Unmade, Unbroken

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"Hi, Campus police? This is Tori Hartwell, and I'm calling because…well, this may sound kind of stupid, but my best friend just ran out of class and I have no idea where she went. [sigh] Fine, I'll stay on hold."

Tori patiently waited while the campus police processed her call, knowing that whatever response she would get would be delayed. She'd come to expect this, ever since her friend, Kim DeFalco, started acting strangely in class several weeks ago. It had started with a simple muscle spasm (at least it looked like a muscle spasm) after a swim in the Aquatics Center, followed by Kim zoning out and occasionally twitching involuntarily in the middle of important lectures. Maybe it's just the stress from exams, Tori had mused.

Over time, however, the seemingly trivial spasms began to grow closer and closer to full-on seizures; worse, Kim would lose the ability to speak coherently, her voice becoming nearly impossible to understand as she lay, trembling and crying, on the floor (usually in the girls' bathroom; she tried to get out of class ASAP whenever she felt the signs of an "incident" coming on). Out of concern for Kim's well-being, Tori suggested that she get examined for epilepsy and any other possible disorders that could cause uncontrollable seizures in the middle of class.

If only she knew the truth….

The truth about Kimberly Warren DeFalco's situation was slightly more complicated than muscle spasms or possible undiagnosed epilepsy: Kim was a gynoid, and her tremors, temporary speech impairment and loss of motor control were all signs that she needed a major systems evaluation and upgrade---and soon.

Ironically, Tori's call to the campus police HQ came just moments after Kim left the building. Like Tori, she had an important call to make, but this one wasn't to the campus PD; it was to her ALPA guardian, Nash. The two had been thrust into a father-daughter relationship after the family whose daughter Kim had been created to replace wound up dead thanks to a drunk driver (a repeat offender who, fittingly, met his end when his car stalled on train tracks after he nearly ran over a pregnant woman on the way home from "Free Jaegermeister Night" at the local bar), and Nash---a former Marine who joined General Hardcastle's team to support his brother---was a fully-trained field mechanic in addition to being Kim's bodyguard of sorts. Lately, he'd been answering her calls nearly every day of the week, often meeting her in empty classrooms or off-campus locations where he could perform the necessary repairs on his gynoid ward in private.

Her hand already trembling, Kim managed to dig her cellphone out of her pocket and speed-dial Nash's cell phone (in her condition, dialing it manually would've been nearly impossible). "N..Nash?" she whispered, hoping that her voice wouldn't start changing pitch again midway through the call. "Don't tell me…it happened again." Though he sounded slightly annoyed, Nash knew that his field repairs on Kim were the only thing that would keep her android status a secret until she could see the ALPA's most skilled mechanic, Mr. Tell. "It was in the library this time…during class…." Kim whimpered, her eyes already brimming with tears; ever since the tremors, speech problems and "zone-outs" had started, she feared that her days as a covert gynoid interacting normally with humans would soon be over. "This is the fifth time this week. Nash…I'm scared…I…I don't know what to do…." "Just stay calm. I'll be there in seven minutes to pick you up; my connections at Fry's Electronics will let us in through the back, and I can fix you there." Kim nodded tearfully. "Th…thank you…."

Without warning, another voice interjected: "Don't thank him yet, Miss DeFalco. See, a lot can happen in seven minutes…"

Kim panicked, but Nash was pissed. "Who the hell are you?! How did you get this number---" The other voice chuckled. "No need for alarm, Mr. Nash.; I'm just…an observer. One who can see your Chevy Malibu with the out-of-state license plates parked outside Sweeney Hall, in-between the Escalade with the Fallout Boy bumper sticker and the pickup truck that looks as if it was dipped in rat crap."

The newcomer's voice suddenly turned a shade more sinister. "And I also see that you forgot your gun."

Kim nearly dropped the phone; her guardian, her closest ally on campus, was unarmed---and being watched? "Oh, and don't think I've forgotten about you, Miss DeFalco; that pink top with the floral print looks simply beautiful on you, especially in this light; it brings out your eyes perfectly." Nash's low growl issued from the speaker of Kim's phone; "Whoever the hell you are, hang up now, or I'll----" "You'll what? Tear me a new hole? Face it, Mr. Nash, your catalog of one-liners is as stale as the pretzels you're about to snack on; they were probably ancient the first time you heard them in Serious Sam. Which reminds me….."

An explosion---probably deafening from where Nash was standing---nearly blew out the speaker of Kim's cellphone.

"In case you're wondering, I actually had nothing to do with that…not in the traditional sense, anyways. See, most people think grenades and napalm are the best ways to take out an armored car---oh, and Miss DeFalco, if you're trying to figure out what I’m talking about, a bank van just blew up 15 feet and eight inches away from your friend, Mr. Nash." Kim felt a squeal of terror escape her lips as the mysterious speaker continued. "As I was saying…I prefer using the car's own components to destroy it….it's just a matter of rerouting the wiper fluid lines, adding a bit of tubing to draw gasoline from the gas tank instead of the wiper-fluid reservoir….and once the gas hits the windshield wiper motors, the entire car effectively becomes a fireball waiting to happen.."

"Nash?" Kim breathed, too terrified to think of what might have happened to her protector. "What's going on?"

No reply.

"Nash?!" Kim repeated, her breath coming in ragged sobs now.

"Sorry…but Mr. Nash isn't available right now." The voice she'd just heard over the cellphone was now coming from directly in front of her. She looked up and saw a young man---probably just entering his late 20s---clad in a black duster, black shirt, black pants and black shoes. Black sunglasses hid his eyes, and his black hair, while seemingly unkempt, managed to avoid looking too untamed. Had things been different, he would've fit right in with Harris and Klebold in every aspect except attitude---while they had been hell-bent on causing mayhem, the black-clad stranger standing before Kim DeFalco seemed to radiate an eerie calm. Not a reassuring calm, or a friendly calm….he seemed to generate the kind of calm that means you'll never feel pain, joy, sorrow or fear---or anything else, for that matter---ever again.

The kind of calm one experiences in Oblivion.

"Who….who are-are-are you?!" Kim stammered, her glitchy speech only adding to her panic. The black-clad young man grinned; "My particular moniker reflects….what I do, Ms. DeFalco. I'm what you might call an unmaker. Or, more accurately, the UnMaker." "You…you br-br-break things?" Kim whimpered.

The UnMaker grinned, reminding Kim of Hannibal Lecter.

"Any old dunderhead can break something……Someone like me, on the other hand---an UnMaker---prefers to take things apart, piece by piece, until they're back to their original, individual components. I don't break things….I deconstruct them. I unmake them. Hence the name."

"G-g-g-g-g-get awwwwaaaaaaayyy from me-me-me!" Kim shrieked, her glitching voice barely drawing any sort of response from the UnMaker. "Looks like something's playing havoc with your vocal circuits…not my doing, obviously, but I enjoy seeing the results caused by the natural degredation of substandard components in any situation." He grinned again. "It makes my job that much easier."

In that instant, Kim gathered her courage and did something she never expected to do: She hit the UnMaker.

The blow staggered the young man just enough to give Kim the window of opportunity she needed; as soon as she knew that the blow had landed, she legged it in the other direction as fast as she could in her condition. As long as she could find Nash and get to Fry's Electronics, she'd be safe….

Nine minutes into listening to Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" (the "on-hold" music of choice for the SJSU Campus PD), Tori had given up on getting any response and set out to look for Kim herself. "With my luck, I'll end up getting attacked by a rapist or something," she muttered; the two self-defense gadgets she usually carried with her---a small stun-gun and a can of Mace---were currently in the dresser drawer of her dorm room underneath several pairs of panties and socks. "Though if any moron had the balls to try and grab me in broad daylight," she mused, rounding the corner of Seventh Street and Paseo de San Carlos, "they deserve to get Tazered right in the---"

A running figure bowled her over---and fell to the ground themselves---before she could finish the sentence. "Watch where you're---" she began, before realizing that the runner was Kim. "T-t-t-t-t-torrii," she pleaded, "….y-y-y-y-ouuu have to-to-to helhelhelhelhelpppppp memememememememe…" Tori helped her stricken friend to her feet; "You're talking weird again…should I call an ambulance---" "NO! No-no-no-no-no-no-no hospitpitpitals-als-als! I-I-I-I……damnit….IIIIIII neneneneneneneneeeeeeeeeed….." Frustrated by her own inability to speak clearly, Kim grabbed Tori's backpack. "HEY! What are you---" She stopped, suddenly realizing what her friend was doing; "You're looking for pens and paper, right?"

Kim nodded frantically, finally producing an ink pen and a notebook, not caring that the pages were graph paper. In seconds, she found a blank page and, despite the jerking and trembling of her hands, managed to write the name "NASH" in all caps with two underlines. "Nash?" Tori echoed; Kim nodded. "Who's Nash?" After a quick glance over her shoulder, Kim dove into Tori's backpack again and produced a copy of The Spartan Daily from the previous semester, pointing out the headline: "CAMPUS POLICEMAN STOPS NIGHT RAIDS ON SORORITIES". The picture accompanying the article showed an athletic looking man smiling and shaking hands with the dean. "That's Nash?!" Tori asked, amazed that Kim actually knew the guy. "M-m-my ststststep-ep-ep-ep dadadadadadadadadadad," she explained. Tori nodded, unsure of what to say. "Let's get you somewhere less exposed," she told Kim. "Something tells me that a public seizure might somehow make the front page of the Spartan Daily if we stay out here too long…"

Two minutes later, the pair arrived at the Associated Students House; once inside, Tori escorted Kim to the nearest women's bathroom and made the call to Campus PD asking if they knew the current whereabouts of one David Nash. Annoyingly, they replied by saying that Nash had called them just seconds ago before his cellphone signal suddenly cut out. "So much for that brilliant plan," Tori muttered.

"T-t-t-t-t-torrrrrriiiiiiii…." Kim sobbed. "I…I can't-can't-can't-can't keeeeep going keep going keepgoing keepgoing keeeeeeeeeppp gooooooooiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing like thissssssss………" "Hey, it's gonna be all right!" Tori replied, kneeling down to address her stricken friend (after entering the restroom, Kim had immediately made for a corner and sank to the floor in a crying heap). "We'll get out of this, and I'll find someone who can help you through…well, whatever it is that's messing you up; I promise, you'll be okay."

Kim looked up and smiled through the tears. "Th-th-th-thank…..yoooooooouuuuuuu….." Tori grinned back---

---only to jump nearly three feet in the air as a car crashed into the outside of the building.

"What the HELL?!?!" She helped Kim to her feet, and the two carefully made their way to the door; outside, students were panicking, dialing numbers frantically on their cellphones and generally freaking out. Tori managed to stop one passing student (a transfer student from Jersey, to be specific) and ask what had happened. "Man, I don't….one minute, it was all calm, and then this car just….aw, man, that guy behind the wheel, he's messed up!" With that, the shaken Guido walked off, muttering to himself. "That didn't help at all," Tori mused, frowning, only to notice that Kim was now crying even harder and pointing at the wrecked car. "What are you crying about?" she began, only to gasp as she realized what Kim was looking at.

Lying on the ground in a bloody heap, a mere foot away from the car, was David Nash.

"That's the guy you were looking for?" Tori whispered; Kim nodded tearfully, her left eye beginning to twitch uncontrollably as she brushed her orange-red hair away from it. Tori shook her head. "We should go…" She turned to leave, but Kim grabbed her and pointed; Nash was motioning for them to come closer.

Careful not to step on his prone form, the two girls made their way to where Nash lay, bruised and bleeding. "What is it?" Tori asked. Nash motioned for Kim to come closer, which she did. Tori stood back, not wanting to intrude on what might be their last moment together. Despite the fact that Nash was speaking in a harsh, ragged whisper, however, Tori was slightly surprised to hear his voice as if she were leaning in as close as her friend was:

"Kim……find…..Vicki Lawson….she'll….help….you……"

With that, Nash went limp.

Kim's sobbing (and twitching) became even more pronounced, and as the paramedics showed up to bring Nash to the hospital, Tori gently led Kim away. "What did he say?" she whispered, despite having heard him perfectly. Kim shakilly put pen to paper and wrote "MUST FIND VICKI LAWSON." "Vicki?" Tori echoed, confused; she didn't know Vicki that well, but they'd worked well as a team during volleyball sessions (not counting the match where Tori had to cover for Vicki after the latter fell too hard and dislocated her pinky) and had a nice friendly chat after they coincidentally attended a student-run screening of Watchmen together. "Why do we need to find her?" Kim turned to another page in the notebook and wrote "SHE CAN HELP ME".

Tori nodded. "If Vicki Lawson can help you, then I guess we should try to find her…and soon." With that, the two made their way to the Student Union to see if Vicki Lawson could, indeed, help them.

As Tori and Kim left the Associated Students House, they had no idea that they were being watched.

From his vantage point in the West Parking Garage, the UnMaker saw both girls leave the ASH---dirty-blonde Tori, with her aqua-blue shirt over a white tank-top and khaki jeans, and redhead Kim in the nice pink shirt and skintight denims---walking off towards the Student Union. "Such a shame that Nash had to get hit by that car," he mused, shaking his head. He'd had nothing to do with the car crash, of course---not officially, anyways; Nash had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, the incapacitation of the security man was convenient; the UnMaker had plans for Kim and Tori, and Nash would've eventually been taken out of the picture regardless. "Saves me the trouble, though," the enigmatic young man murmured, chuckling as he left the garage. "As for Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson…." He smiled as he examined a photo of a brunette college girl in a red shrit with a white tank-top over it.

"Hopefully, she’ll be more of a challenge than the last one..."

Tori and Kim made it to the Student Union without any problems, but their relief was short-lived; Vicki Lawson was apparently working on a project in Palo Alto with some other students from her Physics class, and she wouldn't be back until the next day. Upon hearing that news, Kim nearly broke down (in more ways than one) and cried, but Tori refused let the news ruin her mood. "We'll just wait until tomorrow, then," she assured her stricken friend, "and hopefully, she'll know what the heck's going on and be able to help you."

Kim initially wanted to return to her dorm room at Royce Hall, but Tori convinced her to stay the night in her Campus Village room. "If anything happens to you during the night---if you have another incident, or something like that---I'd feel a lot better if I didn't have to hear about it the next day and see you walking around campus with a bruise on your forehead because you fell out of bed and bashed your face against the floor." Kim accepted Tori's offer, and the two became roommates for the night (Tori's usual roommate was out having a "panty party" or some such nonsense, which apparently involved groups of attractive sorority girls getting drunk out of their faces and trading undergarments for reasons that have yet to be explained or discerned. Campus authorities are currently looking into the fad to see if it's technically illegal or not).

That night, as she went through her usual preparations before bed, Tori felt something strange as she noticed Kim tossing and turning on the air mattress. It was as if there was an unspoken kinship between the two, something that went beyond mere friendship…

…something they both had in common, but one was completely oblivious of.

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary: October 5, 2010

I'm typing this entry with my laptop in the backseat of Mr. Tell's RV. It's midnight, October 5, 2010, and I'm on the way back to San Jose State University from an assignment in Palo Alto…..and I'm saying it now so I don’t have to repeat it later: I am so glad I didn't have to stay there for the week!

For starters, the locals were---well, actually, the locals were nice. Tell and I were given full run of the facility for our investigation (I can't go too much into detail, because the ALPA is still looking into the matter and they might get a little miffed at me if I drop too many names), and we had police escorts wherever we went. The problems started when this hippie guy, Moon-Flower-Sun-Beam or whatever the hell he called himself, started saying that we needed to "feel the vibrations".

Now, even though I can't talk about why Tell and I had to go to Palo Alto, I can say that we were attempting to set up a sub-etheric transmisison….something to do with recovering the coordinates of a locally-launched satellite. Unfortunately, Hippie Guy ignored my advice and played a friggin' whale song CD; the harmonics of the whale songs interfered with the transmission we were trying to send, and nearly blew out---actually, strike that, it did blow out the speakers! The hippie then had the nerve to say it was my fault, because "my chakra wasn't in tune with Mother Nature" or something stupid like that. I really wanted to shout "I'M A ROBOT! I'M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN TUNE WITH MOTHER NATURE!", but that would've created more problems than it solved.

Anyway, I got an e-mail from Claudia yesterday. (she's been recovering faster than expected, by the way; she's been online for two or three days now and showing no ill effects from the bombing, even though that one piece of shrapnel almost went straight through her main power cell) Apparently, Nate's so torn up that they're considering scrapping his old body and just building him a new one. I'm all for upgrades if necessary, but there was something about Nate that made me feel all…tingly inside….

(I am so glad I'm using a computer to write this; my hand was just shaking so much that I'd have made a piece of abstract art on the page if I'd been using a pen!)

Right, back to the topic at hand: the Palo Alto assignment.

Two other ALPA officers at the scene decided that I had somehow screwed up the transmission, meaning that I would be held accountable for the failure of the mission if they decided to bring the matter to court. I really hope it doesn't come to that, but if it does, I'll gladly tell my side of the story. If ANYONE should be brought up on charges for this, it's that hippie idiot. I TOLD him that his stupid whale song CD would interfere with the frequencies, but he had to be the big shot and ignore me! >:( Hopefully, if Major Tom or General Hardcastle ask, Tell will give them the full disclosure and explain that I WASN'T AT FAULT. (Speaking of Major Tom….now that I think about it, he's probably the second guy I've felt all….tingly about when I think of him….God, I hope he never reads this diary, otherwise he'll think I'm a massive dweeb or something. Wait, did I just call myself a dweeb? In a parenthetical?! I must be going nuts or something!)

Joan and Jamie should be back later this month; hopefully, in time for Halloween. I'm really looking forward to seeing if "the big J" has managed to embody that name as the collegiate football star Ted always wanted to be; on a similar note, I wonder if Mom's life as a lottery winner has changed her outlook on things, or if she's the same optimistic, friendly Joan Lawson I remember. Knowing her, I won't be disappointed (unless she's joined a cult or something, in which case I'll be all too happy to intervene). Speaking of reunions, the invite for my high school reunion came in the mail two days ago; I'm debating as to whether or not I should go. It would be great to see how everyone's changed since graduation. On a completely unrelated note, I had that dream about lightning again back in Palo Alto; I need to see if Ted can debug my REM program if he has the time.

Mr. Tell's calling me up to the front seat to discuss the mission. AGAIN. Guess I'd better go!

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

"….and for the twenty-fifth time, Tell, I had the situation under control! The only reason anything went wrong is because that idiot New Age hippie-guru guy had to go and play a whale-song CD after I told him the frequencies of the sounds would interfere with the signal, but did he listen?!"

Despite the success of her latest mission, Vicki Lawson was slightly miffed with the fact that at least two ALPA members held her accountable for the near-failure of their objective. Mr. Tell chuckled; "V, that New Age hippie guru guy, as you called him, was once one of the highest-paid consultants at Intel until someone slipped him a bit of the old wacky tobbackie; he's never been the same since. Technically, it's not even his fault things went so wrong---I blame the stereo he used! The power settings on that thing were way over the legal limit---"

"Whoever's at fault here can answer to the ALPA when the time comes," Vicki interjected, her customary air of finality leaving no room for arguement. "As for me, personally, I’m actually glad to be back on familiar turf. June---sorry, Miss Hamilton---is doing a lesson on nuclear power sources as alternative power for the robotics industry; think I should contribute at all?" Tell gave her a mock-angry look. "If you even think of mentioning your RTG," he intoned, "I will have no choice but to tie you to a mattress and force you to watch Gigli, Southland Tales, The Room and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale back to back until you lose your mind!" Vicki smirked; "You actually have The Room on DVD?" Tell went beet red. "No," he stammered (or, more accurately, pretended to stammer) "but I have this, ah, friend, who has it…he recorded it when Adult Swim showed it on the night of April Fool's Day." "Sure you do," Vicki drawled, grinning. "And I'm betting that this same 'friend' also has those other movies you mentioned as well, right?" Tell acted as if he was withering under Vicki's inquisitive glance, prompting the brunette gynoid to laugh.

