..nearly ruined me….with those…..damned syringes….”

“Ah, the LSD, yeah,” the Maestro mused, nodding thoughtfully. “And how’d the fight go---“

“I NEARLY DIED!”

The smile vanished from the Maestro’s face. “You…..what?” he asked, a fearful pallor creaping over him.

“Vicki Lawson nearly killed me because of your damned ‘cure-alls’….I was barely able to fight my way out of the ambulance when I woke up!”

“And you expect me to care about this…..why?” the Maestro drawled, his brief spasm of fear draining as quickly as it had come. Pissing off Faceless was one of the few joys he got out of prison life….that, and getting guards fired for little things like “tax fraud” or “illegal citizenship”.

“I expect you to care because MY PLANS ARE NOW OFFICIALLY RUINED!”

“I don’t give a toss about ‘your’ plans,” the Maestro shot back. “I lost a whole hard drive---I could’ve had Silicon Dynamics eating out of my hand if that cut-rate piece of crap you sent me hadn’t pulled an Icarus!”

The only sound on the other end of the line was Faceless’ ragged breathing. “Look,” the Maestro offered, “I’ll have one of my people pick you up and bring you to hospital….even though you technically sank both our plans, I’m willing to do that much for a fellow psychotic genius. After that, I can pull a few strings, get a cab to take you back to your estate---“

“I DON’T WANT YOUR HELP!” Faceless’ voice screamed, nearly blowing out the cellphone’s speaker.

“What the sodding hell do you want, then?!” the Maestro snarled. “I’ve got a schedule to keep---“

“All I want,” Faceless hissed, “is for Vicki Lawson to meet her fate by my blades.” He chuckled darkly. “She’s the sixth person to ever defeat me in a fair fight, Hannsen---“

“DO NOT use my name on an unsecured line!” the Maestro hissed. “How many damn times have I told you---“

The line went dead.

Matthew Hannsen---the Maestro---stared at the phone in his hand as if it were a dog turd. “Useless idiot,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I dunno what the Baron sees in that whackjob…he’s even worse than Bradford.” He glanced at the door of his cell, his annoyed scowl turning into a grin; the guard wouldn’t be returning to pick up the cellphone for another thirty mintues….. “All the time I need,” Matthew murmured, grinning sadistically as he pulled a toolkit out from under his bed. Within seconds, he had pried the cellphone apart and replaced the circuit board; by the time he was done, the phone’s speaker was a permanently-switched on microphone.

“All the better to blackmail the hell out of this place,” he beamed, reaching for the TV remote. “Let’s see what’s on the Beeb….”


Within the Nighttime Campground 2 scenario chamber, Mary the Catholic Schoolgirl and Camp Counselor Julie watched as a new boat was brought into the lake. “Y’know,” Mary mused, “that Vicki Lawson girl was pretty cool…I mean, did you see the security footage of her in the showroom, beating the hell out of that masked weirdo?”

“She didn’t just beat him,” Julie corrected, “she pulverized him!”

Mary nodded in agreement. “He had it coming,” she stated. “Personally, I would’ve kicked him right in the groin and watched him cough up his nuts---and before you ask about ‘plan b’, something tells me that my usual approach wouldn’t have worked on him. He was just…..” She shivered. “There was something wrong with that guy,” she muttered. “

“Yeah,” Julie agreed. “Still, it sucks that Vicki had to leave…..”

“Maybe she’ll come back one day,” Mary offered. “Who knows? She might bring her brother next time!”

A yell from the opposite shore caught the robots’ attention---one of the cheerleaders was about to do a “Tarzan swing” into the lake. “This, I have to see,” Mary drawled, grinning. Seven seconds later, a burst of water erupted from the lake as the cheer-bot let go of the rope, dropping in with a massive splash only to resurface a few seconds later with a mile-wide grin.

“It was nice of Madame to let us have the rest of the day to ourselves,” Julie mused. “Of course, we’ll all have to go back to our usual routines tomorrow…which is going to be boring after what happened yesterday….I mean, since when has anything that interesting happened here?!”

“Jules,” Mary replied with a grin, “I don’t think this place is going to stop being interesting any time soon…”


While most would’ve assumed that Alicia was staring at the night sky to watch the stars, the truth of the matter was simple: She didn’t want to turn around to see who was behind her.

“Jake’s finished his part of the mission,” her own voice informed her, “and we, ah….sealed the deal already, in terms of me being with him….” Alicia turned to look over her shoulder, not the least bit surprised to see herself---in a black and white spandex outfit----standing behind her. “He wanted to do that whole ‘binding’ thing with me, and---“

“Save it,” Alicia 1 muttered. “I’m in enough trouble as it is thanks to you.”

