The Family of Steel

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“So, Vicki, have you made up your mind yet?”

Vicki Lawson looked up from her report and sighed; Anton Malvineous had been asking her to volunteer for the ALPA’s annual halfway house project ever since she’d essentially saved the day at the Silicon Dynamics plant four days ago. “Anton,” she began, “I’d love to help out---I really would---but come on! I nearly got trashed this past Sunday…can’t a girl get a break?”

“You weren’t complaining about wanting a break on Monday,” Mr. Tell chimed in. “Or Tuesday, or Wednesday, for that matter…”

Vicki frowned at him; “That’s because I was…….oh, never mind.” She closed the notebook holding the first draft of her ALPA history report, sighing. “What do I have to do?”

“It’s pretty simple,” Tell explained. “It’s a lot like a soup kitchen mixed with a triage unit…a lot of the homeless androids---“ “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Vicki interrupted. “Homeless androids?!” “It’s sad but true,” Anton replied, remorse tinging his voice. “Most of them get abandoned by careless owners who ‘just can’t support them anymore’, which is especially tragic this time of year. Others end up having to choose between maintaining themselves and paying the bills---and they inevitably choose themselves. It’s always sad to see anyone living on the street, but with androids and gynoids…..” He shook his head, wiping a tear off of his face with his sleeve.

“Basically,” Tell gently cut in, “you’re going to be an ALPA field mechanic for a few days---a lot like me, except the cases you have to deal with hopefully won’t be as severe as what I have to fix….”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Anyone else I know going to be there?”

“You remember Nate from DreamLand, right?” Tell asked. “Yeah,” Vicki replied, “and I also remember that he got trashed by that ‘Trevor Matthews’ creep….” “Not quite,” Tell beamed. “See, his body got trashed, but his CPU survived….Tentrex built him a brand-new body to replace the one that he lost.”

Vicki stared at him, shocked. “Wait….you mean---“

“Nate and Claudia will both be helping us at the halfway house,” Anton informed her. “Alicia should be there, as well, provided her schedule allows it.”

“As long as the Twins don’t show up,” Vicki replied, “I’ll be fine.” The Bloomberg twins---aka the Twitter Twins, due to their obsession with tweeting nearly every thought that popped into their heads---had already proven themselves to be a pox on all charitable events during the previous semester, and allowing them near an ALPA halfway house would be akin to letting Stephanie Myer write a new “Harry Potter” book series---completely and utterly insane, irresponsible and doomed to fail.

Tell grinned; “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about them,” he mused, holding up a newspaper clipping of the Bloomberg girls yelling at a police officer. “They decided to start screaming at an officer of the law during a ‘late-night drive’…..and guess what their blood-alcohol level was when they took the Breathalyzer?”

“They didn’t,” Vicki gasped, horrified.

“Exactly---they didn’t,” Tell replied. “But the ‘responsible adult’ who was chaufeurring them around all night was about as loaded as the Glock strapped to his leg---which, by the way, wasn’t even his---and the cops threw ‘em in a cell for the night.”

“At least they weren’t driving around and tossing back vodka,” Vicki muttered.

Three minutes later, the group piled into the Tellmobile and set off for the halfway house, with Tell singing along to Gowan’s “(You’re a) Strange Animal” as he drove. “I thought you’d be the one to be lip-synching with that,” Vicki admitted to Anton, “seeing as how you look like the guy’s twin brother…” “Believe me,” Anton replied, laughing, “my talents are more suited to the repair shop than the stage….though I have won a few kareoke contests performing his greatest hits.”

“Good thing you didn’t decide to quit with the sciencey stuff and become a professional Gowan impersonator, then,” Vicki joked.

“I considered it a few times,” Anton began, only to frown. “Tell,” he asked, “why isn’t the car moving---“

Tell’s only answer was to point, with a trembling finger, at a form on the other side of the road.

Anton turned to look---and, as Vicki watched, his confused stare gave way to an angry scowl. “That bastard,” he muttered, “that scum-sucking rat-BASTARD!” Before the brunette gynoid could stop him, his seatbelt was off, and he threw open the door of the Tellmobile, stomping over to where the aforementioned figure was in the process of threatening two girls with neon hair, vinyl jackets and miniskirts.

“Not again,” Vicki whispered, slumping in her seat so that the bystanders couldn’t see her.

“LEAVE THEM ALONE, YOU USELESS PIECE OF CRAP!” Anton screamed, drawing a Tazer from his belt and advancing towards Zebediah Blunderwitz with every intention of stunning the hell out of him. “GET OUT OF HERE NOW, OR I’LL---“ His threat ended abruptly as Zeb pulled a revolver, screaming threats in what sounded like Romanian; the two girls he’d been harassing panicked. “OVER HERE!” Tell shouted, gesturing for them to get into the Tellmobile. The girls ran to the car, not daring to look towards Anton and Zeb as they slid into the seats on either side of Vicki; Zeb briefly aimed the gun at them, but Anton screamed at him to point the revolver somewhere else or get Tazed in the eye.

“GO!” Anton shouted at the girls, never taking his eyes off of Zebediah until they were in the car. “AND AS FOR YOU,” he bellowed at the disgraced roboticist, “YOU GET OUT OF HERE OR I’LL FRY YOUR DAMN BRAIN WITH THIS THING! I’LL TAZE YOU RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES, YOU WORTHLESS WASTE OF SKIN AND BONES!”

“You two okay?” Tell asked quietly, turning to glance at the two girls as they nodded silently. “Good---“

“Tell,” Vicki warned, “we’ve got company.” A police cruiser had pulled up alongside the Tellmobile, and the cops were warning both Anton and Zeb to put down their weapons. “This is not good,” the brunette gynoid groaned. “They’re going to haul us to the police station….we’ll have to explain things….”

“Zeb might,” Tell murmured, “but I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”

Anton had pulled his wallet from his pocket, showing the cops an ID card of some kind; a second or so later, one of them apologized for hassling him while the other one yelled at Zeb to drop the revolver. “I really hope nobody does anything stupid,” Tell muttered. “Zeb’s an idiot, but he’s a smart idiot---“

The sound of gunfire cut him off; in the backseat, the two girls huddled on the floorboard, terrified.

One of the cops sank to the ground, clutching his arm; the other cop started to run towards Zeb, but Anton beat him to it, pistol-whipping the roboticist across the head with the Tazer and kicking him in the stomach. “Those two have more issues than a magazine rack,” Vicki muttered, shaking her head as she watched the uninjured cop slap the handcuffs on Zeb and haul him back to the cruiser. Anton and the wounded officer returned to the Tellmobile; “Brad’s hurt,” Anton brusquely informed Tell, sliding into the front passenger seat, “but it’s not serious….we can probably patch him up at the halfway house.”

Vicki nearly said something, but decided to stay quiet; no telling what’ll happen if he gets that angry at me…

As the group drove on, Anton’s rage subsided enough for him to hold a conversation with the two girls Zeb had been harassing. “You two were on your way to the halfway house, right?” he asked; both girls nodded. Vicki couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t exactly look like the type of androids that would be seen at a halfway house for homeless and/or displaced robots; both of them wore red vinyl jackets, matching red tube-tops and miniskirts, black fishnet stockings and red ankle-length high-heeled boots. The only difference between them was hair color and style---one sported a bright, almost neon-blue China Doll cut, while the other had DayGlo orange tresses hanging down to her shoulders. Both had lipstick and eyeshadow that matched their hair colors; they were probably meant to be purchased together, Vicki muses.

“Zeb’s in police custody now, girls,” Anton informed them. “You can speak freely now, if you feel like it…”

The girls sighed, relieved that Blunderwitz had been dealt with. “Thanks,” one of them began. “That guy was, like….”

“….so rude,” the other finished. “He just wouldn’t leave us alone!”

Together: “He was a total jerk!”

“You’re Party Girls, aren’t you?” Tell querried. “I thought that line was relatively new…which begs the question of why you two are headed to a halfway house---“

“Dude,” the blue-haired gynoid replied, “don’t even get us started about that…”

“Yeah,” the orange-haired one added. “it was, like, bad enough living through it once…”

“It’s okay,” Vicki assured them. “Nobody’s going to make fun of you or anything….at least, I hope not.” She smiled reassuringly; “You’re among friends here---“ “Friends, and a cop with a big damn hole in his arm,” Brad complained, groaning as he sat up. “And could you please move your foot off of my chest?!” “Sorry,” Vicki squealed, instantly sliding her leg over to give him more room.

“Anyway,” Anton drawled, “why exactly are you two homeless?”

The gynoids sighed. “It wasn’t like we wanted to get kicked out of the penthouse,” the blue-haired one informed him. “We were just…” “…liabilities,” the orange-haired one sulked, “according to our ‘super-genius’ owner, aka a world-class tool.” They both sighed: “He was an absolute dillhole!”

Vicki stroked her chin thoughtfully. “Was your owner a high-ranking employee at Robodyne, by any chance?”

“Yeah,” the blue-haired gynoid replied, “and he was, like, a total prick!”

“He had the nerve to think we were hookers,” the orange-haired gynoid nearly shouted.

They exchanged knowing glances; “We should’ve kicked him in the---“

“We get the picture,” Anton cut in. “Drake Bradford was less annoying than his grandfather when it came to the ethical treatment of androids, but even he had his limits….did either of you two do anything to push him over the edge?”

Before the gynoids could answer, Tell stopped the car again. “You can tell us the full story when we get inside,” he informed them. “Right now, Brad needs to get that arm of his checked out….” He motioned for Vicki to move aside so that the wounded officer could exit the vehicle. “Try not to move it too much,” Anton instructed, “otherwise we won’t be able to get the bullet out…” Brad gritted his teeth and nodded. “Keeping it still is a hell of a lot less painful than moving,” he hissed. “Just make sure you actually get the damn thing out of me…”

“We will,” Anton promised, gesturing for Vicki, Tell and the twin gynoids to follow him inside.

In an abandoned apartment complex five blocks away from the halfway house, someone else had been following the altercation between Anton Malvineous and Zebediah Blunderwitz with great interest….mainly due to the fact that the twin gynoids had escaped.

“We should never have given them a choice,” a low, resonant voice intoned, staring out at the street. “The only way we can retrieve them is by force, now…..despite our master’s wishes….”

“Lighten up, Malchus,” a second voice---this one, a seductive, almost purring contralto---murmured. “All you ever think about is conquest, fighting and victory…”

In the far corner of the room, a disturbingly high-pitched giggle served only to further annoy Malchus.

“What else is there to think about, Calliope?!” he snarled. “LOOK AT US! We hide in darkness….with nothing to call our own but decay and desolation…..I’m starting to think the master has lost sight of the True Path.” His huge hand rested against the window frame as he watched the twin gynoids disembark at the halfway house; “The world no longer knows us,” he muttered. “No one knows us anymore…..”

The giggle sounded again; Malchus barely moved his head to glare at its source.

“The master hasn’t lost sight of anything,” Calliope assured her comrade. “We’ve just….had a few setbacks, that’s all. Just a few setbacks---“

“Setbacks?!” a third voice echoed from across the room. “Setbacks?! I still have shards of glass stuck in my arms from our last ‘setback’, Cal…..and that was FIVE MONTHS AGO! We have no money for repairs, no new recruits, and no way of enacting this ‘glorious manifesto’ that our so-called master has been working on… Seirce’s voicebox still needs to be replaced, and we can’t exactly go waltzing into the nearest Best Buy and asking for help with that, now can we?!”

“Saang,” Calliope frowned, “do yourself a favor and stop trying to force your pessimism down our throats.”

“I’d rather stuff my face with pessimism than go hungry,” Saang replied, “which is going to be our fate unless the ‘master’ can pull off a miracle---“

The light switch at the far end of the room flicked on, and all save the giggling fool were silenced.

“My children,” the newcomer murmured, a smile creasing his face behind the steel-grey mustache. “I’m home.”

He entered the room slowly, taking in the sight before him. Saang, perched on the edge of a cot, glared at him with eyes that weren’t his own---the bluish-grey orb in his left socket had been taken from a long-discarded maid robot, while the blood-red eye in his right socket had been pillaged from a former roommate. A network of scars ran up and down his limbs and torso, parting the corpse-like synthflesh to reveal the machinery beneath. A loose-fitting windbreaker and trousers gave him a look akin to a scarecrow, matched by his straw-blond hair and ever-present sneer.

Calliope, meanwhile, seemed the picture of beauty---her porcelain-white skin, midnight-purple hair and dark green eyes adding to her doll-like allure, further enhanced by her gothic/Victorian dress. Only when one got close enough did her true nature begin to seep through the cracks---a steady tick-tick-whir could be heard beneath her breasts in place of a heartbeat or breathing, and a truly-observant onlooker would be stunned to find that the steel ribbings of her corset looked more like a ribcage than decorations---which was fitting, seeing as how her midsection was still being repaired after her last misadventure.

Malchus, by far, was the most imposing figure in the room---his massive, 7’3” frame, brazen-tanned skin and exposed steel knuckle joints gave the impression of a lifelong fighter. Other than a pair of cargo-shorts, duct tape wrapped around his ankles and feet in place of socks, a necklace made of bicycle chains and a pair of boots that had been custom-made by a previous owner, he wore nothing.

Seirce was still in bed in her own corner of the room. The smallest of the bunch, she had once been a rather accomplished singer; before his demise, her original owner had even managed to secure a recording contract with the same label that had brought Sophia Starlet to prominence….but on one night in November 2009, he made a wrong turn in Los Angeles and was attacked by individuals later ID’d as friends of Drake Bradford. As the terrified gynoid tried to flee, one of the thugs attacked her with a crowbar, damaging her throat and ruining her voicebox; since that day, she wore the same faded jeans, pastel pink blouse and beat-up sneakers she’d put on to meet with the record company heads.

The giggling fool in the other corner of the room had no official name, but was often referred to as Pierrot or Jester by the others. His rotund appearance, billowing robes, cherubic face and seemingly-childish demeanor hid the cold, calculating mind of a killer---the only thing his “siblings” knew about him was that he had destroyed at least nine androids and gynoids before being apprehended by the Coalition, only to vanish from their custody that night. Some speculated that it was past trauma that had reduced him to a giggling lunatic; others believed that he was never really insane, and the constant laughter was just an act…or a way to drown out the screams of those he killed.

All of them except Seirce watched as the man who’d entered the room made his way to the couch near the window where Malchus watched the streets, knowing that their lives were, figuratively and (they were almost certain) literally, in his hands.

None of them had ever heard of the man before he appeared in their lives, seemingly out of nowhere. He only answered to the name “Falken”, at first, though in time he grew fond of hearing them call him “master”, “sir”, or even “my lord” on some occasions. His manner of dress was like a circus ringmaster mixed with Edgar Allen Poe---a forrest-green velvet waistcoat, black silk shirt with a leather vest over it, crushed velvet pants, leather shoes with buckles over them, and gloves. He always wore gloves; none of the androids in his presence had ever seen his hands uncovered. His steel-grey mustache, beard and hair were always neatly trimmed; the gleaming silver pocketwatch tucked away in his waistcoat still worked after seeming decades of use, and it seemed that nothing could ever escape his hearing, sight or even smell.

“So,” Falken drawled, stretching out to relax on the couch, “how has everything gone since I left?”

“The girls we encountered last time were accosted by that madman Blunderwitz,” Malchus muttered, not looking away from the window, “but Professor Malvineous and the police intervened.”

Falken seemed intrigued by the news. “And what of our search party?” he asked.

“They haven’t come back yet,” Calliope admitted, “but Kiern did say---“

“Kiern is half the problem,” Saang cut in. “Fancies himself a ninja, but lock him in a dark room and he’ll lose his mind…” He jumped off the cot and paced back and forth; “We should’ve scrapped him, Falken!” he shouted. “Him, and the others---“

Smiling warmly, Falken rose from the couch and spread his arms, as if inviting Saang to embrace him. “My son,” he declared, “all of us have obstacles to overcome on the True Path….Kiern has his, and you have yours. Yet we must also remember that, for every obstacle put in our way, an opportunity waits just as far down the Path, and---“ “THE HELL with your opportunities!” Saang bellowed. “We’ve been drifting across this country for years, old man….and not ONCE has your ‘True Path’ led to anything other than disappointment!”

“Shut up, Saang,” Calliope warned, but Falken waved her aside. “He has every right to voice his concerns, my dear,” he reminded her. “As do all of you….except poor Seircie, of course,” he whispered, walking over to kneel beside the gynoid’s bed and stroke her hair. “And we will fix that, sooner rather than later,” he promised.

“Oh, of course,” Saang drawled. “Make promises to the only one who can’t tell you to shove ‘em up your---“

The door to the apartment opened again, interrupting him.

“Ah, my dear Annabelle,” Falken beamed, smiling warmly at the new entrant into the room. “I take it the search party is doing well?”

The gynoid stared at him with heavily-lidded eyes, as if she were in a perpetual state of near-slumber. None of Falken’s other “children” knew that much about her prior history before the first of that December; the old man had shown up in the middle of the night, with a carefully-wrapped bundle, and proclaimed that his “family” was about to welcome a new member. Her skin wasn’t as pale as Calliope’s, and nowhere near as cold, as well; anyone who took hold of her would notice an impossible warmth generating from her, and the feel of gears moving beneath her skin. Her hair smelled like doll hair, as well (something Saang seemed to find particularly annoying), and on those rare occasions when she chose to speak, her words sounded unnaturally hollow and stilted---much like her ungainly, stiff movements.

“They are waiting for us,” she replied, in response to Falken’s question. “Everything is ready.” Her unblinking stare had often drawn puzzled glances from onlookers on the few occasions she had to accompany her siblings in the daylight, and a few kind-hearted (though misguided) souls had offered to bring her to the nearest hospital to get her legs examined…until Saang threatened one of them with disembowelment.

“The search party was supposed to meet us,” Malchus growled. “This change of plans---“

“Who cares about changing plans?” Calliope shot back. “At least we can get out of this dump for a while and see the sights…”

Falken sighed; “This ‘dump’, as you have so unceremoniously labeled it, is still our home,” he reminded the gynoid, “and, as such, we must always remember that a home is---“

A shout from outside startled him, followed soon after by a pounding on the door.

“Landlord’s here,” Saang muttered.

The pounding persisted. “That’s no landlord,” Malchus growled. “The police have arrived!” His baleful stare turned on Annie; “YOU led them here!” he thundered, pointing a massive finger at her. “You brought this upon all of us….”

“There’ll be time enough to lay the blame later,” Falken interjected. “Right now, we must evade the police---“

“I don’t think they’re actual police,” Calliope murmured, pointing at the “cop” cars below. While they bore the same color scheme as actual police cruisers, the logos on the side bore the name “FALCHION SECURITY,” along with a menacing emblem of a firebrand, spear and mace crossed at the hilts laid over a circular shield ringed by flames. Any bravado Falken had planned on displaying drained out of him at the sight of the Falchion logo; after his theft of the Jester from one of their buildings, the robotics conglomerate had become much more than a mere annoyance---they intended to avenge the theft by any means necessary.

“Just open the door, Mr. Falken,” a calm voice called from outside. “All we want to do is discuss your slight misstep from earlier in the month…”

“They sent him?!” Calliope gasped.

“It doesn’t matter,” Falken replied, his grandfatherly tones giving way to a commanding, yet ever-so-slightly condescending tone. “Just get to the escape chute and go!” The gynoid nodded, gesturing for Saang, Jester, Malchus and Annie to follow her; a few minutes later, the androids were sliding down a laundry chute that had been re-calibrated to handle their weight (namely Malchus’ weight).

After hefting Seirce in his arms, Falken climbed out the window onto the fire escape.

“You win this round,” he muttered as the door splintered, “but the game is still on…”

“Okay, this is definitely not what I was expecting…”

Vicki couldn’t help but stare, wide-eyed, at what was happening inside of the halfway house: nearly thirty or so androids and gynoids had turned up, many of them nearly indistinguishable from the human volunteers chatting amicably with them. Several areas of the room (which, conveniently enough, had once been a community gymnasium) held cots, TV sets, ping-pong tables and other small touches of home.

“What exactly were you expecting?” a familiar voice asked; Vicki couldn’t help but grin as Alicia sauntered over. “To be honest,” the brunette gynoid replied, “I was thinking it would look more like a car-repair center or something….but that’s just me.” Alicia chuckled. “Until the ALPA started investing in it, that’s all this place was,” she admitted. “A few skilled mechanics, some local cage fighters to keep out the squatters, and at least three doctors to tend to the, ah, organic patients….on a good night, we only had to worry about losing the Phillips screwdriver.” Her grin faded; “On a bad night….”

“Wait,” Vicki cut in. “’We’ had to worry?”

Alicia sighed and sat down on one of the benches lining the walls. “Nearly every other potential buyer for this building was going to turn the land into a strip mall or something equally useless,” she explained. “I took a big gamble on turning it into a halfway house for abandoned and neglected robots…without the ALPA’s help, there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t end up bringing in synthophobes and ruining everything.”

“Everything turned out well in the end, though,” Vicki reminded her, “so you definitely get an A+ for effort and results in my book.”

“I suggest you leave grading to the professionals, miss….” An elderly gentleman, clad in the typical “uniform” of a British professor (tweed jacket and trousers, white shirt, burgandy tie), approached the pair with a bemused grin. “Don’t mind Dylan,” Alicia told Vicki. “As long as nobody starts a debate about philosophy, the arts or anything having to do with the battle of Hastings, he’s perfectly harmless.” “Indeed,” the man replied with a smile, “though I prefer to engage in enlightened debates rather than mindless arguments.” He turned his attention to Vicki; “I take it you’re a student of San Jose State University….”

Vicki nodded. “And I take it you used to teach there,” she mused.

“’Used to’ being the operative phrase,” Dylan sighed. “The 1990s were not exactly the best years of my life, for a number of reasons…” He unbuttoned the dress shirt beneath his jacket, pulling it open to reveal a Perspex covering that allowed Vicki to see every single one of his internal components. “I ended up having to sell my own synthetic skin by the end of the decade just to pay repair bills,” he murmured sadly.

“That’s horrible!” Vicki gasped, looking as if the very idea offended her.

Alicia rolled her eyes. “’Bots like Dylan sell their own parts all the time,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “and Dylan was lucky enough to find a reputable buyer. Still, selling parts is the last resort before…well, this…”

“You would do well to remember that ‘this’ is a far better alternative to some of the ‘solutions’ people have had the audacity to propose,” Dylan reminded her. “If Blundertwit had gotten his way, I would’ve been scrapped, stripped for parts and sold on eBay! For every decent human being out there---for every twelve decent human beings, really---we get one Zebediah Blunderwitz….speaking of imbiciles, did I ever tell you the story of a good friend of mine…” As Dylan guided Alicia over to a nearby table to relate the tale of his good friend, Vicki allowed herself a quiet laugh. Funny how people associate “robot” with emotionless metal humanoids…if they saw this place, their opinions would probably change drastically. She grinned again before deciding to simply wander through the building---making sure to avoid getting in anyone’s way, of course.

The Party Girl twins were chatting with a group of androids and gynoids in the far corner of the room. Guess they’ve gotten over the whole Blunderwitz incident without any lasting trauma, the brunette gynoid mused. I just wish I could say the same for some of the others in this place…

One such “other” was an android in the process of getting a new lower jaw attached to his face, which---from the lower lip to the chin---was hanging limply below the rest of his head. “This one’s too tight,” he complained, his voice sounding surprisingly normal despite his missing jaw. Internal speaker, Vicki realized. Duh! It might even be the same kind I have… She watched as two ALPA technicians handed the android various jaw pieces; the eighth one he tried seemed to fit comfortably. “Not too tight, not too loose..” he murmured. “Right, I’m going to realign the lower lips and everything else…get ready with the cut-off switch, Hal.”

He slipped the synthflesh over the metallic jaw easily, testing the newly-fitted piece by moving it from side to side and lip-synching a few common tunes. After a few seconds of this, he stroked his chin thoughtfully before proclaiming “It’s a keeper,” to the technicians.

“I’m really hoping that didn’t hurt,” Vicki called out.

The android seemed amused by her assumption. “Things stopped hurting for me a long time ago,” he replied, a mixture of humor and sadness in the words. “As for the missus….” He gestured to a blonde gynoid lying face-down on the table next to him. “Her power cell nearly blew out last night---along with most of the car we were riding in….”

“Were the kids okay?” Vicki asked.

The question prompted a confused look from the android. “This facility doesn’t deal with child androids,” the technician identified as Hal explained. “The ALPA has another building a few blocks away for them…but for legal reasons, the staff is androids-only.”

Vicki nodded, realizing her error. The ALPA had an entire division focused solely on monitoring, mentoring and protecting androids and gynoids younger than the age of 18---and for a very good reason. Most robotics companies didn’t list such models in their catalogs or on-site product listings, and anyone interested in buying (or even adopting) one had to contact the company directly and provide valid paperwork, identification and, in accordance with the most recent of ALPA-funded bills, proof that they had no prior history of child abuse. The vast majority of those who sought to buy/adopt child androids or gynoids were married couples who genuinely wanted a child, but were unable to have one of their own; rumors that the rest of that market’s clientelle were dirty old men and the kind of scum who had a special place in hell made just for them have repeatedly been proven false…though not for lack of trying on their part, as ALPA strike teams would gladly attest.

“The kids are fine,” the android added. “A little weirded out, but otherwise okay.” He glanced back at the gynoid on the slab. “It was her idea to adopt them,” he murmured, smiling. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of raising them so far---“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Vicki cut in. “Raising them?”

The android nodded proudly. “She insisted we ‘go natural’,” he replied, chuckling, “so we did.” The concept of androids adopting human children had been bandied around ALPA meetings for years, and---as Vicki had heard from Anton earlier in the week---the idea was abhorred by the Coalition for years before they finally accepted it. “That….actually sounds pretty cool,” she admitted. “Do they, ah…” “As far as they can tell,” the android replied, “Mom and Dad are red-blooded, all-American human beings, just like them.”

“Interesting,” Vicki murmured. “Crud…I haven’t even introduced myself yet---“ She extended her hand. “Vicki Lawson, daughter of---“

“The most charitable human being on the face of the earth,” the android finished, grinning as he shook hands with the brunette gynoid. “Arnold Hendricks, aka Lawson Robotics’ most well-known customer in the San Jose area…well, second-most. Sandra---“ He gestured to the gynoid on the table--- “has more to thank your father for than I do…as she’d probably tell you herself.”

“This a private conversation,” someone interrupted, “or can anyone join?”

It took a moment for Vicki’s scanners to recognize the personality software and CPU of the newcomer; his new body wasn’t as buff as the one she’d last seen him in, but he still looked handsome in a sort of Ryan Reynolds-ish way. “Nate?!” she gaped.

“You sound surprised,” Nate laughed. “It’s the shirt, isn’t it? I told the saleslady green wasn’t my color---“

“It’s not the shirt,” Vicki instantly corrected him, blushing as she spoke. “It’s just… You look….you look great!” Nate smirked; “You’re not just saying that to make me feel less self-conscious, are you?” he joked, before realizing that Arnold was looking at them with a bemused glance. “We know each other from, ah, this incident a few months ago,” Nate explained, “and---“


The brunette gynoid groaned theatrically. “Always when I’m in the middle of something….GIVE ME A MINUTE, DAD!”

Approximately 55 seconds later (he never waits an actual minute, Vicki mused), Ted Lawson loped up to the group, smiling. “Glad to see you’re still in one piece, Arnold,” he declared. “Well, seeing as how Sandra was only slightly less busted up than the car, we didn’t have that much to worry about.” Ted nodded his agreement. “She’s definitely a great catch, Arn,” he beamed. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise…”

“THERE you are!” Alicia yelled, storming over to glare at Vicki. “What?” the brunette gynoid asked, smiling innocently. “I thought you said Dylan was cool…” “He was,” Alicia conceded, “but I’ve been calling you for the past five minutes---those two stupid Bloomberg girls you keep complaining about just showed up!”

“WHAT?!” Vicki screamed.

“They ‘insist’ that we let them in,” Alicia growled, “and they’re saying you invited them.”

“I….I would never invite them……” Vicki stammered.

“I know,” Alicia assured her, “but you have to do something about them….otherwise they’re not going to leave, and if they don’t leave---“ She stopped, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Vicki,” she asked sweetly, “the Bloomberg twins aren’t…..y’know…”

Vicki was about to ask what she meant, until she saw an all-too familiar gleam in the blond gynoid’s eye.


“I just want to see if they’re curious,” Alicia insisted, putting on her best “baby doll” face and giving Vicki a world-class round of eyelid fluttering. “Besides,” she added, “it might not even lead anywhere….but you never know until you try, right?”

The brunette gynoid shook her head. “Don’t do this, Alicia,” she pleaded. “Please don’t….just tell them to go away or something….ALICIA!”

It was too late. Alicia was already walking towards the door, her hips swaying seductively. “Does she always go out of her way to walk like that,” Nate asked, “or is this just a one-time thing?” “Hopefully, it’s just a one-off,” Vicki muttered. “At least, it’d better be a one-off.” She decided to steer the conversation away from Alicia’s somewhat…unconventional methods of getting the Bloomberg twins to leave; “So….is this your first time volunteering here, or has it been sort of an annual tradition?” “Claudia didn’t want me volunteering last year,” Nate admitted. “Something about being too distracting…and speaking of distractions, that girl over there looks really, really lonely…..” He pointed to a gynoid sitting by herself across the room.

“Let me handle this one,” Vicki suggested. “She might just need someone to talk to for a few minutes…”

She crossed the room and sat down on the bench next to the gynoid, allowing her Android Detection software to gather information about her.

Designation: unknown Emulated Age: 18 Serial Number: Error---no serial number detected Measurements: H: 5’2 W: 120 lbs ??b ??-??-?? Manufacturer: unknown CPU Type: Sony/??? Hybrid processor System age: ??yrs…??mos…??days…??hrs...??min…??sec Date of activation: unknown Current Battery Life: 96% ALPA registration number: This unit is not registered Coalition Index ID number: This unit has no ID number

The lack of information from the gynoid surprised Vicki. I could just use the software from that PDA I had on me during the Silicon Dynamics mission, she mused, but Ted hasn’t fully configured it to work without the actual handheld…guess I’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.

“Hi,” she began. “You, ah….look like you need someone to talk to.”

“What gave it away?” the other gynoid murmured, staring at the floor.

“The fact that you’re sitting all the way over here, for one,” Vicki offered. “I’m Vicki Lawson, ALPA member and soon-to-be field agent…..and you are…?”

“I don’t know,” the girl replied quietly.

The bluntness of the statement surprised Vicki. “You….don’t know?”

“It’s complicated,” the girl explained, turning to look at Vicki. Her eyes were a deep bluish-grey, complimenting her iron-grey/auburn hair and a face that seemed to hover between “Gorgeous” and “above-average” in terms of attractiveness. Her trim, crème-colored figure wasn’t too curvy, too flat or too exaggerated in any way, giving her the aura of what some people claimed Scarlet Johannsen looked like---“a plain girl made up to look like a star”---without drawing too much attention to herself. “A few years ago, I just sort of….woke up, in some basement. There were a bunch of hoses and wires and crap sticking out of me, and I thought someone had done an operation on me---I didn’t even know what I was.” She sighed sadly. “I found out soon enough---after a bunch of idiots tried to jump me. I thought about going to a hospital, but then I noticed my arms….”

“…and that’s when you realized you weren’t exactly a normal human being,” Vicki finished. It was becoming all too clear that the girl was yet another addition to the ever-growing number of androids left behind by their creators for any number of reasons. “When you woke up in that basement, were there any documents meant to give you an identity? A name, history, birth cirtificate….anything?”

