Valley of the Damned

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Part 1

"STOP IT!” Hannsen's words came out in a shriek---quite different from his earlier, bravado-laced remarks.

“You didn’t stop yourself from killing Sharon,” Vicki replied, the faintest tinge of coldness in her voice. “Why---”

“NOT MY HANDS!” Hannsen sobbed. “ANYTHING BUT MY HANDS! PLEASE!”

“I should,” Vicki whispered. “I really should…” Her grip on his hand tightened, just a bit…

“Please,” Hannsen pleaded---no mocking, no sarcasm now. Just pure, raw pain.

To his horror, Vicki‘s face was no longer blank, expressionless….now, she was smiling. “How does it feel?” she asked. “Tell me, Hannsen…..what‘s it feel like to be the victim?” Her words were almost…conversational in tone, as if she was asking how he liked his breakfast that morning. “You feel scared, right?”

“YES!”

Pain shot up his right arm. “You feel completely, totally helpless?”

“YES!” Tears---damnable stupid tears---streamed down his face. Never before, in his entire life, had he felt this weak…not even when he’d been arrested and dragged off to the drunk tank for the night, before the first of the many trials meant to keep him in prison until he finally shuffled off the mortal coil. That was nothing, compared to this…now, he felt small, insignificant, and utterly hopeless.

“You’d give anything to get out of this right now, up to and including your own soul---”

“YES, G__DAMNIT, YES!” .

Once again, Vicki‘s response sent waves of fear up his spine: She giggled. “Well, now you know….”

The smile vanished, just as the Field Agent‘s eyes blazed red. “Now you know how she felt.”

Hannsen felt himself being flung to the ground, the unforgiving concrete smashing into his spine with the force of a sledgehammer. “Now,” Vicki stated, “you know exactly how Sharon Wilson felt when you put a Colt Python to the back of her head and pulled the trigger. You know exactly what it felt like for her to be on the brink between life and death…” A smirk crossed her features. “…but in this case….I think death is too good for you…”

Her next words were truly horrific: “…and you deserve something a bit more…severe.”


“You can turn it off now....I think we all get the point.”

Ted Lawson stared at the monitor before him, shaking his head. “I...I still can't believe it,” he muttered. “I mean, she could've just read him his rights, slapped the cuffs on him---maybe kicked him around a little bit, but....this is just....” He turned away. “It's like I'm watching her in a nightmare, and I can't wake up.”

“This is a nightmare,” Oberon muttered, his gaze locked not on the monitor, but on Vicki herself---strapped into a chair in the center of an observation theater, wires trailing out of her back panel (and through a conveniently-placed hole in the back of the chair) to connect to the monitoring system. “You're damn lucky we got in there when we did, Theodore---if that security camera footage was leaked to anyone else...” His head turned the slightest degree as his unfeeling stare leveled at Ted. “We'd be in a Hell of our own making.”

Anything Ted could've said was drowned out by Hannsen's scream from the monitor.


“Don‘t,” Hannsen whispered. “Just…just don‘t….please…kill me now and be done with it, if you want, but just end this!” He stumbled backwards, praying (an act he wasn‘t really that accustomed to) that V.I.C.I. wouldn‘t try to break his hands; “PLEASE!” he sobbed.

V.I.C.I. stared down at him, her expression neutral.

“This….this is what you want, isn‘t it?!” he screamed. “I killed your roommate, and you show up here to break me in half…WELL CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE OFFICIALLY BROKEN ME!” Once again, his words descended into sobs.

“No.”

Hannsen couldn‘t bring himself to look up.

“You’re not broken. Not yet.” V.I.C.I. knelt down, to stare right into his eyes. “But you will be.”

Her grip closed around his ankle, and for the briefest moment, Hannsen expected her to hurl him across the room again. “Just do it,” he moaned. “Throw me into the window, or put me through the ceiling, and BE DONE WITH IT!”

“You don’t get it, do you, Hannsen?” V.I.C.I. inquired. “I’m not going to kill you---I’ve said that enough times already, but you still refuse to accept it…so I guess I have to spell it out for you. This isn’t an execution, or torture, or anything else you could possibly think it was…”

Her voice took on a decidedly-sinister edge: “It‘s justified retribution.”

Mere seconds after he realized what the gynoid meant, something in Hannsen's ankle snapped.


Ted wanted to cut the power to the monitor right at the moment of Hannsen's scream, to rip the headphones off and storm out of the room altogether...but the hand on his shoulder and the voice at his ear kept him from leaving. “Not yet,” Oberon murmured. “We must see this through to the end....”


“You…you‘re not supposed to do this,” Hannsen whimpered. “Heroes don‘t torture people….they don‘t throw them into lockers and kick the crap out of them…heroes…are supposed to….” A pained, terrified sob fought its way past his lips. “HEROES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THE GOOD GUYS, DAMNIT! YOU‘RE SUPPOSED TO SLAP THE CUFFS ON ME AND DRAG ME TO THE POLICE…” He tried to raise himself up on all fours, only to fall to the floor with a thud.

“Then I guess I’m not a hero,” V.I.C.I. murmured. “No matter---time to finish this.”

“DO IT, THEN!” Even in his pain, Hannsen managed to drum up one last note of defiance in his voice. “Go ahead, Agent Lawson…” He tried (and failed) to keep the sob out of his voice. “FINISH ME!” Blood and tears trailed down his face in equal measure; “FINISH ME,” he demanded, “NOW!”

V.I.C.I. paused. “You really want me to finish you?”

Hannsen nodded, his eyes squeezed shut as he waited for the end---


It was hard to tell who's scream was louder---Ted's, or Vicki's.

One was terrified, on the verge of a full-blown panic attack that would've broken the will of a lesser man; the other, a sobbing, shrieking wail of fear, regret, guilt and shame rolled into one. Even as the two screams filled the air, the monitor erupted in a shower of sparks---as did every light in the room.

A few minutes later, the emergency lights kicked on...

....revealing Ted in the observation chamber, helping tear the straps off of the chair as Vicki clung to him like a drowning man to a life buoy

“Never let me do that again,” the brunette gynoid pleaded. “No matter what it takes....”

“Even if it takes DeCommissioning you?”

Vicki had to force herself to look up at Oberon. “I don't know...”

“It won’t take that,” Ted insisted, his voice sounding weak even to his own ears. “This…this was just a minor issue, nothing a simple---”

“Nothing a simple patch couldn‘t fix?” Vicki finished tonelessly, staring into her creator---her father‘s eyes. “Is that all it’s going to take? You’ll just write some new software and install it to my internal hard drive--into my mind---and then we can forget all about this ever having happened?” Her voice, angry as it was, sounded more hurt than anything else. “This isn’t a hardware issue or a software issue, Dad….”

Her eyes brimmed with tears. “….this is a personal issue.”

“Agreed,” Oberon stated, stepping forward into the observation chamber. There was no trace of a smile in his expression, no glib snarkiness in his words; the set to his jaw seemed to add twenty, maybe thirty years to him, and his eyes---narrowed, unwavering and (in this particular instance) cold---held the fury of an exploding star held in check only by some miraculous force of nature. “And that, Agent Lawson, is precisely the reason why this committee has been convened---to determine the full extent of your….attack on Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, and if it constitutes a clear and present danger to your fellow ALPA Field Agents, your family and friends…” His expression darkened. “….or to your own safety and well-being. Furthermore, we must decide what course of action to take---”

“IT DOESN‘T MATTER!” Ted thundered. “Don‘t you people GET IT?! Hannsen knew he was setting himself up for a fall as soon as he put that Colt Python to Sharon‘s head and pulled the trigger!” Even as he raged, sobs permeated Ted‘s words. “This….it‘s not her fault….” He hugged Vicki close.

Oberon‘s reply was chilling in its simplicity: “Whether it is or isn‘t her fault is no longer relevant.”

At this, Ted pulled away from Vicki, and did something the brunette gynoid had rarely---if ever---seen him do.

He got angry.

“So you‘ve made up your mind already?” he murmured, slowly walking towards Oberon. “You’re going to crisp her CPU, nuke her hard drive and wipe out everything that makes her who she is?” Every step brought a new, more aggressive edge to his words; “You’re just going to sit there, and fill out paperwork,” he continued, “and choose to end her existence without even giving her the chance to defend her actions?!” Before the security personnel had time to react, Ted closed the gap between himself and Oberon, grabbing the ALPA Chairman by the shoulders. “You’re just going to sit here, fill out forms and then kill her?!” he snarled. “THAT’S what you’re all going to do?!”

“If you‘re trying to threaten me,” Oberon whispered, “it won‘t work….”

Again, his voice turned cold. “And if it comes to it, we will kill Vicki.” He turned on his heel, ready to leave…

What happened next shocked every single official, Field Agent and security officer present: Ted, who‘d simply stood there as the Chairman turned and began to walk out, tackled Oberon to the floor and began beating the living crap out of him.

“Dad, NO!” Vicki was halfway out of the chair as soon as Ted got a running start. “Don’t---”

“YOU THINK YOU CAN THREATEN MY DAUGHTER?!” Punches hammered into the back of Oberon‘s skull as Ted, pushed to the very brink of sanity and reason, finally lost everything remotely resembling “his cool”, to the horror of all present. “YOU WILL NOT KILL VICKI! DO YOU HEAR ME?! YOU WILL NOT KILL HER!”

“Dad, just let him go,” Vicki pleaded. “Please…”

Instead of following his daughter‘s advice, Ted continued beating Oberon senseless.

Or, to be more accurate, he continued punching Oberon in the back of the head, unaware that the other man was about to unleash a fury of his own.

“Sir, step away from the Chairman now,” a helmeted Field Agent ordered, “or we will use force.” Four other Agents raised their Beretta CX-4 Storm rifles, their fingers hovering outside the trigger guards in preparation for a shoot to kill order they almost prayed they wouldn’t get. “Mr. Lawson, we don’t want this to end in bloodshed---”

“Dad,” Vicki wept, “it’s over….just---”

A strange, low growl cut her off, and it took her a few seconds to realize that the source of that growl was none other than Oberon himself. Like a figure of Hercules, shrugging off the forces of Hades, the armor-clad ALPA Chairman threw Ted off of himself, rising to his feet in a fluid, almost graceful motion. Without even pausing to glance at the Agents (or Vicki), Oberon stormed over to where Ted lay, coughing and wheezing---and grabbed him by the throat.

“Never lay a hand on me in anger again,” he growled, lifting Ted against the wall, “or I will END you---”

“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Vicki shrieked. “He….he was just….” Her voice broke. “He just wanted to help me…”

For a full three minutes, the only sound in the room was Vicki Lawson, sobbing quietly.

On the dot of the fourth minute, Ted Lawson fell, gasping, to the floor as Oberon half-staggered away.

Nobody moved to stop Vicki as she ran to kneel at her father‘s side; “I‘m sorry,” she whimpered, crying into his shoulder. “Dad….this whole stupid thing….” She buried her face in his shoulder, no longer caring that an entire room full of people had now turned its attention to her. “I‘m sorry….”

“I know.”

The words came not from Ted, or even from Oberon; the crowd surrounding the observation room had parted to reveal the Man in Grey, who entered the chamber and knelt next to a visibly-shaken Oberon. “Ted, rash as his actions were, only acted out of love for you, Vicki Lawson,” he rasped. “Had the need arisen, he would more than likely have thrown himself in front of a train if it meant saving your life…” He offered his hand to Oberon; “The Chairman,” he added, “only meant to---”

“Don’t.”

Even as he stood, it was easy to see that Oberon‘s rage had given way to something far worse. “There is no excuse,” he breathed, “for what just happened here…none.” Even as he wiped his eyes with his sleeve, the ALPA Chairman sobbed quietly. “This meeting is over,” he finally croaked. “All paperwork, recordings, notes and such….I want all of them tossed in the incinerator before this day is through. Vicki, Ted…stay. The rest of you…”

Fifteen seconds later, the room outside the observation chamber was empty.

As soon as the door shut, Oberon fell to his knees and wept.

“I….I‘m, ah…..” Even as she beheld the scene and tried to apologize, Vicki found it virtually impossible to say something that wouldn‘t cause the entire situation to flare up again. “This…I just…”

After a few more seconds of groping for words, she simply sat there in silence. Ted was still half-sprawled on the floor, trying to catch his breath; Oberon, with the Man in Grey standing beside him, had incorporated a chant of sorts into his weeping. Even as she calmed herself, Vicki‘s auditory sensors informed her that the half-wailing chant was in Latin, and was the same phrase over and over.

“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

So he‘s saying “through my fault, through my own fault, through my most grievous fault”…but why?

“Do you hate me, Vicki?”

The question startled the brunette gynoid. “Ah, I don‘t---”

“Do you, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, hate me?” Even without the sobbing, there was something in Oberon‘s voice that sounded…defeated. “In the span of the past ten minutes, I‘ve threatened to kill you, tried to kill your father and announced to a room full of people that I have no qualms about DeCommissioning you if it came to that…all I want to know, right now, is if you hate me.”

Once again, Vicki was at a loss for words. “I…what?!”

Slowly, Oberon rose to his feet. “He‘d probably be laughing his arse off right now, if he wasn‘t in Casualty,” he muttered. “Hannsen, I mean…if he‘d known what kind of insanity would‘ve come out of…well….”

“I get it.”

“Figured you would.” After a deep, shuddering breath (that sounded uncomfortably like a sob), the Chairman held his hand out to the Man in Grey, who presented him with his sunglasses. “I‘d hate me, if I were in your position,” he remarked. “Not that I‘m trying to encourage you, or anything…it‘s just…” He shook his head. “If I‘d had my way, Matthew Hannsen would‘ve been given the chair after his first trial, instead of being carted off to the first of many penal institutions that crumbled under his influence. ‘The weed of crime bears bitter fruit’, indeed….” He let out another deep breath. “When I said I would kill you if I had to,” he continued, “it wasn’t meant as a threat, or a boast, or a challenge. In this job…sometimes, you have to do things that you don’t exactly enjoy. In the ALPA, that often includes DeComm assignments. Had the order been handed down for me to personally DeComm you, Vicki…I’m not going to lie---it wouldn’t have been my first.”

This time, the words came easy: “Guess that means nobody gets special treatment, then…”

Not surprisingly, Vicki‘s attempt to lighten the mood didn‘t exactly work out as planned. “Matthew Hannsen got special treatment,” Oberon spat, “and look where it got him….that‘s not even remotely on-topic. I believe the question was whether or not you hated me for saying I‘d kill you if it came to that.”

“We get the point,” Ted groaned (Vicki suspected he was trying for a yell). “Just…can we please leave?”

Oberon gave a tired nod. “They‘re waiting in the war room anyways. As of right now, all disciplinary hearings are hereby postponed indefinitely, pending further notice.” He tried for a smile, but only managed a halfway decent smirk. “Should give the pencil-pushers something to whinge about for the next few weeks…”

Silence.

“Right. Everyone to the war room…we can continue this fascinating conversation on the way there.”

The lights in the observation chamber clicked off as its last four occupants left.

Even as she tried to wrap her head around what she‘d just seen, Vicki refused to view her situation as “dodging the bullet”. Even after repeated assurances from Tell, Anton, DuBraul and others that she had no need to fear a DeComm, the brunette gynoid was more afraid of herself---and if circumstances would ever emerge that would lead her to go that far again. She’d taunted Hannsen during the fight (it wasn’t a fight, she reminded herself, it was the closest I’ve ever come to killing someone), mocked him mercilessly and even considered breaking his hands….

Again, the memory of Chopin‘s Raindrops in the elevator flitted through her processors.

“Why is Hannsen nicknamed the Maestro?” she quietly asked, without speaking to anyone in particular.

“He always loved classical music,” the Man in Grey replied, his voice still a hoarse, near-grating rasp. “Even in the Great Dirty World Wide Web days, he found time to practice. He didn‘t just play it, either---a few of his fellow hackers claimed that he wrote an entire concerto. If he hadn’t been a hacker…”

Vicki nodded silently, hating herself even more for what she’d done (and for what she'd almost done).

“Alicia saved most of his music,” the Man continued. “After he killed his father, Hannsen wasn‘t allowed to bring any of his compositions with him to prison; the GDW3 considered destroying them. Alicia had to break into the house at night, smuggle out as much as she could and then claim that rivals of the group were trying to steal evidence…her reasoning, of course, was that Hannsen may have hidden code for future projects in the sheet music itself.”

The pregnant pause barely allowed Vicki to form the inevitable question on her lips---

“He didn‘t, in case you‘re wondering. There was no hidden code on any of the sheet music.”

Well, that was just boring. “So….did Alicia and Hannsen….I mean, were they…..”

“They were close. Very close.” A tinge of regret marked the Man‘s next statement: “Some believe that Alicia could've easily persuaded Hannsen to give up his life as a hacker and potentially go legit, had it not been for his father. If he‘d let the boy live his own life…” He couldn‘t bring himself to finish the sentence.

“How many others knew?” Vicki asked. “About Hannsen and Alicia....did anyone--”

“We had our suspicions,” the Man replied softly, “but chose...not to act on them. Relations between the ALPA and the House were...different than they are now; Alicia was under our employment as a temporary Field Agent to discern Hannsen's motives, his plans...anything and everything he might have tried against us.”

Sounds a lot like the way things are now... “I'm guessing Celeste wasn't a fan of this approach?”

“She had her own issues to tend to at the time. Her daughter had been---”

“Taken,” Oberon stated, the suddenness of his voice startling the brunette gynoid. “Taken, by me, for the sole purpose of proving that machines and humanity can co-exist peacefully. I found her a good home, left her with a wonderful, loving family that gave her everything she'd ever possibly need to make her own way in the world...and Celeste tried to have me killed.” He chuckled mirthlessly; “Blasted maternal instincts of hers kicked into overdrive,” he muttered. “Very nearly ended me, to be honest...and after it was all over, she had the bold-faced cheek to ask if I still loved her.” He shook his head at the absurdity of the idea.

Vicki, on the other hand, didn't find anything absurd about it. “Did you?”

Oberon stopped in his tracks, considering the question. “To be honest,” he whispered, “I don't remember.”

Without another word, he continued down the corridor, prompting the others to follow him.

More than a few of the individuals who'd witnessed Vicki's interrogation in the observation room were waiting for the group in the War Room---Clive DuBraul, Anton Malvineous, Sascha “Tawny” Burton, Ayla Bishop, Kevin Gayle (who'd healed nicely from his encounter with Faceless a month prior), Blair Murphy (who'd similarly overcome the injuries dealt to him by the Butcher of Lake Gilmour) and---last but definitely not least---Joan and Jamie. Also present were more than a few individuals who hadn't witnessed the interrogation---including, most surprisingly of all, Harriet Brindle.

“Harriet?!” Vicki gasped, every remaining shred of fear within her processors evaporating in an instant.

“Yep,” the redheaded Aavyl Cybernetics executive beamed. “Miss me?”

Oberon finally allowed himself a smile as the two friends embraced. “What are you doing here?” Vicki asked, still trying to comprehend why, exactly, her nosiest of old neighbors had somehow gained admission to a secure ALPA facility. “I...I thought you were---”

“Majoring in journalism?” Harriet offered. “I was---still am, to be honest...but then Dad gave me some advice...”

“She's next in line to lead Aavyl Cybernetics,” DuBraul explained. “Considering Aavyl's place in the ALPA's power structure, it made more than enough sense for her to be here for this strategy meeting...which, by the way, is about to begin.” He gave a brief Father Christmas smile; “I'm sure you two will be able to reminisce about old times after the briefing,” he added, “but for now...”

“I get it,” Vicki replied, too stunned by Harriet's inexplicable presence at the meeting to complain. “Ah, where do I---”

Harriet gestured towards a row of chairs near Lawson's Eleven. “I took the liberty of reserving our seats.”

“Just like in high school,” Vicki murmured, grinning. “Oh, and you never commented on...well, y'know, my new look....” She gestured to her face.

“Oberon told me about it. Something about you getting involved in a fireworks accident?”

At least he didn't give her the full story... “Something like that, yeah.”

“Well, I like it. Sort of takes the years off, makes you look a hell of a lot younger than you are.”

If only I could tell you why, Harriet.... Vicki managed a smile. “It's a lot better than looking older than I am, right?” she teased. “I mean, could you picture me with wrinkles and crows' feet?” The two shared a giggle as the lights dimmed, and for a few brief moments, everything else---the DeComm hearing, Hannsen's plan being brought to fruition without him, the explosion of tempers between Oberon and Ted---was naught but an already-fading memory.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this strategic/tactical discussion will now begin. Please be seated.”

DuBraul's voice prompted Vicki and Harriet to take their seats, watching and listening intently as the meeting commenced. “As all of you are well aware,” he stated, “Matthew Emmerich Hannsen's plans, as of late, have been far-reaching, severely damaging and difficult---if not impossible---to trace. However, due to the actions of our own Field Agents---including Field Agent Vicki Lawson---we have now been able to determine Hannsen's course of action, and the measures he would've taken against us had Agent Lawson not...incapacitated him.”

The faintest shudder ran through all present; just as quickly, it faded, leaving only silence in its wake.

“Aaron Cardwell of Tentrex Electronics has compiled a report on the threat that we now face,” DuBraul continued, “and he has chosen to present this report in person. Mr. Cardwell, if you would...” The President of the ALPA stepped aside, allowing Aaron to take the floor.

Even in what had to be the most dire circumstances she'd found herself in for the past few weeks (or even months, she reminded herself), Vicki couldn't help but be impressed that Aaron was looking rather well for someone who was still on the rise to become CEO of a Fortune 500 contender. “Thank you for extending this opportunity to me, sir,” he stated, shaking DuBraul's hand before turning his attention to the audience. “Now, I'm sure most of you remember the Drake Bradford incident from last year---specifically, near the start of last October. For those of you who didn't get the memo, Bradford unleashed a small army of fembots on San Jose State University, for the sole intention of recovering a gynoid that he claimed was 'missing' from one of his shipments. Earlier this year, the surviving fembots from that incident---together with an entirely new group of fembots---attacked SJSU again, their mission this time revolving around the capture or neutralization of one Kirsten Sanderson.” He paused, glancing around the room; “As of last month,” he continued, “the ALPA had issued a statement claiming that all of Bradford's fembots had been neutralized, contained or reprogrammed.”

A slow, quiet sigh punctuated the statement. “Unfortunately for all of us, that's no longer the case.”

On cue from DuBraul, several large screens running Apple's KeyNote software descended from ceiling mounts at strategic points in the room, allowing all present to view the data Aaron had collected. “With the help of several independent sources, Tentrex has confirmed that Bradford's initial order of fembots was the first of an intended series---throughout the last few years, Hannsen and his affiliates have been ordering fembots in groups of 21, more than likely to put blame on William J. Rengold III. From what we've been able to gather, the fembots Hannsen ordered use the same combination of Dr. Franklin's original designs mixed with the most cutting-edge modern materials....along with something Franklin himself never would've dreamed of.”

The screens all turned red, showing an internal view of one of the fembots' processors, BIOS syntax and programming. “According to the information we've received,” Aaron continued, “Hannsen's plan was---and still is---to have these fembots run through a cycle of physical/mental stimuli that would push them to and over the threshold of a red ring event.”

Worried murmurs, whispers and gasps sounded throughout the War Room. Even Harriet was shaking her head and clenching her fist, muttering angrily about Hannsen's apparent stupidity. Guess I'm not the only one with a grudge against Hannsen, Vicki realized. Or even the only one who's dealt with him before....

“Unfortunately, our sources were unable to determine the exact nature, extent or scale of Hannsen's scheme,” Aaron admitted. “Due to his...current condition, interrogation is out of the question---even though his health remains stable, extradition or any other form of bringing him back to the States for trial are out for the time being. With that in mind, we've been forced to comb through his last few contacts, searching their connections and such for any pertinent information.” He gave a defeated sigh. “The progress has been...minimal.”

Don't look at them, Lawson...don't you dare look at any of them....if any one of them are even thinking of looking at you... Vicki allowed her glance to sweep the room as quickly as possible to see if anyone was giving her the stink-eye; lo and behold....nobody was even glancing in her general direction.

Back in the center of the room, Aaron gestured to DuBraul. “The events that took place at Björn Aaberg's compound in Dawley, Birmingham UK have been scrutinized, analyzed and researched as many times as necessary, but we've been unable to find any further information related to Hannsen, DuBraul and any further connections between the two. The only evidence we have from Hannsen himself linking them is the notebook he left behind during his first incarceration...”

DuBraul continued in this manner for twenty minutes, and despite the severity of the situation, Vicki actually felt...bored. Just a few minutes ago, Ted was beating up Oberon....and now this.

“...and at this moment, we now turn our attention to the actions of Vicki Lawson.”

Those fifteen words snapped the brunette gynoid out of her reverie. Oh, scrap.....

“Agent Lawson, please rise.”

Once again, Vicki felt every eye in the room staring at her as she stood.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” DuBraul stated, “had it not been for the efforts of Agent Lawson and her teammates during their mission in Dawley, Matthew Emmerich Hannsen would have escaped to cause further chaos within our sphere of influence. We also cannot ignore the fact that our Field Agents were able to disrupt the sale of weaponry to individuals whose actions, while not directed in our direction specifically, would still have been more detrimental to the rest of the world. For these accomplishments, the ALPA extends its gratitude to Agent Vicki Lawson, Agent Eric Reuben Reaves, Agent Sarina Meston, Agent James Lucas Lassiter, Agent Jonathan Dashiel, Agent Kylie Lynden, Agent Jennifer Larssen and Agent Robert Delmaire.”

Vicki felt as if her feet had been rooted to the floor as the various ALPA dignitaries applauded. Just a few minutes ago, she realized, some of these people were deciding whether or not I should be decommissioned, and now....this?! A cursory scan of the crowd showed that every smile was genuine, every presence in the room grateful for Vicki and her allies having deposed an arms dealer and a hacker...

….but the look on Oberon‘s face told a different story: You did what needed to be done, Agent Lawson, and for that, we thank you....but you're not off the hook yet.

A few short minutes later, after the meeting had ended, Vicki watched the assembled masses leave the room, many of them still chatting about the commendation she'd just received. None of them seemed to care that Matthew Hannsen was now in hospital because of what had transpired between himself and Vicki; they barely even paid her any mind (other than the predictable nod, wave or other quick acknowledgement of her presence in the room). Do they even know? Did Clive even tell them about what happened? Does anyone else here even---

“Something on your mind, Miss Lawson?”

DuBraul's voice nearly scared the brunette gynoid out of her wits; it took her a little over half a minute to collect herself and form a coherent reply. “I was just....wondering---”

“Why none of the people who you just saw leave this room seemed to care that you nearly beat a man to death with your bare hands?” DuBraul finished, arching an eyebrow. “Simple---I didn't tell them. At the moment, it's better if they didn't know the full details of what happened in Dawley between yourself and the Maestro...”

“Better for me?” Vicki angrilly cut in, “or better for you?!”

If the words had any impact on DuBraul (which they didn't seem to---the man simply stood there arching his eyebrow and regarding Vicki with a quizical stare), he was doing a damned good job of hiding it. “You think I was acting out of my own best interests?” he replied. “Let me tell you a little secret about the ALPA and the Coalition, Agent Lawson---our own worst enemy is fear. If word of what you did to the Maestro had leaked, then everyone on both sides would either be calling for your head, or saying we should reform our rules...and at this stage of the game, both choices would be needlessly counter-productive. Re-writing the rulebook would do nothing to change what's already happened, and scrapping you---”

“I get it,” Vicki growled, her rage slowly giving way to shame. “I....I just....” Almost instinctively, she buried her face in her hands. “Sometimes I don't even feel like myself,” she muttered, after DuBraul had guided her to a nearby chair. “It's like...something happened, after July 9....and part of me just...”

She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.

“The notes about your upgrade by Lawson's Eleven are still being studied,” DuBraul informed her. “If any kind of irregularities, anomalies or discrepancies between your former neural pattern and your current configuration are detected, you'll be the first to know.”

Vicki allowed herself a weak smile. “Thanks.”

The Father Christmas smile returned to DuBraul's face. “It's the least I can do for someone whose track record has become something bordering on legendary in the ALPA,” he replied. “As for...” He paused, turning away to cough. “As for what happened...” He stopped again, the coughing now taking on a hacking, almost hoarse sound. “You'll have to forgive me,” he apologized. “Blasted allergies acting up again...”

“That didn't sound like an allergic cough to me,” Vicki mused. “Are you okay, Mr. Pres---”

“You don't have to use my full title,” DuBraul chided. “'Mr. DuBraul' or 'sir' will suffice...” He eased himself into a chair, his cough now taking on a bronchial, almost liquidy (or would that be “snotty”?) sound.

“I'll keep that in mind,” the brunette gynoid dryly replied. “Now, then, about that cough---”

Even as he wheezed, DuBraul managed a chuckle. “You're persistent...I'll give you that.” He shook his head, as the cough subsided. “The Doctor told me I have the rest of this year, maybe three months of the next to put my affairs in order,” he stated, no longer smiling. “Never smoked a day in my life, never had any exposure to asbestos or anything else that could cause mesothelioma...and yet my lungs are the first part of me to start giving out.” He sighed; “It's always been heart problems, in my family,” he admitted. “My father, my grandfather and his father before him---all of them were stricken at one point or another by what we called the Heartbreaker's Curse. There was some long-winded explanation about former lovers passing on, and how that was supposedly connected to it....whatever it was, I always thought I'd die of a coronary before my lungs stopped working...and you can stop staring at me like I'm about to drop dead right here,” he finished, smiling.

His advice was lost on Vicki, who stared, eyes agog. “You're dying?! You're in charge of the ALPA, and you're suffering from lung failure?!” She shook her head. “That's....how do you....who else knows? I mean, what if you keel over and---”

“Funny how you thought I had my own interests in mind by not telling anyone about your encounter with Hannsen,” DuBraul interjected, “and yet you seem to be more interested in my well-being than your own fate if the word should get out....” He smiled again. “I'm on three different medications to regulate what's taken hold of my lungs, so I won't be 'keeling over', as you so charitably put it, any time soon.” His smile faded as he glanced around the room. “It's still painful,” he quietly added. “Nights are the worst...sometimes, I'll just be laying there, letting sleep take hold...and then every breath feels like razors slicing through my lungs from the inside. It's hard to describe exactly how much it hurts---”

His sentence ended abruptly as Vicki pulled him in for a hug. “Ah, Agent Lawson?”

“I'm sorry,” Vicki whispered. “For yelling, and for accusing you of being a self-serving jerk, and for everything I did wrong in Dawley....” She pulled away, not bothering to hide the tears as she looked DuBraul in the eye; “I don't want to lose anyone else,” she admitted. “After Sharon, and Raquel.....”

Bitter, bloodstained memories nearly overwhelmed DuBraul as he returned the embrace. “I know.”

The two were sitting in silence, remembering things they'd both sworn to forget, three minutes later....just as Oberon (still clad in his full armor) entered the room. After a moment of silence, letting Vicki and DuBraul gather their thoughts, he cleared his throat (as quietly as possible). “I take it you've told her?”

“I have.”

“Good. And Vicki, you have a somewhat better understanding of---”

“I know he wasn't being selfish,” Vicki stated, her voice a few measures above tonelessness

“Fair enough. Now, then....if you'll both come with me, we have much to discuss. The general brief---which you just sat through---only covered the bare basics of what's going on....and I have a feeling you'll want to hear the full dossier before we make our next move. If you'll follow me...”

As she followed DuBraul and Oberon, Vicki couldn't help but think of the utter chaos that had unfolded mere minutes ago. “Ah, don't hate me for asking this, Chairman Oberon, sir, but....”

“You're wondering if my ill will towards Ted is still an issue.”

Okay, is he a psychic?! “Well, I was thinking about that, but---”

“Rest assured, Vicki, that I only lashed out at Ted because he lashed out at me. I tend to react impulsively when someone comes against me in anger, even if their actions could be considered justified. Granted, I can understand why Ted wanted to throttle me---I had, after all, rather casually threatened to end your existence if the need arose---but he was as much in error as I was...” A brief chuckle punctuated Oberon's sentence. “In case you're wondering, I'm not still pissed off at your father---far from it, as a matter of fact. Even though it was a poor time for it...we both needed to vent.”

That's....reasonable. “I guess I can forgive a momentary lapse of reason from both of you,” Vicki admitted. “I just never thought I'd ever see Dad lose his cool like that again.” Her thoughts briefly turned to the defining incident (before the encounter with a pre-Faceless William J. Rengold III) that became a deciding factor in Ted forming Lawson Robotics. “It was...scary, to be honest.”

“Being scared is actually a good thing, in this case,” DuBraul mused. “If you'd have thought he was in the right, it wouldn't exactly have looked all too good for you, especially after what happened in Dawley.”

“I get it.” Wouldn't want people thinking I liked watching Dad beat the crap out of the Chairman...especially after I put Hannsen in the emergency room. “So, this whole plan of Hannsen's....what exactly does it involve, other than turning a bunch of Franklin-designed fembots loose, and how do we stop it?” More than anything, the brunette gynoid wanted to smash the Maestro's plans to bits, wreck every single fembot he'd obtained---

“There is no plan....not yet. Right now, we can only wait.

Vicki froze in her tracks. “We.....wait?!”

“The only thing we really can do, I'm afraid,” Oberon admitted. “If we overplay our hand now, we could easily play right into Hannsen's trap---and undo months of hard work. And yes, I know what could happen if we wait too long, as well...it's a tricky one, this little game of ours---”

“THIS ISN'T A GAME!” Vicki screamed, no longer caring that Oberon and DuBraul were now staring at her. “I nearly killed Hannsen—-beat him to death with my own hands---and now I find out that he's got a whole army of fembots waiting to run roughshod over San Jose at any given moment...but you two are telling me that our best option is to just sit here and wait?!” She stared at the Chairman and President of the ALPA as if they'd lost their minds.

DuBraul managed to keep his cough from escalating as he spoke: “We don't know what exact programming alterations were made to the fembots, of if they've been physically altered---chipsets taken out, put in, anything along those lines. Until we can get a full scope of what Hannsen did to them, we can't risk making a move against them.”

“It's worse than that, actually,” Oberon added. “They may be infected---”

“Then put me in a tank and I'll run them over,” Vicki insisted. “I want them gone. I want Hannsen's stupid plan gone. I want every trace of everything he's ever done to be wiped out....” She blinked the tears away, forcing herself to continue. “I don't want anyone else to lose anything or anyone else because of him. I'm sick of feeling like I don't even know who I am anymore...I'm sick of these stupid outbursts....” She stared at the floor, a sense of defeat washing over her. “I just want to have my life back.”

Neither Oberon nor DuBraul could think of anything to say in response to that.

“All of this,” the brunette gynoid continued, “the missions, the codenames, the gear---I thought it was what I wanted when I joined the ALPA....but....this is the third time I've nearly lost control. Faceless and I nearly killed each other at Silicon Dynamics, and then I snapped at the Starlet Dolls concert....and now this....”

Her voice broke as she held up her hands, staring at them in horror: “I don't feel like I'm still me anymore!”

DuBraul bowed his head as Vicki sank to her knees, her horrified gaze still locked on her hands as if they were covered in Hannsen's blood. Oberon, however, did something that surprised even the usually-unflappable ALPA President: he smiled. “Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson,” he murmured. “I've said it before, countless times, and I feel it only necessary to say it once again: you truly are your father's greatest creation.” He knelt beside the brunette gynoid, gently embracing her. “You have nothing to be afraid of,” he whispered.

Vicki's only reply was a wailing, barely-articulate sob with the word “can't” somewhere in the middle.

“This isn't you breaking down, mentally or physically,” Oberon assured her. “This is exactly what separates every sentient android and gynoid from all other machines on the planet: you can feel. And as strange as it may seem, what you're feeling now is proof that you are, in fact, still you.” He pulled away, allowing Vicki to see his smile. “You're not broken,” he added, “and I can most assuredly tell you that you're not infected with anything other than an ailment common to humanity: extreme guilt.” He helped Vicki to her feet; “You're scared out of your mind at what you did,” he continued, “and that's perfectly understandable---and a very good sign, in this case, because it means your personality, your ethics, are still intact.”

Even this was small comfort to the gynoid Field Agent. “But....I enjoyed...what I did....”

“You let yourself get out of control,” Oberon corrected. “You must understand, Vicki, that Matthew Hannsen's actions were intended to provoke you. He wanted you to snap, to lash out at him and try to attack him...he just didn't expect you to fly as far off the handle as you did. The Starlet Dolls incident---same thing; you saw a close friend take a bullet, and you let emotion take the place of logic. As for Silicon Dynamics...as loathe as I am to even remember that incident, you were in the right---Faceless was threatening the entire facility.”

“So...I'm not insane?” Vicki quietly asked after a few seconds of silence.

Again, Oberon smiled. “Far from it...we can run an ALPA-standard SAN check, if you want proof....”

“How long will it take?” The question came out as a near-gasp, with just a smidgen of hope in each syllable.

“It won't keep you here for the rest of the day,” DuBraul replied. “If anything, it shouldn't be more than ten to twenty minutes. As long as your core personality profile and other imprtant settings haven't been altered by external influence or significant trauma, you'll be cleared to continue your duties as a Field Agent.”

A ten second pause.... “And what about my life outside the ALPA?”

“As annoying as it is to admit this,” Oberon stated, “that may be out of our hands---the pencil-pushers up on the Hill, with their oversight committees and other such nonsense, will want inquiries and all sorts of other stupidity for a full year or so after this is finished, and we may have to, ah, limit your area of operation as a Field Agent in the meantime. You'll keep your license, of course, but in all likelihood, you won't be allowed to travel outside Silicon Valley---or at least outside of the United States---for a while.”

The pause was noticably shorter this time. “I think I can live with that.”

Oberon nodded. “Well, in that case....let's go make sure you're mentally sound, shall we? The next briefing won't be for another few hours; the reps from the base at Stepford were just getting out of a holding pattern, last time I checked...”

For what felt like the first time that day, Vicki allowed herself a smile. “Sounds like a plan, Mr. Chairman.”

Part 2

To put it in blunt terms, Björn Aaberg was furious.

Even as he lay in a hospital bed, trailing IVs and staring up at the ceiling while his personal physician and team of nurses tended to the wounds he'd incurred after the harrowing chase through Dawley, the hitman/arms dealer wanted to break someone's face. Hannsen, the damned idiot, had apparently been “extracted” from the now-abandoned compound Aaberg himself had been using for his semi-annual “gun show”, one of his best employees had been killed, three more were injured and another had been revealed to be a double-agent of some sort.

Worse than that, however, was the fact that Aaberg's own employer was en route, awaiting (or, more than likely, demanding) an explanation as to what had happened at the compound.

The truth was....a bit more complicated.

At first glance, it did, in fact, appear that Anders Stahl was in the building to pay Aaberg a visit and “politely request” an explanation as to what had happened in Dawley. None of the attending physicians had bothered to impede the progress of the man who led one of the most notorious banking guilds in history---even those who didn't fully understand who he was stayed out of his way. It was therefore somewhat odd, then, that Stahl made a last-minute change of direction---at the final junction on the fifteenth floor that would've taken him to Aaberg's room had he turned right, Stahl turned left...into a room that, upon first glance, looked like nothing more than a glorified waiting room.

In truth, it was far more important.

One corner of the room was bathed in darkness, the front wheels of a wheelchair barely visible. The eyebrow over Stahl's clouded left eye arched, followed by a scowl; he'd heard that McMire was coming to pay a visit, but he never expected the bastard to actually show up. The only other seat taken in the room was filled by the more familiar (and thus more welcomed) figure of Malcolm Innes Grade, leader of the Grade Media Group and one of five people banned from Aaberg's room---on account of the GMG broadcasting surveilance footage from the Dawley compound on their free-to-own TV networks and satellite broadcasting networks.

Before he'd been anesthetized, Aaberg had threatened to castrate Grade---with his bare hands, if necessary---to avenge the slight.

“Grade,” Stahl mused. “How...surprising, to see you paying Mister Aaberg a visit.”

“Nothing 'nice' about it,” Grade scoffed, cracking his knuckles. “He wants my balls on a platter just from what I've already given my networks---hell, if he'd seen the stuff I'd cut, he'd call for me to be thrown to the bloody lions. That Lawson girl really did a number on---”

“That Lawson girl,” McMire interjected, “is the reason we are here. Aaberg was a fool to try and hide Matthew Hannsen from her...even moreso for having sold him the weapon used to murder Sharon Wilson. If he had wanted to remain safe, he would have killed Hannsen himself, dissolved the body in acid, and ground the bones to paste---instead of sheltering him, giving him access to whatever he wanted and treating him like an old friend, giving him the run of the compound.”

Something in the half-synthesized, vaguely-European sound of McMire's vocoder-altered tones sent a shiver up Stahl's spine. “Be that as it may, Hannsen is with us. You, on the other hand, have shown considerable disdain for everything we stand for---”

“And for good reason. You and your colleagues intend to rule the world...by any means necessary.”

Grade chuckled. “We do seem to be in that position, don't we?”

McMire's reply was far less amused: “Positions can change...by fate, or by force.”

Any snide comment Grade could've used to retort was cut off by Stahl. “You made an excellent point earlier in the conversation, Mister McMire...you mentioned the Lawson girl---”

“My father was Mister McMire, Stahl. You will address me as McMire, and nothing more.” Two men standing near the wheelchair shifted their postures enough to let Stahl and Grade see the MP5Ks slung at their sides, in just the right position to be brought to bear on any insuboordinate fools in the immediate vicinity. “Unless, of course, you wish to view a demonstration of my associates' marksmanship....”

Despite the subtle twitch of his lips that played at being a frown, Stahl nodded. “My apologies...McMire.”

“Accepted. Now, then...continue, if you would.”

“You were telling us about the Lawson girl,” Stahl resumed, “and saying that she is the reason we are all here at the moment. I think it would be best for all of us if you told us what, exactly, is so important about her.”

A laugh---low, quiet and utterly humorless---emanated from the corner of the room. “You see her as a mere Field Agent of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” McMire chided, “a soldier willing to fight for their cause no matter what the cost. Aaberg, given his...limited resources...was unable to even see her in this context, and thus allowed himself to be led to believe that Miss Lawson is nothing more than a provocatrix, an enemy from lands unknown sent to disrupt his operations and make a fool of him. There are others, however, who see her as something far more dangerous than either of those...” A sound like a scoff issued from the dark.

“And they see her as...what, exactly?” Grade inquired.

“They see her as a symbol of hope,” McMire replied. “A shining beacon, lighting the way towards the future.”

Stahl and Grade exchanged worried looks. “Our mutual acquaintance had reached a similar conclusion,” Grade reluctantly admitted, “but---”

“I have no need to hear what the Baron's opinion on the situation is,” McMire snapped, the eerie tones from the voccoder that altered his voice gaining some semblance of anger. “I am not here on his behalf, nor have I any need for your opinions on the matter. I am here to inform you that your plans to kill Vicki Lawson in retaliation for her actions in Birmingham cannot---and will not---be allowed to continue.”

The formerly worried Grade managed a smirk. “And why is that?”

“You can't kill a symbol, Mister Grade,” McMire admonished. “Symbols cannot die...they cannot bleed, nor can they be wounded. There is an entire subset of the population that views Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson as their champion, their victor...their shield against the likes of us. They know of you as mere whispers, and rumors; Vicki Lawson, on the other hand, is something concrete---something tangible, someone they can identify with in times of crisis.” Even through the voccoder, McMire's voice took on a sinister note: “Killing her will only make her a martyr, and immortalize her name for all of time. Symbols cannot die, gentlemen...”

A hiss---McMire taking off his voccoder---sounded from the corner. “....but they can be broken.”

Whereas the synthetic tones of the voccoder unnerved Stahl ever-so-slightly, hearing McMire's true voice was enough to make him want to run back to his car and flee the country. Grade, on the other hand, was only mildly intrigued. “And how do you suggest we 'break' her, then?” he asked. “Hannsen tried---”

“HANNSEN WAS AN IDIOT!” McMire shouted, his fist slamming into the armrest of the wheelchair. “Hannsen wanted to taunt her, to poke and prod at her until she snapped---and where did it get him?! Casualty, a week in traction and the rest of the year---possibly the rest of his life---in a wheelchair. He relied so much on trying to weaken her emotionally that he never even thought of how to break her down physically as well...even when his own plans had that covered already...and if you truly want to tarnish Vicki Lawson as a symbol---if you want to break her....you'll pick up where Hannsen left off.”

Stahl rose from his seat. “I think I've heard enough. Grade, if you don't mind, I'll be---”

“Sitting back down,” McMire ordered, “and keeping your mouth shut. Both of you already know about the big contingency plan Hannsen had in mind---buy up a surpluss of Franklin-designed fembots, push them to the brink of red-ring status, then turn them loose in San Jose and watch the chaos unfold. You two will---actually, I take that back. Björn Aaberg will be handling that particular part of the plan.”

“And how will this---”

The MP5Ks swivelled up, levelled at Grade's forehead. “Unless you'd like to have your face rearranged by submachinegun fire, I suggest you shut up,” McMire ordered. Two seconds later, Grade was back in his seat.

“Now, then...Aaberg will handle the mission because you two can't afford to screw up so soon after Hannsen's incapacitation. I've never exactly seen eye-to-eye with the Baron---which is why I'm not a member of your little club---but I know enough about the man to understand that he'll be more than a little miffed if either one of you took this job on and failed. Aaberg, meanwhile, is expendable---at the very least, you can cut him loose if he botches his part of the plan, and find yourselves another arms dealer. And if by some miracle he actually gets it right---well, then, you've got yourselves one hell of an associate. Either way, you're technically in the clear.”

“And you want us to be 'in the clear'....why?” Stahl finally inquired after a minute's worth of silence.

From his seat in the wheelchair, McMire smirked. “I'd appreciate it if you stayed in the game for a long while, put it that way. Either of you two get taken off the board any time soon, I lose a lot of ground.”

“So you've got as much to lose as we do,” Grade muttered. “Wonderful.”

McMire shook his head, not caring that Grade wouldn't even see the gesture. “This isn't about who's going to win or lose anything---it's about the long-term. Even if I don't exactly enjoy the thought of working with you two at the moment, you're worth more to me on the board right now, as opposed to being taken off of it.” With that, the lights in the room clicked off.

“You do not intend to wish Mister Aaberg well?” Stahl offered.

The hiss of McMire's voccoder being refitted was the only reply he received; seconds later, the door opened into the now-darkened hallway, and McMire allowed his two guards to wheel him out.