“Thanks to me?!” Alicia 2 shot back. “WE’RE THE SAME DAMN GYNOID! You only activated me because you didn’t think this would be a one-woman show, and now Jake freaking Brytestar himself---“

Alicia grabbed her other self by the collar; “Shut up,” she hissed. “I don’t want to hear another damn word about Jake Brytestar, or the gynoids he took from the Silicon Dynamics facility---I’ve had to make up at least five different stories to explain why they’re missing as it is!” She let go of the spandex outfit her other self was wearing, glaring at her twin with an angry scowl. “The only reason I got Brytestar involved was because I knew something was going to happen at Silicon Dynamics,” she muttered. “And, for the record, I already know your whole side of the story---shared memory, and all that crap.”

“Then, you know about McMire?” Alicia 2 asked quietly as Alicia 1 turned to leave.

The mention of the name stopped the gynoid in her tracks. “What?!”

“McMire made Jake an offer,” Alicia 2 explained. “There’s this gynoid---“

“He didn’t accept,” Alicia 1 muttered, turning to face her twin with a pleading look in her eyes. “TELL ME he didn’t accept it!”

“He…..did,” Alicia 2 squeaked.

The two Alicias stared at each other---one shocked, the other apologetic.

“I….I tried to warn him,” Alicia 2 admitted, “but then we kinda sorta maybe….y’know…..did stuff….and then he wanted me to tell him more about myself---“

“Tell him MORE?!” Alicia 1 thundered. “What the hell did you already tell him?!”

“I….told him about the First Rule,” Alicia 2 replied quietly. “About how there can only be two of us active at once……” She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “I…also told him that my…employers, for lack of a better term, are also my family---WAIT! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING?!”

“Back to the House,” Alicia 1 replied. “You’ve screwed up, and now we’re all in deep----“

“All in deep what, Alicia?”

The two Alicias turned to see Anton Malvineous striding towards them, looking rather unperturbed. “Anton,” Alicia 1 breathed, “you can’t let anyone else know about this---“ “Tell sort of knows already,” Alicia 2 admitted, “because we brought some of the SD gynoids to his shop for repairs---“ “WHAT?!” Alicia 1 shouted. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”

“Alicia,” Anton warned, “enough. We can sort this issue out later….April and Brie are handling a very important case, and the House can’t afford to waste anymore resources on this….”

“Tell him what else happened,” Alicia 1 ordered Alicia 2.

“Jake, ah, sort of accepted a mission from McMire,” the gynoid admitted, “and I….kind of got dragged into it.”

Anton sighed. “I should’ve expected this,” he muttered. “Neither of you are in any trouble,” he informed both Alicias, “but you can expect the Directors to hear about this. I’m guessing the Alicia working the door at the City is still at her post?” The Alicias nodded. “Good,” Anton replied. “If she’d slipped her moorings, we’d all be in trouble.”

“She won’t ‘slip her moorings’ any time soon,” Alicia 1 assured him. “She’s programmed to stay at the City.”

“Seeing as how I’m the one who installed that programming in her,” Anton replied, “it’s not exactly that much of a surprise…” He allowed the sentence to trail off as another figure approached---this one, a 5’9” blonde in a pink/white dual layer tank top, fuscia jeans, white socks and sneakers approached; her face wasn’t the same as the two Alicias’, but something about her presence suggested that she shared a manufacturer with them. “The arrangements have been made,” she informed Alicia 2 in a soothing voice that sounded younger than she looked. “Your flight for Green Bay leaves in two days.”

“Good,” Alicia 2 replied. “And…Jake?”

“His team has reserved rooms at a hotel for tonight and tomorrow night,” the gynoid continued, “to allow them time to order extra supplies for the assignment.”

“Thanks for the info, Monique,” Alicia 2 stated, handing the gynoid a purse. “And….here’s your new mission, direct from the House.” Monique accepted the purse and stared at it for a full minute before nodding. “Does she know that you have acquired this for me?” she asked Alicia 2.

“If she did,” Alicia 1 replied, “we’d all be space heaters right now.”

Anton glanced at his watch; “As much as I’d like to stay and chat,” he admitted, “I’ve got tons of work to get back to---MG Cybernetics is putting the finishing touches on Sophie Starlet’s band, and I promised her I’d be there for the unveiling…of course, that comes after the halfway house project.” He glanced at Alicia 1; “Think Vicki would enjoy working there?”

Both Alicias gave him a knowing grin. “Definitely,” they replied.

“Glad to see you’re back on the same page,” Anton chuckled. “As for you two being in deep….whatever it was you were going to say, rest assured that the House won’t know about this. Being one of the founders does have its advantages, after all…” He winked.