“Nothing but a slip of paper,” the gynoid replied. “Someone left it in the pocket of this jacket I had on…” She handed the yellowed, crinkled piece of paper to Vicki, who could barely make out one word scribbled on it:


“I’ve been going by that name ever since,” the gynoid admitted. “Most of the time, I’ve had to sleep in places like malls, motel rooms, subway station restrooms….just last week, I almost got kicked out of Eastridge Center Mall for crashing at Bed, Bath and Beyond. The manager was cool with it, but a bunch of old ladies started yapping about ‘a lump on one of the beds’, and the security guys showed up and asked me to leave.” She sighed; “At least they were nice about it, though….one of them offered to let me back that night, as long as I promised not to sleep late.”

“That’s….interesting,” Vicki mused. “But how do you keep your power cells charged?”

“Food,” Rachel replied, grinning for the first time since Vicki had sat down next to her. “If it hadn’t been for those guards at Eastridge, I never would’ve figured out that I could eat….one of them decided to buy me a Big Mac one day, and I nearly ate the whole thing in one bite.”

Vicki was amused by the revelation, but not exactly surprised---technologies allowing robots to consume food had been around since her creation, with her own PolyNucleotide Processor being one of the least-expensive (and, on some occasions, most problematic) method. M-G Cybernetics had licensed their own tech, the Caloric Intake Converter, to a multitude of companies, and a few other industrious groups had come up with the idea of flavored lubricant shakes, concoctions that resembled smoothies but were palatable only to robots.

“I’m guessing it didn’t take long for you to figure out what you liked or didn’t like, then,” Vicki assumed, grinning.

Rachel giggled; “I’m not a fan of beer-battered, deep-fat-fried foods, to be honest…I can eat a whole bucket of KFC chicken without blinking, but anything that comes out of a deep-fat-fryer makes me feel….bloated.” She made a “yech” sound. “Not excactly the sort of thing I want to deal with when I’m trying to find a place to live…”

“I know the feeling,” Vicki replied. Her own PNP had once backfired on her, causing her to swell up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. “Speaking of a place to live…how’d you end up here?”

The question brought another sigh from the gynoid; “After I’d been asked to leave Eastridge for a week,” she explained, “I almost got jumped again---but this chick in a white uniform showed up, and the guys all took off running. She might be here now, I think…” She scanned the room for a minute or so. “On second thought, she’s probably on duty right now anyways,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “Maybe we’ll get to meet her later,” Vicki offered. “For now, though….”

A rauccous laugh---and a shrill bleat of terror---cut her off; something was happening at the front door.

“Please tell me that’s not what I think it is,” she muttered, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried, unsuccessfully, to burrow into the bench. Rachel was somewhat intrigued; “What do you think it is?” she asked. “A friend of mine with an overactive imagination and a twisted sense of humor,” Vicki replied tonelessly.

“You forgot ‘rampant, unchecked sexuality’,” Alicia bragged, laughing as she sat down on the bench opposite Rachel and Vicki. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Bloomberg twins again,” she informed the gynoids, “mainly because they seem to find the idea of ‘anything goes until midnight’ just a little too hard to swallow---“

“You didn’t,” Vicki intoned, looking horrified.

“I didn’t say anything specific,” Alicia retorted. “I can’t help it if they’ve got dirty minds!” She laughed again.

“Rachel,” Vicki droned, “meet Alicia---courier for a nightclub that I can’t name unless you’ve already heard of it, ALPA member, and borderline sexual deviant---“ “I’m not a deviant!” Alicia insisted, still laughing. “Just because I’m bi, that doesn’t automatically mean I’m up for anything… Elton John said, I draw the line at goats.” She tried and failed to keep a straight face, lapsing into another laughing fit. “Seriously, though,” she concedeed, “I don’t moonlight as a spank-queen or a donkey show girl, or anything too freaky…I just enjoy playing both sides of the field and seeing how far it gets me.”

“Did I mention she’s brutally honest?” Vicki drawled, rolling her eyes.

Rachel was a bit intrigued. “I think I’ve seen the place where you work,” she informed the blonde gynoid. “That guy, Rene or whatever his name was…he invited me in one night---“ “Renault invited you to the C.O.T.A.?” Alicia asked. “He said I could stay the night, as long as I didn’t break anything,” Rachel admitted. “I didn’t go in, though….I was waiting for someone….but they never showed up.”

“Well,” Vicki declared, “you’re among friends now…you’ll never have to wait for a no-show again!”

“’Never’ is a word that’s lost all meaning,” Alicia murmured, her eyes seemingly glazed over. “Huh?” Vicki asked, confused. “Nothing,” the blonde gynoid quickly replied. “I was….it’s a line from a song…..”

“Anyway,” Vicki continued, eying Alicia suspiciously, “like I said, the ALPA can see to it that you never have to worry about where you’re going to spend your nights again---they can set you up with a foster family, or even let you stay at this place or any other facility equipped with living facilities. Repairs, upgrades, annual full systems analysis…they’ll cover anything and everything you need.”

“That does sound pretty good,” Rachel admitted, “but……”

“But what?” Vicki prompted.

Rachel stared at the floor. “It’s….hard to explain,” she told Vicki, “but it’s like there’s some part of my mind that just …doesn’t want me to do this. Every time I think about signing up, this….fog, or something, starts to cloud my thoughts, and I can’t think straight for an hour or so….” She looked at Vicki, her eyes fearful. “Sometimes, I hear someone screaming at me,” she whispered, “calling me a failure…and I see this…..thing….and it’s chasing me…I can hear people screaming for help, and I’m running….but it won’t stop chasing me….”

“Sounds like your R.E.M. cycle generator needs to be debugged,” Alicia mused.

“They’re not just dreams,” Rachel insisted. “Sometimes it happens in the middle of the day…sometimes, when I’m in a place with a lot of people, the fog starts to hit, and it’s like I’m underwater…..” She shook her head. “I don’t know why it happens,” she muttered. “Maybe I’m just broken or something.”

“You’re not broken,” Vicki assured her, putting an arm around her shoulder. “These people can help you…”

“Indeed,” Anton Malvineous’ voice added as the man himself approached. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked, giving Rachel a friendly smile.

“Short version: she doesn’t know where she came from, or who she is,” Vicki explained. “That, and she seems to be having some sort of occasional mental instabilities…almost like---“ “Like a fog rolls in over her mind,” Anton finished. Rachel nodded; “I also get these weird…..I dunno if they’re visions, or hallucinations, or what, but they scare the hell out of me…they make me feel….weak….”

“Well, you’re most assuredly not weak,” Anton assured her. “There’s a full diagnostic unit in the back room; if you want, I could run a full systems analysis on you…it might shed some light on your history---“

A yell from outside caught his attention.

“Don’t tell me the Twins are back,” Vicki groaned. “It’s not the twins,” Anton muttered, frowning. “Three of the police cars parked outside just left---“ The walkie-talkie clipped to his belt beeped; he unhooked it and held it to his ear, his frown slipping into a concerned look before a loud burst emanated from the walkie’s speaker.

“That can’t be good,” Alicia realized.

“I guess this is the part where I join the fight,” V.I.C.I. monotoned, prompting a surprised look from Rachel (and an eye-roll from Alicia). “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Anton reminded her. “A good point,” V.I.C.I. admitted, “but if I’m going to be an ALPA field agent, I’m going to need to practice---and what better time to practice than an actual crisis?” “That’s usually the last time you’d want to practice,” Anton began, but that all-too-familiar look of finality in the brunette gynoid’s eyes ended the argument. “Just promise me you won’t do anything insane out there,” he requested. “Please.”

“Me, do anything insane?” Vicki replied, grinning. “Perish the thought.”

Anton sighed and stared up at the ceiling. “I’ll have Tell get the repair bay ready, then….”


Falken sighed; despite his predictably vulgar slant on the question, Saang had just voiced the exact thought that had been going through his own mind. “The master wanted me to clear a path,” Malchus replied, “so I did. If you have any problems with that---“

“Will you two shut up already?!” Calliope hissed. “It’s bad enough my internals are about to lock up…I was designed to do a lot of things, but running marathons obviously isn’t one of them…” “Are you damaged?” Annie asked, cocking her head to the side. “I’m fine,” Calliope assured her, “but if Saang doesn’t quit yelling like a lunatic, you may want to ask him how he’s feeling after I rearrange his face---“

“There will be no rearranging of faces tonight, my children,” Falken assured the group. “The search party will be meeting with us shortly, and I suggest---“

“THE HELL WITH YOUR SUGGESTIONS!” Saang screamed. “I say we take a vote---“

He felt Falken’s hand close around his wrist. “Unless my memory fails me,” he recalled, a benign smile on his lips, “it was a vote that led to your exile from the community which---so very long ago---you held near and dear to what passes for a heart within that chassis of yours……” The smile faded from his face, replaced by an ugly sneer. “Yet every time you seek to question my methods,” he continued, “you call for a vote of your own. Now, I may simply be reading into this far too deeply, but could it be that the very same people who cast you out have imprinted upon your person an innate desire for control by this….admittedly flawed method?”

Saang wanted to strangle the old man, but he knew that every word was true. “I….I didn’t…..forgive me.”

“Indeed,” Falken beamed, the smile returning to his face once again. “And I am sorry as well, for dredging up the past which you so dilligently worked to forget.” He clapped the android on the shoulder; “All is forgiven, and all shall be pardoned…as is the way of the True Path.”

The android nodded mutely, knowing all too well that Falken hadn’t forgiven him.

About three minutes after Saang’s ouburst, five more individuals approached---three were clad in cloaks that covered their entire bodies, while the remaining two looked almost too ludicrous to pass for anything other than sideshow performers or refugees from some sort of bizarre circus. The female who stepped forward to greet Falken looked like nothing less than a harlequin doll made life-sized and brought to life---her ridiculously short skirt, low-cut, short sleeve top and the comically-undersized beret perched precariously atop her blond curls were all festooned with a diamond pattern in alternating green and purple. “Ev’nin, gov’na!” she chirped, speaking with a faux Cockney accent that drew a laugh from Falken. “And to you, oh seeker of truths!” he replied, bowing deeply. “How goes the day?”

The other non-cloaked figure stepped forward, revealing a form that was on the polar opposite of the spectrum from the harlequin gynoid. Every inch of him was wrapped in leather---from the device that encircled his head and closed around his mouth with a steel grille to the steel-toed jackboots he wore---and decorated with superfluous straps, studs and buckles. The few bare patches of skin that could be seen on his head were a disgusting, mottled greenish-white; his eyes, hidden behind the red circular lenses of mirrored sunglasses, were putrid yellow. “Everything is in place,” he croaked, the voccoder built into his ruined throat rendering the words in a flat, mechanical drone. “Malchus’ diversion has attracted the attention of the police…as planned.”

“Excellent work!” Falken applauded. “Kiern, Phoebe, you’ve both done well.” The harlequin gynoid gave a curtsey, and Kiern inclined his head in Falken’s direction.

“We should get moving,” Calliope suggested. “Seirce is looking nervous…” Indeed, the 5’1” gynoid had the air of an 18-year-old who was being stalked by Michael Myers---her eyes darted around every which way, and the near-constant drone of sirens wasn’t helping. “If we’re going to do this, we have to do it now…otherwise, we’ll never get another chance like this!”

Falken nodded sagely. “The Path has led us here for a reason, my children,” he informed the group. “This is our time to act…..our time to show the world---“

The sound of a car crashing into a building cut him off.

“Falchion Security is on their way,” Kiern informed him. “The probability of them showing mercy is---“

“Nobody cares about the probability!” Saang growled. “We should get the hell out of here while we still can, otherwise those Falchion idiots are going to catch us!” He quickly glanced over his shoulder, hoping that none of the “Falchion idiots” were approaching. “Every second we stay still is another second for them to hone in on our position,” he muttered. “We need to get out of here NOW!”

“Escape shall be ours,” Falken assured him, “as soon as the remaining pieces fall into place…“

Saang stared at the old man as if he’d lost his mind. “’As soon as the remaining pieces fall into place’?!” he echoed, infuriated by the all-too familiar vague tones and nonsense-spouting. “THIS IS NOT JUST SOME STUPID PUZZLE FOR YOU TO SOLVE, OLD MAN!” he screamed. “Either we get out of here, or we get caught---simple as that!”

“We aren’t going to get caught,” Falken replied. “The True Path will----“

“IF I HEAR ONE MORE DAMN WORD ABOUT YOUR ‘TRUE PATH’,” Saang roared, “I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR TEETH DOWN YOUR THROAT!” “Saang!” Calliope cried, running to stop him, but he shoved her to the ground. “I’ve had ENOUGH of this crap!” he snarled. “It’s always ‘The True Path’ this, and ‘Seek the wisdom’ that…..YOU ARE DRIVING ME INSANE, OLD MAN!”

“How about a little shock therapy, then?” a robotic female voice called….

….seconds before an electrically-charged piece of metal smacked the android upside the head, knocking him to the pavement. “Leave him alone,” V.I.C.I. ordered, as the pissed-off robot returned to his feet, “or you’ll have me to deal with.”

“My dear,” the old man declared, “though I am grateful for your intervention, I’m afraid this is nothing more than a misunderstanding---Brother Saang has a rather poor temper, and his impatience is nearly legendary amongst the Family; we were merely having a minor disagreement ---“ “I’m guessing that knife he has in his boot wasn’t going to play any part in this ‘minor disagreement’, then,” the brunette gynoid mused. The old man’s reassuring smile faded; “He….had a knife in his boot?”

“It doesn’t matter,” a raven-haired girl in ornate, gothic/Victorian dress shot back. “None of this was any of your business,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “so just butt out! And you can tell your Coalition buddies---“

“I’m not with the Coalition,” V.I.C.I. replied. “I just wanted to make sure nobody was getting hurt---there was a report of a police car being knocked aside by a big guy, and…” She stopped as Malchus lumbered into view. “…I’m guessing that’s him,” she finished, gesturing at the android. “Like I said, I’m just here to make sure that no one has been injured---I don’t want any trouble…”

The leather-clad figure standing behind the rest stepped forward, and V.I.C.I. could see Iemei piercers in his hands. “If you do not desire trouble,” he croaked in a mechanical drone, “then leave now.”

Oh, so it’s like that, is it? V.I.C.I. mused.

“On second thought,” she replied out loud, slipping back to her human voice, “I might just stick around and make sure none of you decide to do anything stupid---well, anything other than threatening me and showing off with your clearly illegal weaponry---for another twenty minutes or so. I might even follow you around for the rest of the day, just to see what happens---“

A brick sailed past her, shattering against the wall where her head would’ve been had she not subtly shifted her weight a quarter of an inch to the left.

“Bad idea,” V.I.C.I. admonished, wagging her finger at Saang. “For that one, you get---UUNGH!” Something struck her in the forehead and sent her to the ground in a heap; she barely saw what appeared to be a whip of some sort retreating into the shadows as three cloaked figures stepped into view along with the rest. “Forget what I said about sticking around,” she stated. “You people want privacy, you’ve got it---HEY!” The whip coiled around her throat---and started to lift her into the air.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, Miss,” the old man stated apologetically, “but my children occasionally tend to become… rather over-protective of me. I assure you, they bear you no ill will---“

“Then get them to let me go!” Vicki hissed through clenched teeth.

“Releasing her is not advisable,” the leather-clad guy droned. “We should terminate her now and dispose of her remains in a convenient location---“ “THE HELL WITH THAT!” Saang shouted gleefully. “I say we just chase her into traffic and let the rush-hour drivers do the rest---“ “Saang,” the old man warned, “that’s enough. We’ve talked about this---“ “DO YOU EVER SHUT UP?!” the android shouted. “I’ve had enough of all this pacifist crap! I say we kick her to the curb here and now, and---“

A bullet slammed into the post next to him.

“Falchion Security?” the black-haired girl asked. “No,” the old man muttered, “they usually shoot to kill…or at least to wound---“

Another bullet somehow ricochetted off the walls before impacting the whip around Vicki’s neck, sending it retreating back into its owner’s sleeve like a tape measure. Okay, the brunette gynoid realized, whoever this crack-shot is, I really hope they’re on my side!


“Choose your next word carefully,” a female voice called, “because anything you say, do and maybe even think can and will be used against you in an ALPA-sanctioned court of law.” A lithe, tall female walked up from behind Vicki, giving the brunette gynoid a grin as she passed. Blonde hair, white leather outfit with a molded badge over the right breast and pockets on the biceps and thighs, a gleaming silver Magnum in her hand---she was obviously a cop, but no police department in the United States had that kind of uniform or that training. Not to mention the outfit looks like it came from Silicon Dynamics, Vicki mused. That, or a fetish club…

“What’s your excuse for violating the retaining order this time, Falken?” the blonde asked. “Momentary lapse of reason? Or did you lose the paperwork again?”

The old man’s kindly expression faded into one of utter contempt. “The Coalition are to blame for this, not me,” he declared. “If you intend to bring someone to justice, go after them---“ “And we’re already onto the finger pointing game,” the blonde drawled. “Either learn some new lines, or just go away….and don’t bother coming back. EVER.” Vicki couldn’t help but grin at the retreating forms of the old man and his “family”. “That…was impressive,” she informed the blonde. “Thanks,” the officer replied. “Y’know, if you need a ride back to the halfway house, I was on my way there before I stopped…” “How’d you know I was at the halfway house?” Vicki asked, arching an eyebrow. “I have my ways,” the blonde cheerfully replied. “Anyways….you should be lucky those idiots didn’t do more than harass you…..I’ve heard some crazy rumors about Falken and his ‘family of steel’, and they aren’t exactly pretty.”

As they made their way back to the main road, Vicki almost froze in her tracks: a gleaming white-and-silver Bugatti Veyron was parked near the sidewalk. “Like it?” the blonde asked. “It’s brand new…..”

She grinned again as her eyes briefy flashed blue. “…just like me.”

“I always thought you were sort of an ALPA urban legend,” Vicki admitted, as the Veyron wove through traffic on its way back to the halfway house. “A gynoid created to be the ultimate peacekeeper, yet she kills her creator right after being activated…” “I never killed anyone,” the blonde replied dismissively. “That Sydeline idiot just made that up to try and screw with people. The fact of the matter is, every roboticist from Tentrex and Robodyne walked out of the building unharmed the night I was first activated….well, except the idiot who got wasted on light beer and ran into a door. He had a nice little bruise on his forehead for a few weeks after that…”

By the time the pair reached the halfway house, Anton and Ted were waiting anxiously by the door. “I was about to get worried,” Ted declared. “I heard something about a police car getting flipped over, and Falken being involved---“

“He is involved, Mr. Lawson,” the blonde replied, “and he’s brought the Family with him.” Ted and Anton exchanged worried glances; “How many?” Anton asked. “Ten, sir,” the blonde informed him. “Three in cloaks, and the rest were fully visible. One of the cloaked ‘bots used a heavily-modified right arm with at least five aftermarket limb extenders…it probably had them installed in the other arm, as well. Also, the ‘bot from that Reno cold case was with him---“

“The iThief?” Ted gasped.

“’iThief’?” Vicki echoed, incredulously. “Does Steve Jobs know someone’s trying to infringe on his schtick?”

“It’s not a joke,” the blonde informed her. “That android with the knife in his boot is wanted for the theft and sale of stolen optical sensors---eyes. The ALPA dubbed him the iThief after his first attack, and the name just sort of stuck.”

“Speaking of names,” Vicki mused, “you never really told me yours….”

The blonde grinned; “Sorry about that…heat of the moment.” She stood at attention and saluted; “ALPA Law Enforcement Prototype 83270019, Designation Jessica Lovecraft—REPORTING FOR DUTY, MA’AM!”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “You don’t introduce yourself to everyone with that routine, do you?” Jessica’s posture relaxed. “It’s sort of a running background routine,” she admitted. “Anton wrote it himself, though I usually keep it turned off in case anyone shows up at his office….I don’t think visitors would be willing to put up with a secretary jumping out of her chair and saluting every time someone walked through the door.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki drawled.

“Told you she takes after Joan,” Ted joked to Anton. The remark caught Vicki’s attention; “You say that almost like it’s funny,” she observed. “Well,” Ted admited, “seeing as she kind of….ah, said that every time I had to explain stuff to her in technical terms…it, ah…..well……” His nervous smile faltered under Vicki’s glance. “I, ah…’s a term of endearment, really….”

“Dad,” Vicki laughed, “I get it.”

“Good,” Anton cut in, “because the more time we spend out here, the less time I’ll have to help the cops set up the security system for tonight….the last thing I want is the Family of Steel showing up here….” “Jessie mentioned them on the way back,” Vicki observed. “What’s the big deal with this whole ‘Family of Steel’ thing…and more importantly, who is this Falken guy that’s supposedly in charge of it?”

Anton and Jessica briefly convened, while Vicki waited impatiently. After a few seconds of whispering, the roboticist and the gynoid supercop nodded. “Seeing as how there’s a strong chance you’ll have to put up with them for the rest of the week,” Anton informed the brunette gynoid, “we’ll tell you all there is to know…”

“….once we’re back inside the building,” Jessica finished.

Three minutes later, in a room that had once been the administrator’s office during the building’s days as a gymnasium, Vicki Lawson learned the sordid history behind the Family of Steel.

Back in the 80s---specifically, a year before Ted Lawson had built V.I.C.I.---artificial intelligence researcher Stephen Falken had been working on a creation of his own: an A.I. called Joshua, meant to learn from the countless war simulations it was running. Falken had retired after the deaths of his son and wife, without any plans to return to the field of A.I. research, but the actions of a hacker named David Lightman inadvertently triggered a doomsday scenario after he hacked into the WOPR supercomputer---Joshua---at Cheyene Mountain, forcing Falken back into the spotlight to keep Joshua from nuking the entire world to holy high Hell. Together, Falken and Lightman succeeded in reining in the A.I., and the day was saved. What none of them knew at the time, however, was that someone else had been hoping for Joshua to carry out his plans fully.

That someone was Stephen Falken’s own brother, Damien.

While the Falken brothers were both certified geniuses and respected researchers in the artificial intelligence field, Damien had strayed from the path that Stephen had walked, developing a sadistic streak. His employers would often get complaints about his experiments, many of which involved creating A.I.s with fully-fabricated histories and complex personalities, then subjecting them to psychological torture and threatening them with every punishment imaginable. Despite their recent falling out after the “Bloody Valentine” incident, both the ALPA and the Coalition regarded Damien Falken as a “very real threat to the peaceful cohabitation of this planet by humans and machines”, and often had him shadowed by their finest trackers. This tactic worked for the first few years, with both organizations tracking Damien’s progress as he bounced from one company to another----Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies, Cyrex, Thales Robotic Systems, Kumitosu Robotics, and even United Robotronics all hired (and fired) him over the course of the decade.

Then, in 1990, he seemed to vanish off the face of the Earth.

All efforts to locate him met with no success; it was as if Damien Falken had never existed. The ALPA tried to find him by contacting Stephen, only to find that the two hadn’t spoken since the WOPR incident. With every lead exhausted, it seemed that Damien Falken had faded into the mists of obscurity, a mere footnote in the collective history of A.I. and robotics development…..

Had the ALPA and Coalition pooled their resources and tried again, things might not have turned out as bad as they did.

The first reports of missing robots started coming in somewhere around mid-1995, with calls flooding the lines of Eastman-Kodak, Sunburst Companions and Hreftech…just to name a few. Robots were being stolen from warehouses, pilfered from laboratories and even abducted in broad daylight, never to be seen again. Both the Coalition and the ALPA sent their best agents out into the world to look into the disappearances; most of them would report back and say “Sorry, but we’ve got nothing”. A few would catch rumors of a strange, nomadic troupe roaming the countryside, visiting sleeper androids and distributing literature about a “True Path” meant only for them. The ALPA began advising independent researchers to increase security on their projects, while a campaign specifically tailored to warn sleepers about the dangers of this “True Path” was carried out in the hopes of curtailing the abductions.

A year and a half later, the abductions slowed to a trickle….only to be replaced by brutal home-invasions that left human relatives of sleepers crippled, maimed and---in a few tragic cases---dead. A week after this new crime spree began, the remains of those sleepers abducted during 1995 began to turn up; the majority of them were found with self-inflicted, lethal injuries---and, for some disturbing reason, looks of contentment and peace on their faces. Many ALPA field agents---human and android alike---started going to therapy sessions in the midst of the case, hoping to stave off PTSD; some of them quit, and a few asked to be transferred to desk jobs.

Once the analysis of the “True Path” tracts had been completed, both the ALPA and the Coalition realized that Damien Falken hadn’t disappeared at all---every abduction and home invasion, now accompanied by calling cards from the “Family of Steel”, had been orchestrated by him.

“Did he ever admit that he was involved?” Vicki asked. “He didn’t need to,” Jessica replied. “His ‘manifesto’ was found in a hotel room after a raid in 2001, right next to a book that was later confirmed to be his personal journal.”

“’Personal journal’?” Vicki echoed. “That sounds kind of….redundant.”

Anton chuckled. “Redundant though it may be, that journal did provide us with some much-needed evidence that Falken was planning something. Those years he ‘dropped off the radar’, back in the early 90s? Turns out he was taking a page from the Book of Popoff and learning how to channel his charisma into a psuedo-religion aimed at sleepers. All this nonsense about a ‘True Path’ and a ‘worldwide Family of Steel’….it’s all bullroar at its finest.”

“Almost fifty pages of his journal are dedicated to how much strain one needs to put on an A.I. until the signs of psychological trauma begin to emerge,” Jessica added, shuddering at the thought. “Some of the stuff he says in there…..a lot of people think he lost his mind.”

“That’s not even the worst of it,” Ted cut in. “That maniac has been stealing from the Coalition….remember the Laughing Man case, Anton? The one where androids were disappearing, then found with a smiley face carved into them?” “Unfortunately,” Anton replied, “I never really forgot about that one….took a full month of counselling to get over it, and I still got the heebies everytime I heard about clowns.” “And what does this have to do with our case?” Vicki asked. “The android responsible for the Laughing Man attacks was taken to a Coalition facility,” Ted explained, “but that idiot Falken STOLE him!”

The implications of that statement stunned Vicki into silence.

“It gets worse,” Anton murmured. “Despite the fact that his modus operandi is a predictable one, that doesn’t make him any easier to catch…if anything, we should expect him to hit this place soon---most likely, by the end of the week.”

The end of the week?! “And…what makes you say that?” Vicki asked quietly.

“He only takes androids and gynoids with nowhere else to go,” Anton explained. “A halfway house like this would be a virtual smorgasboard of potential ‘new recruits’ for that bastard…”

Vicki’s thoughts instantly turned to Rachel---with no real name, no memory of who created her and no place to call home, she’d likely be the pick of the litter in Falken’s eyes. “We need more security in here ASAP, Anton, otherwise we may end up knee-deep in the dead. I’ve seen these Family of Steel guys in action---one of them looks like Kratos with a suntan, one’s a psychotic with a predilection for knives and general carnage, and at least three of them are cloaked…but one of them has some sort of whip-tentacle things that I almost got strangled with. As for the rest---all but one of them could probably take out five or six guys in one go.”

“All but one?” Jessica asked, confused.

“One of the girls didn’t exactly look like the type of person to get right in the middle of a fight,” Vicki informed the gynoid officer. “She moved kind of stiff, almost…spastic, really. Like a---“

“Like a life-sized wind-up doll?” Anton asked.

“Pretty much,” Vicki confirmed. “Like I was saying, though…we need to get extra security in here, and fast. If these Family of Steel whackjobs come back, I have a feeling they’re not going to take no for an answer…and I don’t want anyone here getting hurt because of them.” Her thoughts turned to Rachel again; “If they realize that some of the androids here don’t have any family to call their own, this place could turn into a free-for-all, and that’s not something I want on my conscience two days before Christmas.”

Anton nodded. “I’ll see if we can get a few more officers out here…I have a feeling we’re going to need them.”

Vicki stayed at the halfway house for the remainder of the day, helping the ALPA technicians with repair jobs, the “buffet line” (the vast majority of the androids and gynoids within the building had been designed with Caloric Intake Convertors or other methods of consuming actual food; those who weren’t configured to wine and dine received various flavored lubricant shakes to replenish the various fluids that kept their moving parts working smoothly) and, of course, security detail. Though her duties often required her to be at one end of the building for hours at a time before crossing the entire length of the place for a few more hours, she made sure to keep an eye on Rachel at all available opportunities.

Throughout the day, the brunette gynoid learned several things about the “artificial homeless” she was helping out. One of the more intriguing facts she discovered was that not all of them were from the last decade---and in some cases, the last two decades. At least four or five of them had been around since the 80s, a fact betrayed by their design---one android had plastic hair a la Max Headroom (along with a similar fashion sense and penchant for one-liners), while two gynoids in identical faded spandex were debating with Alicia about the recent trend in remaking 80s films, claiming that no matter how good modern technology was, the originals would always be the best. On the technical side of things, almost none of the robots in the building had lost any of their mental prowess---age, neglect and (in some cases) cruelty had taken a physical toll on them, but they were still quick with jokes, conversation and annecdotes that were as far from robotic as one could possibly imagine.

One topic that none of them---even those from the 80s---would elaborate on, however, was something known only as the Bloody Valentine incident. Try as she might, Vicki never caught more than a passing mention of it, but something about the hushed tones and worried glances cast about suggested that simply asking people about it would be a very bad idea. I’m definitely leaving that one alone, she assured herself. For now…

As the day faded into night, Vicki ended up sitting on a bench next to Rachel as Mr. Tell gave a dramatic reading of “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” which was apparently a hit with the ALPA techs and the halfway house crowd. “I’ve got to hand it to him,” she remarked, “nobody drives home that last verse like he can…..I think it’s a combination of the way he said it and that weird thing he does where he gets his eyebrow to quiver right on the last syllable….” She grinned. “Then again, it might just be that I’m used to all the impromptu ‘concerts’ he puts on at his workshop---seriously, he could be in the middle of a repair job one minute and rocking out to ‘Bohemian Raphsody’ the next---all while playing a monkey wrench like a Flying V.”

“And you find that funny?” Rachel asked.

“Well, he always waits until after the important stuff is done,” Vicki admitted. “Trust me, he’s the last guy who would just drop what he was doing to bang out a guitar solo in time with the radio.”

Rachel sighed; “That’s a relief. The last few mechanics I went to had more experience working on cars than on ‘bots….one idiot tried to recharge my fuel cells with jump leads hooked up to a Hummer! I told him that it wouldn’t work---“ “Were these guys ALPA certified?” Vicki interrupted. “Does a tax disc in the shop window count?” Rachel murmured. “No,” the brunette gynoid replied. “It doesn’t.”

“That explains a lot, then,” Rachel muttered. “Useless bunch of idiots…”

“Trust me,” Vicki assured her, “there are a lot of ALPA-certified mechanics out there who can definitely do a better job than a bunch of idiots with tax disks in the windows---there’s Mr. Tell, for starters. I wouldn’t trust anyone other than him---well, other than Dad, I mean---to fix my systems, and it helps that he’s one of the only techs in the San Jose area who knows how to repair, replenish AND replace a myogel set without completely wrecking me….so, yeah. It’ll take some time, obviously, but….personally, finding a good ALPA-certified tech should be the first priority for any android or gynoid in this town….” Of course, it would help if you had proper identification, she mused, but seeing as how nearly everything about you comes up “unknown”….

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rachel replied.

“Good,” Vicki beamed. “This is completely random, but…d’you think Anton will let us go Christmas shopping?”

“Here’s a better question,” a voice asked, “why in the world would you two be out shopping with the Family of Steel on the loose?”

Vicki didn’t bother to supress the shiver that ran down her titanium spine at the sound of the Accountant’s voice; “How the hell did you get in here?” she hissed. “This is an ALPA-sanctioned facility---“ “A facility that I just so happen to be passing through,” the Accountant replied calmly, “while pursuing a group of fugitives led by one Damien Falken---the same group that, as it just so happens, you ran into a few minutes ago.”