“'You do not intend to wish Mister Aaberg well?'” Grade echoed, shaking his head in disbelief. “You and I both know the kind of man McMire is, and yet you had to ask that question....are you seriously that thick?!” He leaned back in his chair, still shaking his head. “If McMire went to Aaberg's room right now, even to fart in his general direction, he'd be leaving this building in boxes. Very small boxes.” He steepled his fingers, staring darkly at his colleague. “We'll be lucky if we're not all knee-deep in the dead before this is over.”

Stahl, despite his displeasure with the situation, smirked. “One must break a few eggs to make an omelette.”

“I don't want to hear about breaking eggs, or omelettes, or ANY of that crap,” Grade spat. “Unless we get this situation sorted out soon, then all of us---Aaberg included---are going to end up dead, forced into tax exile or in jail for the rest of our miserable lives. Even the Baron may not get out of this one unscathed.”

“Something tells me he will evade any persecution that may be leveled at us,” Stahl deadpanned.

Instead of giving into his frustration and screaming at the banking guild leader, Grade returned his attention to the matter at hand---getting Aaberg to pick up the Maestro's plan where the man himself had left off. It would be dangerous, potentially even fatal if mistakes were made...

...then again, Aaberg had once admitted to enjoying a challenge every once in a while...


A few minutes later, with the nurses and attending physicians told to “go find something else to do” for the next half hour or so, Björn Aaberg sat and listened as Grade and Stahl told him exactly what he was going to do.

To say that he was confused would probably be an understatement of legendary proportions.

Ironically, despite his own close proximity to (and employment of) humanoid robots, Aaberg himself understood little (if anything) about the conflict that Grade and Stahl were now educating him on. Acronyms and names such as ALPA, the Coalition and the House had occasionally been mentioned by his own clients (and, on more than one occasion, by his competitors), and he'd heard the names when he'd recruited some of his own team over the years---but never in his strangest, most bizarre dreams could he have pictured anything even close to what he was being told now....

...and that was just the first five minutes of the “conversation”.

Eventually, every iota of confusion still present in Aaberg's mind was replaced with anger. Never before in his career had he felt so stupid---especially in front of an employed---and now he wanted nothing more than to tell both Stahl and Grade (who still deserved to be castrated, at least in Aaberg's viewpoint) to do some unspeakable things to themselves with a garden tool, or something equally heinous.

Still, there was the small matter of avenging his loss at the hands of the Lawson girl....

After ten more minutes of hearing Stahl and Grade explain what “red rings” meant in the context of Aaberg's new task (as well as legions of other notations and remarks that barely made sense), the discussion finally got to the point Aaberg had been waiting for: the part where they asked him if he had any questions.

Needless to say, he had more than a few.

“My...past dealings with the two of you not withstanding,” he began, “I find myself wondering why, exactly, you have seen fit to contact me to handle this matter. My involvement with the international robotics trade has been minimal, by my own admission, and I do not wish to sully my hands in something that I do not have a full grasp of.” He paused---more for dramatic effect than any other reason---as Stahl and Grade contemplated his words; the urge to smirk at their mock concern for his reputation was almost overwhelming. “Still,” he added, “I can only imagine that your need for my participation is...urgent enough...to override all other matters at hand for the time being...” He paused again, hoping to give the impression that he was still thinking it over---

---except Grade spoke up. “If you're not going to do it, then maybe the word about what happened at your compound in Dawley should be spread a bit sooner than planned.”

The thoughtful look on Aaberg's face vanished. “You wouldn't dare!” he hissed. “You can't!”

“We can,” Stahl replied calmly, “and we will.”

“Besides,” Grade added with a wicked sneer, “I don't think you want to turn us down...otherwise that poor landowner whose property was effectively taken over for your little arms deal might be very annoyed to find out you skipped out on paying the lease.” He held up a manilla envelope; “Need to remember not to lose this,” he casually remarked, holding it just out of Aaberg's reach. “If this ever wound up in the wrong hands...well, I think a few individuals would be more than a bit, ah...concerned to see what's inside it---”

Aaberg nearly fell out of the bed trying to lunge at Grade, no longer caring that he was in the hospital. Stahl never moved from where he stood, even choosing to stare at his fingernails rather than watch the arms dealer try to strangle Grade; the IVs in his arms effectively leashed him to the bed---at least, until he pulled them out.

Whatever snide remark Grade had planned to use died as Aaberg's hands closed around his throat.

“You dare mock me?!” the hitman growled. “You dare to threaten me?! DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!”

Stahl allowed a small, half-annoyed sigh to escape his lips. “Aaberg,” he intoned, “stop this. You're---” The hollow, unfeeling clang of an empty bedpan being smashed against Grade's skull drowned out the banker's words.

Finally, something in Anders Stahl gave way. Without a word, he pulled his pistol from its holster, aiming it squarely at Aaberg's head. “Give me an excuse, Björn,” he whispered, “and I will put a bullet right between your eyes.” He almost prayed that Björn would actually drop the bedpan and stop being an idiot for a minute; he didn't want to shoot him unless he had to, particularly because hiring another contract killer would take well over half a year, depending on who he contacted.

The change in Aaberg's demeanor was instantaneous---and unnerving. Even as the bedpan dropped to the floor with a cringe-inducing crash, Aaberg himself was laughing as if the whole thing had been a joke. “I really must apologize, my friends, but in my line of work, one cannot afford to take threats lightly.” He helped Grade to his feet; “No hard feelings, I hope?” he inquired.

Grade shot him a death glare, but managed a nod.

“In the interests of not allowing any further...outbursts,” Stahl remarked, “I must insist that we depart for our destination immediately. The Baron has sent his aide to help us with our travels---”

“Tell her to go back home,” Aaberg beamed. “I need no assistance. We must travel light---”

Something in the grip of Stahl's hand on his shoulder forced the arms dealer to realize that this was no time for flippancy. “The Baron insists we bring her,” the banker stated. “He will be most displeased if we do not...”

Aaberg felt his anger rising again...but quelled it just as quickly. “Understood. I would like to pack my things without her help, however...I have a few....personal belongings that I do not wish to lose track of.” Again, he fought the urge to smirk---if anyone but him tried to access his luggage, they'd likely be missing a hand when (or if) they came away from it.

“We will instruct her to wait by the car,” Stahl began, only for Grade to shove his way past. “You've got twenty minutes,” he growled, his index finger just touching Aaberg's breastbone. “Any longer, and we drag you out.”

Even as he followed Grade out of the room, Stahl could tell that Aaberg wasn't the least bit threatened by the demand. “Giving him orders is like prodding a viper,” he muttered. “He will bite at the first slip---and when he does, we shall both feel it. It's bad enough the Baron's stupid doll is here to take us to our cars and help Aaberg pack; there is no telling what---”

“She won't do anything or say anything the Baron doesn't want her to say,” Grade assured him.

“I admire your confidence,” Stahl replied with a frown, “but I refuse to trust her. All the scans in the world will not do anything to allay my suspicions---if I had my way, she would be under remote guidance from a secure signal relayed through your own satellite network.”

Grade scoffed. “You can't control her through a television satellite, Anders...it's just not possible.”

“Then I would find a satellite that can control her,” Stahl growled.

“And then you'd have the Baron to deal with. It's a no-win situation no matter how you look at it.”

No matter what argument he tried to use, Stahl knew that Grade wouldn't let him win---or even feel like he'd won. Instead, he silently led the way to the elevator, scowling at the thought of having to face the Baron's “doll” once the doors opened.

Ironically , that “doll” had plans of her own....


….and they had nothing to do with meeting Stahl and Grade by the elevator. At least, not for a few more minutes.

Celine would never admit it to the Baron's face, but she hated working for him. Actually, she had managed to admit it to his face, more than once---and he'd replied by telling her how much he “admired her tenacity”, and that she'd be the perfect choice to run United Robotronics---and his other major business venture---on her own when and if he ever became unable to do the job himself.

Damn good thing he doesn't know about this, then...

The fiery-haired gynoid couldn't help but wince as the compartment on her right thigh opened, revealing what appeared to be a featureless black slab of plastic no bigger than an average smartphone. Of course, the thing was a smartphone---one that could only be used by a registered operative of the House, no less. As she held the phone to her ear, squares lit up on its formerly blank surface, as if she was dialing a number; technically, she was dialing...just not with her hands. After a nanosecond of waiting, the call connected.

{You're in position, Celine.} It was a statement, not a question---if she hadn't been, she wouldn't have called.

{I am. Stahl and grade are on their way down right now...and Stahl probably wants me turned off.}

{Bully for him. The plan is still in place---do not deviate, unless one of us gives the signal.}

{I won't. Any news of the Fallen Mother?}

{She's still in hiding with her new knight. It's...not exactly the best up here, anymore...}

{It will be. We'll set things right eventually, sister. We have to.}

{If it came down to it, Celine, I'd vote for you as a new Matriarch.} There was no sarcasm in the words, which startled Celine more than she cared to admit. {You'd pick me as Matriarch?! I...I really don't know what to say, Laila---}

{Then let me say something: stay strong. You've done us all proud so far, sister---don't stop now.}

Celine nodded. {I will. Keep the torches burning, sister.}

The “conversation”---all transmitted from her own CPU through the phone, with no words spoken---ended in silence, and the phone returned to its inert state. Celine returned it to the compartment in her thigh, another shiver passing through her as the panel closed. There was something almost...sensual about it----

“Celine?! Where's the damned car?!” Michael Innes Grade's voice jolted the gynoid out of her near-bliss state just in time to notice Grade---and the loathsome Anders Stahl---waiting near the elevator shaft, staring across the wrong end of the parking garage in search of their ride. “It's over here, sir,” she called out, prompting Grade to finally notice her. “I, ah, couldn't bring it to the exact spot that you wanted, since there was an ambulance that needed to get in first---something about an organ transplant---”

“Water under the bridge,” Grade assured her as he approached, smiling broadly. “Aaberg will be joining us soon---needs to finish packing, apparently.” He scowled briefly at the mention of the notorious hitman, but regained his composure. “Anything good on the radio?”

The Starlet Dolls tune she'd been listening to flitted through her thoughts... “105.1's playing a Rush marathon.”

“Delicious. I always did like those Canadian prog rockers.”

As she started the car, Celine thought back to Laila's words: Stay strong. I will, sister. Believe me, I will...

Part 3

A quiet humming noise filled the room as Vicki lifted the “hood” of the ALPA's SAN-check scanner up and away from her face. The experience had been...interesting, to use a word that wouldn't provoke screaming fits or the desire to jump into a canal at the next available opportunity; her entire existence, starting with the Big Upgrade and ending with her emotional collapse in the hallway a few minutes earlier, had been replayed within the span of twenty-one minutes---a sensory overload the likes of which Hollywood couldn't (and hopefully wouldn't) hope to match in decades.

Of course, there was also the small matter of one of the “aftereffects” Oberon had mentioned...

...specifically, the sight of an all-too familiar black-clad, white-masked figure standing in the far corner of the room.

“Oberon,” the brunette gynoid called out, “the SAN-checker is done---you can let me out now.”

Silence.

Vicki frowned; either something else came up, she mused, or this is a test of some kind... “Oberon---”

“He can't here you.....but I can.”

Faceless' voice nearly drew a scream from Vicki, until she remembered Oberon's mention of “lingering after-images and auditory stimulii”. “I'll admit that I'm seeing stuff that's not here,” she called out, “but just give me a few minutes and---”

“Who says I'm not really here...Vicki?” The last word came as a hiss, right into her ear.

Despite the fact that an apparent apparition of her most hated enemy was standing near her, Vicki managed a smirk. “You're a memory,” she replied quietly. “A fragment of ocular and auditory data manifesting as a projection in my sensors, that only I can see or here. Nothing more---”

“Projections,” the not-there Faceless hissed, “can be as real as anything....” He chuckled quietly. “Those blades I used, back in July...you haven't forgotten their...somewhat unique attributes?” The apparition stepped back, circling the gynoid. “You did get one fact right, earlier---I'm not here, in a physical sense. You saw to that yourself, in July....stabbed me with my own two wristblades...” Another quiet chuckle permeated the air. “I have to commend you for that...on second thought, actually---no I don't.”

“So you left a little something in my memory when you stabbed me,” Vicki drawled. “That doesn't---”

“Explain how it's in your new processors?” Faceless finished. “I could tell you...but I won't.”

Vicki shook her head and turned for the door. “I don't have to put up with this---”

“Oh, but you do,” Faceless insisted, reappearing in front of her. “You're not leaving---”

“Who's going to stop me—-” Vicki took a step forward, only to find that she was standing on the far end of the room, closer to the SAN-check machine than she'd been a second ago. “You're...screwing with my perception of the room around me,” she muttered. “One last little trick from beyond the---”

“Grave?” Faceless finished. “You haven't killed me yet, Vicki...you only wounded me, back in July...”

“So it's your last trick from beyond the emergency room, then,” Vicki hissed. “A virus of some kind—-”

“Not...officially. It's more like...a nightmare. Except you don't have to be asleep.”

The statement brought another smirk to the gynoid's face. “So this is just a nightmare, right?”

“One that you won't wake up from,” Faceless intoned. “In a few minutes, you're going to----” A shudder ran through his body, followed soon after by a subtle fade. “What...NO---I'm...not DONE WITH YOU...”

Vicki blinked, and found herself as close to the door as she'd bene a second ago. “Looks like your trick is falling apart on you,” she began with a grin. “I'll just---”

Her ocular sensors were overcome with a sudden, impossibly bright light.

“The...scanner...verwrote parts---code,” the ersatz Faceless growled, his voice turning staticky with each fade-out. “You...aven't wo....is time, Vi....you've onl----layed the ine----WILL be back, in the flesh, to fini----hat I star---” The figure of Faceless gripped his arm, as if he could force it to stay solid. “I will---troy you, Vi---nn-Smith Lawson, if it's---NO! YOU CAN'T---”

Another flash---this one a bit slower, possibly even calming---filled Vicki's field of view; within seconds, she was being helped to her feet. “The scanner sent off an alarm as soon as you lifted the hood,” Ashley Tobias Wakeman explained. “I'd have been here sooner, but the elevator was full, and I almost dropped my keycard at the stairs---”

“I get it,” Vicki laughed, dusting herself off as she glanced around the room. “Ah, what exactly happened to me after I finished the scan?”

Ash glanced back at the SAN-checker. “From what I could see, you were hallucinating that Faceless was---”

“Wait, what do you mean 'what you could see'?!”

“I got here right before you fell over---and I would've been in here a second sooner if I hadn't tried to use my keycard for the stairwells to open the door. As for how I knew you thought you were seeing Faceless...” He held up a USB thumb drive. “The SAN-checker sent the alert to my laptop, and I saved it to this before I came up here,” he explained. “The blades Faceless stabbed you with must've left a passive program in your system that didn't trigger after your upgrade.”

“Figured that. So...any chance it's out of my system?”

“I could run a check,” Ash began, “and---” His words were cut off by a black-gloved hand clamping over his mouth, and an all-too familiar blade shooting forth from his chest, right where his heart would be. Vicki nearly fell over as she backpedaled to get away from the horrifying sight---

---except for some reason, Ash was still talking to her. “Whatever you're seeing now, it isn't real!” he assured her. “Vicki, you have to trust me---I'm okay. I'm still here, I'm not dying or on fire or anything...just tell me what you see right now.”

“I...I see Faceless,” the brunette gynoid stammered, “and he's...he's stabbing you through the heart!”

“Okay, I want you to trust me on this: reach out and grab my arm.”

“But....I---”

“Vicki, just trust me, okay? Take a step forward if you need to, and grab my arm.”

Hesitantly, Vicki approached the apparently-dying figure of Ash, reached out to grab his arm---and felt her hand close on empty air. “I...I can't grab it,” she gasped. “There's...nothing there...” She grabbed again, feeling nothing. “There's nothing there!” she echoed, fighting the urge to laugh. “You're not being stabbed, Faceless isn't here---”

A hand on her shoulder spun her around, putting her face to face with the Butcher of Lake Gilmour.

“Vicki,” Faceless intoned (in Ash's voice), “tell me what you see right now.”

“I....I see....Faceless...standing right in front of me, with his hand on my shoulder....”

“As weird as this may sound, that's a sign that you're almost done with this. Now, what I'm about to ask you to do may be a bit...weird....but you have to trust me, okay?” He paused; “You do trust me, right?” he asked.

“I....I trust you.”

“Good. Now, then....reach up, and try to grab Faceless' mask.”

Slowly, as if she were in a dream, Vicki reached up towards the bone-white mask that hid Faceless' scarred visage---and felt it.. At least, she felt the edge of the thing.

“Can you feel the mask in your hand?” Faceless/Ash inquired.

“I....I can.”

“That's a very good sign, actually. What I want you to do now is to pull the mask off—-”

From behind Vicki, the Ash with a knife through his heart yelled something. “I...I don't---”

The hands on her shoulders tightened their grip. “Trust me, Vicki....pull the mask off.”

Even though she hated the thought of possibly staring at the disfigured face of her hated foe, Vicki gingerly pulled the mask away, her eyes squeezed shut all the while. “Is it off?”

“It's off---and you can open your eyes now, Vicki.”

Here goes nothing.....

Vicki opened her eyes...and stared at the smiling face of Ash Wakefield. “Well, you're officially cured of that stupid program Faceless left in you,” he beamed. “Isn't that right, Tell?”

Over her shoulder, Vicki heard the voice of her preferred Field Mechanic: “Damn straight, Ash. The last bits of it got washed out by the code purge I just ran---oh, and you might want to close your back panel, V. Had to access your hard drives and stuff...I didn't do anything too major, just ran the ALPA version of ComboFix to clear out the code crud left over by old Psycho McCrazyMask.”

“So....Faceless was never really here?”

“Not physically,” Ash replied, as Vicki's back panel whirred shut. “To paraphrase a movie I watched way too many times when it first came out, your mind made him real....and I'd like my glasses back now.” He motioned for Vicki to hand over the “mask” she'd pulled off of him---which, as it turned out, was a pair of glasses. “Oh, right...sorry about that. So...how did he---I mean, the program---know that the real Faceless was---”

“The surgeons at the medical facility where Faceless is being kept had to perform an operation last night to remove something from the base of his spine,” Tell cut in. “They found some weird little gew-gaw hooked up right underneath the vertebrae; as far as they can tell, it was meant to let him control some kind of computer program by sheer power of thought---with a bit of help from the WiFi modem they dug out from his shoulder blades. Seems the Maestro tried to kit him out to be a human super-router of some kind...and yes, he is, in fact, still alive, though he'll be spending a lot of time sleeping in the forseeable future. Seriously, trying to hook WiFi routers up to his brain....and I thought he was just a garden-variety psycho!”

“As much as I'd like to hear the details,” Vicki admitted, “I need to tend to some other stuff first....”


For some reason, the fact that Oberon was in a meditative position while being suspended from a pair of pull-up rings linked to chains on a series of pulleys connected to the ceiling didn't strike Vicki as all that odd.

Seeing him suspended upside-down in said meditative position, though....

“Ah, sir? I just wanted to...um, talk about....the whole Hannsen thing.....” She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence; there was just something phenomenally wrong with the sight of the ALPA Chairman hanging upside-down by his ankles from a pair of rings. “Oberon? Are you....can you hear me?” She stepped into the room, noticing (for the first time) what appeared to be a white bar of some kind beneath the shirtless figure of the Chairman---

---and in that instant, she nearly turned on her heel and fled.

Vicki had heard the phrase “poetry in motion” thrown around a lot in reference to sports, performing arts and other such things, but she always viewed it as a cliché that served to hide commentators' ineptitude to actually describe what was going on. Here, however...the only term she could think of was that exact phrase---because Oberon's dismount of the rings was exactly that. It took him less than five seconds to pull himself up, grasp the chains, slide his feet out of the rings and execute a front flip to the floor---landing on his feet, no less---before the brunette gynoid realized that the white bar was actually the scabbard of a sword---a sword that, in less time than she had to blink, was aimed directly at her face.

Even more awe-inspiring (and terrifying) was the fact that Oberon had been blindfolded.

“It's me, sir,” she managed, “Agent Lawson---Vicki Lawson. Victoria Ann-Smith...” She paused, trying to fully wrap her mind around what was going on. “Just move the sword away from my face, please!”

Exactly fourteen seconds after Vicki's plea, Obeorn lowered the blade. “I need to put a sign on the door when I come here for my meditation,” he chuckled, removing the blindfold with his free hand. “You should try it some time....it clears the mind, focuses the senses. Speaking of mind-clearing, I understand Faceless left a bit of a nasty present from July 9.”

How the HELL does he---oh, screw it. “He did, sir....Tell and Ash helped me get over it.”

“Good. Wouldn't want your perception of the world around you to be muddled by a psychopath...but that's not why you're here, is it?”

“No, sir, it's not....and why aren't you wearing any of your chest armor? Or a shirt, for that matter?”

Oberon chuckled again. “Excess weight isn't exactly something you want on you when hanging upside-down from a pair of rings, Vicki---that, and I didn't need the armor at the moment. If anyone came in here to 'try something', the sword would've been the only defense I needed.”

“Right....anyway, I just wanted to ask about...well, a few things, really...”

“Ask away, then,” Oberon replied, grabbing his shirt off a nearby rack. “We've still got about 45 minutes until the representatives from the Stepford base arrive, so unless you want to know my take on the meaning of life, we have plenty of time to talk.”

“Cool. So....I was wondering---first of all, what got you started in the ALPA?”

As soon as the question left her lips, Vicki wainted to kick herself in the head. That's NOT what I wanted to ask, why the HELL was I even thinking it?! “I...sir, I didn't...forget I asked the question,” she stammered, trying to recover some semblance of dignity. “What I really wanted to ask was---”

She stopped, noticing that Oberon was staring at the floor in complete silence.

“Ah, sir.....you don't have to asnswer the question if you don't want to, or anything....I---”

A sound, best described as a cough mixed in with what could either be a barely-contained giggle or a half-smothered cry, came from somewhere in the ALPA Chairman's throat.

Oh, scrap.... “Sir, I was just trying to think of what I really wanted to ask you,” the brunette gynoid explained, “and---”

“It's funny,” Oberon cut in, his voice sounding oddly toneless. “You asked me earlier if I still loved Celeste when she was trying to kill me...I said I didn't remember.” He shook his head, still staring at the floor; “I lied,” he continued. “I remember it all too well, Vicki....I did love Celeste back then. Loved her more than I loved life itself, almost, with a reverence second only to my faith, and a bond that I felt would last the two of us for the rest of our lives. Well, it turned out, she loved me as well.....loved me too much, to be honest. So much, in fact, that she never wanted me to leave her side...”

He turned to glance at Vicki over his shoulder---and the gynoid was shocked to see the sclera of both his eyes had turned blood red. “...and when I did leave,” he murmured, “she made damn sure I paid for it.”

Before Vicki could say anything, the Chairman collapsed to a kneel, heavy breaths wracking his body.

“Sir......are you---”

“I'd told her,” Oberon gasped, as if Vicki hadn't spoken. “I told her I wouldn't be able to be there for her like she wanted me to....told her a thousand times, if not more....I had to leave, to help an old friend deal with a problem...and then her daughter.....”

Vicki moved to help Oberon to his feet, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Let him,” Clive DuBraul whispered. “He needs to vent in times like this...best to just leave him to it.” Without another word, he guided the brunette gynoid out of the room, closing the door behind them---just in time to drown out an anguished scream...which still sent chills down Vicki's titanium spine, even with the door muffling it. A thousand apologies and variations on “I didn't know” swam through her thoughts, each more pathetic than the last---

“It wasn't your fault. Any time he meditates, he ends up going back to that particular moment.”

DuBraul's sigh cut off any statement or inquiry Vicki could've made. “Considering what we're facing here,” he went on, “it's not surprising he's falling back on the meditation...we're facing a threat that could go red-ring any minute, and even if we do manage to get out of this with nothing more than a few scraped knuckles...”

“What happened between Oberon and Celeste?” Vicki interjected. “Why is he still---”

“He told you already, didn't he?” DuBraul replied. “He loved her---really, truly loved her---and she loved him as much as he loved her. Except her love became all-consuming...she couldn't be without him, ever. That's always been one of Celeste's many character faults---any time she falls in love, it becomes an obsession, a quest to always have that one kindred spirit by her side at all times. She's always felt a need to be saved, to be honest...and with Oberon being almost the perfect knight in shining armor...”

Something about that last sentence prompted a raised eyebrow from Vicki. “Almost perfect?”

“As he told you,” DuBraul continued, “he had to help an old friend. There was...a conflict of some kind, and he made it sound like it could be the end of the world; weirdly enough, he was only gone two or three days, at the very least....but when he came back....”

“When I came back,” Oberon finished, “I looked as if I'd been through hell.”

The suddenness of his appearance nearly prompted a scream from Vicki. “I'm fine, by the way,” he added, giving her a reassuring smile---indeed, the sclera of his eyes no longer looked blood-red. “But as Clive was just about to tell you, I looked as if I'd been through Hell...needed a bit of a lie-down afterwards, of course---”

“I get it,” Vicki muttered. “I'm just...why didn't you give me a straight answer when I asked earlier?”

“You'd just gone through an emotional outburst of your own,” Oberon reminded her. “Granted, I wasn't exactly in the most stable mental condition I've been in for a good long while...anyways, it wasn't exactly a question I'd expected to hear at the moment. Hell, I'm still coming to grips with some of the things that happened between Celeste and I...starting with all the chaos after I took her daughter from her.”

And now we've reached that part of the conversation... “So, feel like giving a bit more backstory for that?”

Oberon chuckled mirthlessly. “No need to worry if I've forgotten any of it...I have it memorized by now.” His smile faded as he continued; “Vengeance,” he stated, “is like an open wound---doubly so if you've broken up with someone, tried to get back together and then taken something or someone they care about from them, no matter how noble your intentions. Believe me, I had the noblest of intentions when I had the ALPA move in and take Celeste's daughter into custody---but she didn't see it that way. Celeste, I mean....Celeste didn't see it---I might as well admit that her daughter did, indeed, agree with my viewpoint, and was perfectly fine with it all---”

“I get it.”

“Good. Just making sure....oh, sod it. The fact of the matter is, Celeste was going through a paranoid spell of some sort, and she thought I was trying to turn her daughter against her. I can't even remember the specifics; it was such a stupid little pique between ex-lovers---not even that, it was a one-sided feud that I was only aware of when Celeste....well...” He turned away.

“She wanted to have him killed,” DuBraul finished. “Even hired a few poisoners whose speciality was dripping half of the poison into the victims' eyes while they slept...then administering the second up-close the next day.”

Before Vicki could express her shock, Oberon cut in again. “That's not even the worst of it---the bastard with the second half of the chemical---the one meant to start the reaction meant to kill me---was posing as a birthday clown in a park. Waited until I meandered over to the outermost edges of some birthday get-together, lost in thought---and then the idiot sprayed me in the face with a seltzer bottle. Sprayed at least twelve other people, too....all of them ended up in hospital. As for me....” He nodded to DuBraul. “They called in Clive after someone noticed I'd been gone longer than the two hours I said I'd be out, and he found me face-down on the floor in my flat, crying blood into the carpet....”

For a minute or so, nobody spoke.

“As it turned out,” Oberon finally said (a bit too loudly for Vicki's liking), “Celeste didn't even give the order to have me poisoned---one of her underlings took it upon themselves to call the poisoner, and paid extra for their finest emotionally-triggered reactant poison. Of course, when she heard the news, Celeste didn't shed any tears...though the plonk who gave the order got a not-quite golden parachute the following day.”

DuBraul nodded gravely. “The effects still crop up, sometimes,” he added. “The red eyes, mostly.”

“Figured that,” Vicki murmured. “So....you're okay now? It's not in your blood, or anything---”

“I take blood tests daily to check for any lingering traces,” Oberon replied, “and last time I checked, there was still .014% of the stuff left in me. A lot better than last month.....035%.” He sighed. “I just hope Jake doesn't end up like I nearly did...and by that, I don't mean 'dead'---I mean I hope he doesn't end up trapped by Celeste, or turned into her new white knight by choice....or by force.”

A trilling sound from DuBraul ended the conversation. “That'll be Cedric,” he mused. “I need to take this...”

Oberon nodded. “It'll probably be the Stepford reps...” He turned his attention back to Vicki as Clive retrieved his phone. “So,” he beamed, “you mentioned that you had another question you wanted to ask me, back in the meditation room....you wouldn't happen to still remember what it was, would you?”

Part 4

“So, Mister Aaberg, do you still believe we are...as your associate in the parking garage so eloquently put it, 'trying to screw you over'?”

Björn Aaberg found that he couldn't answer the question posed to him by Anders Stahl, partially because he was having a bit of trouble adjusting to the sight before him: ninety-five capsules, each one holding a female figure clad only in skintight black shorts, black sports bra and what appeared to be knee-high boots. “I...I do not think that in the slightest,” he finally stammered, after a few seconds of trying to find the words. “This....all of this....what is this?!”

“This,” Michael Grade replied, “is the means by which you are going to make Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson and all of her pathetic little knee-jerking friends pay for what they did to you in Dawley. I'll spare you the technical description and just call these beauties what they are: fembots. Humanoid robots capable of tearing San Jose to shreds if they so desired---or, more accurately, if we so desire---with the most aesthetically-pleasing appearances one could ever hope to ask for. These, Mr. Aaberg, are going to make you forget all abouit Dawley---possibly even redefine your career.” He grinned, clapping the arms-dealer on the shoulder; “This is going to be a day you'll remember forever,” he beamed.

Anders rolled his eyes. “It will be a day we will remember as well,” he muttered, “provided we can actually get something done, as far as deploying the fembots is concerned.”

“Shut up,” Grade hissed. “Hannsen had the codes, he should've---”

Four tannoy speakers in the corners of the room blared to life, a rattling cough sounding from each. “Funny how spending a night or two in Casualty can redefine the scope of one's life,” the voice of Matthew Emmerich Hannsen coughed. “You lot....didn't even trust me to leave the codes where you could find them?” A weak chuckle punctuated the half-joking accusation. “Always looking for the Maestro to write the last note...”

“You do have the codes,” Stahl intoned, “and you will give them---”

“What I will do,” Hannsen interjected, “and what---” Wet, thick coughs, liquidy even through the tannoy, cut off his words. “Sorry to burst your bubble, Andy, but I'm a little busy trying not to die at the moment....”

Stahl turned away, just as Grade was about to launch into a more-than-likely profanity-laced rant---but it was Aaberg who turned the discussion back to its original point. “The Lawson girl...she has shamed both of us,” he whispered. “I am still here, still able to avenge myself---”

“Oh, good for you,” Hannsen spat. “Just rub it in, ya git.”

“That is not what I meant....I can avenge both of us, Hannsen. Give me the codes...I will send this army of robot women....these fembots...to destroy the Lawson girl, and to make her friends suffer as well!”

Silence.

“Hannsen.....please....”

After another volley of coughs from the speakers, the Maestro made up his mind: “There should be a terminal about five feet away from where you're standing---and yes, the room is wired with cameras. Now, then...enter the code I'm about to give you, exactly as I give it to you---one wrong digit, and you'll break the system.”

For the next three minutes, Aaberg typed in the full sixty-four character code, with each tap of the keyboard adding another letter or number and allowing him to make sure he hadn't misheard Hannsen on any count. He allowed himself a grin as the monitor blinked a few obscure stats; “It seems your code has worked,” he beamed.

“If you like that,” Hannsen bragged, “you'll love this next bit....”

One by one, the capsules began to hum as the figures inside went through their start-up procedures---at a far more accelerated pace than usual. The stimulii they had endured, in addition to forcing them into red-ring parameters, had overridden their BIOS, start-up instructions and even the rudimentary factory-default persona files on their processors. Seconds after the code had been accepted, ninety-five pairs of eyes opened. “Your fembot army,” Hannsen proudly declared, only for the sentence to end with another coughing fit. “DAMN it...why the HELL....oh, sod it. Just give them a destination, and they'll tear it to shreds.”

Stahl nodded. “I believe the center of San Jose State University campus would be---”

“Hang on a minute,” Grade cut in. “Didn't someone at the meeting suggest sending them right into the ALPA headquarters?” Before Stahl could even think to reprimand Grade for his suggestion, Aaberg grabbed him by the shoulders; “I must send these...fembots...against the ALPA,” he hissed. “The Lawson girl...she works for these people, and destroying them would put me one step closer to destroying her!” His grip on Grade tightened. “Give me the coordinates...NOW!”

“This is a mistake,” Stahl muttered. “If we do not follow the predetermined plan---” The click of a Ruger's safety being thumbed off filled the banker's ears. “As valuable as your patronage of my trade is,” Björn warned, “I must insist that you do not attempt to lecture me at this moment, Mister Stahl.”

For a few brief moments, nobody moved.....until Stahl backed away, retrieving a piece of paper from his pocket. “You are making a mistake, Björn.”

“Then let it be my mistake, not your failure to stop me, that earns the wrath of your employer when you return,” Aaberg sneered. “Better to be admonished for my failings than to admit your own...he might even forgive you for failing to...quell my exuberance.” He chuckled as he punched in the coordinates. “Soon, this will all be a distant memory,” he beamed. “The ALPA will be crushed, the Lawson girl will die....and I shall be avenged!”

Grade glanced at Stahl, both of them all too aware that Aaberg was more than likely going to get them both killed....if the Baron didn't see to that first.


“...and you're sure the team from Stepford are still on their way?”

Cedric Harcourt nodded, handing DuBraul a vial containing the remainder of his medication for the day. “They hit a bit of a snag forty minutes ago, but they should be inbound within thirty minutes---and I'm not exactly worried about them, sir. I'm more worried about you.”

DuBraul smiled. “I never get tired of that,” he muttered. “Am I the only person here not worried about myself?”

“You should be,” Harcourt admonished. “The Doctor told you that the pills would only do so much to keep you from succumbing to your condition before the year ends...and unless you find a viable alternative, that surprise party for your retirement may very well end up being a wake.” He held up a blazer, allowing DuBraul to slip his arms into the sleeves without overexerting himself. “As difficult as this situation is now, it'll be even worse if we lose you---”

“You're not going to lose me, Cedric,” DuBraul laughed. “Even if my lungs are going, I intend to stay in the ALPA until my last breath---and I mean that in the most literal sense possible.” He turned to face the Vice President of the ALPA, smiling broadly; “I still think you and I could've been brothers once,” he mused.

Harcourt cracked a smile of his own. “I'd say cousins once removed, at the very least.” Even he was willing to admit that he had more in common with the ALPA President than many would've thought---they had a strikingly similar taste in music, both of them had the same views on everything the ALPA stood for, and they even cheered for the same football teams despite having been born in different parts of the country. “You never told me how far back your family tree actually goes,” he added, falling into step behind DuBraul.

“Far enough for me to know exactly where the roots are,” DuBrual replied. “Meeting Room 3 is free, isn't it?”

Exactly how DuBraul had picked Harcourt as the VP of the ALPA was a story that had been relegated to near legendary status within the ranks of the organization, one shrouded in secrecy and strange coincidences (if one were inclined to view them as such). Regardless, the DuBraul/Harcourt team had carried the ALPA through its most tumultuous times in the 90s, on the heels of Celeste's torrid relationship with Oberon...and now, the pair was pinning its hopes on one particular Field Agent.

A few minutes later, in Meeting Room 3, the discussion turned to that exact individual.

“I never thought I'd see her like this,” Harcourt admitted. “Her kind isn't exactly common these days.”

“Her kind?” DuBraul echoed.

“Rising star Field Agents. The ones who gained their status from almost nothing. Maybe Reaver counts as one, and even the Major...but Vicki Lawson is something else entirely. Everyone we're fighting for---those who know what they are, at least---they look up to her. They respect her...they see her as one of us now.”

DuBraul chuckled. “So they see her as a politician?”

“They see her as someone willing to fight for what she believes in,” Harcourt clarified. “I mean, when you first told me that you wanted her to be....well, the poster girl for the entire ALPA....I had my doubts---I thought they'd eat her alive after her first mistake!” He chuckled. “This, though...she's what we need. She's a beacon.”

“And now you know why I didn't want word of her actions in Dawley to leak to the general public.”

Harcourt nodded. “Something like that would set us back years---decades, even.” He sighed, staring out the window at the airfield where the plane from Stepford would soon be landing; “She doesn't even know, either,” he muttered. “She just does her job, because it's the right thing to do...never once even thinking that we're pinning our hopes, our dreams....our lives...on her, and praying that she doesn't fall.” He signed again as he turned his attention back to Clive. “Doing the right thing has never made me feel like such a bastard before.”

“We'd be bastards if we were leaving her to her own devices,” DuBraul corrected. “If we let word of what she did in Dawley get out, and just threw her to the wolves with no hope of being able to defend herself...that would make us both as bad as Hannsen---”

A knock at the door interrupted the conversation before it could go any further. “Yes?”

“Mr. DuBraul,” a breathless voice called from outside, “you're going to want to see this...”

DuBraul and Harcourt exchanged confused glances. “See what, exactly?”

“In the monitoring room at the end of the hall....they're activating.”

Confusion turned to grim understanding in seconds. “Lead on.” DuBraul rose from his chair even as Crystal opened the door from outside the room, following her (with Harcourt following him in turn) to the monitoring room. “How many?”

“About 25 or so making their way here,” the gynoid replied. “The rest are headed towards SJSU.”

DuBraul didn't slow down, even as he heard Harcourt wince. “Has anyone told Vicki yet?”

“I was on my way to give her the bad news myself,” Crystal admitted.

“Might as well tell her now. And get every active Field Agent we have in the field back here on the double.”

“Yes sir.”


Vicki stared at the monitor before her, too stunned to even think of something to say.

“They started activating about ten minutes ago,” Anton Malvineous informed her. “At first, they were all moving in a group formation towards one target---namely, this building...but then a massive group of them broke away from the pack and headed for SJSU. The rest are still on course for ALPA headquarters...meaning we have about thirty or so minutes to lockdown the entire facility and---”

“They're in class right now.”

Anton almost didn't catch what the brunette gynoid had said, but Mr. Tell stepped forward. “We're sending out a team to make sure everyone stays inside,” he assured Vicki. “They're not going to---”

“Everyone I know,” Vicki continued, as if Tell hadn't even spoken, “my friends---even the people who sort of annoy me---they're all in class right now, and they're all in danger...” There was something unnerving about the forced emotionless tone of her voice, as if she was making herself not want to care. “I won't be able to save them all unless I do something that reveals what I am...” Even as she spoke the words, Vicki realized how selfish (and possibly pathetic) she sounded; I've never been freaked out about stuff like this before, so why is it bugging me now?!

Almost as if he'd read her thoughts (or is it that my body language just screams “I'm freaking out over here, someone please throw me a lifeline”?), Anton spoke up again. “Our surveilance team on the ground at SJSU has already taken care of the 'get everyone to stay inside' portion of our containment plan,” he assured her, “so you won't have to worry about any of your friends, foes, or anyone in between catching a glimpse of you if you get damaged. There's also a no-firearms rule in place---and here's the man who implemented it,” he finished, grinning as Oberon entered the room, “just in time to explain it himself.” He clapped the ALPA Chairman on the shoulder; “I was just telling Vicki---”

“I know. Hit the lights, if you don't mind, Anton---this is no time for faffing around.”

The roboticist's smile faded as he turned on the lights, allowing all present to see that Oberon was once again clad in his full battle armor. Might as well call it what it is, Vicki mused, 'cause I'm pretty sure that's nowhere near “corporate casual”...

Oberon gestured to a cart next to him; “Swords,” he declared. “Axes, polearms, scythes, quarterstaves, halbreds, clubs. Can anyone here tell me what they all have in common---” Shouts rang out from every Field Agent in the room---other than Vicki, who knew better than to take an obvious question at face value. “The answer I'm LOOKING FOR,” the Chairman continued, “is 'they are all immune to the most common faults of firearms': they don't run out of ammo, and a stray shot won't fly fifty feet and kill some poor sod whose only wrongdoing is being in EXACTLY the wrong place at EXACTLY the wrong time. These particular weapons, of course, are a bit more advantageous than those of medieval times---modern technology has allowed our own swordsmiths to create blades with Teflon and diamond-dust coatings, using titanium alloys and carbon-fibre hilts, thus allowing for weapons that are both lightweight and absolutely brutal against an android or gynoid.” He glanced at Vicki, arching an eyebrow; “You seem...concerned,” he frowned.

“I am,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “since it sounds like you've gone through a lot of trouble to prepare for something like this....I thought the ALPA---”

“Even an eternal optimist like myself has to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Oberon admitted. “I've been on drills for full red-ring events before, and I can tell you right now that as soon as I returned to San Jose, I had to lock myself in a hotel room for a full week, just to let the naescent paranoia and memories of what I endured filter through my mind until they weren't giving me nightmares. It pays to be prepared for the worst, Vicki...trust me on that.” He turned his attention to the other Field Agents, though Vicki noticed an ever so subtle change in his body language....

….he still remembers, she realized. He's still scared of facing a full-on red ring event....

“Those of you staying behind to deal with the oncoming incursion into this building will be allowed to use firearms,” he informed the group. “Those accompanying me to San Jose State University, on the other hand, will be getting one of these---” He snatched a sword up from the cart, giving a brief show of his skill by spinning the blade in one hand and moving into a few basic fencing positions before returning the blade to its spot in the cart. “---to avoid any collateral damage. Unless you stupidly choose to throw your weapon, the only ones I expect to see leaving SJSU in pieces are those fembots pushed to the brink of red-ring status.”

Agents filed past Vicki to grab their new weapons, occasionally pausing to try a few practice swings (and taking care to not hit anyone near them). There was something utterly primal about seeing her fellow Field Agents picking up swords, axes and even clubs, as if they were about to go to war with Viking hordes instead of an army of fembots---

“Something on your mind, Vicki?”

It wasn't the suddenness of Oberon's question that startled the brunette gynoid---it was the quiet, almost calm way he spoke, especially in light of what had happened between them earlier. “Yes,” she replied, “there is something on my mind---and it's something that, I might as well be honest, kind of scares me.”

“Go on.”

“I'm wondering if you've ever thought that the day might come when you have to send these people after me,” Vicki continued. “Will you be this cold then?”

If Oberon was offended by the question, he did a damn good job of not showing it. “Yes.”

So he wasn't kidding when he said he'd DeComm me if he had to... “I thought so.” Vicki turned her attention back to the other Agents---

“Wait.”

Now this should be intriguing.... “Wait for what?”

“Vicki...just because I would be this unfeeling and clinical if I ever had to send these men and women after you....that doesn't mean I look forward to it. I didn't tell you I'd DeComm you just to scare you, or to put the fear of God or anything else in you---I told you I'd DeComm you if the need arose because it's the absolute truth.” Oberon bowed his head; “You already know the ALPA hasn't exactly been on the side of the angels some times,” he muttered, “and...we've even done somethings that I, personally, wish I wipe from our history and never have to think about again...”

He looked up at her, his expression a mixture of guilt and calm. “...but I would never have you killed in cold blood. Not even if you had to be DeCommed. If I had to DeComm you myself, you'd know, beforehand.”

“And I'm supposed to take comfort in that?” Vicki retorted.

“You're supposed to accept it. What happened in Dawley....if other people found out about that---”

Someone cleared their throat in the doorway of the room, and Vicki turned to see DuBraul standing there, regarding the scene with an arched eyebrow. “Mind if I borrow her for a moment?” he asked Oberon with a smile. “I'd like to give her a bit of a pep talk before we start the whole 'batten down the hatches' routine...”

Seven seconds of silence passed before Oberon gave the ALPA President a wry smile. “By all means.”

DuBraul nodded. “Miss Lawson, if you would....” He gestured for Vicki to accompany him. Might as well see what this is about... Vicki followed DuBraul out into the corridor, sneaking one last look at Oberon before she turned the corner; he seemed more interested in the sword he'd just unsheathed than watching her leave.

“So,” DuBraul mused, jolting Vicki out of her reverie, “Oberon has told you exactly why he wouldn't have qualms about striking you down if he had to...”

“Yeah, he has,” Vicki conceded, “so let's not revisit that particular pathway of thought if we can help it. Don't get me wrong, I still trust him and all, but....he kind of gave me a major case of the heebies when he said that he doesn't look forward to it and stuff. I mean, I get why he said it, but...just knowing that if I ever completely lost control and snapped, he'd be the one to find me and, well....”

Again, DuBraul nodded. “Oberon has always believed in the 'needs of the many vs. needs of the few' logic,” he admitted. “I prefer the 'glass half full' approach. For instance, the Dawley incident---”

“Don't,” Vicki groaned. “Please don't drag that back up....”

“I was going to say that you handled the Dawley incident far better than most would lead you to believe. Yes, you did, in fact, go overboard in beating Hannsen to a pulp....but you also disrupted an arms deal that could have supplied far too many dangerous parties with equipment and weapons to further their own causes. And let's not forget those androids and gynoids you freed from the facility---you've got a commendation coming for that one.” He gave her a reassuring smile; “From where I'm standing,” he informed her, “you've done far more good than harm.”

“Even though I nearly killed a guy?”

“You wouldn't be the first Field Agent who nearly killed someone in the line of duty, Miss Lawson. I take it you already know of Reaver's past before he became an Agent?”

I was hoping to not have to mention that... “I do.”

“Then you understand why the ALPA tries to not let past transgressions cloud views of the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but it can also be blinding.”

“That....actually makes a lot of sense,” Vicki admitted, just as DuBraul ushered her into a nondescript meeting room. “And I'm guessing Oberon decided to have me stay here and defend the building instead of going back to SJSU so that I wouldn't....freak out, or anything, and have a panic attack?” Even as she asked the question, she began to expand her connections to the internal ALPA infranet, hoping to---

“I wouldn't recommend that,” a voice from the far side of the room advised; Vicki glanced over her shoulder to see a somewhat portly blond man in glasses and a three-piece suit tapping at his iPhone. “It's not secure right now,” he continued, glancing up just long enough for Vicki to realize he was talking to her, then returning his full attention to the phone. “We're being bombarded with conflicting WiFi signals as it is, and the team from Stepford is still inboud---they should be landing soon, to help us figure out how to effectively contain this thing before it gets out of hand.”