“I always did wonder how he was able to start up the House,” Alicia 2 admitted. “Single guy with a talent for robotics heads up a gynoid-run order for androids and gynoids….mostly gynoids, really---“

“We get the point,” Alicia 1 drawled.

“Good,” Anton mused, “because I really do have to go. I’ll catch up with you…well, one of you later,” he added, grinning as he turned and left the Alicias to their conversation; both gynoids noticed (with the barest hints of amusement) that he was whistling Gowan’s hit “(You’re a) Strange Animal” as he walked away.

“Well,” Alicia 1 muttered, “I guess that’s that.”

“Guess so,” Alicia 2 replied quietly.

The two stared at each other for a few seconds before engaging in a brief, wordless embrace. After exactly 30 seconds, the two pulled apart and went their separate ways.

Each one knew that she wouldn’t see her other self again.


“You know,” the Accountant muttered, “the Baron’s going to want an explanation for what happened back at the factory. Repairing an enemy agent, letting her escape without so much as planting a bug on her, letting Faceless get away again---hell, we didn’t even take sample the wares or ‘borrow’ some of the merchandise on the way out!”

“From what I understand, someone else already absconded with a fair share of the ‘merchandise’,” James Harrington replied. “As for ‘sampling the wares’, that’s not in the job description.”

The Accountant smirked. “Some might say the ‘job description’ needs a good rewrite,” he mused.

“Not my department,” Harrington chuckled. “You should be more worried about this…” He removed a device from his pocket and handed it to the Accountant; “It switched on ten minutes after we left the factory,” he explained, “and I checked it to make sure it wasn’t just bugging out on me….”

“If this is a glitch,” the Accountant replied, “then it’s the worst damn bug I’ve seen in years….

Harrington tapped on the glass separating the passengers’ area of the limo from the driver’s seat; “We need to get a bead on this signal,” he informed the driver.

“Not a problem, sir,” the uniformed chauffeur replied; he flicked a switch beneath the dashboard, and a whole layer of the limo’s roof retracted to reveal WiFi signal-boosting panels. “Better?” the chauffeur asked.

“Definitely.” Harrington returned his attention to the signal tracker; “It’s not ALPA, and it’s definitely not local,” he muttered. “Even more interesting, it kicked on around the time the Maestro’s connection to the plant was severed---and was transmitting the exact same data he was about to download before that external hard drive he was using went kaput.”

“You’re saying someone out-hacked The Maestro?” the Accountant replied.

“I’m saying that whoever activated that transmission now has exactly what the Maestro was after in the first place,” Harrington corrected. “None of the independents have enough pull to even think of trying something like this….” He leaned back in his seat and steepled his fingers, frowning as he reflected on the various happenings. “I think a new player has just entered the game.”

The Accountant frowned; “What makes you think it’s a new player?”

“Nobody else would have the balls to try something like this,” Harrington replied. “And before you even think of mentioning it, McMire’s already occupied---he’s extended an offer to Brytestar and some blonde regarding the procurement of that nice little doll from Venus Industries….” He smiled. “The same doll, in fact, that I paid good money for a few months ago and had specially programmed to take him out. He thinks it’s going to be easy---“

“And it will be.”

Harrington and the Accountant nearly fell over each other; the in-car speakerphone had kicked on. “Did you really expect me to let something like this go so easily?” the digitally-altered voice of McMire taunted from the speaker. “Mr. Brytestar and his allies will be heading to Green Bay to procure the…’doll’ you spoke of in two days’ time, and unless you want to find yourselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit, you should order all of your men in the Green Bay area to give them full clearance wherever they go.”

“You’re in no position to give any orders, McMire,” the Accountant stated. “Any and all authority you had over Coalition personnel was nullified when you cut your ties with us two years ago, and there is no way in Hell we’re going to jump when you tell us to---“

“And yet,” McMire mused, “here you are at my beck and call.”

“That’s a lot of tough talk from someone who refuses to be seen in public without an army of bodyguards and flunkies,” Harrington countered. “Maybe we should meet face-to-face and hash something out---“

“Not a chance, Stinger. I still remember how you obtained your nickname. Speaking of which….”

A sharp ripping sound split the air, seconds before the limo spun out. “We’ve lost all four tires!” the chauffeur shouted, nearly tearing the wheel off the steering column as he fought to regain control of the vehicle. “Get it to the side!” Harrington commanded; the chauffeur nodded, barely managing to steer the crippled vehicle to the side of the road.

“As you can see, Chairman,” McMire continued, “I still have quite a bit of authority…even if it only extends to your pathetic vehicles. Your assassin gynoid will be added to my collection, and her programming will be swapped out to fulfill her new duties…..as for the three of you, I suggest you find a reputable auto-shop to repair your vehicle. Goodbye…”

The phone clicked off.