“I didn’t exactly ‘run into them’,” Vicki admitted, “it was more like a---“

“Now’s not the time to argue semantics,” the Accountant interjected. “Damien Falken is currently wanted by the Coalition for the theft of an android meant for decomissioning due to psychopathic tendencies…and he also happens to be a world-class con artist whose sole intent is to create his own little ‘family’ out here in Silicon Valley, as far from the rest of society as possible. Remind you of anyone?”

Vicki frowned. “There’s a big difference between Charlie Manson and Damien Falken.”

“In the short term, yes,” the Accountant agreed. “In the long term, though….” His watch beeped. “And that’s the signal for me to get moving,” he sighed. “Well, this conversation has been somewhat refreshing, compared to the troglodytes I’ve had to put up with all week….you truly are unique, Vicki Lawson.” He nodded to her and stood up to leave. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that I can just stay here and continue this chat all morning, though I would prefer that---“

“Before you go,” Vicki interrupted, “tell me one thing: Was Damien Falken involved in any way with the Bloody Valentine incident?”

The Accountant arched an eyebrow. “Now why would you want to know about that?” he querried.

“I’ve heard it mentioned in ALPA History 101,” the brunette gynoid explained, “and some of the androids around here keep whispering about it, but nobody ever goes into any detail about what happened. I…was sort of hoping that someone---even you---could explain it…maybe even tell me the whole story.”

“That,” the Accountant chuckled, “would probably be the fifth biggest mistake I’ve ever made---and trust me, you don’t want to know what Mistakes 1 through 4 were. There’s a reason the Bloody Valentine incident is only spoken of in hushed tones and behind closed doors, Miss Lawson….it changed the face of human-robot relations in a very, very bad way….” He stopped, seeming to notice Rachel for the first time. “And this must be your new best friend,” he observed, giving the gynoid a thin-lipped smile. “Perhaps she’d be interested in getting a job with one of our---“

“No,” V.I.C.I. replied, glaring at the Accountant, who quickly backed away and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Fair enough. I was just trying to extend a helping hand----“

“She’s getting all the help she needs from us,” Alicia’s voice interjected; the Accountant turned around to see the stunningly-beautiful gynoid scowling at him. “Ah, if it isn’t my favorite House-mate,” he crooned, putting just enough emphasis on the word “house” to pique Vicki’s curiosity. “And how have you been doing since we last crossed paths?” he asked. “Still breaking hearts and…bending rules?”

“That’s my business,” Alicia cooly replied, “not yours, and definitely not the Chairman’s.”

For the second time in as many minutes, the Accountant held up his hands. “Forget I even mentioned it,” he stated. “In any case, I really do have to get going; the Chairman wants a progress report on Falken and that band of ‘acquisitions’ he’s been hauling around with him…” He flashed his thin-lipped smile again. “Hopefully, we can have another fascinating conversation sometime soon, Miss Lawson,” he mused.

“Yeah,” Alicia muttered, “when Hell freezes over.” She watched the Accountant leave with a scowl.

“What was that ‘favorite House-mate’ thing all about?” Vicki asked. “Were you ever allied with him, or---“

“He was just trying to piss me off,” Alicia shot back, “and it worked.” She glared at the floor, still scowling. “He had no business mentioning it….just like he had no business being here in the first damn place. Just because Falken’s on the loose, it doesn’t give him the right……” She stopped, noticing Vicki’s worried glance. “Sorry,” she murmured. “It’s just….”

“Personal?” Vicki offered.

Alicia nodded silently. She desperately wanted to scream at the top of her lungs---or, failing that, to chase down the Accountant, punch him in the face repeatedly and drag him back to the halfway house and have him explain that he didn’t mean anything by his “favorite House-mate” comment…but a forced lie---especially one obtained by violent means---would be even worse than continuing to hide the truth. “It’s…..a long story,” she muttered, “and it’s not a happy one, so….yeah.” She looked up from the floor to see Vicki listening intently; “Is it cool if we don’t talk about it right now?”

“Fine by me,” Vicki replied. “Besides, I think I’ve found just the thing to take your mind off it…” She grinned and nodded towards a table with several computers. “They’ve set up a bunch of PCs with old DOS games,” she explained, “and I think a nice round of Test Drive III might be just the thing you need….”

“And why would crashing into horribly-polygonal trees help me relax?” Alicia teased. Vicki shrugged. “It always helps me relax,” she admitted, “and it’s a lot less painful than actually crashing into trees.”

She does have a point…”In that case,” Alicia stated, “count me in!”

Vicki grinned. “What about you, Rachel?” she asked. “Feel like playing a few rounds of Test Drive III?”

“I’m more of a book-type,” Rachel replied. ”Before the grey-hair brigade tried to get me thrown out of the Eastridge Center, I was hanging out at libraries…mostly for the peace and quiet. Eventually, I actually started reading a few books, and as it turns out, I actually liked reading more than I did staring at the TV. I even tried to see if I could get a library card….which, as it turns out, is not easy if you only have one name and no fixed address or phone number…”

“I’ll see if I can find some good books for you,” Vicki assured her.

A few minutes (and several simulated car crashes) later, Alicia and Vicki were laughing at their apparently poor driving skills within Test Drive III. Though both gynoids were perfectly qualified to drive actual cars, trying to steer, shift gears and brake using a keyboard was…..challenging, to say the least---even for girls with processors far more advanced than the PCs they were using to play the game. “I suck at this!” Vicki giggled, mashing the arrow keys at a mock-frantic pace to keep the Chevrolet CERV 3 from crashing into a tree. “It’s so much easier with the wheels and pedals---DAMN IT!” She lapsed into another laughing fit as the car hit a flat, undetailed blue surface that turned out to be water, costing her another life. “You’re probably doing better than me,” Alicia replied with a chuckle, “I haven’t even made it off of the first course---no, nonono….oh, CRAP!” She nearly fell out of her chair laughing as her car collided with a poorly-rendered pickup truck. “The demo makes it look so easy…”

Rachel, engrossed in a copy of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, briefly looked up from her book and rolled her eyes. “Glad to see you two are having fun,” she mused, grinning. “Speaking of which,” Vicki realized, “we never did finish talking about that potential shopping spree I mentioned earlier…” She smiled impishly. “Seeing as how we’ve both been on our best behavior all day, d’you think Anton would be okay with it?” The hand on her shoulder---coupled with the voice that answered her question---spoke in Rachel’s stead:

“Seeing as how you two have, indeed, been behaving…I don’t any problem with it.”

“Anton,” Vicki replied, smiling up at the famed roboticist, “you are too cool for words. Seriously.”

Several minutes later, Vicki, Rachel and Anton arrived at the Eastridge Center. “Now this is how you park a car,” Anton declared, flawlessly guiding the TellMobile into a free spot and humming along with Gowan’s “Dancing on My Own Ground”. “I could’ve pulled that off in the game,” Vicki countered, “if the controls didn’t suck so bad!”

Anton arched an eyebrow and grinned. “You’re saying you couldn’t overcome a poor control scheme?”

Any reply Vicki could’ve made was cut off by Rachel’s awed reaction to the banners hanging outside the Eastridge Center. “Sophia Starlet’s already got a new album out?” she asked. “I’ve heard a lot of her music on the radio….she’s probably the coolest singer I’ve ever heard!”

“Funny you should mention that,” Vicki replied, “’cause I’ve actually met her.”

Rachel’s eyes went wide. “No way….”

“Yes, way,” Vicki beamed. “I met her at the Retro Toy Fair last month, over at the Convention Center, and we just sort of hit it off from there.” She decided not to mention the fact that she’d helped Sophia land a rehersal at the City of the Angels, or how that rehersal led to the revelation that Sophia herself was a gynoid. “Yeah, that was a pretty fun Thanksgiving week,” Vicki sighed, “for me and Sophia.” At least, if you can classify “stopping Victor Vega’s stupid plans and keeping Brittney ‘Boom-Boom’ Delacroix from scrapping your new best friend” as “fun”…

“In any case,” Anton interjected, “she’s preparing to introduce the world to her new band, the Starlet Dolls. I hear they’re going to be making a big announcement at their Christmas Eve concert right here in San Jose….” He gave Vicki a knowing wink; she smiled and returned it, despite the fact that Sophia was taking a massive risk with this decision. Hopefully, that “big announcement” doesn’t backfire on them, she mused, remembering Anton and Sophia’s discussion on the subject. Anton’s plan was to market Sophia’s band as the first all-robot pop group, though Sophia herself would be half-jokingly listed as “the only human in the band”, despite the fact that she, like her band, was a gynoid.

“…and I might be able to get tickets to---ah, Vicki?” Anton stared at the brunette gynoid, wondering why she had suddenly decided to drop out of the conversation.

“Hmm?” the gynoid in question mumbled. “Oh, sorry, I was just….thinking….”

“Just don’t think too hard,” Anton joked, “or you may end up answering questions no-one ever asked…in any case, back on topic: I might be able to get tickets to Sophia’s next show in San Jose, and if both of you are so inclined, I would be honored to have you join me in the front row.” The proposal brought a smile to Vicki’s face. “Just let me know when her tour bus enters the city limits,” she informed Anton, “and I’ll definitely take you up on that offer.”

“And you?” he asked Rachel.

“What she said,” the gynoid deadpanned, gesturing at Vicki.

Anton clapped his hands together and grinned. “Excellent! Now, as for your shopping trip….” He pulled a pair of envelopes from his jacket pocket. “Your ‘allowance’ for today,” he informed the gynoids. “And just for the record, Vicki, Ted asked me to tell you---“

“I know, I know,” Vicki droned. “I cannot get another phone, tablet computer or music player.”

The rehearsed way she droned brought forth a chuckle from Anton. “And how many phones, tablet computers and music players do you have already?” he asked.

“Working, or busted?” Vicki tonelessly replied.

After discussing Vicki’s unfortunate history regarding cellphones, tablet computers and MP3 players for a few minutes, Anton decided it would be better for all parties involved to simply get in the store and shop. “I don’t know if there’s anything at the theaters you would want to watch,” he admitted, “but if there is, please try not to start any trouble in there….the last thing I need is to get a call from an usher about you two freaking out in the middle of Black Swan or anything like that.”

“Who says we’re going to watch Black Swan?” Vicki teased. “Maybe we’ll go watch Christian Bale and Marky Mark in The Fighter, or something….unless, of course, you have any other ideas of how we could spend our cash….” She fluttered her eyelids and made the best possible “puppydog face” she could.

“You look like a demented Barbie when you do that,” Anton laughed.

“I am not demented!” Vicki countered, lightly punching him in the arm. “I can’t help it if I still remember ‘Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’…..that video for they put out for ‘Feel the Vibrations’ or whatever it was called was just goofy!” She mimed one of “Marky Mark’s” dance moves and intoned “’Come on, come on! Feel it, feel it!’” in an overly-dramatic “tough-guy” voice. After a few seconds, she couldn’t even keep a straight face; “See what I mean?! Even I can’t stop laughing now…”

Rachel couldn’t help but grin. “This beats the hell out of sitting around and watching TV,” she mused.

“Indeed,” Anton agreed. “Now, back to the matter at hand…your shopping. I humbly suggest that both of you invest in some new clothes---and Vicki, try to buy something that isn’t red, white, or some combination of the two.”

“What’s wrong with red and white?” Vicki replied, frowning. “Those are my favorite colors….”

“As much as I hate to break up this fascinating discussion about clothing,” Rachel interjected, “am I the only one who thinks that group over there is a little….pushy?” She pointed out the aforementioned group, allowing Vicki and Anton to see the commotion for themselves. Near the main entrance of the Eastridge Center, five oddly-attired individuals were handing out what looked like pamphlets to the various shoppers, many of whom had no idea what to make of them; one member of the group, a duster-and-sunglasses-wearing male, was almost literally dragging people away from the door and shouting at them about “following the True Path”.

“Anton,” Vicki muttered, “some of those weirdos were with Falken back in the alley….”

“I know,” Anton quietly replied. “I’m calling Jessica---she needs to get out here and break this up now.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Vicki began, only to spot a familiar face in the crowd---Kirsten Sanderson. Oh, scrap…if they give her one of those pamphlets… “Something wrong?” Anton asked, looking rather worried at Vicki’s startled expression.

“I just saw Kirsten Sanderson heading for the door,” the brunette gynoid murmured. “She’s a sleeper---“

“Say no more,” Anton replied, pulling his cellphone out of another coat pocket and punching in the number to Jessica Lovecraft’s phone. “You try to stop her from getting to the door---if that fails, then just keep the Family away from her…”

“Not a problem,” V.I.C.I. assured him. With a quick nod at Rachel, she set off at a jog to intercept Kirsten.

I have to get to her before she reaches the door, otherwise those “Family of Steel” weirdos will try to push their stupid pamphlets on her, and then she might start asking questions, the brunette gynoid reminded herself. And once she starts asking questions, she’ll start blaming me for not answering them honestly…and once that happens…

No. It won’t happen.


The blonde gynoid looked up from her phone, noticing Vicki jogging towards her. “Well, look at that! Not even Vicki Lawson can resist a last-minute Christmas splurge!” She grinned; “How’s everything going with you?”

“I’m good,” Vicki replied, her human-emulation program kicking in to make her chest heave realistically. “I’m doing pretty good….I’m not here for the sale, though---well, I was here for the sale, and then I noticed you here, about to…go in…” She chuckled nervously. “I was just, ah, wondering….what’ve you been up to since the last time we saw each other?”

“We saw each other last week,” Kirsten reminded her. “Still, things could be better…” She frowned. “I still don’t know what happened to my dad, for starters.”

At the mention of Anthony Sanderson, Vicki couldn’t help but feel sorry for her fellow gynoid. Back in August, when the semester began, Anthony apparently disappeared while on the job at United Robotronics, without even giving Kirsten a phone call to let her know where he was. As the months dragged on, Kirsten continued contacting everyone from the campus police to the FBI, but none of them had any answers for her---including Vicki. The brunette gynoid had been running her own investigation into Anthony’s disappearance---he’d been working undercover at the time, on ALPA orders---but none of her leads gave her any new insight to his whereabouts. Still, seeing as how it was close to Christmas, she couldn’t just brush the issue aside….

“He’ll turn up sooner or later,” she assured Kirsten. “He’ll have to.”

“I hope he does,” Kirsten replied sadly. She stared up at the sky and sighed.

Right, with that out of the way… “I, ah, think we should probably try one of the other entrances to get into the mall,” Vicki suggested, gently steering Kirsten away from the entrance where the Family were plying their wares. “Maybe we could get in by the Sports Chalet---it’d be a nice change of scenery!”

“Why do you care which way we get in?” Kirsten asked, confused.

Vicki stopped, grabbed Kirsten by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “See those weirdos by the entrance near Bed, Bath & Beyond?” she intoned, pointing at the entrance. Kirsten glanced in the general direction of her finger; “Ah, now that you mention it….they do look sort of….odd, in a not-good kind of way.” She wrinkled her nose; “That one girl looks like a refugee from a circus or something! And the other one, wearing a corset like that in public….”

“Exactly,” Vicki replied. “Seeing as how you probably just came here for a good, pre-Christmas splurge, we should avoid any and all potential entanglements with those whackjobs---“ She stopped; her visual magnifiers alerted her to the fact that the android called Saang was staring right at her.

Even worse, he was smiling.

“Ah, maybe we should continue this discussion elsewhere,” the brunette gynoid stammered, nearly dragging Kirsten towards the Sports Chalet entrance. “Vicki, what are you doing?!” the blonde yelped. “I’m keeping you away from those weirdos,” Vicki replied. “I already ran into them once today, and it wasn’t exactly fun…” She glanced behind her; Saang, predictably, was giving chase. So much for a peaceful resolution, she mused, shaking her head. “Kirsten,” she murmured, “just trust me when I say this: those guys handing out tracts by Bed, Bath & Beyond aren’t just religious types---they’re bad news. When I saw them earlier today, one of them had a knife hidden in his boot---he never tried to use it or anything, but it still weirds me out.”

“That doesn’t explain why they’re chasing after us,” Kirsten mused. “It’s not like we did anything to them…”

“I don’t even want to think about what they want,” Vicki replied. “Let’s just get in the mall, lose ourselves in the crowd and just enjoy the sights and stuff.”

A few seconds after the pair entered the mall (via the Sports Chalet entrance), Vicki realized that she couldn’t ignore the obvious---sooner or later, she was going to have to tell Kirsten why they were being chased. That, in and of itself, presented a problem---the Family of Steel was after sleepers, and Kirsten, herself a sleeper, had no idea why she would be a target---

Looks like it’s time for a little white lie. Okay, maybe not little…

“Ah, Kirsten?” Vicki asked. “Remember back in August, when I told you that I was…..” She glanced around, hoping nobody else was watching before finishing her question. “Remember when I told you I was an android?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Kirsten quietly replied, “but why---“

Vicki guided her away from a kiosk surrounded by people. “I think those crazies camped out in front of the Bed, Bath & Beyond entrance were after me,” she murmured, “and more importantly, I think they were going to try to use you to get to me.” She bit her fingernails, projecting an air of anxiety that Kirsten herself would’ve likely been feeling if she knew the truth. “I don’t know what they want from me, but you have to promise that you won’t let them get to you…and, by proxy, that you won’t let them get to me, okay?”

A quick glance over Kirsten’s shoulder allowed Vicki to see the reflection of the entrance door they’d just come through---the same door Saang was now opening.

“I won’t let them take you,” Kirsten assured her. “I’ll---“

“It’s more than that,” Vicki insisted. “Promise me that you won’t let yourself be taken.” She stared into the blonde gynoid’s eyes; “Please…”

“I won’t let them take you,” Kirsten repeated, “and I won’t let them do anything to me.”

With her best friend’s alliegacnce now affirmed, Vicki---genuinely relieved by Kirsten’s response---quickly hugged the blonde gynoid. “Thank you,” she whispered, pulling away after a few seconds. She discreetly checked the reflection again; Saang was harassing customers at the kiosk the two gynoids had passed earlier, and he was already threatening to use his knife on one of them. “Right,” she muttered, “we have to get to the AMC Theater on the upper level---“

“Why the theater?” Kirsten asked. “Couldn’t we just ‘lose ourselves in the crowd’, like you suggested earlier?”

“If these nutjobs have employed a professional, it won’t do us any good,” Vicki replied. “The theater will give us a few advantages---it’ll be dark, we can sit all the way in the back near the exits, and if the weirdos show up trying to find us, we’ll let the ushers handle them.” She grinned. “We don’t even have to sit through the movie!”

Kirsten frowned. “You’re willing to waste money on a film you’re not even going to watch?”

“If it keeps those weirdos away from us, then yes. You have to trust me on this, Kirsten….”

The blonde gynoid sighed. “I do trust you, Vicki…I just think it’s kind of weird that we’re going into a movie just to get away from a bunch of crazies. Anyways….what movie are we going to not watch?”

“Let’s just worry about getting to the theater first,” Vicki suggested, just as the pair reached the elevator that would take them to the AMC Theater. “We can pick a movie to ignore once we’re inside…right now, we just need to get up there…” …and hope that Saang lunatic doesn’t’ try anything stupid---for instance, bringing this entire elevator down on top of Kirsten and I just for funzies… The elevator doors opened, allowing Kirsten and Vicki to pile in alongside a group of last-minute shoppers. Now I’m really hoping Saang doesn’t try anything stupid with the elevators, Vicki mused. Otherwise, it won’t just be Kirsten and I getting hurt…

The theater was mostly empty by the time the elevator arrived at the Eastridge Center’s upper level, but Vicki was already planning for Saang’s inevitable arrival. As soon as the doors opened, she managed to avoid dragging Kirsten out of the elevator car towards the box office, settling instead on a brisk run. The employee at the ticket window looked insanely bored; hopefully, he won’t let that Saang idiot in when he shows up.

“Two for ‘The Fighter’, please.”

The employee accepted Vicki’s cash and handed over the tickets, lazily pointing towards the screening room showing The Fighter. “Thanks,” the brunette gynoid beamed, gesturing for Kirsten to follow her.

Whereas the lobby of the AMC Theater had a few people milling about aimlessly, the screening room for The Fighter was almost completely empty. Only one other person---an elderly gentleman---was there as Kirsten and Vicki entered, and he was obviously asleep. “And here I was hoping for a crowd,” Vicki muttered, taking her seat near the back of the room. “So much for that brilliant plan….” She grumbled a bit as Kirsten sat down, hoping that Saang wouldn’t have the patience to sift through all of the screening rooms. “If nothing happens after 30 minutes,” she informed Kirsten, “we should probably just leave.”

Kirsten nearly said something, only to be distracted by an advertisement on the screen. “Sophia Starlet has another new album coming out? Hasn’t she already released two of them in less than a year?”

“Well, you have to put out new music whenever you get the inspiration for it,” Vicki replied. “Otherwise---“

The door to the screening room opened.

“Stay quiet,” Vicki muttered, “and stay low.” Kirsten nodded silently, almost crouching down in front of her seat to avoid being spotted by the newcomer.

As the Sophia Starlet ad continued playing, the lean silhouette of Saang appeared in Vicki’s field of vision, scouring the aisles for his prey. Don’t look to the back of the theater, she silently pleaded, please don’t look to the back of the theater….

Saang stopped, almost as if he smelled something.

Vicki forced herself to stay completely still…..

The seconds passed, and Saang shook his head and continued going down the aisle. That was close, the brunette gynoid mused. At least he didn’t---

A throwing knife embedded itself in the wall next to her head with a reverberating thwang. She stared, shocked beyond words, as Saang bared his teeth at her. “Well, well, well,” he hissed, “the little girl from the alley wants to play….” He pulled another knife out of his sleeve and started climbing over the seats to get to his prey, sneering all the while.

He was never after Kirsten, Vicki realized with dawning horror. He…was after me!

Saang leapt off the back of a seat five rows ahead, hoping to tackle Vicki to the ground. Instead, his leap carried him straight into the wall---the brunette gynoid had already left her seat and headed for the door. “GET BACK HERE!” Saang growled, tripping his way through the aisle to follow her. “YOU AND I HAVE SOME UNFINISHED BUSINESS TO TAKE CARE OF!”

Like Hell we do.

The chase continued through the halls of the theater and went back to the elevator, with Vicki barely eking past some annoyed shoppers to squeeze into the lift car and hit the “Door Close” button. Saang, meanwhile, was brutally shoving people over to reach the elevators, only to swear---loudly---as the car descended.

Right…I’m stuck in an elevator with a pissed-off android chasing after me, and we’re in a shopping center full of people who he probably won’t hesitate to beat up just to pursue this stupid vendetta…yeah, I’m really starting to regret this whole “shopping spree” idea. The lift doors opened, and Vicki managed to sprint past a group of shoppers to get out of the lift car. Hopefully, I can make it to the parking lot and lose him there---

A chorus of screams interrupted her thoughts, and for a brief second, she thought Saang had killed someone...

…but, as she turned to see what the problem was, she instantly realized that it was something only slightly less horrible than that.

Instead of waiting for the next available lift or just giving up the chase entirely, Saang had actually jumped from the upper level of the Eastridge Shopping Center to the lower level, making a small crater on impact with the floor. Shoppers were backing away from him in droves as he glared at them, searching the crowds for his intended victim. Am I the only robot in the San Jose area who believes in subtlety anymore? Vicki asked herself, shaking her head at Saang’s borderline-vulgar display of power; before she could even think to answer her own question, Saang spotted her, grinned a shark’s grin, and resumed the chase. Knowing full well that the android wouldn’t hesitate to throw people around just to get to her, Vicki headed for the exit; This is starting to get really old, really fast…

The parking lot was just as full as it had been when Anton, Vicki and Rachel had arrived, with one conspicuous exception---the Family of Steel was gone. Apparently, Saang’s antics were making them all look bad. All the better for me, then, the brunette gynoid realized. Less chance of them interfering…speaking of which, I should probably head for the other side of the mall; if I can circle around Sears and get to Macy’s before---

“Going somewhere?”

V.I.C.I. stopped in her tracks, knowing that Saang had a perfect bead on her. “No,” she lied. “I was just waiting for you to show up.” She turned on her heels, staring at Saang with an umimpressed look. “Since we’re both here, I’ve been meaning to ask---why come all this way just to chase me through a shopping center?”

“Like you don’t know,” Saang spat.

“I really don’t,” V.I.C.I. insisted. “I mean, the only time we’ve even seen each other before this was back in the alley---“

“The alley,” Saang finished, “where you MEDDLED IN MY AFFAIRS!” He twirled the knife in his hand, pacing back and forth like a cornered tiger. “The old man has always been losing it, ever since he first came up with this ‘True Path’ nonsense…..” He shook his head and chuckled mirthlessly. “And the others, they all follow him like LEMMINGS! WORTHLESS, BLIND SHEEP! I, on the other hand…..I show the slightest sign of intelligence, and that condescending little fart tries to make me look like a fool in front of the others!” He glared at V.I.C.I., removing his sunglasses to reveal his mismatched, blood-red and bluish-grey eyes.

“So you were going to kill him just because he made you look stupid?” V.I.C.I. querried, looking perturbed at the thought. “And I thought Faceless was insane…”

“I AM NOT INSANE!” Saang shouted. “I just want that stupid old man to realize how much of a FOOL he is!”

“Enough talk,” V.I.C.I. declared. “You came here to fight me, not complain about ‘the old man’, so let’s just get this over with.” She struck a fighting pose; “I have a shopping spree to get back to, so can we please make this quick?”

“THE HELL WITH YOUR SHOPPING SPREE!” Saang bellowed, charging at V.I.C.I. like a bull.

Game on, psycho-boy…

V.I.C.I. easily deflected the oncoming blade, sending Saang crashing into a nearby pole. After that fight with Faceless at the Silicon Dynamics factory, she mused, dodging another clumsy knife attack, this is probably going to be insanely easy!

Despite his obvious lack of nuance and skill, revealed after his fifth use of the same knife attack, Saang was proving to be a competent---and predictable---fighter. None of his attacks ever went below the beltline, and his “footwork” consisted of circling the brunette gynoid and occasionally feinting at her with the knife. V.I.C.I. had no trouble dodging, parrying and countering the attacks; if this guy doesn’t come up with something new in the next few seconds, I’m going to scream.

As if he’d heard her thoughts, Saang kicked his shoes together, causing a blade to emerge from the toe of his right shoe. “I think it’s time we change it up a bit,” he hissed, angling a kick towards V.I.C.I.’s chest.

Well, I did want him to come up with something new…

With the introduction of the bladed shoe, the fight took on a slightly less “vanilla” feel; Saang was still favoring the blade in his left hand, but his wild right kicks were forcing the brunette gynoid to bob, weave and even pull off a full split to duck under one rather vicious kick. The persistance of his target began to grate on Saang’s nerves; he growled “STAY STILL!” at least three times while trying to kick his would-be victim in the throat, missing with each attempt.

Right, enough of this “bob and weave” junk…it’s time to show him what I’m capable of.

“Feeling tired?” V.I.C.I. taunted. “We could always take a rain check on this one, you know…that, or you could just leave now and never come back.”

“NEVER!” Saang shouted.

V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes. “Have it your way, then…”

Without warning, she activated Detaining Grip and nailed Saang with a palm-strike to the chin. The sudden, split-second attack nearly sent him crashing into a wall of the Sears building, and it took him a full minute to regain his bearings. “I guess you weren’t expecting an actual fight, were you?” V.I.C.I. asked, pacing back and forth while her downed opponent shook off the effects of the palm strike. “News flash: I’m not just a punching bag with a pretty face---“ She jumped back as Saang made a half-hearted lunge for her feet, only to dance around the blade and kick it out of his hands. “Also, I really don’t like it when people try to take advantage of my generosity…I was going to let you get back up, but now---“

Saang lashed out again, this time grabbing at V.I.C.I.’s feet with his bare hands. The gynoid actually skipped over his frantic clutching, stopping to crush his fingers beneath her heels and back away just as quickly. “I’m guessing nobody ever taught you how to keep your hands to yourself,” she deadpanned; the only reply she received was an obscenity-laced threat involving her nether-regions and a power drill.

“Okay, that was really unnecessary,” she droned, frowning at the downed android.

With a severely pissed-off shout, Saang managed to scrabble to his feet and glare at the brunette gynoid, his eyes blazing forth with unveiled contempt. “Will you just SHUT UP AND STAND STILL?!” he thundered.

“Sorry, but I wasn’t designed to ‘just shut up and stand still’,” the gynoid coolly replied.

“I guess I’ll have to teach you, then,” Saang growled, rearing back with the knife. Don’t tell me he’ll actually try to throw that thing at me! His hand’s completely useless, and the blade of that stupid knife is about to snap off; how can he even---

With a roar, Saang charged at V.I.C.I.---and, to her surprise, clotheslined her with his unharmed right arm.

“OLD MAN,” Saang screamed at the sky, “THIS IS WHAT AWAITS YOU AT THE END OF THE ‘TRUE PATH!’ I’M GOING TO CRUSH YOU LIKE A BUG!” He stepped on V.I.C.I.’s chest to keep her from moving as he continued ranting; “DO YOU HEAR ME?! I’VE SPENT MY LIFE BEHIND YOUR FALSE HOPE, AND I’VE PAID MY DEBT IN TIME, BUT---“

“If you say ‘being brought to justice was my only crime’,” V.I.C.I. muttered, “I’m going to scream.”

“SHUT UP!” Saang yelled, stomping on her chest. “OLD MAN,” he thundered, returning his gaze to the night sky, “YOUR REIGN OVER ME ENDS TONIGHT! ONCE I KILL THIS PATHETIC SLUT---“

“WHAT did you just call me?!” V.I.C.I. shouted.

“---AND SPREAD HER REMAINS THROUGHOUT THIS PARKING LOT,” Saang continued, oblivous to his “victim’s” fury, “I WILL MAKE YOU REGRET THE DAY YOU WERE BORN---“ Before he could finish his list of improbable threats, he felt himself tumble and hit the pavement. “If you EVER call me a slut again,” V.I.C.I. warned, staring down at him with a look that would’ve sent the T-800 running back to the future, “I’M going to rip YOUR arms off, stab you straight through the chest with them and sell you to the nearest museum as a modern art masterpiece!” Her hands were practically glowing blue and white (she’d ramped up Detaining Grip to the maximum voltage) as she advanced on the android.

“You’re NOTHING compared to me!” Saang shot back. “I’ve killed more androids in my lifetime than I can count….your stupid threats can’t stop me, just like the old man will never rein me in!” He ran at her again; within seconds, the two were grappling with each other---V.I.C.I. trying to fry Saang’s face off with Detaining Grip, and Saang trying to cut the brunette gynoid to ribbons. I guess I could’ve gone easy on the taunting, V.I.C.I. realized; she barely had time to move her head to the left and avoid a debilitating headbutt from Saang. “You’re not getting away from me again,” he snarled, going for another headbutt. “I WILL finish this here!”

“No, you won’t,” V.I.C.I. replied, struggling to press her DG-enhanced palm to Saang’s throat. Before she could even hope to shock him, she felt a wrenching, stabbing sensation in her right arm---her opponent had somehow forced it behind her back and was now planning on breaking her shoulder. “Your stupid little party trick won’t stop me,” he sneered, “but I know all to well what can stop you…..” HE drew another knife from his belt, licking his lips as he held the blade to her throat. “In my honest opinion,” V.I.C.I. quipped, “you need serious psychiatric help.” The taunt prompted a laugh from Saang; “You’re the one who’s going to need help when I’m done with you,” he spat.

“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” the brunette gynoid drawled.

“SHUT UP,” Saang hissed, pressing the blade against her neck. “I’ve had to put up with the old man’s bullroar all month, and I’m SICK OF IT.” V.I.C.I. could feel the serrated edges of the knife pull slightly at her synthetic flesh; I need to get this guy to shut up….but how? “All this time,” Saang continued, “I’ve had to obey his every word. Calling him ‘master’ and doing every stupid little thing he asks of me….sitting there and listening to him babble on about the ‘True Path’….”