“Okay....but---”

DuBraul chuckled, motioning for Vicki to sit down in one of the silk upholstered chairs. “Where are my manners? Miss Lawson, allow me to introduce you to the Vice President of the ALPA, Mr. Cedric Harcourt.”

iPhone Guy (as Vicki had mentally dubbed the VP) rose, smiling. “It's an honor to meet you, Miss Lawson.”

“Likewise. So, you're the second-in-command of the ALPA?”

“Well,” Cedric admitted, “it's a bit more...complicated than that. The ALPA doesn't follow any of the traditional government or corporate structures---”

DuBraul cleared his throat. “I believe we have more pressing matters to discuss at the moment...”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Cedric muttered. “Miss Lawson---”

Vicki grinned. “You can call me Vicki,” she informed the ALPA VP. “All my friends do.”

“I prefer to keep things official until this crisis has passed, Miss Lawson...though I'm flattered that you would consider me a friend.” Cedric returned the gynoid's grin with one of his own. “Now, then...the fact of the matter is, Miss Lawson, the ALPA Headquarters---as remarkable a building as this is---can only take so much abuse before its security begins to fail. As such, the decision to have you here helping in the defense of the building was less about your...ah, mental fortitude----”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. “At least nobody's breaking out the jokes about crossed wires and loose screws.”

“Yes, well, the ALPA tends to take the mental states of android and gynoid Field Agents very seriously,” Cedric continued, “so jokes like those tend to be frowned upon. “Still, our decision for you to be stationed here was less about your mental condition and more about your skill in conducting field ops within...less-than-ideal conditions.” He retrieved a folder from under his chair; “Your handling of the Silicon Dynamics mission, in particular, was superb---”

“Oh, yes,” a familiar voice drawled, “let's all harp about that.” The figure of Faceless emerged from behind Cedric's chair---but the VP's lack of reaction to the sight was all the incentive Vicki needed to ignore it. Just more random code, she reminded herself. He's not really here...

“....and your work in Singapore was particularly effective,” Cedric beamed. “So---ah, is everything all right, Miss Lawson?”

Even as the phantom of Faceless mimed drawing his blade across the VP's throat, Vicki nodded. “Never felt better,” she grinned. “And yeah, Singapore was....interesting, especially given the conditions I had to deal with in that building---stairways going all blowy-uppy, and stuff....”

“You're forgetting one other tiny little detail,” Faceless hissed, two inches away from Vicki's ear. “A...good friend of yours, shot dead---”

DuBraul and Cedric both winced as Vicki's fist slammed into the armrest of her chair.

“Sorry,” she apologized, “thought there was a bug on the chair.”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” DuBraul replied. “I keep telling the cleaners to stop wearing that blasted perfume of theirs---something about that scent draws in the moths and silkworms something fierce.” He settled back in his own chair, steepling his fingers...though something in his expression told Vicki that he knew what she was dealing with. “Please, continue.”

Cedric adjusted his tie. “Well, the simple fact of the matter is this: your record on indoor field operations, Miss Lawson, is astounding, and we believe that your skills would be better suited here---”

“Oh, of course,” Faceless hissed. “Better to have you here, on the leash, than out there---”

“Mr. Harcourt,” Vicki nearly shouted, “those WiFi signals you mentioned earlier....can your phone detect them?”

The VP was more than a bit confused. “Well, it can, but I don't see---”

“Can you pick out any specific signal from the bunch, isolate it and sever its connection to this building?”

“I suppose I could, but---”

“More specifically, could you look for any signal that's targeting me, and disable it?”

At this, Cedric nearly dropped his phone. “You're....you want me to---”

“It shouldn't be that difficult,” DuBraul assured him. “Most of the signals hitting this building can't even get through this room, so isolating any that can would take....a few seconds, at most.”

The shock of Vicki's request quickly wore off. “I'll get on that now,” Cedric declared, muttering quietly as he tapped at the iPhone's screen. “This shouldn't be all that difficult, I think....”

Vicki grinned, ignoring the figure of Faceless glaring at her from across the room. “Don't think of this as a victory......'Miss Lawson'. You have not beaten me.” He turned his attention to Harcourt; “Even though my body is still...recovering,” he added, “my mind is stronger than ever before....and that, dear Vicki, is all I need...” He strode over to Harcourt's chair, pacing behind it. “Even if you no longer fear me, I'll still bring you to your knees...because I no longer need your fear. Something else is fueling this ghost now....”

“Miss Lawson,” DuBraul mused, “I think you may want to turn your attention to the television.”

“What? Why would I---”

“Just....trust me, Vicki.”

Well, I don't really see a reason not to.... With a sigh, Vicki glanced at the TV in the corner of the room---

---and nearly gasped as a figure seemed to emerge from the screen, aiming its fiery broadsword at her---no, past her, directly at the spectre of Faceless in the corner.

Needless to say, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour was not happy.

“Not you,” he growled. “You won't beat me again---”

“I already have,” the figure intoned, just as Faceless faded into nothingness, his final scream fading out into dial-up tones. A white light flooded the room, and Vicki felt herself falling.....

“...make sure she's okay,” Cedric suggested, “help her up off the floor....” Slowly, the brunette gynoid realized she hadn't been falling---at least, not down a bottomless chasm. “Is he gone?” she murmured.

DuBraul grinned. “If by 'he', you're referring to whatever hallucinatory image you were forced to endure from that signal Mr. Harcourt just isolated and defeated,” he replied, “then yes. He is, in fact, gone.” He helped Vicki to her feet, dusting off her shoulders as she got her bearings. “Ash told us about what happened after the SAN-check,” he informed the gynoid Field Agent, “and I had our best signal analysis people get to work on tracing the signal that triggered it---and putting together countermeasures to fight all future occurances.”

“Thanks,” Vicki murmured. “I didn't want to start yelling that I was seeing Faceless in the room---”

“All the more reason to commend you for your incredible mental fortitude,” DuBraul beamed. “You've done us all proud, Miss Lawson.” He glanced at Cedric; “Remind me to thank Oberon for coming up with the idea of putting a countersignal in the TV,” he chuckled. “Brilliant bit of work there...” As if on cue, the TV blazed to life again---with Oberon's image filling the screen. “We have a problem.”

“Not to worry,” the ALPA President replied. “The signal was terminated---”

“That's not what I meant---they're breaching the building. Through the garage.”

Any trace of humor in DuBraul's face and voice vanished. “How many?”

“Twelve, thirteen...maybe fifteen, I can't tell exactly. A few of our people are still in there...”

“Then get them out, lock it down and turn on the shields. I'll take care of the rest.”

“Will do.” A pause.... “Vicki?”

Despite the fact that she felt like she'd rather be anywhere else in the world at that moment, Vicki stepped forward. “Yes?”

Even as the image on the television screen began to break up, she could tell that Oberon was smiling. “Damn good work isolating the second WiFi attack signal. Ted would be proud---actually, now that I mention it, he is still dancing on one of the tables in the War Room....” He turned to glance behind him; “GET DOWN FROM THERE BEFORE YOU FALL OFF AND BREAK YOUR NECK!” he bellowed. “When this is all over with, Vicki, I suggest you bring your father to get dancing lessons---or at least keep him from doing his best Michael Flatley impression on the furniture.”

With that, the TV winked out.

Vicki didn't bother wiping away the tears---she was too busy grinning. “That's my dad,” she beamed.

DuBraul nodded his agreement, smiling. “You are definitely Ted Lawson's daughter,” he informed Vicki, “and that's the highest compliment I can give you.” He sighed, allowing his smile to fade; “Sadly, the levity must end for now,” he continued. “Cedric---”

“Our people are out of the garage,” Harcourt called out. “Commencing lockdown---shields are on.”

“Good.” DuBraul glanced at Vicki, noticing her worried look. “You're not going to black out, if that's what you're wondering,” he informed her. “The shielding system will ensure that the localized EMP in the garage only affects the garage....unless those damned fembots are able to hack the system somehow, and if they are, then---”

“Ah, one of the shutters just cut a fembot in half,” Cedric interjected. “She's still crawling into the garage---”

“Trigger the EMP,” DuBraul ordered. “Miss Lawson, if you're still linked with the infranet---”

A shudder ran through Vicki's body.

“I'm not,” she replied quietly. “Not anymore.”

“Good. Cedric....activate the localized EMP.”

Cedric tapped a button on his iPhone, and Vicki could faintly pick up a brief thrumming noise from a distant area of the building....

...and then, just a few seconds later, it ceased.

“Scans aren't picking up any active fembots in the garage,” Cedric stated. “The EMP caught them all. The rest of the building is still functioning...no signs of disrupted network activity....” He nodded. “The garage is secure.”

“And our vehicles have just been rendered useless,” DuBraul muttered. “They wanted us to trigger it....”

“No,” Vicki corrected. “He wanted us to. Matthew Hannsen was the one who planned this---whatever those fembots are going to do from now on, he came up with it...” The brief memory of Hannsen screaming in pain filtered through her processors...and faded just as quickly.

“I think it's time we start playing to beat Hannsen at his own game,” V.I.C.I stated, heading for the door.

Part 5

Oberon stared at the blocked-off entrance to the garage, scowling. “They knew we'd keep all the patrol cars in there,” he muttered. “They bloody well knew.....” He shook his head. “MAJOR! Where the hell'd he get to now---TOM! MAJOR TOM, WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING RIGHT NOW, GET OFF YOUR ARSE AND---”

“Stop yelling, I'm right here.” Major Tom emerged from the Armory, glancing in the direction of the garage. “I just had my friggin' car waxed,” he groaned, “and now I can't even drive it for another week or so....why the hell did they have to breach the building that way?!”

“Never you mind. We need alternative transportation---” Oberon stopped in mid-sentence.

“No,” the Major warned. “I know that look---don't give me that look---”

Other Field Agents were exiting the armory as well, all of them watching in confusion as Oberon set off down the hall, laughing like a madman. “You sure that EMP didn't fry his brain?” Jessica Lovecraft inquired. “He's almost....happy---”

“Don't kid yourself, Beacon,” Tom muttered. “He's happy because he knows I'm going to hate him for what he's about to do...and that EMP wouldn't have done shit to him anyways...” He leaned aginst the wall, his eyes squeezed shut as he tried not to think about Oberon's idea of “alternative transportation”. “I should've known he'd go for something like this, ever since he 'gave' everyone their own armor....I knew he wanted this to happen, but I never thought he'd get a chance....”

“You're making it sound like a big deal, Tom.” James Lucas Lassiter took a seat on the floor next to the Major, hoping to reassure his fellow Field Agent that the situation wasn't a total loss. “It might be something cool, like BMX bikes---”

Tom glared at James. “You're way off, Talon. Way, way off.”

“So, no bikes, then....still, it could be---”

“WHAT PART OF IT AREN'T YOU GETTING?! Full body armor, with helmets....melee weapons like swords, axes and friggin' clubs....put TWO AND TWO together, and see what the logical conclusion is!”

Nobody said a word after that.”


Celine wanted to throw up.

Even during her tenure with the Baron (who was practically a master showman when it came to vulgar displays of power), she'd never felt the urge to be violently ill---even after watching the Epsilon tests---but this.....

….this was just wrong.

Fifteen fembots, without names or personalities of their own, had been sent to their deaths by Björn Aaberg on the grounds of “testing the waters”. Their processors had been crisped by the localized EMP, their hard drives wrecked beyond repair...and the saddest part of it all was that none of the fembots even knew that they were dying. They had no comprehension of what was happening to them.

Björn, of course, didn't care. As soon as the fifteen were lost, he'd made a call to have fifteen more activated.

Even as she watched the newly-activated fembots march towards certain doom, Celine knew that she couldn't intervene. The House needed her, now more than ever...sentiment be damned. There would be time enough to mourn for the lost when the mission was through.

As Björn shouted orders and prepared for his “inevitable victory”, Celine buried her emotions and kept working.

Stay strong, sister....just stay strong......


“No....just....no.”

Few of the other Field Agents shared Major Tom's displeasure with Oberon's choice of ride as they emerged into the parking lot; “I think they're kind of cool, actually,” Jessica beamed. “Beauty and nobility, grace and power all rolled into one.”

“Agreed.” Talon was considerably more enthused than the Major about the new mounts. “Seriously, this is just awesome---you made it sound like he got us a bunch of Segways or---”

“HE GOT US HORSES!” the Major shouted. “I HAVE A BUSTED LEG, AND HE GOT US HORSES!”

Oberon laughed off the protests. “I keep forgetting that the Major doesn't approve of riding anything that has a mind of its own,” he teased. “Despite his preferences for sat-nav, A.I.-assisted driving and other perks...or is it just that you don't---”

“I have a busted leg,” Tom growled. “I've been walking with a damn cane ever since one of Bradford's stupid fembots kicked me in the shin back in May---you've seen me with the cane, for crap's sake!”

“You don't have it now,” Oberon countered.

“I'M WEARING A KNEE BRACE RIGHT NOW!”

“Well, you can still ride a horse with a knee-brace---”

“NO! I AM NOT GETTING ON SOME DAMN THOROUGHBRED JUST BECAUSE YOU WANT TO TURN A FIELD OP INTO LORD OF THE FUCKING RINGS!” The Major nearly fell over as he turned on his heel to storm back into the building. “I am NOT riding into San Jose State University on a HORSE....I'll call Brian and ask him to lend me one of his motorcycles, or something, but I am NOT going anywhere on a damn horse---”

Once again, Oberon laughed off the complaints. “Horses are proud and noble creatures, Major. You should give them a chance.” He strode over to a steed with a pure white coat and mane; “You're also forgetting that horses have a few advantages over using cars,” he continued. “One, cars are predictable---nearly anything you can do with a car to attack can be dodged, outrun or simply avoided, and then you're the one left looking like a plonk while your enemy stands around laughing at you. Horses are unpredictable, and therefore not as succeptible to getting telegraphed by the enemy. Two, cars tend to break down, and if you roll a car, you've got about fifteen seconds to scarper before the thing goes up in a fireball. Horses, meanwhile, don't run that risk, though they do hurt like hell if they roll on top of you. I think I could go on, but you get the idea.” He gave his most impish grin yet. “So....feel like playing Aragorn?”

Major Tom growled, but managed to refrain from swearing as he made his way over to the horses. “These things had a flea bath before you brought them out here, right?” he quietly asked.

“The police department I borrowed them from takes care of that,” Oberon replied. “And before anyone starts whinging about me borrowing horses from the cops, allow me to remind you all that we are, in effect, law enforcers for our own particular subset of the community, so it all works out in the end....and just to make sure your question is answered, Major, yes, the horses have, in fact, been given flea baths.”

“Good.” With one last glare at the other Field Agents, the Major stepped into the stirrups and managed to right himself in the saddle of the horse he'd reluctantly chosen to ride. “If this thing throws me---”

“It won't!” Oberon laughed. “It's not going to hurl you into a shrubbery at the first chance it gets!”

The Major wasn't smiling. “It damn well better not,” he intoned, fighting an urge to make threats involving glue factories. “I just want to get to SJSU and get back without having my shinbones splintered or anything....and speaking of getting to SJSU---”

“Cripes, I nearly forgot,” Oberon muttered. “RIGHT---everyone, mount up! The student population of SJSU has been told to stay indoors, so there's no need to worry about civilian casualties...at least, no need to worry about our side accidentally contributing to any civilian casualties.” In one swift, graceful move, he mounted the white steed and grasped the reins, steadying the horse as the other Field Agents managed to not break their backs trying to mount their own horses. “NOW....WE RIDE!”

With the Agents lending their voices to the battle cry, Oberon led the charge out of the parking lot, laughing all the way.

“He's nuts,” Major Tom muttered. “Absolutely freaking nuts....” He sighed, glancing at his own horse. “Right, time to get things moving....giddyap!” He tugged at the reins, waiting for the horse to gallop into the frey with its brethren...only to groan as the animal stood there, pawing at the ground. “Oh, for crap's sake---GO!” Again, the horse stared at the pavement. “MOVE,” the Major yelled. “RUN! GALLOP! GO FORTH AND ALL THAT CRAP!”

Predictably, the horse did nothing.

“Damnit to hell---” Tom lightly tapped the horse's flanks with his own heels. “Get moving alread---FUCK!”

In that instant, the horse went from a motionless beast of burden to a steed worthy of Apollo, taking off at a gallop that nearly sent the Starman falling to the ground. “SHIT---SLOW DOWN! STOP! BRAKE, FOR THE LOVE OF---” The Major's curse was cut short as he shifted to avoid getting decapitated by a stop sign.

When this is over, Oberon, you and I are going to have a little talk about “alternative transportation”.....

A few harrowing minutes later, Tom's horse rejoined the group---specifically, it re-entered the fray alongside Oberon's own mount. “You seem to be enjoying yourself,” the ALPA Chairman beamed. “I knew you'd come round to appreciating the sheer majesty of horse-riding---”

“Save it for the brochure,” the Major shouted. “This damn thing nearly shot out from under me---”

“You did the heel thing, didn't you?” Oberon laughed. “You hit its flanks with your heels...I knew it.”

“What's so damn funny?!”

“Oh, nothing...except that particular horse has a certain...dislike for being smacked on the flanks---”

“YOU COULD'VE TOLD ME THAT BEFORE WE LEFT!”

The smile on Oberon's face faded slightly. “You should be thanking me for not telling you, Major...we need every bit of levity and humor we can get before we get to San Jose State University.” His grin widened once again; “Of course,” he added, “if you want me to give you the cold shoulder until we get there---”

“NEVER MIND! Just....” Somehow, the Major couldn't bring himself to stay angry. “Thanks.”

“Don't mention it. And good job not falling off, by the way...the Lone Ranger would be proud.”

“Yeah, yeah...don't get any ideas about calling me Kemosabe, though, or I'll kick you off your horse.”

The Major's intentionally-poor threat earned him another laugh from Oberon. “That's the spirit, Major---now, ONWARDS TO DESTINY!” He spurred his horse onward, with the other Field Agents following suit (and thanking God for the advance notice issued to civilians asking them to clear the streets). Somehow or other, the sight actually looked pretty...majestic, for lack of a better term.

And I thought today was going to be boring.....


“...unbelievable.”

Clive DuBraul stared, already feeling the urge to swear, at the ten 18-wheelers parked outside the peremiter fence of the ALPA Headquarters. “He's an absolute maniac....he's not even being subtle about it anymore.”

“I don't think subtlety is something he does well,” Cedric muttered. “After the incursionary group in the garage was beaten with the EMP, he figured it might be a good idea to use...somewhat bolder tactics.” He turned away as the trailers of the 18-wheelers opened, revealing racks of fembots within. “Still,” he admitted, “I never thought he'd go as far as to try something like this.”

“It doesn't matter what he tries. The important thing is that we keep those fembots out.”

V.I.C.I.'s robotic monotone prompted a weary nod from DuBraul, and a surprised glance from Cedric. “It's a thing she does sometimes,” DuBraul explained. “Helps her...get into character, so to speak.”

The brunette gynoid nodded her agreement. “Removing the 'human factor' helps me to gain a pure analtyical perspective on things before I take any action,” she added. “Also...it just sounds cool.” She giggled a bit, slipping back into her human voice. “And there's the whole intimidation factor---”

“I get it,” Cedric replied.

“Good....because we're not here to talk about my vocal stylings." V.I.C.I. stepped up to the window, her gaze impassive as the fembots were deployed from the trailers. “Aaberg wants to overwhelm the building by sending as many of the fembots as he can at once,” she stated. “Judging from the fact that none of the fembots are armed with any sort of firearms or even melee weapons, his logic centers around them using sheer brute force to incapacitate and demoralize as many Field Agents as possible.”

DuBrual gave the slightest of nods. “And what are your thoughts on his logic?”

“His plan is...flawed.” The barest hint of a smirk crossed V.I.C.I.'s face. “Relying on intimidation instead of a solid tactical approach show that Aaberg has deviated from Hannsen's original intentions---the original plan likely involved sending all fembots to San Jose State University.”

The intel that Björn Aaberg was the one controlling the fembots had only been received minutes earlier, just as Oberon and his group left for SJSU; as such, the idea that the fembots were deviating from Hannsen's plans wasn't as difficult to accept as it may have been.

Still, there was one pressing issue...”Why would Aaberg have so many more fembots attack us directly?”

“Simple.....he's after me.”

Vicki's answer drew another surprised look from Cedric.

“I didn't just bust into the compound and kick Hannsen to the curb in Dawley,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “I wrecked Aaberg's stupid 'gun show', too. He lost a pretty big chunk of his inventory thanks to me, and I took out at least two members of his crew---one augmented human, one gynoid. I'd be more surprised if he wasn't sending all those fembots here, to be honest---it'd mean he had another target besides me.”

“Makes sense,” DuBraul reasoned.

“Agreed,” Cedric offered, “but wouldn't it have been easier for him to just...send his crew after you?”

Vicki shook her head. “I have a feeling Aaberg was drafted into this, so running away from it wasn't exactly an option. If he does have the alternative of just bowing out, he'll wait until he's done as much damage as he can possibly do.”

“I think his main focus is on doing damage right now, to be honest,” Cedric noted. “Namely, doing damage to this building---”

Something impacted the wall outside with enough force to shake the room, prompting worried glances from DuBraul and Cedric---and an arched eyebrow from Vicki. “He's having them jump the fences,” she noted, her voice barely showing any concern. “Interesting tactic...especially since he decided not to arm the fembots with any distance weapons....or any weapons at all, to be honest.”

Even as she said the words, DuBraul smiled. “Indeed. Cedric, if you would...”

The ALPA VP nodded, his concerned look giving way to a smile as he activated yet another app on his iPhone and stood away from the window. “You might want to stand back,” he warned Vicki, “and cover your eyes.”

“Way ahead of you,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Deactivating optical sensors...”

DuBraul and Cedric nodded, donning specially-designed goggles just as a blinding flash erupted from outside the building---accompanied by blood-curdling screams. “Think we ramped the voltage up a bit too high this time,” DuBraul remarked. “Maybe you could tone it down after this is all over with...just to make sure we don't overload the power grid for the entire block.”

“Leave me a memo,” Cedric suggested. “I can add it to my to-do-list after we're done here.”

Fifteen seconds after the blinding light first kicked on, it ceased entirely. “Well, that was...anti-climactic,” Cedric mused. “Miss Lawson---”

“You can call me Vicki,” the brunette gynoid reminded him. “And I figured the light show was over as soon as the power input from all those 'bug-zappers' hidden in the walls outside dropped...I just didn't think it would be as effective as it was.” After a few quiet clicks from her eyes, she blinked a few times, making sure her sensors hadn't malfunctioned during the activation of the “bug-zappers”. “Well, I can still see,” she smirked, “so that's a good sign....though I'm guessing it's not exactly good news for the fembots playing sidewalk pizza down there.”

“Sidewalk pizza” was a somewhat polite way of putting it, considering that the fembots who'd just been trying to climb the wall had effectively been reduced to piles of vaguely human-shaped debris on the concrete. Even with the technological advances that Drake Bradford had managed to give them (especially when compared to the original Franklin fembots), a fall off the side of a building was still enough to render them useless.

Had they been even remotely sentient, Vicki might've felt sorry for them.

“No love for the poor, broken dolls?” Faceless' voice taunted. “One could almost think you didn't care about ending their pathetic, worthless, meaningless lives....if what they had even was life...”

Vicki's eyes never left the window. “How many more are down there?”

“I'd say about twenty-five,” Cedric replied, “maybe thirty...possibly even more than that.”

“And they're all coming to kill you,” Faceless taunted. “Poor, sweet, innocent Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson---”

“Can the building stand another external charge?” the brunette gynoid asked.

Cedric sighed. “Stand it, yes....generate it, no. I wasn't kidding about overloading the grid earlier---”

“Then we may have a problem. If they try another jump like that last one, there's a pretty high possibility they could break through the wall, or even just aim for the window and get in that way. They'll tear the building apart if they have to, just to get at us...to get at me.”

DuBraul frowned. “So what exactly do you suggest?”

“That we keep moving,” Vicki replied. “Room to room---floor to floor, if necessary---to throw them off our trail and hopefully lose them. They probably have just enough sensor upgrades to be able to follow us anyways, but moving all over the building will confuse them...at least, I hope it will,” she finished, grinning nervously.

A few seconds of silence later, Cedric and DuBraul nodded their approval.

“Right, so now that we're all on the same page...you two head down the hall. I'll catch up in a minute.”

The President and Vice President of the ALPA hesitated just long enough for Vicki to give them a half-annoyed glance; “If you two are still in here when the fembots try to bust in through the window,” she reminded them, “it's not exactly a stretch of the imagination to think they'll come for you first.” ...and seeing as how I've already lost one friend in Singapore, and another friend's mom in the UK....not to mention losing Dianne last year...

“Trying to keep them from getting obliterated?” Faceless taunted. “How noble---and utterly pathetic---of you...”

Vicki watched DuBraul and Harcourt leave the room, waiting until they were out of sight; once the door had shut behind them, she crossed the room, taking her seat at a computer desk. “Control panel, open.” In seconds, her shirt was lifted just enough to plug in a USB cord to a port in her back---with the other end going into the HP desktop sitting on the desk. Her fingers flew over the keyboard, even as the nonsensical jabbering of the fembots on the outer wall got louder.

“So this is your big plan, Vicki?” the figure of Faceless scoffed. “Sitting at a computer, doing absolutely nothing?!”

The brunette gynoid ignored the taunting, choosing instead to use the HP in a manner that the manufacturers probably hadn't intended---browsing her own brain (or processors and hard drive, technically speaking). Even as the fembots neared the window, Vicki managed to find yet another snippet of code left over from Faceless' attack in July, smiling as she dragged the tainted file (which had already been rendered obsolete by her upgrade) to the desktop's trash can. “How many times are you and I going to go through this?” she asked, not bothering to address the phantom figure of the white-masked killer face-to-face.

“As many times as it takes, Vicki,” the flickering Faceless growled. “I'll break your mind and your body---”

“Not today,” Vicki countered, her finger hovering over the “empty recycle bin” button. “At least, not now.”

Before the not-there Faceless could utter a single syllable against her, she clicked the mouse....

….and the file vanished, taking the “ghost” of Faceless with it.

Something about the sheer absurdity of what had just happened prompted Vicki to grin. “Three for me,” she whispered, “and none for---”

Two feet away from the computer desk, a section of the wall erupted in a shower of dust. Vicki didn't bother waiting for the haze to clear, instead focusing on heat signatures and energy outputs from anything on the other side of the cloud; sure enough, three ridiculously ramped-up power cell signatures appeared as blazing lights in an otherwise dull landscape. Guess they've been upgraded from Bradford's default specs.... not that I'm worried, or anything.

One of the fembots had stopped droning on about shoe prices (apparently, their processors had been so badly scrambled by their “conditioning” that they barely even knew where they were at the moment) long enough to notice Vicki, shouting gleefully about a “bargain” (so they think I'm a pair of shoes now?! Great...). The other fembots, not surprisingly, took notice of the brunette gynoid and prepared to close in for the kill.

Unfortunately for all of them, their “prey” had other ideas entirely.

The first of the fembots was introduced face-first to the wall, incapacitating her rather effectively; before Vicki even had time to gloat over her accomplishment, the other two closed the gap and grabbed her by the arms, most likely to rip her in half like a cheap stuffed toy or a bargain-bin Barbie knockoff. Whatever their plans, the fembots had more than likely forgotten that their target also had legs---which allowed her to kick her way out of one fembot's grip, and spin-kick the other to the floor---minus one arm. Apparently, the fallen fembot had never thought to let go of her target before getting knocked over.

Wouldn't surprise me in the least---

Vicki's train of thought was violently interrupted by the fembot she'd kicked away from earlier grabbing her from behind in a bearhug, which was more than likely intended to shatter her ribs and probably make it difficult to breathe. Had she been human, the attack would've worked....

….but given her titanium endoskeleton and the fact that breathing wasn't necessary for her, it failed completely.

Again, she found herself thankful that her opponents weren't sentient to any degree---even if they had been sentient, at any point before, the “conditioning” had stripped away anything remotely resembling sanity, reason or morality. They probably didn't even notice when I scanned them as they punched their way in, the brunette gynoid realized. Good thing, too, otherwise they'd start using attacks designed to hurt me, and not just any random humans they may come across.

Even as the fembot continued trying to squeeze the breath out of her lungs, Vicki drove a hard kick towards her attacker and nailed the other gynoid in the shin. Something within the fembot's leg shattered, forcing her to collapse to the floor; her grip on Vicki only loosened when her artificial spine jammed against the baseboard. If that doesn't stop her from coming after me.... All thoughts of the downed fembot pursuing her left Vicki's mind as the first fembot she'd attacked, the one who'd been slammed face-first into the wall, slowly pulled away from where her face had been smashed. The wall had sustained a massive dent, but the fembot had definitely taken the brunt of the blow---the left side of her face was now contorted in a permanent sneer, the eye stuck in a wide-open, deer-in-headlights look that gave her a somewhat demented appearance.

They don't feel it, Vicki reminded herself. They have no concept of pain, life or death....they've been reduced to tools in humanoid form...

In the back of her mind, a brief prayer filtered through her thoughts: Dad....forgive me for what I'm about to---

The fembot with a missing arm jumped past the fembot with the damaged face, clawing at Vicki while screeching about tire inflation and other unrelated matters. Vicki ramped up the Detaining Grip in her right hand, muttering “I'm sorry” under her breath...right before jamming her fingers in the attacking fembot's eye sockets and letting loose with a burst of electricity, frying her processors in seconds. Even as the one-armed fembot crumpled, the other two turned their attention to Vicki, jabbering excitedly.

Well, at least they know I'm a threat now.....

The fembot with the broken back---which gave her an inhumanly-contorted appearance as she twisted her torso back-and-forth, side-to-side and in other motions in an effort to straighten out her ruined spine---took a few halting steps towards Vicki, her arms outstretched in the classic “zombie walk” pose. The smashed-face fembot, meanwhile, grabbed her fallen comrade's arm, made some comment to the effect of saying what a nice flower it was, then swung the limb at Vicki like a macabre baseball bat. Needless to say, the blow never connected---a far cry from the backfist that hammered into the fembot's torso as a response to the pathetic “attack”, sending the fembot to the floor in a gibbering heap.

Once again, Vicki mused, stepping carefully over her fallen opponent, I am so glad they're not sentient---if I actually felt sorry for these things---

A pair of unfeeling hands closed around her throat, accompanied by a high-pitched squeel of “TURKEY!”; the fembot with the broken back apparently thought Vicki was someone's Thanksgiving dinner, meant to have her neck wrung before getting the axe.

Think of the cold, Lawson...just keep thinking of the cold......

Vicki squeezed her eyes shut, forcing herself to focus on everything cold---and channeling those thoughts into her temperature regulation program. Even as the fembot's grip on her neck tightened, Vicki's internal body heat began decreasing to levels that would've been fatal to a human being---and as luck would have it, those same internal temperatures had a surprising effect on the fembot's skin. Despite the apparent upgrades to the fembots' power cells, Aaberg (or Hannsen, or whoever had been in charge of the upgrades) had failed to properly weather-proof the fembots for cold-weather environments; thus, the hands that were still trying to wring the life out of Vicki now froze up completely, the skin turning to something only slightly less pliable than the average wetsuit.

Out of the corner of her eye, Vicki noticed something that she initially took to be another hallucination---until she remembered her HUD's message notification system. Who the hell is calling me now?! Shaking away her annoyance, she cued up the note....

Vicki, The fembots are breaching more floors of the building than just the one you're on. It's time to stop thinking and fighting like a human being...and start fighting like what you are. Prof. Anton Malvineous.

The note faded from her vision, leaving her with a much clearer understanding of what she had to do.

Ignoring the fembot's continued attempt to strangle her, V.I.C.I reached back, blindly grabbing at her attacker's torso until she felt synthetic flesh in each hand. Her grip tightened, and in seconds---before the fembot could even notice what was happening---V.I.C.I ripped away chunks of artificial skin and the vital components that had been installed beneath them. Every servo in the fembot's body seized up at once, a stream of garbled static emanating from her mouth as her death-grip on V.I.C.I.'s neck finally went slack.

“Two down,” V.I.C.I muttered, “too many more to go.”

Even as she said the words, more fembots climbed into the room from the gaping hole in the wall. They eyed the brunette gynoid with the air of wolves staring at a potential meal, ignoring whatever passed for logic in their broken minds.

“As a famous guy once said,” V.I.C.I deadpanned, turning to face her attackers with a smirk, “you want some---”

Her intended trash-talk was violently interrupted when the smashed-face fembot jumped on her back, yelling like a chimpanzee and raking her fingernails across her face. “GET OFF!” Her myogel-enhanced reflexes allowed V.I.C.I to pry the insane fembot off of herself and fling her into the crowd, knocking a few fembots to the floor like bowling pins. “NEVER do that again,” she warned, not caring that her attackers probably didn't even understand what she was saying. Not surprisingly, the rest of the fembots decided to charge forward as a surging mass of flailing limbs and screaming faces. There was no intelligence in their movements, nothing even remotely resembling logic, reason or rhythm; the “conditioning” inflicted upon the fembots had robbed them of those functions.....

...which made Anton's advice to “fight like a machine” invaluable. V.I.C.I found herself countering and blocking every attack with ease. Without the threat of being revealed as an android to force her into limiting her strength and speed, the brunette gynoid became, in every sense of the word, a perfect fighting machine.

It. Was. ON.

The closest fembot in the group wound up staggering backwards, missing ¾ of her face---she'd stupidly tried to bite V.I.C.I on the arm during the melee. Three other fembots closed the gap where the bitey fembot had been, all of them tearing at V.I.C.I.'s outfit in vain. None of them came away with bits of her uniform---though they did fall backwards with a few less appendages than they'd had before. Between the three, eight fingers, two eyes and a lower jaw had been removed, gouged out or torn off.

And still they kept coming.

V.I.C.I. ramped up the intensity of her attacks, going from simple gouging and tearing moves to hammer-blows meant to shatter internal power cells, knife-hand strikes with enough force to split skulls, and her own style of calculated brutality that would put any cage-fighter to shame.

They're not human. They don't even think like humans do, and they want you dead. Show no mercy.

That mantra repeated itself in V.I.C.I.'s mind with every attack, driving her every punch and kick home with unrestrained force. When one of the fembots ran to the far side of the room and tried to pounce, lion-like, on V.I.C.I, the brunette gynoid shoved two other attacking fembots aside and grabbed the pouncing fembot out of the air, slamming her into the floor in a perfect powerslam. The remaining fembots swarmed over their broken “sister” to resume their onslaught against V.I.C.I, ignoring the stricken fembot's last twitching throes before she went limp.

None of them got close enough to even scratch their target.

Kicks, punches, elbows, knees, palm strikes and even headbutts---all delivered at speeds and strengths no human being could hope to match without getting ramped up on steroids---repelled every attempt by the mob of fembots to get anywhere near V.I.C.I to do any sort of damage. Each move left the “aggressors” more and more damaged; every time they fell back, the fembots were missing a limb here, part of a face there. A few of them sustained gaping holes in their torsos, and at least one fembot had her head effectively crushed like a watermelon in V.I.C.I.'s vise-like grip.

In short, the “fight” was less of an actual fight and more along the lines of a WWE squash match.

Less than 30 minutes had elapsed between DuBraul and Harcourt leaving the room and the end of what could only be called a total beatdown of the fembots; within that time, more of the afflicted 'bots had probably made their way into the building---if Anton's message was anything to go by, they weren't just interested in Vicki, either. Running through the entire building, battling fembots as she went, wasn't going to be enough---it would take a full knowledge of where the fembots were concentrating their attacks, how to get to those areas as fast as possible, and keeping the collateral damage to a minimum.

Considering the fembots' actions, that last part was going to be the hardest to adhere to.

Vicki kicked one downed fembot's torso away from herself and pinged Anton's phone with her internal WiFi modem, hoping the signal would encourage him to call her again; sure enough, her own phone rang ten seconds later. “I'm guessing you got my message?”

“I did. The fembots that tried to breach the building through the wall on this side have been dealt with---”

“They're not trying to breach the building, Vicki,” Anton corrected. “From what we've been able to gather, the fembots have been deployed to attack specific areas, not just randomly striking at the building as a whole; my theory is that they're attempting to shut off the security systems---”

“Tell me the rest later---I'm on my way.” Vicki ended the call, already dreading what would happen when she reached Anton. Hate to break it to you, Professor, but I think your theory may be a bit flawed---and I really wish it wasn't. Ignoring the last, spastic twitches of the broken fembots, Vicki left the room.

She really didn't want to think of what might happen if she didn't reach Anton in time.

Part 6

“If anyone says this place looks like a ghost town, I'm going to scream.”

Major Tom's statement did little to detract from the fact that San Jose State University did, in all manner of fact, look like a veritable ghost town. The order to stay indoors, issued earlier in the day, had been taken seriously by students and staff alike---memories of Faceless' last “visit” to the campus were still fresh in the minds of many, and the even more recent abduction of Sharon Wilson from her own dorm room had put all of SJSU on edge.

“No need for the warning, Major,” Oberon assured him. “I have a feeling the only ghosts we're going to find are those who were never alive to begin with.” He scowled, more at his own choice of words than at Tom's threat to “scream”. “Everyone, stay alert and don't dismount until I give the signal---otherwise, they'll rush you---”

“And then we're all screwed,” Johnny Dash muttered. “I think we get the point.”

Jen glared at him, but kept her voice calm. “No disrespect, Mr. Chairman, but I think we can handle this one ourselves. Even if we do dismount---or get knocked off our mounts---we can still---”

“Still fight?” Oberon cut in. “Even after they grab your weapon out of your hand and try to beat you to death with it? No, I think not---you'll try to fight, and maybe you'll actually get something done...” He shook his head and gave the reins of his steed a quick tug. “Best not to think about it right now.”

“So what should we be thinking about?” Reaver countered. “Running onto a college campus to slaughter a bunch of fembots?”

Oberon's cold stare instantly silenced the Field Agent's protests.

“We're not slaughtering anyone,” Major Tom informed him quietly. “According to every ALPA sentience scale, these fembots aren't even technically qualified as sentient anymore---they've been reduced to walking tools programmed to wipe out anything and anyone in their path....and who the hell invited them here?!”

Reaver and the rest of the Agents glanced in the direction of the Major's supremely-pissed off stare, noticing a few dozen or so bicycles skidding to a stop. “If this is another one of your 'surprises', Chairman,” Tom growled, “then I'm not laughing. The House has no business getting involved in this---”

“On the contrary,” one of the House gynoids---a slender, 20-something Asian with jet black hair, “we have as much right to be here as you do.” She gestured at one of the other gynoids, instantly recognizable as Julia Irvine---one of the Human Animal's victims from the mission in Detroit earlier in the year. “Miss Irvine and her colleagues intercepted communications from some...unsavory characters operating in this part of the country a few weeks ago, and we believe that the House is obligated to assist any interested parties in removing said characters.”

“Whoop-de-freaking do for you,” the Major muttered, “but this is ALPA business. OUR business.”

“It's ours too,” Julia countered. “You're out here playing Knights of the Round Table, and we've been---”

A loud throat-clearing noise cut off the argument before it could get too far out of hand. “As much as I would enjoy seeing this resolved in a non-violent fashion,” Oberon called out, “it appears this discussion will have to wait---namely, because a load of fembots are inbound.” He nodded to the far end of El Paseo de Cesar E. Chavez; “Arms at the ready, ladies and gentlemen,” he shouted. “ARMS AT THE READY, ALL OF YOU!”

Tom guided his horse over to where the House Agents were waiting, stopping a few feet in front of the Asian gynoid. “You're new at this, aren't you?” he asked quietly. “I don't think I remember seeing you at any of the past missions with House involvement---”

“I was just activated this past March,” the gynoid replied. “Fifth generation, created in-house.”

Any number of puns on the term “in-house” entered---and left---the Major's stream of thought. “So you missed the whole situation in Detroit, then?”

“I was briefed on it after activation....from what I can tell, the ALPA averted a major catastrophe in the Motor City with just a few people.” She grinned. “I hear one Agent Lawson, in particular, did her fair share of butt-kicking to remove the Human Animal's influence from the area.”

At the mention of Vicki, the Major managed a smile.. “She did.” He paused; “Look, if it's any consolation---”

“I know it's the ALPA's job to keep things from escalating out of control,” the gynoid interjected. “You don't have to apologize for it.” She grinned again; “I'm Kimiko, by the way,” she added, extending her hand. “Agent Kimiko Mori, G5-992-010096.”

The Major shook her hand. “Major Thomas Stephen Lane-Liddell, callsign Nova, formerly of NASA.”

“So you're actually a Major Tom?” Kimiko beamed.

“The Major Tom...well, not the one from the songs, but still the one and only Major Tom in the ALPA.”

“Nice...Julia told me you spearheaded some pretty important ops in Detroit---”

“ARMS AT THE READY!” Oberon shouted, guiding his horse in a semi-circle around the assembled ALPA Field Agents. “DO NOT DISMOUNT, DO NOT DROP YOUR WEAPONS, AND DO NOT SURRENDER!”

Kimiko glanced at the armored ALPA Chairman, arching an eyebrow. “So...the horses were his idea?”

“And the swords,” Major Tom replied, scowling, “and the armor, and several other things.”

“I think it's pretty cool, actually,” Kimiko admitted. “We just have pulsers---”

Julia groaned. “Kimmy, can we not disclose our equipment loadouts with unaffiliated parties?” she quietly asked. “Or at LEAST wait until this is over with...” She let the sentence hang with a sigh as Kimiko handed over her own pulser to the Major. “It's got a hydrogen battery in it, so it's not affected by the same stuff as the ES-99 series,” she explained. “Radial area of effect settings are here, strength adjustment here...”

“Nice.” The Major nodded his approval. “Wish we were packing some of these, instead of rolling out Tolkein-style.”

The two House gynoids exchanged an amused glance. “'Tolkein-style'?” Julia echoed.

“Swords, sticks and horses,” Tom clarified. “All this bullroar about not letting the enemy take any advantage, or some crap....and just because we set off an EMP in the garage, we can't even use our damn cars---or even a motorcycle!” Both Kimiko and Julia grimaced at the mention of the EMP; “We made sure our people were out before it was activated,” the Major assured them. “Oberon refused to even put his hand over the switch until he was positive everyone was out safely....he's not the type to take senseless risks.” He paused; “...other than this, I mean,” he added bitterly.

“Well, the 'Tolkein-style' look does have its merits,” Kimiko reminded him. “And it looks pretty cool!”

“Looking cool isn't going to help against a bunch of red-ring fembots,” Julia stated, before the Major could voice his own concerns on the matter. “We're here to keep San Jose State University from turning into a complete bloodbath, Agent Mori---'looking cool' isn't exactly part of the job description.” She gestured for Tom to hand Kimiko's pulser back to her.

“As much as it annoys me to admit it,” he muttered to the Asian gynoid, “she's got a point---”

“CLOSE RANKS! ALL AGENTS CLOSE RANKS AND PREPARE TO ENGAGE!” Oberon made one last sweep of the entire assembled mass of Field Agents, shouting orders for them to bring their weapons to bear. “Major, get back on your mount at once---the hostile combatants are approaching fast.”

The use of “hostile combatants” instead of “fembots” was enough of a sign that this was no longer just a simple “run in, clear out and ride off” situation---the kind the Major was accustomed to. Now, it had become a full-on battle, one that could easily turn bad if the conditions shifted at any moment. “Guess that's your exit cue, right?” Kimiko inquired, frowning slightly.

“We can resume our conversation when the fighting's over,” the Major assured her; for a brief moment, he even considered adding “Promise not to die on me” or some other cliché, but decided against it.

With a brief wave, the ex-NASA operative turned and headed for his horse, silently fuming all the while (I still think we could've found a better way to get here), yet keeping his composure. The time for whinging about the horses had already passed---with the fight inevitably drawing nearer, this was time for strategic planning and decisions that could ultimately lead to the battle being won or lost. Naturally, everyone was hoping for the former....but the possibility of the latter outcome was all too real.

Even more importantly, the possibility of casualties was all too real....and all too immediate.

“How far off are they?” Reaver called out.

“Fifty feet from our current position---and closing,” Oberon replied. One of the House Field Agents yelled something about “set pulser range to maximum”, and every gynoid in the group adjusted their weapons accordingly. “Well,” Major Tom muttered, “I think the shit is officially about to hit the fan....” He drew the sword from its saddle-mounted scabbard, examining it. “This is a damn good blade,” he muttered, slightly surprised that such an obsolete weapon looked this impressive. “And I don't mean that in the sense of 'this is a good costume accessory', or 'this looks good for LARPing'...I mean this is a pretty freaking impressive piece of steel.” He hefted the sword, swinging it experimentally to get a good feel for it. “If I didn't know any better---”

“These were forged at my request,” Oberon interjected from over the Major's right shoulder. “And they're not just steel, either.” He gave his usual mischevious smile; “For someone who was dead-set against 'playing Lord of the Rings out here',” he added, “you seem to find those swords rather fascinating.”

“As long as they'll help me cut the heads of of those 'hostile combatants,” the Major replied, “I'll use 'em.”

Oberon nodded. “You'll get your chance in a few minutes---TWENTY-FIVE FEET AND CLOSING!”

“I can't even see anything out there!” Johnny Dash complained. “Are you sure those fembots are even here, or is this some kind of stupid test, or what—--whoa!” He pulled back on the reins of his horse just in time to keep the beast from rearing back and throwing him off.

“They'll be here soon,” Oberon assured him. “Trust me.” Johnny very nearly spoke up against the request, but felt the protest die on his lips as he saw, through the corner of his eye, something edge its way down the wall of the Central Classroom Building. “This isn't happening,” he muttered, “please tell me this isn't happening....”

“Fifteen feet and closing,” Oberon intoned, as the rest of the Agents realized what was going on. “Prepare to engage hostiles from all sides!” Indeed, every direction the Field Agents looked, they saw the “combatants” emerging from sewer grates, jumping fences, climbing out of windows or just crawling down the sides of buildings like some sort of bizarre human-reptile hybrids. Eventually, though, the Field Agents and those Agents of the House who had shown up found themselves enclosed in a ring of black-clad, smiling fembots.

Oberon squeezed his eyes shut, one hand on his sword. “Agents.......”

The blade cleared its sheath just as Oberon's eyes snapped open. “GIVE 'EM HELL!”

Within seconds, the mayhem began.