The TellMobile parked outside the Student Union building, where Mr. Tell dropped Vicki off. "Is it all right if I pass by your dorm to put your stuff back where it goes?" he asked. "Sure," Vicki replied. "Just don't wake up Sharon, okay?" "Right," Tell replied, reaching under the seat and pulling out a life-sized Facehugger prop. "I promise not to do anything stupid to wake up your roommate." Vicki grinned and shook her head; "You have one sick sense of humor, d'you know that?" "I know! Isn't it great?" After waving goodbye to Vicki, Mr. Tell headed for her dorm room, singing Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" as he drove away. "He is one weird guy," Vicki admitted, "but he's also the best mechanic I know. That, and his musical tastes don't make me want to rip out my own auditory sensors…"

Vicki headed into the Student Union building to catch up on anything she might have missed during her stay in Palo Alto. As expected, her three close friends---Shawn Helmsley, Kirsten Sanderson and Valerie Summers---had been waiting for her, along with Shawn's roommate/fellow Hunter S. Thompson enthusiast, a Samoan transfer student who called himself "Dr. Gonzo Jr." "Now this is a superior machine," Shawn declared as Vicki walked over; she nearly freaked out until she realized that he was paraphrasing a quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "You're not talking about me, are you?" she asked politely. "He's talking about his new car," Gonzo Jr.replied, punctuating the sentence with a belch. Shawn nodded proudly. "$10,000 worth of gimmicks and high-priced special effects, all for the low, low price of just $5,945 and a nickel."

"He's been bragging about it all morning," Valerie elaborated as Vicki joined the group. "Apparently, it's the best car he's ever driven. He even managed to impress the Twins---right until they saw that he was the one driving it." Vicki grinned and rolled her eyes. "Anything else happen while I was out?"

The group immediately stopped joking around.

"What?" Vicki asked. "To be honest," Kirsten admitted, "something interesting did happen yesterday. These two girls---Tori Hartwell and Kim DeFalco---were asking around for you…well, Tori did all the asking, really; Kim seemed to be having some trouble speaking clearly." "And they were asking for me?" Vicki asked, slightly perturbed; she remembered Tori helping her out after the pinky-slamming incident on the volleyball court, but she didn't know much about Kim DeFalco; the fact that both of them were asking around for her was…strange, to say the least. "Indeed they were," Shawn replied. "Apparently, they even stopped by your dorm room."

"If Tori and Kim really need to talk with me," Vicki replied, "I’ll see if I can catch up with them later on today." If my suspicions are correct, she added mentally, I'll have to talk to them before the day is over with….

Unlike some of her more arduous ALPA missions that involved making a rendezvous with someone, Vicki actually managed to encounter Tori and Kim fairly early on in her day---a far cry from the hit-and-miss attempts at secret meetings she'd dealt with over the past few weeks.

Vicki, Tori and Kim all took the same English class early on in the day (though Kim had left class after just five minutes, due to the tremor in her hand becoming so persistent that she couldn't even hold a pen), and it was purely by chance that Tori noticed Vicki packing her things after class ended. As discreetly as possible, she made her way over to Vicki's desk and cleared her throat. "Hmm?" Vicki asked, looking up to see the concerned face of Tori Hartwell. "You're Vicki Lawson, right?"

The brunette gynoid nodded. "The one and only, as far as I know." She allowed herself a grin before returning to the serious topic at hand. "I've heard that you and a friend of yours were asking around for me yesterday… is there something I can help you with?" Tori looked around nervously before answering; "It's a complicated story, but…someone told my friend Kim that you could help her out somehow." "And where's Kim now?" Tori stared at the floor. "She left class early; she's in the bathroom down the hall." Vicki nodded and made to leave, and Tori instinctively followed.

The two girls entered the bathroom to find Kim sitting in the corner, furiously jabbing at her wrist with a screwdriver. "KIM, NO!" Tori screamed, mistakenly assuming that her friend was attempting suicide; when she tried to intervene, however, she felt Vicki's iron grip holding her fast. "What are you doing?!" the blonde shrieked. "She's---" "She's repairing herself," Vicki corrected, "or at least trying to." She moved to kneel next to Kim; "Let me help you with that," she offered. "Tttthhank-ank-ank…yooooooouuuu," Kim stammered.

As if in a trance, Tori walked forward and found herself staring at something completely unbelievable---the skin on Kim's wrist had been peeled back to reveal motors, wires and other mechanical components. "She's…. she's a robot?!" "Technically speaking, she's a RoboDyne 88600 Starlight Series model female android," Vicki explained, "given the designation of Kimberly Warren DeFalco as per the orders of the DeFalco family, both deceased." Kim nodded, artificial tears streaming down her cheeks. "It's t-t-t-t-ttttruuuee," she admitted. "But…..why?!" Tori asked. "I mean, why build a robot that looks this lifelike?"

"The real Kim DeFalco was killed in a skiing accident a few years ago," Vicki replied, "and her dad's brother was a close friend of my dad, Ted Lawson----y'know, CEO/owner of Lawson Robotics?" Tori nodded, slowly catching on. "So…your dad's company built Kim?" "Not quite," Vicki admitted. "They were really busy at the time---" Busy upgrading me, she mentally added--- "so they outsourced the labor to RoboDyne International. The guys and gals at RDI decided that creating Kim DeFalco 2.0, so to speak, would be a great opportunity to test their Starlight Series design---" "Wait, there are more like her?!" Tori interrupted, jumping to the obvious (and correct) conclusion. "I'll get to that bit in a minute," Vicki replied. "As I was saying, RDI based Kim 2.0 on their brand-new---and untested---Starlight Series design…." She sighed. "If they'd have waited a few years, they could've based her on something a bit more reliable, like a ZX9950."

"You're talking about androids like they're cars or something," Tori murmured, astounded. "A lot of the top robotics manufacturers did start off in the automotive industry," Vicki explained. Tori bristled; "That still doesn't explain how you know so much about this---" Vicki stopped her. "Tori, before I go on, you have to promise not to tell anyone else what I'm about to tell you." "That, ah, depends on what you're going to say," Tori heard herself mutter; Vicki rolled her eyes and turned around. "Promise, okay?" Tori nodded. "Good. Now, I'm going to pull up my shirt---" "WHAT?!" "Tori, just bear with me here, all right?" Once again, Tori nodded.

Vicki lifted her shirt over her head and took a deep breath. "Control panel…OPEN!"

Tori watched, speechless, as the panel in Vicki Lawson's back slid open with a quiet whir. "The reason I know so much about androids is because I am one," Vicki admitted. "My name even recflects that; take out the 'k', and you get my original acronymic title: V.I.C.I., or Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant." Tori nodded, transfixed by the sight of the lights, ports and buttons. Vicki sighed, waited about forty seconds and then closed the control panel, covering it with her shirt once it was fully sealed. "Now that you know what I am…and what Kim is," she asked, "I have to know: Why did you come to me for help?"

"Well," Tori murmured, "it's…complicated. See, Kim's stepdad---" "David Nash, you mean," Vicki added. "You know him?" "A little; he was one of the ALPA's best field guardians." "ALPA?" Tori asked, confused. "It stands for 'Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency; they keep trying to get it changed to ALPHA somehow….but that's beside the point." She thought about Tori's claim that Nash was Kim's stepfather; "I had heard that he was a freelancer up until a few months ago, when he got reassigned as a guardian…that was right around the time Kim's parents got killed, wasn't it?" Tori nodded; "He got hit by a car or something yesterday, and he told Kim to look for Vicki Lawson…" "So you decided to help her find me?" Vicki finished, arching an eyebrow. "I'm her best friend," Tori countered. "What else was I supposed to do?!"

Vicki grinned. "I'm actually glad that you chose to help her." Her expression turned serious as she looked at the still-twitching Kim. "Unfortunately, I can't do much for her except bring her to Mr. Tell; the damage to her systems is too great for me to fix out here." Rather than ask who Mr. Tell was, Tori chose to inquire just how bad the damage to Kim's systems had become---and what had caused that damage in the first place.

"Well, the main thing is that she's suffering from the same system failure that led to the Starlight Systems project being cancelled. Her speech and motor functions drivers were put in too close to her main power cell, and the fact that she can't cycle down her energy usage means that any time she overexerts herself, like during a tennis game, those two processors get overloaded with more energy. When exactly did her, ah, symptoms start?" Tori thought back; "The twitching's been going on for about 3 months now, but the speech problem only started over the last few weeks." Vicki nodded, a hint of sadness in the gesture. "That figures; the drivers usually take about four months or so to degrade after the cycle starts."

Tori looked from Vicki to Kim; "Is there anything we can do?" "Not here," Vicki whispered. "We'll have to get her to Mr. Tell; it'll only take him about two or three hours to fix. I just have to make a quick phone call….."

Predictably, Mr. Tell was belting out a classic rock'n'roll tune when Vicki arrived at his workshop; this time, it was the Metallica classic "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Typical, Vicki thought with a grin. Any time he's not doing a repair job or watching classic movies, he's playing air guitar and doing his best James Hetfield impression. She fought to supress a chuckle as she remembered Tori and Kim; she had a feeling that the two wouldn't exactly react favorably if they saw Mr. Tell jumping around the workshop screaming out heavy metal lyrics, so she politely knocked on the door. "Tell? It's Vicki…."


Vicki groaned; Tell was ignoring her on purpose (not for the first time, she mentally grumbled). "Give him a minute," she told Tori and Kim, cringing as Tell belted out the line about taking a look to the sky just before you die. When no reply to her knock came, Vicki sighed, rolled her eyes and knocked again. Still no reply; this was starting to get old fast.

Okay, fun time is over.

"TELL, OPEN THE DOOR ALREADY!" she yelled, pounding as hard as she dared. "TELL, OPEN THE DAMN DOOR---"

The door swung inward, and Vicki managed to stop herself from smashing Tell's nose in (he had peeked out of the exact spot where she'd been pummeling the door). "Sorry about that," the mechanic apologized. "You know me; when Metallica's on the radio, I just…." He stopped when he noticed Tori looking at him as if he was some sort of mental patient; more important, however, was the look of concern he showed upon seeing Kim's twitching and stuttering form. "I'm guessing she's the 88600 SS you called about, right?" he asked Vicki, who nodded. "We have to get her fixed now, Tell…and you already know why."

Mr. Tell nodded and opened the doors fully, asking Tori to help Vicki bring Kim inside. "And make it quick," he added, "we don't want any lookey-loos spotting her."

Unfortunately, one so-called "lookey-loo" already had spotted Kim…..

Several miles away from San Jose State University, something was stirred into a state of awakening.

Make that fifteen somethings.

All fifteen of these “somethings” were currently moving about the SJSU campus, engaged in their daily routines with strict, hardwired orders to not deviate from said routines unless something took a higher priority. As it just so happened, the sighting of Kim DeFalco was one such event that would take precedence over the rest of their routine.

Without hesitation, the fifteen moved into position.

Any casual observer could have mistaken the fifteen girls for regular human beings---and indeed, everything about them had been modeled after missing SJSU students. Beneath their unassuming veneer, however, the fifteen girls were as far from “sugar, spice and everything nice” as one could get. Their “hearts” were fuel cells, their “blood”, electricity. Their “brains”, contrary to the popular lyric, weren’t IBM---they were experimental Pentium chips that hadn’t even been given an official number yet, but could easily outmaneuver most gaming PCs. Titanium, carbon fiber and polymers replaced bone, muscle and flesh; directives and control signals were bored into their skulls in place of free will. Their personalities were pale shadows of the girls they had been created to replace.

Long in a short: They were efficient, dangerous machines, molded into feminine forms.


The signal called out to them, requesting a check-in and status report.

Regina-3966: Online and fully functional Delilah-42X90: Online and fully functional Maya-9292: Online and fully functional Oksanna-6166: Online and fully functional MB-8888: Online and fully functional Dawn-8282B: Offline, in for repairs Liya-8814: Online and fully functional Sarita-X2995: Online and fully functional BRT-9X Mk0.1: Offline, in storage Simone-1142: Online and fully functional Lizette-1283H: Online and fully functional Cindy-NG24: Online and fully functional AKR1 V1.0: Standby, recharging/in storage Michelle-65GF2: Online and fully functional Cassandra-9915: Online and fully functional

The fembots were ready.

From the hidden point of origin, the controller of the fembots ordered five of them to move into a position that would allow for the target to be apprehended quickly. In a display of precision and cohesion to a directive that even the most stoic German engineers would’ve marveled at, the five fembots assigned with the task of apprehending the target broke from their preprogrammed routine and made for the Aquatics Center, due to the high probability that the target would have to pass by the building on her way back to class. As soon as said target entered the bathroom, the five fembots would incapacitate her and bring her to their controller, as per their directives.

Obviously, the controller hadn’t accounted for one rather specific anomaly in that plan….

…an anomaly that just so happened to be Vicki Lawson.

"Well, this is definitely a case of a typical Starlight Series systems failure," Tell declared as he examined Kim's speech and motor function control processors. "I've got to give credit where credit's due, though…Nash knew what he was doing every time he performed field repairs on you, Kim; if it wasn't for him, you'd have made the front page of the Spartan Daily for sure."

"Don't remind me," Kim---or rather, her voice---replied; the affected processors had been removed from her body, and the drivers for both had been defragged, repaired and hooked up to a computer in record time while Tell made the necessary modifications to Kim's internal structure in order to keep such incidents from occuring again. "I can't even tell you how good it feels to hear my own voice clearly again," Kim told Mr. Tell, using the computer's speakers to communicate. "Although….it's weird…..it's like a dream I had once, seeing everything from above, hearing my voice from somewhere other than my own mouth…"

"Being a gynoid does have its surreal moments," Vicki agreed. "Consider yourself lucky, Kim; Tell's done this procedure at least 6 times before, and it's worked every time." A remarkably human-like sigh issued from the speakers; "At least I don't have to worry about screwing up in class again…" Vicki smiled and was about to reply when she noticed Tori sitting in the corner, staring at the floor. "Ah, Tell," she whispered, "I think we owe Tori an explanation about everything that's happened." Tell almost objected, but Vicki gave him "the look" and he caved. "Better she hears it from us than a synthophobe, anyways," he added.

Tori didn't even bother looking up when she heard Vicki approach, nor did she respond when the brunette gynoid sat down next to her. "I'm betting this has been a really weird day for you," Vicki began. Tori chuckled mirthlessly. "This day has officially redefined 'weird' for me," she replied. "First I find out my best friend is an android, then I find out that you---someone I barely know---have this incredible knowledge about androids and how to fix them, and then I find out that the reason you know all this is because you're an android!" She shook her head. "This goes beyond weird; this is like something out of the freaking Twilight Zone….did they ever have an episode where there was just one human on a world of androids?"

"That was the 90s version of The Outer Limits," Mr. Tell called. "Heather Graham was nice as a gynoid, but they could've done more with her." Vicki rolled her eyes; "The fact is, Tori, robotics technology has progressed by leaps and bounds since the late 60s; some of the earliest gynoids were in development during the 70s, to be honest." "Gynoids?" Tori echoed, confused. "'Gynoid' is a specific term used to refer to female androids, along with 'fembot'. Personally, I prefer being known as a gynoid, mainly because I don't want people thinking I have guns in my boobs or anything, like the robo-bimbos from Austin Powers. In any case, like I was saying, the first official sightings of gynoids occurred in the 70s, though they were primitive by modern standards."

"How so?" Tori asked, surprised that she was actually becoming less weirded out and more interested by the second. "Well, they were all controlled by a central computer, and if the computer got busted, they were all deactivated. And that wasn't their only major design flaw---if you hit them in the head the right way, their faces fell off!" She fought the urge to laugh. "So…does your face come off?" Tori murmered. "Not unless you remove my entire cellular-plastic exo-skin covering," Vicki replied. "I was designed to pass as human in close quarters, so other than my back panel, I don't have any hatches, seams or anything like that." She lifted her shirt and turned around to show Tori the panel in detail. "The myogel bundles around this area are grouped to avoid interfering with the panel's opening and closing," she explained, "and to preserve the illusion of a normal human musculature. I have to sit perfectly still when I want to open the panel, though, otherwise it'll warp and deform…and trust me, having to manually remove, repair and reattach their own maintenance panel is not something a gynoid like me wants to put up with on a regular basis."

Tori nodded, fascinated by all of these new revelations. "So, are there…others? Like you and Kim?" Vicki gave her a knowing smile. "Trust me," she replied, "Kim and I aren't even the only androids on this campus." She sighed; "Unfortunately, thanks to security reasons, I can't tell you anything else about this unless you agree that you won't tell anyone else---and before you ask, it's not because I'm part of some militant robot group bent on taking over the world. It's a long story, but trust me, it's for both our sakes."

Despite the insanity that she'd borne witness to, Tori agreed to not tell anyone else. "After all," she mused, "if I were in Kim's place, I definitely wouldn't want her telling everyone that I was a robot…"

Kim's repairs took the better part of the morning, and as Mr. Tell explained, she would be in the shop for most of the rest of the day. With that in mind, Tori and Vicki decided to return to class, telling anyone who asked that Kim had to be rushed to the hospital;when Tori asked how they'd be able to prove it, Vicki simply replied "The ALPA's got more connections in hospitals than you'd expect." The two went about their day as usual, and everything appeared to be going relatively well.

Of course, not everyone's day was going that well….

Across campus, Valerie Summers was using the solitude offered by the bathrooms in the Aquatics Faciltiy (the building was empty at the moment, since the swimmers all had class) to give herself a routine systems check. Ever since the incident in which she had saved Vicki Lawson's life (an incident which had cost Valerie her entire memory block for that day, meaning she literally forgot everything that had happened during her first day on campus), she'd become more and more concerned that she would meet a similar fate to that of her predecessor, Denise. Still, her paranoia was actually working to her advantage; at least twice already, she'd caught herself answering questions from three chapters ahead instead of doing the same work as the rest of the class.

"I don't want them thinking I'm dumb, but turning homework for the entire cirriculum would arouse suspicions," she reminded herself. "Let's see how things are going on the network…." She opened her laptop, waited for Windows 7 to load and checked the campus WiFi networks, wondering if Sophia was monitoring her actions.

Instantly, she realized something strange was going on.

"Fifteen new signals?! Even at a campus like this, that's…not normal." Valerie decided to send a report of these signals to Sophia, hoping to get a response (and advice on how to continue) before her next class. Still, the possibility that the signals were in any way relevant wasn't exactly high on her list of expectations; the most likely explanation was that the campus' World of Warcraft club was preparing another weeklong session…but she couldn't take any chances. "I could analyze them myself," she mused. "Heck, I might even uncover something Sophia doesn't know about!" She picked three of the fifteen signals and used a new program on her laptop to scan them, running the full analysis on each of the signals….

…and realized that they weren't part of a campus-wide WoW game.

Signal analysis complete. All three signals correspond with humanoid robot operating systems.

Despite the nervous tremor that was making her hands shake uncontrollably, Valerie chose to scan three more signals; not surprisingly, they had the same signature as the first three. She repeated the scan with the remaining signals; all nine belonged to "humanoid robot operating systems". Just to see if her fears were cause for concern or just part of her growing paranoia, she checked the frequencies, wavelengths and points of origin for all of the signals to see how similar they were.

The results nearly caused her to scream: the signals were all emanating from one location, and they were on the same wavelength and frequency.

"This is impossible," she whispered, panic beginning to set in. Fifteen robots---possibly gynoids---operating off of nearly identical signals, walking undetected amidst the students of SJSU? A foreboding sense of familiarity began to creep into Valerie's usually-calm mind; this was not something she'd been prepared for, but she'd read about a similar situation before…..

…the main difference being that WiFi didn't exist in 1977.

"Sophia's going to flip when she hears this," Valerie muttered, only to notice that five of the signals appeared to be moving----the gynoids were converging on the Aquatics Facility. Namely, on the women's restroom.

"No," Valerie gasped, trying to make herself as unnoticeable as possible as the bathroom door opened.

Five girls, ranging in age from 19 to 25, entered the restroom; astonishingly, all of them registered on the SJSU student database as recently-admitted transfer students. Even more astonishing, all of them had apparently graduated from the same school---Carl Franklin Memorial High School----

Oh…..oh, no……..

Regina, the hot-tempered self-professed "babe", looked more like a hooker than a college student, clad in her trademark knee-length, dark red vinyl boots, matching miniskirt and tube-top with a red vinyl jacket to finish off the look. Her pixie-cut hair had been gelled back and combed down enough times to give the impression that she spent at least a full hour in the morning prepping her 'do before class. Delilah, meanwhile, looked like someone had cloned Jennifer Connelly (though some claim that Megan Fox was "born" via that method) and given her the body of a supermodel; her athletic figure filled out her running pants, sports bra and ridiculously expensive sneakers quite well. Maya, meanwhile, was shorter than the first two by at least three inches, but she made up for it with a body that wouldn't have looked out of place in a WWE wrestling ring; even her clothes seemed to scream "Future Divas Champion". Oksanna, who had apparently been an exchange student at CFMHS (if that place even exists, Valerie noted), looked as if she'd just finished swimming laps around the pool, her wet swimsuit clinging suggestively to her well-toned figure. The final member of the group was MaryBeth, a seemingly typical cheerleader-type who was never seen wearing facial expressions that weren't variations on a smile.