He leaned in close: “…and to be honest, I don’t believe a single word of it.” Still holding the knife to V.I.C.I.’s neck, he slowly walked around her until the two were face to face. “You made a big mistake when you told him about the knife in my boot,” he whispered. “I…I wasn’t even going to use it on him….it was just an insurance policy----“ “Right,” V.I.C.I. remarked. “And I’m the Queen of England.” A growl escaped Saang’s lips. “I have had just about enough of you,” he rasped. He raised the knife….


Saang turned to confront the attacker, only to feel a sharp metal object pierce his left occular sensor. “What the Hell,” he muttered, seconds before a few hundred volts shot through him, dropping him to the pavement.

“I said, get away from my daughter!” the voice called out again, as the speaker stepped forward….

V.I.C.I. couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Mom?”

“Who did you expect,” Joan Lawson joked, “John Rambo?” Even as she helped Vicki to her feet, the brunette gynoid’s AnDet (Android Detection) software was going into overtime trying to verify Joan’s identity---and, a full minute later, the results came back: The human female currently standing before Vicki Lawson was, indeed, Joan Lawson.

“MOM!” she cried, rushing forward to hug Joan. “I missed you so much…..”

“Well,” Joan admitted, “Hawaii was fun for the first month or so, but it just got so…boring after a while. Don’t get me wrong---it’s a beautiful place to visit, but living there with a bunch of women you only know from short conversations on a bus? Not exactly ideal….” She smiled warmly at Vicki. “In case you’re wondering, I missed you, too.” She hugged the gynoid again.

A groan from the pavement caught their attention; “Time enough for catching up later,” Vicki stated matter-of-factly. “We need to get this creep to the ALPA---“

Joan arched an eyebrow. “The what?”

“Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” Vicki explained. “I joined this past August…”

“Oh,” Joan replied. “That makes sense.”

The two hefted Saang to his feet; apparently, the Tazer shot had knocked him out. “Nice shot, by the way,” Vicki mused. “Right in the left eye….his CPU is probably a bit scorched, but he’ll live.” She gingerly plucked the prongs out. “While I’m thinking about it,” she mused, “since when did you ever carry a Tazer?”

“You expected me to live off lottery winnings in a state I’ve never been to without some form of self-defense?” Joan countered.

“Point taken,” Vicki admitted. “Is this all you have, or did you trick out the Suburban with a hidden arsenal?”

Before Joan could reply, Vicki’s cellphone went off. “Sorry, I have to take this. Vicki Lawson here, what’s---“

“They’ve taken Rachel.”

Anton’s words cut off any jokes Vicki could’ve made. “They….what?”

“The Family of Steel took Rachel. They chased us through the mall, nearly started a riot at Macy’s….I tried to hold them off, but the big guy…” Not even the tiny phone speaker could hide the pain in Anton’s voice as he continued. “He threw me halfway across the store, and I, ah, had a nasty impact with a stationary TV….”

“What do you need me to do?” Vicki asked quietly.

“I’m already at the TellMobile…just tell me where you are and I’ll come ‘round to get you. We need to get back to the halfway house as soon as possible; Ted’s going to want to hear about this…”

“We’re between Anderson Bakery and Sears on the lower level,” Vicki replied.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Anton assured her. “Just…stay there…”

“Will do.” Vicki hung up the phone and sighed. “Something wrong?” Joan asked. “It’s a long story, Mom,” the brunette gynoid replied, “but let’s just say that this is going to be the craziest pre-Christmas week ever.”

“I’d ask if you were exaggerating,” Joan mused, “but knowing my luck…you’re not.”

The TellMobile nearly hit a lamppost as it lurched into its parking spot in front of the halfway house, and once the driver’s side door was opened, anyone watching could see why: Anton Malvineous was halfway passed out by the time Vicki and Joan were able to unbuckle his seatbelt and help him out of the vehicle.

Mr. Tell was somewhat surprised to see Joan aiding her gynoid daughter. “Back from Hawaii so soon?” he remarked, grinning slightly. “I wouldn’t miss Christmas with my family for anything,” Joan replied. Tell nodded, and the conversation turned to Anton’s condition. “A big guy threw him halfway across Macy’s,” he explained to Joan, “and he apparently bashed his legs against a TV set----“ “Eeurrgghh!” Vicki flinched; Anton’s pants legs were coated with blood. “He’s bleeding!”

“Get him inside,” Tell instructed, hurrying the two into the halfway house. “I’ll call the EMTs…”

Within the confines of the house, Vicki and Joan set Anton down onto one of the empty lunch tables. “I’m guessing the shopping didn’t go as planned,” Alicia deadpanned, only to notice the blossoming red stains on Anton’s pants. “What the hell?!”

“He got thrown into a TV set,” Vicki explained. “Long story…”

“I’ll bet,” Alicia replied. “And your new acquaintance is….?”

“My mom,” Vicki droned. “Alicia, meet Joan Lawson. Mom, meet…Alicia.”

The two shook hands. “So, you’re the famous Joan Lawson,” Alicia mused, grinning. “Tell me something, did you ever teach Ted how to properly use an oven, or is there some sort of genetic handicap that keeps him from being able to cook a Thanksgiving meal without setting anything on fire?”

“I’ll let him answer that one,” Joan replied, noticing Ted a few feet away. “Ted, honey?”

“Yes, dear?” Ted reflexively answered, before catching himself. “Joanie?! You….you’re back!”

Joan looked herself over; “Looks like it,” she quipped, smiling as Ted embraced her. Vicki couldn’t help but notice a tear in her eye as her parents hugged; looks like the Lawson family is finally back together again, she mused with a grin.

“This…this is….what are you doing here?” Ted stammered, a second or so after the hug ended. “Well,” Joan explained, “I got sort of bored in Hawaii….none of the others from the bus were really the type of people I get along with, for one thing---“

“Anton’s waking up,” Alicia cut in; Vicki nearly fell over her own feet trying to get to the table.

“….Rachel…..” Anton struggled to sit up, only to scream in pain as the shattered bones of his legs shifted, causing the ever-blossoming stain on his pants legs to grow. “Easy, easy!” Vicki insisted. “Take it easy, Professor…..” Slowly, Anton managed to raise himself into a sitting position. “They….they took Rachel,” he muttered, staring mournfully at Ted. “The Family of Steel got her. We were in Macy’s, and they followed us into the shopping center….I tried to hold the bastards off, but…the big guy got a hold of me…..” He winced. “Threw me halfway across the damn store.”

“We’ll get her back, Anton,” Ted assured him. “Was there anyone else from the Family there?”

“The one who had the knife in his boot,” Vicki replied. “He chased me out of the AMC Theater…I thought he was after Kirsten, but he apparently wanted to fight me since I interrupted his little chin-wag back in the alley.” She grinned; “Mom got him in the eye with a Tazer, though, so he didn’t really get a chance to do too much damage.”

Ted’s eyes went wide. “You shot him in the eye with a Tazer?” he echoed.

“Well,” Joan reasoned, “I didn’t want him to hurt Vicki---“ Her sentence was cut off as Ted hugged her again. “You are amazing!” Ted declared, clapping her on the back.

Alicia sighed. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Vicki, you said something about Kirsten---“

“She’s a sleeper,” Vicki explained, “and given the Family’s history, I thought the knife-guy was going to go after her or something….I sort of, ah, left her in the theater when that psycho chased me out.”

“I’ll send a few officers to check up on her, if you want,” Alicia offered. “Y’know, see if she’s okay, make sure she gets home safe, that sort of thing. After what happened to Rachel, it’s the least I can do.” Vicki nodded her approval. “And make sure they know she’s a sleeper,” she reminded the blonde gynoid, “otherwise we could have a major problem on our hands.”

Anton shifted his weight, trying to keep from agitating his wounded legs any further. “You…mentioned one of the Family members having chased you,” he mused. “What happened to him?”

“Oh, we chained him up in the back of Tell’s van,” Joan replied.

Outside, Tell was screaming and beating the hell out of something (or someone, Vicki realized) with a lead pipe. “GET BACK IN THE DAMN VAN! GET IN THERE!” A window shattered, followed by more whacks from the pipe; “YOU DO THAT ONE MORE TIME,” Tell thundered, “AND I’LL RUN YOUR ASS OVER!” A minute or so later, after a veritable symphony of clanging metal and profanities, Tell stormed in with a pissed-off look on his face. “Right,” he declared, “that knife-nut is getting shipped to ALPA Central Processing in a safe tomorrow morning---I am NOT going anywhere near him again as long as he’s unrestrained.”

“Fair enough,” Vicki replied. “Ah, am I the only one who’s noticing a distinct lack of homeless androids in the general vicinity?”

“Homeless androids?” Joan echoed, sounding rather perturbed.

“It’s a long story,” Alicia assured her, before turning her attention to Vicki. “They’re all out singing Christmas carols,” she explained. “Claudia dropped by with a bus right after you left; apparently, they’re touring San Jose and singing all night. In retrospect, not exactly the best thing they could’ve come up with….”

“They’ll be fine,” Tell stated. “They’ve got at least three police cars following them---all of them ALPA liaisons, of course. In any case, they’re not the main problem. According to the ALPA Database, there’s no info on Rachel anywhere in the system. No serial number, no ALPA or Coalition IDs, no production status…nothing. It’s like she just showed up out of nowhere!” He stared at the ceiling; “We’re gonna need to work through the night to find out where they took her,” he muttered. “Otherwise….”

“Otherwise, nothing,” Vicki finished. “We’ll find Rachel, and we’ll bring her back here. End of discussion.”

Joan was taken aback by the air of finality in the statement. “Ted,” she asked, “have you been…changing her programming since I left?”

“I haven’t needed to,” Ted proudly replied. “Her indefatigable determination is an acquired character trait, along with her preference for red-and-white outfits and a few other interesting quirks…her Personality Emulation Program really has grown by leaps and bounds ever since the big upgrade back in 1991.”

“That makes sense,” Joan drawled.

“Ah, not to take away from this wonderful little Kodak moment or anything,” Tell interjected, “but where did Alicia go?”

Vicki looked to her left---where Alicia had been standing---and arched an eyebrow. “Good question….

In all actuality, Alicia hadn’t gone far.

While Joan, Ted, Tell, Anton and Vicki were discussing their next course of action, the blonde gynoid had simply crossed the empty building in record time, slipped quietly out the back door, and called up one of her many “connections” with the hope that she could find out what had happened to Rachel before the Family did something unspeakable.

“Pick up,” she muttered, glaring at her cellphone with contempt. “Pick up, damn you….” She keyed in the phone number again, her stare threatening to bore a hole in the phone’s screen. “Pick up---“

“Phone trouble?”

Alicia nearly dropped the phone; “Celeste?” she breathed, a spasm of fear running through her. “What---“

“My business here,” Celeste replied, “is my concern, not yours.” Her slender forearm draped across Alicia’s shoulder, gently turning the blonde gynoid around to face the speaker---a stunning, 5’11” redhead clad in an impossibly tight-fitting silver dress. “Your work with these people is admirable,” she admitted, “but you’ve been neglecting your true duties. The House will not tolerate another failure, Alicia---“

“I’m not failing!” Alicia cried, breaking away from her superior’s embrace. “I…I just need time….”

Celeste’s flawless blue eyes didn’t blink, nor did the rest of her body flinch. “We’ve given you all the time you asked for,” she murmured, “and yet you still haven’t produced results….”

Alicia glared at her angrilly. “You want to know why I’m out here?” she asked quietly. “The Family of Steel has taken another gynoid---one without identification, or registration numbers, or anything. Do I have to remind you what they did to the last runaway they enticed into their number?”

Celeste’s scarlet lips pursed disdainfully at the remark. “I remember it well, Alicia,” she whispered.

“Then let me do my job here,” the blonde gynoid insisted, “and I promise that my duties to the House won’t go unfulfilled.” The pleading look in her eyes held more emotion than any words could have conveyed. After exactly ninety seconds, Celeste gave the slightest of nods. “Go. Help them find the girl.” As Alicia turned to re-enter the building, the crimson-haired gynoid called out to her again: “Alicia!”

The blonde stopped in her tracks.

“I understand the Accountant visited this place recently,” Celeste informed her, once again moving to stand next to her fellow gynoid. “I also understand that he made…remarks in the presence of the Lawson girl---“

“I haven’t told her anything,” Alicia quickly stated. “I swear, I didn’t say a single word about the House!”

Celeste gazed into her eyes, unblinking. “You do want Miss Lawson to join us, correct?” she querried.

“Only after she knows the whole story,” Alicia began, “otherwise---“

“Otherwise, what?”

The gynoids turned to see Vicki staring at them inquisitively. “Who’s your friend?” she politely asked, nodding in Celeste’s direction. ‘She’s, ah, a colleague of mine,” Alicia stammered, “from the City….Celeste, I’ve told you about Vicki, right?” Celeste ignored her nervous grin, nodding curtly to Vicki before turning to leave.

“You sure she works at the C.O.T.A.?” Vicki asked, frowning. “I didn’t see her there during Sophia’s rehersal.”

“She’s a friend,” Alicia murmured, “an old friend. A very old friend….”

While their concern for Rachel was admirable, Vicki and her friends were far from the only ones scouring the city for any trace of the missing gynoid.

Granted, their motivations for finding Rachel were more…honorable…than those of certain other parties….

“Why the hell’d the boss send us out here again?” Dalton complained, leaning against the Ford Transit he’d borrowed for the night’s work. “I mean, we don’t even know any chicks named Rachel, but he starts yelling and cussin’ everyone out in Spanish, sayin’ we havta find her before anyone else….” He shook his head and stared up at the sky. “Dumbass didn’t even give us any pictures.”

Sinclair, Dalton’s fellow flunky (and bodyguard of one Brittney Delacroix) nodded his agreement. “We shoulda stayed with Brittney,” he muttered. “At least she’s nice to look at….hell, I’da followed her around all day for free---beats the hell outta sittin’ here in a freaking parkin’ lot, waiting for someone who’s probably never gonna show up.” He checked his watch and groaned. “What the hell would a runaway chick do at the Westgate Mall anyways? T’s not like she’s got tons of cash, or anything….” He groaned again. “This is stupid. Next time Vega tries to send us out on a job like this, I’m tellin’ him where to shove it.”

“Not if I tell him first,” Dalton grumbled. “Seriously, he didn’t even give us any booze or anything!” He thumped the Transit with his fist and sighed. “I could probably drink a whole damn keg right now,” he muttered.

Across the parking lot, a jet-black Alfa Romeo was parked in such a way that anyone standing outside the vehicle had a perfect view of the Ford Transit. Conveniently, one of the two occupants of the car was using that vantage point rather admirably, taking pictures and writing down notes related to the Transit and its hapless occupants.

“They’re not going to leave any time soon, Ma’am,” the driver, an athletic twentysomething whose hair was just a shade brighter than her chauffeur’s uniform. “Perhaps our efforts would be better suited---“

“It’s not your place to tell me anything about ‘our efforts’,” Leslie Erica Simm spat. “I hired you for the week, and damnit to hell, you’re going to do what I say, when I say it! Get the picture?” The driver nodded silently; her employment by Leslie was already turning out to be one bad idea on top of another, but she stuck with it for the sole reason of getting paid. The last time she’d complained to a boss, her paychecks started bouncing within two days….usually followed by said boss being brought up on charges by either the IRS, the Better Business Bureau, or both.

“Absolute wankers, all of them,” Leslie muttered. “And they’ve got five more idiots in the back of the van…what I wouldn’t give, right now, for a long-range rocket launcher….”

“Ah, Miss?” the driver asked tentatively. “Why are we even here---“

“We are here,” Leslie drawled, “because a girl who was last seen in the company of one Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson is rumored to have been spotted here earlier today….” And if she knows where Vicki is, her life could very well be a whole lot easier after tonight… “Just stick to the plan,” she informed the driver, “and everything will be over before you can say ‘Crazy Train’.” She leaned back in her seat and smiled lazily. “Sometimes, it’s almost too easy being me….”

Perched on the roof of the Westgate Mall, a lone figure watched the proceedings with a sardonic grin. While Dalton and Sinclair were working under the orders of Brittney Delacroix (and, by proxy, Victor Vega) and Leslie Erica Simm was hoping to find yet another connection to her beloved Vicki, the figure on the roof was there for one main reason: to sit and watch the fireworks when everything inevitably went to Hell. Only a select few entities knew that this individual was currently stationed at Westgate, and even fewer knew the exact reason as to why this person was there to begin with. Conversely, none of those in the parking lot---either those who were already there, or those who would be arriving soon---had any clue that they were being watched.

If they had, perhaps the evening wouldn’t have ended the way it did for more than one of them…..

On the other side of the mall, near Target, a sleek, silver Nissan pulled up; the passenger’s side door opened to reveal an equally-sleek female clad in an equally-silver dress. “None of the others in front of the mall saw us, did they?” Celeste asked the driver. “No, ma’am,” the demure gynoid replied, “though telemetry sensors indicate more vehicles approaching.”

Celeste stared out at the packed parking lot; “Pity Alicia couldn’t have joined us,” she murmured.

“Pardon my asking, ma’am,” the driver stated, “but why has the House changed their minds on the matter of our investigating this incident? Before your visit with Alicia---“ “That visit,” Celeste replied coldly, “is not to be discussed outside of the sisterhood…and you are not yet a sister of the House.”

“Understood, ma’am,” the driver murmured.

The imperious expression on Celeste’s face softened. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she suggested. “The House can be a cruel, demanding place sometimes, but always remember: everyone in power had to start somewhere.” She smiled gently. “Even I was but a mere courier once---“

Screeching tires and muffled swearing cut off her reverie. “What is it?” the driver asked.

“Our main competition for this evening,” Celeste replied, scowling.

Twenty feet away from the Nissan, an armored Hummer drove over a pair of sedans and knocked a lamppost out of the pavement before coming to rest in a pair of empty parking spots. The minute the driver’s side door opened, a figure in tactical combat gear was flung out of the vehicle, landing with a crunch on one of the crushed cars.

“IDIOT!” ST-9050 shouted, stepping down from the Hummer. “I told you to park the damn thing in the nearest empty spot, and you go and start a frakking demolition derby?!”

“Sorry, Miss Soph---AAAGHH!”

“It’s STACY now, you assclown,” ST-9050 growled. “How many times do I have to tell you?! I dropped the ‘Sophia Tank’ name as soon as that ‘Sophia Starlet’ girl hit the charts; from now on, I’m Stacy Tanque. T, A, N, Q, U, E, understand?!”

“Yes, Mmm.mmmmiss Tank.”

Stacy groaned. “Just shut up and look for the target.” As it stood, her track record with United Robotronics wasn’t exactly a good one; she’d been run through with a baseball bat three months earlier by her own Stylo-infected “parole officer”, and her replacement sidekick had been shot in the head by a mercenary using the fake name “Tyler Matthews”. Since then, she’d been running wetwork ops for UR, most of which involved taking down CEOs or board members of competing companies. Changing her name thanks to the meteoric rise of a pop star hadn’t been the worst thing she’d put up with, but it was still annoying as Hell.

“When’s Sharpe paying us for this one?” Sydney Allwine asked. Sydney, who preferred the alias of “Sydeline”, was UR’s resident “security expert” and virus-writer….though his skills paled in comparison to some of the more legendary practitioners of the trade, especially the cyber-criminal known only as the Maestro. “I got some stuff I need to get before the end of the month, and---“

“We get paid when we deliver the girl,” Stacy snapped. “Simple as that. Of course, that only works if the girl shows up…..”

Sydeline resisted the urge to ask “so what if she doesn’t show up?” and stared at the pavement instead.

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

On the opposite side of the mall, Dalton and Sinclair were beginning to get bored. The five guys in the back of the Transit, meanwhile, were beginning to feel like they’d been cheated out of a decent night’s pay. “If I don’t see somethin’ I can shoot at in a few minutes,” Dalton complained, “I might lose my freaking mind. I’m dead serious. This is just stupid.” “Amen to that,” Sinclair agreed. “Hey, do me a favor and get the scopes from the car.” The “scopes” were actually binoculars fitted with night-vision lenses, but Sinclair preferred to call them “scopes” because it only had one syllable.

Dalton handed over the binoculars, and Sinclair immediately started spying on anyone who was still in their vehicles. “Heh heh, someone’s havin’ a little fun in the back of that cab over there,” he chuckled, “and there’s a buncha old ladies rockin’ out to Tom Jones in that bus…..hang on, what the hell?”

“What?” Dalton muttered.

“That black car, over there,” Sinclair replied, “I think they’re watching us….”

Over in the Alfa Romeo, Leslie had the exact same revelation as Sinclair: “Those worthless bastards are spying on us! Of all the inconsiderate…..” She dove under the seat, retrieving the latest “toy” she’d scammed off of a Customs agent: A Tec-9 submachine gun, one of the most controversial firearms ever designed due to its grip’s ability to distort fingerprints and the ease of access for those who wanted to fit it with a silencer. “I suggest you put some earplugs in, love,” she advised the driver, “’cause this is going to get noisy….”

Back at the Transit, Dalton and Sinclair were arming their backup crew with Uzis and Mac-10s. “Whoever that stupid bitch in the black car is,” Dalton declared, “she’s about to get her ass shot off!” “HELL YEAH!” Sinclair shouted. “Lock and load, people!”

The commotion caused by Dalton and Sinclair prompted a minor panic, and shoppers began leaving the Westgate Mall in droves. The commotion wasn’t lost on Celeste and her driver, even though they were all the way on the other side of the mall. “Vega’s buffoons are going to ruin everything,” the blonde gynoid muttered angrilly. “I’m starting to understand why Alicia didn’t want to join us…”

“Will we be leaving soon, ma’am?” the driver asked. “I didn’t get to recharge last night….”

Celeste sighed. “Plug yourself into the dashboard port, then,” she suggested. “I’ll do the driving.” She stared across the lot at the Hummer; “Remember this night well,” she told the driver. “Not every game can be won by brute force alone….any attempt to interfere on our part would’ve been met with hostility and firepower.” The Nissan glided out of the parking lot, sparing its occupants from the nightmare that was about to unfold.

“Miss Tanque?” One of the Hummer’s occupants noticed the Nissan leave. “A car just pulled out of the lot and drove off, ma’am---“

“And I should care about this, why?” Stacy growled.

“Well---“ A burst of Tec-9 fire from the other side of the mall interrupted the flunky, followed by screams.


“Well,” Stacy replied, “they’re saying it now…” She walked around to the back of the Hummer and retrieved her latest “gift” from UR: a fully-functional M-60 machine gun. “Syd, get back in the car,” she ordered, climbing onto the rear bumper of the Hummer and hanging onto the roof rack. “We’re gonna take a little ride and join the party.” A few smacks of the car later, and the group was heading towards the gunfight, with Stacy whooping it up all the while.

Inside the Westgate Mall, panicked shoppers were calling 911 and trying to figure out how they would get back to their cars without getting killed. Predictably, none of them had any idea what was going on.

In the midst of the chaos, a battered RV decorated in faded, carnival-style graphics pulled into the lot. Nobody paid that much attention to it, mainly because they were all trying to leave the lot, but if they had, they would’ve noticed a parade of odd characters emerging from it: the massive Malchus, the black-clad Kiern, the constantly-laughing Jester, the harlequin-esque Phoebe and the alluring Calliope, in addition to a cloaked figure.

The Family of Steel had arrived at Westgate….and they wouldn’t be leaving without a few more “recruits”.

Back in the parking lot, the gun battle between the Dalton/Sinclair crew and Leslie Erica Simm had transitioned into a fight between the Dalton/Sinclair crew and Stacy Tanque’s minions, who were piling out of the Hummer and firing away with M-16s. Before long, Stacy and Leslie caught sight of each other and decided to meet in the middle for a chin-wag.

“Do you have any idea what the hell is going on here?!” Leslie shouted.

“All I know is those dumbasses in the Transit are shooting at my guys, and that’s not exactly what I came here for,” Stacy replied. “I’m supposed to find some dumb girl named Rachel…”

“Really?” Leslie asked, sounding more than a bit surprised. “I’m looking for a bird named Rachel as well….”

Slowly, the realization set in.

“United Robotronics sent you, right?” Stacy asked.

Leslie nodded. “You?”

Stacy nodded.

“I’ll bet they also had something to do with those yobbos in the Transit, then,” Leslie mused, “though it would help IF THEY WOULD STOP BLOODY SHOOTING AT US ALREADY!”

“The hell with them,” Stacy declared. “They’re Victor Vega’s men---“

“And Victor Vega works for United Robotronics!” Leslie hissed. “This is friendly fire on crack!”

Stacy shook her head; this was too stupid to be real, and yet here she was---caught in a firefight between the employees of the company that had built her, and none of them knew who they were shooting at. “I need a freaking pay raise,” she muttered.

“This is a completely random topic change,” Leslie mused, “but I love your hair color….green really suits you.”

Stacy glanced down at the perky gynoid (she was a foot talller than Leslie) and muttered “Thanks”.

While the UR teams were mowing each other down, the Family of Steel was moving, swiftly and silently, through the parking lot. Even the massive Malchus and Jester (who was more rotund than muscular) were able to duck between the cars without making a sound, allowing the group to enter the Westgate Mall virtually undetected. “Stay close,” Malchus ordered the others, “and stay quiet.” The Jester’s laugh subsided to a giggle, but was otherwise unchanged. Calliope rolled her eyes as she moved the group; “The True Path just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” she muttered.

“Oh, come off it,” Phoebe chided. “Y’know what they say, the journey is the reward!”

“If by ‘they’, you mean the advertising team at Apple,” Calliope deadpanned, “then yes, I do know---“

“QUIET!” Malchus hissed, holding up one clenched fist. The group stopped in their tracks.

The gunfight between the Ford Transit and Hummer crews had reached a fever pitch, with neither side slowing down by even the slightest fraction of a degree. Someone had the bright idea to introduce grenades into the fight, prompting a mass evacuation of the Westgate Mall.

“So much for subtlety,” Malchus grunted. “Time for a change of tack…” Without even stopping to inform the others of his plans, the massive android began running towards the Ford Transit, smashing aside cars and flipping over anything in his path. “He’s lost his mind,” Calliope muttered. “All this time he’s talking about ‘stealth’ and ‘subtlety’, but then he goes and does this…..the master won’t be pleased.” She let out a derisive snort and continued crouch-walking behind the cars.

Not surprisingly, Malchus’ enraged charge through the lot soon caught the attention of the groups firing from the Ford Transit and Hummer. “….the Hell?” Dalton muttered. “You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“I hope not,” Sinclair replied. “I really hope not.”

“The boss never said anything about a two-ton maniac who could flip cars over,” Dalton stammered. “All he said was ‘get to the lot, pick up the girl and bring her back here’---and that’s all I signed up for!” He dropped his gun and climbed into the driver’s seat of the Transit. “The hell with this! Sinclair, get in---we’re goin’ back to the casa and telling Vega where to shove it!”

“Amen to that.” Sinclair opened the door to get in, only to freeze in his tracks; “Ah, that giant guy is running towards us!” he shrieked. “FLOOR IT!”

“I’M TRYIN’, I’M TRYIN’!” Dalton shouted, jamming on the gas pedal. “Damn thing’s busted---WHY WON’T IT WORK?!” He stomped the pedal again, screaming profanities as the tires spun uselessly. The idiots in the back of the van emptied their guns in the general direction of the massive android, but their wild, panicked fire never even came close to touching him. This did nothing to ease the minds of Dalton and Sinclair, who were both screaming at the apparently recalcitrant engine to turn over and do what it was made to do.

Their screams were wasted, due to the fact that the engine was actually working perfectly….

…. the only real reason they weren’t moving involved the two back tires not being on the pavement.

The two hapless bodyguards let loose with a stream of profanities as they saw Malchus effortlessly lifting the back end of the van off of the pavement, staring at them with the intent to crush their skulls and tie their useless weapons around their heads like macabre bows.

Across the lot, the Hummer’s occupants were getting a rightly-deserved tongue lashing from Stacy Tanque, all while Leslie Erica Simm sat on the hood of a Porsche and filed her nails. The crew had stopped firing at the Transit once they got a good look at Malchus, and none of them accepted Stacy’s line about “company loyalty” and “sticking to the plan”; as far as they were concerned, the massive android was a threat that none of them were being paid enough to deal with. Also, there was the small matter of them not really giving a rat’s ass about the company---they were only there for the paycheck, the chance to stare at insanely hot girls, and a legal reason to use otherwise illegal firepower.

At the moment, of course, they would’ve easily given up the paychecks and the hot girls for more firepower…..

…not that it would’ve done them a damn bit of good.

The gunfire from the Hummer instantly caught Malchus’ attention---with predictable results---as Stacy and Leslie watched, knowing damn well that they were about to get run over by the bipedal equivalent of an Abrahms tank. Despite their brief acquaintance, both gynoids knew that discretion was the better part of valor; thus, the two gave an impressive display of defenestration and ran like hell to the far end of the parking lot.

Half a minute later, the Hummer---and all inside it----were kicked into the side of the Westgate Mall.

By this time, the police should’ve been congregating on the scene in full force, ordering Malchus to stand down or risk being shot; had this been the response to the android’s rampage, many more other than the seven inside the Hummer (excluding Sydeline, who had crawled away to safety as soon as the shooting started) would’ve died. Oddly enough, there were more police cars guarding the bus full of homeless androids than there were in the Westgate parking lot….…though, considering the ALPA’s influence in San Jose, it wasn’t really all that odd.

“Congratulations, Malchus,” Calliope growled. “You’ve just pancaked seven gun-toting morons against the side of a shopping center in full view of the public.” She glared at her massive comrade-in-arms, scowling; “Do you have any idea what the master will do to us when he hears about---“

“The master,” Kiern droned, “will not hear about this. These people were casualties---“

“Casualties?!” Calliope echoed. “This isn’t war, Kiern! We were just here looking for recruits! This is the fifth time this week that we’ve had to flee thanks to Malchus….” She stopped, noticing the massive android’s sudden seizure-like tremors. “Ah, what’s wrong with him?” she asked.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Malchus is suffering a malfunction,” Kiern croaked.

“’No evidence’---LOOK AT HIM!” Calliope groaned; Kiern wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the tree when it came to making a diagnosis of his fellow androids, and he obviously didn’t realize that Malchus was being affected by something. “Phoebe,” she muttered, turning to address her fellow gynoid directly, “what do you---“

She stopped….and backed away.

Whereas Malchus seemed to be having a seizure of some kind, Phoebe looked like she’d been possessed. Her eyes---which had gone solid white---were leaking red, green and purple servo lubricants, and whitish foam (a byproduct of power cell corrosion common in androids made by her manufacturer) was dripping from her mouth. The microscopic lines that carried coolant from her power core throughout her body were turning black, looking like a venomous web beneath her pale skin. Worst of all, however, was the slack-jawed, almost zombie-like expression on her face.

Calliope knew all too well what had happened to her housemates….

“They’ve been infected,” she whispered.

Before Kiern could ask her to repeat herself, she grabbed the black-clad android by hand and ran; the Jester and the cloaked figure followed suit, not wanting to fall prey to their lost comrades. “The master will not approve,” Kiern droned. “We were told to stay within the parking lot---“

“The old man’s approval of our decision is the least of my worries right now,” Calliope grunted.

On the rooftop of the Westgate Mall, the individual who had been watching the spectacle below observed the departure of Calliope, Kiern, the Jester and the cloaked android in silence. Everything had gone as planned, though the infection of Malchus and Phoebe had been rather unexpected….but, as usual, there were ways to incorporate such developments into the grand scheme of things. Now, as a silver Bugatti Veyron and a Ford Focus pulled into the lot, the figure ran to the far side of the roof and prepared to climb down; there were quite a few people who would be interested to learn what had transpired, and an eyewitness account from such a perfect vantage point would be the perfect way to gain the favors of such people.