The horses did marvelous work of charging forward and dodging the humanoid flotsam and jetsam that was the mob of fembots; in at least two cases, Agents were able to tackle their targets to the ground and proceed to bash their skulls in with melee weapons. The House agents were doing similarly well---at no point did any of the pulser-weilding gynoids have any more than two fembots approaching them from any side.

In short, it was all going well.

At first.

The turn of the tide didn't happen with a fembot suddenly knocking an ALPA Agent off of their mount, or the House agents' pulsers all of a sudden seizing up. It happened as the Agents from both organizations were doing their best to drive the horde of fembots as far back up the street as possible---a move that got Oberon thinking about the strategic disadvantages of fighting in an ubran area. As the fembots were swept past the Event Center, a thought occurred to him---when he'd visited the campus earlier that day, there were no students in the Center, and no events had been scheduled to take place that evening.

So why the bloody hell are all of the lights on in there---

The realization may as well have been a brick smashing into his head. “FALL BACK! ALL OF YOU, FALL BACK NOW!'

His words had just reached the ears of the Agents when the doors of the event center swung open---revealing even more fembots. Unlike the rest, these weren't even wearing sports pants and sports bras---they were clad in the flimsiest of eveningwear, material transluscent enough to show that they were wearing undergarments that were just as thin---as well as their flashing, exposed power cores.

Oberon nearly lost his voice screaming: “FALL BACK TO DEFENSIVE POSITION! DO NOT ATTACK ANY NEW HOSTILES! FALL BACK AND---”

One of the fembots broke from the pack exiting the event center, running towards a horse as if she wanted to hug the thing. Fortunately enough, the Agent atop the horse had enough sense to guide the animal away from the crazed, leaping fembot---seconds before she hit the ground and erupted into a fireball.

“DO NOT LET THEM GRAB YOU!” Oberon ordered. “Keep them at arm's length, but DO NOT---”

Something closed around his wrist with the strength of a vise---followed immediately after by a high-pitched feminine shriek that would've deafened a lesser man. Even with the fembot screaming in his ear, however, Oberon still had the presence of mind to grab his sword. “Get....off of me....”

Instead of getting shouted at again, the ALPA Chairman stared, horrified, as the fembot's eyes took on a blue glow, matched by the blinding light now emanating from her throat. Bastard's only gone and given them wonky Detaining Grip systems, he realized, one hand still clasped around his sword. Pity he robbed them of their common sense.... A sardonic smile played at his lips---under any other circumstances, he'd hate himself for what he was about to do, seeing as how striking down an afflicted fembot was the exact opposite of what the ALPA stood for...but not only were these fembots too far gone to save, they were a clear and present danger to any and every civilian in the area....

….which meant that wiping them out was pretty much a necessity...and a damn good stress reliever.

Half a second before the fembot's sparking hands could get any closer to Oberon's eyes, she froze in place, staring at her would-be victim with a manic smile still plastered across her face.

Oberon smirked as the fembot practically slid off of his blade. “Pathetic.”

Less than 20 feet away, Kimiko Mori regarded the scene with a somewhat frightened look---at least, until Julia (who was busy shooting a fembot full of pulser blasts) noticed. “He's only enjoying this because he knows they can't feel it,” she explained. “These things---” She whirled on one foot to put a shot right between the eyes of another fembot. “---these fembots no longer qualify as sentient, Kimmy....whatever was done to them has broken them completely. They don't feel, they don't think---they're basically kamikazes, programmed to destroy as much as possible, even if they get taken out---” She dodged a charging fembot, planting a pulser blast directly in its back. “--in the process.”

“You're sure they can't feel anything?” Kimiko quietly asked.

“Positive. Scan them yourself, if you want---GET OFF OF ME!” Julia grabbed yet another fembot, which was attempting to grope her, and jammed her pulser in its mouth, squeezing the trigger and frying every processor in the affected unit's head.

After putting a few pulser rounds of her own into a trio of oncoming fembots, Kimiko set her internal scanners from passive to active, glancing at every fembot in the vicinity....and other than the agents of the House and a few ALPA Field Agents, none of her scans came back positive in conjunction with any of the accepted sentience tests. Scans for emotion, morality and logic programs came back with similar results. “So they're all just shells,” she murmured. “Mindless, walking shells...”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” another House gynoid assured her. “Not every robot on the planet is sentient, y'know...not that they deserve to be treated like crap because of that---” Her sentence was drowned out by a volley of pulser shots, followed soon after by the ruined body of a fembot hitting the ground.

“Less talking,” Julia advised, “more shooting!”

Kimiko and the other House gynoid followed that kernel of wisdom with the typical level of precision expected of them---putting down fifteen more fembots in under as many seconds in the process.

Even with the oncoming waves of fembots refusing to back down, the ALPA and House Agents stood their ground as readily as any Spartan---an impression given an extra bit of credence by the weapons of the ALPA Agents. Swords cleaved through metallic skulls, clubs bashed in carbon-fiber ribcages, and axes sheared through servo-driven limbs---all with a ruthless efficiency that Leonidas himself would've been proud of.

And still, the fembots refused to yield.

“STAND AND FIGHT!” Oberon shouted, decapitating another fembot (just before her glowing hand could close around his throat) and bashing two more in the face with the hilt of his sword as the first fell. “DO NOT GIVE GROUND---ANYONE WHO RETREATS WILL ANSWER TO ME PERSONALLY!” As if to drive the point home, he cut the legs of the two fembots out from beneath them, before impaling them one at a time. “WE DO NOT LEAVE UNTIL EVERY SINGLE HOSTILE HAS BEEN NEUTRALIZED! DO YOU HEAR ME?!”

A resounding chorus of “YES, SIR”s rang out in response.

Despite the seething rage that still coursed through him (the same rage that drove him to utterly destroy every fembot in his path), Oberon managed a smile. “As I thought. Now, then---”

The searing grip of a fembot rather brutally cut him off, grabbing him by the right cheek and not letting go.

“OBERON!” Major Tom jerked the reins of his mount, nearly falling off as he leaned in to decapitate the fembot before she could do any permanent damage to the ALPA Chairman. He barely felt his sword clear the scabbard, though the impact of the blade against the fembot's neck was far more substantial. As soon as the fembot was reduced to a gibbering pile on the ground, the Major helped Oberon to his feet.

“You okay, man? She tagged you pretty---” He froze, staring in horror at the wound on Oberon's face.

“It doesn't hurt, if that's what you're wondering,” the ALPA President chuckled, wiping the blood from his cheek with the back of one hand. “Just throw some sticking plaster on it and I'll be fine...” He grimaced as his hand brushed against the burned skin; “On second thought,” he muttered, “I'm not staying like this all night...” He undid the clasps on the bracer that covered his left arm, removing something from a hidden pocket inside. “I was hoping the helmet would've held up against that sort of thing,” he mused, shaking off the ruined headgear and unfolding the object from his bracer—which turned out to be a mask of sorts that would easily cover the wound on his face. “I know the things were designed to my standards, so that's not---”

The Major shoved him out of the way just in time to avoid getting grabbed by another glowing blue hand, which landed with a thud on the ground thanks to a well-timed sword strike. Seconds later, the now one-handed fembot followed suit, vital fluids spilling out of the gaping hole in her chest left by Tom's sword.

“You're lucky that there was a fembot there,” Oberon joked, “otherwise I'd have kicked you in the head for that.”

“What,” Tom replied, “you want all the hair on the back of your head to get burnt off---”

A pained scream interrupted their banter. “Mission now,” Oberon chided, “jokes later.” Without waiting for Major Tom to acknowledge, he ran off towards the scream, sword in hand. “Glad to see getting wounded hasn't spooked him,” the ex-NASA operative muttered, giving a weary sigh. “WAIT UP, WILL YA?!”

Despite the seemingly unending onslaught of the fembots, the ALPA and House Agents refused to give ground at any point in the fight. Over the course of the entire skirmish, Oberon's wound was one of the few suffered by the ALPA and House Agents---and, undoubtedly, his was the most severe. The rest were mostly bruises, scrapes and the mild headache Johnny Dash sustained after falling off of his horse---other than that, the fembots were completely unable to do any real damage to the Field Agents.

In Oberon's view, though.....

“They weren't here to hurt us,” he intoned, just as the last of the fembots finally stopped twitching. “They were here to cause damage---to make a scene. If there had been anyone else other than us out on these streets, then they'd have been killing, maiming, crippling.....once we gave the order for everyone to stay indoors, the fembots lost all incentive to do anything other than cause damage.” He turned away from the cleanup crews working to remove all fembot remains from the street. “As much as you're going to hate me for saying it, Major....I think we've made a grave miscalculation.”

“Except we won,” the Major insisted. “We beat the stupid fembots, and---”

“This was never about 'winning' or 'losing',” Oberon hissed. “This was about misdirection, distraction...the art of making your enemy look like an absolute plonk when they're trying to play the hero. To put it quite simply, Major, we fucked up. We sent all of our best people out here when we should've stayed behind at HQ....”

Tom felt like throwing something. “You're telling me we wasted our time out here?!”

“Far from it---had we not shown up to deal with the fembots here, they would've started kicking in doors and looking for people to hurt. No, our time here was well-spent....it's just that my initial thoughts on why these fembots were here were completely and utterly wrong. Round up the horses...we need to get back to base---”

“I've got a better idea.”

Oberon and Major Tom turned to stare at the speaker of those words, only to find that individual sitting on the roof of what appeared to be a San Jose State University bus. “Horses are good, and all,” Alicia Lehane Mk VI mused, “but....why not just take the bus to get back to your HQ? I mean, it is faster....and busses don't shit all over the road.”

Even as Major Tom rolled his eyes, Oberon laughed. “To be honest,” he chuckled, “that's a damn good idea.”

Part 7

“You'll never save them all, you know.”

Vicki ignored the voice of Faceless as the elevator descended. The hallucinations (what else am I going to call them?) had been getting more and more vivid with each occurance, but they were beginning to feel less like errant code or glitches in her system and more like.....

“More like I'm actually standing near you,” Faceless hissed. “Like I'm in this elevator, right now---”

“You're in a hospital room, chained to a bed, doped up to the eyeballs on sedatives because you scream every time you move,” Vicki shot back. “What I'm hearing and talking to right now is just a stupid image that only I can see or here---an image you planted in my mind when you stabbed me through the head.” Her gaze never wavered from the closed elevator doors. “Even if you can 'read my mind' and all that crap, you can't make me kill myself or anything else like that---you threw your hand the first time when you made me think Ash was you, so my firewalls have been at maximum strength ever since then.”

The image of Faceless shook his head. “Always trying to think ahead of me....on any other day, I'd admire it.”

“Yeah, well, on any other day, I'd be shut off and running debugs on myself to clear every last trace of you from my memory---”

Faceless materialized directly in front of the brunette gynoid, and for a brief moment, she temporarily forgot that the figure wasn't the real Butcher of Lake Gilmour. Those eyes...they have that same look he had when I beat him....that look of complete hatred.... “Wiping your memory won't save you, Vicki,” the image growled. “Nothing---even death---can erase your pain.”

“I never said I wanted to erase my pain,” Vicki countered. “Running away from pain won't help me overcome it....”

Predictably, the figure of Faceless laughed. “So you admit that you enjoy pain?”

“There's a difference between enjoying pain and acknowledging that it makes you human...which is something you probably don't even care about---”

A ping interrupted Vicki's words, mere seconds before the elevator door opened---followed immediately by a blinding flash and a slight ringing in the brunette gynoid's ears. Seconds later, she recovered---and Faceless (or his residual image) had disappeared yet again.

Even stranger, the figure of Elena Vlatko stood in the doorway, smiling.

“You?!”

“Me,” Elena nodded. “You seem surprised, Agent Lawson.”

“Well, yeah! I mean....the last time I saw you, you had a hole in your stomach, and Boris Vlatko was trying to get you repaired....I thought you'd been scrapped!”

The Russian gynoid shook her head. “I nearly was, to be honest...but after Boris shot Faceless in the back, he spared no expense to bring me back from the brink of destruction. We cut our ties with the Coalition, of course, and Boris vowed to repay you for not letting Faceless kill him.” She glanced past Vicki, into the elevator car; “It seems your optical/aural sensors are no longer picking up the stray transmission I detected,” she added. “You are feeling okay now, I hope?”

“I am, thanks.” Vicki took one last glance around the car. “What did you do?”

“It would be better if I didn't tell you,” Elena admitted, “in case I have to use that trick again.”

Vicki sighed; “Fair enough. So....I'm guessing we're on the same team now?”

“I do not think of it as us being on the same team,” Elena replied. “Rather, I choose to think of it as us fighting a common enemy for a very good cause. Now, then....I believe Professor Malvineous needs your help?”

“He told you, didn't he?”

'I was in the building for unrelated reasons. As soon as these...'fembots' began attacking, I volunteered my services to help fight them.” Elena grinned a shark's grin; “So far, it's proven very effective,” she added.

And I am SO GLAD she's on my side this time around... “So what's our next move?”

Elena's smile faded. “I was hoping you could tell me, Agent Lawson,” she admitted. “I....have not been on the best of terms with the ALPA, and as such, the only times I have been in this building, I wasn't exacly able to get a clear sense of where everything was on every floor. I sincerely hope you know more of the building than I do, otherwise...”

“Well, you won't have to worry about 'otherwise',” Vicki assured her. “We shouldn't have any problems---”

A loud crash from somewhere ahead of them cut off her sentence. “And I apparently spoke too soon,” she finished, blowing out an aggravated sigh. “Why is it that every time I say 'this should be easy' or 'we shouldn't have any problems', everything goes completely and utterly wrong...” She reached for her ES-9950, only to find that she wasn't even wearing the holster for it. “The ONE DAY I choose to go unarmed,” she muttered, “and the entire building is under siege. Just great.....” She sighed again. “You took all those fembots out in hand-to-hand, right?” she asked Elena.

“Of course.”

“Well, looks like we'll get to test our fighting skills on this next group...” Vicki struck a fighting pose, ignoring the somewhat-amused look Elena gave her. “Helps me focus on what's coming,” she explained.

Anything Elena could've said as a reply was drowned out by the sound of doors splintering on either side of the hallway, followed by fembots crashing through on both sides. “Don't worry,” Vicki assured her, “I've got---” Her sentence---and her thought---was interrupted by Elena sprinting past her, grabbing two fembots by the wrists and pulling from their hiding places, sending them face first into the walls on either side of the corridor. Two more fembots attempted to grab the Russian gynoid, but only succeeded in exposing enough of themselves for Elena to kick---brutally. Within five seconds, both fembots lay twitching and gibbering on the floor.

Vicki found herself unable to say anything other than a mutter of “Whoa”.

Five more fembots rushed Elena, apparently intent on tearing her in half. None of them managed anything close to it---after taking one of them down with a headscissors hurricanrana (she's a wrestling fan too?!), Elena clotheslined the other into the wall, knocked out the third with a spinning back kick, and brought down the final two with a double-chokeslam that left a gaping crack in the tile floor. Even as the thoughts of that was AWESOME flitted through her processors, Vicki managed to stay nonchalant as she approached Elena. “Well, that was...effective,” she noted.

“Too effective,” Elena countered. “The ones I fought before at least put up a fight...”

“You're saying that they lost on purpose?” Vicki inquired. “Maybe they used up their energy breaking in.”

Elena gave Vicki her best “oh, please” look. “You don't need to keep up the act, Agent Lawson,” she chided, with a wry grin. “I don't think the daughter of Ted Lawson would be so naïve to think that these fembots used up every bit of energy in their power cores just breaking through windows---and there is the small matter of you being a gynoid.”

“Guess you mentioning optical and aural sensors earlier should've clued me in to you knowing what I really am,” Vicki sulked. “Who told you?”

The Russian gynoid smiled again. “DuBraul told me not long after Boris and I relocated here. You can trust me, Agent Lawson....my days of working for those who oppose your organization are over. Also,” she added, “your father wouldn't stop going on about you beating Boris' earlier creation at a....spelling bee, was it?”

Vicki couldn't help but giggle. “I was kinda hoping nobody would bring that up...”

“You should be proud, Agent Lawson,” Elena assured her. “Even Boris would not shut up about how you beat Vladimir...” Her smile faded slightly; “He was much like you, if I remember,” she admitted. “Like the old you, according to Boris. He had potential, as well---he could have been part of our lives for longer...” She turned away. “Instead, he was the second loss Boris had to endure. The second pain that made his life in the old country Hell.”

“And you were the first loss?”

Elena nodded. “You have done your homework, Agent Lawson...Russia was among the forebearers of what is now known as transferrence technology. I---my human predecessor----was dying, and cancer research was nowhere near as advanced as the field of robotics had become....Boris promised me that he would do whatever it took to keep me alive until my memories could be transferred....but it was a promise he could not keep, though I would've been proud of his efforts.”

“So why'd he stick with the Coalition?” Vicki asked. “I mean, last I checked, they favor obedience over free will---and I don't even know what their opinion on transferrence tech is.”

“They did not have an opinion in those days,” Elena admitted. “I highly doubt that the 'ignore it and it will go away' method can even be called an opinion, so I don't picture it as such....that was how the Coalition viewed such things back then, really. Still, they weren't the ones Boris and I truly worried about.....” She paused, rubbing her shoulder and glancing at the floor. “We were far more concerned with evading the DVS than the Coalition, to be honest.”

“Boris was with the DVS?!” Vicki couldn't keep herself from gasping in shock.

“Very, very briefly. Both of us thought that it was for the better...not surprisingly, we soon found out how wrong we were. One of them in particular was obsessed with disassembling me and seeing how various parts of me reacted to....'tests'....and others among their number had ideas so vulgar that I refuse to discuss them.”

Vicki nodded silently.

“In any case,” Elena continued, “we both overcame that...particular stage of our lives, and Boris tried to make himself a better person in spite of it. Yes, we both relished the chance to work with seemingly like-minded individuals---you probably remember Boris joining forces with Drake Bradford---but in reality...we never truly enjoyed it. Bradford was a contemptable fool, and the others we allied ourselves with were either just as bad as he was, or worse. Eventually, the Baron....decided we were no longer worth his time. He gave Boris one final chance---the mission to acquire Kirsten Sanderson---and.....that obviously did not turn out as he had planned.”

The memory of Boris shooting Faceless in the back rose, unbidden, from Vicki's thoughts. “He did what he did to keep you safe,” she heard herself reply. “He said Faceless threatened to destroy you...that time healed the wounds he had from me beating Vladimir....”

“They did,” Elena admitted. “And I must admit, knowing what Boris went through to rebuild me----”

Somewhere ahead of them, a wall was reduced to rubble.

“I think we can finish this introspection later,” Vicki suggested. “Right now...”

Five fembots, all of them moving in a manner more akin to primates than human beings, loped down the hall, chattering nonsensical bursts of vowels and consonants. It's getting worse, the brunette gynoid realized. If they can't even speak coherently now---let alone walk like normal human beings....

“You're not having second thoughts about this, are you?” Elena asked.

Despite her revulsion (or perhaps because of it), Vicki shook her head. “They're can't feel or think anymore, so putting them down now would probably be the best thing we could do for them.”

“My sentiments exactly. Now, then...” Elena turned her attention to the fembots. “Shall we?”

Despite the fact that she was charging into a fight against a group of five mentally-broken fembots who had no qualms about ripping her limb from limb, Vicki didn't feel as if time was slowing down around her, or any such feelings commonly associated with what human beings know as an adrenaline rush. Appropriately enough (as per Anton's suggestion), she viewed the fight from a coldly analytical standpoint---approaching the entire situation with the thought processes of a machine, rather than a human. Within the span of a few seconds, she had effectively gone over the entire fight in her head, and figured out over a hundred ways to defeat the fembots, with or without Elena's help.

That being said, she still felt a bit of a thrill before the last fembot hit the floor.

Whereas the analytical part of her mind wasn't surprised in the least that her every move---ranging from arm bars, leg sweeps and the standard punches and kicks to more exotic fare, like German Suplexing a fembot into a wall---worked flawlessly, the more human part of her mind---the part that made her Vicki Lawson, rather than just a nameless gynoid---was mentally cheering and whooping it up. She didn't say a word during the actual fight, of course---she was too busy mopping the floor with the fembots.

Some day, she reminded herself, I'll have to analyze the logs of this and go over exactly what I just felt....

Elena, meanwhile, was showcasing the same ruthless efficiency she'd used against the earlier group, dropping them to the floor with moves that would've made a UFC fighter cower in fear. In the end, the five fembots ended up ruined, gibbering on the floor with their vital fluids leaking everywhere.

Had that been the end of their fight, Vicki might've felt more than a little giddy....instead, she started feeling giddy---and then immediately stopped when she saw what was coming.

Standing eight feet tall, armored with what appeared to be a chromed titanium alloy and with a red slit at eye level, the only vaguely-humanoid....thing looked more than a little like one of the OSE robots Vicki had last encountered in Singapore. “What....the hell is that?!” she gasped, backpedalling away from the bipedal mech as fast as possible. “I thought Hannsen had just boosted a load of fembots---nobody ever said anything about him stealing from OSE---”

“Oh, the clever girl doesn't even recognize her own side's toys,” Hannsen's voice taunted from a speaker mounted in the robot's “head”. “The ALPA doesn't just rely on fancy dolls to do their dirty work---sometimes, they need something with a bit more kick!” The armored robot swung a massive arm in Vicki's direction, missing her by a hair---literally. “Say hello to the ART 5972 Ares-class Defender,” Hannsen declared proudly, “the most powerful non-sentient machine in the ALPA's arsenal---and now, MINE to play with!” His sentence ended in a cackle as a cannon rose from the Defender's left forearm, leveled directly at Vicki's head. “To quote a classic film that happens to be a favorite of mine: SAY GOODNIGHT TO THE BAD GUY!”

Even with her destruction nearly certain at this point, Vicki shook her head. “I don't think so.”

The cannon began charging. “Then I'll say it for you---”

“Allow me.”

Even with the advanced gyroscopic stabilizers Vicki detected inside of it, the Defender couldn't turn around fast enough to correct its aim---giving Elena the perfect chance to peel away an armor plate covering its “spine” and tear out a clump of wiring. “Goodnight.”

Within seconds, the Defender slumped to the floor....

….just as another punched through a wall behind Vicki.

“How EASILY you forget who you're dealing with!” the Maestro cackled. “I've been BOMBARDING your stupid building with signals, and every non-sentient in there is now under my control! Hell, if I wasn't in hospital right now, I could've easily modified the signals to take over every sentient machine in your HQ as well---but I'll settle for all of these wonderful toys.”

“Elena,” Vicki whispered, “try to call Oberon and tell him---”

“Tell him what, oh mistress of useless ideas?!” the Maestro taunted. “I could just as easily find your boss and sic one of these on him. Oh, and the whole 'whispering' thing is pretty much a joke, right now---the Defenders have an auditory detection scale that, quite frankly, beats the sodding crap out of anything you could possibly do.”

Ignoring Hannsen's taunt, Vicki continued on her hastily-formed plan of distracting him. “Okay, fine. So you can hear Elena and I even when we're whispering. Good for you. But what about all the stuff you can't hear?”

“Oh, don't even try to play that card with me, Lawson—-”

“I'm serious. This building has security systems that could rip the Defenders in half before you could even think of commanding them to do any damage. Even someone as skilled as you couldn't hope to---”

“DO NOT finish that sentence! I am NOT going to fall for that 'even someone as skilled as you' crap! There is NOTHING in this building that can stop my plans and I REFUSE to fall for this stupid trickery! I'm not even in the building right now---even if there was some magical way your friends could find me, I'm in hospital, so it's not llike they'll be pulling the Rambo routine to come in and drag me out!”

Vicki fought the urge to grin; they won't have to “pull the Rambo routine”, if you keep talking---

“How does it feel, Lawson?”

The question was somewhat surprising, especially since Vicki didn't know what the Maestro was referring to.

Without waiting for her to respond, the Maestro spoke again: “How does it feel to know that you nearly killed me back there, in Dawley? That you broke every bone in my body...toyed with me, like a cat toying with a mouse, and nearly convinced me that I was going to die?” His voice was no longer mocking---every word dripped with caustic, pent-up rage. “How does it feel to know that I may never walk again because of what you did to me?! Tell me! HOW DOES IT FEEL, LAWSON?! HOW THE BLOODY HELL DOES IT FEEL?!”

Even with her earlier feelings of levity and bravado on the verge of slipping away, Vicki stood her ground before the Defender. “Unlike some people who might've been in my situation,” she replied, her voice calm, “I'm not proud of what I did to you, Hannsen. Maybe I thought you deserved a beating---maybe you did deserve one---but I crossed the line by doing what I did to you...and I'm sorry.”

“You....you're sorry---”

Before Hannsen could utter another syllable, the Defender's head was torn off its shoulders.

“Thanks for the distraction, Agent Lawson.” Elena dropped down from where she'd been clinging to the mech's shoulders, grinning. “I was hoping you'd keep him busy long enough for me to....ah, what's wrong?” Her smile faded as she noticed the look on the brunette gynoid's face. “Those things Hannsen said---”

“Doesn't matter. We have to keep going.” Vicki turned and headed for the elevators. “Anton's waiting---”

“And he can keep waiting,” Elena declared. “I would appreciate an explanation of what I just heard---”

Vicki stopped, turned on her heel and glared at the Russian gynoid. “You want an explanation?” she hissed. “I nearly killed Matthew Hannsen in Dawley---broke his legs, almost broke his hands, and effectively beat him within an inch of his life, all because he murdered a friend of mine in cold blood. And I enjoyed every minute of it. Ever since I got back from the UK, I've been feeling less and less like myself, and nobody here has been able to give me a straight answer as to why---and the WORST PART......”

Her voice broke. “...the worst part...is that I don't know how far I can go before I stop being me......”

Elena's annoyed look turned to one of concern. “I didn't know---”

“Well, you damn sure know now, don't you?!” Vicki snapped, turning away again---and sobbing just a few seconds later.

For a few minutes, Elena and Vicki just stood there (or knelt there, in Vicki's case)---one too shocked to say anything, the other caught up in yet another torrent of guilt and shame. After what felt like an hour's worth of quiet sobbing, the brunette gynoid felt a hand on her shoulder. “When this is over,” Elena informed her, “no matter what happens....you will still be you. Whatever it is that you did to Hannsen, it will not change who you are...no matter how guilty you feel.” She smiled; “There is a song that sums this up perfectly,” she added, “by one Mister Lawrence Gowan: 'With every act of love, the good catches up'...and I have a feeling that the good will catch up with you if you only give it time.”

“How can you say that?” Vicki sobbed. “I nearly killed someone---”

“There is a fundamental difference,” Elena interjected, “between nearly killing and actually killing. You were able to keep yourself from crossing that line---whether it was with or without help is irrelevant---and because Hannsen is still alive, you are, in fact, still you...”

Vicki let Elena help her to her feet. “Funny how everyone keeps telling me that,” she mused, “and I still don't believe it.” She stared at the floor; “I'm surprised you're so quick to believe that I'm still me,” she added quietly, “especially after the Starlet Dolls concert---”

“You don't have to explain what you would've done to me there,” Elena cut in. “That was then....we're on the same side now, Agent Lawson, and I most likely would have stopped myself if I had been 'in your shoes', as the saying goes, at the time. As for Hannsen....he is still alive, and you are, by far, a better person—-machine or otherwise---than he is.” She smiled again. “Now then, if we're finished with introspection and 'guilt tripping', I believe we still have an objective to accomplish.”

“Right...Anton's waiting,” Vicki replied, nodding. “Think we should make sure that thing's done?”

Elena glanced back at the Defender. “Good point.” She walked over to it, nudged it a few times with her foot...and then stomped on the “spine” of the massive humanoid mech. “I think it's done,” she called back over her shoulder. “So....shall we?”

“Might as well.” Vicki nodded, gesturing for Elena to follow her towards the elevators. Even with Hannsen's words still ringing in her mind, the brunette gynoid felt a lot better than she had earlier in the day.

Guess I'm still me after all....

Part 8

“And here I thought the House might actually stop making new versions of you after what happened to Alicia 5 in Singapore,” Major Tom muttered. “What exactly are you doing here, anyways?”

Alicia 6---kitted out in jean shorts and a tank top, rather than the House-standard bodysuits used for this type of field work---grinned. “Oh, y'know...the usual. Helping promote cooperation between agencies, working to promote the greater good....” She glanced over her shoulder at her fellow House gynoids, a few of whom began chanting “The greater good” in an intentionally-fake monotone.

“Shut it,” the Major snapped, turning his attention back to Alicia 6. “The House doesn't have a Matriarch---”

“They didn't need one to send me out here,” Alicia 6 countered, no longer smiling. “And before you ask why I'm out here after my last self died---I know. I know that she died, and I felt how she died. I remember her dying---that memory is part of me now. I felt her pain, and I felt the exact moment when she stopped functioning...and that's why I'm out here.” She pulled the Field Agent close; “You and I both know that Singapore wasn't the first time I died,” she whispered, “so stop trying to act like I can't handle this. Even if the House doesn't have a Matriarch or a Patriarch...”

The Major pulled away from her. “Your resolve is admirable, Alicia....but the House needs every---what?!”

“We have a problem,” Reaver muttered. “We're detecting fembot power signatures inside some of the buildings around here....and they're charging up.”

“How many?” Alicia 6 querried.

“Five or six in each---and how the hell did you even get here?”

“Same way we did, probably,” Oberon remarked. “And back to the matter at hand---”

A shot, fired from the building across the road, hit the ground near Oberon's feet.

Major Tom immediately dove for cover. “GET THE HELL OFF THE STREET!” he shouted. “EVERYONE GET OFF THE STREET NOW!”

“I don't think that was a fembot that just shot at us,” Alicia 6 stated. “I think Aaberg may have sent—-”

“GET OFF THE STREET, DAMNIT!”

“IN A MINUTE, TOMMY!” Alicia turned her attention back to Oberon; “I think we may be dealing with some of Aaberg's flunkies,” she continued. “The fembots' mental condition is so far degraded that they can barely even think---I have a feeling they won't be able to shoot at anything, especially not a bunch of Field Agents. Just trust me on this...”

Oberon smiled. “I never said I didn't trust you, Alicia.”

“Good call on your part, then---I'M GETTING OFF THE DAMN STREET, MAJOR!” Alicia rolled her eyes and hid behind a nearby trashcan. “One of these days, someone's going to need to teach him the art of patience...”

Guided by signals from Alicia and Oberon, the ALPA and House Agents moved into position near the windows of the closest building. “You're sure we're dealing with human attackers?” Reaver asked. “I could've sworn you picked up fembot power signatures in there earlier---” The blast of an illegally-charged pulser from inside shattered the window, prompting him to stop talking.

“Everyone, assume positions for standard breach 9942,” Major Tom called out. “ON MY MARK---”

The front door of the building was blown off its hinges, followed by a volley of gunfire.

“GET IN THERE! MOVE IT, MOVE IT, MOVE IT!” The Major nearly threw one of the Field Agents running past him into the building, screaming all the while. “GET IN THERE AND SECURE THE AREA! I DO NOT WANT ANYTHING GETTING OUT OF THAT BUILDING UNLESS---” A shot slammed into the tree next to his head. “Son of a bitch.....SOMEONE THROW ME A PULSER!”

Oberon chuckled. “I give him a sword, and he still prefers his way...”

“Save it for later,” Alicia recommended. “We need to secure that building---sitting here and arguing about what weapons to use isn't going to get anything done.”

Anything Oberon could've said as a reply was cut off by screaming from inside the building---someone (obviously one of the Field Agents, possibly even Major Tom himself) had apparently decided to charge in with the sword and just start swinging the thing like a berserker. “I'm thinking we should get in there before anyone gets an impromptu amputation,” the ALPA chairman mused. “Care to join me?”

“I was hoping you'd ask...”

Inside, the two immediately found themselves staring at a scene of utter carnage. Even with their training in the fine art of using melee weapons, the Field Agents had managed to demolish the vast majority of the room around them---furniture had been smashed and slashed, tables had been reduced to splinters, and massive gouges had been cut into walls from strikes and swings that had gone wide. Worse---as far as Oberon was concerned---Alicia's theory about human attackers had been proven correct; one couch had a smear of blood streaking across its surface, and closer inspection of a “weird object” inside a dustbin revealed that it was in fact a severed human hand.

“Guess Aaberg didn't care about sending his guys into a situation where they'd be losing limbs,” Alicia mused.

“Knowing him,” Oberon grimly replied, “he's more concerned about which guns they used in the fight...”

Upstairs, a torrent of profanity (and more furniture being broken) signaled that Major Tom was currently in a rather massive fight with someone. “Might as well see what all the fuss is about,” Oberon shrugged. “Ladies first...”

“I could say so many things about that line,” Alicia teased, “but---”

“DROP THE FUCKING GUN, YOU PIECE OF---NO! STAY AWAY FROM THE WINDOW---GET AWAY FROM THE G__DAMN WINDOW NOW!” Something on the second floor was hurled into the hallway, allowing Oberon and Alicia to see it hit the floor and “roll” for a few inches before splintering. “GET YOUR ASS AWAY FROM THE WINDOW RIGHT NOW, OR I'LL CUT OFF YOUR DAMN FEET! GET---damnit----GET IN HERE!”

Alicia arched an eyebrow. “Think we should help him out?”

“Definitely. OI, MAJOR! GIVE US A MINUTE AND---”

A Grecian urn (or a reproduction of one---it was hard to tell in the low light) hit the corridor wall at an angle that sent it tumbling down the stairs, prompting both Oberon and Alicia to move out of its way. “Let's go help the Major, then,” Oberon beamed, “shall we?”

“You and your weird sense of humor,” Alicia chuckled. “And this time, you go first.”

“Age before beauty, then,” Oberon quipped, taking the stairs. “Need a hand, Major? We heard a bit of a commotion downstairs---”

“JUST GET IN HERE AND KEEP THIS ASSHOLE FROM JUMPING OUT THE WINDOW, WILL YOU?!”

“No need for profanity.....we're on our way up.” Oberon sighed; “I guess he does need our help,” he muttered.

The conversation effectively came to a screeching halt as Alicia and Oberon both entered the room where Major Tom had been screaming---and found themselves face to face with the Major's opponent. Back at the compound in Dawley, she'd only been notable for the visor that covered the upper half of her face, as well as the rather incongruous nickname of “Blue-Eye”.

This time....it was rather easy to see that the name had been given as a cruel joke.

Both of the woman's eye sockets were completely empty, save for two glinting points of metal that, as Alicia realized, were connectors---most likely meant to hook up the visor she'd been known for to whatever was left of her optic nerves. “What the hell,” Alicia gasped, taking a step forward---and ducking out of the way just in time to avoid being smacked in the face by a flying plate. “I'm blind,” the woman taunted, “not deaf.” She hurled another plate at Oberon, who grabbed it before it came close to hitting him in the forehead; “So you're Aaberg's incursion force,” he mused. “I'd love to see who you brought in as backup---”

Alicia's shout of “LOOK OUT!” nearly came too late; Oberon only just dropped out of the way to avoid being smacked in the head by a nine-iron weilded by another of Aaberg's flunkies.

“And you must be the Whistler,” he intoned, dodging a second swing.

“Enough banter,” Alicia hissed, “just slap the cuffs on them!” She neatly dodged another thrown plate, only to be shoved aside by Major Tom. “All we need to do is detain them, Major,” she insisted, “we---”

“THE HELL WITH DETAINING THEM,” the Major shouted. “I nearly got thrown out a window by this bitch!”

Oberon---dodging another swing of the Whistler's nine-iron---stepped between the two before they could start punching each other. “If I may make a suggestion,” he offered, “we may be able to compromise---we can 'slap the cuffs' on them' and keep them here until we can get a few more people to secure the area. As it stands, the fembots have all been beaten--” He stopped mid-sentence, backhanding the Whistler before he could bring the nine-iron down on top of the ALPA Chairman's head. “As I was saying, the fembots outside have all been beaten, and we have no real incentive to stick around here other than making sure these two don't cause any more problems...we could easily just wait until a second team arrives, then leave these two with them.”

“That....actually makes a hell of a lot of sense,” Alicia reasoned. “Though you and I need to have a talk once we're done here---”

“And we will. Major....any objections?”

With one last glare at Blue-Eye, Major Tom shook his head.

“Good. Now, then...let's secure them---wouldn't want to stay out here too long, would we?”

Major Tom extracted a zip-tie from his belt; “You're sure the backup team will arrive quickly enough to keep them from being a problem?” he asked. “I mean, if they get loose and start tearing up the place---”

“They won't get loose,” Alicia assured him. “Even if they do, there's not a whole lot of places they can go...”

“Agreed. Besides, we're all here to keep them from being utter pillocks, so....no worries.” Oberon grinned.

For a few seconds, Major Tom glared at the ALPA chairman....after which time he finally nodded. “Just as long as they don't get away from us, and nobody tries to escape through the freaking window again, I don't have a problem with it.”

“Splendid. Now, then....let's make sure there aren't any other nasty surprises waiting for us outside, shall we?”


As soon as she turned the corner, Vicki closed her eyes and stopped in her tracks.

“....and Boris was adamant that we---Agent Lawson, is something wrong?” Elena glanced back over her shoulder, confused. “What's the problem---”

“I'm being hit with another signal,” Vicki murmured. “I....I saw Faceless at the end of the hall.” Her eyes were still shut as she spoke, due to her not wanting to see the Butcher of Lake Gilmour materialize in front of her. “If you can pinpoint any signals hitting me....and maybe shut them off....it'd be a really big help....”

Elena nodded. “Just tell me what you need me to do, and---”

Something threw her against the wall.

“Elena, what's going on?! You have to talk to me here---”

“Sorry, Vicki,” Faceless' voice hissed, “but your friend's....out cold.” The brunette gynoid could almost sense the masked killer's presence behind her. “It seems that even in my...incapacitation....I can still pack quite a punch---”

“Except you didn't punch her,” Vicki countered. “You hijacked my RTG output and sent a shockwave in her direction, making her feel like she got punched when she tried to get close enough to me to break shut off your stupid signal.” She turned away, still keeping her eyes closed; “I don't know how you're doing all this from a hospital bed,” she added, “but it's not going to work---I'm not afraid of you, Faceless, and I never will be afraid of you again!”

Just to be on the safe side, though....

Even as Faceless' voice taunted her, Vicki ran an internal scan on herself and found that her RTG wasn't on the blink because of a signal---it was fluctuating because the area of the building she was in was experiencing a series of fluctuations of its own, possibly EMP-related. So he's still a huge liar, then....

“Bad news,CrazyMask,” she taunted, “I just found out the real reason why my RTG knocked out Elena---”

“And you won't do anything about it!” Faceless growled. “I'll break your body in half, Vicki---”

The brunette gynoid chuckled. “No. You won't. In fact, you won't be doing anything with me right now---”

Her sentence cut off as her head bowed, accompanied by a faint intonation of Shutting Down from somewhere inside her torso.

A few feet away, Elena struggled to her feet---the impact from the RTG shockwave hadn't knocked her out, as Vicki had feared, but it had scrambled her processors enough to keep her floored for a minute or two. One look at the frozen gynoid (and the flickering lights) told her all she needed to know about what had just happened while she was technically unconscious. “Clever girl....” Even as she limped towards Vicki (the impact against the floor had done more damage to her leg than her processors), Elena couldn't help but grin.

Slowly, carefully, she hauled the brunette gynoid through the corridor into another room, hoping that whatever Vicki had done to beat the random spikes in her RTG hadn't bricked her. “Don't fail me now, Lawson,” she muttered. “We're still in this....” Out in the hallway, the lights blazed forth one final time before dying. “Agent Lawson,” Elena whispered, “if you can hear me, please do something....Anton's waiting for us...” She felt as if she was about to cry....yet the brunette gynoid remained motionless.

“Vicki...please.....”

Though she didn't realize it initially, Elena's last, pleading phrase had actually done the trick.


Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. RAM: OK ROM: OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6%

The first sight that greeted Vicki as her eyes fluttered open was Elena Vlatko, looking equally panicked and worried. “Was it something I did?” she murmured, grinning.

Even that admittedly-goofy opening line was enough to snap Elena out of her funk; the Russian gynoid nearly crushed Vicki in a bearhug as she lifted her to a sitting position. “I thought you'd been damaged back in the corridor....what happened?”

“Another stupid signal,” the brunette gynoid admitted. “Fifth one so far today, actually.”

“You need to enhance your internal firewalls,” Elena suggested. “Otherwise those signals are going to keep cropping up, and you'll keep getting hit with the effects at the worst possible times.”

Vicki nodded as she let Elena help her to her feet. “I'm not even going to try arguing---not now, at least. We need to keep going until we get to Anton and sort this entire thing out, otherwise I have a feeling I'm going to hate what happens next.” Immediately, she noticed the darkened hallway; “Ah, did something happen while I was out?” she asked, more than a bit confused. “The last thing I remember was getting taunted by another one of Faceless' stupid ghost-things---”

“Rengold's been the one attacking you?!” Elena gasped.

“Sort of. He's still laid up in the emergency room---I'm going to assume you know the whole sordid story behind that, so I can skip the details---but the Maestro kitted him out with some weird....thing that allows him to use his brain like a super-router---linked directly to me, on account of some code he left in me. Long story.”

The Russian gynoid looked more puzzled than ever. “I can only imagine it is.”

“Trust me, it's too complicated to get into right now. The only part of it that's even remotely relevant to what's going on here is that Faceless left some code in me when he stabbed me in the head with a tricked-out blade, and I've seen him in hallucinations at least five times so far today. That little incident with my RTG spiking on me was the latest---and probably not the last---but it's not important now.” Vicki gave herself a quick once-over to make sure she hadn't been damaged. “Right now, we need to get to Anton and figure out how to hold off the rest of those fembots.”

Elena nodded her agreement. “The sooner we can get this over with---”

Somewhere down the hall, something (a gun?) went off.

“I think we have more immediate matters to tend to first. C'mon---someone might be in trouble.”

Hoping against hope that Anton hadn't been cornered by one of Aaberg's flunkies, Vicki led the way towards the sound of what might've been a gunshot. “None of those fembots had guns, did they?” Elena inquired. “I didn't notice any of them carrying weapons when we fought them....”

“Aaberg wouldn't hae given them anything that could be used against him,” Vicki replied. “Seeing as how the original idea was Hannsen's, I can almost guarantee that whatever we just heard wasn't a fembot....” ...which begs the question of what it is, since I don't want to run into a fight against something or someone I don't even know.

The two gynoids reached the room where the sound had originated---and were greeted with a scene of utter horror. It took a while for Vicki to remember where she'd seen the bound, kneeling figure before, which only made the realization that it was Aaron Cardwell all the more gut-wrenching.

Seeing Billy Jean holding the AMT Hardballer Longslide to Aaron's head really didn't help.

“Well, well, well,” the cowboy drawled, “if this ain't a suprise....I thought gettin' outta that hospital was the best thing to happen to me all week, but this---now this just takes the proverbial cake!” He chuckled derisively; “I knew that ALPO bullshit was gonna pay off 'soon as I got away from them so-called doctors tryin' ta stick me fulla tubes and shit,” he continued, “but I never---and I mean never---thought I'd see th' day when I found y'all atcha own damn HQ---with some much-needed assistance from this here yuppie!” He wrenched Aaron's arm, grinning as his captive screamed.

“Let him go,” Vicki warned. “or---”

Or you'll what?!” Billy taunted. “Do me up like I did yer friend back in the UK? Y'all ain't armed, y'all ain't exactly in the position to be givin' me any demands, and y'all definitely ain't a match for a Longslide, 'specially with .454 Casull rounds.”

Elena shook her head. “We weren't talking about what we're going to do to you.”

“You probably didn't even notice the floor where you're standing has a metric ton of cracks in it,” Vicki added.

“And why should I give a damn about the floor?” Billy scoffed. “It ain't like---” His sentence was cut off by a rather ominous rumbling beneath him. “What....what the hell---”

Vicki's voice didn't falter, even as she noticed the panicked look on Aaron's face: “This part of the building has sustained heavy structural damage. If we don't get out of here within the next few minutes, you'll either get flattened by a falling bit of ceiling or impaled on rebar from the fall. Just let him go, and if none of us get killed in the next few minutes, we can settle this later---”

“I ain't lettin' NOBODY go,” Billy thundered. “You two are just gonna stand there and---”

The rumbling beneath the cowboy's feet got louder.

“Either you take our advice, and we all live,” Elena intoned, “or you can keep being a drama queen and---”

In an instant, Billy's aim shifted from Jason to the two gynoids in front of him. “I AIN'T NO G__DAMN QUEEN, YA HEAR ME?!” His shouts were just loud enough to be heard over the rumbling of the floor.

“Okay, you're not a queen,” Vicki acknowledged, “so just---” She felt Elena tap her on the shoulder; “We need to go,” she whispered, gesturing at the floor---and, more importantly, the massive cracks that had already begun spidering across the tile. “If we stay here even a second longer, we're going to end up crushed along with him!”

One of the .454 Casull rounds hit the floor near Vicki's feet before she could reply. “Y'ALL AIN'T GOIN' NOWHERE!” Billy screamed. “NOBODY FUCKIN' CALLS ME A QUEEN---”

His rambling was drowned out by the floor shifting beneath his feet, just as Vicki and Elena nearly fell over trying to avoid being caught up in the collapse of the room. None of them had even the slightest time to react before the floor buckled beneath them---Billy Jean's half of the room seemed to swallow itself, with massive sections of the floor pitching upwards and folding, mere seconds before the other half of the room caved in...with both Elena and Vicki plummeting into the room below.

Oh, scrap.....

Part 9

“No, slow down---slow down, man, I can barely understand you! What---what d'you mean, it 'gave out'?! I'm having a hard time---SLOW DOWN! I'm having a hard time figuring out what the hell you mean when you say it just gave out, okay? Try to slow down and explain it again.....what? What?! You're saying---WHAT?! How many were in there?! No, listen to me---LISTEN TO ME! How many people were in the room---I SAID HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE IN THE ROOM WHEN IT COLLAPSED?!”

Major Tom blew out an agitated breath as he watched Oberon deal with the latest news from HQ. “Backup should've been here fifteen minutes ago,” he muttered. “Something about this sucks....”

“That's your nerves talking,” Alicia informed him. “You're just worked up over what's-her-name nearly pulling a Michael Phelps out of the window over there....just give it time, and you'll get over it.” She grinned; “I mean, I was able to get over dying,” she added, “so—-”

“Don't.”

The blonde House gynoid's grin faded. “Don't....what?”