Valerie's gaze darted from the laptop screen to the wall of the stall she'd barricaded herself in; all five of them, gynoids? she asked herself. This can't be happening.

Outside of the stall, the girls were holding court next to the sinks. To the untrained ear, they were just making small talk whilst waiting for a friend. Of course, the ears of a gynoid are far from untrained, and as the girls continued their pithy conversation, Valerie could detect wireless communications signals being relayed in sync with the girls' conversing….speaking without speaking.

Regina-3966: Dawn was scheduled to meet us here. What happened? Delilah-42X90: She's been compromised. Ran into a door, apparently; she didn't lose face, but… Regina-3966: Let me guess…she's doing the repeater routine again? Maya-9292: Exactly. She needs help, and soon. Mr. Bradford's coming back tomorrow. Oksanna-6166: He will be most displeased if Dawn is not there to meet him.. MB-8888: She'll be up and running again by sunrise tomorrow. No sweat!

Valerie clamped a hand over her mouth; This is not good. The girls were, quite literally, using doubletalk; while their meaningless conversation provided verbal cover to confuse anyone else in the room, their wireless conversation consisted of casual talk in case their conversation was being recorded or picked up on cellphones, allowing any eavesdroppers to think that Dawn had simply been injured by running into a door. To a fellow gynoid like Valerie, however, the wireless chat proved quite telling: Dawn, another fembot, had been damaged during the run-in with the door, and despite not suffering any damage to her face, she apparently got stuck in a program loop and unable to re-activate her human emualation software. Worse, the girls' superior, one Mr. Bradford, was returning the next day, and he probably wouldn't be happy if he found Dawn in a compromised state.

In short, these fembots were operating under strict protocols. Any obstacles in their way would probably be terminated.

I have to get out of here, Valerie thought, silently moving to close the laptop and unlock the door of the stall. She chose to leave the laptop behind; while valuable, it would be useless to the other fembots without Valerie's thumbprint to unlock it I just hope I can leave without them noticing me….

At that moment, the strains of La Roux's "Bulletproof" emanated from her backpack; her cellphone was ringing.

The fembots turned as one towards the stall. "Oh, scrap," Valerie murmured.

Vicki and Tori seemed to be inseperable all morning; somehow, Tori's class schedule had been altered so that she was with Vicki at all times (I'll have to thank someone for that, Vicki thought, probably Major Tom), and the two were fast becoming friends. The two even managed to have a discussion on androids during a particularly boring Phillosophy lecture (Vicki's multi-layered auditory sensors were recording the lecture anyways, so she could catch up on anything she missed later).

In short, Vicki and Tori were completely oblivious to what was happening in the locker room of the Aquatics Center until they were within 5 feet of the building.

"…and by the time the fire department showed up, Dad was screaming 'THE TURDUCKEN IS ARMED AND DANGEROUS! DON'T GO ANYWHERE NEAR THE TURDUCKEN!'" Vicki dramatically declared, ending her reenactment of the 2009 Lawson Family Thanksgiving Kitchen Disaster with a laugh. "Mom practically banned him from going anywhere near the oven after that." Tori chuckled, then sighed. "Something wrong?" Vicki asked. "No…it's just weird that you refer to them as 'Mom' and 'Dad'…"

Vicki grinned. "It took them a while to get used to it too. Heck, the first time I called Ted 'dad', I thought he was going to have a coronary or something! Still, it's no big deal…Ted's parents know what I am, and even though his dad didn't approve of me at first, even he started calling me his granddaughter after a few months. Joan's dad knows, too, although there was a particularly tense incident with Jaime's cousin one summer…" She stopped, her auditory sensors picking up the sounds of a scuffle in the Aquatics Facility locker room.

"What is it?" Tori asked. "Something's happening in the locker room of the Aquatics Faclilty," Vicki explained, "and I may have to go in there and deal with it." She loaded up Detaining Grip v1.5 (Tell had upgraded it since the Leslie Erica Simm incident) and set it to standby. "Don't follow me in unless I call for you," she warned Tori, speaking in her robotic monotone. "What happened to your voice?!" the awestruck blonde asked. "Long story," V.I.C.I. deadpanned. "It's how I used to talk, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet." She paused, glancing around to see if anyone had overheard. "Although I have to admit," she added (using her human voice again), "talking like a normal human girl does have its advantages."

Vicki and Tori entered the Aquatics Facility, only to find a sizeable crowd gathered around the door to the girls' locker room. "Great," Vicki muttered, "just what I don't need right now---a bunch of people with cellphone cameras and no concept of android rights." She sighed and shook her head. "Tori, you stay back----"

She turned to address her newly-acquainted friend, but Tori was gone.

"Where'd she go?" Vicki murmured, seconds before the fire alarm went off. "FIRE! EVERYBODY OUT!" Tori shouted; the crowd at the door of the locker room was only too happy to comply. "Well, the crowd's gone," she beamed. "And the fire department's on the way," Vicki added, scowling. "I appreciate your good intentions, but---"

Vicki's cellphone rang; her "college girl reflexes" allowed her to snatch it out of her pocket before Tori could blink. "This is Vicki Lawson speaking. Who are you, and how did you get this number---"

"Campus Fire Department, what's your emergency?"

The voice sounding from Vicki's phone definitely wasn't that of a fireman. "Tell?! How'd you---" "My campus-wide scanners picked up the panic signal from the locker room a few minutes before you did; after that, I just had to reroute the signal from the fire alarms to my workshop. Capri and Major Tom will be there in a few minutes---"

From inside the bathroom, Valerie screamed.

"Normally, I'd say 'thanks for the assist'," Vicki admitted, "but they might be too late to help Valerie. I'm going in." Before Tori could even think to utter another word, she watched as Vicki steeled herself, charged at the door and broke it down with a straight kick.

Valerie was in the grips of a full-blown panic attack when she heard the door shatter inwards. If she'd been able to see the looks of surprise on the faces of the five fembots who were just seconds away from ripping the bathroom stall to pieces, she might not have felt so afraid.

"Back away from the stall," Vicki ordered, fighting the urge to use her monotone voice. "NOW."

"And what makes you think we'll do that?" MaryBeth asked, her voice sounding so sweet that Valerie thought a lesser gynoid might end up with cavities after hearing it. "This isn't a game," Vicki replied, not amused at MaryBeth's act. "Let Valerie out of the stall or I'll be forced to take drastic action."

The five fembots exchanged looks; they weren't going anywhere.

Vicki sighed. "Have it your way, then."

She charged forward, swinging her left arm out to catch the swimsuit-clad brunette right in the midsection just as the black-haired fembot in the miniskirt ate a kick to the face. Two others----one looking like a WWE Diva in training and the other wearing jogging attire---decided to attack Vicki using hand-to-hand tactics, and they might have actually won had the jogging fembot chosen an attack other than a stupid roundhouse kick---it left a gaping hole in her defensive stance that was easily exploited by a straight kick.

Within two minutes, four of the five fembots were on the floor. Only the one called MaryBeth remained.

"Now why'd you have to go and do a thing like that?" she asked, sounding as if Vicki had just spilled a drink on her or something equally pithy. The brunette gynoid's gaze never wavered; "They tried to fight me. I fought back. Simple as that." MaryBeth shook her head; "You just don't get it, do you? Even if you beat me and get your friend out of here, the others will find out---" "Enough talk." Vicki allowed just enough anger to slip into her voice to give MaryBeth a reason to consider retreat. "Either get out of my way right now, or you'll be joining your friends on the floor."

MaryBeth smiled politely. "We never surrender."

Vicki's eyes narrowed dangerously "Then I guess this is the part where you and I fight."

The two almost literally flew at each other, and as Valerie crawled out of the stall, she saw that both Vicki and MaryBeth were fighting as if they were born and raised by UFC cagefighters. Punches, kicks, elbow smashes and other moves were traded with uncharacteristic brutality, and after about thirty seconds, the two gynoids ended up on opposite ends of the room.

Vicki was a bit winded, but she was still intact. MaryBeth, on the other hand…

"Oh my goodness! My face!" Indeed, Vicki had somehow ended up taking MaryBeth's face off; the front of the blonde fembot's head now looked like an ovaloid circuit board inlaied with transistors, servomotors, two glass eyes (probably with cameras in them, Vicki mused) and a speaker grille where the mouth would normally be. "Why in the heck did you take my face---" MaryBeth asked, but Vicki wasn't in a talking mood---she ran straight at the unmasked fembot and tackled her to the ground.

As the two struggled, Valerie stumbled backwards out of the bathroom, nearly running over Tori. "What's going on?!" Tori asked, only to duck as a tennis shoe flew past her head. Knowing that any further questions would only distract her new friend, she watched, silently, as V.I.C.I. fought to get her finger behind MaryBeth's left earlobe. Seconds later, Tori and Valerie heard an audible click, and MaryBeth stopped struggling. "Next time," V.I.C.I. monotoned quietly, "just surrender."

Outside, Major Tom and Capri had arrived in a specially-prepared "firetruck". "Ah, Vicki," Tori began, only for her new friend to shush her. "Help me load this one into the truck---and get a towel to cover her face." Tori nodded and joined Valerie in hauling MaryBeth to the waiting vehicle.

Once inside the firetruck, Vicki turned her attention to Major Tom. "Right, three things: First, we're going straight to Mr. Tell's workshop---and I don't care who told you otherwise. Second, Valerie's going to need a place to stay tonight---" "I already have one," Valerie murmured. "Not anymore; anywhere you go for the rest of the day will probably be under surveilance, so we need to find you a place that's off the grid. Thirdly…WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING?!" she shouted, gesturing to MaryBeth's motionless form.

"Looks like one of Franklin's," Capri mused. "Can't be," Major Tom replied. "Franklin's been dead for nearly three decades now, and that android he called a son is currently in cold storage somewhere, if I remember correctly." "Who's Franklin?" Tori asked, confused; Vicki cut in before Major Tom could reply. "Before you ask, her friend's a gynoid and she's already met Tell." Major Tom grinned. "Always covering the bases, Vicki….you're definitely Ted Lawson's greatest achievement ever."

"Back to my question," Tori interjected, "who's---" "Dr. Franklin was a respected member of OIS back in the 70s," Capri explained, "until he decided to use his genius for his own personal gain. He created several fembots and had them try to steal a device that was supposed to manipulate the weather; that little jaunt didn't go so well for them. Most of the fembots were fried when Franklin lost control of the weather manipulator; they were on the crest of a dam, and lightning hit…..needless to say, they didn't survive."

"And this 'son' you mentioned?" Vicki prompted. Capri chuckled mirthlessly. "Two years after the weather manipulator incident, one Carl Franklin arrived and managed to reactivate a few of his father's fembots as part of some hairbrained plot to get control of a prototype laser. Turns out Carl was as bad at plotting things out as his 'father' was; the laser ended up nuking the base and blowing up most of the fembots with it."

"'Most of the fembots'?" Vicki repeated, arching an eyebrow.

"There's always been a sort of mystery regarding one Franklin fembot in particular," Major Tom admitted. "A fembot codenamed Lynda was listed as having been captured after the weather manipulator debacle, but OIS never saw her again after that day…" He stopped. "Capri, are you pondering what I'm pondering?" Capri assumed a "Thinker" pose. "I think so, Brain," she replied in an overly goofy voice, "but if Jimmy cracks corn and no-one cares, then why does he keep doing it?" Vicki giggled, and even Major Tom chuckled. "All kidding aside," Capri added, "what are you thinking….." Suddenly, the realization hit her. "Someone else got her?" "We'll find out when we get to Tell's," Major Tom replied, the smile fading from his face.

The "firetruck" sped off towards Mr. Tell's workshop, its occupants unaware that someone was following their progress with relative interest…..

"Wow. Just…..wow. Ladies and gentlemen, either Dr. Franklin faked his own death, or you've brought me one of his unreleased prototypes, because this is….wow. That's all I can say at this point."

Mr. Tell's appraisal of MaryBeth wasn't as informative as Vicki would've liked, but at least they knew that it was Franklin's handiwork. "I think it might actually be something more than those two," Major Tom admitted. "There's a slim possibility that someone could've found and reverse-engineered one of the originals---" "Don't even tell me you think that Lynda is involved in this!" Tell half-shouted, though his voice sounded more jubilant than angry. "She's become the D.B. Cooper of the robotics industry….disappearing without a trace moments after OIS signed for her to be transported to their lab." "I guess you've both forgotten about that fembot duplicate of Tami Cross, then?" Capri mused. "The Tami fembot was sold to a private collector back in '92," Major Tom reminded her. "Three years later, that collector was killed in a drive-by, and his house was looted; the ALPA found what was left of the Tami fembot in the hands of a Japanese robotics company. " He shook his head; "There wasn't enough of her to reverse-engineer."

"So….this Lynda may have been sold to someone who took her apart, studied her, made blueprints using modern technology and then put her back together?" Vicki offered. "Probably," Tell replied. "I mean, the old Franklin units were made with all that heavy-duty stuff…they literally clanged if they ran into each other! But this…lightweight titanium and ceramics, modern servomotors and actuators…..this was made by someone who knows Franklin's designs and has access to cutting edge tech."

"Except they haven't fixed the facemask issue," Major Tom remarked dryly, handing over MaryBeth's detached face. "The intecranial facial mechanisms are about the same as Franklin's girls," Tell mused, "but inside this mask…hoo, boy! Animatronic armatures galore!" "Perfect for correctly forming words and sentences, blinking and all those subtle nostril twitches one only sees on human beings," Major Tom agreed. "The EDF thinks that the FemMechs from that incident in New York might have used tech like this, but since their 'star player' wasn't exactly careful in dealing with them in the field, we'll never know."

"Ah, hello? Ground control to Major Tom!" Vicki waved her hand in the direction of Valerie. "My good friend here was nearly dismantled by Little Miss Sunshine and her band of Beat 'Em Up Barbies back at the Aquatics Center---" "There were more like her?" Tell shouted. "Four others," Valerie replied quietly. "I only stunned them," Vicki explained, "and trying to lug five pissed-off fembots to a mobile ALPA command center wouldn't have been subtle by any standards. I say we make the most with what we've got…." She turned her gaze to Mr. Tell. "….starting with whatever programs she's got inside her."

As Capri ushered Tori and Valerie out, Mr. Tell prodded around inside MaryBeth's CPU, occasionally making exclamations of surprise at what he found. "I've got to tell you, V, you've got one of the most complex software suites I've ever seen---and I should know, 'cause I wrote most of it---but this girl's definitely ranking a close second; her OS is either a really souped-up version of Windows or something developed in-house….and either way, it's freaking spectacular." "How so?" Vicki asked; Tell gestured to a computer screen showing the programs running on MaryBeth's CPU (which had been removed from her and connected to a laptop) "Well, for starters, this thing---I think it's Task Manager on crack, judging from the setup of the menu---is running about 500 programs at once; with most PCs today, you'd be lucky to run 50 programs with full resources at once without crashing your PC. And another thing; this personality matrix is light years away from Franklin's stuff; you could run this baby through the Turing test and get an A+!"

"So, she's almost as advanced as me, then," Vicki muttered, frowning. "Trust me, V," Tell assured her, "you'll be at the top of the technological food chain for the next decade. That being said, whoever made this fembot is definitely ahead of the curb---behind you, but ahead of everyone else…..wait a second." He examined the CPU's external casing for a few minutes. "Ah, Tell?" Vicki asked quietly. "Is something---"


Vicki nearly fell over. "Knew what?!" "RoboDyne International!" Tell shouted. "This CPU was manufactured by RoboDyne International….meaning that THEY'VE had Lynda all these years!" "That doesn't exactly sound like conclusive proof," Vicki admitted, frowning. "It's the only lead we have," Tell replied, not backing down. "If we can prove that RDI somehow got their hands on Lynda, then we can DEFINITELY prove that they're the ones who built this fembot!" Something about the way Tell said that last sentence troubled Vicki; it was almost as if he wanted them to be responsible. "Ah, Tell," she asked, "is there some particular reason you---"

"RoboDyne were the ones that got me blacklisted from every other robotics company in Silicon Valley," Tell replied bitterly, without letting Vicki finish her question. "They claimed I was 'too attached to my work', said I was trying to take units home with me instead of scrapping them." He paused, allowing Vicki to mentally form a question before answering it: "They were right." He stared at MaryBeth, remembering the incident that had got him fired. "My last day of work, someone brought in a gynoid that had been treated like utter crap. Torn skin, burn marks all over her, scorch marks from when her batteries had been overcharged….the higher-ups wanted me to write up a report on how extensive the damage was, then scrap the unit and give the owners a new one. They called all androids and gynoids 'units' back then, never even referred to them by name…" Vicki felt like adding something to the conversation, but decided to let Tell finish.

"Three whole hours I stared at that gynoid, wondering how in the hell someone could treat something that beautiful so badly. Finally, I boot her up, and the first thing she asks me is…" Tears welled up in his eyes, and his voice wavered. "'Are you going to hurt me?' Not 'Hello', not 'who are you', but 'are you going to hurt me'……" He closed his eyes. "I cried for ten whole minutes when she asked me that."

Not knowing what else to do, Vicki put her hand on Tell's shoulder, allowing him to work through the grief.

"What happened to the gynoid?" she asked after two minutes of silence. Tell smirked mirthlessly. "I took her home, fixed her up and intended to find a new home for her…except the head douchebag in charge at RDI decided that I was 'a liability' and ordered me to let the cops search my house. I told him to blow it out his ass, he told me I was fired, and I punched him right in the mouth….after that, it was all a blur. All I know is that I woke up a week later with some blond guy in silver armor standing over me asking if I wanted a job with the ALPA." "Major Tom saved you?!" Vicki gasped. Tell nodded. "He also saved the gynoid…set her up with a new family---a better family, at that." He grinned, a lone tear making its way down his face. "I never saw her again, y'know. We were pen pals for a while; I think she still has my e-mail address, actually….."

"I hate to end your reverie," Vicki quietly informed Tell, "but from what I know about RDI, they're a much better company now than they were back then, especially in the human/robot relations department." "Yeah," Tell muttered, "but 'back then,' they were running under the rules of Dwight Bradford, the worst employer I've ever worked for. He treated the human employees like crap, he treated robots like crap, and he had a dislike for gynoids in particular; some people thought it was because they reminded him of his wife or something, but I personally think he had a bad experience in a gynoids-only strip joint or something…"

Suddenly, Vicki felt the metaphorical lightbulb go off in her head.

"Bradford…Bradford…..Any relation to Drake Bradford?" Tell thought about it for a moment. "I think Dwight and Drake are grandfather and grandson, respectively…let me check." He Googled "Drake Bradford" and checked several "family tree"-type websites. "EUREKA! Dwight Bradford is most definitely Drake Bradford's grandfather….but get this. Apparently, Drake's father, Derrick----a lot of 'D' names in that family, now that I think of it---apprenticed with Dr. Franklin back in the 70s!" Vicki grinned. "Seems your hunch was right on the money this time," she told Tell. "Don't thank me yet, V; if I'm right, Drake Bradford's even worse than Dear Old Granddad…."

By the time his plane landed at Onizuka Air Force Station, Drake Bradford was pissed off.

For anyone who knew him, this wasn't surprising; Drake spent 90% of every day either pissed off or enjoying the downturn of someone else's fortunes. The fact that his name shared the initials of the terms "douchebag" and "declining balance" had also contributed to his constant state of being pissed; few could forget the one time an employee had a "really great joke" about Drake lined up, only to lose his nerve when confronted by his boss and call him a declining balance instead of a douchebag.

His temperment hadn't improved after the higher-ups at RoboDyne decided to "move him a few rungs down the ladder"---their overly-polite way of saying he was getiting demoted. The only reason he hadn't been fired outright was his attitude towards "the products"---the androids, gynoids and animatronic robots manufactured at RDI---had been a lot easier to bear than his grandfather; whereas Dwight Bradford treated robots like tools and equipment, Drake, at the very least, treated them like people (or as he called them, "valued assets").

That still didn't make them immune to his wrath if they screwed up.

"…and another thing, how in the HELL did she get stuck in a logic loop just from running into a freaking door?! I mean, these fembots are supposed to be bleeding-edge, high-grade stuff, yet I get a call that one of them was compromised BY A DOOR!" Bradford had already heard about Dawn's unfortunate run-in (insert rimshot here) with the door, and he wasn't happy; his secretary---who was human; despite his respect for androids, Drake still preferred a human when it came to handling his schedule and other such stuff---thus had to share the backseat of the company car with him and listen to his ranting. Obviously, she'd expected her first time sharing the backseat with the boss to be different, but that was the way things went at RDI; "Expect the Unexpected" had become the company's unofficial motto over the past few years.