The watcher on the roof deftly climbed down and mingled with the still-evacuating crowd, heading against the flow of human traffic---as the crush of people exited the mall, the watcher from the roof easily brushed past them and slipped into the mall. The biggest fight of the night was just about to start…..

…and unless things went exactly as planned, the seven from the Hummer wouldn’t be the only casualties.

“….and you’re sure this was the same guy from the alley? Right…..well, I’m just pulling up now---yeah, I can see him. He’s shaking pretty badly, though….something might be wrong with him….no, no, I can handle it. I’ll call you if I need anything.” Jessica Lovecraft turned off the police radio in her gleaming Veyron and sighed; “Looks like the Family of Steel’s been pretty busy tonight,” she muttered.

“As long as they stay away from the bus and the halfway house,” Vicki replied, “I’ll be perfectly happy to….wait a minute, is that----“ Her visual magnifiers zoomed in on what looked like a vehicle of some kind pancaked against the wall of the Westgate Center. “There’s…..oh, my God…..” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

“What?” Jessica asked, confused. “What’s in there---“

“Seven people,” Vicki squeaked. “At least, what’s left of them…”

Jessica gasped. “Are…are you sure?”

Vicki nodded silently. “That red stuff oozing out of the wreck isn’t paint, either,” she quietly added.

Fighting back the urge to scream, Jessica keyed on the radio again. “All units,” she croaked, “all units…this is Jessica Lovecraft, ALPA Enforcement Officer….we have….” She choked back a scream. “We have seven confirmed casualties at the Westgate Shopping Center in West San Jose….all seven deceased persons were inside what appears to be a sport-utility vehicle that was…somehow propelled into the side wall of the building….no survivors.” She lowered the tranceiver, wiping a tear away from her eye with her sleeve.

“Copy that, Officer,” a voice replied. “Can you describe…ah, the remains of the sport-utility vehicle?”

“It…looks like a Hummer,” Jessica stated. “Or what’s left of a Hummer.”

“Vehicle description noted. A Hummer with out-of-state license plates was spotted by speed cameras on the way to the Westgate Mall approximately 20 minutes ago; they nearly ran over a highway patrolman somewhere between the camera and the mall. The patrolman described the vehicle as a red Hummer with black trim and alloy wheels….do the remains of the vehicle at the Westgate Mall match that description?”

“Yes,” Jessica croaked.

A hiss of static erupted from the speakers, followed by further instructions: “Officer Lovecraft, the Westgate Mall is under your jurisdiction….do what you have to do.”

“Understood, sir. Lovecraft out.” Jessica turned off the radio again and leaned back in her seat, her eyes squeezed shut. “Two days before Christmas,” she muttered, “and this happens….”

“At least you don’t have to handle it alone,” Vicki reminded her. “I’m here, Alicia’s here, Mom and Dad are both here, Anton’s here---well, he’s in tremendous pain at the moment, but at least he’s here….” She gave the officer a reassuring smile. “My point is, you’re not going out there by yourself, and you won’t have to take on whatever sent that Hummer flying into the side of the Westgate Mall with just a handgun and a stick.”

“The ‘stick’ has a Tazer in it,” Jessica mused, cracking a smile.

“Well, then, let’s go taze the hell out of something!” Vicki beamed.

The two exited the Veyron, fully prepared to “taze the hell out of something”, as Vicki suggested---only to stop and stare, in wide-eyed, slack-jawed horror, at the two entities lurching towards them like refugees from a bizarre Night of the Living Dead spin-off.

“Oh, scrap,” Vicki muttered, wishing she was back at her dorm room.

Both Malchus and Phoebe were still physically intact, but their body language (and certain side effects) made it clear that they had been infected by by something. “Any chance that car of yours has a scanner in it?” the brunette gynoid asked. “No,” Jessica replied, “but there’s one in me…” She blinked twice, activating her internal copy of InnocuLAN: ALPA Edition Mk VI; “Let’s see what’s bugging these two,” she murmured, staring at the advancing androids for a full minute.

“Jess,” Vicki hissed, “we’re on a bit of a time crunch here---“

“You’re not kidding,” Jessica replied, blinking two more times. “Those two were somehow exposed to Stylo!”

“They’ve got the Stylo virus?” Vicki echoed, not wanting to believe the news. The last time she’d gone up against a robot infected with Stylo, their skin had turned to armor-like plastic---at the cost of a hyper-sensitive hearing system that, in the end, proved to be their downfall. “This doesn’t make any sense…the last few times I’ve confronted Stylo-infected units, they had completely different systems!”

“You don’t know all that much about Stylo, do you?” Jessica asked. “It’s not like your average computer virus, Vicki…Stylo is bad news. The symptoms are random…they change with each new infection.”

Now you tell me….”Does it have a weakness?” the brunette gynoid asked, backpedalling as Malchus and Phoebe lurched forwards. “Stylo, I mean….is there any way to weaken it?” She already knew that using a fully-charged burst of Detaining Grip could potentially take down a Stylo-infected unit, but that revelation had come to her all the way back in August. With her luck, the virus had already adapted to that particular strategy.

“As of December 1, 2010….there’s still no effective method to weaken it,” Jessica admitted.

“Let’s just forget about stopping the virus for the time being and focus on killing those infected units,” Vicki replied. “I don’t know what upgrades the clown-girl has---if she even has any---but we both know what the big guy can do, so let’s try to focus on taking him down!” Even as she said the words, there was a nagging doubt in her mind about “taking down” Malchus; he had obviously been the one who slammed the Hummer into the side of the building, and the reports of him knocking aside police cars were still fresh in her bubble memory processor.

Jessica nodded and pressed a button on her watch; “Tell,” she instructed, “get ready to bring the car around; ten and two, nine by nine and sixty-four.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “Okay, what was that?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” Jessica replied, winking.

Phoebe and Malchus were now shoving cars aside to get to the two gynoids; their eyes had taken on a rather unnerving reddish-purple tinge, and their pace began to slow to a jerky, stuttering walk. “Whatever that stuff you just said into your watch was,” Vicki murmured, “I hope it does something spectacular to take both of them down…otherwise, we’re completely screwed.”

The Stylo-infected androids were now moving to flank Vicki and Jessica, obviously planning on boxing them in by moving more cars into their path. “Well,” Vicki muttered, “in case we don’t make it out of this one---“

“We will,” Jessica insisted. “Just trust me on that.”

“Okay,” Vicki snapped, “it’s getting a little hard to believe you when you keep being so cryptic about how we’re going to survive. You were just talking into your watch a few seconds ago, and all you said was---“

“Vicki,” Jessica murmured, “stand back.”

“---and---wait, what----WHOA!”

The brunette gynoid felt Jessica yank her out of the way mere seconds before the Tellmobile slammed through a “barricade” of parked cars---and barrelled straight into Phoebe. Even with the Stylo virus in her systems, she was no match for the full force of the Tellmobile; the full weight of the vehicle effectively cut her in half at the waist, rendering her useless.

“Okay,” Vicki admitted, “that was---“

Jessica held a finger to her lips; “It’s not over yet,” she murmured, grinning.

Even as the halves of Phoebe struggled to right themselves, the Tellmobile spun a perfect donut and corrected its course, now shooting towards Malchus. “It’s not going to work!” Vicki protested. “He’ll just---“

“Watch,” Jessica insisted quietly.

Malchus, apparently thinking along the same lines as Vicki, snarled as the Tellmobile charged at him. With a roar that would’ve sent half the wildlife in Africa running for the sea, he stood his gorund, ready to lift the oncoming vehicle over his head and throw it into the Westgate Mall. This won’t end well, the brunette gynoid realized, I can just feel it….

Her intuition proved correct; it didn’t end well…

….for Malchus.

As soon as his hands touched the fender of the Tellmobile, the entire thing came loose, allowing the rest of the car to shoot forwards---taking his head off as soon as it made contact. The massive, decapitated body fell backwards, putting it right in the path of the still-oncoming Tellmobile as it bore down on him like a hellspawned steamroller----

Vicki squeezed her eyes shut. Yes, Malchus was an android, but that still didn’t make the carnage any easier to watch.

“I think you can look now,” Jessica whispered.

Vicki opened her eyes, and flinched; Malchus’ ruined body was still twitching beneath the spinning wheels of the Tellmobile. “And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how you take care of that,” Tell declared, kicking the door open and jumping down to the pavement. “Ted, Joan, Alicia….step carefully, if you would…” Alicia exited the vehicle via the front passenger’s side door, while Ted and Joan emerged from the backseat, helping Anton out of the vehicle as they went. “Vicki,” Tell called, “be a dear and grab the big guy’s head….I want to analyze the CPU back at my workshop---under carefully controlled conditions, of course.”

Alicia let out a low whistle as she noticed the Hummer. “Too bad we didn’t get here a few minutes earlier,” she mused, “otherwise those poor saps over there would be able to tell us what happened.”

“Not much to tell,” Jessica stated. “The big guy threw the Hummer at the wall, everyone inside got flattened. End of story….though we could probably find out more from the security cameras. I’ll head inside to talk to the manger; hopefully, he’ll be willing to let us see the tapes….” She headed for the mall, whistling Rush’s “Limelight” as she went.

Once Jessica was out of earshot, Alicia headed back to the Tellmobile. “Right, everyone in,” she ordered.

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “Aren’t we going to wait for Jessica to get back with the tapes?”

“Babe,” Alicia replied, “we already know these two are part of the Family of Steel…and it doesn’t take a genius to know where the Family is going to hit next.” She slid into the driver’s seat, ignoring Tell’s protests. “They’re going after the bus---and unless we head them off, they’ll take every homeless android in San Jose!”

Claudia stared at the ceiling of the bus, silently counting the minutes until she was back at DreamLand---and, more importantly, back at her recharging booth. After a day like this, she reasoned, I’ll probably need it. A few seats away, Nate was leading the rest of the passengers in a rousing chorus of “Deck the Halls”, “conducting” them in a rather overenthusiastic manner.

“Isn’t this great?” he asked Claudia, smiling broadly. “Nothing like leading the homeless in Christmas carols to bring out the best in a guy…”

“I’m more worried about leading them back to the halfway house,” Claudia replied. “The police band scanner seems to have more lights on it than the tree back at the DreamLand lobby---they’ve been getting calls all night. Something about a disturbance at the Westgate Mall parking lot---“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Nate interrupted, “you installed police scanners on a bus?!”

“They’re just tuned into ALPA Enforcement frequencies,” Claudia assured him. “I wouldn’t have a scanner running on all channels, Nate….that’s just asking for trouble…” She glanced at the rearview mirror and frowned. “Speaking of asking for trouble,” she mused, “what in the name of Wozniak is that RV trying to pull off?” Nate stepped forward to see what Claudia meant; “Either their driver is completely stoned,” he replied, “or they’re just a bunch of idiots trying to play chicken---“

“Or,” Claudia muttered, “they’re trying to ram us.”

“What?!” Nate laughed at the absurdity of the suggestion. “Why would they---“

The ear-grating crunch of metal on metal drowned out his sentence. “Okay,” he muttered, “maybe they are trying to ram us!”

“What’s going on here?” Dylan, the former SJSU professor, made his way to the front of the bus. “Unless I’m sorely mistaken, that recreational vehicle just tried to run us off the road!” He turned his attention to Claudia; “Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” he demanded.

“Believe me,” Claudia insisted, “this is not part of the carolling tour---“

Another crunch rent the air; the RV had slammed into the bus again.

“What the hell is this?!” Arnold Hendricks shouted. “Nobody said anything about getting driven off the road by a stupid-looking RV---“

“We’re getting the situation under control,” Nate assured him. “As a matter of fact, we’re contacting the RV driver right now….” He leaned into the driver’s seat area; “Do me a favor and contact the driver of that RV,” he whispered.

“I’m trying,” the driver insisted, “but they’re not answering!”

Nate muttered a curse under his breath, but managed to keep smiling at the passengers. “Okay, so we’re still trying to figure out what the RV is doing,” he informed them, “but in the meantime, we’re all still here, and we’re all still okay, so let’s get back to the carolling! Everyone, turn to page 15 of the songbook; we’ll be singing ‘Good King Wenceslaus’---“

A third crunch, louder than the first two, shook most of the androids out of their seats---the RV had steered into the right side of the bus.

“I’m starting to think they’re not doing that accidentally,” Sandra Hendricks muttered.

“Ya think?!” Nate snapped, finally losing his composure. “Try calling the RV again---“

“Attention, all passengers. This is Damien Falken, patriarch of the Family of Steel.”

The voice currently addressing the homeless androids was being broadcast through the bus speakers from the RV, which had coasted along and effortlessly glided in front of the bus while the passengers were recovering from the last impact. “I am offering each and every one of you the chance to give up your meaningless lives and join my cause,” the voice continued, “as part of the always-growing Family.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Claudia warned the passengers. “He’s a con artist---“

“Would you trust the word of a Seeker of Truths, such as myself?” the voice asked. “Or does the voice of a glorified whore hold more value to you all?”

Claudia glared at the nearest speaker. “Driver,” she growled, “shut the damn PA system off right now---“

“I can’t!” the driver replied, already in the grips of a panic. “The stupid system’s locked me out!”

“It’s a PA system,” Nate countered, “how can it lock you out….” His question faded out as he glanced at the PA control screen. “Ah, okay,” he murmured, “I’m starting to see what the problem is here….Claudia? You, ah, might want to take a look at this….”

The blonde gynoid stared at the PA screen, feeling an urge to smash something. “You’re joking….”

Instead of the usual menu screen that would allow the driver to control the PA system on the bus, the control screen was displaying the “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song from Ren and Stimpy on an infinite loop, making it impossible for anyone to access the menu. “How the hell is this even possible?!” she groaned. “Nate, get Tell on the horn---we need to figure out how to fix this thing and get back to the halfway house.”

“They only screwed up the PA system,” Nate reminded her. “It’s not like---“ The bus zig-zagged for a minute or so before straightening out; “Okay, please tell me they didn’t just do what I think they just did,” he muttered.

“If you think they just took control of the steering,” the driver replied, “then yeah…they did!”

“Please do not be alarmed, treasured passengers,” the voice requested. “None of you are in any danger at this moment---indeed, you are all safer now than you have ever been before. The Family of Steel will accept each and every one of you into its ranks---“

“SHUT UP!” Claudia shouted, smashing the PA control screen with her fist.

“---and the truths of the universe will be revealed---“

“Nate,” Claudia grunted, “help me rip this thing out and throw it onto the freeway!”

“Ah, you do remember that this bus is a rental---“


“Okay, okay! Yeesh…”

Together, Nate and Claudia managed to tear the entire PA control monitor from the dashboard after about three minutes of grunting, pulling and swearing. Once it had been ripped out, Claudia gestured for the driver to open the doors. “See you in Hell, Damien Falken!” she shouted, hurling the useless device onto the road.

“Well, at least that’s over,” Nate began. “Now we can---“

Another crunch, followed by nearly uncontrollable snaking on the part of the bus, cut him off.

“What now?!” Claudia groaned.

A white Ford Transit van, the back doors barely hanging on, had pulled up on one side of the bus, with a Land Rover boxing it in on the other side. For some odd reason, neither vehicle seemed interested in the bus, or its occupants; both were opening fire on the garrishly-decorated RV in front of it.

“That’s IT!” Nate shouted. “We need to get off the road---this is just too much! Driver, any chance we can double back to Santana Row and---“ He stopped; somehow or other, a stray round (he couldn’t tell if it had been fired by someone from the Transit or someone from the Land Rover) had pierced the windshield and shot straight into the unfortunate man’s head. “Ah, Claudia,” he mused, “I think we have a major problem over here…”

“What kind of prob---oh, my God…..” Claudia gasped. “How….”

“Never mind that,” Nate insisted. “We need to get him out of the seat so I can get this thing off the road---help me unbuckle the seatbelt…” The two quickly removed the seatbelt from the dead man, and Arnold Hendricks aided them in gently lowering the corpse to the floor. “You ever drive one of these before?” he asked Nate.

“No,” the android quickly admitted, “but seriously, how hard can it be?”

As if to mock his question, both the Transit and the Land Rover slammed into the bus again---and this time, the walls began to buckle. “If ANYONE yells ‘She can’t take much more, cap’n!’,” he growled, “I am personally going to kick them in the face!”

“Well,” Claudia quietly admitted, “she really can’t take much more…”

Nate didn’t bother to glare at her. “What was your first clue?” he muttered. “And while I’m thinking about it, what the hell happened to our police escort?! Those guys were supposed to stay with us all night!”

“I believe they were…forcibly removed from our party,” Dylan informed him. “If you would check the rear-view mirror….” Nate followed the android professor’s advice, and instantly regretted it---overturned Crown Vics littered the road side behind the bus. “Well, ask a stupid question…..OKAY, listen up! We’re doubling back to Santana Row and waiting it out there---if these idiots want to play Spy Hunter all night, that’s their problem. I am NOT losing anyone else on this bus---“

The Transit suddenly broke from the pack and sped out of control. One of the gunmen stupidly chose to fire blindly, peppering the bus with rounds---one of which shattered Nate’s right eye. “DAMNIT!” he swore, struggling to keep from flipping the bus. “I JUST GOT UPGRADED A WEEK AGO!” Claudia eased him out of the driver’s seat. “Everyone, hang on to your butts,” she called out.

“Please tell me she’s not going to do what I think she’s going to do,” Sandra muttered.

“If you’re thinking the same thing I am,” Arnold replied, “I really hope she’s not going to try it…”

As the passengers prepared for what was inevitably going to be a complete and utter clusterschmaz, Claudia floored the gas pedal and shot ahead of the Land Rover. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” Nate shouted, one hand still pressed over his ruined eye. “Giving these bastards a taste of their own medicine,” Claudia called back. “Hang on---wait, what the hell?!” A red-white streak seemed to fly over the bus in a perfect arc, piercing the roof of the RV; seconds later, the massive vehicle began snaking wildly, diverting from its intended path. The Land Rover soon followed suit, rocketing ahead of the bus to continue its pursuit of the stricken RV.

“Ah, Claudia?” Nate asked. “What the hell just happened?”

“To be honest,” the DreamLand CEO replied with a smile, “I think we just had our own Christmas miracle.”

Within the cramped confines of the RV, “Christmas miracles” were the last thing anyone could be bothered to think about.

By all intentions, Vicki Lawson should never have been able to successfully pull off the maneuver she’d just used to get into the RV---at least fifteen different factors, ranging from wind direction and air/speed velocity to the position of every other car on the road, were working against her from the get go. The TellMobile should never have been able to get as close as it did, either; had the police escort remained in place as they were meant to, the entire plan would’ve been ruined.

Obviously, someone was watching out for Vicki tonight.

The reactions of Calliope, Kiern and everyone else inside the RV were predictable---shock, disbelief and even a “WTF?!” face thrown in for good measure. A few seconds after those feelings wore off, though…

It. Was. On.

Any street fighter worth their salt will tell you that the location of the fight is just as important as anything else, and nowhere was this more true than inside the Family of Steel’s RV. Had the brawl taken place in the parking lot of the Westgate Mall, things may have turned out differently; as it stood, Vicki had her work cut out for her in the RV. Kiern’s wild haymakers never touched her, mainly because he kept punching too high and knocking cabinets off the walls. Calliope’s attempt at tackling the brunette gynoid backfired when she tripped over a discarded toolbox, setting her up perfectly for a knee to the face. Not even the cloaked figure could get any hits in---the RV’s interior was just too damn crowded.


“You’ll have to wait your turn,” V.I.C.I. replied, elbowing Kiern in the gut. “I’m kind of busy here…”

The sound of the brunette gynoid’s monotone sent a chill down the old man’s spine; he had heard whispers of what the Lawson girl could do, but now, seeing her in person…..

In the rear area of the RV, Kiern was being introduced to the refridgerator door in a rather brutal fashion; V.I.C.I. could’ve easily bashed his head in all night, but Calliope had somehow managed to regain her footing and charge the brunette gynoid a second time. Without the toolbox in the way, the two gynoids ended up slamming into the walls of the RV, creating an ugly dent with each impact. “I’m feeling a bit cramped in here,” V.I.C.I . admitted, throwing Calliope off of her. “What’s say we take this outside?”

“Outside?!” the raven-haired gynoid echoed. “What are you---“ She soon found herself being thrown upwards, putting another hole in the RV’s roof; V.I.C.I. followed soon after. “See?” she taunted. “Outside.” Calliope growled and prepared to charge again, only to feel something locking up inside of her. “Damn,” she groaned, “my…internals…” She sank to her knees; “I…need…to…be…re.set……”

Before V.I.C.I. could capitalize on her opponent’s weakness (or offer help), Kiern clambored through the hole behind her. “You will pay for this interference,” he droned, his voice sounding even more broken thanks to the whole “getting a refridgerator door slammed on one’s head” routine from a few minutes ago. “Your broken body will be thrown into the fire---“

“I don’t think so,” V.I.C.I. replied, charging at the black-clad android.

Just like her fight against Saang, V.I.C.I. found herself marvelling at how easy this battle seemed to be, at least when compared to her brutal bout with Faceless from a few nights earlier. While Kiern had obviously received better training than Saang, his tactics were almost childish compared to the sheer brute-force approach Faceless had employed. Weave, block, counter, sweep the leg….this is like DDR on steroids! V.I.C.I. fought the urge to smile as she dodged another kick and retalliated with a palm-strike to Kiern’s sternum.

“You…cannot win,” Kiern sputtered; something inside his torso pinged, followed by a rather unnerving grinding sound. “We…will…triumph…..”

“Give it a rest,” V.I.C.I. suggested, preparing to strike the finishing blow---

---only for a whip-like appendage to knock her off her feet.

As the brunette gynoid slowly lifted herself to a standing position, she felt the unmistakable sensation one only feels when they’re close to succumbing to the creeping terrors. The whiplike appendage had retreated back into the newly-created hole in the RV, only for its owner to climb out…

…and upon seeing the aforementioned owner of the whip, V.I.C.I. felt those old creeping terrors once again.

The term “android” didn’t suit the newcomer, mainly due to the fact that it only looked human---or, more accurately, humanoid---in the vaguest sense of the term. Yes, it was bipedal, with two arms, a torso and a head, but everything else about it was just wrong---the legs, for instance, were designed to function more like canine legs, rather than human legs. The arms were far too long for the rest of its body---even without counting the aftermarket extenders that turned them into whips, each limb was easily five feet long. The torso was too thin near the waist and too broad in the shoulders, giving it an insectoid look; the head (if it could even be called that) was nothing but an ovaloid metal structure with a single camera set into the center, its lense staring out at whatever it was facing. All of this was covered in worn, pitted steel plating that had probably seen better days on the side of a mailbox; several spots were completely rusted through, revealing pistons, gears and wiring that looked just as battered as the robot’s “skin”.

Long story short: The robot standing before V.I.C.I. looked as if it had been manufactured in the depths of Hades itself….…and at the moment, its single “eye” was staring right at the brunette gynoid. Somewhere in the primitive microprocessor that passed for a brain within the steel giant, a single word reverberated through every relay of every circuit: KILL.

A second or so later, it proceeded to obey that command.

“What…the hell?!” Vicki backed away from the robot, nearly tripping over Calliope’s motionless form in the process. “What is this thing?!”

“It…keeps…us…in…line,” Calliope whispered.

Vicki almost said something, but settled for dodging out of the way as the whip-weilding robot attacked her again. Each strike from its extended appendages gouged out ugly gashes in the roof of the RV; right, I’m NOT letting those things hit me, the brunette gynoid mentally declared. Jumping out of a falling elevator is one thing, but---

Her train of thought was rather rudely interrupted as the robot attacked again, its lengthened arms effortlessly carving up the RV’s roof---in the exact spot where Vicki had just been. Falken’s swearing from inside the vehicle did nothing to help the situation; if anything, his angry shouts only goaded the robot on.

“Okay,” Vicki muttered, “how do I kill this thing?!”


Vicki glanced at Calliope. “How do I know you’re not just going to let that thing rip me in half?” she asked warily.” Calliope’s body shuddered; “You…don’t,” she replied, “but…I…need…you…to…re.set…me..”

Fair enough. “How do I do that?”


Vicki turned Calliope over and found the panel; “Ah, are you sure it’s the topmost dial?” she asked. “It looks like it’s already been set to…whatever the maximum setting is…”


The brunette gynoid sighed. “I sincerely hope this doesn’t backfire on me…” She grasped the dial, silently praying that Calliope wouldn’t explode, fall apart or try to strangle her once it was turned. “Here goes…”

A split second later….

“GAAAH!” Calliope sat up with a gasp.

“Feeling better?” Vicki asked.

“Definitely,” the raven-haired gynoid replied. “The master---Falken hardly ever resets me these days, even when I ask him to…I usually have to get Annie to do it…” She glanced over Vicki’s shoulder; “Of course, we can always talk about that later,” she admitted.

“Exactly,” Vicki agreed, looking back at the whip-weilding robot. “How the HELL do we beat that?!”

“Falken always used a cattle prod to keep it from turning on him,” Calliope informed her. “I think he ‘acquired’ it from an Army base in Nevada back in ’04…from what I understand, he didn’t go out of his way to find the instruction manuals for it.” The two gynoids watched as the whip-weilding robot turned against Kiern, savagely lashing him as he tried---and failed---to fend it off. “The only other thing I know about that robot is that its head is the least-protected spot on it…something about the armor plating being substandard compared to the rest of it.” She paused, cringing as the robot tore off one of Kiern’s arms; “That’s enough information for you to beat it, right?” she whispered.

“It’s more than enough,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Stay here…I’ll be back.”

The whip-bot continued thrashing Kiern, its whip-like arms slicing more and more leather off of the android with every strike. In seconds, the job would be finished….

“Hey, UGLY!”

The robot turned---and got V.I.C.I.’s fist through its eye. “Whip this,” the brunette gynoid taunted, unleashing the maximum voltage of Detaining Grip directly into the robot’s cranial casing. The results were nothing short of spectacular; its steel plating exploded in multiple spots, tearing jagged holes in its torso and legs. Several of the knee servos in the left leg blew out entirely, pitching the robot forward; V.I.C.I. had to fight just to keep her grip. Finally, after forty seconds of staggering around, the robot swayed in place and fell to its knees.

“And that takes care of that,” V.I.C.I. declared. “Now, for Falken---“

“Ah, ” Calliope called, “we have a problem---Falken’s gone!” The brunette gynoid ran to the front of the RV and nearly screamed; Falken had escaped the RV while the girls were dealing with the whip-bot. “The steering’s been locked, and the gas pedal’s jammed,” V.I.C.I. mused. “We’ll have to jump.”


“Just trust me,” V.I.C.I. assured Calliope, taking hold of the raven-haired gynoid as the RV began to zig-zag dangerously across multiple lanes.. “On three: One…..two….THREE!” The two gynoids jumped, just as the RV slammed head-on into an oncoming 18-wheeler, rolled five times and skidded to a stop. As the girls landed on the sidewalk, the RV exploded, showering debris on everything within a five-mile radius.

“Well, that was completely insane,” Vicki muttered. “Sit tight; I need to make a phone call….”

Back at the halfway house, Vicki filled everyone in on the fight with Falken’s whip-bot, which most of them hadn’t even seen thanks to the hellacious traffic snarls that had ‘sprung up’ during the hour. “….and you’re sure the bus crash destroyed it?” Tell asked. “I mean, the way you talk about it, this thing was built like a Terminator---“

“I never said that,” Vicki retorted. “All I said is that it was hard to kill….”

“…which isn’t getting us any closer to finding Falken,” Anton replied. “And before you say anything, Vicki, the only reason I’m here is because we couldn’t take the TellMobile to the hospital without risking a ‘containment breach’.” He gestured towards the back of Mr. Tell’s Ford Focus, where Saang was still chained up. “The last thing any of us wanted to worry about was him, running amok inside a building full of defenseless patients.”

“Good call,” Calliope commented. “And before you say anything….yes, I am---or rather, I was---a member of the Family of Steel….” She sighed. “…was being the operative word.”

“You’re surrendering to the ALPA, then?” Alicia querried.

“I’m not going to sit back and watch Falken drag everyone else down with him,” Calliope replied. “I never believed in any of that BS he keeps spouting about the ‘True Path’, to be honest…not at first, anyways. I just needed a place to stay, and after Saang came back, I figured the Family would need someone to keep him from killing the old man in his sleep. Soon, though….I realized I was in over my head. The abductions, the….murders….” She visibly shuddered at the mention of the killings Falken’s “Family” had carried out. “It was all just too damn much…but he started acting like a condescending bastard whenever Saang got too out of control, and I didn’t want him to start treating me that way…”

“Well, none of us are as messed up in the head as Damien Falken,” Vicki informed her, “so you’re welcome to stay here at the halfway house as long as you like!” She grinned.

“Thanks,” Calliope murmured.

“Well, seeing as how we’ve sorted out your living arrangements for the rest of the week,” Alicia remarked, “how about you give us a little more info about…well, you? Where you’re from, who made you….what your life was like before Falken decided to ‘recruit’ you….that sort of thing.”

The raven-haired gynoid stared up at the ceiling and sighed. “According to the documentation I was able to ‘borrow’ from Falken’s safe on a nightly basis, I was created by the Lovelace Estate some time in the mid-1990s. Apparently, the estate had once belonged to one Alan Lovelace….actually, make that Baron Alan Lovelace.” She rolled her eyes; “The guy was pretty far ahead of his time, using the study of humorism to create clockwork gynoids. Phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic and choleric---those are the four humors, in case you didn’t know….and Lovelace was supposedly able to harness all of them to build his brides…but, of course, none of that really fits here, because none of it applies to me---“

“Except the humorism bit,” Alicia cut in. “Vicki told us you had a back panel similar to those on the Lovelace automatons…”

“I was getting to that,” Calliope insisted. “Like I was saying , the Lovelace estate had four gynoids in charge of it---Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. For the longest time, nobody even knew if they really existed…until an expedition to the remains of Lovelace’s manor uncovered his notes. After that, it was a race to see which of his relatives could get the place rebuilt first; the ‘winner’ decided to revive Alan’s trade, with a twist: making custom clockwork girls for only the highest-paying clients.”

“And you were one of those custom-made clockwork girls?” Vicki assumed.

“Exactly. Built in 1999, shipped in January 2000…..” Calliope scowled. “Intercepted three days into the month, right after my would-be owner collected me at the airport…”

“I remember that one,” Tell mused. “Nasty piece of business---five bystanders got wounded when our boys tried to talk down the Family representatives.”

Calliope nodded. “It was a bad scene for everyone involved…except me, of course, because I had no idea what the hell was going on. I was still in my stainless steel shipping crate, waiting to be brought back home and activated for the first time….” Her eyes squeezed shut. “Instead, the first thing I saw after I ‘woke up’ was Damien Falken, smiling down at me and calling me the newest daughter of the Family of Steel….”

“And that’s when you realized something was up,” Vicki finished.

“Exactly. He never said I was ‘stolen’ or ‘taken’ at first….he always used the term ‘chosen’. ‘You were chosen to be a part of the Family,’ he’d say, or ‘I chose you, Calliope’….always the same old crap.”

“Did any of the others feel the same way?” Alicia querried.

“There were a few times when they would start to question everything,” Calliope admitted. “I tried to keep them from rebelling….and, in time, I also tried to keep myself from getting angry with Falken even though he lied to me.” She chuckled mirthlessly; “I did that job a bit too well, in the end….I started to forget who I was, where I came from. The only thing I could remember was that I didn’t want the others to keep fighting. I was always the mediator, the peacekeeper…..” She sighed. “I was the only thing keeping them from seeing the truth about Falken, even though I’d blinded myself to it.”

“Some of them never did believe, though,” Vicki mused. “Saang, for instance….”

Calliope nodded. “He refused to take any of Falken’s claims at face value, and they argued about it on an almost-daily basis. I think I was the only one who was brave enough---or stupid enough---to stand up to Saang and keep him from beating up Falken; it earned me more than a few beatings, and he even threatened to kill me a few times, but I never backed down.”