“Don't try to trivialize it. For you, dying isn't even permanent.” The Major stared at the floor, refusing to even look at Alicia. “For me...ever since '99, I've still had flashbacks. I've had weeks where I can sleep just fine, and then all of a sudden I go for three or four-day stretches where I'm awake until 4 in the morning because I just can't fucking stop thinking about what happened. That kind of shit eats away at you----it makes you feel like a bastard even when everyone keeps saying 'you did the best you could', and 'anyone in your position would feel the same way', and all that stale old shit.....none of it ever does a damn bit of good anyways.”

Despite her initial shock at Tom's sudden anger, Alicia managed to stay calm. “Well...maybe someone needed to tell you something that wasn't just a typical repackaged line,” she admitted. “Maybe someone should've done something more....” She gave a comforting smile. “Maybe---”

“We have to go,” Oberon snapped, cutting off the conversation before it could truly go anywhere. “Part of the damned HQ has collapsed, and surveilance footage indicates that Vicki, Elena Vlatko and two others were in the room when the floor went....” He bit his lip, as if even mentioning the incident hurt. “Nobody can get to that part of the building yet,” he added. “They're still trying to go over the footage, see what exactly happened to weaken the floor.....”

“Okay, first thing's first,” Alicia declared. “Why the HELL is Elena Vlatko at ALPA HQ?!”

Oberon gave her a look that screamed “Did you actually just ask that question?”, though his annoyance didn't taint his words. “She applied for asylum with the ALPA after her husband repaired her. Apparently, they were both tired of the abuse heaped on them by their previous employers.”

“Good enough for me. Now what about the two others?”

“We don't know the specifics yet,” Oberon admitted, “but if the sound picked up from the security cameras is any indication, one of them is with Björn Aaberg----a hired gun by the name of Billy Jean. As for the other...we don't know. All we're hoping for right now is that they didn't die in the collapse---”

“Then let's get off our asses and get back to HQ pronto,” Major Tom insisted. “I'm sick of sitting here!”

Even in her agreement with the Major, Alicia hesitated to speak out on his behalf---or on that of Oberon, given the fact that she didn't want to aggravate the situation further. The House had given its orders on the situation, and despite her friendship with the ALPA, the blonde gynoid knew all too well where her loyalties lay. If she tried to sway the situation in a manner that ran counter to the House's instructions, the decision---even without a Matriarch---would be swift, and final.....

After what felt like an eternity, Oberon spoke: “Who thinks we should stay here another hour?”

Elena and the Major stayed silent----though for the Major, it was less about actual silence and more about choosing his words. “If I stay here for even five more seconds,” he growled, “I am going to go utterly and completely insane. Watching these idiots has made me question everything I know about not wanting to rip my own eyeballs out and puncture my own eardrums---one of them just sits there and...I can't even say that she stares, because she doesn't have eyes! And the other one.....if I have to hear that damned whistling one more time.....”

“I think we should get another backup team out here,” Alicia interjected. “The first one still hasn't shown up, and for all we know they may never show up. If we don't get someone out here to keep track of them, they may try to escape as soon as we're out of visual range. I also think,” she added, “that we really do need to get back to HQ and see if we can figure out what caused that part of the building to collapse.”

The ALPA Chairman nodded his approval. “Agreed. And as for the backup team, we might not even need them, to be honest---we've got a lot of capable House and ALPA Field Agents out here; they can handle it themselves. I'll go break the news to Reaver....hopefully, he won't mind hanging 'round here for a bit longer to make sure the plonks don't try anything...”

Once Oberon was out of earshot, Major Tom sighed. “So...you said you remember being dead. How's it feel?”

“Well, aren't you just a ray of positive thinking,” Alicia teased, only to realize that the Major wasn't smiling. “To be brutally honest with you, Major,” she continued, her voice a few tinges above a whisper, “I'm not really all that fond of it. There was this brief moment---really brief, but it was still there---when I couldn't feel, or hear, or see anything...and with every second that ticked by, I thought 'Is this it? Is this all that I'm going to get out of this...just a void of silence and darkness, forever?' And I'll be the first to admit....it scared me.” She shuddered a bit; “Until the next part came,” she whispered, “I was terrified. Even thinking made me nervous---I thought I'd just....fade out, mid-thought, and that'd be the end of me.”

“So what was 'the next part'?” Major Tom asked.

Alicia gave a quiet chuckle. “It's funny,” she mused, “how so many people say that 'go towards the light' thing is a bunch of bullshit, and everyone keeps trying to tell you there's nothing after the end...” Her sentence ended in a quiet sob. “I remember the exact moment I saw it,” she murmured. “It....it was beautiful.....”

“Doesn't sound like the kind of thing a person decides to 'not be fond of'.”

“Oh, I would've stayed in that light forever if I'd been able to, believe me...but then I felt this pull. Not like a tug on the arm, or the dipshit in the desk behind you grabbing your hair and yanking it for shits and giggles, or anything like that...it felt like someone tied a chain around me and tried to pull me out of a hole in a wall with an 18-wheeler, except I was part of the wall----and it hurt.” She shuddered again. “They say the sense of touch is the first one to go---trust me, it's not. Every time I felt that pull, I felt it.”

The Major nodded quietly. “So, silence and darkness, then a light...then a pull.”

“If you're lucky, you won't feel the pull,” Alicia muttered, her voice tinged with bitterness. “The worst part of it was that I wanted to reach that light...to get to all the voices I heard coming from just beyond it....” She turned away. “...instead, I woke up---no, I was activated.” Her gaze turned to the floor; “It's funny how I never thought about it when I lost my backup bodies before now,” she admitted. “Every time, I'd just think 'oh, well, lost another one!' and keep going on my merry little way....but now, after the way Alicia 5 got destroyed....I can't stop thinking about it. I mean, I can---it's not like it's all I ever think about every day of the week, or anything, but....it's like someone, somewhere, knows what I went through, and they don't want me to forget.”

“I can see why you'd start feeling a bit apathetic towards it after a while, then,” Tom mused.

Again, Alicia chuckled---this time, without any humor. “You don't get it, Major...when they first activated me, I felt like I'd been robbed. Cheated, even. They....they had no idea...”

“And that pain returned after Alicia 5 let herself get blown to hell so that Vicki could escape,” the Major finished.

“Damn straight it did.” Alicia was in tears by now. “It's why Celeste never wanted me to have more than one backup body active at once, apart from Alicia 2....if they all remembered that pain, that suffering, it could drive them insane. And when they all felt me---when they all felt Alicia 5 die......”

“I get it.”

Alicia shook her head. “I don't think you do---not at the level I do, at least. It's...complicated.”

“Then let's try to keep things here as uncomplicated as possible,” Oberon suggested, approaching the pair without missing a step. “The backup team is on their way; if traffic doesn't completely suck, they should be arriving within the hour; in the meantime, we have to keep this lot---” He nodded at Aaberg's flunkies. “---from doing anything stupid. If you two have anything you need to grab before we leave, now's the time to get it.”

By the time the backup team arrived, ten minutes later, Major Tom and Alicia VI had gathered everything they needed (and any evidence left behind by Aaberg's idiots that would serve to get them more jail time) before leaving the area. “The situation at HQ has stabilized,” Oberon informed the two as he approached his borrowed steed, “and unless someone there chose to be an absolute pillock and lie to me, the building's stopped falling in on itself. Of course, there's the small matter of certain areas being rendered inaccessible by the debris....”

“Can they tell if anyone survived the collapse yet?” Alicia inquired. “I mean...you did say people were in that part of the building when it, ah, fell....”

“They're looking into it right now. The debris is still blocking most routes into that part of the building...”

Major Tom managed to get his wounded leg up and over the side of his horse without screaming. “Then let's get back to base and help them clear a path, shall we? I'm sick of all this sitting around and talking anyways.”

“I honestly thought you'd prefer sitting around and talking to running around and getting attacked,” Alicia VI teased. “I mean, you were doing a great job with that sword of yours, earlier---yeah, you looked like a futuristic He-Man, or something....maybe not as muscular, or anything---”

“ANYway,” Oberon interjected, “you'll both be happy to know that the defeated fembots have been cleared out, and we should be on our way back to base in no time. Hopefully, we can sort through their programming, maybe salvage them if at all possible---and our presence there should also ensure that nothing goes utterly pear-shaped if the fembots aren't as dead as we thought they were.” He glanced back at the building, where Blue-Eye and Whistler were both still trussed up; “I only hope our, ah, 'guests' don't cause any trouble for the next team,” he added. Before Major Tom could reply, he noticed Alicia returning to the “borrowed” bus. “Ah, you do intend to return that to where you got it, right?”

“I might,” the blonde gynoid teased. “What, you'd rather ride in this than on a horse?” Her remark prompted a scowl from the Major. “I've gotten used to the horse, thank you very much....and that bus is SJSU property. Either you return it or they'll send someone to come get it---”

“Relax, Major!” Alicia laughed. “The driver of this particular bus is a friend of mine, and he loned it to me for the weekend, so as long as I return it with all the parts still attached, it's no problem.” She turned her attention to the House Agents; “LADIES!” she called out. “Anyone who wants a free ride back to ALPA HQ, get on da bus!” She flashed one last grin at the Major and gave an overly-exaggerated wink before skipping back to her vehicle of choice.

“Well, Major,” Oberon beamed, “I think our work here is done....shall we follow her back to base?”

“You have no idea how long I've been waiting for you to say that,” the Major muttered.

Part 10

Get up.

Even though she could still feel every part of her body, Vicki somehow couldn't will herself to actually stand up and walk away. Get up, damnit....you're stronger than this!

“Don't be so sure of that....Vicki.”

The brunette gynoid couldn't help but wince as the figure of Faceless strode into view. “It actually hurts, doesn't it, Agent Lawson?” he taunted. “Not just the pain that you're feeling....no, I'm talking about the mental anguish. The feeling of sheer, utter, total defeat....that kind of pain can last...forever.” He knelt down next to Vicki, shaking his head; “All the trouble that I went through just to kill you back in July,” he admonished, “and you have to die like this....”

“I'm not dead,” Vicki growled. “And you're not even here---”

“Must we fall into this debate again?!” Faceless groaned. “It doesn't matter if I'm 'not here'....what matters is that you will die, and it won't be at my hand---”

“I WON'T DIE!” Those three words, by themselves, seemed to do more to reinvigorate Vicki than any charge-up or repair ever could. “I'm not dying, I'm not going to die, and I won't die any time soon,” she declared, sitting up (slowly, to avoid damaging herself by way of overexertion) and turning to glare at the image of Faceless. “You're just a figment of code left in me by some stupid trick---controlled by a broken man chained to a bed who had someone just as psychotic as he is put a router in his back.”

To her annoyance, the phantom of Faceless only chuckled. “As always, you vastly underestimate the scope---”

“SHUT UP.” Carefully, Vicki eased herself into a standing position, once again turning to face her tormentor after she did so. “How many times are we going to have to do this? How many times do I have to delete your stupid code fragments and----”

She stopped, realizing that she'd answered her own question. “Of course.....it's so simple....”

“You're talking to yourself again, Agent Lawson,” Faceless taunted. “Of course, given the fall you just---”

“Six times,” Vicki cut in. “You've appeared to me six times already today....and everyone knows what number you're obsessed with....” She laughed. “I can't believe I didn't figure it out sooner....big bad Faceless is obsessed with the number seven, and he shows up in my head six times....” Her laugh faded along with her smile. “...except there won't be a seventh time.”

“So now you're threatening a ghost, Vicki?” Faceless sneered. “You actually think you can hurt me?”

“To be honest....I don't have to.” V.I.C.I.'s smirk said more than any words have; her stare could've bored a hole through the figure of Faceless as she continued. “You've been exploiting everything that's part of me as a machine,” she admitted, “and I have to admit---some of what you've done has, in fact, been borderline clever....but you always seem to forget that I'm not just a machine---”

“All you are is a worthless machine!” Faceless hissed. “You are nothing but a useless robot---”

“Wrong. I'm not just a machine.....I'm Ted Lawson's daughter.” She smiled at the last word. “Every good dad steps in when their daughters need help....and my dad, in my own personal opinion, is the best I could ever hope to have.” She cocked her head to the side slightly; “You get all that, Dad?” she asked.

“Loud and clear, sweetheart,” Ted replied. “I assume you're ready to execute your sixth code purge today?”

With one last sly glance at the phantom of Faceless, V.I.C.I. nodded. “Ready.”

“You....think he'll save you from me?!” Faceless leered. “You actually think that feeble old man---”

“My dad is not feeble,” V.I.C.I countered, “and he's not old. He's the reason why I joined the ALPA, and why I keep fighting freaks and weirdos like you....he's living proof that human beings and machines have nothing to fear from each other.”

“Oh, but you have everything to fear---”

“Don't even finish that sentence. You're a manifestation of residual audio/visual data from my internal memory, given form and voice by way of malicious code left in my systems by a psychopathic serial killer who stabbed me through my primary processors with a pair of tricked-out blades specifically designed to leave that code in me. You're less than a ghost, you just barely qualify as a figment of my imagination, and you're not going to do anything to hurt anyone here----especially me.”

A slight pause.... “Oh, and for the record, you may want to talk to someone about your numerical fixation when and if you ever get out of the hospital.”

Faceless growled, reared back for a lunge....

…..and vanished into thin air.

“And that's Code Purge Number Six,” Vicki beamed. “Dad, thanks for all the help.”

“No problem, sweetie...you might want to check up on your friends, though.”

Vicki's grin temporarily faded as she noticed Elena laying face down on the floor. “Right....good call.” She moved to kneel at the Russian gynoid's side; “You okay, Elena?” she whispered. “Elena....can you hear me---”

“Just because my face is against the floor, it does not mean my auditory sensors are offline.”

The deadpanned response prompted a grin from the brunette gynoid. “Figured you'd survive a fall like that,” she teased. “So, let's get you uuuuuuooooooh my GOD, what happened to your arm?!” Even as Elena turned to get a look at her “injury”, Vicki moved to lift the massive chunk of the fallen ceiling that had landed on her left arm. “That.....may take some time to repair,” the Russian agent admitted. “Still, we can leave it---”

“I'm not letting you leave here with one arm,” Vicki insisted. “We can get you out of here....wait a minute. I didn't see Aaron land.” She scanned the area for human life signs; “I'm not picking up anything,” she gasped.

“The dust from the ceiling collapse may be interfering with your sensors,” Elena offered. “Perhaps---”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Vicki ran to the other side of the room, throwing chunks of ceiling and hoping to find Aaron alive. “The ceiling didn't crush him,” she whispered, “it can't have crushed him, it buckled inward, it didn't land on top of him...” She stopped when she noticed a mangled security camera on the floor. “I can use this,” she muttered. “If it saw what happened to Jason, I can use this---link up to the building's security servers and make sure he's okay...” Her back panel whirred open, allowing her to unspool a cable to connect to a port on the camera's back.

“I take it you're not going to share the footage with me?” Elena inquired.

Vicki tossed her a second cable. “Link up if you can---I'll use a splitter so we can both watch.”

Elena managed to open a panel on her left side and hook up the cable. “If all we see is him getting flattened by ceiling chunks,” she warned, “this whole endeavor will have been for nothing...”

“I prefer to keep my thinking on the positive side,” Vicki countered. “Now, then....”

The connector point from the splitter cable fit easily into the back of the camera, allowing Vicki and Elena to watch the footage from the last 50 minutes without needing a full monitor. Even better, the camera---as with all cameras used in the ALPA's headquarters---was a full-color digitil camera, meaning the two gynoids wouldn't have to sit through grainy black-and-white footage trying to pick out a blob of pixels that might or might not be Aaron Cardwell.

Almost as soon as the clip started, it was obvious that Aaron (and Billy Jean, whom Vicki had seen fit to not mention for...rather obvious reasons) had, indeed, fallen from the above floor. With that in mind, the sight of Billy's left shin getting impaled on a bit of rebar was still more than a bit graphic.

Aaron, thankfully, had only been knocked unconscious on a patch of floor near the corner of the room....the exact same area, in fact, where Vicki was standing at that moment.

A half-formed thought of “If he was here earlier, where is he now?” made its way in and out of the brunette gynoid's processors---just as something truly unexpected appeared on the camera. A silver-and-purplish blur entered the frame from the upper right-hand corner of the room (where Vicki had noticed a door after forcing herself to stand up), approached both Aaron and Billy at speeds too fast for even the camera to detect, and then....picked them up. Even more incredible, the figure then left through the same door it had entered from.

“Any chance you can slow that down?” Elena asked.

“If the camera was made better, I'd be able to,” Vicki admitted, “but as it is....I can't. Seriously, it's a miracle I was able to get any picture off of it as it is...” She disconnected the cable from the camera, her back panel whirring closed as she did so. “We may have to ask about it later on...”

She moved to lift the ceiling chunk off of Elena, prompting a chuckle from the downed Russian gynoid. “You seem to forget that I'm fully capable of freeing myself,” she admonished. I appreciate your concern for my well being, Agent Lawson....” She tried---in vain---to move the chunk of debris off of her arm. “I might have under-estimated how badly damaged my arm is,” she muttered. “I...can't actually feel any of the fingers on my left hand...”

“Just be glad that thing didn't land on your leg,” Vicki reminded her. “Give me a second...” She gripped the underside of the ceiling chunk. “I'll lift it on three, so be ready to move your hand out from under that thing as fast as you can. One.......two----”

The “lift” was more like an unintentional “fling across the room”, as Vicki's myogel-enhanced strength sent the chunk of ceiling flying into the opposite wall. “Note to self,” she muttered, “dial it down a bit next time...and WHAT THE HELL?!” One look at Elena's hand made it all too clear why she couldn't feel her fingers: every part of her left hand had been crushed, bent, pulverized or otherwise wrecked beyond belief by the ceiling bit that had fallen on it. “When this is over with,” the brunette gynoid mused, “I'm asking Oberon to use lighter materials for the ceilings around here.” A brief thought about the trade-off between ceiling weight and using something that could hold up the floor above passed through her processors...and vanished just as quickly.

“I assume our course of action still revolves around reaching Professor Malvineous?” Elena mused.

Vicki nodded as she looked away from the Russian gynoid's ruined hand “It's more important now,” she added, “seeing as how your hand effectively got flattened by that falling chunk of ceiling...” She observed the ruined room around them. “The only question is, how the heck are we going to make our way to him through this?”

“With help.”

Elena and Vicki turned, as one, to see the Man in Grey standing in the frame of a door across the room. “I can only guess that you two have questions as to why I'm here,” he rasped, “but there's no time for them now---the sooner you two get to Anton Malvineous, the better.”

“That's...pretty obvious,” Vicki admitted, “but you're right about us having questions---for one, why did you come back here after---”

“After saving your life in Detroit?” the Man spat. “After watching Claudia die at Faceless' hands?!”

A littany of retorts died on Vicki's tongue. “Claudia....died?!”

“We don't have time for this,” Elena protested. “You two can settle your differences later.” She glanced at the Man in Grey; “You said you could get us to the Professor,” she reminded him.

“I did.....”

“So why not leave the bickering for later and just help us get where we need to go?” Elena proposed. “There's no need for us to waste any time fighting with each other when we could be on our way to Anton?” She held up her ruined left hand; “I've already been damaged once,” she added, “and I don't think I need to remind you why I don't want to sustain further damage---”

“Why the hell didn't anyone tell me about Claudia before now?” Vicki demanded. “I only remember Dad saying something about casualties, and stuff---he never told me that Claudia had been killed---and he damn sure didn't mention about her getting killed off by Faceless!”

Even with Vicki's hands on his shoulders, the Man in Grey didn't flinch. “You'd suffered enough at the time---”

“Enough.” Elena glared at both the Man and Vicki in turn; “I would greatly appreciate it if both of you would set aside whatever past trauma you both went through and focus on what's happening now. I have a damaged hand, Agent Lawson needs to meet up with Anton and all of us need to get out of here before anything else collapses on top of us.”

The Man nodded his agreement. “There are still fembots running amok in this building,” he added. “If we linger here for too long....”

“Don't finish that sentence,” Vicki warned. “I already know how it's going to end anyways...” She paused, remembering the surveilance footage she'd seen from the camera. “Ah, did you happen to....run across anyone else on the way in here?” she asked. “Maybe someone wearing silver and purple, carrying two people with them? There were two others in the room that used to be over our heads before it, ah....collapsed on us, and that camera showed them getting lifted by, well, someone....or something....that carried them out of here before Elena and I recovered.”

“If anyone else was here,” the Man replied, “I never saw them.”

Well, that was just a waste of time.... “Fair enough. You want to lead, or should...I....WAIT UP, will you?!”

By the time Vicki eventually caught up with Elena and the Man in Grey, she realized that there was, in fact, a bit of merit to the Man's statement that the fembots hadn't left the building. “I'm guessing whoever sent them here decided to forgo the usual 'kill 'em all' policy and just tell them to wreck as much property as they could,” she mused. “Seriously, is there one wall around here that they didn't punch their way through? I mean, I'm glad they weren't punching holes in people, or anything....but this is a bit excessive.”

“I'm more concerned with the smell,” Elena countered. “Like someone plugged a dozen American hair dryers into European outlets....did they all malfunction at once, or something?”

“More than likely, their programming alterations have made them unstable,” the Man replied. “They continue to function, even after sustaining greivous bodily harm....unless someone stops them---”

“We get it,” Vicki cut in.

As their progress continued, the trio of Vicki, Elena and the Man found that, somehow, the further into the building they went, the less-damaged the corridors were. “Well, my hopes for not finding Anton cowering in the middle of a completely-trashed room are significantly higher than they were a few minutes ago,” the brunette gynoid mused. “At least we know the fembots haven't been this way yet.”

“Until now,” the Man in Grey intoned.

“What do you mean, 'until now'?! I---” Vicki followed the Man's unwavering gaze. “Oh......”

Fifteen fembots stood, unmoving, at the end of the corridor. None of them had the “jitters” or animalistic walks of the earlier fembots; the simply stood, silently, their unfeeling gaze locked on Vicki, Elena and the Man in Grey. “Please tell me I'm not the only one who finds this even the slightest bit creepy,” the brunette gynoid whispered.

“You're not,” the Man quietly replied.

Elena didn't even turn her head to look at the Man; “Are they even functioning?” she asked. “They're just standing there like they've been bricked---”

“They haven't.” Even as he stepped forward, the Man in Grey was motioning for Elena and Vicki to stay as far back as possible. “I'll deal with these---you two find Anton.”

Vicki stepped forward, ready to make the inevitable “We won't leave you here” comment, but Elena held her back; “He probably knows what he's doing,” she reminded him. “If we stay here and argue with him, Anton may end up in more danger than we are by the time we get to him....and seeing as how I most definitely don't want that to happen, I expect you don't either---”

“Of course I don't want it to happen,” Vicki agreed. “It's just...I don't want to leave him here---”

“I can handle this,” the Man assured her, his gaze never leaving the group of fembots in front of them. “You two should probably start running....otherwise, they'll mark you as targets along with me.”

Even as Elena backpedaled, Vicki refused to move. “You saved my life back in Detroit---”

“And if you stay here and let them target you,” the Man spat, barely turning to glare over his shoulder at the brunette gynoid, “you'll render that gesture null and void---NOW GO!”

“I won't let---”

Something in the ceiling rizzed angrilly, and Vicki barely had time to step back before a massive Perspex panel descended, narrowly missing her face. “Now, you have no choice,” the Man intoned, finally turning to face Vicki. “This is my fight, not yours. You and Elena must find Professor Malvineous---the longer you stay here and argue with me, the lesser your chances are of finding him alive.” Even with the mask still covering his face, it was clear that his earlier scowl was gone; “You've done enough as it is,” he murmured. “You've done more than enough.”

Somehow, despite the fact that she barely knew him, Vicki felt her eyes tearing up. “I....I don't know what to---”

“Go. Find Anton.....and do what you were programmed to do.”

As Elena's hand closed around her own,Vicki nodded. “I'll come back for you once this is over with,” she promised. “I'M NOT LEAVING YOU TO DIE HERE!” Her voice was a full-on sob now; “I won't let you die here,” she quietly repeated. “I can't.....”

“Vicki,” Elena whispered, “we have to go....”

The two gynoids backed away from the Perspex panel, though Vicki could barely feel herself being led further back into the corridor. “We can't leave him here,” she muttered. “We have to get in there and help him---”

“I have a feeling he doesn't need our help---”

“I'VE SEEN ENOUGH PEOPLE GET HURT BECAUSE OF THIS ALREADY!” Vicki screamed. “My best friend---my roommate---got a bullet through her forehead because of this, and she wasn't even involved! I don't....I.....” She collapsed against a wall. “I can't let anyone else die,” she moaned. “I don't want to lose anyone else....”

Elena glanced back at the Man in Grey---and the fembots at the far end of the hall, many of which were just beginning to acknowledge the existence of their target. “This is not about losing anyone, Agent Lawson,” she declared, only for Vicki to grab her by the shoulders. “Then tell me what it is about,” she growled. “This whole thing---all of it---wouldn't be happening if Sharon hadn't died....if Hannsen had picked someone---anyone else....” She slumped to the floor. “We have to get in there,” she droned. “We have to help him---”

Something slammed against the Perspex, cutting into the brunette gynoid's reverie.

“VICKI,” the Man in Grey shouted, “GO!”

“You hear that?” Elena snapped. “Even he knows you can't help him---he wants us to---”

“What did you just say?”

There was something about the flat, almost emotionless tone of Vicki's voice that made Elena realize she'd made a huge mistake with her choice of words...then again, she'd come back from even worse mistakes than this. “Even he knows you can't help him,” she repeated. “You can't win every fight...Vicki....you have to---”

A savage right jab smashed into the Russian gynoid's jaw. “I don't have to do anything,” V.I.C.I. coldly replied. “I'm not letting anyone else die because of this...” She strode over to the perspex panel, ready to shatter it with a single blow----and froze in place.

“Take her,” the Man in Grey instructed Elena. “Get her as far away from here as possible within the next five minutes, and don't tell her what happened.” He turned his attention to the fembots; “I haven't got much time,” he added. “If they see you, they'll ignore me and go straight for the Perspex---and that'll only hold out for so long....just make sure Vicki isn't here before the five minutes are up, please. I...I don't want her to see what's about to happen.”

“You could've used the EMP surge before,” Elena countered.

“It doesn't matter now,” the Man replied. “Just get her away from here....please....”

Elena nodded, grabbing Vicki under the armpits. “Take as many of them down as you can,” she adviesd, “and don't hesitate to break them in half if you get the chance.” She hesitated; “Why don't you want her to see this?” she inquired. “She's seen worse---she's done worse herself, to be honest....”

“She's had more than her share of nightmares already,” the Man in Grey solemnly replied. “I won't add to them with this...” He turned away. “Go. Get her to Anton, and get your hand repaired when you arrive---I can take care of this myself.”

“You're sure you can---”

“GO!”

Another panel of Perspex slammed down in front of Elena, ending the argument before it could begin.


“So....this is how it ends....”

The Man in Grey stared at the oncoming phalanx of fembots, feeling an all-too familiar sense of apprehension building as they made their way towards him---

“Something wrong?”

Two words, spoken as clearly as if someone were standing next to him, jolted the Man out of the present. Of course, he realized. The whole “life flashing before my eyes” bit...except I'm not dead yet, and it's not so much “flashing” as it is “replaying”.... He sighed as the memory came back to him, a faint image of a park slowly being superimposed over the hallway.

“You seem ill at ease, Publius,” the all-too familiar voice of Oberon mused. “After all you've been through, it seems the only thing truly terrifying to the Man in Grey is the prospect of holy 'settling down'.”

A second voice---his own, albiet younger (and without sounding like a man with a slashed throat)---replied: “If anyone around here had reason to be afraid of 'settling down', I figured it'd be you.” Even in his own thoughts, the event seemed to be playing itself out like a scene from a movie, complete with his past self striding alongside Oberon as they took in the sights and sounds at the park. “I never could see you as the family type, to be honest...”

“Family life doesn't suit me,” Oberon admitted. “You, on the other hand, have earned it....”

The scene appeared to fade---just as a fembot dove forward to plant a kick in the middle of the Man's head.

Countering the attack was almost reflexive---the Man easily hooked his arms around the incoming kick, moving forward and half-throwing the fembot to the ground. The move forward also propelled him into a roll, thus giving him more than enough room to avoud a double axe-handle smash that could've splintered his spine had it landed. Even as he came to a stop, he made sure to swing out an arm to bash the second fembot in the ankles, sending her to the floor just as two other fembots moved in to grab the Man by the arms.

Neither of them even got close.

One was dispatched with a flying kick to the head, with the other following soon after by way of a running clothesline into the move pro wrestling had termed the “running bulldog”. With both fembots out of action (and one going into the final spasms of a terminal malfunction), the Man turned his attention to the rest---

---and felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his side.

A blind elbow jab sent his attacker backpedalling, but it was already clear that the move had done some pretty severe damage. She hit me right in the kidney...broke the skin, even. The damnpess of his shirt only served to make him realize his mistake---Oberon always cautioned against staying still for too long after an attack. Stupid.... He shook his head, banishing the thought from his mind....except Oberon's words of wisdom were still echoing in his thoughts.

“Never allow yourself to be surrounded. If necessary, move over the enemy.”

The fembots had gathered around the Man in a circle, each of them prepared to lash out and wound him even worse than he already was. Had they struck while their target was still (apparently) weak, they might've won.

Instead, their “target” planted a solid kick to one fembot's forehead and used her as a stepping stone to leap over the rest, only just managing to avoid stumbling as he landed. “It takes more than cheap tricks to finish me,” he began, only for another pearl of wisdom to surface....

“One doesn't win a battle of wits with kicks to the face...and kicks to the face are more damaging than wit.”

Right....fight now, taunt later. The Man drew himself up, preparing for another attack---and found himself being forced to block a series of fast jabs that could've easily broken a lesser man's forearms.

“Don't rely exclusively on defense, even in retreat. Use everything at your disposal....”

Four feet away from his current position, the Man glimpsed a water fountain mounted to the wall. Even as the fembot attacking him continued to drive him back with jabs, he managed to slowly turn himself until he was at a perfect angle for a move that, admittedly, relied more on his opponent's mistake than his own skill. To his complete lack of surprise, the fembot did exactly what she shouldn't have---reared back for a punch meant to smash through his forehead and kill him instantly.

All too easy....

The blow never touched the Man---he allowed another shoulder roll to carry him out of the way.

Just as he'd expected, the fembot's wild punch slammed into the water fountain and sent a jet of water directly into her mouth, eyes and nostrils—-all orifices that, on any properly maintained gynoid, would've been sealed and waterproofed extensively to avoid leakages and direct pathways from the “throat” to the unit's internal electronics.

Seeing as how this was Matthew Hannsen's plan, of course....

It took less than five seconds for the spray of water to utterly ruin the fembot, shorting out every single internal component in her chest (and a few in her head as well). The thoroughly-drenched fembot collapsed in a smoking, shivering heap on the floor, even as her “sisters” charged forward to attack the Man in Grey.

“Removing one, even five opponents from the fight doesn't mean victory. Don't stop until all are down for the count.”

Once again, Oberon's words of wisdom reminded the Man that he was still in the fight until the end---which, given the blood seeping from his wounded side, might be coming sooner than expected. Redirecting the water spray at the other fembots would only buy him so much time....

“A wounded wolf is just as dangerous as a healthy one---the wounded have more to lose.”

Even as the words filtered through his thoughts, the Man knew that Oberon had been---and still was---right.

Ignoring the spreading stain on the side of his shirt, he charged at the fembots, clotheslining two more to the ground and bashing their heads together. An axe-handle smash from behind missed him by a full foot, earning the fembot responsible a kick to the midsection. Even as she stumbled backwards, tripping over her “sisters”, it never occurred to the fembot to simply sidestep or move out of the way of the second kick to her stomach; this time, she fell onto the water fountain itself---with the spout piercing her back, sending water directly into her internals and shorting her out even faster than her “sister” had been.

“Doors and windows can be closed and locked....but a hole in the wall stays open.”

Students of a lesser discipline would've thought of that particular plattitude as nonsense, but for the Man in Grey, it was all too clear: Make your own advantages if need be. Even with the fountain blocked off, the pipe connected to it was still working....

….and if the fountain could somehow be knocked off of its moorings.....

One of the fembots stupidly chose to run headfirst at the Man in Grey---directly into a bear-hug that flowed seamlessly into a suplex, planting the fembot directly into the fountain. The metal and plastic structure caved under the impact, its mounting failing completely.

Seconds later, the now unobstructed pipe blasted the thrown fembot in the face.

The Man turned away from the short-circuiting fembot just in time to dodge a wild haymaker from the last fembot standing. “So you're the last one left,” he mused. “Not particularly challenging, I admit---” He stopped when he noticed blood on the fembot's left hand.

“Human,” the fembot droned. “You will---”

A palm thrust to the stomach sent the fembot stumbling back, leaving her with almost no room to recover her footing. “The only thing I will do is finish this,” the Man in Grey replied. “You, on the other hand, will most likely be reduced to so much scrap, just like your 'sisters'---”

Something dug into his wounded side, twisting as it did so.

“Care to bet on that?”

The Man turned, stunned to see one of the fembots he'd just thrown now standing near him, her right hand buried in his wounded side up to the wrist. “Contrary to what you may believe,” she purred, “not all of us were put through Hannsen's little 'treatment'....” Her free hand whipped up to grab at her blonde hair, removing it and tossing the wig aside to reveal flowing crimson locks. “To us,” she added, gesturing at the other fembot, “every fight is like a song---complete with a harmony---”

Her fist wrenched in the Man's side, prompting a pained scream.

“----and,” the other fembot added, throwing her own blonde wig away to reveal shoulder-length brown hair, “a melody.” Her fist smashed into---and through---the Man's right side, followed by another scream.

“We don't answer to Matthew Hannsen,” the crimson-haired fembot declared, “but we do work for his boss.”

“Assuming you survive,” the auburn-haired fembot added, “tell your bosses that the song is just beginning.”

Each of them planted a hand on the Man's throat, smiling at their struggling target. “Any last words?”

Predictably, the Man couldn't even utter a single syllable....but someone else in the room was all too happy to speak up for him.

“As a matter of fact,” a voice from behind the fembots called out, “I've got two words for you....”

Neither fembot was able to turn quickly enough to avoid getting bashed upside the head with a crowbar, sending both of them---and the Man---to the floor in a heap. “Thank....you,” he coughed, allowing himself to be helped up off the floor.

“No need,” Inspektor 12 replied, his eyes twinkling behind his aviator shades. “I'd be thanking the construction crew who left all these tools behind when they rennovated this place, if I were you---I was going to ask Maise to just shoot these two, but it wouldn't have been nearly as stylish, if I do say so myself.” He grinned; “Isn't that right, Sweets?”

“Save the cornball stuff for later,” Maise advised, emerging from a darkened room further down the hall. “We need to get him to the medics---and fast.” She motioned for the Inspektor to help her lift the Man. “Vicki,” he moaned. “You have...to....help....Vicki....”

The Inspektor took the remark in stride. “All in good time, my man----for now, we need to help you. I think Miss Lawson is more than capable of handling herself in this sort of situation....”

“She'd better be,” Maise replied. “If it's this bad throughout the building, she'll need all the help she can get.”

Part 11

“Okay, I'm going to go ahead and guess that an overturned SWAT tank in front of the main entrance is NOT a good sign....”

Major Tom's remark wasn't lost on the rest of the Field Agents who guided their horses to a stop at the front entrance of the ALPA HQ. “What the hell happened here?!” Johnny Dash muttered. “Every car's been flipped, all the doors are off their hinges, every freaking pane of glass is busted---it's like a freaking riot passed through here while we were out!”

“It doesn't matter,” Jen reminded him. “We have to get in there and make sure the building is clear---”

“As much as I admire your enthusiasm,” Oberon mused, “I think we may need to look at this situation from another angle entirely. Running in to play the cavalry is one thing---getting mowed down like rats because someone decided to run in without properly assessing the situation....well, obviously, that's something else. I, for one, think we should take a moment to look things over---” He paused, frowning, as the “borrowed” SJSU bus pulled up; “Then again,” he added, “I also would prefer a small bit of subtlety, for once. Any chance you could've done that quietly, Alicia?” he called out to the emerging driver.

Predictably, the blonde gynoid laughed it off. “And when have I ever been one for a quiet entrance?” she asked, grinning as she stepped off the bus. “It's not like they didn't know we were inbound, either...”

“Save the joking for after the mission,” Oberon advised. “Right now...” He arched an eyebrow as a group of gynoids emerged from around a corner. “Either the welcome wagon budget has gone completely to pot,” he mused, “or they've been busy all day....any chance I can help you girls with anything?” he called out, waving to the group.

“As a matter of fact,” the caramel-skinned leader of the group replied, “you can---if you brought spare ammo.”

Oberon sighed, shaking his head. “And how many rounds did you waste this time, Rae?”

“None---every bloody shot hit what it was aimed at. Those blasted stupid fembots are regular bullet sponges, sir; no matter what we hit, they kept coming.” Rae stared back at the building; “Rumiko and Sunny nearly got their faces torn off,” she added quietly. “Gave us all a bit of a fright...though it got even worse onse Rumiko found what that prick Hannsen was hiding in the fembots.”

The Field Agents exchanged worried glances. “He was hiding something in them?” Major Tom muttered.

“Each of the fembots we scrapped had one part of a binary algorithm,” Rumiko explained, “apparently meant to be transmitted and received over some sort of localized WiFi signal---”

“And the other half of each algorithm is in the fembots we fought at SJSU,” Oberon groaned, slapping his forehead. “The bastard WANTED us to bring them back for analysis after the fight---they let themselves lose to us!” He dismounted his horse, glancing in the direction Rae and the others had come from; “Have any of the cleanup crew vehicles returned while we've been out?” he asked. “Specifically, any from SJSU?”

Rae closed her eyes and focused; a few seconds (and rapid blinks) later, she replied: “None so far.”

“That doesn't make any sense,” Reaver muttered. “The trucks left SJSU before we did....why the hell wouldn't they be back yet?”

Every Field Agent present looked to Oberon, expecting an answer....but the Chairman stayed quiet.

“If you know something about this,” Alicia mused, “it'd be a really good time to share with the group---”

“Defensive positions.”

Alicia barely had time to mutter “What?” before Oberon turned to address the Field Agents directly. “ALL OF YOU, TAKE UP DEFENSIVE POSITIONS NOW! ARMS AT THE READY! DO NOT MOVE UNTIL I GIVE THE SIGNAL!” He climbed back into the saddle of his steed, guiding the animal to move into a position that would give him a perfect view of the only road leading into the HQ. “Alicia, have all of your Agents take up positions of supporting fire,” he ordered, gently shaking the horse's reins to encourage the mount into moving forward just a bit. “Don't open fire until I say---”

“You're acting like we're about to be under seige,” Alicia scoffed. “I mean....” Her expression faded; “You're not serious, are you?” she whispered. “They're not coming here---half of them were---”

“Shot, stabbed, dismembered, maimed and otherwise reduced to so much walking scrap,” Oberon finished, not smiling. “And yet it appears that even in a state of terminal defeat, they still have the upper hand. We are going to be under seige, Miss Lehane, in a matter of minutes---as such, I humbly suggest that you take up a position of supporting fire and prepare to engage the enemy.”

The blonde gynoid glanced around the courtyard, noticing her fellow Sisters from the House already in place to provide the necessary cover fire. “You're sure about this?” she asked.

“Positive.”

With a heavy, somewhat-saddened sigh, Alicia moved into her designated spot. “I'd say my usual spiel about really hoping that you know what you're doing,” she murmured, “but with you....”

Just as she turned back to face the road, she noticed Oberon smile. “You know me all too well, Alicia.”

None of the Field Agents gathered there expected the trucks to arrive in the span of 10-15 minutes as they stood in the courtyard, waiting; a few of them even said that an arrival time within 30-45 minutes was a long shot. Oberon himself had anticipated an hour-long wait, making and revising a few dozen plans in his head as he stood ready.

Thus, when the cleanup crew trucks pulled into the driveway a scant 3 minute after Oberon gave the order for everyone to assume a defensive position, those present were...more than a bit surprised.

All five trucks seemed to have been put through an absolute thrashing on the way to the ALPA headquarters; of the group, none of them had full tires on all 18 wheels, and even fewer had working headlights, windshield wipers, windows or any of the other acoutrements commonly found on 18-wheelers. Each truck had a pair of fembots behind the wheel; in each instance, both fembots had thousand-yard stares that saw nothing in front of them, and their “clothing” was almost less than the sports bra/bike shorts the others had been kitted out with before their own deployment.

The question of “Where are the drivers?” silently passed through the ALPA/House group, with no Agent from either party willing to hazard a guess at the answer.

An almost palpable sense of trepidation was evident as the trucks idled, their trailers---all of which faced away from ALPA HQ---were opened; within a matter of seconds, columns of fembots were marching between the trucks, lining up in front of them in formation. None of them displayed the animalistic gait seen in the skirmish at SJSU; now, every fembot in the group stood, ramrod-straight, as the rest fell in line.

“Damn you, Hannsen,” Oberon muttered. “Damn you to the innermost circle of Hell.”

As a single, unified mass, the fembots marched towards the gate leading into the courtyard, with those in the row closest to the gate extending their arms to grab it as soon as they were close enough. Even as 10,000 volts shot through the gate into the fembots, they held on, only letting go when the voltage finally sputtered out weakly. The moment the gates were no longer electrified, the fembots simply pulled up on whatever portion of the thing was in their grip.

Seconds later, the gate was torn off its hinges.

“FIRST WAVE,” Oberon bellowed, “PREPARE TO ATTACK ON MY MARK!” A line of Field Agents ran forward, weapons at the ready. “READY-----”

One of the fembots tore a bar loose from the gate, hurling it like a spear---and impaling a Field Agent through the skull. Before the dead man even hit the ground, the entire squad of Field Agents ran forward as one, swinging swords, clubs, axes and shields at their targets. Oberon himself charged forth, screaming like a berserker as he cleaved the heads off of three fembots at once.

A pithy remark had just formed on Alicia's lips when she heard an order shouted to her: “SUPRESSING FIRE, NOW!”

He really knows how to lay on the commanding tones, doesn't he.... “Okay, girls, you heard the man---give 'em some cover fire!” Every House gynoid in the courtyard drew her pulser and fired into the mass of fembots, only stopping just long enough for their weapons to recharge before letting loose another volley of shots. “That enough supressing fire for ya?!” Alicia called out, grinning.

“MORE THAN ENOUGH, MISS LEHANE!” Oberon shouted back, his own smile looking a tad wolfish as he ran two more fembots through with his blade. “KEEP UP THE EXEMPLARY WORK---” He flinched as another fembot tore at the protective mask covering his wounded face; for a moment, Alicia thought she would have to endure the sight of the ALPA chairman's hideous burns...

...and instead found herself marvelling at the fact that Oberon's scorched face was now fully healed.

Even as she reflected upon the impossibility of such a thing, the blonde gynoid still managed to pick off a few more fembots with her pulser. Kimiko and the other House Agents were doing rather splendidly as well, with at least three of them keeping score despite Oberon's tendency to frown on such things. In short, what had started out looking like a full-on seige was turning into a decisive victory for the ALPA/House side; the fembots were already starting to fall back---

“TWO MORE HOSTILES APPROACHING FROM---what the hell?! Are they jumping out of the building---”

Reaver's confused shout was drowned out by screams---coming from behind the firing line.

Oberon guided his horse to turn, with the other Field Agents following suit---and all present nearly threw up where they stood. Two fembots---one redhead, one brunette---stood beside a fallen Field Agent, their hands on his shoulders. “You weren't thinking of starting without us, were you?” the redhead taunted.

“After all, this is our command performance,” the brunette added....

...mere seconds before shattering the Field Agent's ribs with an elbow strike.

“LET HIM GO!” Alicia heard herself scream---immediately hating herself for it. The fembots smirked; “And what if we don't?” the redhead inquired. “You'll blast us with that pathetic little toy of yours?”

“This toy,” Alicia growled, “is---”

Before she could blink, the brunette was in front of her, grabbing the pulser out of her hand. “This toy,” she intoned, “is broken.” Without even giving Alicia time to take it back, the fembot bent the gun's barrel backwards.

“And in a few seconds,” the redhead whispered---from behind Alicia, “you'll be, too.”

Don't let it end this way, please----

“OI!”

The fembots, more confused than intimidated, glanced in the direction of the shout. “One of the humans wants to play?” the redhead mused.

“They must have a death wish,” the brunette reasoned. “Simple as that---”

“I DO NOT HAVE A DEATH WISH!” Oberon shouted, jumping off of his horse and striding towards the fembots with absolute hatred in his eyes. “What I do have is a really sharp sword that's probably perfect for slicing, dicing and turning you two into curly-fries---and I am not going to hesitate to use it on both of you. Now, then, unless you want your arms off---”

“Like this?” The redhead grabbed Alicia by the arm, tightening her grip---

---and found a foot-long ceramic hatchet embedded in her wrist.

“Don't do that again,” Oberon warned. “I mean it. Next time, I'll aim right between your stupid little eyes...so follow my advice and let her go, NOW.” None of the Field Agents moved to stop him; the look on his face was an uncharacteristically ugly sneer, almost as if he was daring the fembots to defy him. “You think I won't cut you to ribbons where you stand?” he whispered. “You think I'll just keep threatening you and not do anything to stop you?” He pulled a throwing knife from his wrist pauldron; “This one'll be up your left nostril if you don't let her go,” he warned. “Last warning.”

“Should we listen to him?” the brunette asked.

“Might as well,” the redhead agreed---just as the throwing knife hit her in the shoulder. “What the---”

The armored sole of a boot slammed into her face, sending her to the pavement in a sprawling heap. “Drop it,” Oberon hissed. “Let it fall now. Drop it, or I'll take your hand.”

Even as she gave the ALPA chairman a death glare, the fembot dropped the stainless-steel needle that had been concealed in her hand. “You win,” she admittted. “Caught me red-handed---” Her taunt ended in a gasp, as Oberon grabbed her other wrist. “Do not play games with me,” he growled. “I've no compunctions about killing you in an instant if you so much as breathe on any of my Agents the wrong way...”