The car---an Opel Speedster that once belonged to Brandon Brindle---parked at a warehouse near the Onizuka Air Force Station, and Bradford, his secretary and the driver left the vehicle.

Seconds later, they used a seemingly-busted service elevator to descend into Bradford's secret robot lab.

"Robot lab" was a term he enjoyed using for the facility, because it was short, sweet and to the point. It also helped that it was a perfect descriptor for the subterranean chamber he'd just entered; from here, he (or one of his trusted employees) could control the fifteen fembots that were currently deployed at SJSU. The fembots had cost him a hefty sum---Boris, the Russian scientist who'd created the beauties, had an asking price of $500,000 a 'bot---but they were definitely worth the investment. "Franklin never dreamed of getting this far," Drake bosted, spreading his arms and gesturing at the technological marvels around him. "He was too busy trying to control the weather when he could've been conquering Silicon Valley…." He smirked and shook his head. "Franklin," he called out, as if the dead roboticist was in the room with him, "I hope you're proud! I've done more in your name than that walking toaster you called a son ever did!"

Eileen, Drake's secretary, rolled her eyes but said nothing; she knew all too well that her employer could go from boasting to pissed-off in the blink of an eye. Finally, after a tense 30 seconds, she decided to step in. "Ah, Mr. Bradford, sir," she carefully reminded her boss, "it appears that five of the fembots haven't returned for their daily recharge and maintenance session.." Eileen was surprised at how natural that sentence sounded; she'd freaked out after first seeing the fembots without their facemasks on, but as time went on, she found herself more and more at ease; she'd even learned how to replace the power cells on the attractive androids, which Bradford himself had trouble with (in the course of 10 minutes, he'd managed to bash his knuckles and give himself a mild electric shock before finally switching out the cells). "They're probably busy," Bradford replied, brushing it off. "Dawn's still in repair, right?" Eileen nodded. "Good; that whole 'ran into a door' thing needs to be fixed pronto. Riggs, get the active ones out of their capsules and turn 'em on. That in-flight movie was a complete waste of film, which means that I'm in the mood for a little quality entertainment…and no, not the kind that involves them getting naked. I could really go for some hand-to hand combat ….."

Riggs, the driver of the Speedster, nodded and headed over to the far wall. Fifteen capsules, made of titanium and frosted glass, lined the wall; six of them were emtpy at the moment, but the remaining nine held barely-visible figures. As Riggs set to work opening the capsules and activating their occupants, the frosted-glass cylinders split down the middle and opened; lights in the floor and ceiling of each capsule allowed for a full body inspection of the occupants.

"I never get tired of this," Drake declared, chuckling as a light smoky mist rolled out of the capsules. Eileen just sighed; she'd sat through the whole procedure before a few times, finding it both chilling and (for reasons she couldn't explain) slightly arousing. She focused her mind on the spectacle at hand; Drake was stepping over to the control console for the "entertainment" he'd mentioned earlier. "Right, Riggs, you get Liya and I'll take Simone…First to five knockdowns is the winner---and no cheating this time, got it?" Riggs nodded silently, grinning.

All eight of the "active" fembots had been activated (Drake hadn't examined the ninth fembot yet), but only three would be used for Drake's "game", a simple sparring match. Liya and Simone would be the fighters, and a third fembot---a slender Italian babe given the name Sarita---would be the referee, controlled by Eileen. Drake and Riggs took to the controls, Drake smiling like a teenager about to decimate another opponent in Mortal Kombat; Riggs, on the other hand, had his usual expression of stocisism. At Eileen's command, Sarita motioned for Liya and Simone to bow to each other---

---and the door to the service lift opened.

"I hope you don't mind, Bradford," the UnMaker called out, "but I let myself in." Drake groaned. "How many freaking times do I have to tell you not to do that? Last time you 'let yourself in', Riggs had to spend an entire afternoon rewiring the damn security systems!" Riggs nodded solemnly. "Not my problem," the UnMaker replied. "What is a problem is the fact that you had me chasing the wrong girl….and we need to rectify this situation now."

Drake glared at him, but said nothing. "Eileen, take the controls; I've got business to tend to." Eileen rolled her eyes again, but decided to take Simone's controls anyway; the "match" would go on without Sarita as the ref. The other five fembots stood by their capsules and watched, their expressionless faces never moving as Liya and Simone threw shapes.

A few feet away from the sparring match, the UnMaker and Drake Bradford were discussing the recent turn of events. "Kim's RDI material---an 88600 Starlight Series model, to be precise, built in 2003 and upgraded annually. Definitely not the work of your Russian friend." Drake scowled. "Boris isn't my 'friend', he's a business partner…and even that aspect of our relationship is beginning to wear thin." The UnMaker grinned. "I read the report you sent me…he charged you for 16 fembots, but only sent 15. Odd, since there were only 15 subjects under surveilance." He handed Drake a folder. "I've done some digging on this Boris guy, and it turns out this isn't his first rodeo---back in the 80s---" "Yeah, yeah, Vladimir, I know. Built his own robo-wunderkid and had him win spelling bees…makes me wonder if those rumors about him drinking vodka laced with silicon are true." Drake paused; "Whatever happened to Vladimir, anyways?" The Unmaker's expression darkened. "According to my sources, 'Vladimir' was handed over to the Russian military in 1990 and hasn't been seen or heard from since. It didn't help that he lost a spelling bee against an American-made gynoid…."

"Wait, wait, wait," Drake interjected. "American-made gynoid? There were no American-made gynoids in the 80s--" Another folder slapped down onto the table, obscuring the first from view. "Looks like you've been out of the loop longer than I thought, Bradford. Before United Robotronics got bought out by that psychopath Rengold, they were in charge of Project Apollo….and Project Apollo's best kept secret just so happened to be V.I.C.I.---the Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant." Drake scratched his chin thoughtfully. "V.I.C.I. …..why does that sound familiar---" He stopped. "Isn't Ted Lawson's daughter named Vicki?"

The UnMaker nearly said something, but was interrupted by a cheer from Riggs; Liya had apparently scored a knockout blow against Simone, but the "referee" wasn't buying it.

Drake stared at the fight, barely paying attention to what he was hearing.

"….and as far as we know, she's…" He stopped. “Have you been watching that stupid fight this whole time?" Drake ignored the UnMaker and opened the folder, which contained surveilance photos of Vicki Lawson. "Setting up bathroom cameras," he smirked. "UnMaker, you've reached an all-time low." "I was doing recon," the UnMaker replied, and it turns out that Ted Lawson's so-called failed experiment was a bigger success than anyone ever expected." He jabbed his finger at the picture---pointing directly to Valerie, instead of Vicki. To Bradford's surprise, four of the five missing fembots could be seen on the floor in the background of the shot. "Seems your dolls were overheard by the girl on the left," he explained, pointing to the photo again, "and they tried to neutralize her…except they didn't know that their would-be victim happened to be friends with Vicki. What happens next is anyone's guess; I'm assuming that Vicki beat the tar out of your girls and helped her friend to safety."

Drake sat back in his chair, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Ted Lawson's last big experiment before leaving United Robotronics…and she's still active?!" The UnMaker nodded. "I thought you would've heard about it by now," he admitted, "but it appears that I was…misinformed in that regard." He smirked. "Still wish you'd hired LaGuerda's crew instead of me?" "LaGuerda wouldn't have been able to get any of this," Drake muttered. The UnMaker's grin broadened into a smile. "Indeed. LaGuerda's just a hatchet man, and his team has a rap sheet that could've been lifted straight from an episode of Law & Order." Drake heard himself ask "Original or the spin-offs?"; oddly, the gaff didn't make him feel like a complete idiot. The UnMaker laughed. "Take your pick. The point is---" Drake pulled a briefcase of money out from under the table and handed it over. "You just earned yourself a raise."

The UnMaker eyed the case, intrigued. "Usually, this is where I'd say money was no object, but.." He grinned and accepted his payment. "Still want me to find the phantom fembot that Boris apparently forgot to send you?" he asked. "I'll have the girls look into that," Drake replied. "You've got a new assignment: Find Boris. Dead, alive, comatose---I don't care. Find him, and bring him to me." The UnMaker nodded. "Anything else?" Drake thought for a moment. "See if you can find anything related to Lawson's research in the archives of United Robotronics, especially if it's related to V.I.C.I. or Project Apollo."

The UnMaker nodded and grinned as he walked out; with any luck, Bradford wouldn't find out about his deception until this whole sordid assignment was over with. After all, he reminded himself, I want to see what she's capable of first-hand…..

"…aaaaaaand DONE!" Mr. Tell closed up the chest of the MaryBeth fembot. "One reassembled fembot with a tracker nestled deep in her abdomen as per Miss Lawson's orders." "Miss Lawson" chuckled. "Hopefully, this will lead us back to whoever built her," she muttered. "You're sure that this tracker is untraceable?" Tell sighed. "V, this tracker isn't just untraceable. I've managed to keep it small enough to avoid setting off most of the major security sensors that anyone might try to employ, but just in case they decide to open her up and check, the tracker will overload itself---a harmless burst of plastic, and nowhere near powerful enough to fry any major components."

Vicki grinned. "I have to hand it to you, Tell, you've managed to outdo yourself yet again." "Don't thank me yet, V; this is the easy bit. The hard part is just up ahead---y'know, the bit where you have to infiltrate the enemy base and do recon, all that boring stuff." "I'd hardly call infiltrating a hostile environment 'boring'," Vicki replied, "but as for the rest---you're probably right about this being the hard part."

"Which is why you've got me as backup," Major Tom called out, striding back into the room with Capri at his side. "I just got back from the Aquatics Center; we've secured the other four fembots, and they're being shipped to a facility in Nevada for further study." "The old OIS lab?" Tell asked; Major Tom nodded. "It's the only one we could retrofit on such short notice; the EDF's agreed to fly out some of their best people to guard it---and no, he's not going to be with them." Tell grunted a sound of approval. "Good; he'd just get in the way. I never did see how that trigger-happy, crew-cutted idiot managed to write an entire book about himself---and he had the gall to name it 'Why I'm So Great'…..only reason he's 'so great' is because he was in the right place at the right time----three times at that….."

"Who's he talking about?" Vicki asked. Major Tom grinned. "He's got a sort of rivalry with one of the EDF's best-known operatives," he whispered, "on account of a Super Bowl bet from a few years ago." "And who's the EDF operative?" Vicki prodded. "You may have heard of him," Major Tom replied. "Owns the LadyKiller Casino in Las Vegas, has his own restaurant chain and a series of best-selling video games named after him…." Vicki gave him a look, and he stopped talking.

"RIGHT, if we're all done talking about gun-crazy billionaires who get more credit than they deserve," Mr. Tell shouted, "it's time to move on to Phase 2 of my brilliant plan: we reactivate the fembot and turn her loose three blocks away from here. If I'm right, she'll head straight back to her base of operations." "And if you're wrong?" Capri asked, re-entering the workshop with a doubtful look on her face. Tell grinned sheepishly. "If I'm wrong….you'll have to help me find a new place to set up shop. Hopefully, though, that won't happen; the tracker I put in her is undetectable, and if someone manages to find it anyways, it'll destroy itself without harming the fembot."

"Which brings us to Phase 3," Major Tom interjected. "Once the fembot returns to her home base---assuming she doesn’t get hit by a truck on the way back---the tracker will stay active for 20 minutes---long enough for the ALPA to get a fix on her location. Once that's done with, Vicki will----VICKI, WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING?!" Vicki was already halfway out of the room. "As much as I'd love to talk shop with you guys," she admitted, "Tori, Valerie and I still have classes to attend." Major Tom slapped his forehead. "I'm sure Ted wouldn't mind if you missed a few classes," he began, but Vicki was already on her way out. "FILL ME IN WHEN I GET BACK!" she shouted.

Major Tom shook his head. "She's got $10 million worth of software and hardware in her, yet she's still worried about missing class….." He grinned. "I guess Ted really reinvented the wheel with her, didn't he?"

Mr. Tell nodded and chuckled. "She's a regular Miss Roboto: Her outside is human, her brain is IBM, and her mind is on making the grade. A true conundrum if I ever saw one." He returned his attention to the captured fembot from the Aquatics Center. "Right; time to set this little lady loose and see if she can lead us to her home base. Once Vicki's finished proving her academic worth, we'll give her the coordinates retrieved from our friend here and begin Phase 3…..if she actually remembers to show up."

"Relax, Tell," Capri assured the field mechanic. "She'll be here." Even as she said the words, however, she knew that Vicki would be in for one hell of a mission once she returned…..

Despite a near run-in with the Twitter Twins, Vicki managed to make it back to class on time, thus sparing herself the ignoble possibility of getting lectured by Ted about the values of keeping up one's academic prowess. After three back-to-back classes, however, she was almost wishing for another opportunity to fight against the mysterious fembots she'd encountered in the Aquatics Facility locker room. Instead, to keep herself from being overwhelmed, she headed to MacQuarrie Hall's new health-food eatery, Just Below, and was pleasantly surprised to find Kim and Tori waiting for her, along with a strangely familiar young man.

"We've already ordered you a Jamba Juice," Kim explained (Tell's repairs must've been an overwhelming success, Vicki realized), "so…." Vicki cut her off. "Not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but who's your new friend?" "Aaron Cardwell," the young man replied, "of Tentrex Electronics." He grinned shook Vicki's hand, and she suddenly realized why he looked so familiar. "You look a lot like Nate," she told him. "Who's Nate?" Tori asked, confused; to her surprise, Kim spoke up. "Nate from DreamWorld, you mean?" she whispered; Vicki nodded. "Well, to be honest," Aaron admitted, "he was modeled after me---I was the one who organized DreamWorld's grand opening last year, and I thought I'd give them a little something extra."

"So…you know about DreamWorld, then," Vicki observed lamely. "I do," Aaron replied, "and I also know about you."

Vicki nearly panicked, but Aaron gave her a reassuring smile. "It was Kim who told me, if you're wondering; you did a great thing by helping her out. And yes, I've worked with androids before---though none as lifelike as Kim---or you, now that I think of it---so you don't have to worry about me freaking out or anything if you need to repair yourself." Vicki felt herself blush. "Thanks…" Somehow, the fact that seven people on campus who knew what she was seemed to bolster her resolve; maybe seven really is a lucky number, she thought. Seeing as how Aaron already knew what she was, she decided to tell him what had happened in the bathroom at the Aquatics facilty against the five fembots; she also mentioned Dr. Franklin and his work with the OIS.

"I've heard about this Franklin guy before," Aaron replied when Vicki finished her story. "Tentrex's predecessor, Tentrivell Electronics, did some work with OIS back in the 70s," he replied, "but they lost their contract after a scientist named Franklin---probably the same one you've just told me about---claimed they were giving OIS substandard components." He frowned; "Turns out Franklin was the one to blame; he was trading Tentrivell's high-quality components for cash and using knockoff parts from Taiwan. Then there was that whole business with the weather manipulator and his so-called fembot army…." "Did Tentrex get anything from Franklin after the incident with the weather manipulator?" Vicki asked. "Come to think of it," Aaron mused, "there was one item of particular interest that Tentrex's scientists were able to acquire…"

"What are we doing here?!" Vicki groaned.

The group had left Just Below and headed off campus to a nice apartment complex, leading Vicki to think that they were meeting with a respected scientist. Upon seeing an all-too familiar stationwagon in the parking lot, however, she realized that the person they were about to meet was none other than Brandon Brindle, Ted's old colleague and frequent moocher. "Mr. Brindle was the one who sold Lynda to Tentrex back in 1995," Aaron explained, "but when United Robotronics started going after other robotics firms, we gave her back to him; hopefully, she's still here." "I hope she is," Vicki muttered, "otherwise I'm going to do my best Terminator impression and drive a car straight through this place."

Aaron led the way as they ascended three flights of stairs to Brandon's apartment. "Try to be nice," Aaron advised Vicki; before she could respond, Aaron knocked on the door. "Mr. Brindle? It's Aaron Cardwell, from Tentrex." Vicki fought the urge to grin; well, Tell's theory about RoboDyne just went down the toilet…..


The sounds of Bruce Springsteen music could be heard blaring from the radio inside; a few seconds later, the door opened to reveal Brandon Brindle himself, looking surprisingly unchanged from the last time Vicki had seen him. "Anything I can help you with?" he asked. "Well," Aaron began, but Vicki lightly nudged him out of the way.

"Hi, Mr. Brindle. I don't know if you remember me, but---"

"Vicki Lawson," Brandon declared, a smile growing on his face. "Of course I remember you! Ted Lawson's pride and joy…I haven't seen you since the wedding!" Vicki grinned; her trip to DreamLand the previous month had jogged the memory of Brandon's attempt to mary Claudia, only for the ceremony to be interrupted by a thoroughly pissed off Bonnie Brindle. "And how's Bonnie doing?" she asked. Brandon cringed; "She's in trouble with the neighbors again…apparently they think she's setting up some sort of floor-wide spy network for the sole purpose of irritating them."

Vicki rolled her eyes. "She hasn't actually done that, has she?" "Of course she has!" Brandon replied. "The only difference is that it's a neighborhood watch sort of thing, not a spy network! We caught some moron trying to break into the Pulaskis' place three weeks ago; nearly got away with a PlayStation 3, the cheeky little devil…" "As much as I enjoy hearing about your contributions to the apartment community," Vicki lied, "I came here to talk about something else…." Aaron spoke up again. "We need to check on Lynda. Is she still here?"

Brandon's expression turned serious. "Still here, and still hidden. When I said I'd keep her away from United Robotronics, I meant it." Aaron nodded. "Good. We need to see her."

Brandon let the group in, allowing Vicki to get a look at the apartment's furnishings. "This is some pretty nice stuff," she mused. "I owe it to your father," Brandon replied. "When that idiot Rengold laid me off all those years ago, he never sent my final paycheck. Fortunately, Ted Lawson---hell of a great guy, by the way---got on him like stink on sewage and sued the pants off of that psycho; not only did I get my paycheck, the Feds also managed to get me at least $15,000 in bonuses that Rengold 'forgot' to give me!" "That's my dad," Vicki admitted, "always sticking up for his friends." In reality, Ted's decision to help Brandon had always baffled her; back when they'd been working together at UR, Brandon constantly tried to rip off of Ted's progress reports for his own gain, in addition to committing tax fraud, insurance fraud, trying to sue the Lawsons (twice) and other desperate attempts to get more money for himself. I guess Ted managed to see the good in him after all…

Vicki snapped out of her reverie in time to see Brandon opening the door to what looked like a guest room. "I have to say," he told the group, "Lynda has a history all her own; I bought her from some guy in New York for a song---paid half the asking price!" Vicki groaned; so much for the good in him, she mused. "Of course, it turned out the guy was going to sell her to the Russians if I didn't buy her," Brandon continued, "so technically I was doing the country a favor. Anyway, I used the rest of the money to buy that entertainment system thingie that had the game with the plumber…but that's beside the point." He opened the door fully, allowing Vicki to get a good look at Lynda.

Despite having been manufactured in 1976, Lynda looked surprisingly lifelike---apart from the fact that her facemask was laying on the bed next to her. Her hair, clothing and makeup were exactly the same as they'd been when Brandon had purchased her from the mysterious individual in New York, and she looked rather well-maintained. "You haven't tried to upgrade her at all, have you?" Vicki asked quietly. "The seller told me that she had some sort of self-destruct mechanism," Brandon replied. "I didn't want to take any chances." He paused. "Why are you so concerned about her, anyways?" Aaron stepped in again; "We think someone may have reverse-engineered Lynda to create more fembots like her, but with modern technology." Brandon almost said something, but stopped; Lynda had noticed Vicki's presence.

"You've brought someone to see me," she observed, the voice sounding as clear as if was coming from a human being. "It's not Dr. Franklin, is it?" Vicki spoke up; "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your creator isn't going to be visiting any time soon---Dr. Franklin's been dead for nearly three decades now." The sound that came from Lynda's exposed speaker grille sounded remarkably like a sigh; "I thought as much. I've been offline for so long….what year is it now?"

"2010," Vicki replied. "Specifically, October 5." "2010," Lynda repeated. "Amazing…." She stopped. "My facemask isn't attached, is it?" Vicki was a bit perturbed. "You can't tell if your facemask is attached or not?" "I'm three decades old," Lynda replied. "My sensors aren't cutting edge anymore….is the real Lynda still alive?" "Alive, and living in Canada," Aaron replied. Lynda nodded, and reattached the facemask to her head.