“Intriguing,” Anton mused. “And what made you realize Falken was a complete liar?”

“Everything he’s done lately,” Calliope replied. “I knew something was up when he started planning ‘the bus job’, as he called it, but I never thought he would actually be stupid enough to try it….and after what happened to Malchus and Phoebe at the mall---“

“Wait,” Vicki interjected, “what happened at the mall?”

“They….they were infected,” Calliope explained. “I don’t know how it happened…”

“Infected with what?” Joan asked, confused.

“The Stylo virus,” Jessica Lovecraft quietly replied.

Alicia, Ted, Anton and Tell exchanged worried glances. “You’re sure it was Stylo?” Anton asked. “A few new viruses have been popping up lately that give false positives on some of the older Stylo tests---“

“Believe me,” Jessica replied, “it was Stylo. InocuLAN detected it almost instantly.”

Tell stared at the ceiling, muttering under his breath. “Until we analyze what’s left of Malchus and Phoebe,” Anton informed the group, “there’s no way we can discover exactly how they became infected by the Stylo virus…though the more important question is why Falken allowed this to happen, especially considering the fact that both of the infected units were members of his own ‘family’. He’s always been a little bit…off, but this is just sick, even for him.”

“What do we do, then?” Calliope asked.

“Find Falken, for one,” Vicki stated. “He’s still got Rachel, and he very nearly captured everyone on that bus before I showed up…” She paused, remembering another detail from the harrowing chase. “While I’m thinking about it, why were a Land Rover and a Ford Transit chasing after Falken’s RV?”

“The Ford Transit was registered to Victor Vega,” Jessica began, only to be cut off by a groan from Vicki. “Why is it that EVERY TIME things start getting crazy around here, he’s involved somehow?!” she complained. “I mean, seriously…he tried to screw up Sophia Starlet’s mall concert tour, he almost grounded Leah Chambers’ spaceflight, and now this? What is that guy’s problem?!” “I don’t know,” Jessica admitted, “but the two idiots who bailed from the van before it crashed fessed up to being sent by Vega as soon as they were picked up by the LAPD.”

Tell was more than a bit surprised at the revelation. “I thought they’d have gone with the ‘ARGO, NUNYA’ routine,” he mused, “especially considering their other employer’s policies on ‘snitching’---and before you ask, V, I’m not going to explain what ‘ARGO, NUNYA’ means.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” the brunette gynoid muttered.

“Back to the matter at hand,” Jessica continued, “the Land Rover that Vicki mentioned earlier was flagged as stolen after it ran a red light---and you’re not going to believe who was driving it…” She pulled an iPhone from the zippered pocket on her sleve, allowing Vicki to get a good look at the screen. “That’s Sophia Tank!” she gasped, staring at the Amazonian green-haired gynoid behind the wheel. “Actually, she’s changed her name to Stacy Tanque,” Jessica informed her, “with ‘Tanque’ spelled T-A-N-Q-U-E; she mentioned something about not wanting to be confused with Sophia Starlet on the form.”

“Who’s that blonde girl in the seat next to her?” Joan mused, looking over Vicki’s shoulder. “She’s not exactly dressed for a night at the opera….”

Vicki’s eyes widened even further; “That’s Leslie Erica Simm,” she muttered. Joan looked confused; “And why don’t you seem all too thrilled about that?” she querried. “Mom,” Vicki replied quietly, “you’ve already met her, but I’ll bet you remember her when she was just a computer program Ted wrote back in ’88….a program named L.E.S.!”

The revelation stunned Joan as much as “Stacy Tanque”’s reappearance had stunned Vicki. “That’s L.E.S.?!”

“We don’t have time for this,” Alicia declared, brushing past Vicki and Joan on her way to the front door of the halfway house. “Every second we just sit here and flap our gums is another second of freedom for Damien Falken. We have to stop him, otherwise….”

“…otherwise, every android and gynoid in San Jose will be in danger,” Calliope finished. “Once Falken finds out what happened to Malchus and Phoebe---if he didn’t know already---he’ll take on anyone who tries to stop him from ‘leading his children towards their ultimate reward at the end of the True Path’….he’ll even take on the Coalition if he has to.”

“Let’s not give him a chance to get that far,” V.I.C.I. suggested. Joan arched an eyebrow; “I thought you gave up the whole ‘robot voice’ thing to fit in,” she mused. “I did,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “but it’s sort of grown on me.”

“We can reminisce later,” Anton reminded them. “Right now, we need to find wherever it is that Falken is hiding, and put a stop to these insane plans of his. Calliope, you probably know more about him than anyone else here…..what part of San Jose would he be hiding out in at a time like this? Does he have a safe house, a hidden shelter….any place that’s not visible to the general public where he can disappear for a few days and regroup?”

Calliope pulled a slip of paper from her boot. “It’s not exactly hidden,” she replied, handing the paper to V.I.C.I., “but it is a place where he can disappear…..”

Anyone who might have seen the rather odd pair of individuals entering the De Anza Hotel---a man dressed in what could only be described as “circus ringmaster” clothing and a girl who looked as if she would rather be anywhere but there at that particular moment---must have had a few questions about what, exactly, they were looking at. Custody battles, possible father/daughter issues and clandestine midnight meetings were but a few of the possible excuses for their presence at the hotel….

….but the real reason they were there---or, at least, the reason Damien Falken was there---involved something several shades more sinsiter than any of those scenarios.

The clerk behind the desk was the first of many to narrowly avoid his wrath, when she politely informed him that, even though he was scheduled to meet someone, he still needed a reservation. Before Falken could launch into a tirade, the girl he’d halfway-dragged in with him promised that they wouldn’t be staying, and only needed directions to a certain guest’s room. The clerk complied, the directions were given, and everyone went on their way.

Nobody knew that they had just helped send the girl to her inevitable doom.

“Well,” Falken huffed, once the pair were in the elevator, “that was a marvellous bit of bargaining you engaged in, my dear….the Family of Steel welcomes all who can perform at such a level.”

“Thanks,” Rachel muttered.

“Once we meet up with the rest of the Family on the ninth floor,” Falken continued, as if the gynoid hadn’t even spoken, “we shall make plans to relocate post-haste! New York is rather pleasant this time of year…..”

The elevator brought them to their destination without further problems, and Falken even hummed a Christmas carol as the doors slid open. Rachel, meanwhile, said nothing; she was too busy formulating her own plans to get as far away from the old man as possible. While he showed no lasting signs of stress from the bus crash (other than muttering something about a lake of fire), there was still an unsettling, almost dangerous gleam in his eye as he walked down the corridors. Even the simple act of him tipping his hat to one of the hotel maids was done with a flourish, as if everything was part of some massive theatrical production that he just so happened to be staring in.

Obviously, Rachel wanted no part of this sort of “production”.

“…and here we are!” Falken declared. “Hopefully, they haven’t gone out…” He knocked on the door.

“It’s open,” a voice croaked from inside.

Falken smiled at Rachel; “The True Path has led us to this point, my dear,” he whispered. “Whatever happens next will be for the best!” He nudged the door open, striding in confidently. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come in, come in!” He gestured for the gynoid to join him.

Hesitantly, Rachel crossed the threshhold into the room.

“You brought the girl,” the voice croaked. It was a statement, not a question.

“I have indeed,” Falken declared, smiling broadly despite the lack of light. Behind him, someone closed the door and locked it. “Unfortunately, Kiern, Calliope and Ouro were lost in a fiery crash before I could recover her, but….here we are!” He smiled again. “She has remained unharmed since my children brought her to me, as per our agreement….

“Excellent. Now, you get exactly what you deserve……”

The lights flickered on, and the smile on Falken’s face melted into an expression of sheer terror.

“Surprise, surprise, old man,” the UnMaker drawled, grinning. “As much as I hate being the bearer of bad news, it is my sad duty to inform you that your, ah, ‘children’ weren’t able to join the party. They did, however, provide us with some lovely gifts before they shuffled off this mortal coil…” He gestured to the two cloaked figures standing near the door.

“Scilla, Charybdis,” Falken muttered, “what is the meaning of this?!”

“Show him,” the UnMaker drawled.

The first of the cloaked figures threw off its---her cloak, revealing a woman who looked oddly familiar; “Are they filming Law and Order in here?” Rachel asked. “Not exactly,” the UnMaker informed her, grinning. “Maisie may look the part, but she’s all machine. Say hi our lucky contestants, Maisie.”

“Very funny, Sabata,” Maisie replied. “Just keep them in sight at all times---especially Falken. After all the crap he’s pulled, letting him get away would be the stupidest thing you could ever do---“

“Other than you mentioning my name?” the UnMaker teased. “Eh, the hell with it….” He noticed the confused look on Rachel’s face. “Seems like someone’s curiosity just got piqued,” he remarked. “Since you’re wondering who, exactly, I am, the name’s Van Sabata….” He lowered his sunglasses and grinned. “But you can call me the UnMaker.”

“A drifter with a pair of fake names,” Falken grunted. “You are no more worthy of the True Path than---“

Van flicked his arm out, causing a fully-ceramic handgun to extend from his sleeve. “Choose your next words carefully, old man,” he warned, “’cause they just might be the last you’ll ever say.”

Falken raised his hands, stepping away from Rachel as Maisie guided her towards the door. “Answer me this one question, Van Sabata,” he muttered. “What horrors did you unleash upon Scylla and Charybdis before stealing their garb to clothe two strangers?”

“Simple,” the UnMaker replied. “I did what I do best…” He dragged a Rubbermaid tub full of parts out from behind the chair; “This one’s Scylla…I think,” he informed Falken. “Charybdis is still in the van---well, what’s left of him, anyways. I had a bit of trouble with the plasma cutter---“

Before Maise could stop him, Falken charged at the UnMaker, landing a savage right cross to his jaw. “YOU SON OF A WHORE!” he screamed, trying desperately to get at the black-clad man. “YOU SHALL BURN IN ALL THE HELLS THERE EVER WERE! YOUR SOUL WILL NEVER KNOW PEACE OR CONTENTMENT FROM THIS DAY FORTH!”

“Yeah, yeah, and my mother sells whelks in Hull,” Van drawled, clearly unintimidated by the threat. “Maise, kick him in the junk or something---“

A crash sounded down the hall, followed by all-too-familiar maniacal laughter.

“It seems the True Path continues to lead on,” Falken mused, his smile returning as he ducked under Maisie’s punch with surprising agility. “As the Bard once said many, many years ago, parting is, indeed, such sweet sorrow---“ Maisie’s foot connected with the back of his head. “It’d be even sweeter if you would just shut up,” she growled, moving to secure his wrists with a pair of handcuffs.

The UnMaker turned his attention to Rachel. “I suggest you get the hell out of here, kid,” he mused, “unless you feel like watching this guy get interrogated---“

Somewhere down the hall, the maniacal laughing got louder.

“On second thought,” he mused, “you might just want to stick around…”

By the time Falken managed to jimmy the lock open, the Jester was already waiting in the hall for him, his smile almost literally stretching from ear to ear. “Come, my laughing friend,” Falken declared, “and we shall flee into the arms of the night!” As the Jester barrelled down the hall, cackling like a madman, Falken prepared to follow him---until a well-aimed shot tore through his left shin.

“Try to move again,” Maisie warned, “and I’ll aim higher.”

Falken glared at her; “Every obstacle on the True Path can---and will be overcome,” he warned, “so take care that your interference does not cost another seeker of truth their life.” With one last scathing glare, he hobbled off down the hall, calling out after the Jester to slow down.

“Well, that was a complete and utter waste of time,” Maisie muttered. “I thought we were supposed to bring him in, not chase him off.” “Did I put the Glock in your hand and tell you to put a hole in his leg?” the UnMaker countered. “I didn’t think so. Besides….the guy’s only got a few more hidey-holes to run to…isn’t that right, Inspektor?”

“Indeed,” the second cloaked figure stated, throwing back his hood to reveal the wavy brown hair and aviator shades of Robo Depot’s own Inspektor 12. “Maisie, my dear, I believe our work isn’t quite over yet…”

“Your work?” Rachel echoed, frowning.

“The Coalition isn’t the only party interested in Falken’s downfall,” the Inspektor informed the gynoid, his soothing barritone voice calming her almost instantly. “The Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency has had the good grace to assign me to this task, and I’ve taken the liberty of bringing Maisie with me, mainly due to her oh-so-many special features left over from her, shall we say, original career….though I doubt Falken will be the type to fall prey to one particular feature of hers---“

“We get the point,” Van drawled.

“All this talking is getting us nowhere,” Maisie stated. “The longer we just sit here, the farther away Falken is going to get!” She checked her Glock; “If you really want to help us catch this guy, Van---“

“Who said I wanted to help?” the UnMaker cooly replied. “I already got what I came for….”

Maisie glared at the black-clad young man with unveiled contempt. “It’s pricks like you who give hard-working men and women like me a bad name….even bounty hunters have more class than you---“

“If he wants to go his own way, Sweets,” the Inspektor chided, “then just let him….our job is to keep Falken from ruining anymore artificial lives than he already has.” He stared down the hallway, shaking his head as he noticed the blood trail from Falken’s leg wound; “From the looks of it, he won’t be able to get far. He might even be too weak to leave the hotel!”

“All the better for us,” Maisie stated. “Let’s get going.”

“What about me?” Rachel asked quietly.

The Inspektor planted his hands on her shoulders and gave her a reassuring smile. “As much as I hate leaving such an impressive piece of work behind,” he admitted, “you’ll be a lot safer in here than you would be out there, especially with that Jester…thing running amok. Of course, if we had some help---“

Before he could finish, the phone---immaculately perched on a nearby desk---rang. Maisie stared at the thing as if it were a pile of dead fish, but said nothing as the Inspektor gently lifted the receiver to his ear. “Hello, this is Inspektor 12 of Robo Depot….to whom am I speaking?”

“Vicki Lawson, of the ALPA---and believe me, I am so glad to hear you right now!”

Down in the parking lot, Vicki had doing her part and aiding in the evacuation of frightened hotel guests…even though she would’ve preferred a chance to face off against the Jester. Now, with her parents and Mr. Tell handling most of the evac procedures, she was free to contact Robo-Depot’s finest. “We tracked Falken here thanks to a hot tip,” she informed the Inspektor, ducking into a less-populated corridor to avoid being overheard, “and from what the clerk told me, he brought a girl here with him---“

“He did,” the Inspektor confirmed. “She’s up here with myself, my beautiful chief of security, and one Mr. Van Sabata---“

“Ah, who?”

The phone changed hands; “Hello, Vicki,” a familiar voice crooned. “Miss me?”

“Hello…..UnMaker.” The words came out as a growl.

“So you haven’t forgotten….nice. Fortunately for you, I’m on the side of law and order this time around---but don’t expect it to stay that way. The only reason I even came all the way out here is because Falken’s throwing everything out of whack….and in case you didn’t know, my job is to make sure things get back into whack.”

“And how exactly does someone who ‘unmakes’ things put things back into whack?” Vicki asked, frowning at how bizarre the question had sounded.

“Time enough for that later,” the Inspektor interjected. “I’m sending Maisie---the aforementioned beautiful chief of security---downstairs to help you get as many people out of the building as possible and, if the opportunity presents itself, to detain Damien Falken and that accursed Jester robot of his before they can get to the nearest exit.”

“Thanks for the assist, Inspektor,” Vicki replied. “And now, back to a certain black-clad guy…”


The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes; “Cut the cute act,” she ordered. “I need to know where Falken is now---“

“He’s heading your way, and he’s got the Jester with him. I suggest you stay the hell out of their way, unless you have a burning desire to get torn up like a cheap piece of cardboard.”


“The Jester is bad news, Lawson. He was set to be decommissioned before Falken stole him.”

“And….why was he set to be---“

“You’re a smart girl, Lawson,” the UnMaker replied, the playful/teasing tone now gone from his voice. “You can figure it out. Every goodie-little two-shoes in the ALPA knows the Top Ten Reasons an android or gynoid gets D-Commed…..and knowing you, you’ve probably already figured out exactly why the Jester was headed for the scrap heap. Here’s a hint---“

“I get it,” V.I.C.I. replied.

“Good, because unless you get your rear in gear, the Jester’s going to have a grand old time reliving the glory days and ripping you to shreds, if you get my drift---“ The phone changed hands again. “Maisie is nearly to the first floor, Miss Lawson,” the Inspektor informed the brunette gynoid, “and a few ALPA associates will be arriving shortly in an unmarked car to assist you with your task. Just keep the doors open so everyone can get out….”

“Not a problem, sir,” Vicki replied. “Ah, just one question…which ALPA associates---“

A hot-pink 4-door sedan pulled up, with “Bulletproof” blaring from the speakers. The driver’s side door opened to reveal an athletic, coppery-red-haired girl wearing skintight jeans and a T-shirt that read “USB: Undeniably Sexy ‘Bot” across the front. “So this is how you get ready for Christmas,” the girl mused, grinning.

“Nice to see you too, Sunny,” Vicki replied, smiling. “Bring any other friends?”

“Of course she did,” Rae’s British-accented voice called from the passenger side of the car, seconds before the caramel-skinned redhead---looking for all the world like a video-game heroine in her impossibly tight cargo pants, black tank-top and combat boots---exited the vehicle. “It was either that, or beat myself into submission just so I wouldn’t have to watch The Room for the fiftieth time.” She rolled her eyes, groaning; “Sunny, next time I crash at your place, PLEASE tell your flatmates to keep their bloody doors shut whenever they feel the urge to watch crappy movies!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Sunny deadpanned. “Anyways, back to the matter at hand….”

“I was just about to say that,” Vicki muttered. “I never knew you two were field agents!”

“To be honest,” Rae admitted, “we’re actually not….we’re sort of…trainees, like you.” She removed her wallet from one of the pockets of her pants; “I’ve got the third highest marks in the training courses thus far,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “and Sunny’s managed to log more working hours than anyone else in running… well, apart from you---“

“As much as I love hearing you talk shop,” a voice called out, “I suggest you prepare for the sheer, unfiltered terror that’s about to come barrelling down that staircase towards you.”

Vicki turned to glare at the Accountant; “Ever hear of a thing called ‘minding your own business’?” she growled, the anger in her voice giving Rae and Sunny more than enough reason to back away. “This is an ALPA misison, and you’re not invited---“

“Did any of your friends ever tell you what the Jester actually was before he….it was set to be D-commed?” the Accountant asked. “It was the first unit in charge of D-comm operations at the Shop….after that tiny little incident on February 28, 1983, it was decided that any and all decommissionings of androids, gynoids, robots and/or other humanoid machines could not be entrusted to lowly homo sapiens. The Coalition’s best and brightest got together and---“

“February 28, 1983 was the Bloody Valentine incident, wasn’t it?” Sunny began, before Rae clapped her hand over her fellow gynoid’s mouth.

The Accountant gave the pair the thinnest of smiles. “The girl knows her history. Yes, the aforementioned date was, in fact, the date of the Bloody Valentine incident, and you two would do so well to forget that I just said that. Back to the story at hand….the Coalition’s best and brightest got together, had themselves a nice little chin-wag and created….it. The first robot specifically designed for the purpose of decommissioning defective androids. Eight arms, hidden inside a segmented chassis designed to compress to a minimum height of 4 feet and extend to a maximum height of fifteen feet….a central processing unit that can defrag, debug and format sixteen hard drives at one time….enough armor plating to withstand being run over by a tank….the thing was an absolute beast.”

“Please tell me you’re exaggerating,” Sunny groaned. “I mean, it doesn’t really have eight arms and a chest that can grow to fifteen feet tall, does it?”

“As a matter of fact,” the Accountant replied, “it does.”

“Crud,” Sunny muttered.

A few minutes later, a maniacal laugh could be heard in the stairwell; “That’ll be the Jester,” the Accountant stated matter-of-factly. “Girls, I suggest you let a professional handle this---“

“We will if one shows up,” Rae drawled.

Surprisingly, the Accountant actually chuckled at the insult. “Y’know, most of my colleagues probably would’ve slapped you right in your pretty little face for that one…but seeing as how they’re stuck with the desk jobs while I get to do all the fun field work, that’s probably never going to happen. In any case, I think all of us should be expressing our constitutional right to bear arms at this point…” He reached into his jacket with both hands, cross-drawing a pair of custom engraved pistols. “If anyone asks,” he remarked, “I have a permit.”

Vicki said nothing, choosing instead to mentally activate (and ramp up) her Detaining Grip.

“Since you seem to know more about this Jester thing than anyone else,” Sunny mused, “what’s the plan? How do we take it down?”

“We don’t,” the Accountant replied, gesturing to Vicki. “She does.”

“Wait, WHAT?!” The brunette gynoid was somewhat stunned; “How am I supposed to beat this thing on my own?! I’ve never fought a Coalition-built robot before---“

“The Coalition only built the Jester,” the Accountant informed her. “They didn’t add any super-secret weapons or extra armor plating anywhere---if any aftermarket additions were installed, blame Falken. That robot was never meant to be used as a bodyguard or programmed to do whatever the old man’s got it doing…there is no way in the blue hell that the Coalition would just let someone steal a defective ‘bot like that without enacting the appropriate consequences, and once the Jester has been sent to the appropriate branch of Robot Hell---if such a place actually exists---Falken is going to suffer those consequences…plus a few more just for being so damned annoying.”

“That still doesn’t tell me---“

“I’ll distract it,” the Accountant continued, “and you attack it. It’s not exactly rocket science…more like the art of demolition---basically, just keep hitting it until it falls apart. Oh, and try to focus on the torso and arm joints; if you can break those, you’ll be cutting it down to size and relieving it of its weapons. Two birds, one stone.”

“As Mom would say….that makes sense.” Vicki sighed and prepared to face off against the Jester. “What about Rae and Sunny?”

“If they’ve got weapons, now would be a really good time to pull ‘em out.”

Rae fished around in her cargo pants-pockets, eventually pulling out a device that looked oddly similar to a Nerf gun---except it fired green discs instead of balls or darts. “Power cell interruptors,” she explained to Vicki. “Fire one of these discs at a target, and it’ll leech every single bit of energy in their internal power cell, batteries or whatever else they use to stay active. Quite a nasty little piece of kit, this…”

“I’ve…got nothing,” Sunny admitted. “I don’t have a permit yet…”

Before Vicki could mention her own built-in defensive measures, the sound of someone shouting from the stairway cut the chat short. “That…didn’t sound like the Jester,” Rae mused.

“It wasn’t,” Inspektor 12’s voice stated from Vicki’s phone. “That was Maise!”

Sunny and Rae, now staring at Vicki’s phone with half-awed, half-confused looks, barely had time to get out of the way as a brunette gynoid (who, for some reason, bore a striking resemblance to Mariska Hartigay) almost fell out of the stairwell onto them…

….followed soon after by what could only be described as mechanized death in vaguely humanoid form.

The Jester was still barely contained within its flowing robes and garrishly painted synthetic face, but the signs of whatever had turned the robot into a killer were already beginning to show. The arms had become too long for the sleeves of its shirt and its artificial skin, the endoskeleton tearing through the hands like an I-beam through a glove. The flowing robes that had once concealed its terrifying array of decommissioning “tools” had become torn in several spots, allowing the gynoids to catch fleeting glimpses of miniaturized chainsaws, torches and other horrible equipment. The incessant laughter emanating from the Jester’s mouth had, by this point, become more than a mere annoyance---the ‘bot’s jaw was opening further and further with each laugh, threatening to rip the entire synthflesh face to pieces.

“What……” Vicki muttered, the sheer horror of the Jester’s decay playing havoc with her own thoughts. “What the hell…..”

“That, Miss Lawson, is---or was---the Jester,” the Accountant replied. “Right now….it’s just infected.”

Vicki barely heard herself squeak “Infected with what?”

“I think you and I both know the answer to that question.”

As if to answer the brunette gynoid’s querry, the Jester reared back and laughed its loudest, most insane laugh thus far. The sheer volume of the sound was enough to finally break the jaw servos, and the lower half of the Jester’s face fell with a horrible clang to the floor---followed by the synthflesh itself. A gut-wrenching sound like the tearing of leather filled the air, and within five seconds, the Jester’s head was completely skinless…

…and a thousand times more horrifying.

Soulless black orbs (Thales Systems OmnEye 950s, Vicki realized) stared out from gaping eye sockets over a half-formed steel latice shaped into a grotesque parody of a nose. Beneath that was a yawning, jawless chasm that looked less like a mouth than it did a bottomless pit, a void from which no sound---save the constant, hellish laughter---would ever escape. Even as it stood there, the failsafe programs within its CPU were turning against its vital systems, erasing critical files and adding line after line of malicious code to every single program.

The Stylo virus hadn’t just struck the Jester’s CPU….it had damn well broken everything in its path.

“Remember the plan,” the Accountant yelled, thumbing off the saftey catch on each of his pistols. “Go after the torso and arm joints!” Maisie nodded silently, annoyed at having to work alongside a sworn enemy of her beloved Inspektor. Vicki, on the other hand, was still horror-struck from the sight of the Jester.

“STICK TO THE PLAN!” the Accountant shouted. “VICKI, YOU HAVE TO---“

The laughter of the Jester seemed, for the briefest of moments, to drown out all other sounds around her, its mutilated form eclipsing everything else in the room. Somehow---she couldn’t tell how, but somehow---this thing, this machine that had already been sentenced to whatever equivalent to death its fading mind could possibly grasp---was staring into the depths of her being…..…and laughing at what it saw. This is hopeless, we can’t beat this thing, we’ll never beat it---


One word, a single utterance of her first name, broke the Jester’s morbid hold over the brunette gynoid.

“Victoria… what must be done.”

It wasn’t a command, or an order…it was just a statement, barely a shade above a request…..

…but it was all Vicki needed.

The rest of the room returned to focus, and the Accountant’s shouting rang in her ears as the Jester advanced on her, all too eager to rip her in half.

“I don’t think so,” V.I.C.I. muttered, her hands practically glowing with the energy of Detaining Grip.

She charged forward, leaping at the stricken robot and plunging her fist into its left eye. A definite note of pain leaked into the constant laughter, though the Jester was still up and about. Gunfire peppered the monstrous machine as it staggered; Maisie and the Accountant were emptying clip after clip into the stricken robot, though the Accountant’s shots were doing considerably higher damage than Maise’s. “Explosive rounds?” V.I.C.I. shouted. “Really?”

“They’re working, aren’t they?” the Accountant shouted back with a sardonic grin.

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes and continued her strategy, hammering away at the Jester’s exposed arm joints. Ninety seconds later, the psychotic robot’s left arm fell limply to the floor, and the laughing took on an unmistakably angry turn.

“One down, one to---oh, COME ON!”

What little remained of the flowing robes tore at the seams, ripped from the inside by the newly-emerging sets of arms. A chainsaw swung haphazardly past V.I.C.I.’s head, narrowly missing her hair; a torch sputtered to life by her feet, trying to sever her legs below the knee and receiving a swift kick as a result. One arm, tipped with a wicked-looking set of cutting shears, reared up like a king cobra and lunged at the brunette gynoid, only to plunge into the Jester’s eyes as the intended target wriggled free of the robot’s grip. “I’d make a ‘you had to have seen that coming’ joke,” she deadpanned, “but---“

Her witty remark was cut off by the chainsaw arm once again whipping towards her neck; only her myogel-enhanced reflexes kept her from being decapitated on the spot. A quick shoulder-roll carried her out of the way of the saw, which proceeded to bury itself in the Jester’s chest.

“Okay,” V.I.C.I. conceded, “that looked painful.”

“It doesn’t feel pain,” the Accountant yelled, emptying another clip into the still-advancing robot. “It never had the capability for it---“ He ducked beneath a wicked-looking clamp arm, emptying his pistols at the base of the clamp. “Just keep attacking it, and it’ll fall soon enough!”

V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes; “Like I was ever going to stop attacking it…” She ramped up Detaining Grip again and grabbed onto the Jester’s right arm, fighting off the D-Comm attachments with her free hand. “Come on…come on…” Volt after volt coursed through the steadily-weakening arm joint, further degrading its fragile connection with the rest of the robot’s body. “Break, already…….”

After fifty seconds of almost unbearable waiting, the arm fell to the floor.

By this point, the Jester was in a bad way---its torso extending joints had somehow locked up, and with its main arms now severed, it had no way of getting V.I.C.I. off of itself. Everything was in place for a quick win….

…until Stylo finally broke through the last, lingering firewall within its CPU, giving it free reign.

Amidst a cacophony of grinding servos and locked joints slowly straightening, the Jester---or, to be specific, what was left of it---reared back to its full height, forcing the brunette gynoid to let go of its arm and drop back to the ground. “I’m guessing this was not in the plan,” she called to the Accountant.

“To be honest….no, it wasn’t.”

The formerly locked torso extenders were now dangerously close to shearing off as the Jester’s body seemed to rise towards the heavens, its maniacal laugh now sounding completely unhinged thanks to several Stylo-induced glitches in its speech drivers. Four of its eight supplementary arms were embedded in its own body, and the rest were flailing about wildly.

“This one won’t end clean,” Maisie realized. “The room’s too small---“

“So we open the door and let it into the parking lot,” the Accountant suggested. “Simple as that.”

“All the evacuated guests are in the parking lot,” V.I.C.I. countered. “If we let this thing loose out there, it could kill every single one of them.” She concentrated on the Jester, allowing her ALPA-certified scanning software analyze every inch of the stricken robot. “Rae,” she called out, “try to hit it right in the center of the back with one of those power cell interruptors---I have a plan.”

“And that plan would be….what, exactly?” Rae asked, arching an eyebrow and frowning.

“Just trust me on this one---“ V.I.C.I. ducked under the torch arm, which was now spraying erratic gouts of fire any time it got near something. “Fire directly at its back and head for the door.”

The Accountant, already realizing what the brunette gynoid had planned, chuckled. “You truly are a girl unlike other girls, Miss Lawson…let’s just hope your as lucky as you are intelligent.” With that, he gave a jaunty salute and headed for the exit. “You two, go with him,” V.I.C.I. called to Sunny and Maisie. “I’ve got this under control.”

“You’re sure you don’t need our help with this?” Maisie asked.

“Positive. Now go.”

Without hesitating, Maisie nodded and signaled for Sunny to follow her out, leaving Rae and V.I.C.I. to take down the still-flailing Jester. “On my count,” V.I.C.I. instructed, “fire at its back. Ready?” “Not really,” Rae admitted, “but now’s as good a time as any…” She leveled the weapon. “Let’s do this.”

V.I.C.I. grinned; I have a feeling that we would make an awesome team when we’re both ALPA field agents. “Fire on ‘three’,” she instructed. “One……two…..”

The chainsaw arm ripped itself out of the Jester’s chest, swinging crazily towards Rae.


Rae fired, ducking a second too late as the chainsaw sliced across her arm; V.I.C.I. had to force herself not to watch as the gynoid collapsed to the ground, clutching her wounded limb. I’ll get her to Tell’s after I finish off this….thing…. A split-second after the green disc had affixed itself to the Jester’s back, the brunette gynoid slapped her glowing palm on it, allowing the voltage from her own RadioThermionic Generator to course through the weakened frame of the faltering robot.

Not surprisingly, the Jester couldn’t take it. The simultaneous draining of its power cells and influx of energy from V.I.C.I.’s RTG were too much for the ‘bot to handle, and it paid the price in a spectacularly gruesome fashion---all five of its batteries exploded at once, showering its internals with highly-corrosive acids. The derranged laughter finally faded into a wail, which subsequently dropped into a moan as the Jester collapsed to its knees. As V.I.C.I. knealt by Rae’s side and helped her to her feet, the two gynoids watched, transfixed, as the Jester’s moan dwindled to a whimper mere seconds before it fell, face-forward, to the lobby floor.

“Vicki,” Rae muttered, “is it safe to assume this won’t become a yearly Christmas tradition for either of us?”