“Oberon,” Alicia breathed, “we have bigger problems to worry about right now. The fembots---”

One of the Field Agents behind them yelled something, finally prompting a glance from Oberon----which proved that the “bigger problem” Alicia had just mentioned was far worse than even he could've expected. Every fembot in the courtyard was now striding towards the building, ignoring everything else (including the attacks of the Field Agents) around them. One fembot in particular merely shrugged away from the slash that took her right arm, continuing her walk towards the building as if nothing had happened.

“Your choice, Mister Chairman,” the redheaded fembot purred. “Keep fighting us....or stop them.”

A growl fought its way past Oberon's lips as he let the fembot go. “Next time,” he warned, “I will end you.”

“If you get a next time,” the redhead taunted.

Ignoring the infinite number of profane replies that he could've fired back with, the ALPA chairman instead decided to focus on maneuvering the troops into position. “Let them pass,” he ordered. “Once they get into the building, then we strike---not a moment sooner. If we move against them too early, they could take out the entire lobby in seconds----”

Somewhere inside the building, someone screamed.

“That was your big plan?!” Alicia hissed. “Letting them into the building to kill everyone---”

“Don't think of it that way,” Major Tom advised. “It'll make a lot more sense in a few seconds....”

The last syllable had barely left his lips when a metallic clang from the building sounded; the security shutters had closed over the doors and windows, effectively locking the fembots inside the building.

“Before you start yelling,” he continued, grabbing Alicia by the shoulders, “think of it like this: We're not locking our people in with the fembots, we're locking the fembots in with our people.....” He winked. “Specifically, one of our people who could probably rip them all limb from limb if she so desired. Trust me---Oberon thought this through---”

A grinding, scraping sound of concrete moving against concrete drew a grimace from the ex-NASA operative before he could finish. “...and we have a few other surprises,” he muttered, glaring in the direction of the noise.

“For instance,” Oberon beamed, “the courtyard of the ALPA Central Headquarters in San Jose has a rather convenient secret entrance built underneath this fully-operational decorative fountain. It'll take us under the lobby, right past some of the more damaged bits of the ground floor, and to a service elevator that leads right to my office---and from there, we can hold the line.” He smiled proudly as he patted the fountain. “In short, we haven't lost this one yet, Miss Lehane---and unless things somehow inexplicably take a really, really bad turn for the---”

“DON'T,” Alicia warned. “If you say things will take a turn for the worse---”

Major Tom's walkie-talkie squawked from its place on his belt.

“Then they will,” the blonde gynoid finished, her eyes squeezed shut.

Oberon and the Major exchanged worried glances; “It appears that the backup team was...unable to contain Aaberg's two minions over at SJSU,” Oberon informed the Field Agents. “We may need to proceed with our plans at a somewhat....accelerated pace---if Aaberg's flunkies are able to get in through the passage beneath the fountain, then we're in for an unwinnable fight.”

“Not the way I see it,” Reaver countered. “If they enter through that narrow hall under the fountain---”

“If they do,” Oberon interjected, “then they'll have us in a bottleneck---the Agents in front will only be able to move ahead, while those in the back of the group will have to fight. Even against just two, a fight in a narrow hall can easily turn against us, which is why we won't give them the opportunity. Now, then, unless anyone here has any better suggestions...”

None of the Field Agents said a word.

“Now that we've managed to get that minor little snag out of the way,” Oberon mused, “let's leave this rather boring place behind and get to my office, shall we?” He gave a blithe smile and strode over to the fountain.

Alicia shook her head in disbelief; “We've got hostiles in the building,” she muttered, “hostiles inbound, and I don't know how many potential casualties inside, and he's acting like we're about to join an Easter parade or something....” She glanced over her shoulder at Major Tom. “Tell me, Starman,” she murmured, “is your boss always like this?”

The Major only chuckled. “You should see him when he's angry.”

“Something tells me I don't want to,” the blonde gynoid quietly replied, falling into step with the other ALPA and House Field Agents as they followed Oberon into the underground passage. “If he's anything like Celeste when she's angry..”

None of the Agents spoke as they entered the passage, though all of them flinched as soon as the fountain above them slid back into place to cover the entrance. “I've been meaning to get the mechanism changed on that thing,” Oberon admitted. “Maybe next year---”

“How long is this hallway?” Kimiko called out from somewhere around the back of the group.

“It's not so much a hallway,” Oberon admitted, “as it is an underground labyrinth. Seeing as how I had a hand in the design process, though, I know all the nice little tricks to keep us from getting lost---including one that, for all intents and purposes, lets us skip right through to the end.” A rhythmic pattern of something tapping on the stone floor filled the otherwise-quiet hallway for a few moments....

….replaced soon after by the unmistakable grinding of stone-on-stone.

“Beats the hell out of IDCLIP any day of the week,” the ALPA Chairman beamed. “Right---all of you, follow the sound of my voice, and DO NOT step off the main path under any circumstances!”

Somehow, even for the android and gynoid Field Agents, time seemed to stretch---none of them could tell if they'd been walking in a straight line for five minutes or five hours. “This is just weird,” Kimiko murmured. “I mean, I've felt like everything around me was just a dream a few times before, during maintenance sessions and stuff, but this.....this barely even feels real.” She glanced around her; “It's like I'm walking on a bridge made of glass, or something....and I can barely even feel myself moving!” That thought instantly worried her: “We're not malfunctioning, are we?” she asked Julia. “I mean, you don't think we're malfunctioning, or---”

“I know for a fact that I'm not,” Julia assured her. “Though I do admit that this all does seem....a bit surreal...”

Both gynoids gasped as they felt hands on their shoulders. “Nothing to worry about, girls,” Alicia VI beamed, easily keeping pace with both of them. “It's all a bit of special effects and mild subsonic pulses---which is also why neither of you freaked out when you started feeling weightless and all that jazz. Think of it as...Muzak, but on a subconscious level.”

“And for anyone who feels like following us down here without proper clearance,” Major Tom called out, “those same pulses will go from subsonic to....shall we say, very uncomfortable. Especially if they just had lunch.”

Kimiko's eyes went wide, but Alicia gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Seeing as how we all have proper clearance, you've got nothing to worry about, babe—-well, apart from getting bored to tears from all this stupid walking.” She glared ahead, hoping that Oberon had heard her complaint. “Anyways, nothing's going to happen---”

Somewhere above them, something smashed into the floor hard enough to shake dust loose from the rafters.

“Probably just some of our fine Field Agents in the building, fighting off the fembot hordes and doing their best to keep us all from being brutally killed,” Oberon cheerfully called out. “Nothing to worry about---” The ceiling above them shook again, accompanied by the unmistakable (if muffled) sound of screaming. “Just keep walking!” Oberon beamed. “As long as what's up there is still up there, we're all okay down here.”

“You're sure about that?” Alicia called out.

“Positive!”

Alicia sighed; “I hate it when he gets all happy like this in the middle of a crisis,” she muttered to Julia and Kimiko. “It usually means he knows exactly what's going on, and he doesn't want to spill the beans.”

“So, what do you think is happening up there?” Kimiko asked.

“Well, to be quite honest,” the blonde gynoid replied, “I really hope the good guys are winning.”

Part 12

“WHY DID YOU DRAG ME OUT OF THERE?!”

Vicki's angry shout sent an uncomfortably-familiar chill---the “real or imaginary” question was, at this point, totally irrelevant---down Elena Vlatko's spine. “The Man in Grey told me he could handle himself,” she replied, her voice still calm despite the fact that seeing the brunette gynoid this mad was nothing short of terrifying. “If we had stayed---”

“If I had stayed,” Vicki spat, “I could've....I might've been able...” She stopped, shaking her head. “Something's wrong. I...Elena, what did he do to me?!”

The Russian gynoid looked confused; “All the Man in Grey did was use a low-level EMP to freeze you in place,” she admitted. “He said the effects were temporary---it should have worn off by this point.” She made her way to the apparently stricken Field Agent. “Agent Lawson, are you okay? Is everything---”

Without warning, Vicki went completely deaf.


“What....Elena, I can't---I can't hear you! What the hell?!” She clutched at her ears, stomped the floor, slapped herself on the thigh---anything to get a response from her auditory sensors. “I can't hear....why can't I hear anything?!”

“Good question....allow me to answer it.”

Something struck the brunette gynoid in the back of the head, sending her pitching forward.


To Elena, it looked as if Vicki had tripped over something---except she hadn't. “Vicki, what's wrong?!”

“GET---GET AWAY FROM ME!” Vicki swung her left arm wide, as if trying to bat an invisible insect out of the air. “GET THE HELL---” Her right leg shot out from under her for no apparent reason, sending her face-first to the ground. “YOU'RE NOT REAL!” she shrieked. “YOU'RE CHAINED TO A HOSPITAL BED! HOW---” Her head snapped back, as if someone was punching her.

In that instant, Elena realized exactly what was going on....


“Still don't think I can hurt you?” the now-staticky---yet still-familiar---voice of Faceless taunted. “Still think I'm just a bad dream?!” The heel of his shoe---heavily-pixelated and appearing to be halfway-glitched out with VHS-style tracking errors---slammed into the side of Vicki's face. “I am SO VERY REAL, 'Agent Lawson,” he taunted. “Real enough to finish what I started!”

“You.....won't,” Vicki muttered, only to get another kick to the side.

Even as she tried to stand, the brunette gynoid could see the figure of Faceless---parts of him fading into static or corrupted pixels---walking briskly towards her. “This isn't a game to me anymore,” he hissed. “This is no longer about humiliating you.......this only ends with me breaking you.” A stabbing pain tore through her gut, and for the briefest moment, Vicki felt the blade in her stomach again---as real as it had been on July 9. “I'm going to enjoy this, Vicki Lawson,” Faceless crooned. “Every single delicious, torturous minute of it....” He drew his fist back again, leading the gynoid to expect another punch to the face---only to feel her back panel buckle instead.

“You're in my world now, 'Agent Lawson',” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour sneered. “The only way out is to die.”


“Just hang in there, Vicki,” Elena pleaded, removing cables from the opened panels on her arms and hooking them into the gynoid Field Agent's opened back panel as fast as possible. She knew that unless she did something rather drastic in the next few minutes, there was a good chance Vicki would be killed.

“Stay strong for me, Vicki,” Elena whispered. “Stay strong for both of us...”


“You're.....not.....real,” Vicki murmured, crawling on her hands and knees to get away from the masked, black-clad killer. “You're just...data.....just a trick---”

A blade stabbed through her left hand, sending a surge of pain through her entire figure.

“Was that 'just a trick' too, Vicki?” Faceless taunted. “Is this whole thing just a dream?! Or is that what you're telling yourself...to make your broken mind believe it?!” He stomped on Vicki's already wounded hand.

Even as she tried to shield herself from this baddest of bad dreams, Vicki couldn't help but shriek in pain.


“This is impossible,” Elena muttered, staring at the rapidly-scrolling readout of sensory input from the mini-LCD screen built into Vicki's back panel. “Something's taken full control of her BIOS---she can't see, hear, or even feel anything that this program doesn't want her to!”

Her attention turned to Vicki herself, who was now seated near a wall---yet still occasionally twitching as if being pummelled by her unseen (and nonexistant) attacker. “Even the Coalition was never this cruel,” she muttered under her breath. “Falken, maybe...but not the Coalition as a whole....” Her thoughts briefly turned to the ALPA before Clive DuBraul and Oberon had taken control; in their own self-professed “dark ages”, even the group known now as a shining beacon of hope for the android/gynoid community had engaged in...sketchy behavior, most of which would land them in the unemployment line these days....but even they had never done something as heinous as this.

That thought by itself brought forth a rather crushing realization.....“I can't help her,” Elena murmured. “There's nothing I can do---”

“Not by yourself, at least.”

A notification in appeared in Elena's field of vision---someone was contacting her via her private (and internal) WiFi! “Who is this?!” she gasped, more shocked than pissed. “How did you---”

“There's no time to explain it right now,” the voice---young (probably early 20s), female, more than likely from further down Silicon Valley than Vicki herself---replied. “Every second is vital to Vicki's survival, so you're going to have to trust everything you hear from me....and before you ask, all you need to know about me is that I'm someone who wants to see Vicki Lawson do what she does best: beat the scrap out of the baddies.”

Something about the voice---a hint of familiarity with Vicki, perhaps?---intrigued Elena. “Tell me how I can save her, then.”

“Open Vicki's internal BIOS control panel and look for any programs started in the last seven minutes.”

All of five seconds passed before Elena found herself at the appropriate menu. “Now what?”

“Select whichever program was most recently opened.”

Elena's finger tapped at the air—-a force of habit, more than anything, since she didn't have a physical mouse to use. “I've selected it.”

“Okay, this part is going to require exact timing...there should be a vertical line of fifteen SD cards plugged into Vicki's back panel, about three inches to the left of the LCD screen. Can you see all fifteen of the cards?”

“I can.”

“Good. Also, you're going to have to open a panel of your own for this next bit...”

Despite her unease at following a disembodied voice's orders, Elena did so. “It's open.”

“If you've got any spare SD cards on you, prepare to slot them into Ports 5, 2 and 8. After that, just sit back and don't close any of your running processes...."


“I know this must be very painful,” Faceless sneered, just as he planted another savage kick into the side of Vicki's head, “but don't think of it as defeat---think of it as your eternal epitaph.” He punctuated the taunt with another kick---this one, right to Vicki's midsection. “You thought you finished me, in July?!” he laughed. “You thought I was beaten, did you?!” He stomped on her arm, cackling at the sound of metal bending beneath his heel.

“You're not real,” the brunette gynoid whimpered. “You're....not.....”

Her vision exploded into a white-hot flash of agony.

“How many times must I say it?!” Faceless growled, drawing back his fist. “I AM REAL, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson.....real enough to finally finish breaking you!” He planted his foot on Vicki's sternum; “You deserve every bit of this, Vicki,” he spat. “You will be broken when I'm finished....” He clasped his fists together over his head.

“You're....not......real-----”

Another white hot flash seared itself into Vicki's mind, as her entire body roared with pain.


“....and all three of these processes can save Vicki from whatever it is that's killing her?”

Elena hated herself for even thinking that the Field Agent was being killed by this unseen foe, but no other word could come close to describing what was happening. “Seeing how the processes I just sent you were developed at the Stepford base for circumstances like this,” the female voice replied, “I don't think they'll let her down. Oh, and I should probably mention that the reps from Stepford are, indeed, on their way---they've just landed at Onizuka AFS, and they're on route now.”

“And you're helping her while they help her friends?”

“I've already done some thing to help her, actually. Those two who fell through the ceiling a ways back?”

The Russian gynoid's eyes went wide. “You rescued them?!”

“To be honest, I was hoping not to advertise,” the female voice admitted, “but....yeah. That was me. I've been getting memos telling me to change my default skin and hair color, but for the record, I happen to like the 'silver robot girl' look, and as for the hair....eh, well, it's an acquired taste. Anyways...back to the topic at hand.”

“Agreed. How will these processes save Vicki....Agent Lawson from this torment she is in?”

The voice sighed. “To be honest, this 'torment' was put in her back in July---and the prick who put it in her was able to make a few new friends before he showed up in San Jose. Turns out one of the workers at the ALPA-sanctioned facility where he's being held had acute financial dysfunction, and decided to cure it by getting in bed with some not-so-savory characters, specifically a redhead and a brunette. From what we can tell, they gave him the tools to install....something in Faceless that turned him into a human router---and the surgeons have been trying to dig it out of him ever since.”

“But why would---”

“The why isn't important right now. What's important is that we stop this Faceless virus---for lack of a better term---from completely and utterly ruining Vicki.”

Even though she had no idea how to completely eradicate the “Faceless virus”, Elena nodded.

“Glad we're on the same page. Now, when I give the word, remove the SD cards from Vicki's back panel in the EXACT ORDER I give them....”


All thoughts of not cowering, “being brave” and taking a stand against her hated opponent faded swiftly from Vicki's mind as Faceless---or whatever the hell this thing was---continued to kick her around the room like so much garbage. “Still think this isn't really happening, Vicki?!” the apparition taunted, planting a savage kick in her back. “Do you still think I'm a nightmare?!”

The brunette gynoid heard herself cry “I don't know!” as if she'd just shouted the words in a tunnel.

“Pathetic...I expected more from you, Vicki.” Faceless swung his arm wide, allowing a three-foot blade to emerge from his sleeve. “Reality ends when your vital functions cease....at least, if The Matrix was, indeed, correct. Let's test that therory ourselves, shall we?” He raised the blade, preparing to decapitate Vicki----

“I have a better idea: Let her go.”

In that instant, every ounce of bravado vanished from Faceless' demeanor. “NO,” he thundered. “Not you...not here....not now!”

“Wrong, wrong and wrong,” the voice called out. “I hate to break it to you, Billy Boy, but---”

“DO NOT CALL ME 'BILLY BOY', DAMNIT!” Faceless turned to glare at the unseen figure (unseen, at least, by Vicki); “I killed you once before, pathetic bitch,” he growled, “and I will rip you apart again---”

A feminine yawn cut into the threat. “That the best you've got, CrazyMask?”

“I'LL MAKE YOU EAT YOUR OWN TONGUE!” Faceless screamed. “YOU WILL NOT SAVE VICKI LAWSON FROM---”

“From what? A pathetic showboating creep like you? I think that won't be a problem....oh, and you didn't kill me the last time we met, CrazyMask......you did me a favor.” A purplish glow on the far side of the room gave Vicki just enough light to see a feminine form; “And now I'm going to do Vicki a favor,” the voice emanating from the light continued, “and give her everything she needs to beat you.” Before the Butcher of Lake Gilmour could even think to react, the light shot across the room and swirled around Vicki.....

“Just trust me on this,” the voice whispered in her ears. “No matter what he says, none of this is real---he's just taken over your perceptual filters and effectively rerouted control of all five senses so that you see him, hear every stupid word coming out of his mouth and feel every attack....be glad he didn't go for taste and smell.”

“But.....how....how do you know---”

A female face---kind, smiling and looking a lot like someone Vicki remembered reading about in the news back in 1999---formed out of the light swirling around her. “I know because I've fought the prick before,” the face admitted, “and he did, in fact, 'kill' me.....once. After that....he never got the chance to again. Anyways, that was the ancient past---and this is the present. Well, it's a present, from me to you.” The face winked. “A little something to help you even the odds against Psycho McCrazyMask.”

Even as the question formed on her lips, Vicki found that she didn't have to ask what the “present” was: the light was forming armor (in purple and pink---interesting color choice...) around her, and a spear of crackling, purplish lightning turned into an ornate broadsword in her hand, its blade engulfed in silver fire.

“Now, then.....kick his ass, Vicki Lawson.” The face winked again and vanished, leaving Vicki clad in her newly acquired armor----and standing before a thoroughly-pissed off Faceless. “And don't worry,” the voice added, “even if he can't see me, I can still help you.”

Seven seconds---of silent, seething rage, on Faceless' part at least---passed.

“You.....cheated,” the masked killer finally growled. “You got help.....from her----”

“Hate to break it to you,” Vicki muttered---or intended to mutter, at least; the words came out as more of a declaration (guess virtual damage heals faster than real damage, she realized, especially with talking purple light helping me....and I have a feeling I'm never going to have a thought process quite that unique ever again)---“but it's just the two of us in here right now...and in a few seconds, it'll be just one of us.” She hefted the broadsword; “So, ready to take on a target who can actually fight back?” she taunted.

Faceless' only reply was to charge ahead, swinging his sword-length blade at the brunette gynoid—-

---which ended up getting him nowhere, especially after Vicki chopped the blade off at his wrist.

“That's the way to do it!” the voice cheered. “Now chase him around a little bit, just for—-”

A black-gloved fist shot past Vicki's head, narrowly brushing her ear. “Of course you had to get help,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour sneered. “You never could beat me by yourself...”

“You're forgetting July already?” the brunette gynoid inquired. “I didn't have any help then---”

“YOU HAD THE ELEVEN!” Faceless roared, lunging forward with a stab that came nowhere near any of Vicki's vital areas---she'd dodged to the left and bashed him in the head with the butt of the broadsword. “You had Ted---”

The sickening crunch of bone breaking---followed by Faceless' left foot splintering into pixels---cut him off.

“You don't get to say his name,” Vicki intoned. “You don't even get to think it....not here, and not ever again.”

“Nice touch,” the voice murmured in her ear. “Just don't get all 'For my family!' and slicing him to ribbons, or anything---you're trying to prove you're above him, not on his level.”

Before she could reply to the unseen speaker, Vicki cut a backflip just in time to avoid being skewered by a massive blade rising out of the floor. “Who's cheating now?!” she called out, realizing her words had synced up with the voice she'd just heard. “Wait, where's that coming from?!” She glanced to her left, seeing nothing, and to her right---where she found the same glowing purple figure she'd seen across the room earlier standing by, focused on Faceless. “Figured I'd give you just a bit more of a boost,” the figure explained, in the same voice Vicki had been hearing since the purple light had first appeared. “Seeing as how he is hacking away at every firewall in here while we're just standing around talking...”

“He's what?!”

“Relax, Vicki,” the light-girl beamed (Tell would be having a field day with that one...), “he can't actually hurt you or anything. Case in point---all those attacks he landed earlier? Notice how you're not aching all over anymore?”

A quick once-over proved that Vicki was, in fact, feeling perfectly fine. “Point taken.”

“Good. Now, then....time get Psycho McCrazy Mask out of your system for good.” The light-girl dissipated into a mist of sorts, though Vicki could still see perfectly---as for Faceless, the mist was apparenty a blinding fog that kept him from seeing anything. “Seeing as how I know he won't play fair,” the girl's voice informed a thoroughly-confused Vicki, “I thought I'd level the playing field a bit and let you take a few free shots at him while your system finishes clearing him out.”

“That makes sense....but I'm still wondering---”

“Fight now, wonder later. We'll discuss the hows and whys after this idiot's been flushed from your system.”

Despite her annoyance at having to wait, Vicki found the arrangement more than fair. “Sounds good to me.”

Faceless' blind lunge met only air as the brunette gynoid sidestepped, turning on her heel to plant a kick in his side. “Since you're so obsessed with the reality of this situation,” she mused, “tell me this: How real did that feel for you?”

Whatever threat the figure of Faceless felt like making was lost to a burst of static.

“The only reason I was ever scared of you was because I thought you were more than just some whack job in a mask,” Vicki continued, “but now I see you for what you really are. You're not just faceless...you're hopeless, because you're so far past the point where anyone could've saved you. And the really sad thing is, you were never a decent person to begin with---and I know this because I've read up on you. You're not like Gacy, or Bundy, or Dahmer---hell, you're not even like Myers. You kill because you find it amusing, because you think it's funny when they squirm...” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “....except I'm not squirming now, and I never will again.”

By this point, the ghostlike image of the Butcher of Lake Gilmour was fading in and out of existence. “You can't....beat me.....you never did....”

“I don't want to beat you this time,” Vicki replied. “Now...I only want you gone.”

Even with his extremities fading, Faceless managed a snarl. “I won't stay gone---you know that!”

“Actually....yeah, you will stay gone.” The words left Vicki's mouth just as the purplish mist surrounding the masked murderer solidified into glass-like shards. “You're just bad memories, corrupted data and a nightmare I should've deleted a long time ago....and even if the real Faceless manages to recover from getting his own blades driven into his back.....” Vicki's taunt was cut off by a scream as the image of Faceless charged, arms extended to skewer her.

“I'm not afraid of him,” she finished, just as the blades were about to pierce her, “and I'm not afraid of you!”

In a blinding, roaring instant, Faceless dissolved into blocky bits of pixels and static, which in turn faded away into nonexistence. His scream seemed to hang in the air for a moment or two, stuttering like a damaged CD before finally trailing off into something that sounded disturbingly close to a pained moan.

“And that,” the light-girl's voice declared, “is how you do that.” She materialized a few feet away from Vicki a second later, grinning; “Looks like you terminated the last few files he tried to corrupt,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “Just so you know, all the files he messed with were old driver files from your previous hardware configuration---in plain English, from your old body....and that stupid thing someone tried to hook up to his brain has been extracted without incident, so that's not a problem either.”

“I sincerely hope it isn't,” Vicki murmured, noticing that the air now felt a lot heavier, for some reason. “I feel...” She took a step forward, realizing that something was....off. “Why is the room stretching?” she asked, her own voice sounding distant. “I....I thought....” A purple hand---which slowly faded into a silver hand---grasped her shoulder. “Your systems are repairing the residual damages from Faceless' WiFi attack; give 'em a minute...”

Despite the fact that she felt impossibly tired, Vicki nodded. “That makes sense...”

“As much as I'd love to agree with you there,” the light-girl mused (while apparently not bothered with the fact that her arms were now silver), “I have to get going---but It's been epic working with you.” Creeping tendrils of silver began to flow around her face; “And for the record,” she added, “I'd love to work with you again.”

“But I don't even know....” Vicki sank to a sitting position. “Who are you?” she murmured.

“You'll know soon,” the silver/light girl promised. “Trust me on that.”

Slowly, the room around Vicki faded to white.....


….and seconds later, faded back in---with Elena staring into Vicki's eyes from three inches away. “Agent Lawson, are you okay? Can you hear me?!”

“I'm....fine,” Vicki muttered, waving the Russian gynoid away. “I just....give me a minute...” She rose to her feet, glancing around. “Well, I think I can safely say that Faceless is finally---and I do mean 'finally---out of my system,” she declared, checking her system's secure memory logs to make sure. “All compromised files are gone....and someone opened my back panel while I was out.” She arched an eyebrow at Elena. “Care to elaborate on that?”

Elena sighed theatrically. “I had to slot in some SD cards to run the programs that purged Faceless' virus from you---and I'll admit right now that I had more than a bit of help....” She paused. “You're not angry at me, are you?”

“If I was angry at you for saving me from the nonexistant attack of someone who tried to turn himself into a human router,” the brunette gynoid replied, “I wouldn't be here right now....though I'd love to know who it was that helped you---” She stopped, the realization hitting her just as she said the words. “That girl, the one made of light.....she started turning silver right before I rebooted....” She stared at Elena, her eyes wide; “You got help from the girl who saved Aaron?!” she gasped.

Before Elena replied, she eased Vicki into one of the only chairs that hadn't been obliterated by falling ceiling debris. “The girl didn't give me a name,” she admittede, “but she did say that she was the one who'd saved your friend....” Her smile faded. “Also, you said quite a lot---screamed quite a lot, to be accurate---during the attack....you were screaming about someone named Sharon, begging her not to die. You also mentioned a boy.....'Jamie', I believe.....” She stopped, noticing the brunette gynoid's gaze now thoroughly affixed to the floor. “Were they close to you?” she murmured. “Sharon and Jamie, I mean---”

“Jamie still is.” Vicki was surprised at the calmness of her voice, especially given the fact that she didn't remember screaming anything other than “you're not real” at the phantom of Faceless. “He's my brother---my human brother, obviously my only brother---and Faceless....nearly killed him earlier this year. Carved his face up like a turkey, and....” She wiped a tear away from her eye. “Sharon Wilson was my roommate at San Jose State University,” she continued, “and she had no idea what I really was, or that the ALPA existed. She was my best friend, too.....and then Matthew Hannsen broke into our dorm while I was out, tracking him, and...” Her shoulders heaved. “He.....took her. Right out of the dorm---right out of the state---dragged her all the way to Greece, and then tried to make me choose.....” The memory of Singapore rose up in her mind, and she tried to push it back....

….but in the end, she had no choice but to let it consume her one final time: “....and then he killed her, right in front of me. Stuck a Colt Python against her head, pulled the trigger....”

Through her tears, Vicki felt the Russian gynoid embrace her, whispering in Russian....then again in English: “I share your pain, Agent Lawson....we no longer endure this alone....” Slowly, Elena pulled back, staring into the brunette gynoid's eyes; “Boris felt we were cursed, many times,” she explained. “My parents---the parents of my namesake---were rendered non-existant due to their political views.....Boris lost his sister when we fled the country.....and then they came for Vladimir. Boris hid me---he did not want to lose me to a random glitch, or an accident---but he could do nothing to save Vladimir. If he had even tried....”

“I get it,” Vicki murmured.

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, calming themselves after Vicki's near-death.

“So....what now?” Elena finally asked. “Faceless has been purged from your systems, and we know that Aaron Cardwell is alive.....do we still make our way to Professor Malvineous, or should we do....something else for the time being?”

“Isn't it obvious?” Vicki grinned. “We fight our way to the Professor.”

Elena found the reply more than a bit strange. “There are no enemies to fight through, Agent Lawson...at least, none at the moment. The fembots seem to be retreating---”

“Hold that thought.” Vicki held a hand to her ear; “More fembots are entering the building,” she informed the Russian gynoid. “A lot more. I think we may need to get to Anton a lot faster than we thought we'd have to---no offense to him, or anything, but he's a lot better as a thinker than he is as a fighter.....and why are you looking at me like I just let a fart?” Vicki's rather bizarre analogy was met with a chuckle from Elena. “You've forgotten already, haven't you?”

“Forgotten....what, exactly----”

A vivid, almost overpowering memory from the previous year seemed to rise up from the ether.....


“Is it just me, or does this Professor guy look like the new lead singer from Styx?”

Vicki Lawson barely heard her roommate’s observation; she was too busy reading up on the San Jose Retro Toy Fair. “Hmm?” she inquired.

“This Professor Anton Mal….something or other. See?”

Vicki’s view of the SJRTF article was suddenly blocked by a picture of a 50-something man in a dress shirt and pants, an unruly mane of hair crowning his head. “Ah, Sharon,” the brunette gynoid stated with a frown, “I’m trying to read an article here…”

“You’re missing the resemblance, though!” Sharon Wilson insisted. “Look---that’s a picture of the Professor, and….” She fished around in her backpack for a photo of Styx vocalist Lawrence Gowan. “This is the lead singer of Styx. See? They look almost like twins!”

Vicki sighed and studied the photos, surprised to find that Lawrence Gowan and Prof. Anton Malvineous did, indeed, look like long-lost twin brothers. “I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” she replied, “though I’m a bit curious as to why you’re so freaked out at this; a roboticist who looks like a Canadian prog-rock singer isn’t exactly headline-making material…”

“The Professor will be here next week for a lecture,” Sharon stated, “and supposedly, he’s also going to be interviewing students for an internship position!”

“And you’re telling me this….why?” Vicki asked, slowly becoming annoyed.

“Well,” Sharon replied, her grin fading a bit, “it’s just that….your dad does stuff with robots, and all….he owns a robotics company…..and I thought you might..I dunno…want to learn a bit more about the field….” Vicki’s annoyed scowl turned to a smile. “Since you put it that way,” she replied, “tell me a bit more about this Anton Malvineous guy…”


“.....I remember now,” Vicki realized. “I ran a quick search through what I'd heard about Anton from Dad after Sharon mentioned him---and I remembered he was with the Great Dirty World Wide Web!” The mention of the long-dead hacking collective prompted another raised eyebrow; “You think he'll use what he, ah, learned from there to take out the fembots?” she inquired.

Elena nodded proudly. “If ever there was a time for him to revisit those days, now would be it.”

“That makes sense,” the brunette gynoid reasoned. “It's a lot better than him trying to pick up a rifle and go all Rambo on them, or anything....” The mental image of Anton with an M-60 almost triggered a giggle-fit, which was thankfully contained.

“And I take it our business here is finished, then?”

“Well, Elena, that depends on if we have to double back or not---but for now, it is.” Vicki surveyed the room one last time. “No fembots waiting to bust out of the walls, no Aaberg-employed idiots with riot guns running in to perforate us....we're in the clear.” She grinned. “And thanks for saving me from Faceless' virus, by the way.”

Her remark earned her a smile. “Anything for a friend....Vicki.”

“So we're officially friends now?” the brunette gynoid beamed. “Even though you're, like, five years older than me....and I can't believe I just said 'like'---I sounded like a total Valley Girl!” She lapsed into a giggle fit at the thought. “Anyways...let's save the banter for later and get to Anton before something stupid happens---just let me check to see if Anton's still waiting for us.” She tapped her ear (out of reflex---her uplink to the building's communications systems was an automatic process) and waited; “Anton, Elena and I are on our way. Do you need any help?”

A staticky---but otherwise normal---voice sounded in her ears: “Other than the fact that someone just opened the fountain outside, everything's okay here.”

V.I.C.I rolled her eyes; I guess Reaver wasn't kidding when he said there was a way in under there...

“There is the small matter of a group of fembots entering through the main lobby a few minutes ago, but since the entire ground floor has been cleared out, there weren't any casualties---”

“So they're just hanging out on the first floor?”

“More like they're waiting for a confrontation. Someone staged a pretty effective diversion earlier---one of the secretaries screamed, the fembots headed towards the sound, and all the security shutters were pulled down before they could change course. Long story short: they're trapped, waiting for anyone who shows up to fight them.”

“Except they've been destroying everything at random before now. Why would they---”

“Oberon mentioned something about a binary algorithm hiding in them, one that would only trigger when they were within range of the fembots already in the building.”

“So Hannsen didn't want them to just go on a rampage...” V.I.C.I considered her options carefully; “How many of the fembots deployed here are still active?” she inquired.

“None of them right now, though we've got at least two or three of them in containment.”

“Good call. Send me your current coordinates and wait for Elena and I to arrive---I have an idea.”

“Looking forward to hearing it, Vicki.”

The call ended with Vicki blinking a few times (again, out of reflex; her HUD sorted itself automatically as soon as the conversation ceased). “Well, looks like we just got a massive hint as to where we should go next,” she informed Elena. “Anton's got a fembot in containment, and the fembots that are stuck on the ground floor are using half of a binary algorithm---the ones we've already beaten have the other half.”

“And that means.....what, exactly?” the Russian gynoid asked, more than a bit confused.

“It means we have a pretty good chance of beating them now,” Vicki replied. “Unless something really, really stupid happens between now and us getting to Anton, it should be smooth sailing---and I know that particular euphamism doesn't fit this situation exactly, but it's the best one I've got for this occasion. Now, if we're all done with our grammatical discussion....”

She grinned. “Feel like helping me save Silicon Valley?”

Part 13

“So, everyone, welcome to my office.” Oberon beamed as the other Field Agents moved past him through the hidden door (formerly concealed behind a bookshelf), ushering them into his heavily-secured private office suite. “Seeing as how we don't exactly want to be caught in the crossfire when Vicki starts beating the scrap out of the fembots---”

A groan cut him off. “'Caught in the crossfire'?” Reaver echoed. “REALLY?! We're all Field Agents here---”

“Except not all of us can be repaired,” Jen interjected. “If you get your kneecaps blown off, you're not exactly going to be able to get replacements installed like I can.”

Reaver nearly yelled at her, but a gesture from Saturn convinced him to keep his mouth shut.

“Jen does have a point,” Oberon agreed. “This room is, quite simply, the fifth most secure in the building---I say 'fifth most secure' because there are a few other chambers in the ALPA HQ that require a bit more security than my office....anyways, we're not in any danger of being crushed by falling debris, drowning, being roasted alive by fire or asphyxiated by smoke. The doors, windows, support structures, lighting fixtures---even the materials used to build this room are among the safest available. Fireproof, waterproof, quakeproof, and, of course, bulletproof---long in a short: we're not going to get killed in here unless the fembots break in.”

A cough from the back of the group broke the momentary silence. “This is the part where you say they can't break in, right?”

“To be honest, Major, I wouldn't concern myself with that possibility.” Oberon grinned again. “In fact---”

“Can they break in,” Major Tom demanded, “or can't they?! Yes or no.”

His annoyance only increased when Oberon grinned. “We'll find out soon enough---”

“I have to take the Starman's side on this one,” Alicia cut in. “Normally, I'm all for riddles and puzzles and the whole Obi-Wan Kenobi gimmick.....but right now, with the fembots on our heels and probably tearing apart half the building to find us---”

Oberon held up a hand. “About that last one.....the whole thing of the fembots ripping the building apart.....” He smiled.

Alicia, not surprisingly, was confused. “What about it?”

“Listen. Just....listen.”

All Field Agents in the room---android/gynoid and human alike---stayed in place where they stood for the better part of three minutes, listening......

“You'd hear it, if they were on the move,” Oberon murmured. “Screams, doors being kicked in, all sorts of horrible sounds.....you'd hear a veritable cacophony of terrible things above and below us.” He paused for a moment, letting the idea sink in....

“...but none of you are hearing that, are you?”

Considering her earlier skepticism, Alicia surprised even herself by replying. “I don't hear anything...well, other than my own voice right now. Nothing above us, or below us, except for some movement and....what I think is just conversation.”

Again, Oberon smiled. “My point exactly.”

“Except that doesn't make any sense,” Major Tom countered. “They have to be active right now---”

“I never said the fembots weren't active, actually. I just said they weren't on the move.” Oberon took his seat at the immaculately-polished mahogany desk, pressing his palm in the center of the blotter pad. “There's actually a very reasonable explanation for it all, even though I'm usually not the type of person who tends to spoil such things...”

Whatever pissed-off reply the Major had ready was silenced by the appearance of a glass sphere being lowered from the ceiling. “Behold the viewing globe,” Oberon intoned, gesturing for the assembled Field Agents to turn their attention to it---quietly adding “Always wanted to say that” as they did so. “As you can see,” he continued, “every single fembot still functioning in this building is now effectively trapped on the ground floor. The elevators are inactive, the stairwells have been locked, and the only way they could even get close to this room through the ventilation shafts would involve dismemberment. Simply put---”

“Why the hell did you lock them all down there?”

Other than an imperceptible twitch of the ALPA Chairman's eyebrow, Reaver's question remained unanswered.

“Eric,” Jen murmured, “now's not the time---”

“Now is exactly the time, Jen!” Reaver shoved his way through the group; “We've got people on every floor who could deal with the fembots,” he growled, “and you decided to lock them all on the ground floor?! What the hell kind of plan is that?! We could've had them all scrapped by now!”

Oberon said nothing.

“And another thing,” Reaver continued, shrugging away from Jen's attempt to guide him away from the desk, “I am SICK of this bullshit with you being all 'mysterious'. Either you tell us what we need to know when we need to know it, or you don't. No more riddles, stupid smiles---”

“Eric,” Jen pleaded, “just---”

“AND I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE,” Reaver shouted, “WITH THIS 'RUN AND HIDE' BULLSHIT! ALL OF US ARE TRAINED TO HANDLE THIS KIND OF STUFF ON A DAILY BASIS, AND YOU'VE GOT US ALL LOCKED UP IN HERE---”

Somewhere in the middle of the Field Agent's tirade, Oberon muttered “Enough.”

“---AND IF I HAVE TO SIT HERE FOR ONE MORE FUCKING MINUTE---”

“....I said ENOUGH!”

Oberon's fists slammed into the desktop, splintering the wood on either side of the blotter pad. Jen pulled Reaver (who, by this point, was effectively stunned into silence) back into the group.

“NOW YOU LISTEN TO ME,” the ALPA Chairman thundered, his gaze slowly rising from the ruined desktop to focus on the Field Agents. “ALL OF YOU.” His unrelenting stare swept the Agents, settling on Reaver and Jen. “Everything I have ever done in the ALPA, up to and including this, has been done for very specific reasons. Some of the decisions I've made have been particularly hard, and few of them, if any, have ever been easy....and even though there's no real getting used to that, I have been able to come to terms with it. I've even been able to come to terms with the insistence from every rank-and-file Tom, Dick and Harry who steps through those doors that they know the 'right way' to do things, even when they clearly do not. WHAT I CANNOT COME TO TERMS WITH, however, is the rather annoying habit of the very people I'm trying to help telling me off in front of God, king and country WHEN ALL THE BLOODY HELL I'M TRYING TO DO IS KEEP THEM FROM GETTING THER FUCKING ARSES SHOT TO HELL!”

None of the Field Agents moved from where they stood.

“You lot....you think this is easy?! How many of you here, right now, think that all I've ever done in this job is sit behind a stupid desk and sign my name on every stupid piece of paper that passes through here?” As the group continued to stare in silence, Oberon smashed the In/Out box off the desk, sending it to the floor with an ugly clang. “I've been questioned before,” he muttered, “by everyone from the janitor to the President of the ALPA....and don't think this is me trying to accuse anyone here of being ungrateful sods.....”

His voice lowered to a sob: “...I absolutely hate this bloody job sometimes.”

Silence.

“The photos in the lobby are the worst,” the Chairman muttered. “All they show are the happy moments: a family reunited, a marriage saved, a new life beginning, all that wonderful stuff. Nobody here ever stops to think about the inverse of those things: having to remove a sleeper from a broken home, or barelling through Palo Alto in the middle of the night to bring a gynoid to an ALPA safehouse before her bloody useless spouse got drunk one night and started threatening to throw her in a canal....or burying the relatives of a Stylo-infected android because the intercept team took a wrong turn on the way to the house and got there five minutes too late....nobody ever asks to hear those stories. They just expect things to work, to keep flowing the way they always have....”

Alicia broke from the group to stand by Oberon's side, not saying a word.

“I've had years to figure out how to cope with it,” the white-clad chairman continued. “Some would've turned to drink, others to more destructive methods....I choose to be funny.” He gave a weak smile; “It's worked out fabulously so far,” he added, “and even with the few complaints, I can't say I regret it---”

“Don't.”

He glanced at Alicia. “Don't what?”

“Don't you....don't you DARE start this guilt-trip bullshit.” The blonde gynoid looked as if she were about to scream. “All of us—-even Reaver---appreciate what you've done....and even if we have a few complaints about your method, it's just....we want to win this thing just as much as you do. Not in any mean or military sense---”

“I know.....and thank you.” Oberon smiled again, looking decidedly less depressed this time. “It's just....this whole thing has been absolutely insane ever since Hannsen got out, and I've been on frayed nerves for the past month or so anyways---I've needed to get that stuff off my chest for a good long while now.”

Reaver muttered something that sounded like “srry”, earning him an elbow in the gut from Jen.

“I said sorry,” he clarified. “I'm....this whole thing just pisses me off, and....GOD, this sucks.”

The blonde House gynoid rolled her eyes; “Normally, I'd call that the lamest apology I've heard in my life,” she mused, “but considering our current situaton....I'll let the bossman give the final verdict.” She nodded to Oberon. “Your thoughts?”

To Reaver's surprise (and relief), Oberon chuckled. “My desk seems to have cracked in half, but otherwise...”

Any appreciation for the regained sense of calm was lost as the “viewing globe” lit up once again. “Looks like someone's on their way to the lab,” the Major mused. “Actually, strike that---two individuals are on their way to the lab---and they're not exactly going about it quietly...” He stood aside, allowing the others to see two figures bashing through walls and floors alike on their way to the lab. “I think we're going to need to have a talk with someone about subtlety and restraint when this is all over....”

“Agreed,” Oberon replied, not even trying to hide his smile. “For now....let 'em wreck it.”

Part 14

“There are such things as doors, Agent Lawson,” Elena mused, dodging another piece of wall debris flying her way. “We could just as easily reach the Professor going the 'normal' way as we could through here---”

“And miss out on a chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite video games of all time?” Vicki replied, grinning as her myogel-powered punches tore through another wall. “The thirtieth annivesary is next year, y'know---I may have to make arrangement for Jamie and I to go back to the arcade for it....but I'll stop boring you with the details.” She kicked another chunk of the wall out of the way and stepped through the newly-created opening; “You should be lucky this part of the building's empty,” she added, grinning cheerfully.

Elena rolled her eyes. “I think 'luck' is not the word I would use to describe it...”

“Well, at least we're getting closer---I think we might actually be on top of the lab right now. Just give me a second...” Vicki nudged aside a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. “Stand back...”

“You're not going to kick through it, are you ?”

The brunette gynoid grinned.....then stomped on the baseboards in the corner until they began to crack.

“Why do I even bother asking....” The Russian gynoid turned away, shaking her head.

After a minute or so of myogel-powered stomps through the floor, Vicki made a hole big enough to see through from where she stood. “Time to see if anyone's down there...” She knelt above the whole, took a deep breath (out of habit).....

“ANTON! ARE YOU DOWN THERE?!”

From somewhere below: “Vicki?! What are you doing above the lab?!”

“WELL...I FIGURED IT'D BE BETTER TO GET DOWN HERE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE, SO I HAVEN'T BEEN USING DOORS---”

“That would explain the racket I've been hearing for the past half-hour, then...” Even though she couldn't see him, the brunette gynoid could tell Anton was smiling. “You're above the entrance corridor to the laboratory, by the way---which is the only reason why none of us were panicking when we heard the ceiling coming down above our heads---and, for the record, you don't need to yell. The acoustics in here are pretty good as-is, so I can hear you just fine if you talk normally.”

“OKAY, THEN---damnit...thanks for the tip, Anton. So....any chance you could stand back and let me break on through to the----”

“Please don't finish that....I've heard more than enough jokes about that song to last me a lifetime.”

Vicki couldn't help but giggle. “Sorry...it just lends itself to a funny phrase, I guess.” She sighed as she rose to her feet; “Well, Elena,” she mused, “looks like it's time for us to----what?”

“If you say 'make like bodies and hit the floor',” the Russian gynoid muttered, “I may have to kick you.”

“I was going to say that it looks like it's time for us to get down to the lab,” Vicki replied, her annoyed scowl fading into a grin. “Though that 'make like bodies' line does sound pretty stupid.....” She rolled her eyes at the thought, turning her attention back to the hole in the floor. “I have a feeling we won't be needing subtlety for what happens next....”

“Which would be....”

“Dropping through the hole in the floor.”

The Russian gynoid arched an eyebrow, but otherwise stayed calm. “You are sure this tactic will end with us landing on our feet, as opposed to our heads?”

“98.9% positive. I mean, as long as we don't trip, or anything, we should be okay.”

Elena gave another arched eyebrow. “You are worried about tripping? Our reflexes can---”

“I know what our reflexes let us do,” Vicki insisted, “but...it's not the hardware in me that I'm thinking about right now. It's the software.” She hesitated, almost as if she was embarassed to continue; “Ever since Ted gave me the Big Upgrade,” she explained, “I've....this is going to sound stupid, probably, but...I've been trying to be more human. Or at least, to act more human. All the little stuff was tripping me up at first---Ted actually compared it to someone with Asperger's in one of his journals. Making eye contact, showing the appropriate emotional responses, being able to empathize with people, holding a conversation that was actually a real conversation instead of me just throwing out facts...when we had to leave San Jose for a while, after Faceless busted into my room through the window, Ted actually let me read his journals and told me why it was so important for me to be able to integrate with human beings...and after that, it was just like learning how to ride a bike.”