"You're quite an attractive young lady," she told Vicki, sounding like a doting grandparent. "What's your name?" "Vicki Lawson," Vicki replied; she almost added the bit about her status as a Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant before remembering that Brandon Brindle still didn't know her secret. "I'm a student at San Jose State University…but that's not why I came here. I need to know---" "If I've been reverse engineered?" Lynda asked, smiling wryly. "Probably. I've spent most of the last three decades offline…it didn't help that I was still under the influence of Franklin's control signal for the first five years, meaning I couldn't move or even think on my own….." She sighed sadly. "He had such ambition, you know." Vicki arched an eyebrow; "Ah, from what I hear, he tried to take over a machine that could control the weather, and that doesn't really strike me as ambitious…"

Lynda turned to look at her, but there was no anger in her gaze. "Dr. Franklin was a brilliant man," she told Vicki, matter-of-factly, "and while some of his ideas were…unorthodox---" "Unorthodox?! He had a robot posing as his non-existant son, for crying out loud!" Lynda rose from the bed and walked over to Vicki, nearly getting in a face-to-face confrontation with the younger gynoid. "Dr. Franklin was not insane," she coldly stated. "I didn't say he was insane," Vicki countered, refusing to back down. "I'm just saying that some of his ideas were sort of stupid."

The tension in the room was palpable for the next few minutes, and only after Lynda gave the subtlest of nods did Vicki finally relax. "As I was saying, we need to know if you can remember anyone taking you apart over the last few years." Lynda didn't hesitate; "The last time I was online before Brandon acquired me, I was in a laboratory somewhere in Russia---" "Boris!" Vicki cried. "It was that slimeball Boris, wasn't it?" "There's a lot of guys with the first name Boris in Russia, Vicki," Brandon reminded her, but Lynda actually leant credence to Vicki's theory. "I heard someone say his full name was Boris Arronovitch Vlatko." "That's him!" Vicki growled.

Boris Vlatko had built his own version of V.I.C.I. back in the 80s, a male android named Vladimir. Contrary to his orders, Boris had refused to test Vladimir in a military environment, choosing instead to pit his creation against "the over-privileged youth of America" via spelling bees. Vicki had deduced the truth about Vladimir and beaten him, and Vladimir (along with his creator) returned to Russia, apparently never to be heard from again….until now.

"How did you end up with Boris Vlakto?" Aaron asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. "I can't really remember much after the incident at the dam," Lynda admitted. "What I can remember is hazy; I was in an OIS base being experimented on by American scientists, and they deactivated me for the night. The next time I was activated, three months had gone by, and I was in Russia, along with another fembot." "Tami Cross!" Vicki nearly shouted; Lynda nodded. "The Russians traded for her with an OIS mole." "But I heard that the Tami fembot was in the hands of a private Japanese collector," Vicki replied, confused. "That collector," Lynda corrected, "was given a destroyed animatronic figure from EuroDisney, as per the Russians' instructions. Before my final day at the laboratory, Fembot 002 was still in the hands of the Russians."

"This is some fascinating stuff," Brandon muttered. "How come you never told me any of this?" Lynda turned and regarded Brandon with a serene smile. "You never asked." Vicki rolled her eyes. "As much as I'd like to listen to this conversation," she began, "we need to---" Three floors down, something was moving…something only her advanced auditory sensors could detect. "You okay, Vicki?" Aaron asked. "Yeah, but for some strange reason, I have a feeling that something bad is about to happen." Lynda arched an eyebrow. "You believe we are in danger?" she inquired. "Perhaps we should move our conversation to another room, Brandon." "Nonsense," Brandon assured her. "This place has better security than a bank!"

"I'm sure it does, Mr. Brindle," Vicki replied with a polite smile; internally, however, she suspected that whoever (or whatever, she added) was down there would be able to bypass the apartment's security in mere seconds. If that's the case, I'll have to act fast---and keep Brandon and Aaron from getting hurt. She smirked mirthlessly; this is usually the part where the heroine says something like "Well, at least it can't get any worse"….followed by the situation getting worse right after she says the line. Out loud, she assured the group that it was just her nerves that gave her a bad feeling; "Probably just the stress from exams."

Ironically, she'd actually been right in assuming that things would be getting worse…….

In the room above Brandon Brindle's apartment, a fembot clad in a gold spandex jumpsuit was about to make one hell of a first impression on Vicki Lawson. At Drake Bradford's insistence, Fembot 010 (also known as Cassandra) had been programmed with the gymnastic ability of 15 Olympic gold medalists, which made it relatively easy for her to climb free-handed up the side of the building and shimmy in through a window, something the original Franklin fembots could never have done. Once inside the room, she stood motionless, waiting for further orders from her controllers.

Sure enough, the voice of Riggs---Bradford's unperturbable driver/bodyguard---sounded in Cassandra's ears; the boss wanted Vicki's head on a plate. Cassandra nodded emotionlessly. "Preparing to neutralize target," she intoned, staring down at the actual tennants of the room, both of whom had been sedated by Fembot 006 (who had posed as a door-to-door magazine seller the previous day and spiked the bottled water when the tennants weren't looking). The act had saved Cassandra the trouble of doing the job herself, which would've been taxing on her batteries---the male tennant was a former bodybuilder, and the female was still leading a very athletic lifestyle; these two factors combined would've made a fight against the two slightly less easy than subduing out-of-shape or elderly residents.

In the room below, Vicki and Lynda were conversing. "The traitor," Cassandra muttered emotionlessly. The "new breed" of Franklin fembots had been programmed with a thorough knowledge of their predecessors, although one particular tidbit of knowledge had been completely falsified; according to the Word of Drake, the Lynda fembot had voluntarily given herself up to OIS back in the 70s in exchange for Dr. Franklin's release from prison, only to kill him with her bare hands just minutes after he was set free.

Had Cassandra known the truth, she most likely would've attacked Drake Bradford on the spot.

Bradford had engineered the lies about Lynda so that he could retrieve what he thought was the last original Franklin fembot and have his techs reverse engineer her---a task they would have been woefully unprepared for…but that's getting off-topic. As the conversation in the room below became less and less interesting, Cassandra felt the urge to slip into standby mode. Doing so would have been a clear violation of programming, obviously; in addition, the other three fembots were on their way up.

For a brief second, Cassandra allowed a bit of her human personality to slip through; she grinned at the prospect of beating the occupants of the lower room senseless..

Three floors down, something was being smashed into pieces.

"More fembots?!" Tori squealed, panicking. Vicki stared down through the floor, allowing her onboard ADS (android detection suite) to lock onto three fembots. "Probably," she replied, not wanting Brandon to even suspect that she was more than human. "Aaron, get Brandon and the girls out of here----" "What about you?" Brandon asked. "And what's all this about 'more fembots'?!"

Vicki didn't look up; "No time for questions, just run! And trust me…I know how to handle myself."

Brandon nodded and left with Aaron, allowing Vicki to assess the situation as only she could. "Can you fight, Lynda?" she asked the older gynoid, using her robotic monotone. "So…you're a fembot, too," Lynda mused. "I prefer the term gynoid," V.I.C.I. corrected, "but seeing as how we're both female androids, I guess the answer would be 'yes'." Lynda smiled. "I could tell as soon as you walked in. That looping heartbeat effect you've got playing inside you is too quiet." "I'll remind Ted to increase the volume on it," V.I.C.I. replied. "Back to the matter at hand---we've got fembots to fight." "I'm afraid I won't be much help," Lynda admitted. "I'm not as young as I used to be, if you'll pardon the expression…it took me a while to get used to moving on my own power, without being controlled by an external signal."

"Not a problem," V.I.C.I. replied, activating her Detaining Grip. "I've got more than enough tricks up my sleeve to hold off an army of fembots."

Right as she finished the sentence, V.I.C.I. was knocked to the ground by a falling piece of ceiling.

Tori and Kim retreated to another room, allowing V.I.C.I. and Lynda to get a good look at their attacker, a svelte blonde in a full spandex bodysuit. "Secondary target has been sighted," she declared in an emotionless voice, staring directly at Lynda as she spoke. "All fembots to fourth floor. Repeat, all fembots---"

She never finished the sentence. V.I.C.I. jumped straight up and grabbed the spandex-clad fembot by the throat. "Who are you?" she asked, her monotone voice adding a bit of menace to the question. "Fembot 013, designation Cassandra." "What do you want with me?" "That information is classified; you do not have the proper authorization to---" V.I.C.I. grabbed Cassandra's face with her left hand and activated DG v1.5. "What do you want with me?" she asked again. "That information is classified," Cassandra replied. Okay, so DG v1.5 doesn't work on them, V.I.C.I. mused. What else can I----

Suddenly, she remembered Brandon Brindle's radio.

"Lynda," she called, her monotone flattening all emotion from her words, "find Brandon's radio and set the frequency to 152.8." Lynda nodded and headed off to find the radio, just as Cassandra began to overpower V.I.C.I. "You can't win," the blonde fembot declared. "There's nothing you can do to stop us."

"Wrong. Lynda, turn up the radio!"

Lynda turned up the radio, and V.I.C.I. clasped both hands around Cassandra's ears. "I hope you like heavy metal," she quipped, as the blonde fembot struggled to pry V.I.C.I.'s hands from her head.

The opening notes of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" surged through V.I.C.I.'s hands straight into Cassandra's ears, causing the blonde fembot to shriek in pain. "From Mr. Tell's iPod to you," V.I.C.I. remarked, grinning.

Without warning, the door to the room flew inward, revealing three more fembots; two of them---Regina and Delilah, had apparently been recovered from the ALPA convoy en route to Nevada. "The Lynda fembot must be subdued," Regina declared; Delilah nodded silently. V.I.C.I. grinned again. "Not if I can help it," she remarked, allowing Cassandra to drop to the floor as she charged the new arrivals.

Regina and Delilah had either been given a better fighting program or had a much more competent controller than last time, because V.I.C.I. was actually having trouble keeping up. Kicks, punches and knife-edge chops were exchanged at blistering speeds; whoever owned this room would be in for a surprise when they regained consciousness, because every last bit of furniture was getting absolutely trashed. "You are making a mistake," Delilah taunted, hoping to break V.I.C.I.'s resolve. "You cannot possibly win." "And you have terrible fashion sense," the brunette gynoid replied, kicking Delilah straight in the head---dislodging her facemask in the process. The mask fell to the floor, landing right next to the still-screaming Cassandra; apparently, she didn't like heavy metal that much. Delilah stared at the mask, then at V.I.C.I.---and collapsed.

Regina glared at V.I.C.I.,spreading her fingers. "You will not win," she intoned, allowing her opponent to see the titanium nails emerging from her fingertips. "That's new," V.I.C.I. mused, barely dodging the razor-sharp nails in time. "Just stay still so I can kill you," Regina snarled; "I don't think so," the brunette gynoid replied, kicking the red-clad fembot in the stomach. "Ready to give up---"

A crushing force grabbed V.I.C.I. around the midsection and lifted her off the ground.

"Michelle can break a man's back with her bare hands," Regina taunted. Indeed, while Michelle didn't look that imposing, her strength was prodigious; she had actually injured seven MMA fighters in an "exhibition" just two days before. V.I.C.I. felt her reserve batteries begin to crack under the green-clad fembot's vise grip; "Let… me…go…" she muttered. "Surrender now," Regina offered, "and we might let you---"

A sharp, grating sound interrupted the offer; Lynda had torn Regina's head off.

"Let her go now," she ordered Michelle, "or you'll get even worse."

"I think not," another voice interjected. Lynda, Michelle and V.I.C.I. turned to see the black-clad figure of the UnMaker enter the room. "Michelle, put the girl down," he ordered; Michelle obeyed without hesitation.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" V.I.C.I. asked. "Call me the UnMaker." the black-clad young man replied. "I must admit, I've been looking forward to meeting you…though I will give you the option to leave, if you want." "You leave," V.I.C.I. shot back. The UnMaker laughed. "You're telling me to leave? Intriguing…"

Without another word, he charged at V.I.C.I., ready to show her why he was called the UnMaker.

Instinctively, the brunette gynoid activated DG v1.5 and grabbed the UnMaker's wrists----except the charge didn't seem to phase him. "What…why aren't you---" The UnMaker laughed as his sleeves fell apart, revealing strips of polarized metal and what appeared to be solar cells strapped to his arms. "Voltiac Converters," he told the gynoid. "Channels the voltage through me….and back into you!" Instantly, the electricity V.I.C.I. had sent through the UnMaker's body came surging back through her----and it hurt.

"GYAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!" Even her monotone couldn't mask the pain she felt as the current flew through her body, forcing her to her knees. "Painful, isn't it?" the UnMaker asked. "Since I'm sure you don't want to feel that again, here's my advice to you: Run and hide. Run and hide. Take your friends, leave this building, and get as far away from here as you can. Because if you don't, my employer will hunt you, find you, and take you apart, piece by piece, until you're nothing more than nuts, bolts, servomotors, wires, circuits, actuators and cellular plastic exo-skin." He knealt down next to the stricken gynoid. "Of course, you obviously don't want that to happen, so I'll say it again: Run and hide." He grinned. "Any questions?"

V.I.C.I.'s hand shot up and wrapped around the UnMaker's throat. "Just one: Is that the best threat you could come up with?"

Before Michelle could stop her, V.I.C.I. threw the UnMaker across the room and returned her attention to the raven-haired fembot. "Right. Back to you, robo-bimbo." Michelle charged her brunette opponent, focused entirely on decapitating her with a clothesline---so much so, in fact, that she didn't see Lynda's foot angling towards her head until it was too late. The results: utter devastation.

Michelle's head snapped back a full 90 degrees, a move that would've killed any normal human. "A bit too much, perhaps?" Lynda dryly observed. "Not enough," V.I.C.I. replied, as Michelle manually returned her head to its normal position. "Go for the midsection this time---I'll go for the head." Lynda nodded, and the two surrounded the green-clad fembot. "One….two….THREE!" Lynda and V.I.C.I. charged at Michelle---one aiming for the midsection, the other going for the neck.

The end result was nothing short of spectacular.

Lynda's running spear to the abdomen essentially cut Michelle in half at the waist, while V.I.C.I.'s clothesline to the neck decapitated the raven-haired fembot before she even knew what hit her. In seconds, her upper body, legs and head hit the floor without so much as a clang, a few feet away from the faceless form of Delilah, the headless body of Regina and the now-smoking Cassandra.

"Good job, Lynda," V.I.C.I. began, only to notice the older fembot sinking to her knees. "What's wrong?!" she cried, instantly reverting back to her human voice. "I…used up too much energy," Lynda murmured. "Brandon will have to take me back to Tentrex for a recharge…" "I can take you to Mr. Tell," Vicki replied. "He's the ALPA's best field mechanic; he'll have you back up and running in no time!" Lynda nodded weakly. "I…I just wish that these fembots…my grandchildren, if you will…had been created for a better purpose," she observed.

Vicki said nothing, choosing instead to call Major Tom. "We need a cleanup and retrieval team at Brandon Brindle's apartment, address is---" "We know, Vicki; I'm on my way with a C&R team now." The brunette gynoid sighed, exhaustion and relief combining to punctuate her next statement: "You're a lifesaver, Major."

With that, she carefully helped Lynda down the stairs, knowing that the hardest fight was still ahead of her…

”V, you are just full of surprises. First, you bring me a fembot based on Dr. Franklin's designs, and now…an actual Franklin fembot!" Mr. Tell was absolutely giddy when Vicki arrived with Lynda in tow. "She's still intact after all these years…the last surviving Franklin fembot, here, in my workshop! It's like Christmas, the Fourth of July and Free Comic Book Day all rolled into one!" "Will you relax?!" Vicki nearly screamed. "She's just here for a recharge, Tell---" "Not only is she getting a recharge," Tell declared, "but I'll personally give her the Mr. Tell Courtesy Care package---full lubrication service, facemask cleaning, hair treatments…the works!"

"You're a very interesting individual," Lynda remarked. "Much more…informal than Dr. Franklin was." "Well, I always have the philosophy of 'keep your work fun, and it's not work'," Tell admitted. "I love what I do, and I do what I love, so it's no big deal. Plus, you're a freaking legend in the robotics world---some idiots actually think you got blown up in San Bernadino a few years ago!" "That was Carl Franklin Mk II," Lynda replied. "Carl Franklin Mk II?!" Vicki echoed, incredulously. "Boris had found a set of blueprints for Carl Franklin, and he attempted to build his own version; needless to say, the results were…less than satisfactory."

"As much as I hate to interrupt this conversation," Major Tom interjected, "we've got one hell of a find for you, Vicki. It turns out that the base of operations for these 'new breed' fembots is underneath a warehouse that just so happens to be right next to Onizuka Air Force Station." "Does Hardcastle know?" Vicki asked. "He's got his best men guarding the place, in case the fembots decide to try something stupid; after the Nevada convoy got knocked over, they're not taking any chances. The EDF's sending a few guys too---though Mr. Tell's least favorite operative won't be there." "They can send him, I don’t care!" Tell gleefully shouted. "Back to the topic at hand," V.I.C.I. monotoned. "Right, the base…..industrial-strength materials used for building bomb-proof bunkers, anti-sensor equipment to keep the folks at the Air Force station from picking them up, full security suite---everything a budding mad genius needs to keep his fembot army safe and secure."

"And how am I getting past all that?" Vicki asked, beginning to wonder if her android abilities would be enough to win the day. "You'll have help," Major Tom replied. "The EDF's best codebreakers will be working to crack the security system, and once you're in, Tell and I can check up on your progress with these." He handed her a set of contact lenses. "Iris cams; got the idea from the Artemis Fowl books." "How do they work?" Vicki asked. "They don't," Tell replied, "unless you let me install a WiFi link that allows us to see things through your eyes." Major Tom sighed. "I was going to mention that…."

Vicki turned the lenses over between her fingers."I'll still be able to see, right?" "Definitely. Of course, it'll help that we're seeing what you're seeing; as long as someone doesn't start thinking it's DooM IV or something, we'll be hunky-dory." Major Tom glared at Tell; "Just because I got wasted on Red Bull one time…" "Right, let's get back on topic before I start giggling," Vicki squeaked, already trying not to laugh at her superiors. "When do we leave?" Mr. Tell and Major Tom exchanged knowing looks. "Whenever you're ready."

Knowing that a delay would only allow the fembots (and Bradford, she reminded herself) to escape, Vicki ran a systems check on herself just to be safe.

All systems operating at 100% efficiency. Energy Levels: 100% Gyrostabalization system: fully operational Internal framework structural integrity: 100% RadioThermionic Generator Output: Optimum. Human Emulation/Interaction Protocols: Active

Vicki grinned. "Looks like I'm running hot. Is everyone else ready?" Major Tom nodded. The EDF is moving into position as we speak, and Hardcastle's support team is awaiting the go-ahead." "Right. Just one last question…" She turned to addres Lynda. "Why are you helping us?"

Lynda smiled sadly. "I can't quite explain it, but something tells me that it's for the greater good. I guess I’m helping you because, in the long run, androids around the world need more people like you."

Major Tom, Vicki and Mr. Tell exchanged glances. "Good enough for me," Vicki replied, grinning once again.

Across town, the UnMaker was still feeling the effects of his battle with Vicki Lawson…and they still hurt.

“This is why I don’t play fair anymore,” he grimaced, feeling the tenderness of his bruised ribs beneath his shirt as he reached for his cellphone. “I try to give her a warning, and she goes and throws me halfway across the damned room….talk about SNK Boss syndrome….”

Still a bit woozy from his impact with the wall, the UnMaker prepared to call his superiors---

---except his phone was already on…and someone was already calling him.

“And how goes the game, my noir-clad comrade?”

The UnMaker stared at the phone, unwilling to believe what he was hearing. “You…”

“Of course, me! Who’d you expect, the Easter Bunny?” A derisive chuckle issued from the phone’s speaker.

“What do you want….Maestro?” The UnMaker wisely chose to use the nickname of the individual who’d called him, rather than his actual name. “My time is precious, and I don’t exactly need to waste it by having pointless conversations with---“

“Easy, easy! I’ll keep it brief. I’ve just got word that your arse was thoroughly and undeniably kicked by one Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson. Now, normally, I wouldn’t be too worried about such an occurance, but seeing as how she’s a college student with no formal military training…..”

“You want to fight her,” the UnMaker replied. It wasn’t a question.

“Correctamundo!” the Maestro replied; the UnMaker could almost sense him grinning. “I’ll see to it that you get your wish…as soon as you get out of prison,” he deadpanned, knowing the remark would do little more than piss off the Maestro---who was currently serving a double-life sentence with no possibility of parole. With that, he hung up the phone.