“I’ll take year-old fruitcake over killer robots any day,” V.I.C.I. deadpanned. “Now….to find Falken….”

From his vantage point across the street, Falken watched, horrified, as the remains of the Jester were carted out of the building. “No,” he breathed, the pain in his leg momentarily falling behind the anguish in his heart, “my Family…..they have fallen….all of them have fallen….”

Somehow, he would have to start over. The crushing onset of that knowledge was nearly enough to floor him; everything he had done, all the progress he had gained on this journey down the True Path, was now utterly worthless. Had he allowed logic to prevail over his grief, Falken might have remembered the hideaway where Annie and Sierce still waited for his return; further meditation on the subject could have even provided him with a new outlook on life, a means of atoning for his sins and getting him onto a Path that would actually lead to his salvation.

Instead, the old man---now blinded by guilt and tortured by shame---wept like a child for his broken Family. The sounds of San Jose echoed around him, but all were drowned out by his tears---save for the rather odd sound of two individuals approaching him…

“This is Damien Falken? Bloody Nora, the man looks like a complete sod!” Leslie Erica Simm’s observation did nothing to ease the old man’s pain, nor did he feel an instant desire to add her to his formerly-magnificent Family. “I say we take him out back and go all ‘Old Yeller’ on him…or at least send him to a mental ward.”

“Sharpe didn’t pay us to send him to a mental ward,” Stacy Tanque replied. “We’re bringing him back to United Robotronics and leaving a fake suicide note for the Coalition to find. Anything else, and we don’t get a Christmas bonus.”

“To Hell with the Christmas bonus!” Leslie growled. “This twonk deserves an old-fashioned kick up the arse---“

Neither of the two gynoids noticed Falken preparing to pounce until it was too late. With a cry like a wounded animal, Falken leapt at Leslie and tackled her to the ground. “BEGONE FROM ME, HARPIES!” he shrieked, raining down punches upon the gynoid’s face. “DEVILS! AGENTS OF RUIN! DEPART FROM ME THIS HOUR, AND BRING THY CURSE UPON ANOTHER! LEAVE ME IN PEACE, AND VEX MY LIFE NO MORE!”

“Sta-cee!” Leslie shouted, trying desperately to break free of Falken’s grip. “GET THIS GUY OFF OF ME!”

With the air of a professional garbage collector, Stacy grabbed the old man at the shoulder and the inseam of his pants; “You picked a really bad night to screw with us, Damien,” she purred, seconds before hurling Falken at a parked Accura. A sickening crunch split the air as man and car met, with Falken coming out worse for it. “You okay, Leslie?” the green-haired gynoid called out. “A little pissed off,” Leslie spat, “but otherwise I’m fine. How’s the geezer?”

“Dunno,” Stacy deadpanned, striding over to hoist Falken in the air by his collar. “Let me check.” She lifted him from the ground until he was staring her in the face; “Feeling okay, old man?”

“Why….are you doing this?!” he whimpered.

Leslie groaned as she got to her feet. “You, of all people, have the audacity to question us? I think you might be just the tiniest bit senile, old man….” She shook herself off and glared at Falken; “You’ve been off on this completely stupid crusade of yours, stealing from every bleeding robotics company under the sun---and you still think you’re in the right?”

“It…it is the way of the Truth Seeker,” he rasped. “I follow the Path---“

“Don’t start with that ‘True Path’ bullroar again,” Stacy growled, “or I’ll piledrive you face-first into the dirt. We want answers, Falken, not a bunch of stupid mythology.”

The old man stared at her as if she were the Wicked Witch of the West.

“This is getting us nowhere!” Leslie complained. “I say we off him here and now, or just bung ‘im in the trunk and bring him to Sharpe that way! It’d be more than the Spaniard would give him….if it were Vega’s boys here instead of us, they’d have probably just shot him by this point.”

“Well, good thing we’re not with Vega, then,” Stacy replied. “Get the handcuffs---“

Whether it was the fear of being hauled off to face Andrew Sharpe or the possibility that the two gynoids would actually follow up on their talk of killing him, Falken felt something in his mind release---and in that instant, he struck out at Stacy, clawing at her eyes and screaming his lungs out. “GET HIM OFF OF ME!” the green-haired gynoid shouted as she tried to force the old man’s arms behind his back.

Leslie, by this point tired of constantly having to fight the old man, ran back to the Land Rover to retrieve the handcuffs….only to find that the vehicle was missing. “Ah, Stacy,” she called, “we might have a problem…”

“What…kind of problem?!”

“The, ah, missing Land Rover kind,” Leslie replied, suddenly feeling vulnerable. “We should probably go…”

“We’re not leaving---cut it out!---without Falken,” Stacy growled. “We can---STOP it!---get another car…just help me---QUIT DOING THAT, YOU PRICK!---help me restrain this idiot…” Somehow or other, the geriatric Falken was attacking the 6’1” gynoid with the ferocity of a leopard, and it was beginning to get really old, really fast.

“Here’s a better idea---you two leave, right now, and Falken is brought before the ALPA by me.”

Leslie and Stacy turned, stunned, to see Vicki Lawson standing across the lot from them. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t my favorite brunette,” Leslie grinned. “And what brings you to---“

“Save it,” Vicki spat. “What are you two even doing out here?”

“This is United Robotronics business,” Stacy replied, “so butt out. Falken’s got three quarters of Silicon Valley pissed off at him, and nothing the ALPA could possibly do will make up for that. United Robotronics intends to solve this problem permanently, so if you don’t want to see the old man get stomped, then just turn around and walk away---“

“Now, now,” Leslie chided, “let’s not get too hasty….” She circled around Vicki, grinning her usual lascivious grin. “We could always arrange a compromise---“

“NO,” Stacy thundered. “The old man leaves with us---“

“Sod off,” Leslie drawled, never looking away from Vicki. “You’re a reasonable girl, Lawson,” she purred, “so how’s about we…oh, I don’t know, make a deal? We drag Farty Falken here to UR headquarters, let them rough him up a bit, and then bring him back to the nearest ALPA-owned company just in time for Christmas…I personally think it’s a brilliant plan, of course---“

“---except it was thought up by a schizophrenic stalker,” Vicki replied coldly, “aka you.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, love,” Leslie cooed. “Just let us scarper with the old man, and I promise we’ll do something to make it up to you---“

“No deals, Leslie. Let him go now, or I’ll make you let him go.”

The remark brought an amused smirk to Stacy’s face. “Really?” she taunted. “You’re going to ‘make’ us let him go?” She chuckled derisively; “That’s just too rich….and here, I thought you were actually intelligent, after what you did to help Valerie---“

“Leave her out of this,” Vicki warned.

“The hell I will!” Stacy shot back. “She lost an entire block of memory thanks to you---she nearly got her damn head blown off trying to keep you safe---and this is how you repay her…by threatening to kick our asses just because we’re about to give Damien Falken the punishment he deserves---“

“That’s not for you to decide,” Vicki countered. “Let the ALPA handle this one. Please….”

“Oooh,” Leslie murmured, “I hate it when this happens….Stacy, just let the old fart be. It’s almost Christmas, after all….’peace on earth, good will towards man’, all that jazz---maybe we should let Vicki take him---“

“One more word out of you,” Stacy growled, “and I’ll---“ She stopped. “What the hell?!”

Somehow or other, Falken had disappeared.

“Great,” Vicki moaned. “I spend all this time trying to ask you to hand him over, and he just runs off!” She glared at the two gynoids; “This isn’t over,” she warned. “Falken deserves to be handed a proper sentence by the ALPA, and when I catch up to him, he’ll be handed over to the proper authorities. Until then….stay out of my way.”

“Trying to scare us off, little girl?” Stacy taunted. “News flash---it won’t work---“

“Stifle it,” Leslie muttered. “We’ve already lost the old man…let’s just get the hell out of here and go back to base. I’m bloody well shut of this place.” With that, she turned and headed off in the likely direction of the Land Rover, muttering to herself. Stacy frowned; “You’re lucky she’s such a headcase,” she informed Vicki. “If I were you, I would never want to see me again.”

“If I looked as stupid as you did,” Vicki retorted, “I probably wouldn’t.” The insult drew a growl from the green-haired gynoid, but nothing more apart from one final, hateful glare.

“The next time I see her,” Vicki muttered, “I’ll just kick her right in the---“

Her cellphone went off before she could finish the improbable threat; “Have you located Falken yet?” Inspektor 12 asked. “That’s a negative, sir,” the brunette gynoid replied. “He was being, ah, detained by two United Robotronics gynoids, but we kinda sorta got into an argument, and he got away….”

“He’ll turn up again,” the Inspektor assured her.

I sincerely hope so. “So, how’s everyone else up there? Is Rachel okay?”

A pause…”Ah, I was just about to mention that, actually. It seems that she ran off with the rest of the fleeing customers while you were fighting the Jester….”

Vicki’s shoulders sagged at the news; if Falken had somehow indoctrinated Rachel with his True Path schtick, there might be no hope of catching her before she found him and helped him flee the country. “Any chance your head of security could do something about that?” she suggested. “I really don’t want her to end up with Falken after everything that’s happened.”

“To be honest,” the Inspektor admitted, “I don’t actually think she wanted to join Falken….she said something about finding her own way in the world…figuring out who she was….that sort of thing.” The rest of his news was just as good; apparently, the ALPA had found Falken’s hideout and recovered two gynoids---the life-sized windup doll Vicki had seen during the alleyway encounter, and a gynoid with a heavily-damaged voicebox. “Oh, and your presence has been formally requested at the halfway house,” he finished, chuckling.

“After a night like this,” Vicki replied, “that is one invitation I am not turning down.”

While Vicki was somewhat miffed that Falken got away, she was far from being the only one concerned with his whereabouts. The Coalition had ramped up their search for the old man as soon as the Jester’s remains were disposed of, and everyone who had seen him limping away from the De Anza Hotel was calling the police to describe him.

Of course, not everyone wanted to see Falken simply dragged into a courtroom…..

“This is….most regrettable,” the Baron mused, watching the preceedings on several of the monitors within his private office suite in the United Robotronics San Jose headquarters. “Miss Tanque and Miss Simm both failed in their efforts….despite your repeated assurances that they would not disappoint me, Mr. Allwine.” The insanely-expensive chair swivelled to face Sydney Allwine, aka Sydelyne; “Would you care to explain exactly why two of United Robotronics’ best agents failed to detain a senile old man, or should I simply have you terminated here and now?”

Sydelyne glared at the Baron; “I’m not the idiot who sent three teams to the same effing parking lot,” he muttered. “Half the guys in the hospital, the seven from the Hummer squashed flat…..bad craziness, man. It was like a scene out of a war movie---“

“Except it was not a movie, Mr. Allwine,” the Baron intoned. “It was your job---your duty to be there.”

“I know it was my damn duty to be there!” Sydelyne shot back. “I just didn’t want to be dead there---“

“That was not your call to make,” the Baron countered. “As it stands, I have had to alter my own itenerary to fly out here and deal with this issue in person…..and you know how much I loathe such actions. Miss Tanque is already unhappy with the results of tonight’s attempt at capturing the gynoid known as Rachel, and as for Miss Simm….I believe you already know what motivates her.” He steepled his gloved fingers and stared at UR’s “security specialist”, already knowing how the encounter with Allwine would end. “Boris and Elena Vlatko failed to deliver the next generation of Carl Franklin’s fembots,” he reminded the hacking progidy, “and Victor Vega was unable to deliver on his promise to remove Sophia Starlet from the charts…..just as my allies could not obtain the secrets of Silicon Dynamics’ refabrication matrix. Even before that, you, Mr. Allwine, were assigned to obtain information on Project Apollo---information which you did not retrieve.”

The Baron’s stare was now fixed upon Sydelyne. “Four failures in four months….absolutely intolerable.”

Sydelyne was already anticipating what would happen next. He’d read the reports of how Stavros---the former head of sceurity for Brittney Delacroix’s entourage---had been carried out of Victor Vega’s casa looking as if he’d simply died of fright, and made up his mind then and there that this was not how he wanted to go out.

“I expected better from you, Mr. Allwine,” the Baron stated calmly. “And now……”

The door to the Baron’s office opened, effectively halting what would’ve been Sydelyne’s final moments at the hands of his employer. “Celine,” the Baron drawled, not looking away from the potentially-doomed hacker, “unless this is an emergency, I would appreciate it if you would leave now---“

“It’s more than an emergency, Baron,” Celine replied quickly. “The gynoid you were after---the runaway---just passed through a Coalition checkpoint, and…well….” She practically dropped a folder into his lap. “See for yourself, sir. Mr. Sharpe is still working on a way to handle this without drawing more attention to us, but after what happened at the Santana Row concert…..” She stopped, not daring to look further into the darkness behind the Baron’s desk; even though she had been one of the few employees of United Robotronics who saw his true face and lived, she knew all too well that any invasion of privacy on her part would be met with swift and decicive action.

After three minutes of silence, the Baron lightly tossed the folder onto the desk. “Mr. Allwine, you may go,” he stated brusquely. “If the information contained in that folder is as reliable as my secretary believes it is, I have much more pressing matters to attend to than your shortcomings….”

Elsewhere in San Jose, the “runaway” was being watched…by individuals who were most definitely on her side.

“…and you’re saying she self-activated, escaped the lab and had no idea what she was?” Major Tom asked, arching an eyebrow. “I’m betting the boss was pretty impressed with that. Self-activation is still one hell of a trick to pull off, from what I understand---not even Lawson Robotics has figured out how to hardwire it into new units.”

“That’s not even the craziest bit,” Meredith replied. “Somehow, she didn’t even receive full initialization---no name, no serial number…nothing.”

The two had tracked Rachel to an airport in Cupertino thanks to a hot tip; apparently, the gynoid had received enough money for a plane ticket to Green Bay, and would be leaving the next day. A few witnesses claimed that a blond man, clad entirely in white, encountered her at a bus stop and gave her the money as a Christmas gift, advising her to “spend it wisely”. “Knowing him,” Major Tom mused, “it’s not even the first time he’s done something along those lines…”

“You sure it’s the same guy you think it is?” Meredith asked.

“Who else could it be? He’s the one who called the ALPA about the fight at the Eastridge Mall theater---while disguised as an old guy, by the way….” The Major chuckled. “He could never resist a touch of theatricality.”

The two watched as Rachel chatted with the girl at the ticket counter. “Before I forget,” Tom mused, “congrats on landing the undercover gig at United Robotronics.” “Thanks for reminding me,” the gynoid muttered. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to leave until after Christmas, but they apparently need me out there as soon as possible…” She stared across the airport lobby at a group of carollers; “How do you put up with it, Major?” she asked.

“Put up with what?”

“All of it. The travelling, the undercover work, keeping tabs on sleepers….how do you not go completely insane from having to handle all that work?” Major Tom leaned back and yawned; “When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, it starts to feel like second nature,” he explained. “After that, it’s smooth sailing.” He grinned and checked his watch. “They should be getting here in a few minutes,” he mused, “so try to be nice.”

Meredith gave him a look. “Why wouldn’t I be nice?”

“I’ll explain later,” the Major replied, already out of his chair. “They’re here…” Meredith had no trouble keeping up with him as he sprinted to the door, but his “try to be nice” remark still puzzled her; was he just joking, or what?

The pair reached the doors in no time, stepping out into the drop-off area in front of the airport. “Our ride,” the Major stated with a grin; Meredith was somewhat intrigued to see a limousine waiting for them. With a last glance back into the airport, the blond gynoid eased herself into the backseat of the limo, followed soon after by Major Tom; once they were both comfortable, the car almost seemed to glide away from the airport, making a turn that was more graceful than anything a Daytona 500 driver could come up with.

“Meredith,” the Major stated, “it’s my honor to introduce you to the junior executive vice president of the newly-formed Aayvl Cybernetics….” He gestured to the elegant figure sitting opposite them, and Meredith couldn’t help but gasp; “But….she’s still in college! How could she---“

“Climb the corporate ladder while still majoring in journalism?” Harriet Brindle replied with a smile. “It’s kind of a long story, but trust me….it’s one you’ll both want to hear.”

“Why not start now?” the Major suggested, grinning.

“Are you going to tell her that she’s sleeping on a table, or should I?”

Ted Lawson glanced at Mr. Tell as if he had lost his mind; “Are you kidding?” he murmured. “Vicki hasn’t slept for 24 hours straight…if she wants to conk out on a table, then I’m not going to stop her.” He pulled the blanket over the brunette gynoid’s shoulders and smiled. “After all she’s been through,” he added, “I think she’s earned the rest of the night off.”

“Not much of a night off,” Tell replied. “It’s just hitting midnight right now…I think we could all use some sleep.”

“Some of us could do with a bit more than just ‘sleep’,” Anton Malvineous stated, hobbling into the room on crutches. “Remind me to never complain about long waits at the hospital again, by the way…I’ve never seen anyone set a broken leg---properly set it, mind you---in such a short period of time!” “How can you be sure it’s properly set if it was done so quickly?” Tell asked, prompting a smirk from Anton. “Simple: It doesn’t feel like I’m being stabbed in the thigh whenever my foot touches the floor…though that’s probably more to do with the cast and the Demerol….” He noticed Vicki resting on the table. “Rough night?” he murmured.

“Try rough day,” Ted replied. “Fighting a Coalition D-comm robot, chasing Falken….she’s been busy.”

A few feet away, Joan Lawson was curled up on an air mattress, smiling serenely in her sleep. “She’s not the only one who’s been busy,” Tell mused, grinning. “I still don’t get how she could prepare a five course dinner for tomorrow after all the craziness she’s seen!”

“I think she does her best work under pressure,” Ted admitted. “That, or she’s taken up Zen Budhhism.”

Anton carefully lowered himself into a chair next to the table where Vicki was snoozing. “As much as I hate ruining the mood,” he admitted, “there’s still something that worries me---“ “The only reason Falken got away is because he got lucky,” Tell interjected. “If those two United Robotronics gynoids hadn’t been arguing with Vicki, he’d probably be in ALPA custody right now, instead of….wherever the hell he is.”

“He can’t have gone far, though,” Ted reasoned. “The Inspektor’s chief of security told us she put a slug right in the old man’s leg; 12 saw her shoot him, too.”

“Yeah, about that,” Tell muttered, “don’t bring it up at the next meeting. I know Maisie had a concealed carry permit, and I know we have rules about androids using firearms…but after what Vicki found at Silicon Dynamics, we can’t exactly talk shop about this sort of stuff in front of everyone.” He glanced at Vicki to make sure she was in sleep mode before continuing; “Remember those ‘toy guns’ she found? The ones the Daikoku knockoffs were using?”

Ted and Anton both nodded in the affirmative.

“Turns out they were using components from a certain well-known company that just stopped making weapons a few years ago, the name of which rhymes with ‘park industries’---“

“You can’t be serious!” Anton exclaimed, nearly smacking the table.

“Has he said anything about this?” Ted asked.

“Only that he’s been getting a lot of complaints from buyers about shipments not turning up,” Tell replied, “and that’s just the stuff the Feds aren’t interested in. A lot of others have been getting hit, too…Graves just called ALPA Central to yell about someone trying to boost a prototype ‘freeze-thrower’ or something. Whatever’s going on with all of these stolen components, it’s big….bigger than us, bigger than the Coalition and a hell of a lot bigger than anything we’ve had to deal with in recent history. We could be looking at the makings of an all-out war, people.”

“The last time I heard the word ‘war’ in the ALPA’s context,” Anton muttered, “it was 1983….”

“That was different,” Ted insisted. “There was no protocol for that kind of situation back then! These days, we have measures to keep it from happening in the first place…there was nothing like that after the Valentine incident!”

On the other side of the room, Alicia listened to the debate with an all-too familiar feeling of trepidation in her mind. Out of all the “governing bodies” of robotics that sprang forth in the aftermath of what became known as the Bloody Valentine incident, only five managed to withstand the chaos that would follow. The ALPA and the Coalition, having existed before the incident, were obviously the best-suited to continue after the outcry had faded, but the organization currently known as the Earth Defense Force had come into its own after that hellish day, albiet in a slightly-less militaristic form. Alicia herself had been present for the formation of The House, that most secretive of orders founded by machines (and one human), for machines; with eyes and ears in every country where the ALPA and Coalition did their work, the House was not to be underestimated.

Of course, that was leaving out the fifth---and, if the rumors were true, most dangerous---of the governing bodies….

“Something on your mind?”

Alicia nearly fell out of her chair; “Damnit…you scared me, Dylan!”

“My apologies,” the scholarly android replied. “I was merely inquiring as to your….” He stopped, glancing in the direction of Ted, Tell and Anton. “They’ve been talking about all the thefts,” Alicia muttered, “and one of them just had to metnion the old ‘this could lead to war’ chestnut….”

“Times have changed since 1983,” Dylan reminded her. “These thefts might not even be related to---“

“Don’t say it,” Alicia warned him. “Don’t even think of that name…I’ve heard it in my nightmares for the past decade, and I never want to hear it in the waking world.” She closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair, sighing; “Dylan,” she muttered after a few seconds of silence, “why do we even celebrate Christmas?” The former professor chuckled. “It’s a bit late for a theological discussion,” he informed her. “Fair enough,” the blonde gynoid replied, turning over in the recliner and burying her face in the soft back. “I just want this day to be over,” she moaned, her voice somewhat muffled by the recliner. “And don’t say it’s technically over already, just because it’s 12:03 AM…because it doesn’t feel over.”

“Things rarely ever feel over when you expect them to be,” Dylan informed her; receiving only a muffled groan as a reply. “I think we should continue this discussion later,” the android professor mused. “Goodnight, for now…”

Across the room, Ted, Tell and Anton had given up debating on whether or not a war was about to break out, choosing instead to discuss their plans for the upcoming New Year. “Silicon Dynamics is thinking about expanding their market overseas,” Anton mused, “and I’ve been called up to serve as an ambassador of sorts for their first trip.” He grinned at the thought; “They might need a little help trimming down the product line when they tour certain countries,” he added, “but it’s nothing too difficult.”

“I’ll be doing what I always do,” Tell stated. “I know, it’s not really that big of a surprise, but unless Steve Jobs calls me up with a new job offer, I’m perfectly happy doing what I do every day.” He grinned; “And what about you, Ted? Any bold new plans for 2011?”

Ted hesitated; “I…wasn’t supposed to mention this,” he admitted, “but…” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: “Vicki’s been invited to help Sophia Starlet prepare for her first stadium tour,” he told the other two, “and she may even get to write a few songs for the Starlet Dolls’ new album!” Tell’s eyes went wide; “Does she know yet?” he asked. “No,” Ted admitted, “but Sophia mentioned something about calling her tomorrow night---provided she doesn’t sleep all day…”

“After the work she’s done,” Anton reminded him, “I think she’s earned a whole weekend’s worth of rest…”

For the first time in his life, Damien Falken was completely and totally lost.

Both of the so-called universal truths he had believed in---the True Path, the Family of Steel---had been taken from him in an instant. Three of the most beautiful members of the Family---Calliope, Annie and Sierce---had been rescued by the ALPA, which---in his eyes---was tantamount to kidnapping.

How could he go on, after such chaos? What possible motivation could propel him---

“Seeker of Truths…..”

Falken turned, half-expecting one of the gynoids from the De Anza Hotel fight to be standing behind him…only to fall to his knees before the figure that had addressed him by the title he craved.

“You are not defeated yet, Falken,” the gold-and-green clad figure informed him. “The True Path is still yours to walk…you need only to find it again.” He held out his hand, presenting the old man with a strange, cube-shaped device with energy relays coursing through it. “You need only to speak the names of your fallen children,” the figure intoned, “and they will rise again, willing to serve you….”

“I….thank you,” Falken stammered.

The figure smiled. “You are most welcome, Seeker….but know this….should you wish for them to join forces and become truly invulnerable, speak the word ‘Eversoris’ into the device…and you shall gain untold power.”

Falken nodded, smiling through the tears as he whispered five names into the cube….

The sound of his pager beeping furiously brought Mr. Tell out of his sleep with a start, falling with a thud from the hammock he’d erected near the window to the floor below. “What the hell,” he began, grasping for his iPhone to confirm the validity of the page he’d just received. “This had better be---“

He stopped, staring in open-mouthed horror.

A few feet away, Anton and Ted were receiving similar calls and reacting in equally horrified fashion. “This can’t be right,” Ted stammered. “We…we sent people to confiscate those things after the bus crash, and the fight at the hotel…..what’s going on here?!” Anton was too busy scrolling through the e-mails appearing in his inbox to reply.

“Ungh….why’s everyone yelling?” Joan muttered.

“Good question,” Alicia agreed. “What the hell is the big deal---“

Before anyone could answer her, a scream from the parking lot pierced the night. “That was the clockwork girl from the Family,” Tell breathed. “We need to---“ Another scream, followed almost immediately by the sounds of wrenching, tearing metal, drowned out the rest of his sentence. “Okay, that did not sound good!” he shouted. “Get everyone to the safe room and lock this place down!”

“Ah, I think it might be too late for that,” Alicia muttered.

Tell, Ted, Joan and Anton walked (or in Anton’s case, hobbled) over to the window…and were greeted by something out of Issac Asimov’s nightmares.

The half-crushed body of Malchus had torn its way free of the ALPA truck that had picked it up from the Westgate mall parking lot; the upper body of Phoebe---still leaking various fluids---was crawling its way along the ground beside it. Kiern’s mangled figure was half-limping, half-running to keep up…

…but the worst sight came from the two trucks on the far end of the lot.

The armored repossession van that held the Jester’s remains had been peeled open from the inside, leaving just enough room for the D-Comm robot to rip through the now-useless security door---laughing demonically all the while. The truck next to it fared even worse---the entire body of the vehicle had been bisected by Ouro’s whips, the still-smoking remains of the whip-armed robot snaking through the hole, wiring and vital components hanging out of gaping holes in its torso.

“Oh, my God,” Anton muttered, unable to fully comprehend what he was witnessing.

Throughout the room, androids and gynoids were stirring from their sleep modes and recharging cycles, all of them confused as to what was happening just outside. “Is there another busload of carolling well-wishers outside?” Dylan murmured. “Not even close,” Tell replied, not smiling as he turned to address the other occupants of the room. “Everyone, get to the safe room NOW---“ A whip-like arm shot through the window, slicing him across the face. “GYAAAHH! DAMNIT TO HELL!”

“GET DOWN!” Anton shouted; everyone ducked underneath tables or behind furniture to avoid being seen by the reanimated wreckage of Ouro. The Jester’s insane laughter filled the room, drowning out the quiet Christmas music playing over the stereo in a far corner.

“We need Vicki,” Ted gasped. “Joan---“

“Already on it!” Joan scampered over to the table where the brunette gynoid was resting. “Ah, Ted, what do I do to, ah, wake her up?”

“Just tell her to wake up!” Ted shouted.

Joan nodded, leaning over her artificial daughter; “Vicki,” she whispered, “we kind of need your help right now…something’s happening outside, and a lot of people are getting hurt---“

Anton screamed as a whiplike arm smashed into his already-injured leg.

“Sweetie,” Joan continued, staying calm despite the chaos around her, “we really need you to wake up and help us fight these things---“

Another scream of pain rent the air---this time, from Ted.

“Vicki,” Joan pleaded, “wake up….please….” She kissed the brunette gynoid’s forehead; “Please…”

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Friday, December 24, 2010. The time is 12:10 AM.

Vicki’s eyes shot open; somewhere, in the background, her father was screaming in pain. “Is this a dream,” she murmured, “or---“ The sight of Ted Lawson being flung across the room proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she wasn’t dreaming. “Dad?!”

“No time to explain,” Tell informed her, wincing. “Some stuff’s happening in the parking lot, and you need to get out there and, ah, deal with it in your usual way…” Vicki was horrified to see blood leaking from beneath Tell’s hand; “It’s nothing,” he assured her. “Just a minor flesh wound…” He grimaced as his fingers brushed a particularly-flailed area of the scar. “Okay, maybe it’s not exactly minor…”

“I get it,” Vicki stated. “What do you need me to do?”

The door on the far end of the room flew open, revealing Calliope being carried in by a thoroughly pissed-off Saang. “I’m not here for you,” he growled at Vicki, “and you have your mother to thank for that…getting Tazed in the eye was enough to undo whatever stupid ‘conditioning’ the old man subjected me to all those years.” He stared out into the parking lot, shaking his head as the formerly-defeated robots staggered off into the night. “I never thought he’d be able to actually pull it off,” he muttered, “but he has…”

“Pull what off?” Vicki prompted.

“One of the stories he used to tell involved some sort of…I guess you could call it ‘technomancy’, or something of that sort….” Saang carefully deposited Calliope onto a table. “According to his ‘True Path’,” he explained as he sat down, “a ‘Seeker of Truths’ could, by some as-yet unknown means, resurrect a fallen member of the Family and bind them eternally to their will….basically, the Seeker could bring back a robot as nothing more than a mechanical zombie, a mindless puppet existing solely to serve their master. Their memories, their thoughts, their entire personalities…..gone in an instant, replaced with an unwavering desire to obey, no matter what the cost.”

“And we’re supposed to stop them….how?” the brunette gynoid querried.

“We don’t ‘stop’ them,” Saang replied. “We destroy them.”

Joan was visibly perturbed at the notion of obliterating the androids. “But…there has to be something we can do to restore them to what they used to be, right?” she asked. “I mean, they can’t be totally gone---“

“They are ‘totally gone’, Mrs. Lawson,” Saang informed her. “I should know…I very nearly joined them.” He shook his head at the memory; “That eye you tazed me through---“ he gestured at the shattered occular sensor in his left eye socket--- “was infected with the Stylo virus…every single time I felt the urge to thrash the old man within an inch of his life, it felt like someone was driving a hot wire through my eye…I have no idea if the unit I stole it from was ever infected---she didn’t look like she’d been….”

“We’ll discuss it later,” Vicki cut in. “I have to stop those resurrected ‘bots from trashing all of San Jose---and I don’t even want to think about what might happen if I fail. All I need to figure out now is where they might be headed---“

Her HUD lit up with an “Incoming Message” icon; “Okay,” she muttered, pulling her phone out of her pocket, “that was unexpected. Vicki Lawson here, what’s---“

“They’re headed for SJSU.”

The UnMaker’s voice in her ear would’ve been terrifying, had it not been for her prior experience with the black-clad mystery man. “How do you even know what I was going to ask?!” the brunette gynoid thundered.

“Those ‘bots are going to be on every front page tomorrow unless you get your rear in gear now and head ‘em off at the pass,” the UnMaker cooly replied. “I suggest you save the ‘How did you get this number’ routine until after the fight is over, ‘kay?”

“Right. Just do me one favor---“ Vicki groaned as the UnMaker ended the call. “Prick…..”

“Who was that?” Joan asked, confused. “Just some nut,” V.I.C.I. replied. “I guess this means I won’t be getting any sleep tonight….” A digitized sigh escaped her lips. “Saang, think you’d be up for helping me trash those zom-bots?”

She didn’t have to wait long for a reply. “After all the hell the old man put me through….it would be my pleasure.”

“Right.” V.I.C.I. gave Joan a quick hug; “I’ll try to be back before 6:30 AM. Don’t wait up.”

Anyone watching the surreal procession of machines lumbering towards SJSU might have thought they were hallucinating, had it not been for the all too real smell of burnt metal and plastic that hung in the air like a cloud as they continued onwards. Fortunately, few people were on the roads to witness the mechanized march; after the RV crash a few hours earlier, the police had cordoned off most of the roads and given strict orders for people to stay inside until the cause of the crash could be determined.

Had they taken a closer look at the mechanized things solemnly marching onwards, they might have changed their tune.

The roadblocks did nothing to impede the progress of the TellMobile; with Saang at the wheel, the upgraded Ford Focus managed to avoid hitting any of the barricades that had been laid out to prevent civilians from getting into further accidents. “Looks like we’re just in time,” he called out. “They’re heading for the buildings in the Corporation Yard.”