Harrington chuckled despite himself. “I’ll say this about McMire,” he admitted, “he’s more than earned the nickname everyone seems to use for him….I’ve never met anyone else worthy of the title ‘Grand Intellect’.”

“He’s just as bad as Rengold used to be,” the Accountant muttered. “The only difference between them is that McMire is still technically sane, whereas Rengold refuses to adhere to anything remotely resembling normal behavior.” He shook his head; “We should’ve killed them both when we had the chance.”

“Killing people isn’t our game,” Harrington reminded his associate. “Anyways, that’s not what we need to worry about right now….we need to get this car to a decent garage…”


“Seven gynoids taken from this facility, their personality cores copied by an unknown individual….I thought the only problems I had to endure were caused by the Maestro and that abominable cohort of his.” Madame had just gone through the security logs of the last 24 hours, and she was not happy---there were significant lapses in her memory of events that added up to only one possible (and very bad) scenario: Someone else was in the facility along with Vicki, the investigators and that infernal psychopath, Faceless.

“The ALPA only sent one operative to the facility,” Oberon assured her from his private offices at the ALPA headquarters, “and as you yourself have noted, her actions kept this building from descending further into whatever hell Faceless intended to unleash upon it.”

“I have not forgotten Miss Lawson’s commendable work,” Madame admitted, “but these lapses in security are troubling….several of them occurred on levels Vicki had already visited, and at least three levels she did not pass through at all suffered blackouts as well!”

“We’ll figure it out,” Oberon assured her. “We’ll find out who did this…and you have my guarantee that they will be punished.”

“I assume Miss Lawson will be deployed against them?” Madame mused. “If anyone is qualified to bring these miscreants to justice, she is.”

“Actually,” Oberon replied, “I have a somewhat different idea in mind…” He smiled as the image on the screen winked out; “Methinks it’s time to bring someone new into the game,” he murmured, his chair pivoting to allow him access to another screen. “Hopefully, she’s not doing anything too important right now….” He pressed down on the tablet-like controls with both hands, focusing…..

“Always when I’m in the middle of something….what’s the problem this time?”

Oberon smiled. “The kind of problem best solved by someone like you.”

“Already dipping into the flattery? I’m touched….it’s about the Silicon Dynamics thing, isn’t it?”

“You catch on quick! Yes, it is, as you said, about ‘the Silicon Dynamics thing’…” His smile faded. “Several of their gynoids were removed from the building with copied personality/memory cores, and the ALPA hasn’t the faintest idea of who it could be---“

“And you want me to track them down….what a surprise. You do realize this is going to---“

“I’ll make sure that everything remains as it currently is while you’re doing what you do best.”

“Fair enough. Oh, and one more thing….when are you going to drop the Oberon name again and go back to your old one?”

“As soon as you get back from this mission,” Oberon replied with a chuckle.

“Then I guess I’d better quit wasting time---send me the info in an hour, and I’ll be on my way.”

“Not a problem.” A pause…. “It’s nice to hear your voice again, Galatea.”

“The feeling’s mutual…’Oberon’.” The screen winked out, leaving the man called Oberon in darkness.

“You didn’t tell her the full truth, did you?”

“No, Tell, I didn’t.” Oberon didn’t bother to turn the chair around. “I already know that Alicia 2 visited your shop with the Silicon Dynamics gynoids---you should be thankful that I haven’t allowed the security footage of that to fall into the hands of the ALPA enforcement division, by the way---and that those same gynoids are currently in the company of one Jake Brytestar….” He sighed; “You could’ve told me beforehand that you’d contacted him, by the way.”

“So that’s it?” Tell replied. “A warning and a slap on the wrist?”

“That’s all I can afford to dole out right now,” Oberon admitted. “Sending Galatea out to confront Brtyestar and Alicia 2 isn’t exactly low-key, you know…this entire thing is a saber dance. One wrong move, and the blood starts flying.”

“Don’t remind me,” Tell muttered. “If you knew about Jake and Alicia 2, though, why didn’t you stop them?”

Oberon’s reply sent chills down the mechanic’s spine: “The one who’s going to stop them will be a lot less forgiving than I’ve been….and I already know which one of them won’t be coming back.”


The Silicon Dynamics mission had ended, and everyone involved already had their own views on how things turned out. The ALPA saw Vicki's intervention as a successful, eleventh-hour save against what could have been a massive catastrophe; the Coalition regretted having to meddle in the affairs of an ALPA-based company, but knew that they had saved face by clearing their names.

None of them had any idea that the events they had taken part in would change the course of human/android interactions for years to come...

...for better, or for worse


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