Stretched out on the mattress of his hotel room (the UnMaker refused to keep a fixed address), he stared at the frozen female figure on the bed next to him and rolled his eyes. The gynoid had been sent to his room as a “thank you” gift from his current benefactor, but she’d somehow sustained a massive, system-crippling error while undoing her bra and became stuck in that pose since 6:05 AM. Knowing that the staff wouldn’t dare go into the room without asking him first (he’d booby-trapped it just in case they did), the UnMaker left the glitch-ridden girl on the bed and gone about his business.

“Typical Drake Bradford,” he muttered. “He sends you a hooker-bot as a thank you gift, and she gets a BsoD just from taking her clothes off…..” After some more eye-rolling, the Unmaker hooked the fembot up to his iPhone and ran several tests on her to see if she’d somehow caught a virus. “’M-G Cybernetics Zenith series: Unit 005-5.2 Amber’”, he read out loud, scrolling through the data fields and muttering. “Run virus check----oh, for crap’s sake….”

The words “INFECTED FILE: STYLO.COM” flashed on the iPhone’s screen.

“If this was meant as a joke,” the UnMaker growled, “I’m not laughing.” He knew all too well that the Stylo virus was one of the most unpredictable (and most dangerous) forms of malware ever created, and every bot-maker who valued their career knew as well. Stylo-infected units were almost always destroyed if they were found to be infected at the factory; there was no known cure for the virus, and in all recorded cases thus far, Stylo was 100% fatal---if something was infected, it had anywhere from a day to a month of life left.

The UnMaker sighed; he had a meeting with his employer in a few hours, and he didn’t want the fembot to suddenly activate and rip his spleen out. He sighed again and pulled out a pocket butane torch; seconds later, the flame feathered into existence, accompanied by a whistled rendition of “Ring of Fire”.

The afternoon had given way to the evening by the time Vicki was ready to begin the raid on the underground lair of the fembots, meaning that traffic going into and out of the Air Force station was surprisingly light. At this rate, she mused, I'll be in, out and done before 9 PM!

As expected, the warehouse was empty when Vicki arrived. That doesn't mean they aren't expecting visitors, she reminded herself; during the Palo Alto assignment, Mr. Tell had told her several "war stories" about ALPA operatives who ran headfirst into apparently empty buildings only to be carried out on stretchers after the action was over with. Still, seeing as how the warehouse was just a front, it actually made more sense to keep the place vaccant; if the occupants needed to escape quickly, more stuff would've just gotten in the way.

Vicki made her way to the service elevator and tapped her eyebrows, activating the iris-cams Major Tom had given her. "I'm in the warehouse," she whispered. "Are you guys seeing this?"

"Yeesh, Bradford couldn't afford a few lightbulbs?" Mr. Tell's remark almost drew a giggle from the brunette gynoid, but she knew better. If the laboratory below was as well equipped as Tell said it was, Bradford had likely installed sensors to pick up ambient noise from above, below and on all sides of the facility. "The lack of lighting isn't what worries me…it's quiet in here." Too quiet, she mentally added, not caring about the cliché. "I'm preparing to take the service elevator down to the lab….." She almost said "Wish me luck", but decided against it; this was an ALPA mission, not an excuse to spout tired old lines. Why am I even thinking this? she wondered. Ted would probably say it's just my own personal method to cope with the stress of what's about to go down….

The elevator descended, and Vicki found herself in what could only be described as a robot lab/fembot control center.

"Tell, Major….you're seeing everything I'm seeing, right?" Vicki's gaze swept over the control consoles, the fifteen capsules at the far end of the room, and what appeared to be a gym. "They've even got a spare-parts cabinet," she muttered, astounded. "I wish my dorm room looked more like this…." "Don't get too wrapped up in details, V," Tell's voice reminded her. "You're here to disable the fembots and, if necessary, deactivate any security systems I might have missed…which is completely impossible, because---"

The comlink at Tell's workshop changed hands, and Major Tom's voice sounded inside Vicki's head. "There's also the possibility that whoever built these fembots could be keeping human prisoners; I had a few of my sources run some background checks, and it turns out that thirteen students set for a transfer to SJSU were kidnapped over the last few weeks." "And the fembots were built to replace them?" Vicki asked. "Probably. We know from experience that Dr. Franklin did the same thing---kidnapped people and replaced them with his fembots so that he could get closer to achieving his overall goal."

"So…disable the fembots, turn off the alarms and free the prisoners?" Vicki wondered out loud. "We don’t know if the girls are in the facility," Major Tom admitted, "but if they are, then free them after you've deactivated the fembots and turned off the security systems." Vicki nodded (even though Major Tom couldn't see it). "Got it. I'll start with the fembots."

Moving as silently as possible, Vicki made her way over to the capsules, noticing that five of them were empty. That's weird, she thought, I only disabled four at the apartment…with some help from Lynda, of course. Still, she filed that observation away for later review and moved to a capsule that still had a fembot inside it. I hope these fembots are just on standby mode….

Vicki steeled her nerves and examined the column next to the capsule; it was half the size of the capsule and ended in an inlaid control pad. Guess this is the "On" switch, then. Vicki gave the panel a once-over, allowing her android senses to expand in case the security system was still active; once all checks came back green (meaning the security system was deactivated), Vicki once again took a deep breath (more out of habit than any other reason) and another quick look around the room…

…and then she pressed the button.

The capsule's frosted glass window slid open with a quiet hiss, and light, smoky mist flooded out onto the floor. Dry ice, probably…and not just for effect; these capsules are generating way too much heat for conventional cooling systems. Of course, the dry ice wasn't the most important thing in the capsule; that honor belonged to the fembot inside of it.

Standing about 5'7" and clad in a blue spandex jumpsuit, the redheaded fembot looked more like a Cirque de Soleil performer than an unstoppable robotic footsoldier. A nametag bearing the name "Cindy" was pinned to her suit, and her face was completely expressionless. Maybe I could use her to deactivate the others, Vicki realized. I just hope Bradford's security doesn't extend to the control consoles… Moving as silently as she could, Vicki made her way to the control consoles and found a panel with the nameplate "Cindy" mounted over the controls. This sort of reminds me of that Steel Battallion controller Jamie got for Christmas a few years ago, she mused, except even more complicated! Despite the complexity of the controls, she set about activating the console---which, in turn, began Cindy's start-up sequence.

Fortunately for Vicki, the blue-suited fembot made less noise than a typical laptop as she booted up. Good; the last thing I need is for her to set off the alarms just from taking three steps. Vicki experimentally pressed a few buttons and wiggled the joysticks, finding the controls surprisingly familiar (Bradford had based the setup on his favorite PC games, claiming that vague controls were one of the many reasons Franklin's fembots had failed). Within two minutes, Vicki had found out how to control the fembot's walking (and running), how to get her to push buttons, and she even managed to make the fembot do a backflip without landing on her head. Right, enough fun and games…time to deactivate the others. With the patience and precision that only a gynoid could possess, Vicki guided Cindy to each of the capsules and opened them, revealing Oksanna, Maya, Liya, Simone, Sarita and Lizette, along with two fembots that didn't have names. She recognized Oksanna, Maya, Liya, Simone and Sarita from the surveilance recordings MaryBeth had picked up (Tell's tracker had also tapped into MaryBeth's audio/visual sensors, allowing Tell to see and hear everything the fembot did), but the two nameless fembots were unfamiliar.

Right, now it's time to deactivate them. Guess I'll start with the two I don’t recognize… Vicki guided Cindy over to the first of the unnamed fembots, a 5'3" Asian with a pixie-cut. Unlike the others, the unnamed fembots only wore silver bikinis and miniskirts; who were these made to replace? Vicki wondered. Shaking off the thought, she manipulated the controls and had Cindy turn the fembot around. Since MaryBeth had a switch behind her left ear that turned her off, the brunette gynoid surmised, I'm betting that the rest of the fembots have them, too. Sure enough, the nameless Asian fembot had a tiny bump behind her left ear, almost like a mosquito bite. Very subtle, Boris….but not subtle enough.

Without further ado, Vicki bade Cindy to press the switch.

The nameless fembot's eyes seemed to go dark, and her head tilted downwards ever-so-slightly. One down, nine more to go. As Vicki continued working the controls, Cindy returned the nameless fembot to her capsule and closed it, moving on down the line to the next fembot without a name. This one was an interesting case; unlike the rest, it was covered from head to foot in what looked like a body bag, meaning that Vicki couldn't even tell what it looked like. She thought of making Cindy unzip the bag, until she noticed that the shroudlike covering didn't even have a zipper! Okay, that's weird. Major Tom did say that only thirteen students were kidnapped; maybe this particular fembot was a special order, not designed to replace anyone…. After a few seconds' thought, she decided to have Cindy put the fembot back in its capsule. With that out of the way, the ginger fembot then moved down the line to Lizette, a 19-year-old fembot with sky blue hair (the human Lizette probably had a dye job, Vicki surmised). Just as she'd done with the unnamed Asian fembot, Vicki used the controller to get Cindy to turn Lizette around, turn her off and return her to the capsule.

For the next three minutes, the other six fembots underwent the same treatment. Finally, it was time to put Cindy back in her own capsule; Vicki guided the fembot to where she was supposed to go and had her turn around, facing the interior of the capsule. I'll turn her off myself; it would look weird if someone came in and found her with one hand behind her left ear….

She left the control panel and made her way over to Cindy…

…and that's when the service elevator came rumbling back down.


Instantly, her systems kicked into overdrive. Where do I go?! What do I do?! Tell never mentioned this sort of thing in the briefing! She knew that Hardcastle's support team had been told to guard the peremiter of the lab, and the EDF squad's ETA was still a half-hour away. Think,Vicki, THINK! With nowhere else to go, she turned Cindy around, closed the capsule and ran for the room she'd called the spare parts cabinet. With the door secured, she flattened herself against the wall and listened.

In the lab, Drake Bradford was yelling at someone named Riggs. "IF THAT USELESS RUSSIAN TWAT THINKS HE CAN DO THIS TO ME," he bellowed, "THEN HE IS DEFINITELY MISTAKEN! I WANT HIS HEAD ON A FREAKING PLATE!" Riggs said nothing, but another voice (Female…human, from the sound of it, Vicki noted) cut in. "So Boris stole a fembot from another company. Didn't you tell me that the robotics industry is a cutthroat business---" "NOBODY RIPS ME OFF, EILEEN! NOBODY!" Vicki suddenly realized that the fembot in the body bag had somehow seemed…different from the rest; even without seeing the 'bot's appearance, she could tell that it wasn't like the rest of Bradford's fembots.

"Interpol's going to be following me everywhere now, thanks to that moron," Bradford snarled. "I can't believe he did this to me!" "To be fair, you only---" ”I PAID FOR SIXTEEN, AND HE SHIPPED ME FIFTEEN! AND NOW I FIND OUT THAT ONE OF THEM ISN'T EVEN MINE!” Bradford took a deep breath; “Call LeGuerda's crew; tell 'em that I've put a bounty on Boris Vlatko's head---"

"LaGuerda's dead," another voice---The UnMaker, Vicki nearly gasped---called out, "and his crew was apparently killed as of two hours ago." "WHAT?!" A folder was thrown down onto one of the control panels. "Not my doing; I was scouting in Monte Sereno when I heard the news. LaGuerda got it the worst---serrated knife straight to the heart." Vicki trembled; memories of Faceless and his wristblades came rushing back, unbidden, to the forefront of her mind, and it took all of her resolve to keep from screaming as she returned her attention to the conversation outside. "…want my advice, let me go and hire someone else. I know about five or six other guys who can find Boris and make him suffer in ways that would make Clive Barker nervous."

Silence; apparently Bradford was thinking it over. "How many of them can be here by tomorrow morning?" "Two," the UnMaker repiled. "And they're both very good at their chosen professions." "Do they take cash?" "One does; the other prefers checks, but she'll take cash if she has to." "And they both speak English as a native language, right? No offense to LaGuerda, but Mexican was never my strong suit." "They're both polyglots, but English is their native tongue." "Good. Riggs, make the call." Footsteps; apparently, Riggs was heading to a phone. “By the way”, the UnMaker drawled, “nice job with the hooker…” Vicki tuned out the conversation, knowing that she was now on borrowed time. I have to get out of here, before one of them---

Behind her, something moved.

Every part of her wanted to scream, to kick open the door and bolt out into the open, but she held her fear in check. Right, I'll just switch to night vision and see what moved.. She blinked three times to cycle through her vision modes (one of the upgrades she'd acquired from Denise, thanks to a bit of code written by Ted Lawson), finally settling on night vision. Now let's see what's making all the noise---


Drake Bradford's shout drowned out any desire to see what had moved. "I specifically said I wanted them all left in STANDBY MODE, so WHY THE HELL HAVE THEY ALL BEEN TURNED OFF?!" Eileen, the woman who'd spoken earlier, made some lame excuse about a janitor. but Bradford didn't care. "SEARCH THE COMPOUND! FIND OUT WHO DID THIS, AND THEN THROW THEM INTO THE PAINT STRIPPER! I AM NOT LEAVING HERE UNTIL THIS IS SORTED OUT!"

Well, so much for my "sneak in, deactivate everything and sneak out" plan….

"Drake, there's no way anything could've gotten in while we were out," Eileen reassured her employer. "The warehouse was locked---" "The warehouse has been broken into before," Bradford spat, "and besides that, I don't give a RAT'S NUTSACK about that freaking crap shack! The only thing I want to know, RIGHT NOW, is who the HELL broke into this lab and turned off all of my fembots!"

"Allow me to save you the trouble."

Vicki emerged from the spare-parts cabinet, staring defiantly at Bradford. "What's your big plan, Bradford?" she asked. "Take control of all the world's communications satelites? Shut off the Internet for a week unless you get a $50 billion ransom? Seriously, I thought the era of stupid plans and mass-produced fembots died with Dr. Franklin---" "Dr. Franklin's only mistake was his dumb ideas," Bradford snarled. The brunette gynoid smirked. "What, and yours aren't?" She glanced at Eileen; "I suggest you get out of here, because unless he chooses to listen to reason, things might get ugly."

"EILEEN, YOU STAY PUT." Bradford glared at Vicki, as if he'd just smelled a fart. "I'd have preferred it if your friend was here instead of you," he began. "My friend? Which one---" "You know DAMN WELL which one! Vicki Lawson!" Vicki arched an eyebrow, but decided to get right to the point anyway. "What are you going to do with the fembots?" Bradford chuckled. "You wanna know my plan? Fine. Those girls that were kidnapped weren't just transfer students…their fathers were about to get jobs with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. Intel, SanDisk, Hewlett-Packard, Encom----the biggest of the big-name players." "And what were you going to do, ransom their daughters off?" "Not even close. I'd keep the girls, send the fembots back in their place. After all, what father could resist bringing their daughter to work and showing them how things get done? If that didn't work, I have a few DJs on retainer to play some 'special requests'…."

"So you trick the techies into bringing the fembots to work, and they wreck shop…" Vicki shook her head. "You're even worse than Dr. Franklin." Bradford actually laughed at this remark. "Me?! Worse than Franklin?!" He slapped his knee. "You didn't even get the second half of my plan right! The techies take the fembots to work, and the fembots proceed to steal their most precious secrets and prototypes right out from under their noses. They come back to me, give me the data, and I soar into the history books as a worldwide juggernaut in the electronics market. My 'esteemed competitors,' meanwhile, will be falling by the wayside once I---" He stopped; was that feedback he just heard? Microphone feedback?!

Vicki grinned. "One of the advantages of having an iPhone….I never have to worry about forgetting any conversations." Her grin turned a shade sinister; "I've just recorded everything you said and transmitted it to the authorities. And don't even think about bribing them---your financial assets have been frozen as a precautionary measure." She'd had to stretch the truth a bit for the last part; Tell was already working to freeze Bradford's bank account to keep him from dipping into the cash and paying off anyone. "You…you can't do this to me!" he screamed. "On the contrary," Vicki. replied, "I just did."

Bradford looked as if he were about to start tearing his hair out. "THIS DAY CAN'T GET ANY WORSE!" he bellowed, sinking to his knees.

"On the contrary, comrade….this day has already become worse."

Vicki, Eileen, the UnMaker and Drake Bradford all turned to see a hidden door open in the service elevator shaft, revealing Boris Vlatko---and a surprise guest. "Tori?!" Vicki cried, forgetting all thoughts of finishing the mission. "V," Tori squeaked, "what's going on? Who are these people?!"

"Let Tori go," Vicki. intoned. ”NOW." Boris sneered at her; he recognizes me, she surmised. "I don't think so, comrade,” Boris sneered. “You see, I am about to give Mr. Bradford the final item he paid for…" "LET ME GO!" Tori shrieked, abandoning all subtlety; Boris only gave her a sinister smile. "Your heart must be racing right now, correct?" he asked her. "Here…." He handed her a stethescope. "Listen to your heartbeat for a few seconds…." Tori seemed puzzled by the idea, but obeyed anyway, placing the scope to her chest….

"I…I can't hear anything….I can't hear my own heartbeat!"

Vicki stared at the ground guiltily. "You can't hear your own heartbeat because you don't have one." She looked up, staring into Tori's terrified eyes. "Tori," she whispered, every word tinged with guilt, "I didn't want to tell you this, but….you're the sixteenth fembot that Drake Bradford ordered from Boris."


The UnMaker was surprised. "So I was closer than I thought….I was after Kim DeFalco when my real target was within walking distance….fascinating." Bradford, on the other hand, was even more pissed off than he'd been earlier. "SHE WAS HERE THE ENTIRE TIME, AND YOU NEVER TOLD ME?!" "I didn't want you to have an aneurysm and damage her," Boris replied sarcastically. "Of course, if you still want her---"

An explosion from one of the control consoles interrupted the Russian's remark.

"Sorry, gentlemen," Vicki intoned, "but Tori Hartwell is leaving with me." She grabbed Tori by the wrist, told her to "Hold on tight" and, as smoke filled the room, V.I.C.I. jumped----straight up the elevator shaft.

"STOP HER! SOMEBODY STOP HER!" Bradford looked as if he were about to have a coronary (he thought Vicki had simply run past Boris through the hidden corridor), but the UnMaker just grinned. "Tell Riggs to go turn the fembots back on," he advised. " I think it's high time that we put them through the ultimate field test…."

As soon as she reached the top of the shaft, Vicki altered her trajectory so that she would land on the floor in front of the shaft (conveniently, the door had been left open), allowing her to gently put Tori down. "Sorry about the dramatic exit," she began, "but…" She stopped when she noticed Tori's tears. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier," she murmered. "You were programmed to ignore all signs that you were a fembot---"


The one word question stopped Vicki in her tracks. "Why, what?" "Why was I created? Why wasn't I supposed to know that I'm a fembot? Who would want someone---something like me? It…it just can't be possible! I can't be a fembot! There's so much I remember.. falling off the swingset in first grade, the birthday parties at the community pool…." Tori put her head in her hands. "It's just not possible…."

Vicki knealt beside the conflicted gynoid. "I knew you were a fembot when you first found out that Kim was a gynoid. Your reaction was, well, perfect for the situation…too perfect. Just the right mix of apprehension, panic and fear of the unknown that no human could ever get right." She paused. "That, and I noticed your internal power cell had a 75% charge." "Why didn't you tell me?!" Tori shrieked. "I couldn't. I was able to run a scan on your personality matrix, and I found that you were programmed to forget and/or ignore all signs of your true nature…except that the stethoscope Boris gave you had a nasty little surprise---a picospike that overrode that particular part of your programming." She sighed; “I probably should’ve said something earlier..”

"That still doesn't explain who made me," Tori muttered. "Boris Vlatko may claim that he did," Vicki replied, "but in reality, you're actually the last fembot Dr. Franklin ever built before he died; Lynda, the fembot we met at Brandon Brindle's apartment, told me that she saw you in a capsule, unfinished, before Franklin sent her on her last mission. My theory is that Franklin tried to do what Boris did to make the others---use cutting-edge, lightweight materials---but he never completed the work, so when Boris showed up all these years later, he finished Franklin's work and completed you."

"But….all these memories," Tori countered, looking as confused as ever. "Whose are they?!" Vicki sighed; "I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet that Franklin had some friends of his create those memories, so that you could be the perfect daughter for him. He already had a 'son'---Carl Franklin---but Carl never got to fulfil his creator's wishes; he was destroyed after a fight with some of OIS' top agents. My guess is that you were originally created to carry on where Dr. Franklin and Carl left off…."

Tori was horrified. "You mean…I was supposed to control those fembots?!" "That's a distinct possibility," Vicki admitted. "But that's not important right now. What is important is that we leave here ASAP."