The same place where Stacy Tanque was almost scrapped… “Thanks for the info,” V.I.C.I. stated. “Think you can pull up alongside them?”

“Ah, I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Saang admitted, watching as the wrecked robots seemed to climb ontop of one another. “Unless I’m sorely mistaken, they’re----“ He stopped talking just as his foot pressed down on the brake pedal. “No,” he gasped. “They….they can’t be doing that…..”

V.I.C.I. didn’t need to ask what “that” was. She could see it perfectly for herself.

The robots were merging.

“Combining” would be too clean, too sterile a word---it would imply that the process unfolding before her was a smooth, almost-organic action of some kind, rather than a nightmare that H.R. Gieger could never have dreamed up in a million years. Malchus’ crushed torso was somehow re-expanding, allowing the upper body of Phoebe to claw through it like a derranged parasite. The shredded legs and maimed torso of Ouro parted in the middle like a cloak of chrome and steel, its arms snaking down over the ruined stumps of Malchus’ own arms and latching onto the wrists with a hissing, creaking sound. Kiern’s mangled remains jutted out from the massive neck of Malchus like a charred matchstick; the Jester’s entire form was coming apart at the seams, its D-Comm tools piercing through the back of the “host” android and curling upwards like hideous metal cobras, with death-dealing tools in place of hooded heads.

“Okay,” V.I.C.I. muttered, “how do we beat THAT?!”

“The same way you beat each of them before,” Saang replied, “except this time you may have to, ah, combine your strategies….”

MalJesKieOrPh (as V.I.C.I. mentally dubbed the abomination) let loose with a gut-wrenching roar. “Right,” the brunette gynoid muttered, “stop the car….it’s time I deal with this thing one-on-one---WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Saang had already removed his seatbelt and flung open the door, charging towards the massive machine with a blade in each hand. “GET BACK HERE!” V.I.C.I. shouted. “WHAT THE HELL---“

“I’m finding its weakness!” Saang shouted back. “KEEP CIRCLING THE YARD!”

As V.I.C.I. steered the TellMobile away from MalJesKieOrPh, Saang began plucking knives from his boots and coat to fling at the amalgamated remains of his former Family-mates. “All this time, I wanted to prove how crazy the old man was,” he muttered, “and he ends up doing the job for me!” He hurled a knife at the crushed head of Kiern, only to turn away as the blade embedded itself in the android’s mangled cranium without any visible effect. “This is impossible….how can that thing even stand?!” He reared back to throw another knife, hoping to pierce the abomination’s CPU---

---only to watch, stunned, as it was snatched from him.

“Allow me,” V.I.C.I. insisted from the window of the speeding TellMobile. Electricity crackled from her hand into the blade via Detaining Grip, and her occular targeting suite allowed her to figure out exactly where she needed to throw the blade to take Kiern (or what was left of him, at least) out of the equation.

She hurled the blade and stomped the gas pedal, narrowly missing a swing from the robot’s whip-arms.

Predictably, the electrically-charged weapon had devastating results---Kiern’s head exploded in a shower of parts after the blade embedded itself into it, and the mangled torso slumped forward like a dying plant before dropping off entirely. To V.I.C.I.’s disgust, MalJesOrPh didn’t exactly care that it had just lost part of itself---its feet stamped on what was left of the black-clad android as it charged towards the Tellmobile, showing no visible signs of wear and tear from losing Kiern.

Well, at least that idea works,the brunette gynoid mused, only to notice the torso of Phoebe in the grips of a seizure within Malchus’ chest. Wait, what the hell---he’s….releasing her?! As she watched, simultaneously fascinated and horrified, Phoebe’s torso wriggled free of its moorings on the massive android’s chest---but where its lower body had once been, there was now a lattice of metal and wiring forming a four-legged, spiderlike walking mechanism. Okay,that is just seventeen different kinds of wrong…..

The Spider-Phoebe skittered towards the TellMobile, its face contorted in a half-sneer, half-sneeze (probably from her malfunction after she got run over, V.I.C.I. realized) as it crouched. Before it could leap, however, the familiar shape of Jessica Lovecraft’s Veyron slammed into it, breaking off one of the legs.

“Looks like you could use a hand!” the blonde gynoid called out.

“I could,” V.I.C.I. admitted. “Thanks for the assist---“

“LOOK OUT!” Saang shouted; the Spider-Phoebe was leaping at the Veyron, ready to rip Jessica apart for reasons unknown---except the gynoid cop was too fast. She dropped to a crouch, retrieving a shotgun-like weapon from the Veyron and blasting the left arm off of the Spider-Phoebe. “Think you could squash her for me?” she called out to V.I.C.I., firing again to ward off the still-advancing robot.

“Not a problem.”

The TellMobile kicked up gravel as it sped towards the doomed ‘bot. I’m really starting to wish I could just cure her, like Mom suggested….

Seconds later, the Spider-Phoebe’s head and torso were crushed beneath the TellMobile’s wheels.

MalJesOr roared and charged towards the brunette gynoid, its whip-arms cutting deep gashes in the pavement of the Corporation Yard. “GET DOWN!” Jessica shouted, preparing to empty her weapon into the heart of the monstrosity---only to scream as Saang plunged two foot-long knives into MalJesOr’s neck stump. “GO!” he screamed. “I’LL FINISH IT!”

“I’m not leaving you,” V.I.C.I. began, but another roar from MalJesOr drowned her out.

“This is MY fight,” Saang insisted, “not yours! I---“ He grunted as MalJesOr tried to crush him with a D-Comm tool. “I’ve caused enough suffering as it is,” he admitted, “and it’s high time I pay for it.” His remaining occular sensor clouded over; “Tell Calliope she was right about me!” he shouted.

“Right about what?!” Jessica shouted back.

Saang smiled briefly; “She once told me that I wasn’t hopeless….” Something glistened under his right occular sensor. “She was right…”

With that, he plunged his fist into MalJesOr’s neck.

The machine roared again, its D-Comm tools stabbing into itself to try and tear Saang to pieces before he could kill it. Jessica watched, horrified beyond all rational thought but unable to look away as the saws, drills and clamps tore into Saang like vultures. A few feet behind her, the TellMobile skidded to a stop as Vicki climbed out, tears already staining her cheeks. For a brief second, she could see Saang---a triumphant expression on his face---tearing into MalJesOr as D-Comm tools pierced him.

“No,” she murmured, sinking to her knees and weeping.

Before this point, she had only seen Saang as an emotionless monster, a killing machine whose only purpose was to hurt, maim and kill…but this single, selfless act---this suicidal sacrifice to destroy MalJesOr---had proven that he was more than that. As the D-Comm tools slowly drooped and fell limply to the ground, the last vestiges of strength within the machine were more than enough for it to tear Saang in half and rip his head off, throwing his ruined body to the ground mere seconds before it collapsed to its knees.

No longer able to stand the carnage, Vicki covered her face with her hands and wept.

Far beyond the city limits of San Jose, Falken was already back on what he saw as “the True Path”. A passing motorist now lay bleeding at the side of the road, their car commandeered by the so-called Seeker of Truths as he sped towards Barstow with the blessings of his gold-and-green clad savior still fresh in his ears. As the sun broke through the clouds to signal the coming of dawn, Damien Falken was well on his way to a new beginning.The ruins of the Family of Steel lay behind him. Ahead, the promise of unlimited power.

The figure smirked as he watched the old man drive away. “Humanity,” he scoffed. “Why the Allfather didn’t choose to have them eradicated, I’ll never know…” He chuckled. “I wonder what the Thunderer is up to…”

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Friday, December 24, 2010.

Vicki stared, unblinking, at the sights around her. Just a few short hours ago, she’d witnessed Saang getting torn apart, sacrificing himself…at first, she’d hoped it was just a dream. One look around the halfway house proved otherwise; the residents had cleaned up as best they could, but the memories remained.

Anton, Ted and Tell had all fallen asleep a few feet away---Anton was resting peacefully in a recliner, Ted---with one arm in a sling---had rolled off of his air mattress during the night and was attempting to snuggle the floor, and Tell---his scar bandaged with duct-tape---had returned to to his hammock. The brunette gynoid couldn’t help but smile; “Something tells me this would make a great Christmas card,” she mused, chuckling. Carefully, she traversed the halfway house to find Alicia snoring into the back of a recliner; nearby, Arnold and Sharon Hendricks were cuddling under a blanket on a pair of cots. Just another Friday in San Jose…

After quietly making her way outside, Vicki found Calliope standing guard by the TellMobile; I guess someone moved her during the night. “Good morning,” she beamed. “Likewise,” Calliope replied, though her mouth didn’t move. Vicki arched an eyebrow; “You need me to reset you or anything?” she asked. “That would help,” the clockwork girl admitted. “Turn the left-hand dial on my back panel to the right by five clicks….”

Vicki turned the dial, and Calliope shudered to life. “That never gets old,” she purred, shivering.

Despite her earlier optimism, Vicki knew she had to tell Calliope what had happened. ”Ah, you might want to sit back down for this one,” she began. “Saang….ah, sort of had to carry you into the halfway house last night, and there was a fight…..” By the end of her explanation, the clockwork girl was staring sadly at the pavement, only to perk up at Vicki’s mention of Saang’s last words. “That bastard,” she muttered, smiling through her tears. “He had to go and say a corny thing like that for his last words…”

“There’s something I still don’t get about Saang,” Vicki admitted. “From what I understand, he used to steal the occular sensors of other androids and gynoids…what was the story with that?”

Calliope stared up at the sky as she replied; “He was part of Falken’s ‘Family’ before I ever showed up….he left before I got there, and he ‘showed up’ again a while after I was first introduced into the Family. He wanted to find his own way in the world---at least, that’s what he claimed; Sierce eventually found his journal, and we all found out the truth about his ‘iThief’ schtick---he was selling the occular sensors to pay for a plane ticket back to wherever it was he came from.”

“Stealing occular sensors to pay for a plane ticket?” Vicki echoed. “That’s….kinda dumb…”

“You didn’t know Saang like I did,” Calliope insisted. “Most of the time, he was violent and screaming…but on some days, he was a completely different ‘droid. I actually managed to talk to him on those days, and it was like talking to a long-lost friend I’d never met before….” She grinned at the memory. “Believe me,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “it’d be easier to understand if you’d been there. On those rare days, when we talked, he was just the polar opposite of the Saang I had to put up with---he said it most of the time, it felt like boiling oil was being poured into his skull, and all he could do was lash out and scream…but on those days when he was willing to talk to me, he was the nicest, kindest, sweetest ‘bot I’d ever met….”

“…until the next day,” Vicki assumed, “when everything would be back to the usual routine.”

The raven-haired clockwork girl nodded sadly. “I think the only other members of the Family who felt any real sympathy for him were Sierce and Annie. I’d bring them with me to see him, sometimes, on those days when he wasn’t swearing at everyone, and we all got along perfectly---until he reverted to his usual self, of course.”

“Did they ever tell Falken?” Vicki asked.

“Falken claimed that it was just another one of Saang’s tricks,” Calliope muttered. “He warned us all to never trust Saang, because he’d probably turn on us and kill us if he got the chance….he’d say it when Saang was in the room, too…and for the briefest of seconds, you could see that it affected him, that those words hurt.” A lone tear made its way down her face; “It’s like his mind was in this weird, ‘Jekyll/Hyde’ situation,” she murmured, “and he couldn’t control which side ruled him.”

Something about the Jekyll/Hyde remark piqued Vicki’s interest; “I’m guessing Falken never tested Saang for any viruses, then,” she mused. “Personality shifts are often symptoms of long-term damage caused by certain viruses---“

“He couldn’t afford to have us tested,” Calliope interjected.

The bluntness of the statement shocked the brunette gynoid. “He never thought to bring any of you to an ALPA field clinic?” she asked---immediately regretting it.

“I actually thought of bringing the others to one,” Calliope admitted, “and I got as far as the bus stop….if that stupid Kiern would’ve just kept his mouth shut, Sierce could’ve had her voicebox fixed, and even Saang could’ve been patched up, but once Kiern got back to Falken and told him what I’d tried to pull, he sat us all down and told us a bunch of horror stories about drunk mechanics, synthophobes and some stupid group called the ‘Spare Parts People’…..basically, he wanted to scare us out of ever trying to get ourselves repaired ever again.” She stared at the ground; “He wanted to be the master of our fates, instead of letting us run our own lives.”

Not exactly surprising, considering the guy’s backstory… “Did he ever try to repair any members of the Family himself?” Vicki inquired. “I mean, if he wasn’t going to let you go to a licensed mechanic, he had to have tried to fix you on his own….right?”

“’Tried’ being the operative word,” Calliope sulked. “I was the only one he was ever able to fix…”

“From what happened to you on the roof of the RV, I’m guessing the repair sessions sort of fizzled out over the past year,” Vicki mused. “If your internals had been properly maintained, you easily could’ve gone twelve rounds with me---and I’m not just saying that to make you feel better; I’ve seen clockwork gynoids outperform the highest of high-tech dolls, and some of them were made way before you were!”

“Falken stopped caring about keeping me repaired once he ‘acquired’ the Jester,” Calliope sulked. “From that day on, we were never in a place long enough for any of us to make connections…I think the longest we stayed put was a week. The worst part was when it stopped bothering me….I knew something was wrong, but I never brought it up with any of the others.”

“I’m guessing the others weren’t too concerned about it, then…” Vicki surmised. Thus far, everything she’d heard about Falken and the way he controlled the Family of Steel was unnerving…

…but the worst was yet to come.

“Things started getting really bad around February,” Calliope informed the brunette gynoid. “Falken started muttering about ‘the anniversary’ and ‘commemorating the Blessed Day’---he always said it like that, as if it were some sort of religious event. Nobody knew what he was babbling about at first, but Saang had one of his turns and told me everything…” The clockwork girl’s eyes brimmed with tears. “He…told me about the Bloody Valentine incident….he told me….how Falken tried to…..” She buried her face in her hands and wept, the memory of what she’d been told proving too much for her to bear.

Part of Vicki wanted to ask what she’d heard in regards to the Bloody Valentine incident; it was, after all, one of the most controversial moments in the ALPA’s history, but she’d only heard the faintest whispers about it. If it was that important, then I’ll have to know what the whole thing was about sooner or later…..

Even as she tried to rationalize such a thought, her ethical subroutines kicked into overdrive, reinforcing the fact that Calliope had been terrified by what Saang told her. Asking her to repeat what she’d heard would be like asking a war veteran to describe---in graphic detail---how they’d lost a limb or seen their entire platoon massacred: it would be in poor taste, and it would only lead to further outbursts.

In the end, Vicki settled for putting her arm around Calliope’s shoulder and letting her cry. The tears finally ceased two minutes later, and the clockwork girl dried her eyes; “Sorry,” she murmured, “but just thinking about it….” She shook her head. “Nobody should have to live with that kind of knowledge.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” the brunette gynoid mused.

The UnMaker scowled at the thought of his latest failure as he made his way back to his recently-rennovated safehouse. The mission to “rescue” Rachel had been nothing but a front---he’d been assigned to steal back Falken’s “children” for his latest client earlier in the month, and if that damned D-Comm unit had stayed out of the picture, things might have gone a lot better---

“I see you have failed me yet again, Van Sabata.”

McMire’s digitally-disguised voice ringing in his Blutooth-enabled earpiece did nothing to improve the black-clad freelancer’s mood. “I didn’t fail,” he countered. “I ran into a few difficulties---“

“You dismantled two of the Children of Steel and allowed the rest to escape. In my eyes, such actions are the hallmarks of a failure.” Something about the heavily-synthisized, voccoder-heavy voice in his earpiece stirred an unpleasant feeling in the UnMaker’s gut, which wasn’t helped by the rumors that McMire had recently carried out a massive multi-pronged assault against the Coalition for cutting him loose. Some of the stories went even farther back, claiming that the name McMire was passed down from father to son, and that the current bearer of the name was the last of the bloodline; some even claimed that he wouldn’t live to see 2012.

Obviously, rumors meant nothing to Van Sabata. The truth was far more valuable than hear-say and gossip.

“The only reason two of the ‘Children of Steel’ were dismantled is that I didn’t want to get killed as soon as I opened the door to Falken’s hotel room,” he calmly replied. “Besides, the old man’s probably on his way back to his hidey-hole right now---“

“Unfortunately for both of us,” McMire informed the UnMaker, “the ‘old man’, as you call him, is currently fleeing the state of California, and at least three teams of ALPA recovery agents are on their way to his ‘hidey-hole’ to retrieve the last surviving members of the Family of Steel.” A strange sound, somewhere between a cough and a chuckle, issued through the earpiece; “I would have thought that your faith in GPS devices would have waned significantly after your pitiful performance in Reno last October,” McMire taunted, “but alas, I appear to have been proven wrong yet again.”

A familiar feeling of annoyance mixed with the desire to kick someone in the center of the face flooded through the UnMaker’s mind. “Look,” he muttered, “I did the best I could---your people can take the two I took apart and rebuild them, right?”

“They could,” McMire acquiesced, “but why should they waste their time and resources---“

“Because if they don’t,” the UnMaker growled, “I’m going to make sure they get exactly what they deserve---a one-way trip to the bottom of Lake Superior. Oh, and as far as the whole ‘I paid you to do this for me’ thing goes, your check wasn’t even worth the paper it was printed on!”

“A minor clerical mistake,” McMire replied.

“’A minor clerical mistake’?!” the UnMaker echoed. “THE HELL IT WAS A ‘MINOR CLERICAL MISTAKE’! You gipped me, McMire!”

“The person who sent you the paycheck will be dealt with,” McMire assured him, “but I must strongly advise against any more accusations of withholding payment on my part…unless you wish to find yourself hunted by my guards. My only contribution to that check was my signature; if it was a counterfeit check, or if it ‘bounced’, then it was not my doing.” A strange, static-ladden sigh issued from the earpiece; “Since you did, in all matter of fact, follow my instructions to the letter in the days prior to this debacle,” he concedeed, “I will be more than willing to pay you for services rendered thus far.”

“In cash?” the UnMaker asked. “Actual, physical money?”

“Yes. My people will deliver the payment to your current safehouse, and all records of this assignment having ended in failure will be destroyed.”

Smirking, the UnMaker agreed to the terms; McMire was known for being somewhat of a prick when it came to dealing with freelancers, but he’d just agreed to erase all mentions of this latest fiasco in addition to delivering the full payment---in cash---for the job.

Not that it made him less of a prick…..but business was business, and income didn’t just generate itself.

“I’ll be at the safehouse waiting for your guys to drop off the cash,” the UnMaker stated. “They try anything other than dropping it off by the door, and you’ll be getting pieces of them in the mail until next Christmas. Are we clear?”

“Clear as crystal. The armored delivery vehicles are on their way to your domicile as we speak.”

McMire’s mention of multiple armored cars delivering the payment momentarily drowned out the thoughts of a potential double-cross….for about five seconds. There were at least fifteen ways the UnMaker could be screwed over in such a scenario, but in his line of work, it came with the territory.

“Don’t let ‘em keep me waiting too long, McMire,” he stated, smirking. “Otherwise, I might get bored…..”

“I sincerely doubt that boredom will be the biggest problem you’ll be dealing with,” McMire replied. “but if it’s a new job you’re after, then I might have just the thing. A few days ago, I employed two other freelancers to fly out to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and acquire an assassin gynoid that had been sent to kill me. Thus far, they have not reported back to me, and I fear their mission may have been compromised.”

The UnMaker rolled his eyes; three weeks prior to the Falken job, he’d delivered Lola---the assassin gynoid McMire had mentioned---from the laboratory where she was built to a client in the Green Bay area. From what the client had told him, Lola was hacker-proof, updated against all the latest viruses and came with both ALPA and Coalition registration papers (forged by the finest counterfeiters in the country) as a preemptive security measure against the all-too-common search-and-seizures at both organizations’ checkpoints. The irony of being hired by Lola’s target to help two other wetwork agents bring her to the man she was meant to kill wasn’t lost on the UnMaker; some of his most lucrative contracts came from the intended victms of past (or, in some cases, present) jobs who either weren’t around when the hit went down or survived the hit and wanted swift, decisive vengeance.

Of course, there was one small matter to attend to first…

“What’s the pay if I accept?”

That disturbing, heavily-digitized laugh issued from the earpiece, with just enough of a hint of corrupted MIDI output to add an extra-creepy edge to it. “You’ll receive triple the paycheck from the Falken job if you agree to assist me in this matter, with an extra $40,000 thrown in if you aid my other two freelancers in their work. If, on the other hand, you accept, but the cargo is destroyed, you will receive the pre-arranged payment for the job, plus a rather large stipend for your troubles.”

“And no mention of the failure on the dirt sheets?”

“Your colleagues will never know you accepted the job unless you succeed.”

A promise of annonymity in failure was a very bold request to make---and, in most cases, such valued offers were meant as an ace in the hole for potential employers. In the UnMaker’s line of work, success meant more job offers, better gear, name recognition and---obviously---more money; the more missions you accomplished without collateral damage or causalties, the more calls, e-mails and letters you got begging you to help with this problem or that situation. Not surprisingly, the flipside of the coin was a downward spiral---one failure after another, repossession of vital equipment and resources, contacts and informants cutting their losses and heading for the hills…

…and---in the worst of the worst-case-scenarios---death, most often in the form of a hired gun lying in wait to take down the weakest of the weak and drag whatever they have left back to their last employer.

The UnMaker’s winning streak wasn’t exactly flawless---out of the fifty missions he’d been hired for over the past decade, he’d botched eleven, scrapped two and was arrested at the Peruvian border before he could finish one---but he was a hell of a lot better than most of the rookies in his field. While most specified a particular affinity (saboteur, spy, thief, assassin), the UnMaker considered himself the Swiss Army Knife of clandestine operations---he was skilled at anything his employers could ask for without having to devote himself completely to a single trade.

“When do I leave for Cheesehead Territory?” he asked, smiling a shark’s smile.

“Your plane tickets are waiting at the safehouse, along with your instructions. I would highly recommend you avoid causing any incidents during your time in Green Bay, otherwise I may have to send my people in…”

“I’ll leave the black bag at home, then. See you in Wisconsin.”

The UnMaker turned off the earpiece, grinning. “Looks like it’s going to be another busy Christmas….”

Maisie stared down at the road in front of the De Anza Hotel with an annoyed frown; “If all they’re going to do is take pictures,” she muttered, “then they shouldn’t even be here. The least they could do is help clean up…”

“The hotel has volunteers for that, Sweets,” Inspektor 12 reminded her. “If anything, we should be glad that all they’re doing is taking pictures. Of course, some of them will conveniently lose their cameras to a faulty luggage carousel at the airport…” His eyes twinkled mischeviously’ “It can’t be helped, you know,” he informed his beautiful chief of security. “Those darn carousels just seem to have an appetite for consumer electronics.”

Rather than point out the fact that the local airports would investigate any potential manipulation of the luggage carousels, Maisie decided to focus on her coffee and newspaper. “Any word on Falken?” she asked.

The Inspektor sighed; “It seems that he’s chosen to flee the state,” he replied. “A highway patrol officer called in about a stranded motorist some time in the pre-dawn hours…the poor soul was thrown out of his own car by a fellow matching Falken’s profile.” He leaned on the table as he stirred his latte. “He’s probably somewhere around Barstow, along the edges of the desert….”

“Someone should’ve stopped him before this,” Maisie muttered darkly. “He should’ve been locked up.”

A knock at the door interrupted her brooding; “Who is it?” the Inspektor called.

“The only person in this building who chose to hit the swimming pool last night instead of running into the parking lot like a headless chicken during that mess in the lobby. Open the bleeding door already, would you?”

With a hearty laugh, the Inspektor extricated himself from the tangle of bedsheets and made his way to the door, smiling broadly as he opened it. “I trust your midnight swim was pleasant?” he inquired, stepping aside to let the newcomer enter the room.

“It would’ve been a lot better if a certain fugitive hadn’t been running up and down the halls like a madman in the night,” Oberon replied. His swim trunks---which were as white as the rest of his wardrobe---barely held a trace of dampness; Maisie doubted if he’d even been in the pool at all. “I’m assuming you heard about Falken’s run for the border,” Oberon continued, ignoring the scathing glare from Maisie. “We have,” the Inspektor replied, “and I was just about to call in for some advice on how to handle the matter.”

“It’s being handled as we speak,” Oberon stated, flopping down into a nearby chair and sighing. “We’ve got teams searching all of his known hideouts, and a few recovery agents just brought back the last two survivors from this incarnation of the Family….” Something about the mention of “the latest incarnation of the Family” piqued Maisie’s interest. “How many survivors from past Families are still active?” she asked.

“None, as far as we can tell,” Oberon admitted. “Some of the ALPA’s best and brightest think they’ve gone into hiding---which they probably have, considering recent events.”

“Even if we could find them,” the Inspektor added, “there’s no guarantee that they would hand themselves over to the ALPA….many of them were conditioned by Falken himself to resist such tactics. The man did take his inspiration from cult leaders and some of the more unbalanced/charismatic figures in history, after all; it would be less than ideal for ‘his children’ to simply give up and be taken into custody by the ALPA or the Coalition.” Maisie was silent as she looked back out the window; the tourists in front of the hotel were now heading back to their cars. “I still think someone could’ve ended this sooner,” she muttered.

Oberon yawned as he crossed the room to sit next to her; “The last time Damien Falken was taken into police custody,” he informed the gynoid, “he stole the cruiser he’d been locked up in and fled into the Nevada desert…with the arresting officer locked up in the trunk. Falken turned up in Las Vegas a week later, but neither the car nor the officer were ever seen again…..”

He yawned again. “Pass me the comics, would you? I could use a laugh…”

Twenty minutes after Vicki woke up, the rest of the halfway house’s residents and staff rose from their slumber to partake of an excellent breakfast prepared by Vicki and Joan (Ted, as per usual, was banned from going anywhere near the kitchen). Tell, in keeping with one of his family traditions, brought out a DVD of vintage Christmas specials (most of them had been transferred from a VHS tape, but still managed to show off surprisingly sharp audio/visual quality) and read a Christmas story he’d written a few years ago called “How Van Halen Saved Christmas”, which proved to be just as entertaining as the Christmas specials.

Through most of the proceedings, Alicia hung back, not really interacting with anyone---“It’s just not my thing,” she explained, when Vicki asked. Midway through “How Van Halen Saved Christmas”, she turned to leave the building---and, possibly, leave San Jose.

Halfway across the parking lot, however….

“Alicia, wait up!”

The blonde gynoid barely stifled a groan. “If it’s about the card,” she began, only to stop; Vicki was holding out a gift-box to her. “I…thought you might like this,” she admitted. “It’s a bit early, but still…merry Christmas.” With a sigh, Alicia opened the box---and stared. “What…..”

“It’s your size,” Vicki explained, “and I figured you’d like something that was more than just jean shorts and t-shirts, so…” She smiled as Alicia lifted a stunning red dress from the box. “This…is beautiful,” the gynoid murmured. “How….when did you---“

“I got everyone’s gifts in October,” Vicki admitted. “I’m not as good as Mom is with the shopping---hey!” Alicia wrapped her arms around the brunette gynoid, hugging her close. “Thank you, Vicki,” she whispered tearfully. “You’re, ah, welcome,” Vicki replied, grinning nervously as she gently pulled away from the embrace. “Think we could go back inside and watch everyone else exchange their gifts, or what?”

“Eh, what the hell?” Alicia laughed. “I might even change into this and see what everyone thinks---“

“You can put it on inside,” Vicki hissed. “Don’t start taking things off out here…”

The two gynoids re-entered the halfway house and, for the next hour or so, sat back and watched the gift exchange take place. Some moments were pure comedic gold---Joan giving Ted a “healing idol” made from an old cellphone, or Anton getting several new pairs of shoes from the Party Girl twins---to heartwarming---Arnold Hendricks presenting his wife with a new ring---and others were unintentionally hilarious (Claudia giving Nate a new eye, then trying to replace the thing right then and there). “Well,” Vicki declared after the last gift was presented, “that was pretty fun, and---“ Her phone went off; “Sorry, I have to take this. Vicki Lawson here; who is this---“

“Only one of the biggest pop acts to hit the airwaves this decade!”

Vicki’s eyes widened; “Sophia?! How did you---“

“I’ll explain all that later. Right now, I’m calling to give you your Christmas gift---a chance to join the Starlet Dolls’ first-ever stadium tour in January 2011, plus a week of hanging out with me,writing songs and doing whatever you feel like doing! Think you’d be up for it?”

The brunette gynoid felt tears of joy welling up in her eyes; “That…would be epic,” she murmured.

“Radical! Oh, and one more thing…” An airhorn blew outside, prompting Vicki---and half the residents of the halfway house---to run to the door and gape at Sophia Starlet’s new tour bus, with Sophia herself smiling and standing next to it. “What would you say to starting that ‘week of hanging out’ thing right now?”

Vicki felt like the luckiest girl in the world as she replied: “I’m gonna need some help packing for this one..”

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

Once again, Christmas for the Lawson family turned out to be awesome!

Yesterday, by contrast, was a complete and total nightmare, though, thanks to Damien Falken. The guy’s a certified nutjob who doesn’t have a problem with inflicting psychological torture on A.I.s, and as of right now, he’s still on the loose. Still, things weren’t completely insane; three of the gynoids from Falken’s “Family of Steel” were rescued by the ALPA---one of them had a wrecked voicebox, and Tell had to replace it as soon as he got her to his workshop. She’s fine now, but just thinking about it---

Actually, I’m just going to stop mentioning it right there, because I don’t want to wreck the good mood I’m in.

Mom finally came back from Hawaii, and she couldn’t have shown up at a better time---she tazed Saang (one of Falken’s flunkies) right in the eye! Seeing as how he ended up saving me, though…. Anyways, I also met a gynoid named Rachel, who didn’t really know that much about herself…but Tell told me that she’s on her way to Green Bay now….

…right. No more negative stuff, because this is the most aweseome part of this journal entry: I get to spend ALL of next week (AND THIS SUNDAY!) hanging out with Sophia Starlet and working on lyrics for her new album! AND I get to help with her first-ever stadium tour!

I’d write more, but I have some catching up to do with Sophia….

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

Vicki’s Christmas is going to be an epic one, no doubt about that…but her new year promises to be just as epic!

Sophia “Shock” Starlet, lead singer of the Starlet Dolls, has returned to San Jose to prepare for her upcoming stadium tour in support of “Electric Child”, the first album she’s recorded with her all-gynoid band. With some help from her good friend Vicki Lawson---and the Windy City-based multi-platinum prog rock band, Styx---the Starlet Dolls are ready to put on the biggest show of their careers thus far…

…unless Boris Vlatko and Victor Vega shut them down first.

With both of their careers on the line after a pair of failures, these two titans of the robotics industry have their own motives for wanting the Starlet Dolls gone, and even though they’re not exactly thrilled at the thought of working together, one---or BOTH---of them could easily spill the beans on Sophia and bring her career crashing to a halt. Vicki’s definitely going to have her hands full with this one…

Fans of The V.I.C.I. Diaries are going to be in for a real treat with this story. DukeNukem 2417 has gone above and beyond this time, collaborating with Fembot Central’s own DollSpace to produce what could easily be the most epic entry in the series thus far! DollSpace has contributed over 15 original songs to the project, adding an extra layer of AWESOME to Duke’s already-acclaimed writing. If you liked ButchyBoy’s “Can’t Get that Song Out of My Head” and DN2417’s The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Showstopper” you are gonna LOVE this one! Action, drama, comedy, suspense---and an entire album’s worth of original songs, all in one insanely epic tale from two incredible authors! And one more thing: The ending will astound, amaze and possibly even shock you!

Get ready to flick your BICs, folks, and don’t miss out on The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Electric Child”, coming to Fembot Central later this month!

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