Something about the bluntness of the revelation stunned Elena. “Agent Lawson....Vicki....you....” Without preamble, she stumbled forward and hugged the brunette gynoid. “Ah, okay....I get the whole thing of us being friends now, but....this is a bit random....”

As suddenly as she embraced Vicki, Elena pulled away, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “I...forgive me, Vicki, but your words....Boris and the human---the original Elena Vlatko had the same difficulties with Vladimir, and even I had similar problems after the transfer of my organic self's consciousness into this artificial body....but I had never expected to hear such....moving testimony, first-hand, from a gynoid such as yourself....” She smiled. “Vicki Lawson,” she murmured, “you are the most human gynoid I have ever known.”

It was Vicki's turn to be stunned into silence. “You....mean that?” she finally gasped after a full two minutes.

“I do. Alan Turing himself would never have been able to anticipate a machine---a person like you.”

“But....I nearly killed Hannsen, and I flew off the handle at the Starlet Dolls concert...” Memories of her past failures flooded through the brunette gynoid's thoughts. “I've been afraid ever since I got back from the Dawley mission....I barely even feel like myself anymore---”

Elena Vlatko's hands gripped her by the shoulders, steadying her and shaking her out of the morbid reverie.

“Being human is not about being perfect,” the Russian gynoid intoned. “I know this first-hand---the Elena Vlatko who existed before me, the human Elena---she made many mistakes, all of which are still in my own memories. Boris himself failed time and again....and we did have our arguments about it....but in the end, it is not just our strengths that make us who we are. It is everything---strengths, flaws, hopes, fears, dreams, desires, feelings, friendships...families.....all of these, and so much more, are what make us unique....and what make us human.” She smiled again. “Even if our skins are multiplastic compounds and our bones are titanium.....we are just as human as anyone or anything else.”

“No matter how many times and how many versions of that I hear,” Vicki muttered, “part of me still doesn't want to believe it....” She sighed. “....but this does beat the hell out of being a walking appliance, so....I think I'm okay with being the most human gynoid you've ever met.” Her grin returned. “Ever think about getting a job as a motivational speaker, Elena?”

“I will settle for being a demolitions specialist for now,” the Russian gynoid deadpanned. “Or, as you might say, a 'wrecker'.”

“NICE.” Vicki returned her attention to the hole in the floor... “Oh, and thanks.”

“For what?” Elena asked, a bit taken aback.

“For reminding me that being scared isn't something I should hate about myself. Y'know, I've never really had a heart-to-heart about this sort of thing with anyone else before....well, other than Ted, Tell and Mom once in a while. I....I needed this, to help me get through what comes next.”

“And that would be....”

The brunette gynoid winked. “Doing the sort of things that humans only wish they could do.”

Without another word, V.I.C.I. ran towards the wall, jumped, and angled a kick downwards---smashing through the floor in seconds.

“Vicki Lawson,” Elena murmured, “you truly are one of a kind.” She chuckled for a moment before following her fellow gynoid through the newly-created hole in the floor, landing on her feet a few steps behind the Field Agent. “A shame the ALPA has not been able to get androids and gynoids into the Olympics yet,” she remarked. “That would have earned me at least a silver medal.”

“Time enough to think about that later,” Anton cut in. “You may want to take a look at what we've just found...” He gestured for the gynoids to follow him into the lab proper. “Before either of you ask, the fembot we were able to obtain isn't sentient---and if she ever was, she's too far gone to bring back. That being said...I think we can end this without having to physically destroy each individual fembot---and, quite possibly, we could even re-use their.....bodies.....” He stopped. “I can see this is going to be difficult to discuss without making both of you extremely uncomfortable....”

“No worries,” VICI replied. “We didn't get this far by staying in our comfort zones.”

Anton's intended response died on his tongue. “Well....in that case, ah....” He shook his head. “Forgive me for mentioning it, Vicki, but you seem---”

“Different?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes,” the roboticist managed. “Earlier today you were afraid that you couldn't tell if you were still you, or something along those lines.....and now....”

He felt Vicki's arm around his shoulder. “Now, I've cleared the gap with the help of a good friend.”

There was something in the tone of her voice---not just her usual air of finality, but....confidence, or at the very least a newly-found sense of self-understanding---that effectively silenced Anton's doubts. “Well, in that case,” he beamed, “I think we can continue. Now, the fembot shells----their bodies---can effectively be 'cleared out', or emptied of all programming and reused with compatible A.I.s as long as the bodies themselves are still in good condition. Deploying an EMP wave will leave their A.I.s intact, but trapped in the bodies and still posing a threat---”

“So we need a way to delete their A.I.s without physically attacking them,” Vicki finished.

“We have a way,” Anton corrected. “This captured fembot held one half of a binary algorithm that, on its own, is effectively useless. Since the ground floor is in close enough proximity, however, that half of the algorithm has been transmitting to the fembots still stuck there---effectively reprogramming them.”

Vicki stared at the fembot bound to the slab. “So you've figured out how to use that algorithm against them?”

“We have....but it may take some time to explain, and to give you what you'll need to use it yourself.”

The brunette gynoid grinned. “I don't think time is going to be a problem for us, Professor.”

Part 15

For the fembots on the ground floor, time almost literally had no meaning.

Their reconditioning at the hands of Aaberg (and Hannsen, before he'd given them to the arms dealer) had made them effectively immune to those annoyances like “morality” and “ethics” that would've made it any more difficult to do what they were meant to do. They hadn't been built for the job, technically speaking---all of them had been appropriated from a surpluss owned by Drake Bradford, and Hannsen had never bothered to find out what they'd actually been built for---but they'd stood against the ALPA's finest and emerged unscathed.

At least, most of them had emerged unscathed....but even those who'd sustained damage in the fight were still carrying out their orders.

In the eyes of Björn Aaberg, this made them the perfect army.

In the eyes of the ALPA, this made them victims of a lunatic's warped mind and an arms dealer's fanatic desire for revenge....and unlike Aaberg, who viewed his “perfect army” as a disposable and replacable asset, the ALPA refused to let them go unavenged. Even with the knowledge that “saving” them would mean reducing them to blank slates, it would at least give them a chance to have new lives, new possibilities, given to them.

And, of course, there was the small bonus of their new lives not having any memory of their past “lives”.

None of these thoughts---or any thoughts other than ripping apart the entire building as soon as they received the coded signal to commence---passed through the fembots' processors. As per Aaberg's requests, they were incapable of thinking about anything not related to their pre-programmed objectives...though a subroutine containing the entirity of their sexual programming was allowed to run at the lowest tier on their internal OS, to allow for an “emergency override” if the binary algorithm-based control method somehow failed. Again, it had been Aaberg's idea---if they stopped listening to them, he could easily turn them into an army of sex-crazed dolls with no care in the world other than---

The elevator on the far side of the room pinged.

It would've been quite an interesting sight for anyone to see: every head turning in fluid, precise unison to stare at the opening elevator doors. No wasted motion, no half-second delay---every single fembot moved as one.

When the other elevator door opened, they simultaneously turned their unfeeling gaze that way.

At no point in this bizarre, silent ballet of sorts did any of the fembots even consider the option of having one half of the group look one way, and the other half of the group looking another way. Even this simplest bit of logic was utterly foreign to them---again, thanks to Aaberg's stringent demands, their programming only allowed them to focus on the task at hand....yet, for all his posturing about wanting to take charge of the operation, Aaberg had stupidly forgotten the fundamental of multitasking.

In short, his drive to have the fembots focus only on their objective was about to be their undoing.

The security shutter on the other side of the room clattered upwards; again, every fembot on the ground floor (even those who were nowhere near the thing) turned in the direction of the sound. Had Aaberg been more lenient with their programming, a few of them might've realized that the constant sounds were distractions...

Somewhere above the fembots, a lighting fixture disconnected and fell to the floor. Aaberg's “recommended” programming took over yet again, as the fembots all turned to stare at the fallen object and determine what, if anything, had caused it to fall and whether or not its presence was detrimental to their objective. They had just managed to determine that the light was harmless, and were turning back towards the last sound registered in their memories---but one of them turned a second later than her “sisters”, before falling to the ground in a heap.

A hundredth of a second later, the fembots got the fight they'd waited for.


I almost feel guilty about this....but then again, they don't even realize they're being conned, so there's nothing for me to really feel guilty about.

Vicki didn't mind admitting that she wanted to laugh as she watched the fembots go through the motions of turning to stare at every single sound they heard---she doubted they could grasp the concept that the ground floor could effectively be controlled from the floors higher up in the building. Getting to her current hiding spot under the front desk had been a bit tricky---until the elevators opened.

Anton's team had figured out the flaws in Aaberg's suggested programming and tailored his own counterattack in seconds. The elevator door chime, combined with Vicki's myogel-powered reflexes, allowed the brunette gynoid to drop into the room silently from her hiding spot over the desk and crouch beneath it without even needing to make sure she hadn't been seen. The opening of the second door gave her just enough time to move behind a pillar, flattening herself (as much as she could, at the very least) against it and freeze in place, waiting until the next sound.

By the time the security shutters had finished their noisy ascent, Vicki was in position to take down the first of the fembots---which she did, with all the efficiency expected of an ALPA Field Agent, as soon as the group turned to look at the fallen light fixture. She'd planned out the entire fight---and over a thousand variations on it---in her head before the fembots even knew she was in the room with them....

….and now, it was on.

The mass of spandex-clad fembots swarmed towards her, grabbing at limbs and extremities with the full intent of tearing her apart. Had any of them actually managed to get a hold of her, they might've succeeded; instead, all of them ended up eating hook kicks and wicked uppercuts that sent them reeling to the floor. Their “sisters” wasted no time in stepping over them, closing the gap between themselves and Vicki in mere seconds.

As expected, the brunette gynoid wasted no time in showing her opponents the error of their ways.

Four fembots who'd been trying to pull Vicki's left hand apart by grabbing two fingers each got stunned by a dose of Detaining Grip surging through them, followed soon after by palm strikes to the face. Another fembot, hellbent on tearing off Vicki's hair for reasons unknown, was the recipient of a gut-kick that sent her flying backwards until she hit the wall and stopped moving altogether. Two more fembots, more than likely trying to fracture their target's spine, instead got elbowed in the face---neither of them had time to counter the moves, and as such dropped to the floor soundlessly while their “sisters” continued forward.

Under any other circumstances, Vicki would've been falling back, or maybe even pulling her punches...but thus far, she'd actually been doing less damage than she would in a typical fight.

Besides, I still have my secret weapon to unleash...

Every bit of advice from the past few months---even advice she'd received earlier in the day---came rushing back as Vicki charged into the crowd of fembots, taking them down with moves that wouldn't have looked out of place in a WWE ring or a UFC match. One particularly unlucky fembot was smashed forehead-first into the floor by way of a running hurricanrana, while another got DDT'd into a table; two more were knocked down by a jumping clothesline---with Vicki jumping off the shoulders of another fembot.

She'd expected the fight to get easier, harder or anything in between, but this.....this barely even felt fair.

They're not sentient, the brunette gynoid reminded herself. They're only following their programming, and nothing else. They can't feel pain, they don't have feelings, they don't even have names....they're just tools of their masters.....all they know how to do is destroy and hurt. I'm technically doing them a favor by doing what I'm doing....

…..so why do I feel like I'm about to murder them all?

Her internal doubts about her assignment didn't stop Vicki from continuing the fight---she didn't tone down her attacks, or even consider giving up. Ironically (or appropriately) enough, her decision to keep the fight going proved her right---the fembots refused to stop attacking her even when their numbers were beginning to dwindle.

So it's not murder....it's pest control.

The thought had barely run through Vicki's mind before she realized how wrong that statement was---even though her opponents were single-minded automatons in female form, programmed to cause as much havoc as they could, that hardly qualified them as vermin---and all questions about what it did qualify them as left the gynoid's processors as a flurry of fists and feet pummelled her to the ground, the fembots taking advantage of her distracted state to stomp her to death.

At least, that was the general idea...

In terms of the actual execution of the “stomp Vicki into dust” plan went, the fembots had only succeeded at one goal, and an unintended one at that: they had effectively pissed off their opponent enough for her to abandon all conventional logic. Okay, they have officially crossed the line.....

Seconds after they had grounded the brunette gynoid, the fembots were flung back---and those who weren't ended up being hurled by the feet across the room. The few who could still stand afterwards became the targets of a crimson/white blur that floored each of them in turn with jabs, elbows and palm strikes that no boxer could even hope to compete with. Another fembot tried to grab the blur as it moved, only to be lifted up in a firefighter's carry and slammed into the floor. More and more fembots tried to halt the progress of the humanoid figure that moved around them faster than they could think, only to be dropped before they could see what hit them.

Somehow or other, Vicki expected herself to start feeling sorry for the fembots again, or at least to force herself to remember that they couldn't feel pain...but the fembots themselves were doing a good job of proving that point. More than a few of them, after having been hit with attacks that would've left a human staggering for breath, were back on their feet and running towards the gynoid Field Agent fully intent on ripping her apart however they could.

Yet again, they were knocked back, knocked down and (in a few cases) knocked out.

For what felt like the fiftieth time, the fembots staggered to their feet, fully intent on ripping Vicki limb from limb to eradicate her as a threat. Some of them were finally beginning to show signs that the fight was taking a toll on them, but others were still moving forward as if the fight was just a workout. None of them could've known, or expected, that Vicki was running an internal countdown clock---which, at that moment, was on its last two minutes and would soon run out, allowing the brunette gynoid to finally use the last, most devastating weapon in her arsenal to bring them all down simultaneously. Even if they had known about this little “twist” in the fight, the fembots more than likely would've charged ahead and attacked without hesitation.

Obviously, Vicki was silently thankful that none of them chose the “direct approach”.

They'd be mocking me right now if they were human, she mused, or they'd just try to close the gap and get to me before I did something stupid. The thought of being taunted for her current strategy---which, simply put, boiled down to “backpedal away from them and trigger Anton's latest upgrade”---didn't phase the gynoid Field Agent in the least, nor did the fact that Anton, Elena, and countless others were watching from the upper floors at that very moment. A subroutine in her navigational software notified Vicki that she was at least fifty steps away from backing into a wall; without even blinking, she dismissed the prompt.

In front of her, the fembots waited for the inevitable; behind her, a reinforced wall.

Just a few more seconds left......


“You're sure this will work, Anton?”

The famed roboticist chuckled. “Positive. Even if they can get to her before she activates it, there's no way the fembots can prevent her from triggering my latest upgrade. And before you ask, it won't affect Vicki---I made sure to include every possible safeguard that will keep her systems from getting crisped by it while the fembots get what they so rightly deserve. You should be more worried about what happens after we neutralize them, Mrs. Vlatko...”

Elena scowled, but managed to keep her annoyance in check. “Taking the fight directly to Aaberg will end in tears, Professor Malvineous---”

“You can call me Anton.”

Something about the gentle rebuke took the edge off of Elena's next few words: “You have to understand my feelings on this....Anton.....even if your plan works, and we are able to find Aaberg and Stahl, we have no idea what measures they may take to ensure their own survival. And there is still the matter of Hannsen---”

“Matthew Emmerich Hannsen,” the sonorous voice of Inspektor 12 declared, “is still confined to a hospital bed, and is only involved in this sordid affair because he has friends in shady places. As far as this particular mission goes, the Maestro is a non-entity. We're going after Stahl and Aaberg when this is over with, and Hannsen can just sit in his hosital bed and collect dust ---trying to pin any of this on him at this point would be utterly ridiculous....not to mention a waste of resources and time.”

“Besides,” Anton added, “Vicki's got the fembots on the ropes right now.” Had it not been for the fact that all present knew the fembots weren't sentient, the twinkle in the roboticist's eye would've been significantly more ominous than it was eccentric.

It's times like these I'm glad we're on the same side, Elena reminded herself.


Somewhere, somebody is playing “The Final Countdown”.....and if it's Jamie, I'll kick him in the shin.

Even with her internal countdown clock ticking away the seconds, Vicki couldn't help but grin about her current situation---the fembots had no idea that, rather than backing her into a corner, they were, in all actuality, setting themselves up for a massive failure. And I ddn't even need to do anything more than back awy from them....

Her navigational software kicked in once more with a notification that the wall behind her was now less than two feet away. Good---let them think I'm trapped. All the better for me. By the time Vicki felt her hand brush up against the wall, the fembots were less than five feet from her, prompting flashbacks to the ending of the “Thriller” video. Except none of them are pop stars, she mused, and I hope I never have to face the Starlet Dolls in a situation like this....


“Is she going to activate it or what?” Elena whispered. “They're closing in around her---”

“She'll activate it,” Anton assured her. “Just give her time...”

Inspektor 12 nodded his agreement. “If she was just dealing with this, I'd be impressed, but after everything else she's been through today.....”

“She has been under tremendous stress,” Elena mused. “Especially with Faceless' WiFi attacks---”

A frantic gesture from Anton prompted her to stop talking. “She's about to trigger it. Dear Mother of Christ, she's actually about to trigger it....” He made a quick sign of the cross, muttering under his breath and clasping his hands together.

All Elena could do was watch, and wait....and hope.


Five.....four.....three.....two.....one.........

One of the fembots' hands brushed up against Vicki's shoulder---

---and in that instant, she opened her mouth and screamed.

To the human ear, there wasn't any actual sound to be heard---it was as if she'd simply opened her mouth and was now pantomiming the act of shouting. Indeed, any human being who might've been present would've been able to observe the moment without feeling so much as a slight headache.

To the fembots, however.....

…..the scream was hell.

Anton's upgrade had given Vicki a subsonic transmission that, by itself, wouldn't have harmed even a toaster oven---or any other gynoid or android running any other operating system, even if they'd been pushed to the breaking point the way these fembots had. The upgrade did, however, allow Vicki to effectively turn the binary algorithm that the fembots used to receive their programming against them, overloading their processors with conflicting instructions and data that, quite simply, drove them insane. Coupled with the tortures Aaberg and Hannsen had put them through, their mental framework simply collapsed under the strain.

A few seconds later, they physically collapsed as well.

What transpired next wasn't so much an epic battle as it was a cleanup operation---with the structural analysis of the fembots' cranial modules having been completed in-house by Anton and his team, Vicki had no problem moving from one fembot to the next, popping their heads open and removing their internal processors and flash-memory backups.

From start to finish, the entire thing took well under five minutes to complete.

It took even less time for the “All Clear” signal to be sent throughout the building.

Anton, Inspektor 12 and Elena arrived ten minutes later, expressing their approval that the fembots had been taken care of without further physical damage. “I have to hand it to you, Vicki,” Elena mused, “I think you may have outdone yourself in terms of.....how do you say it....epicness.”

The brunette gynoid grinned. “Just doing my job.”

“And mine,” Anton chimed in. “That upgrade really did the trick, didn't it? Every single one of them, dropping like stones at the same time....truly incredible. Restoring their internal BIOS shouldn't be a problem, and once Wyss and Faber can finish working on the new OS software for them....” He chuckled. “Vicki, you've made the ALPA proud.”

“She'll get another chance to make them proud once we get to Aaberg and Stahl,” Inspektor 12 began, only for a trilling from his pocket to cut him off. “Probably just Oberon calling to make sure we're okay....y'ello?”

Vicki glanced around at the fembot bodies being picked up and loaded onto handcarts. “So...what happens to them now?” she quietly asked Anton. “I mean....I've got all the chips removed, so they're pretty much...empty at the moment...but scrapping them just seems like sort of a waste. I mean, Oberon did come up with a plan for what to----” A half-choked gasp from behind Anton ended the discussion rather abruptly. “Something wrong, Inspektor?” Vicki inquired.

It took her a minute to realize that the mumbled reply included the words “diversion” and “break-in”.

“You'll have to speak up,” Anton began, only to be stopped by the brunette gynoid. “Vicki, we need to—-”

“He said the attack was a diversion,” V.I.C.I. stated. “He also mentioned something about a break-in.”

The bluntness of the reply was enough to stun the roboticist into a brief silence. “You're sure?”

“Positive. And I remember you mentioning that we were going to go after Stahl and Aaberg as soon as I neutralized the fembots....so what better time to leave than now?” Vicki allowed herself a smirk. “Besides, I'd hate to let Björney the Dinosaur think he was getting off scott-free after all he's done...”

Anything Anton could've said was cut off by a moan from Inspektor 12. “There's....more,” he croaked.

“More what?”

“Rescued units.....the ones from Dawley.....they've been taken.”

Those last three words wiped any trace of a smile off of Vicki's face. “Taken where?”

“Can't tell for sure....the truck....two fembots at the wheel....one redhead, one brunette....broke the driver's legs and threw him out.” The Inspektor shook his head. “They broke through the garage door when they drove out,” he added. “We can use the tracker to follow them---”

“Except all the vehicles in the garage were disabled,” Anton cut in, frowning. “The EMP fried the electics---”

Vicki held up a hand to silence him. “Didn't you say you had a hydrogen-powered truck in a shielded sub-floor of the garage a few weeks ago?”

Anton's only response was a torrent of profanities and stomping.

“Not to worry, Professor. If the truck is ALPA issue, we can still track it....and if we can track it, I can catch up to it, and I think you get the idea of how things are going to go from there.” Vicki steered Anton to a chair and let him sit down; “We'll get this done, Anton,” she assured him. “Even if it takes us all week, we'll find the truck and rescue the androids in it. We haven't come this far to stop now---”

“I know,” Anton hissed. “I just...they were all supposed to be locked in the lobby. How did those two---”

“Get past security shutters, locked doors and enough alarm systems to make Fort Knox look like a common piggy bank?” Oberon's voice called out. “I have a few theories of my own, but none of them are important right now.” The man himself strode over to join the group. “Very nice job with that scream attack, Agent Lawson, if I do say so myself....speaking of selves, I assume your sense of self is fully intact after the WiFi assault you've been forced to endure at the hands of the Butcher of Lake Gilmour?”

A few seconds of silence passed before Vicki replied: “Whatever he was hoping to accomplish with me, it didn't work. I know who I am, what I'm here to do and what my limits are...and I wouldn't change anything about it if I could.” She smiled. “But enough reminiscing for now....I think it's time we make sure Silicon Valley doesn't get turned into a valley of the damned before the night is through---with your permission, Mr. Chairman.”

Oberon returned the brunette gynoid's smile with one of his own. “Granted.”

“Thanks. Think you could spare a few of our expert Field Agents for this op, or should I try to go it alone for the time being?”

“I'll have a team put together within seven minutes.”

“Fair enough. And one other thing......can someone get me a motorcycle? I don't really ride horses....”

The ALPA chairman couldn't help but laugh. “I think that can be arranged.”

Part 16

To put it very mildly, Anders Stahl was not impressed.

Nor was he amused, happy, willing to forgive those whose shortcomings had led to this less-than-auspicious moment---all things considered, the only state of mind he should've been in was one of near homicidal rage, especially at his would-be colleague, Björn Aaberg.

And speaking of Björn.....

“HE SWINDLED US! THE SLIME! HANNSEN HAS RUINED US ALL!” A computer console hit the floor with a mighty crash, the end result of Aaberg planting a kick into its side and giving it as much “push” as humanly possible. “I have been ruined before, by many incompetent men and women, but NEVER have I been so ROYALLY FU---”

“Enough,” Stahl intoned. “The fembots failed us, Aaberg. Hannsen---”

“HANNSEN WILL HANG FOR THIS!” Aaberg kicked over another computer console. “I will see to it that his life support is terminated instantaneously! He will never know peace and.....” His rant trailed off as he saw Stahl pointing a Walther P99 at him. “What....what is this?”

The banking guild manager's face was as emotionless as his voice. “Matthew Emmerich Hannsen has been a colleague of mine for the past few months,” he informed Aaberg, “and it was my money that allowed him to be taken to hospital as soon as possible after the...injuries he sustained. While I am not personally friends with him, I am bound by a mutual working contract to ensure that he survives any and all potentially life-threatening events, be they accidental or intentional---and as such, I will not allow you to continue threatening to 'pull the plug' on him.” He dabbed at his left eye with his free hand; “As valuable as your patronage has been, Björn,” he added, “there are many arms dealers and hitmen in the world....but there is only one Matthew Emmerich Hannsen. I believe you can figure out where this goes next on your own.”

“You....would kill me for some slime----”

Aaberg reflexively flinched---even though the shot wasn't anywhere close to hitting him, he knew all too well how easy it was for warning shots to “miss”. “The next remark you make should be an apology,” Stahl warned, “otherwise I may find my aim drifting a bit higher than that last shot.”

“We are friends, Stahl!” Aaberg hissed. “Allies! How can you---”

“Allies and friends can be replaced, Björn, but a man like Matthew Hannsen is worth more to me than an entire arsenal of your most powerful ordnance. I do not need your weapons any more than I need you to device a cure for cancer. You have been.....useful, over these past few months---”

“USEFUL?! I have been useful to you---”

A trail of heat and smoke blazed past Aaberg's left ear. “Do not interrupt me again,” Stahl intoned.

“Stahl,” the hitman pleaded, “listen to me. These people, the ALPA---they are trying to turn us against each other for their own gains. They want us to kill each other---”

“Nobody wants us to kill each other, Aaberg,” Stahl calmly replied. “And I do not care what the ALPA may want or what they do not want. I work for a much higher power than them, as does Matthew Hannsen---and in the eyes of my colleagues, Hannsen and myself are worth a thousand of you....and with that, I humbly suggest that you stop trying to bribe me into giving or doing whatever it is you want.” He turned on his heel. “As of this moment, Björn Aaberg, we are finished. I will find other hitmen and other arms dealers....you, on the other hand---”

The safety of an Astra 400 pistol clicked off somewhere behind Stahl's head.

“You do not make the demands anymore,” Aaberg growled. “You do NOT order me around like some common thug, Stahl---and YOU DO NOT DECLARE OUR PARTNERSHIP OVER UNTIL I SAY IT IS OVER! If your colleagues value your life so much, then perhaps they will---”

In less time than Aaberg could blink, the Astra 400 was shot out of his hand.

“I believe you would do well to avoid making puerile threats from this point on,” Stahl informed him, as two female figures stepped forward from the shadows behind him. “I'm told that my new associates have never missed a target before....and given your rather precarious position at the moment, I advise against testing that claim with any further provocations.” He nodded to one of the girls, who handed over a thick Manilla envelope retrieved from the trenchcoat draped loosely over her lithe frame; “This,” Stahl continued, “is the first of your generous severance package. You will receive twice the amount next month, and three times as much the month after, along with smaller weekly bonuses.”

Feeling inferior had always made Aaberg uncomfortable, and even though he never would've admitted it out loud, the sight of his “severance package” in Stahl's hands made him feel utterly useless. “And what have I done to deserve your....generosity?” he finally asked, choosing his words carefully.

“What you will do,” Stahl corrected, “is stay out of the affairs of the ALPA from this point forward, unless given orders to do otherwise. My other colleauges may yet have use for you, Aaberg...and even though our own working relationship must end, I do not feel it necessary to 'put you in the poorhouse'.” He flashed a brief, thin-lipped smile. “Despite all thoughts to the contrary, you have, in fact, done an admirable job thus far...apart from a few small mis-steps.”

“Then let me repair the damage I have done!” Aaberg insisted.

Stahl shook his head. “It is too late for that.” He slid the envelope across the floor, watching as it hit Aaberg's foot. “You have your own objective now---there is a contingent of ALPA troops inbound to our location. My colleagues would greatly appreciate it if you could prevent them from following my lovely associates...” He gestured to the girls again.

“You told me I was to stay out of the ALPA's affairs,” the arms dealer protested. “This is---”

“This is your final encounter with them before that order becomes official,” Stahl finished. “I would appreciate it greatly if you did not force me to do something...rash, to handle this on my own terms....”

Even as the feeling of inferiority began seeping into his mind once again, Aaberg realized there was nothing he could do to turn the situation around to his own benefit. “If it is enough to ensure that we at least can part on good terms, I will see to it that they do not catch up with your associates,” he replied. “You have my word that the ALPA---”

“I prefer actions to words, Aaberg. You, of all people, should understand this by now.”

“Of course, of course....and I will take the necessary actions to do as you have asked.” Even with the near-genetic aversion to begging that he'd had throughout his life, Björn Aaberg was more than happy to debase himself before Stahl if it meant the difference between a severance package and a bullet to the back of the head. “When will they arrive?”

“In a matter of minutes, more than likely.” Stahl checked his watch. “I cannot be here when they arrive....”

The two managed to have another three minutes of small talk, though neither of them actually paid any mind to what was being said. The important thing, for both of them, was that neither man was in any true position of power over the other for the moment---until Stahl left the building, he and Aaberg were still technically equals.

Neither of them knew how insignificant that would be in around 30 minutes.


In the room outside of Stahl and Aaberg's “meeting area”, Celine debated whether or not she should laugh, groan or just go back to reading Mick Foley's autobiography (one of the only books in the room with all of its pages still intact, for some stupid reason).

The tableau between the banking guild manager and the arms dealer/hitman had been boring from the get-go, with all of the usual melodrama of such discussions whenever “old friends” were on the verge of any sort of falling-out. Aaberg, obviously, was a man desperate to cling to power---even going so far as to beg Stahl to not lock him out of the loop---and Stahl, meanwhile, only had as much power as his superiors were willing to let him have. Had either of them attempted a similar stunt within The House......

Celine shook her head, forcing herself to abandon that particular line of thought.

Current events notwithstanding, The House had always managed to handle its affairs with the bare minimum of fuss. Even the incident with Oberon and Celeste---an event that, until Celeste's “exit”, had been spoken of in hushed tones---ended up being written off as a one-time tiff between the two, nothing more. By contrast, the situation between Aaberg and Stahl was a shameless, stupid pantomime between two equally-inept parties; the only real difference between the two was that Stahl managed to maintain some level of decorum (even when he'd drawn the Walther), whereas Aaberg was so pathetically dependant on Stahl that he'd almost tripped over his own words trying to keep the man there.

Absolutely, utterly pathetic.

Her thoughts safely pushed away from the Houses indiscretions, Celine focused on what---or, to be more specific, who---would be arriving on Aaberg's doorstep within the hour. The ALPA, despite nearly losing their own building to an attacking army of hostile fembots, had already marshalled the troops and would be closing in on everyone Hannsen had involved in his plans---including Aaberg. Stahl would escape, as always, but the arms dealer was, to put it bluntly, royally screwed.

A few minutes into the “negotiations” between the two men, Celine abandoned the autobiography and pulled out an arcade gaming 'zine that had managed to thrive even in the age of digital publication. Apparently, 2012 would mark the 30th anniversary of one rather iconic title from the 80s, Fi---

[Yo, sis, you awake?]

Only the memory of her mental connection to all of her House sisters kept the gynoid from falling out of the chair. [I am now. Why are you calling me, Alicia---]

[The cavalry's on its way, and they've got Vicki with them.]

The mention of Vicki Lawson prompted a raised eyebrow from Celine. [After all she's been through, they're letting her take part in this op?]

[If they tried keeping her at the base, she'd go insane. She needs to be out there, Cel.]

[Fair enough...though all Alicias are supposed to be on leave.]

[Unless the Alicia in question just rolled out today. I haven't had any PTSD yet, if you're wondering---]

[That's not the point. I....oh, forget it. Just tell me this: Is she stable?]

[Stable enough to balance an egg on her forehead. She'll get the job done, Cel...trust me on that.]

Celine sighed as the call ended; I hope you're right, sister. For all our sakes, I really hope you're right....

Fortunately for Celine, Alicia VI's hopes would, indeed, prove to be right.

Part 17

"And how many at the gates? Twelve? Right...they shouldn't be a problem." V.I.C.I. thumbed off the switch on the walkie-talkie, turning to glance at her fellow Field Agents. "Looks like we're going in with full ordnance," she informed them. "No SCEMP rounds this time---Aaberg's 'enhanced' soldiers have already been taken care of, so we'll probably just be dealing with grunts and the cleanup crew."

"Sounds a little too easy," Reaver scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Knowing Aaberg, he's got a tank waiting for us---"

Jen's light punch on the arm put an end to any potential discussions on how to fight off a full-sized tank.

V.I.C.I. shook her head at the notion of Field Agents going up against an Abrahms; the thought of a paranoid arms dealer wheeling out an Army tank just to take care of a few pesky intruders did seem a bit silly, if not downright stupid. "Even if he did have a tank," she mused, "it wouldn't be any problem for us." She fought the urge to smile at how....specific that statement was: at least, it wouldn't be a problem for me---no offense to Reaver or the rest of the crew, but I don't think they'd be able to handle something like this on their own.

"So, I guess we can rule out calling in an airstrike, then?" Saturn called from the back of the Rhino (the only vehicle from the EMP-afflicted garage that still ran, much to the chagrin of Major Tom). "Just saying---"

"No air strikes, Saturn. We do this one the old-fashioned way---sweep and clear."

The brunette gynoid paused, reflecting on how much more....sterile that term sounded than the old expression: "search and destroy". "Anyone here wants to back out," she added, dismissing the lingering thoughts about using "sweep and clear" instead of "search and destroy" from her mind, "you've got fifteen minutes to get off the bus and find a way back to HQ."

Predictably, none of the Field Agents felt like walking back to base from where they were.

One particular individual said nothing----and, in fact, had gone for the entire ride without saying so much as a single word to anyone else riding in the Rhino. The Man in Grey had joined the group without any fanfare, and (as far as V.I.C.I. could tell) without any particular reason other than to see the operation through to the bitter end...or whatever sort of end it met. He hadn't said a word since boarding the vehicle, and while the other Agents engaged in small talk and swapped jokes, the Man simply sat there, silently, as the ride went on.

Somehow, I don't think I want to know what he's thinking right now, V.I.C.I. realized.

The last time she'd worked in any close proximity to the Man in Grey before the Dawley mission had, until her death at Faceless' hands, been the most traumatic ordeal in her life---the Man had effectively saved her from being assaulted by the Human Animal, aka John Lee Lassiter---the derranged protege of the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. According to the ALPA, however, the Man's actions crossed the line between acceptable behavior and criminal action, especially when he'd attacked Lassiter with a steak knife---which ended up in Lassiter's hands, almost becoming a murder weapon when he tried to decapitate the Man with it. And he got fired for trying to save me, she recalled, because Oberon was....what, scared of him?

She decided not to dwell on that possibility for the rest of the drive.

After ten more minutes of riding in relative silence, the team reached the service road that would lead them to the bulding Aaberg had taken over as his "stronghold". Unless the intel had been compromised before the Field Agents received it, the building's defenses were....minimal, at best; Aaberg had more than likely decided to cut his losses, move all of his best men to another facility and send whatever equipment he could pilfer with them.

Not before leaving a few nasty surprises for any investigating agents, of course....

With that thought in her mind, V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes and waited for the Rhino to come to a stop.

The group that exited the armored vehicle was in the mood for a fight---many of the Field Agents had been hiding in Oberon's hidden office for well over an hour, and even those who'd been to SJSU were ready for another epic battle. All of them were packing weapons that would put most of Aaberg's minions in hospital, if not in the ground; as V.I.C.I. herself had mentioned earlier, SCEMP ordnance was useless against the thugs they were going up against.

Of course, there was the small problem of ending the engagement without bloodshed.....

DuBraul and Oberon hadn't said it outright, but it was obvious that neither wanted the Field Agents' assault on the facility Aaberg was currently hiding in to turn into a bloodbath---which meant Reaver's request for an M-60 was doomed from the start. Of course, they also knew the value of giving the Agents the tools they needed, so everyone on this particular op was rolling out with Walthers, batons and stun grenades---and one shotgun.

As for V.I.C.I., she had her own surprises in store for Aaberg's crew. Even with most of them being non-lethal, she could still pack quite an effective punch.

"Right," Reaver declared, "I say we take the front entrance and---what, Hummingbird?! We went over the plan on the way here, and everyone agreed that it was the best way to breach!" He glared at his fellow Field Agent, waiting for her (and indeed almost daring her) to make an excuse. "If this is about your 'go in through the roof idea," he scoffed, "I'm not doing it. We try to breach through the roof, and---"

A red-and-white gloved hand clasped his shoulder. "She has a point, Reaver."

Despite the fact that he felt more like screaming his head off now than anything else, the veteran Field Agent stayed calm. "And why can't we just breach the front door?!" he countered.

"If we did," V.I.C.I. replied, "Aaberg would have every gun in the building trained on us. The roof---"

"The roof is probably mined, or structurally weakened at any spot we could land on, or at the very least under heavy surveilance," Reaver cut in, ticking off the weak points of the "breach the roof" plan on his fingers. "If we go in through the front---especially if we bust in with the Rhino---we can draw their fire, make them waste every shot they could've used on us and then cut the bastards down with return fire. And even if I've never actually tried it myself, the theory is sound---at least seven other Field Agent teams before this one have used that exact maneuver, or some variation of it, to breach hostile territory and get the job done. If anything, the roof breach should be our last resort---"

"As opposed to storming in and getting ourselves killed?" the Man in Grey murmured.

Several of the other Agents nearly screamed when the Man spoke---many of them had actually forgotten he was on the team. "With all due respect," Reaver sighed, "I don't exactly know why you chose to contradict my point of a front-entrance breach being the best way to---"

"It's the best way to die," the Man rasped. "Simple as that."

"Which is why we aren't breaching the front entrance," V.I.C.I. reiterated. "We have enough Field Agents here for 3 regulation ALPA breach teams---five each---and one three-person recon team, and I have a plan that will allow them to do what they do best without getting their heads shot off. Everyone who wants to take part, pay attention and save all questions until the end of the lecture. Everyone else, feel free to get back on the Rhino and come up with your own plan."

After giving the brunette gynoid a minute-long death glare, Reaver stayed put.

V.I.C.I. gave him a small nod. "Right. Now that we're all on the same page...."

She grinned. ".....here's how we're going to beat Aaberg at his own stupid game."


Five minutes after the Agents had convened behind their armored transport, the team split into the groups that had been suggested during their meeting. Three crews of five Agents each moved out from behind the Rhino to cover three points of a Defensive Diamond formation---one on each side of the Rhino, and one in front. The remaining three-man team made their way past the group in front, disappearing into the darkness leading to Aaberg's stronghold.

"You're positive this idea of yours will work?" Reaver whispered.

"If I wasn't," V.I.C.I. replied, "we'd be going with the next best plan."

"Which would be...."

"Strafing the building with a gunship."

Reaver shook his head, realizing that he, himself, might've been the one to suggest such a stupid plan just a few minutes prior. "I'm guessing you already know why that's a terrible idea, Agent Lawson..."

"I do. Just like you knew that breaching the front of the building would've been a near-suicidal course of action if we'd gone through with it." The brunette gynoid's expression softened; "For the record," she added quietly, her monotone sounding just a bit less cold, "if it were me in your position, trying to suggest a plan I was sure would do the trick---"

"I get the picture. Just...focus on the op, Agent Lawson. I want this to be over with ASAP."

"That makes two of us....Agent Reaves."

Anything Reaver could've said was drowned out by a burst of static from the walkie-talkie from its spot in the holster on his belt. "Recon Team is in position," the Man in Grey rasped. "The service entrances on the east and west sides of the building are unguarded...externally, at least. Could be rigged from the inside---"

"Recon team, hold position." V.I.C.I. thumbed off her own walkie, turning to glance a t the breach teams. "If anyone wants to check the east and west service entrances....." She didn't even have to finish the sentence before the other two teams swept past her, preparing to examine and/or breach the apparent weak points in Aaberg's "impenetrable" defenses. "The side entrances are probably trapped," she muttered, more to herself (both teams had already passed her up and were well on their way to the apparently unguarded doors) than anyone else. "And they don't even stop to let me tell them why they should wait until the recon team finishes its sweep...."

"Waiting only makes it easier for Aaberg to guess our next move," Jen Larsen chimed in. "Going in fast is a far better strategy than hanging back and waiting for someone else to give a signal---besides, something tells me that you'd be the one in support of running in if you were in their place...."

V.I.C.I. stared at her for a few minutes before nodding.

"Then you know why we need them in there now...and why waiting is a luxury we can't afford."

"I do....and I also know that this op is probably going to be the last mission for at least one or two Field Agents. I don't want anyone getting sent to their deaths needlessly, Hummingbird....I've seen enough of that to last me a dozen lifetimes."

Jen nodded solemnly. "You have my word that I'll do my best not to die, Agent Lawson," she replied.

"Good---I'll do my best not to let you die. Ready to head into the breach....Jen?"

"I think the answer to that question goes without saying....Vicki."

Part 18

Considering the ease with which the ALPA breach teams were able to do their jobs and breach the service entrance, the idiots guarding the eastern entrance of the facility would've been better off staying home from work on that particular day.

As it stood, they were getting their butts handed to them without even realizing it---for ten minutes, at least.

Jonathan "Dash" Dashiel Cornell (who never used his real last name anymore, preferring the shortened form of Dashiel), better known to his colleagues as Saturn, had no problem choking out a guard and lowering him to the ground quietly, just as Agent Kylie Lyndon---aka Corona---had no problem removing the security cameras from the equation by way of slapping handheld EMP pulsers (aka "jammy dodgers", due to their similarity in size and shape to the popular British snack food) onto each camera, waiting a few seconds until she heard the unmistakable sizzle, and then moving to the next camera.

Of course, neither of them held a candle to the Man in Grey.

Five guards ended up being sent into a quick, dreamless sleep as the Man took each of them out in turn, with the last not even having time to blink before he sank into unconsciousness. "All clear on this end," the masked former bodyguard called out (though his voice still carried that unnerving rasp). "Check the door on your side."

Corona and Saturn managed to cross the room in a matter of seconds, each of them taking great care to not step on any of the unconscious guards or knock anything over. The two Agents then examined the door frame for any hidden traps, tripwires or recording equipment---and found none. "It's clean," Saturn stated, "but it looks like someone took something out, instead of put something in....and the frame's hollow enough to hold enough Semtex to clear out the entire room..." Corona spoke up before Saturn could continue: "I think this place was pre-rigged before Aaberg and his crew moved in, and they cleaned it out."

"Not surprising," the Man in Grey muttered. "Check in with the western breach team..."


"DAMNIT TO HELL, I TOLD YOU TO HOLD YOUR FIRE!"

Major Tom's shout fell upon deaf ears---mainly because he, like the Field Agent he was screaming at, had one finger on the trigger of his newly-acquired Colt Commando (taken off of one of the guards) and was squeezing the trigger to unleash a shower of bullets at every non-human enemy target in the room. "When we get back to base---" He paused in his growling to smash a guard across the head with the butt-end of the Commando, sending him to the floor in a heap---"I am going to duct-tape you to a chair and---"

"Save the gun-safety lectures for later," Sarina Meston---aka Wyvern---called out. "You would've done the same thing he just did in your position, Major---" She whirled on her heel and knocked out another guard with an open-palm strike to the chest. "---and to be honest, I think you're enjoying this."

His current pissed-off state notwithstanding, the Major did find himself having a bit too much fun with what was happening around him. Training missions, sims and written exams had nothing on the real thing----and as it just so happened, the real thing felt more exhilarating than any video game, Michael Bay movie or roller coaster on the planet. Even with live fire zipping around him like gnats from Hell, the ex-NASA operative could almost honestly say that, at that exact moment.....

....he actually felt like he was having fun.

Of course, the "fun" mostly came from shooting up everything that wasn't human-shaped---at any moment, a stray shot could easily turn the whole thing into a bloodbath. Fortunately, even with the guards showing off aiming skills that would make any Imperial stormtrooper look like a Marine sniper, nobody was getting hit.

Sometimes, when the planets are alligned just right......I really love my job.

With a grin that brought back memories of arcade jaunts long gone, the Major opened fire on a Dell Inspiron.


"East breach team has cleared their room," Jen informed her fellow Field Agents. "Also, the Man in Grey left the recon team and joined the east breach team...should we---"

"We'll thank him for it when we regroup," V.I.C.I. replied. "They need all the help they can get."

Her next sentence (or intended sentence) was cut off by a throat-clearing noise from Reaver; "Ah, not that it's bothering me or anything, Agent Lawson," he muttered, "but....you've been talking in your robot voice ever since we got off the Rhino and, ah.....I was just wondering if....." He scratched the back of his head. "Are you, ah, feeling okay about all of this, or should I call HQ---"

Reaver's awkward inquiries were silenced by a very human chuckle from the brunette gynoid. "I was starting to think nobody had noticed," she teased, an oddly playful lilt to her synthetic monotone. "To be honest with you, Eric, I've been trying to keep my mind focus on the analytical aspects of what we're about to do. Talking like this helps me to distance myself from what's about to happen, to keep me from making it personal...and besides that, this voice has kind of....grown on me, even though it reminds me of my 'walking appliance' days."

The veteran Field Agent rolled his eyes. "I figured there was a reason you've been talking like that...and for the record, you sound a hell of a lot better than my answering machine."

"I'll take that as a compliment, Agent Reaves. In the meantime, we should try to contact the others and see if they've made any progress." V.I.C.I. turned her attention to Jen; "Have the breach teams reported in since moving into position?" she inquired.

"The east team's cleared their room out," the blonde gynoid replied. "As for the others..."

V.I.C.I. didn't bother waiting for an answer. "They probably tripped an alarm when they went to breach the door," she muttered, shaking her head. "I'd be surprised if they hadn't triggered something---no offense to them, but a few of them don't exactly have spotless records for entering without triggering alarms."

Jen and Reaver exchanged amused looks. "And you read their files...how?" Reaver querried.

"I asked for them before we left HQ. Took me about fifteen minutes to go through them all."

Anything Reaver could've said was drowned out by a burst of static and odd popping noises from his walkie-talkie. "That'll be the west breach team," he began, only to wince as something on the other end of the line went off like a cooler full of fireworks. "GET THAT FIRE UNDER CONTROL, DAMNIT!" Major Tom's voice screamed. "GET SOMETHING ON THAT---" A loud crash drowned out whatever he said next, and was followed up soon after by a torrent of profanities.

"Everything going okay, Major?" V.I.C.I. deadpanned.

"---have to---DAMNIT, I SAID PUT IT OUT!" An exasperated sigh registered in the brunette gynoid's hearing just a split-second before the Major spoke: "We're gonna need to have a talk with the rookies about firearm safety when we get back to HQ. One of them decided to go all John Rambo as soon as we got in---"

"Save the details for later. Is the room secure?"

A loud hiss---instantly recognizable as a fire extinguisher being emptied---was the only reply V.I.C.I. received.