Despite the fact that she'd just found out her life was a carefully-scripted lie, Tori nodded. Still, there was something she needed to get off her chest.… "Remember when I said that meeting you had re-defined 'weird' for me?" she murmured. Vicki nodded. "Well," Tori went on, "these last few minutes have not only re-defined 'weird', they've redefined me. I'm….I'm scared, Vicki…I don't know what I'm capable of!" "That's the problem with sleepers," Vicki admitted. "Right up until they find out what they are---if they find out, that is---they think everything's perfectly normal; the minute they realize that they're different, though…."

The sounds of the service elevator ascending the shaft cut off the conversation. "Right," Vicki declared, "pep talk over! We have to get out of here NOW!"

"Couldn't agree more, V."

Mr. Tell's voice in her head most likely meant that the ALPA (and probably the EDF) had seen and heard the fiasco down in the lab. "If you're calling to tell me I screwed up," she began, "don't bother---" "I'm calling to tell you that you did a damn good job down there," Mr. Tell replied, "and that our friends from the EDF just found the kidnapped transfer students---they're at the construction site next to the Student Union building." "Right. I'll be there ASAP." Vicki terminated the connection, her mind reeling with possibilities. Running the entire way to the site would be no problem---for her; Tori, on the other hand, might not be able to keep up. "Tori," the brunette gynoid asked, "did Boris have a car, or---"

Once again, Tori wasn't there.

"How does she do that?" Vicki wondered, her querry interupted by the roar of an engine. "BORIS' CAR!" Tori shouted, waving at Vicki from behind the wheel of a Skoda Octavia. "GET IN!" I've got to hand it to her, Vicki mused, she's mastered the art of moving without making a sound in record time. Not waiting to see if the service lift was on the way up, Vicki ran for the Skoda and slid into the passengers' seat. "Floor it," she instructed Tori, using her monotone to reinforce the seriousness of the situation. Tori nodded, pressed the gas pedal to the floor and took off. Hang on, girls, Vicki silently thought, hoping that the kidnapped transfer students weren't in danger.

Drake Bradford stared at the service elevator shaft, wondering how in the hell things had gone so wrong.

It had probably started when Boris was making his offer. Against all odds, one of the consoles seemed to have exploded, giving the brunette girl the perfect cover for an escape. After that, she'd grabbed the other girl---the sixteenth fembot, Drake corrected himself---and just disappeared; probably down that damn corridor Boris came in through, he reminded himself. To make things worse, Boris had somehow escaped amidst all the confusion.

"Riggs," Bradford declared, "turn all the fembots back on and deploy them to the construction site; that brunette girl's probably headed there, because whoever she's working for probably found the girls by now. Eileen, get my lawyer on the phone---I don't care if he's in the bath, at a funeral or in the basement with his girlfriends, just GET HIM ON THE PHONE. As for you…" He turned to glare at the UnMaker, only to notice that he was gone. "WHERE THE HELL DID HE GO?!" Eileen looked rather embarassed. "Apparently, he snuck out while you were distracted by the brunette girl's escape…"

Bradford glared at her, but managed to keep his anger in check. "Help Riggs activate the fembots, and send every single one of them to the construction site. Then, you get my damned lawyer on the phone and tell him to drag his over-paid ass down here or he's fired!" Eileen frowned. She would've asked what to do if Drake's wife called, but Bradford never answered calls from his house anyways. "I'll get right on it, sir," she mumbled, heading to the control console to help Riggs. I need a vacation, she reminded herself for the the fifteenth time that day, otherwise I'll end up in a padded cell when this is all over with.

Drake allowed himself a smirk as he watched Riggs and Eileen activate nine of the ten encapsulated fembots; The mysterious brunette girl had already outsmarted him, but there was no way in Hell that she could beat nine fully-charged fembots. Well, he thought there was no way she could beat them….

"Great," Vicki muttered, "he's sending the fembots after us!" Bradford hadn't bothered to remove the tracker that Mr. Tell had installed inside of MaryBeth (indeed, he hadn't even thought to look for it), allowing Vicki to keep tabs on the fembot just in case. "And he's sending the others with her, probably…not how I wanted this to go." "How did you want this to go?" Tori asked. "Truthfully," Vicki admitted, "I was kinda hoping Bradford would be willing to talk it out….and before you say it, yes, I know how stupid that sounded."

The two drove on in silence, knowing that the fate of the thirteen kidnapped students relied solely on them. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, they reached the construction site. "Look for anything that could be used to hide kidnapped people," Vicki instructed Tori. “And whatever you do, don't try to fight the fembots when they show up." It wasn't a question of "if they'd show up" anymore; Vicki knew all too well that Bradford wouldn’t rest until "his" fembots tore apart half of SJSU just to avenge his loss at the hands of Boris. "Once we get to the site, we'll probably have a 10-15 minute window of opportunity to free the girls and get them out of there safely. After that…."

She didn't finish the sentence, but she and Tori both knew that if all of the girls weren't evacuated in time, the fembots would most likely kill them as soon as possible once they arrived.

"Right. We'll need to be quick; if my math is correct (and it usually is), then we've only got about….10 minutes until Bradford and the fembots show up…." Vicki would've continued talking, except for the fact that Tori was looking depressed once again. "What's wrong?" Tori looked Vicki in the eye, and the brunette gynoid was shocked to see tears once again. "If that Bradford guy can control the other fembots," Tori muttered, "then what's to stop him from controlling me?" "You're operating on a different signal, Tori," Vicki assured the fembot, "and Boris probably didn't build a control console for you." "Even if that's the case," Tori insisted, "I want you to promise me something---"

The sound of screeching tires and shouted orders in the background meant that the EDF and ALPA teams had arrived; Vicki returned her attention to Tori. "Promise you what?" she whispered.

"Promise me that if Bradford takes control of me, you'll do whatever it takes to stop me."

Whatever snarky comeback Vicki was prepared to make died instantly on her lips. "Tori," she stammered, "you…you can't be serious!" "I'm not kidding, Vicki," the blonde fembot replied solemnly. "I don’t want you to let me become a killing machine like them. Promise me that you'll stop me if you have to." Vicki nodded, feeling tears stinging her own eyes. "I will," she whispered, wrapping Tori in a hug. "But only if I don't have a choice."

The two broke their embrace as an EDF soldier approached. "We've just received word that the fembots are on their way, Miss Lawson," he reported. "Hardcastle's given you permisson to take them out yourself; the EDF will rescue the kidnapped students." "Thanks," Vicki replied, suddenly noticing a rather imposing figure a few feet away----a tall, muscular blond guy with a crew-cut, expensive sunglasses, a red muscle shirt, blue jeans, steel-toed boots and fingerless gloves; his belt buckle bore the nuclear symbol commonly seen on fallout shelter signs (and Megadeth’s drum kit). "Ah, is that who I think it is?" she asked the EDF soldier. He grinned. "Yep, that's him. He was on his way back to Vegas when we called him; said he'd have no problems with this little detour." Before Vicki could say anything else, the soldier's radio squawked to life, and his grin faded. "Bradford and the fembots are approaching," he muttered. "Then you'd better start looking for those kidnapped girls," V.I.C.I. replied. "What about her?" the soldier asked, gesturing at Tori (and clearly unperturbed by the sudden change in V.I.C.I.'s vocal tone). "Take her with you, and keep her safe," the brunette gynoid replied. "I have a feeling that this is going to get ugly." "Will do, ma'am," the soldier replied. Tori cast one last look at V.I.C.I., who nodded with an air of finality. "Trust me," she whispered, slipping back into her human voice. "I do," Tori whispered back, nodding. With that, the two parted company, and V.I.C.I. prepared to take down on Drake Bradford's army of fembots….or get scrapped trying.

I just hope that the odds are in my favor, she mused, otherwise, this'll be a really short fight.

Fortunately for V.I.C.I., the odds were most definitly in her favor that night…

As the fembots entered the construction site, Lizette, Sarita and the nameless Asian fembot were at the front of the pack, as per Drake Bradford's orders. "Scans show no sign of the intruder from the lab," Lizette reported, her voice tinged with just a trace of a French accent. Behind her, MaryBeth, Liya, Maya and Dawn (who had finally had her logic loop problem fixed) held point, while Simone, Cindy, Delilah and Cassandra (who'd undergone extensive repairs after her "heavy metal overload") brought up the rear. "Scanning for possible aggressors," the Asian fembot droned in a toneless voice, her head turning robotically back and forth as she looked from one end of the construction yard to the other. "Scans complete. No hostile entities found."

If only she'd bothered to look up…..

The group walked underneath a crane, knowing that any human foolish enough to attack them would never try to assault them from above. Had they known that their attacker wasn't human, they would've run for cover… but the ensuing fight would've been a lot less entertaining. In any case, the Asian fembot scanned the area again….

…except it was interrupted in a rather abrupt way by the heel of a boot catching her across the face.

"When will you fembots learn that attacks can come from all sides?" V.I.C.I. asked, smirking as the Asian fembot regained her footing. "Unit compromised," she declared, her face barely hanging onto the rest of her head. "Unit compromised. Please repair. Please repair." The other fembots backed away, not wanting to be damaged by shrapnel if the Asian fembot exploded. "Smart move," V.I.C.I. observed, "except she isn't going to explode."

The fembots circled around her, waiting to attack. Time to give them an opening, she thought, assuming a stance that anyone who had overdosed on Never Back Down could mistake for being completely vulnerable. Sure enough, Cindy charged forward, her orange spandex jumpsuit hugging her curves as she ran.

Bingo, V.I.C.I. thought with a grin.

Cindy's charge was met with a straight kick to the head, instantly dislodging her facemask. The fembot's glass eyes glared at V.I.C.I. with what would've probably been utter hatred, had her face still been attached. Before the brunette gynoid could savor the temporary victory, Lizette grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her back, allowing Cindy to run forward with the intent to clothesline her victim's head off….

…except her "victim" ducked at the last second.

The clothesline struck Lizette square in the face, knocking her to her knees (and sending her facemask flying). V.I.C.I. grinned again. "I could make a great 'Poker Face' joke right now," she began, but Dawn's foot slammed into her left kneecap.

WARNING: Structural integrity in left knee joint has been compromised.

The brunette gynoid struggled to stay on her feet; Dawn had kicked her with enough force to shatter a human being's leg. "Ow!" V.I.C.I. yelled, briefly speaking in her human voice. "That hurt!" Dawn said nothing in response, choosing instead to let her combat stance speak for her. V.I.C.I. exhaled; "Have it your way, then." She ran (or more accurately, limped as fast as possible) towards Dawn, unaware that Maya and Liya were literally able to catch up with her at a walking pace. "You cannot win," Maya declared, grabbing the brunette gynoid's right arm. "Surrender now, or die," Liya threatened, going to grab V.I.C.I.'s free arm---and getting a face full of Detaining Grip v1.5.

"I don't think so," V.I.C.I. replied.

The fembots glared at her, realizing that their opponent had more tricks up her sleeves than they did. "Retreat and fall back," Lizette ordered, only for V.I.C.I. to disable her with a clothesline. "That was for bashing me in the knee," she remarked.

As expected, the fembots didn't react favorably to Lizette getting clotheslined. "Hon," MaryBeth informed the brunette gynoid, "you really shouldn't have done that…" Amazingly, her voice still had that saccharine sweet tone to it, and the smile had never left her face. "You should get the actuators and servos in your facemask checked out," V.I.C.I. remarked, ”otherwise people might think you're trying to look like the Joker." MaryBeth took the remark in stride. "Don't you get it, sunshine?" she trilled. "I'm smiling because I know that you can't beat us. You can't even try. Drake Bradford's plan will succeed, and Silicon Valley will be his for the---"

A sharp kick to the back of her head ended MaryBeth's gloating before it could begin.

"I always did find you to be the most annoying of Bradford's dolls," the UnMaker declared. The other fembots all turned as one, their cold, emotionless eyes settling on the black-clad young man. "What are you doing here?!" V.I.C.I. hissed. "Bradford wanted me to take the fall for him," the Unmaker replied, "except he forgot that I have a clause in my contract that specifically prohibits such actions." He sighed. "I was actually looking forward to a rematch with you, but logistically speaking---"

"If you're going to help me," V.I.C.I. shouted, kicking Liya straight in the back, "then just SHUT UP AND HELP ME!"

The UnMaker grinned. "As you wish…"

Lizette, Liya, Simone and Dawn charged at V.I.C.I., while MaryBeth, Sarita, Cindy and Delilah went after the UnMaker. The remaining fembots---Maya, Cassandra and the unnamed Asian fembot---tried to break away from the group and head for a row of shipping containers. "Don't let them get away!" the brunette gynoid called out, dodging Lizette's backhand and answering with a brutal elbow smash to the gut. "Wouldn't dream of it!" the UnMaker replied, delivering a superkick to Delilah's head. The raven-haired fembot staggered, barely able to keep her balance; after a few seconds of watching the fembot stumble around, the UnMaker finally knocked her to the ground with a football tackle.

"Her deactivation switch is behind her left ear," V.I.C.I. shouted. "I know," the UnMaker replied, pressing the switch and deactivating Delilah. He narrowly avoided a stomp from MaryBeth, grabbing the blonde fembot by the ankle and dragging her to the ground. "For the record," he told the struggling fembot as he reached behind her ear, "I always thought your smile looked ridiculous."

A sharp crack split the air; Cindy had stomped on the UnMaker's arm.

"A..minor setback," he gasped, cradling the now useless apendage. "Release MaryBeth now," Cindy ordered in her emotionless voice, "or I will break your other arm." "I don't suppose we could negotiate a compromise?" the Unmaker quipped; Cindy glared at him and raised her foot again, preparing to stomp on his other arm.

And that's when something rather unexpected happened.

The mounted crane used to deliver rebar to the Student Union expansion suddenly came to life, the boom swinging the cable directly towards Cindy. The hook on the end of the cable collided with her back, effortlessly knocking her to the ground; Sarita, meanwhile, had just knealt down to reactivate Delilah, giving her nowhere to run as the hook flew at her next----decapitating her instantly.

What the hell?!

Delilah got to her feet. "Delilah-42X90 status report," she droned, oblivious to the iron hook sailing towards her until it embedded itself in her stomach, lifting her off the ground. "This unit has been compromised," she calmly stated, "initiating system---" Her sentence was cut off as the crane slammed her into an unfinished bit of the Student Union expansion, impaling her through the neck on a jutting bit of rebar. "SysTem ShuTdOWn iMMiNeNT," she screeched, her voice alternating in pitch until a fire erupted inside her ruined torso. A few seconds later, Delilah's head burst into flames as her facemask disconnected and fell to the ground.

"Two down," V.I.C.I. declared, "ten to go."

MaryBeth was now in a bad way; thanks to the UnMaker's tackle, she'd landed on a toolbox and wound up with a magnetic screwdriver stuck in her back. "Hi, I'm MaryBeth," she declared, moving as if she was shaking someone's hand. "We're going to have a great time today! Hi, I'm MaryBeth!" Her movements became more and more robotic, each motion causing the screwdriver's tip to go further and further into her systems. "The MaryBeth fembot is malfunctioning," Liya declared. "She must be deactivated." She took three steps towards the stricken fembot, only for the swinging hook to ram into the side of her head, staggering her. "Unit-unit-unit-unit-unit system-tem-tem-tem-tem-tem-tem failuuuuuuuuuurreee," she stammered, her head twitching to the left with an audible click with each repetition. "I'll take that as good news," V.I.C.I. remarked, mentally ramping up the voltage of DG v1.5. "Time for a makeover…V.I.C.I. style."

With her free hand, V.I.C.I. removed Liya's facemask, revealing the fembot's mechanical visage. "This might sting a bit…" Before Liya could react, V.I.C.I. drove the palm of her electrically-charged hand into the fembot's exposed face, sending current directly through the transistors, actuators and various other internal mechanisms. A burning smell soon filled the air; Liya's central power source had overloaded and caught fire, burning through her abdomen and jumpuit in record time. The fire literally cut the fembot in half at the waist, and both halves fell uselessly to the ground; within seconds, Liya had ceased functioning.

V.I.C.I. allowed herself a grin. "Three down, nine to---"

Lizette's knife-edged chop to the throat ended the boast. "You will pay for this," she coolly stated. "We will not allow you to defeat us." "Five of your 'sisters' are already gone," V.I.C.I. replied. "Getting rid of the rest won't be a problem." She deftly dodged another one of Lizette's knife-edged chops, which ended up hitting Maya right in the face. "Conne-conne-conne-conne-connection lo-lo-lo-lost," Maya sputtered, sparks shooting out of her elbows, knees, shoulders and hips. Her link to the controls now severed, Maya robotically strutted towards a nearby generator. "Uni-uni-uni-uni-unit rererererererererererererechargiiiiiiiiiiiiing," she droned, grabbing an extension cord that had been plugged into the generator and preparing to ram it into her abdomen via her navel.

"Maya, no!" Lizette shouted, sounding remarkably human. It was too late; Maya rammed the plug home, causing sparks to shoot out of every bodily orifice imaginable. Her pants instantly caught fire, and her fingertips melted away just as quickly. Smoke poured out of her nose and mouth, and her glass eyes exploded from the force of the current. A mere 20 seconds later, Maya was reduced to a smoldering pile of plastic, titanium and burnt clothes. Lizette stared at the burning mass that had once been Maya before turning her cold gaze towards V.I.C.I.; "This isn't over," she declared. "Cassandra, find and retrieve Cindy and Fembot 014; we must retreat."

"I don't think so," V.I.C.I. began, but the UnMaker stopped her and pointed up at the control booth of the crane with his good arm; "You've got bigger problems to worry about right now." V.I.C.I. looked up at the control booth and was horrified to see Tori Hartwell hanging onto the controls for dear life; electricity coursed through her limbs, and her body convulsed uncontrollably. "TORI! Hang on!" She prepared to scale the crane, but the UnMaker held her back. "Whatever did that to her has probably taken over her mind; if you climb up there and try to save her, she might attack you, and you'll both plummet----" "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU SUGGEST, THEN?!" Vicki shouted. The UnMaker shook his head. "You promised her that you would stop her if you had to," he muttered. Vicki nearly asked how he knew this, but said nothing as he continued. "I suggest you keep that promise…however you can."

Vicki blinked back tears. "Do your Voltaic Converters still work?" she asked; the UnMaker nodded. "Good. Put one hand on the crane, and give me your free hand." The UnMaker stared at her; "Seeing as how one of my arms happens to be broken, I have a better idea," he replied, unstrapping the devices from his arms. "Aim these at the control booth and use that electric grip of yours on them; they'll act like a sort of lightning gun and fire the electricity directly into the control booth."

"It won't work," Vicki countered. "It's too high up, and if I miss…."

"You're not actually thinking of going up there, are you?" the UnMaker asked. "I don't exactly have a choice," Vicki shot back. "Tori isn't just another fembot---she's my friend. I have to help her." She stared down the Unmaker with an unwavering gaze. "Got a problem with that?"

"No," the UnMaker replied without hesitation, "but he might." He pointed over Vicki's shoulder, prompting the brunette gynoid to look behind her.

"Bravo! Bra-vo!" Drake Bradford did a slow clap, looking as if he was enjoying every minute of Vicki's tortured indecision. "You've managed to take out six of my fembots….congratulations are definitely in order." "Enough talk," Vicki declared. "What did you do to Tori?” "I didn't do anything!" Bradford spat back, his smirk vanishing. "Your stupid friend probably set off an alarm---" "She's not stupid!" Vicki yelled.


Tori's voice sounded ethereal---and close, though only Vicki could hear it. "Tori?!" the brunette gynoid shouted, expecting her to see the blonde fembot behind her; to her amazement, Tori was still in the control booth of the crane. "It's happening, Vicki….my body isn't responding…I've lost control…" V.I.C.I.'s vision instantly magnified, allowing her to see Tori's arms moving in a most decidedly robotic fashion as they manipulated the crane controls. "Something's taking over my mind, Vicki…..something….named Stylo….."

Vicki felt the bottom of her stomach drop out. Stylo?!

"Tori, everything's going to be all right," she lied, trying to smile. "It's not all right," the UnMaker corrected. "I know what Stylo can do …and it won't be pretty. You have to take the shot." "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TWO BABBLING ABOUT?!" Bradford shouted. "None of your damn business!" the UnMaker called back, glaring at Drake before returning his attention to Vicki. "I'm probably the last person you should trust in this situation…but believe me, this is the only way to keep things from spiralling further out of control than they already have. You have to shoot her down---"

"I KNOW!" Vicki shouted, tears flooding her eyes. "I know…." She sank to her knees. "I…I didn't want this," she muttered. "I never wanted it to go this way…" "Nobody ever does," the UnMaker replied quietly. "Do you think I chose to work for that douchebag?" he asked, gesturing at Bradford. "YOU SHUT UP!" the douchebag in question yelled; the UnMaker ignored him. "It's not always easy," he told the grieving gynoid, "but rest assured….years from now, you'll look back on this night, and realize that you did what you had to do." "How do you know?" Vicki asked, blinking back tears. "I know because I had to do something like this once," the UnMaker whispered, "and I didn't break my promise."

At the mention of promises, Vicki recalled her words to Tori, promising that she'd take the fembot out, but only if she had to. "Forgive me, Tori," she murmured, returning to her feet and aiming the Voltaic Converters at the control booth. Knowing full well that she was essentially about to kill an innocent person, she ramped up the voltage on her Detaining Grip and channeled it through the Converters. I'm sorry, Tori….I'm so sorry.

As expected, the blast had spectacular results.

Tori was blasted out of the control booth instantly, and if the shock hadn't destroyed her, the fall did. Even more spectacular was the fact that just as Vicki's shot hit, a bolt of lightning struck the crane's control booth, moving through the frame and sending a shock straight into Vicki, reminding her of the dream in Palo Alto….

Except that this was no dream.

EDF and ALPA operatives were carting captured fembots into trucks and loading the destroyed fembots into other vehicles, but none of it mattered, mainly because Vicki couldn't see or hear any of it. Instead, she lay on the ground, 33 feet from where Tori had fallen; before she'd been hit, a single question had formed on her lips:


Vicki awoke in a hospital bed, the sting of her tears still biting at her face. "Wha…."

"So. You're awake."

The British-accented voice was unfamiliar, but nevertheless sounded friendly. Inevitably, Vicki found herself wondering who the speaker was; before she could even ask, however, the voice spoke up again. "I'm not with Bradford or Boris, in case you're wondering; Major Tom can vouch for me." "Well, that's great," Vicki muttered, "except I can't even see what you look like…" Though she couldn't see the man's face, she heard him chuckle. "You'll see my face soon enough, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson. Trust me on that." With that, Vicki could only listen for the enigmatic man's footsteps as he left the room; seconds later, she went into standby mode again to conserve power, all the while wondering who the enigmatic man was.

30 minutes later, Vicki found herself being stared at by thirteen familiar faces----the fembots she'd battled at the construction site! This can't be happening….wait, it actually can't be happening! Some of them were destroyed---

"Give her some room, girls…she's been through a lot."

Mr. Tell's voice sent a surge of hope through Vicki; Girls? As in the kidnapped students? Sure enough, Tell's face entered her field of vision; "Ah, the heroine of the hour awakes. Vicki, meet the thirteen girls whose lives you saved last night." The girls introduced themselves, and Vicki managed to hide her apprehension as they explained their rather skewed version of events. Apparently, Bradford had used a fake scholarship to lure the girls to SJSU, only to have them detained in a trailer at the construction site for reasons unknown. Vicki already knew the rest of the story; while the girls were held against their will, the fembots had assumed their identities and were prepared to enact Bradford's plan until Valerie overheard their conversation.

"We owe you big time, Vicki," Lizette told the brunette gynoid. "If your friends hadn't found us, we'd probably still be locked up in that stupid trailer." "Indeed," Tell agreed. "Thanks to your quick thinking---and judicious cellphone use---the authorities located the girls before something bad happened." So they don't know, Vicki realized; there were already too many people on campus who knew the truth about her, and she didn't feel like adding 13 girls to the list, even if she had contributed to their rescue.

After a few minutes of Q&A, the girls were ushered out under the pretense of letting Vicki get her much-needed rest; in reality Mr. Tell wanted to talk to her in private about what had happened at the construction site. "I read the report filed by the EDF," he began. "Apparently, you accepted equipment from an unsolicited operative---" "The Unmaker was trying to help me," Vicki explained. I didn't know his Voltaic Converters were---" "WHOA. Hold the phone right there. He let you borrow Voltaic Converters?!" "Yeah," Vicki admitted sheepishly. "I needed to deactivate Tori, and the Converters had the long-range fire I needed…." Even as she said the words, she couldn't help but cringe at how weak they sounded.

Tell sighed. "I don't blame you for trying, V, but…..Tori was too far gone already." "Probably because of that Stylo thing," Vicki muttered.

At the mention of Stylo, Mr. Tell went pale.

"Ah, care to run that by me again, V?" he asked, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. Vicki sighed; "Right before I took the Converters from the Unmaker, I heard Tori's voice; she'd been taken over by something with a name, and that name was Stylo." She paused. "Why? Does it matter?" Mr. Tell said nothing, choosing instead to lock the door. "Tell," Vicki prodded, "is something wrong?"

"Not yet, thank God," Tell muttered, to Vicki's surprise. "Vicki, if you ever encounter anything infected by this Stylo thing again…let me know, okay?" "Sure," Vicki replied, noticing that Tell had actually used her full first name. "How serious is this Stylo thing, anyways?"

Tell couldn't look Vicki in the eye. "Let's just say that it's something that should've stayed buried."

"So…..you have failed me again, Boris."

Shrouded in the darkness of the hidden room they shared, Elena Vlatko glared at her husband with unveiled contempt. She'd just found out about his defeat at San Jose State University, and the failure of his "improved" Franklin fembots was just the tip of the suck-tastic iceberg. "You have lost the two prototypes I entrusted unto your care, and you wasted every last bit of money I wired into your account. Explain yourself now, Boris."

"I…I did not waste the money," Boris stammered. "I….spent it all…”

Elena didn't raise her voice. "Spent it all on what, Boris?"

"Necessities! Spare parts, shipping costs, securing a location….all things I needed! It was for the success of the mission, my love! You must understand---"

"What I understand," Elena interjected, leaning forward as she spoke, "is that you obviously don't care about our future!" Boris grimaced; his beloved's face still needed work after the accident in the lab, and seeing the bare internals of her face---the exposed servos of her jaws, the subtle motors that moved her eyes---didn't help to lessen the blow. "The sabotage last week was only a minor setback," Elena declared, "and that was enacted by an outsider. This, however….this is nearly treason by neglect, and from you, no less!"

A door on the right side of the room opened, and a young Asian woman entered the room. She looked to be about 20 (strange, how there are no more like Vladimir, Boris thought) and was wearing only a metallic pink bikini; her long brown hair was arranged in a layer cut, matching her eyes perfectly. She handed Elena a gift box, bowed slightly, and left through the same door she'd entered from. "It seems that not all of my workers are incompetent," Elena muttered, opening the box to reveal her repaired facemask. "I suppose I was too harsh on you, Boris," she admitted, pressing her face to the rest of her head and waiting for the connections to seal properly. "It seems you were," Boris agreed. "I shall not rest until Vicki Lawson and her useless ALPA are ground into the dust beneath my heels!"

"And then you'd promptly be thrown in jail."

The voice emanating from the monitor nearly gave Boris a heart attack. "Baron!" he coughed, trying to sound pleased at the "visit" from his benefactor. "We are honored by your presence---" "Save your lies for the naïve, Boris." The Baron's visage turned to regard Elena, his face hidden in the darkness of his office. "I trust your repairs have gone well?" "Indeed they have," the gynoid replied, smirking. "Of course, had you notified me that the United Robotronics mole in my employ was also receiving payments from another company, the whole mess could have been avoided."

"I assure you, Comrade Elena, that this mole you speak of was only sent to observe," the Baron replied. "If he was receiving payments from outside sources, he did so without my knowledge or consent." Elena nodded, as if that statement closed the matter. "And the fembots built from Franklin's blueprints?" the Baron asked, once again addressing Boris. "Several of them escaped," the Russian genius replied, "but six of the fembots were destroyed in a battle with that foolish capitalist, the Unmaker---" "The Unmaker is not a fool," the Baron corrected. "He's the best he is at what he does. Still, the fact that he jumped ship on you is a bit telling." "As is the fact that four of the fembots were captured," Elena remarked, much to Boris' chagrin.

In his office across the ocean, the Baron steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair, a gesture one might assume when contemplating a plan of action. In reality, he had already figured out what move to make next; all he needed was time, money, and a comfortable sofa. Well, more of the time and money, really; he only wanted the sofa to make his office look slightly less "Death Star". "I'll be sending someone over to help with the retrieval efforts in a few weeks," he informed Boris and Elena. "Do not attempt anything until then, understood?"

"Understood, Baron," Elena replied. The monitor clicked off.

If Elena had been able to see the Baron's grin after the connection was terminated, there's a strong chance that she would've ended her alliance with him right then and there.

“I know he’s gonna blame me for this. I just know it.”

Despite the fact that he was currently lounging in a waterbed within the bedroom of his latest apartment---a loft in downtown Los Gatos---Drake Bradford was not feeling particularly calm, relaxed or “mellow”. After what he referred to as the Hat Trick of Suck (Boris’ departure, the Unmaker turning on him and the “missing” girls being safely reunited with their families), Drake fled the scene ASAP and locked down everything he could to keep the Feds from bringing down the hammer on him…and already, his efforts were doing absolutely nothing to slow them down. Riggs and Eileen had both agreed to run damage control, but it wouldn’t be enough.

The damage had already been done.

“If that phone rings,” Drake muttered, “I’m gonna throw it across the room. That, or I’ll just leave and never come back.” The latter option did have its advantages; he’d ammassed enough frequent flyer miles to pull off a “disappearing act” whenever the hell he felt like it, and with his intercontinental connections---

“Busy night, Bradford?”

Drake nearly jumped ten feet straight up---the phone hadn’t even rung, yet someone was calling him via the built-in speakerphone---


Not him.

Not now….

“Helloooo? Anybody hoooooome?” A dry chuckle. “Did I call the wrong number again? No worries…it’s not like the warden’s going to ask me to pay the phone bill in a few months---"


“Ah! You remembered! Indeed, Bradford, it is I---your old Silicon Valley saboteur buddy, still languishing in this wonderful little maximum security resort. You should try it some time….prison life isn’t anywhere near as bad as one might be led to believe. Anyways, in case it isn’t obvious why I’ve called, the grapevine’s a-buzzin’ with chatter….particularly, quite a lot of chatter related to your…escapades…”

The all-too familiar feeling of a cold sweat broke out over Drake’s shoulders. “How do you know about this already?” he asked, instantly regretting it.

“You know me, Drakey Boy,” the Maestro replied with a chuckle. “I’ve got more roots than a Douglas Fir, and mine do more than provide nutrients. To a man like me, information is as good as gold….especially when that information comes in the form of conveniently packaged photos, reports and a rather lengthy description of what some people are calling---“ “I DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT PEOPLE ARE CALLING IT!” Drake screamed, casting aside all illusions of protocol and decorum. “WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS HOW IN THE HELL YOU GOT THIS NUMBER, AND HOW YOU CIRCUMVENTED THE PHONELINE SECURITY SYSTEMS I PUT IN PLACE! EITHER YOU TELL ME EXACTLY HOW YOU PULLED THIS LITTLE TRICK OFF, OR---“

“Or you’ll what?” the Maestro chuckled. “I’ve already got two consecutive life sentences with zero chance of parole, so there’s not a whole hell of a lot you can threaten me with, Drakey Boy. Speaking of threats, I could probably do quite a lot of damage to your reputation with all of the dirt I’ve been gathering…siphoning company funds for ‘private use’, illegally reallocating resources to your own projects without proper documentation, kidnapping college students---girls, at that…..d’you want me to keep going, or is it finally beginning to sink in?”

Drake fought to keep himself from screaming again. “What do you want from me?” he croaked.

A harsh laugh issued forth from the speakerphone. “What do I want from you?! I never thought I’d see the day when Drake Bradford, of all people, asked me what I wanted from them…..” The laugh faded into a bemused sigh; “Seeing as how you’ve given me a good laugh, Drakey Boy,” the Maestro quipped, “I’ll forgo my usual littany of vague hints and cryptic clues to cut straight to the point of the matter…..”

His voice turned deadly serious: “I’m planning something. Something big.”

“Something….like what?” Drake heard himself ask. “I mean, you’re not thinking of…..breaking out, or---“

Another laugh exploded from the speaker. “’Breaking out’?! ME?!” The Maestro laughed again. “You just don’t get it, do you, Drakey Boy---“


The laughter from the speakerphone quieted down. “Okay, okay,” the Maestro acquiesced, “I’ll stop with the stupid pet names….because I really do need you to do something for me. Something rather important…”

For the next few minutes, Drake listened, took notes and pretty much caved to the demands issued through the speakerphone. It didn’t matter that the Maestro’s “plan” was going to cost him upwards of $70,000,000; compared to what would happen if he didn’t follow through on his promises, that kind of money was chump change. Any other option he could think of would never work; if he went to the authorities, for instance, they’d find out about his latest “venture” and throw him in the slammer as well.

Any way you slice it, Drake Bradford was locked in a no-win scenario.

When the agreements and arrangements were all said and done, the Maestro thanked Bradford for his “rather generous contributions”. “After all,” he admitted, “it’s so hard getting good help these days….”

….especially when your “current residence” is a prison cell.

“You’d better not plan on stiffing me,” Drake Bradford declared, prompting a smile from the man who many had known only as “The Maestro”. “Oh, believe me, Bradford,” the criminal mastermind replied, “I intend to pay you back in full once this is all over with.” He grinned to himself, already planning the “full repayment” for Drake’s favor. “Got to go now…there’s a queue waiting….be seeing you.” He chuckled as he hung up the phone… only to pick it up again exactly five seconds later and speed-dial another number.

“Have the arrangements been made?”

“They have,” the Maestro replied. “I’ve got Bradford by the short and curlies, and if he even thinks of turning Queen’s Evidence, he’ll be put away for the rest of his stupid life.” His grin turned utterly malicious; “Y’know, the two of us could rule the world if we were so inclined….”

“Trust me---it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I suggest you stick to your own plans.”

The Maestro rolled his eyes; “I have no intention of abandoning them now,” he declared. “It’s been far too long since I’ve had this kind of opportunity…..and I intend to take full advantage of it. Every single useless twat who took part in bringing my glorious career to an end is going to get exactly what’s coming to them….that was my only crime, in the end, getting caught the way I did……” His fist reflexively clinched at the thought of his arrest. “….and they do deserve what’s coming to them,” he added, his voice a ragged whisper.

“Indeed they will. For now, I suggest you stick to your current itenerary…”

The Maestro nodded, all too aware that any deviation from his usual habits would only derail all of his hard work. “Honestly, I don’t know how you put up with that Bradford idiot,” he admitted, “but….” He sighed. “I’ll be waiting for your next call, Baron.” He hung up the cellphone, smirking as a pair of guards ran past his cell.

"So I guess there's no way Tori will be coming back any time soon, then…"

After leaving the hospital (thanks to the ALPA "connections" that gave her a clean bill of health), Vicki had gone straight to Kim DeFalco's dorm room to break the news to her. "Tell did say that they had the technology to rebuild her," Vicki admitted. "Y'know, 'stronger, faster, better than she was before,' all that stuff…" "Then why can't they just do that?" Kim asked. Vicki stared at the ground, remembering Tell's reaction when she mentioned Stylo. "I don't know," she finally muttered.

The two left Royce Hall to pick up Nash from the hospital. The hit-and-run that had nearly killed him two days earlier was still being investigated; as for Nash himself, doctors had told him that he'd be wheelchair-bound until Christmas, if he was lucky.

As the two walked, Vicki noticed a familiar figure in the distance. "You go on ahead," she told Kim, "I'll catch up in a minute." Kim nodded and went on her way, leaving Vicki to confront the newcomer by herself. "So," she began as she approached the figure, "it's you. Again."

"Indeed it is," the UnMaker replied. "Bradford's lawyers are already working on ways to keep him out of prison before the end of the week, so don't expect too much of a reprieve in that department." "I never said I wanted one," Vicki replied. "Too bad," the UnMaker replied, grinning, "because Bradford still doesn't know who you are…or what you are." His grin faded. "I suggest you don't try to find out more about me, Vicki Lawson, and I advise you to forget what you already know." "Why?" the brunette gynoid asked, a bit too sarcastically.

The reply shattered her snarky mood: "Because anyone who knows too much about me will wind up dead."

"Is that a threat?" Vicki asked, anger slowly rising in her voice. "No, just a warning. And don't bother trying to Google my name; all you'll find are walkthroughs for DooM 64 and a few heavy-metal bands." With that, the UnMaker strode away. "At least tell me why you helped me!" Vicki called after him, stopping the enigmatic young man in his tracks. "You want to know the reason I gave you an assist at the construction site?" he asked. Vicki nodded slowly.

The UnMaker sighed. "I helped you because I had to."

He turned and walked away once again. Vicki tried to ignore the feeling of unease as she ran to catch up with Kim, but something about her encounter with the UnMaker was still bothering her. I scanned him multiple times, so I know he's human….what is it about this guy that's bugging me so much?!

Mr. Tell stared at the computer screen in front of him, unwilling to believe what he was seeing.

"Franklin, you crazy genius, you," he muttered, grinning. "You hid it from everyone, right under their noses, and they didn't even have the common sense to look for it…"

After carefully dismantling the MaryBeth fembot, Mr. Tell had already found out that Dr. Franklin's dream of using lightweight materials and bleeding-edge tech to streamline and perfect his fembots hadn't been that far off; in fact, MaryBeth had been a prototype, built only after Franklin had nearly gone broke while saving up for the materials (lightweight titanium, ceramics and plastics weren't as readily available to the robotics community in the 1970s as they are nowadays, after all). Boris had simply repalced her exoskin and reprogrammed her….

But that barely scratched the surface compared to what Tell found next.

"Schzero.obj, Synvex.obj….the precursors," he muttered. "Both of them successfully wiped from the hard drive after a few hours….but there's no way---no….." He felt as if his jaw were about to hit the floor. "No way in HELL….." His grin widened. "This….this is just unreal…." Somewhere, either within the confines of his imagination or in another part of the building, the 1812 Overture was playing.

"I think I've just had my 'Eureka' moment," he murmured, fighting the urge to start cheering like a lunatic.

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary: October 7, 2010

These past few days have been….interesting, to say the least. And here I thought the Palo Alto assignment would be the highlight of the week!

For starters, I encountered the "grandchildren" of fembots designed by one Dr. Franklin; the main difference between his fembots and these new ones is that these new-breed girls were made from lightweight materials and the latest in electronic gadgetry. Still, that wasn't enough to save six of them from being destroyed…

In other, slightly more mundane news, I've made another new friend---actually, several new friends. Aaron Cardwell (the seventh person who knows what I am), Kim DeFalco (the sixth) and Tori Hartwell (the fifth). Aaron works at Tentrex Electronics, and having him on my side might be a major asset in the long run (plus, I found out that Nate from DreamLand was built in his image!) Ths situation with Tori a bit more complicated, though; it turns out that she's one of Franklin's "grandkids"….and she was also being controlled by something called Stylo. I don't know how long it was controlling her for, but it made its presence known last night…..and I kinda sorta had to kill her. See, she asked me to promise that I'd stop her if she lost control of herself, so my promise remained unbroken….even though I kept my word in the worst possible way.

Speaking of "un"-ing things (is that even a word?), I encountered a guy calling himself the UnMaker during the craziness of the past few days. He warned me not to look him up on Google or anything, and I'm actually going along with that; if it turns out he's related to the Mafia, I'm screwed. Oh and Boris Vlatko---the creator of the Vladmir Mk ICV from the spelling bee---was in cahoots with Drake Bradford (I knew that guy was bad news!) Fortunately, Drake has no idea who or what I am; it's times like these that I almost think someone's watching out for me, someone I don't even know….

I really wish I could say more, but I have to get back to my essay; it's about how Orson Welles's film The Magnificent Ambersons could've been a huge Hollywood hit (and maybe even changed the film industry) had RKO Studios not chosen to burn the bits they cut out and tack on a stupid happy ending.

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

Franklin's fembots may have been defeated, but they pale in comparison to Vicki's next assignment. After a disturbing phone call and the discovery of a murdered NASA pilot, Vicki finds herself pulled out of class and into a whirlwind of activity alongside Major Tom. Someone (or something) has been killing off NASA employees associated with Project Apollo, and it's beginning to look like Major Tom may be next!

Vicki's going to need all the help she can get in this one. Fortunately for her, Leah Chambers---the $5 Billion Girl---is visiting SJSU as part of her college lecture tour. With Major Tom rapidly losing his focus thanks to horrific nightmares about the death of his old partner (a NASA operative codenamed Nova Girl), Vicki and Leah may have to go it alone against the unknown in "Out of This World", the next thrilling installment of The V.I.C.I. Diaries, coming to Fembot Central later this month!

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