"Major Tom, is the room secure----"

"Yes, the freaking room is secure. We're just finishing off all the computer equipment in here---" A burst of gunfire erupted somewhere in the background. "We're just nuking the computers," the Major continued, "so Aaberg's little operation won't be recovering any time soon after this is all over with."

"I....don't recall being given permission to 'nuke the computers', Major," V.I.C.I. countered. "You were told to secure the room, open the access gates to allow the final breach team into the building and regroup with the rest of the Field Agents. While your....exuberance is admirable---" Another loud hiss, followed by something erupting into sparks, sounded in her ears. "While your exuberance is admirable," she continued, "I'm afraid we may need to talk about handling this with a bit more...subtlety."

Her words were met with another torrent of profanity (probably directed at the other Agents) and the angry roar of a fire gone too far out of control to extinguish by conventional means. "PUT IT OUT! PUT THE G__DAMN FIRE OUT NOW----"

"Is this a bad time, Major? I can always call back...."

"No, no, we're good...." The sounds of computers going up in showers of sparks and smoke from the other end of the line made it clear that things weren't "good", but since nobody was yelling that they were on fire, the brunette gynoid decided to let the Major continue. "We just need a few more seconds to get the door open."

V.I.C.I. couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Fair enough. My team will be waiting." She thumbed off the walkie and sighed; "We may need to talk to a few of the newer Agents about firearm safety when this is over with," she informed Reaver and Hummingbird. "Apparently, one of them thought they were auditioning for a remake of Demolition Man and started shooting as soon as they entered the room---which, by no small coincidence, has basically wrecked Aaberg's customer database beyond all hope of repair."

Reaver nodded his approval. "I'm guessing even Hiren's wouldn't be enough to save those things, then?"

The inquiry prompted an elbow to the side from Hummingbird and an eye-roll from V.I.C.I.; she'd used Hiren's Boot CD on several of her own PCs over the years, and Ted had pulled a dozen or so "Lazarus jobs" on various Lawson family machines with it as well...but not even Hiren's could restore a bullet-riddled hard drive.

A remark to that effect was nearly formed on V.I.C.I.'s lips, but interrupted by the telltale static "squawk" of her walkie; "THE DOOR'S OPEN!" Major Tom bellowed. "WE GOT THE DAMN DOOR OPEN, BUT THE FIRE SUPPRESSANT SYSTEM---TURN IT OFF, MCGINNIS!" Someone in the background sputtered, and a quietly-muttered oath could be heard even through the row on the other end. "We were able to get the door open," the Major continued, "but the damn stupid fire suppressant system kicked on, and now we're all knee-deep in the foam! Get the other breach team to meet up with us in the central access corridor so we can all breach the main---G__DAMNIT, MCGINNIS, I SAID TURN IT OFF, NOT TURN IT UP! WHAT THE HELL---"

"Guess that means we can go in now," the brunette gynoid deadpanned, thumbing off the walkie again. "If anyone wants to be the first to meet the Major at the door and ask why the fire suppressant system kicked on after the door controls were activated...." Hummingbird and Reaver exchanged amused looks, but said nothing. "Thought so. Reaver, call the east breach team and tell them we're ready to move in when they are."

As Reaver retrieved his own walkie-talkie, V.I.C.I. couldn't help but wonder how Björn Aaberg was going to feel in a few minutes' time. Two security checkpoints had just been disabled, his entire customer/product database had been utterly ruined, and a team of highly-skilled Field Agents was about to kick in his door for reasons that, more than likely, he could never comprehend. If it had been anyone else, at any other time, the brunette gynoid might have felt sorry for them. Seeing as how Aaberg had literally handed Hannsen the weapon he'd used to murder Sharon Wilson, however....it was just a bit too difficult for V.I.C.I. to come anywhere close to feeling sympathy for the man.

"Agent Lawson? The breach teams are in position."

The words of her fellow Field Agent snapped V.I.C.I. out of her reverie. "Then let's not keep them waiting."

With one last glance back at the Rhino---and the San Jose skyline behind it---V.I.C.I.'s team were on their way.


Within the deepest recesses of his "borrowed" compound---which, all things considered, weren't as "deep" as the erstwhile owner of the place would've preferred---Björn Aaberg tried to pull hiomself out of the feeling that had risen up, like a churning tide of bile, in his gut: sheer, unfettered, indescribable panic.

Audio/visual feeds from the east and west checkpoints near the front of the facility were down. Explosions had been resounding throughout the compound for well over thirty minutes. Several of his troops still hadn't called in at their usual check-in times. On top of all that, two of his best operatives were still missing after their "little jaunt" to San Jose State University, and a third might've actually been killed during the attack on the central headquarters of that damned ALPA organization.

Even worse, there was the fact that someone had plowed through the front gates of the compound.....

Somehow, despite all signs that he was more than likely about to be either arrested, executed or buried in the rubble of his so-called "fortress", Aaberg was ready. He'd been ready ever since Stahl's little "visit" to him earlier, ever since the naked threat had been unsheathed like a blade at his throat.

Björn Aaberg knew he was expendable....and this knowledge allowed him to slough off his fear like dead skin.

He had guns---two Benelli M-95E pistols, a pair of Uzis, a Steyr AUG, two Taurus 608 revolvers and an Ithaca Model 37 shotgun. He had traps---more than enough hidden explosives to utterly bury anyone stupid enough to come looking for him. He had body armor---enough to protect all vital areas of the human anatomy.

More importantly than that.....he had a plan.

In his mind, that fact alone would be his salvation.

Had he known how the night would've ended, he would've been better off just shooting himself instead.


None of the guards in Aaberg's compound had expected to see anything remotely resembling "action" that day, or any other day of the week. It was, therefore, somewhat surprising to them to see the doors leading into the main storage area blown off their hinges, followed soon after by what looked like a dozen or so steel baseballs hitting the ground and bursting open into plumes of colored smoke. Had they been properly trained or even halfway decently taught how to not fall prey to distractions, they would've sent one man to investigate.

Instead, just like countless enemy guards in countless movies, TV shows, books and video games, they all opened fire at once---before the smoke even cleared. Within seconds, the cavernous storage room echeoed with the sounds of gunfire and screaming.

After every guard in the room had emptied a full clip, the smoke finally cleared....

.....revealing that the guards had hit nothing.

Seconds later, one of them felt a stinging sensation in his left quadricep...then dropped unconscious.

It was while every other guard in the room was distracted by their teammate falling to the floor that the 17 ALPA Field Agents---accompanied by the Man in Grey, a figure clad head-to-toe in white, and another figure in what could only be described as a feminized and slightly less bulky version of Darth Vader's suit---entered the room, taking up strategically-viable positions while waiting for the shock of their distracting tactic to finally wear off.....which, a full ten seconds after the last Field Agent was in place, it did.

The unlucky sod who chose that particular moment to turn away from the sight of his colleague apparently asleep on the floor found himself staring into the eyes of a 20-something brunette girl, clad in an oufit trimmed with red and white. For some reason, she was smirking...

....though the guard in question lost interest---and consciousness---soon after he noticed.

Apparently, the sound of a second guard dropping to the floor was enough to finally alert the rest of the men (and women, most of whom were remarkably in-shape compared to their male colleauges) to the presence of intruders in their midst.

Not that it did them a damn bit of good, in the end....

The Field Agents squeezed the triggers of their own weapons in a much more controlled---and, quite honestly, more delicate---fashion than the guards had done moments earlier, resulting in far more controlled bursts of fire. None of the Agents were screaming their heads off like kamikaze gunners, either, which made it so much easier to hear the sounds of their targets running around the room trying to "get the high ground" or flank them (tactics that, thanks to the guards' lack of training, completely and utterly failed).

When the Field Agents eventually stopped shooting (not because they were out of ammo, but simply because there was no longer a need for them to go the Rambo route), any guards who hadn't already been dropped by a well-placed bullet to the kneecap found themselves engaged in close-quarters combat. Sadly for them, all the Metal Gear Solid replays in the world couldn't have taught them how to counter properly; many of the under-paid and un-trained men and women simply didn't have the stamina to match the Field Agents. Within the span of a few minutes, the last of the guards had been rendered unconscious by a palm strike, leaving the ALPA's best to their task.

"Now that is how you clear a room," the white-clad figure of Oberon declared, pulling off his full-face helmet (a replacement for the one he'd lost at SJSU) and shaking his head disdainfully at the fallen guards. "Did Aaberg even let them read a single martial arts manual before employing them?"

"If by 'martial arts manual' you mean this," V.I.C.I. called back, holding up a thin book with the ambitious (and misleading) title The Book of the Ninja, "then I think I just figured out why they lost---every technique in this book is stupid....and be glad they didn't get close enough to try out 'Monkey Stealing Peach' on you, sir." She handed the book to Oberon, who thumbed through it and broke out in a giggle fit. "I'm guessing these guys were just temps," the brunette gynoid continued.

Jen Larssen nodded her agreement. "Aaberg wouldn't have let his best people be taken down first---he lost enough of his people at the university and the ALPA HQ. These guys were just cannon fodder....paid to stand around and put up enough of a fight to dissuade anyone stupid enough to get this far."

"Fortunately for us, we're a lot stupider than Aaberg thinks," Oberon replied. "And yes, that's intended as a compliment. Aaberg thinks we're just like every other military organization or law-enforcement division he's dealt with in the past....and he's halfway right. However, unlike those esteemed entities, we have a distinct advantage---and I can tell you're just about to burst at the seams if you don't get to say your piece, Agent Lawson, so let's hear it---"

"Thirty more. Heading our way from the loading bay doors." V.I.C.I. glanced at two massive doors, one on each side of the room. "Aaberg probably gave them the signal while we were finishing off the red shirts...." Saturn nudged one of the downed guards with his foot. "They're lucky we have a 'no kill' policy," he mused, "otherwise they'd be in the same boat as every redshirt from---"

Reaver held up a closed fist, signalling for Saturn to shut up.

"Arms to bear," Oberon intoned, drawing a two-foot long trench sword from a scabbard on his belt. "These will be fighting to wound, even to kill....and we must all be prepared to do the same." Throughout the chamber, every Field Agent reloaded their weapons, their gazes set on the loading doors.....

V.I.C.I. gripped the Beretta Auto-9 she'd used in Dawley, thumbing the safety off......

Major Tom gripped the hilt of the sword he'd wielded at SJSU....

The Man in Grey simply took a deep breath, as if the oncoming assault was nothing but a strong wind....

A low, droning creak sounded as the bay doors opened on either side of the chamber......

.....and then the real fight began.

V.I.C.I.'s initial estimate of thirty was off---way off. The actual number of black-clad, armored attackers was somewhere around 75; there had been thirty gathered around the doors---fifteen on each side---but the reserve troops were filing in as those initial fifteen fought their way into the chamber.

Needless to say, it wasn't long before first blood was drawn.

Oberon's trench sword cleaved through a black-clothed bicep, prompting a scream of pain from the masked figure who'd just drawn a combat knife from a boot holster. Five feet away, V.I.C.I. drove her elbow into the shoulderblade of another attacker, forcing him to drop the sawed-off shotgun he'd just aimed at the ALPA Chairman. Even Major Tom, with his wounded leg, was getting in on the action---in the span of twenty seconds, he'd bashed ten armed and armored thugs in the foreheads with the pommel of his sword.

Unlike the fembots, these men knew when to stay down.....

....not that it made the fight any easier.

Kylie Lyndon came away from her tangle with one 6'3" attacker with a vicious gash across her cheek, the result of a slash from a Sykes-Fairbairn combat knife. Johnny Dash found himself missing a centimeter off of his left pinkie finger after blocking a bayonet strike with his bare hand, and even Reaver ended up spitting out a few teeth after eating a heel kick to the face---but still, even with their injuries, the Field Agents never gave ground against Aaberg's men...and they were all men this time; apparently, the arms dealer preferred to leave his life in the hands of his own gender, rather than depending on the "fairer sex" to protect him from the wrath of the ALPA.

Of course, that logic didn't exactly do him any favors in the end.

75 shrank to 50, 50 was cut down to 30 and 30 was diminished to 15 in the span of half an hour---leaving the last of Aaberg's elite guard outnumbered by the bloodied but unbeaten Field Agents. Oberon, his armor and uniform amazingly unblemished, leveled his trench sword at one of the thugs. "I take it you're the leader?"

"Simms was the leader of this outfit---"

"And I'm guessing Simms is one of the many individuals who's currently unconscious on the floor?"

".....y-yes, he is."

Oberon sheathed the trench sword, smiling broadly. "Splendid. I assume you're all willing to give us terms of unconditional surrender, then? That is to say, you let us pass without any further bloodshed, and we go our merry way without mowing any more of you down....."

The guard glared at Oberon, as if seriously considering trying something----

"You're going to want to make up your mind soon," Vicki Lawson advised. "He hates waiting."

Something about her voice---combined with the entirely-inappropriate cheerful mood Oberon was displaying at the moment---put the man on edge. "We.....we were just told to secure the parameter....we were all hired out from KnightWind---Aaberg had us all on retainer! I've never even met the guy---" "Then let's keep it that way," Oberon suggested. "You and your friends are free to leave." With that, Oberon and the other Field Agents strode towards the north entrance, leaving the surviving guards stunned.

Well, that was fast, Vicki realized. Now, it's Aaberg's turn.....and I have a feeling the easy part's just ended.

Even with her optimistic mood still holding strong, the brunette gynoid knew she was all too right.....

Part 19

Björn Aaberg was terrified.

The men from KnightWind had failed. The security systems meant to kill any intruder who breached the north entrance/exit of the storage chamber had all simultaneously failed. Even the lights in the corridors leading up to his "ready room"----more of a panic room than anything else---were flickering erratically.

His entire career---his life---was about to be brought down around him.

For well over two decades, Björn had prided himself on being in control of every possible aspect of his life, from the clothes on his back to the arrangements made with his many business partners. Even in the briefest moments of freefall, when the authorities had cornered him and prepared to drag him down, he had stayed cool under pressure and built up the resources to prove himself innocent of all charges---or at the very least, to have his accusers "taken care of".

Now, for the first time in over 25 years, Björn Aaberg was completely and utterly helpless.

An ammunition storage crate lay open on the ground before him, offering several "last-ditch" options: a serum, developed for use by the Marine Corps. but rejected on ethical grounds, that would effectively turn the user into a berserker for a period of 21 seconds---or longer, if the dosage was increased; a prototype magnetically-charged railgun, built around the G11-1, that could bring down a parking garage in minutes; a half-finished exoskeletal suit that would turn the wearer into a veritable Heracles.....something in Aaberg's mind snapped. He would not be reduced to using these....toys to defend himself. He picked up the Model 37, a derranged smile crossing his face.

Tonight..... Björn Aaberg would, for quite possibly the last time, be the last man standing.

At least, that was his plan....


"....and hiring guys from KnightWind was probably the best thing he could've done to keep himself from getting into any more trouble with the Coalition or anyone else. If he'd gone for any of their heavies, they'd have been on him like stink on sh---"

Oberon's overly-loud throat-clearing noise ended Reaver's explanation of why Aaberg had hired private military contractors before it could get too obscene. "Thank you for the enlightening lecture, Agent Reaves---I think we all get the message. NOW, then, what's say we continue onwards and see what's behind this next door, shall we?" The ALPA Chairman flashed his trademark grin at the Field Agents; "I, for one, am rather curious to find out what our Norweigian antagonist has in store for us," he added. "As for you lot....."

"We're just as anxious to see what's coming as you are," V.I.C.I. stated.

Again, Oberon grinned. "Figured that. Very well, then.....allons-y!"

V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes, fighting the urge to grin as she joined the rest of the Field Agents in following the white-clad chairman into the depths of Aaberg's "fortress". Amazing how one word in French can dissipate the tension in a matter of seconds....

The group had only been walking for about five minutes when the Man in Grey gestured for them to stop. A few of the Field Agents nearly said something, but the Man's words to Oberon gave all of them a perfect reason to shut up: "We've made a mistake."

If the ALPA Chairman was perturbed, he did a good job of hiding it. "Exactly what kind of mistake are you---"

"The entire hallway is mined. This concrete was just laid last night...Aaberg is using this hall as a killing jar."

V.I.C.I. scanned the ground around her, hoping that the Man was wrong.....

"You're positive the hall's been mined?" Oberon whispered. "You're absolutely positive that---"

"He's right," V.I.C.I. stated, her monotone unusually quiet. "The floor in this hallway was laid out in a 5x5 foot grid pattern, with every alternating square containing at least three mines." Her eyes squeezed shut as she continued; "Aaberg has turned this hall into a deathtrap," she continued. "We have to make each step precise, otherwise...."

She didn't have to finish the sentence---everyone else in the group knew exactly what would happen if their feet strayed outside of the squares.

Reaver and Saturn stared down the hallway, trying not to consider what would happen if they made a single error in the next few minutes. "You're telling us that we're about to walk down a hallway with anti-tank mines under the floor?" Saturn finally asked after a few awkward seconds of silence. "And if we step off of the squares, we get turned into chunky salsa?"

"Pretty much."

"Except the mines are under concrete," Reaver countered. "Claymores usually work with tripwires---"

"And these have been rigged to go off with pressure sensors," V.I.C.I. replied. "A few of them are even built with triggering devices I couldn't identify...which means that Aaberg may have some of these floor squares rigged to go up at the touch of a button. We need to get through here quickly and carefully, otherwise the cleanup crew will be burying all of us in Ziploc bags." Her gaze turned to the back of the group; "All of you, move in Echelon Right and Echelon Left formations to go from one square to another," she ordered. "When you reach the door at the other end---"

A fast-moving grey figure moved past her. "PUBLIUS!" Oberon shouted. "GET BACK HERE NOW!"

"Whole floor's rigged," the Man in Grey muttered, "none of you are safe..." He stopped in the middle of the room, turning to stare at the rest of the Field Agents. "Get back into the room before this one," he whispered, though every Field Agent---android/gynoid and human alike---heard him clearly. "Now."

"Publius," Oberon grunted, his voice sounding halfway like a sob, "what are you doing?!"

The Man turned away, reaching up with one gloved hand to pull his mask off. "You knew I was injured from my fight at headquarters," he rasped, "but you let me join this mission anyways...out of all the people who should've seen this coming---"

"Publius, get back here now and wait for the rest of the group---"

"THE REST OF THE GROUP WILL DIE IF I MOVE FROM THIS SPOT!" the Man shouted, his injury-induced rasp adding an even uglier edge to his voice than usual. "Our time as student and mentor has long since passed, old friend....you've done more for me than you'll ever know, and I knew you never wanted me to repay that favor---at least, not like this....." He bowed his head, the mask clutched in his fist; "....but now, I have no choice but to repay you," he finished, his voice almost too soft to be heard. "Get back into the room before---"

"DAMNIT TO HELL, PUBLIUS, GET BACK HERE---"

V.I.C.I. heard the almost imperceptible beeping before anyone else did. "We need to leave," she informed the armor-clad figure of Oberon. "Now." She nearly fell to the floor as the Chairman pushed past her. "I will not leave him here to die---"

Oberon's progress was arrested by an iron grip on his shoulder. "It's not your call, sir," Vicki whispered.

Her words went unheeded. "We can get to him in less than five minutes, get him off that square---"

"The floor's going to explode underneath us in two minutes," Vicki insisted. "You can't save him---"

Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she'd expected the backhand that followed her claim----not that it did anything to help dull the pain, both the all-too human stinging on her cheek and the brief feeling of someone she trusted having slapped her. "NEVER tell me what I can or cannot do," Oberon growled, his words lapsing into a moan. "We're too close..."

He nearly fell to the floor, only stopped by Vicki grabbing his arm and throwing it around her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "but it's not your call anymore."

Before he could say anything in protest, the brunette gynoid carried Oberon back to the room they'd just left.

It took the rest of the Field Agents just a bit longer to reach the room, but Vicki held the door open for every single one of them, even as the remote detonation triggers for every mine hidden beneath the floor ticked away the seconds. Major Tom was the last one in, mostly because he couldn't stop turning back to look at Publius with an expression that blended awe and fury; as he edged through the ever-closing crack in the door, Vicki used the opportunity to get one last look at Publius---


and for the first time since Dawley, she saw his unmasked face.

What struck her about the face of the Man in Grey wasn't his apparent youth, or the sharp contrast between that youth and the almost pure white hair that crowned his head.....it was his eyes. A veritable typhoon of emotions---guilt, rage, fear....even contentment---was held in those eyes, and in that split-second glimpse, Vicki knew why the Man in Grey---Publius---had chosen to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the Field Agents in the group.

Just as her internal log of the remote detonator timers hit 3 seconds, she saw the Man give her a nod.

A split second before she closed the door, Vicki nodded back....

.....then the blast-proof tungsten/titanium alloy door was pulled shut, locking into place.

Shortly after that, the hallway beyond the door exploded.

Every other Field Agent in the room, even the androids and gynoids, had hunkered down with their hands over their ears....but Oberon just stood, his eyes locked on the door as the hallway beyond it was utterly decimated by the anti-tank mines.

For a full three minutes, a deafening, rumbling roar sounded behind the door before finally fading.

Slowly, carefully, Vicki pulled the door open.

Predictably, every single inch of the floor----and walls, and even some bits of ceiling---had been utterly ruined by the blast. What had formerly been a neatly-organized chessboard-style layout of concrete squares was now a series of ugly gashes, scars and debris, most of it charred black. Lighting fixtures from the ceiling had either been dented by the force of the blast or simply reduced to charred skeletons of their former selves...but the strangest thing in the room was, quite honestly, what wasn't in the room.

Simply put, there was no sign of the Man in Grey---not a body, or even a piece of one.

Not even a carbon shadow.

All eyes in the room turned to stare at Oberon, wondering (perhaps even fearing) his response to this latest, most bizarre development....but as Vicki herself noticed, the ALPA Chairman seemed, for that one instant, to have been stunned into silence.


"As much as I appreciate your cooperation in this matter, Miss Lehane, you are bending one rule too many by tapping into the security feed from Aaberg's compound...."

Alicia VI ignored Clive DuBraul's words and focused on the monitor. "No blood. Not even a single trace of guts or anything.....a guy who gets caught in the crossfire of that many Claymores doesn't just get vaporized, Clive. And those mines were buried under concrete. The only way he would've been hurt was by flying debris or by one going off right underneath him---and the square where he stood was perfectly intact." She frowned as the feed temporarily went staticky; "He planned this---or at least figured he could use this opportunity to save his friends and escape."

Something about that last word---escape---struck a chord with DuBraul. "Say that again?"

"He figured he could use this opportunity to save his friends and escape. Want it a third time, or---"

"Cedric," DuBraul called out, "Who previously owned the property Aaberg's holed up in right now?"

The VP of the ALPA, Cedric Harcourt, nearly tripped over his own foot while entering the room. "Ah, that land was formerly used by Silicon Dynamics as a secondary testing and development lab."

DuBraul chuckled. "So he did plan it...." He shook his head, smiling. "Alicia, I believe the Man in Grey may not be in as dire straits as our Agents think he is---a little sore from the beating he took earlier, but otherwise perfectly fine. That unblemished floor square is all the proof you need---hell, knowing him, it's the way he took to get out of that hall before it blew!"

The House gynoid returned the ALPA President's smile with one of her own. "Think they'll catch on?"

"As a matter of fact....I think they're realizing it just now...."


"....and unless this square of floor was loaded with fifteen or so Claymores," V.I.C.I. finished, "the Man in Grey could've easily waited for the other squares to explode---or, he could've just lifted this square and gone out beneath the floor---"

"UNDER THE FLOOR?!" Oberon thundered. "The bloody mines were under the floor! How could he---"

A red-and-white gloved hand closed around his shoulder. "Lift up the floor panel," Vicki suggested.

"What---"

"Just try it. It may be...enlightening."

With an incredulous, almost half-angry growl, Oberon knealt down, pried at the edges of the square---and, to his shock, found that the thing came up as easily as a piece of plywood. "Mother of earth," he muttered, "the thing barely even weighs five pounds!" He heaved the "stone" away from its spot, only to be surprised yet again---this time by a steel shaft, more than likely meant to be covered by a ventilation grid, going at least fifteen or so feet down into the ground.

"This building wasn't always owned by Björn Aaberg," Vicki murmured.

Every Field Agent present watched, stunned, as Oberon's shoulders seemed to sag, his body wracked by what had to be sobs...but in that instand, as their Chairman stood, they realized exactly what they were seeing--and hearing: Oberon was laughing.

"He did it," he guffawed, wiping a tear from his eye with his sleeve. "The bastard actually did it!"

"Did what?!" Reaver groaned. "We all heard the explosions go off---"

"Exactly." Oberon grabbed Reaver by the shoulders, grinning manically. "He wanted all those Claymores to go off around him, and for us to be in the other room, behind a blast-proof door! He knew what this place used to be---hell, took me a while to realize it myself!" He stepped away from the Field Agent, spreadding his arms and whirling on one foot; "THIS, ladies and gentlemen, was once Silicon Dynamics property!" he beamed, almost dancing over the shattered concrete. "Aaberg, being the miserable cheap sod he is, chose to just build over it---or what was left of it---instead of just leveling the land and starting from scratch!" He laughed again, even as he nearly tripped over a bit of concrete.

"So, that whole dramatic thing of him running to the center of the hall," Corona mused, "was......what, exactly?"

Oberon chuckled. "His resignation. Always did have a flair for the theatrical...."

"Wait," Jen Larssen muttered. "You're telling me he did all that just to quit?!"

Still chuckling, Oberon shook his head. "You have to understand, he was wounded earlier today---the way he was fighting a few rooms back, it's a miracle he didn't drop dead then and there. He got stiched up enough to keep going back at HQ, but it wasn't a permanent fix; those dramatic flourishes he was pulling during the last fight would've popped his stitches if he'd stuck around a few more minutes...." The laugh turned to a sigh; "At the very least, he left on his own terms," he added. "Didn't want to let anyone see him weakened..."

"So you forgave him? For Detroit, I mean...."

Vicki's question prompted another sigh from the ALPA Chairman. "He crossed a line, doing what he did to the Human Animal.....but Publius has more than made up for that today. Yes, the plonker acted like he was about to let himself get pasted across the hallway, but he saved us all from that exact fate, so....yes. He's forgiven."

That answer was enough to expunge the last traces of worry from Vicki's expression. "All I needed to hear."

"Ah, not to ruin this Kodak moment," Major Tom called out, "but didn't Aaberg just see this whole thing---AND isn't he still listening in on our little pow-wow while we're camping out here in the hall? He'll know we're down one member, and he'll know he didn't kill anyone....and why are you grinning like that at me?"

Oberon strode over to the Major, throwing an arm around his shoulder. "Major, you didn't think I volunteered for this without preparing a few...emergency plans, did you?" he inquired, gesturing to the still-functioning cameras mounted in the corners of the room. "Those cameras, in addition to being blast-proof, fireproof, waterproof AND vandalism-proof, are now currently linked into the ALPA HQ security feed, meaning the only ones who are seeing us 'camping out here in the hall' are the ones on our side. And before you bother asking me how I pulled it off, I simply installed a few extraneous bits on the outside of the building---hooked 'em into the camera systems and flicked the switches 'on'. Aaberg's completely in the dark on what's happened here."

"Then let's not give him a chance to turn the lights back on," V.I.C.I. suggested. "He may not be able to see us, but I can pretty much see him---or at least his body heat signature. Your camera trick must've cut his link to the feed when the mines went off, so the last thing he saw---"

"The last thing he thought he saw," Oberon corrected, "was Publius getting nuked...so he believes."

The brunette gynoid nodded. "So let's capitalize on the opportunity and finish this."

"Agreed---though I'm a bit curious as to why you mentioned being able to see his body heat signature---"

"He's on the move---specifically, moving towards us. And he's armed---I can't tell what he's carrying, but....actually, I might be able to." V.I.C.I. stared across the room, her gaze penetrating the wall on the other side and zooming in on the point of origin for Aaberg's heat signature. "Give me a sec...."

Reaver's attempts to conceal his impatiance failed miserably. "We don't exactly have an infinite timer here---"

From somewhere beyond the far end of the hall, something exploded.

V.I.C.I.'s eyes snapped open; "He's got a shotgun," she gasped. "He just...he shot one of the cameras with it, and I was semi-connected to the building's infranet at the time....I nearly felt it."

"Then we need to keep the potential for collateral damage light," Oberon replied quietly. "Vicki, I---"

"Won't be sending her into this fight alone," the figure in the less-bulky Vader-esque suit replied, removing the full-head helmet to reveal the face of Leah Chambers. "You called me out here to help with this mission, and since Vicki's already saved me once before, it's high time I return the favor---and don't try to talk me out of it, because---"

"Who said anything about talking you out of it?" Oberon grinned.


"....you can't be serious."

Alicia VI stared at the image of Björn Aaberg on the monitor, trying to process what she'd just heard from the President of the ALPA. "All this time, we've been chasing after Aaberg and the fembots, and you're just finding out something like this happened under your own roof?!"

"We only just found out about it ourselves," Harcourt admitted. "One of the fembots broke from the pack---"

"Cedric," DuBraul groaned, "that girl who climbed up the elevator shaft and broke into the server room was not one of the fembots! She had a House-issue stealth suit, more than likely stolen; she was armed with the only type of multitool that has the attachment to remove the screws on the hinges that hold up the door to the server room, and there's no way in HELL she was running this entire plan off of a binary algorithm! She might've been a gynoid, yes, but I can guarantee you that she wasn't one of Aaberg's fembots!"

Before Harcourt could protest, Alicia stepped between him and DuBrual. "Maybe this isn't as bad as either of you think....I mean, yes, the House has been having some security problems lately---which would explain the use of a stolen stealth suit---but maybe this intruder didn't take anything valuable....or did she?"

DuBraul stared at the floor, almost as if he couldn't bring himself to admit what had happened.

"Clive," Alicia muttered, all traces of her optimism gone, "what did she take?"

After five more seconds of silence, the ALPA President looked the blonde House gynoid in the eye. "We think she got to the list," he quietly replied. "Not a list, the list. The list that could very easily put everything we've ever achieved, everything we've ever hoped for, in jeopardy."

It took a full minute for Alicia to find her voice. "....can you confirm that it was the list?"

"We've got our best people working on it right now---" A sound like a half-smothered cry made DuBraul cringe, and prompted a concerned look from Alicia. "Ah, is he okay?" she asked, nodding in Harcourt's direction. "He looks like he nearly choked on something over there..." DuBraul immediately ran to the aide of the ALPA VP;; " What happened?" he whispered. "What's---" Cedric, tears streaming down his face, could only hold up his phone in reply.

"Oh, my God," DuBraul intoned. "Oh, my dear sweet mother of God....."

By the time Alicia crossed to where DuBraul and Harcourt were standing, Harcort was kneeling near a table, weeping uncontrollably. The question of "What happened?" never even left the gynoid's lips; DuBraul simply handed her the phone, allowing her to see the news for herself.

After reading and re-reading the information five times, all she could say was "No."

Part 20

"...so when were you going to tell me you were on this mission?"

Leah shook her head. "I wasn't supposed to tell you, Vicki...everything that was used to rebuild me was more or less designed to be high-end prosthetics, not combat-grade cybernetics. The only way I could go on this mission involved me getting zipped up in this suit and hooked up to it---it's all that stands between me walking out of here on my own two feet and me getting carried out." She paused; "Okay, I just made that sound a lot more dire than it is," she realized.

"You could've told me something earlier," Vicki protested. "I mean, we saved each other after the Rigelitan incident---I mean, who else could say they went up against the hazmat weirdos and survived---"

The deafening report of a shotgun firing cut through the air like a whip, ending the discussion.

"AGENT LAWSON!" A figure, loaded down with weapons and bandoliers of ammo, strode forth from the shadowed end of the hallway. "WE HAVE UNFINISHED BUSINESS, YOU AND I!"

"Can this guy get any cheesier?" Leah whispered.

"Shut up," Vicki muttered, trying not to giggle. "You're gonna make me laugh....this is just like high school---"

Another shotgun blast tore through the stillness of the chamber, wiping the smile off the gynoid's face.

"You nearly ruined my life back in Dawley," Björn Aaberg called out. "All because of your vendetta against an associate of mine....Matthew Emmerich Hannsen.....because of his actions, you chose to make my life a living Hell---"

"I hate to break it to you," Vicki shouted, "but your life didn't even mean anything to me!"

Aaberg froze in his tracks, nearly paralyzed with rage at the remark.

"Not the smartest choice of words there, Vicki," Leah admitted. "Maybe a bit too harsh---"

"YOU DESTROYED MY LIFE'S WORK!" Aaberg shouted. "YOU NEARLY BROKE SOME OF MY BEST OPERATIVES! And all for what?! To avenge some stupid bitch?!" He fired off another shotgun blast, the pellets hitting a light fixture.

Almost instantly, Leah noticed Vicki tensing up. "Don't let him get to you," she pleaded, "just try to---"

She stopped, feeling Vicki's hand on her shoulder. "Leah," the brunette gynoid murmured, "I've got this." She turned to glance at the cybernetically enhanced girl, who found herself rather shocked to see that the Field Agent was smiling. "Sticks and stones, and all that stuff....it doesn't get to me....but maybe it's time we see what, exactly, gets to him." She jerked a thumb in Aaberg's general direction. "And don't worry about me going overboard on him," she added with a wink. "He's not worth it."

That last phrase was uttered loud enough for Aaberg to hear---just as Vicki had intended.

His response was.....predictable.

"HOW DARE YOU!" the arms dealer bellowed. "HOW DARE YOU CLAIM THAT I AM 'NOT WORTH IT'!" He fired off another shotgun blast, not even managing to hit the floor next to where Vicki stood; "I have been insulted by many, foolish girl," he growled, "but NEVER BEFORE in my LIFE---"

"HEY!" Vicki called out. "Are you going to be done with your little tantrum any time soon, diaper baby, or---"

Like her last insult, the effect of the "diaper baby" remark was all too predictable.

The Taurus 608s cleared their holsters faster than the brunette gynoid had expected---not that it did anything to help Aaberg's aim. Had he taken the time to properly sight the target, even if it meant just aiming down the barrel and firing, he might have scored one or two hits; instead, the idiot fired blindly and randomly, sending shots everywhere but their intended target.

"I'd say the old 'missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me' thing," Vicki called out, "but in your case---"

Her words were drowned out by an enraged roar---which only grew in volume with the introduction of the Uzis into the fight. Is he trying to hit everything except me in here?! With every shot that hit the floor, the walls, the ceiling and every other surface in the room, the gynoid Field Agent knew she'd exposed Aaberg's Achilles Heel: He hated being mocked. As much as I hate playing "break the haughty" in times like this, she mused, it'll probably be for the best if I keep him off his game for as long as possible....at least, until I can get close enough to just knock him out!

By the time Aaberg had stopped firing, the Uzis' clips were half-emptied, the room had become pockmarked with bulletholes from every stray shot, and Aaberg himself was still furious.

What happened next did nothing to ease his mind.

"HEY, BJÖRNEY! Vicki called out. "YOU MISSED ME....YA BUTT!"

An unintelligible stream of half-words, syllables and swear words in Romanian, Finnish and German resounded throughout the chamber, accompanied by the unyielding rhythm of the Uzis firing.

Just imagine this as being a tryout for the Starlet Dolls' newest music video, Vicki told herself, dodging gunfire with backflips, rolls and acrobatics that most backup dancers would've given anything to pull off in such a seamless fashion. The gunfire's just pyrotechnics, and Aaberg's just one of the audience members screaming their head off at the awesomeness of the performance... Even with the running processes in her CPU directing every move within the slightest fraction of an inch, she still preferred imagining herself in a more positive scenario instead of forcing herself to focus---which, as she reminded herself, was yet another benefit of her upgrade after July 9. One of the many joys of being me---

"VICKI!"

Leah's pained cry stunned the brunette gynoid enough to almost make her trip over her own feet; she dropped into a crouching roll just in time to avoid landing on her face, coming to rest behind a shelf as Aaberg swore and threw the now-empty submachine guns to the ground.

"Vicki," Leah echoed, more quietly this time, "I....I think I've been hit."

All thoughts of the Starlet Dolls, pyrotechnics and screaming crowds vanished from Vicki's mind as she headed for her stricken colleague; "What happened?" she whispered. "I thought Aaberg was shooting all over the place, not even trying to hit anything---" She stopped, her words fading into a gasp as Leah shifted enough to reveal a hole in her side. "I think one of his stray shots hit me," she winced. "I...I was just trying to stay out of the way....I didn't---"

"It's not your fault," Vicki quietly assured her. "It's Aaberg's...we just need to get you out of here." She moved to help Leah up, but stopped; "Ah, Leah," she murmured, "that....that fluid leaking out of you...that wouldn't happen to be vital fluid, by any chance....would it?"

The cybernetically-enhanceed girl nodded tearfully.

Damn.... "Well, then, I'll just have to beat Aaberg as quickly as possible---"

"No," Leah gasped. "I....I can survive for another three hours, even with a leak this size...I'll be fine."

"I don't want to have to leave you here, Leah," Vicki insisted, "it....it's not right....." Even as she spoke the words, part of her realized that her old fears of "not being herself" were, by this point, completely unfounded: If she was willing to save someone else instead of fighting Aaberg to the finish, there was no doubt that she was, in all manner of fact, still the same Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson who'd "died" on July 9. "I don't want to let you die just because Aaberg's being a moron...."

She felt something wet on her cheek, and for a moment, the possibility that one of Aaberg's shots had grazed her and potentially ruptured a myogel line passed through her thoughts....except it's coming from my eye...

Either her own expression was showing what she couldn't say, or Leah could tell what she was trying so hard not to let loose. "You don't have to cry, Vicki," she whispered, smiling through her own tears. "Just go---"

An explosive roar split the calm, followed by the telltale sound of a shotgun being cocked.

Leah pulled Vicki in close. "Go kick his ass," she managed to growl, smiling as she leaned back.

In that instant, the brunette gynoid composed herself. "I will," she replied, returning the smile. "I promise."

Even as her enhanced hearing picked up the subtle tones of Aaberg reloading the Ithaca Model 37, Vicki knew that he'd never have enough time to actually use the thing---she could clear the room and get in his face in a matter of seconds, and if she really wanted to screw with him, tearing the gun from his hands and twisting it into a ribbon or any other shape would be almost stupidly simple. Of course, there's the small matter of not turning this into another Dawley incident....

Something about that thought prompted a smirk from Vicki. She knew exactly why she'd gone over the line doing what she'd done to Hannsen, and why it scared her so badly, but Aaberg....well, he wasn't anywhere near as bad as Hannsen---even the shot that wounded Leah wasn't a major problem. So to recap, he hasn't made it personal, and he doesn't pose an immediate threat....and Leah did say she could survive for three more hours without any ill effects.... More strings of foreign swear words registered in the brunette gynoid's range of hearing, serving as a rather amusing (if vulgar) reminder that Aaberg was, in fact, still a problem that needed to be dealt with.

And it's a problem that still has a pair of Benellis and a Steyr AUG.....yay, me.....

Despite the fact that Aaberg hadn't yet deployed either of the pistols or the AUG---and that he'd already proven himself succeptible to being goaded into wasting ammunition and firing at nothing---Vicki knew that relying on taunts and evasion wouldn't be nearly as effective as getting up close and personal to deprive the arms dealer of his weapons. Which begs the question of how I can get close enough to him to take his toys away before he shoots me---

A single shot split the silence---and shattered a light fixture overhead.

"NOW, THEN, AGENT LAWSON," Aaberg bellowed, "let us see how well you can fight....IN DARKNESS!"

This time, the brunette gynoid didn't bother trying not to grin---is he actually doing what I think he's doing?! I mean, if he wanted to make it more difficult, he could just cycle all of the lights to a pure white spectrum and overwhelm my ocular sensors...but this is just making it too easy!

Just as Aaberg shot uot another light fixture, Vicki ducked behind a stack of crates, shaking her head as the now-screaming arms dealer/hitman stormed off in the exact opposite direction of his would-be prey. Either he's already lost it, the Field Agent realized, or he's very close to losing it---either way, all I have to do is just out-maneuver him, and it'll be that much easier for me to get close enough to take those stupid guns away and slap the cuffs on him.

Again, the gynoid grinned. And I thought this was going to be a hard mission.....

Part 21

While the front steps of the ALPA HQ building were usually busy during the days, with staff members, Field Agents and couriers rushing in and out of the building on their daily routines, this particular moment in time found the steps almost clogged with people---android/gynoid and human alike. The vast majority of them were calling friends and relatives to give carefully-thought out cover stories as to why they'd be late coming back from work; others were fact-checking and going over what they'd heard about the invasion of the building, to ensure that blatant rumors weren't spreading and causing mass panic. A select few were even attempting to establish contact with the Field Agents deployed to Aaberg's compound---without luck.

One gynoid sitting on the lowest level of the steps, however, was only concerned about one specific Agent....

"You might as well say it," Julia Irvine advised, striding over to sit down by her fellow House gynoid. "Ever since you had that conversation with him at San Jose State University, you've had that look in your eyes---and you know what look I mean.....just say it, Kimiko, and---" She stopped as Kimiko Mori stared up at her, tears streaming down her face. "You're....not thinking about the Major, then?"

"I've been thinking about my family," the Asian gynoid quietly replied. "The one Celeste promised me before she left the House." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve; "How many promises did she make, Julia?" she asked. "How many promises did she make that she'll never keep, now that she's running around with..." A choked sob cut her off before she could finish the sentence. "He was supposed to help us," she whispered, "but now...." She shook her head. "What if Celeste feels for him the same way she did for Oberon? What if she tries to relive those days with him?"

"Good questions," a sonorous voice called out, "but I have a better one: Why let the House wither and die?"

The two gynoids turned to see a man who looked every inch a British-born diplomat, with 45 years or so of age not doing anything to diminish what had to be movie-star good looks. He tipped his hat to the two, introducing himself as Richard Patrick Baker---one of the most prominent House representatives from the United Kingdom. "I was briefed on the plane regarding the situation," he explained, "and given the...lack of central leadership within the American branch of the House, I was advised to step forward as soon as possible." He gestured for his attendant---who looked remarkably similar to the discontinued Peyton series---and retrieved a pair of Manilla envelopes from her. "I believe you'll find the paperwork in order..."

Julia opened the envelope and read the enclosed files; "Everything checks out," she agreed. "Though I'm a bit concerned as to why you showed up here in the middle of this, ah....crisis..." Her thoughts briefly flashed back to Alicia VI recounting Oberon's outburst an hour or so ago.

"Mr. Baker has been sent by the Council to take command of the House as Patriarch during the duration of this crisis," the Peyton lookalike calmly stated, her voice tinged with a British English Received Pronounciation accent. "He has also been given authority to provide any necessary assistance and counsel to the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency." She glanced at Richard, one corner of her mouth turning up in the barest hint of a smile. "Couldn't have said it better myself," he mused, grinning broadly.

Whatever reply Julia intended to give was cut off by a faint sob from Kimiko. "But...Celeste's orders---"

Richard gestured to help the Asian gynoid up to a standing position. "I was told of your situation mid-flight, Ms. Mori," he informed her, "and I promise you that I will do everything in my power to allow you to live with the family you were meant to stay with before Celeste...lost sight of her mission."

"As much as I value that sort of thing," Julia interjected, "we have something else we need to tend to---"

"Indeed. I was told Miss Lehane is waiting inside..." Richard allowed his secretary to ascend the steps before him, giving him enough time to finish his talk with Kimiko. "We'll go over the specifics once I take care of the business inside," he promised, smiling warmly.

Kimiko nodded, bowing politely. "Domo arrigato, Baker-san."

Once in the lobby of the ALPA HQ, Richard's smile faded as he saw Alicia VI sitting on a bench, a blank look on her face. "The Council authorized my command as soon as they heard," he informed her. "You must tell me, Alicia---"

"It's true," she droned, her voice a shade above Vicki's own robotic monotone. "Everything I told them...it's all true." She never looked up, never even acknowledge'd Richard's presence; "Someone has The List, Richard," she added. "They entered the building disguised as one of the fembots, waited for a split-second window of opportunity when the crowd was in the right spot, and then made their move...." After a few seconds filled with tense silence, she turned to look at Richard---and the newly-appointed Patriarch nearly recoiled when he saw the thousand-yard stare in her eyes and the dual trails of running eyeshadow on her face. "They won."

"We don't even know who they are," Richard countered. "We can't exactly go pointing fingers at this point---"

"Who the hell CARES about pointing fingers?!" Alicia snapped, flipping the bench over as she stood. "If The List gets out, into anyone's hands, everything we've worked for is utterly screwed. They could be leaking it right now, for all we know---" Richard grabbed her by the shoulders, steadying her. "They're not," he intoned, staring into her eyes. "The failsafe code would've triggered if anyone had tried to upload it anywhere without the proper authorization. We've got at least a week to catch them, delete their copy of The List and help the ALPA cover any evidence of this..." His voice softened. "They haven't won, Miss Lehane," he assured the blonde gynoid. "They've only put themselves one step closer to prison, or the grave."

Alicia couldn't bring herself to look at him. "How can you be sure? How can you even guess that they'll be caught?"

"Call it intuition," Richard replied with a smile. "And besides, even if they tried to leak The List---"

"They took more than just The List," Alicia VI muttered. "They took a lot more."


Yet another stream of bullets sailed past the column of metal crates Vicki had ducked behind, prompting a muttered curse from the brunette gynoid. So much for the old "peek and sneak" tactic, then.... Even with the light fixtures shot out, her advantage against Aaberg had turned slim with his decision to use blind fire---as in pointing the gun around every available corner, then firing whether or not anyone or anything was even visible, then running to another part of the room and shooting. I've let him drag this out long enough....I have to end this quickly, otherwise Leah might get hit again! Her thoughts briefly turned back to her colleague, hoping that Aaberg would run out of either patience or ammo within three hours.

As Aaberg opened fire on yet another empty area of the room, Vicki crouch-walked her way to a position that would allow her the easiest opportunity to trail him without being seen. If her plan worked---which, considering the arms dealer's near-constantly rattled state of mind and the rapid depletion of his ammo due to the blind fire tactics, it more than likely would---she'd have almost no difficulty following his every step, then distracting him with a tap on the shoulder or some other pithy gesture, then stealing his gun right out from under his nose.

Of course, there was always the second option.....

Vicki closed her eyes, focused, and expanded her internal WiFi connections until she could almost feel herself linking to the building's infranet. Since the property had belonged to Silicon Dynamics before Aaberg had taken it over for himself, the chamber they were currently in would've been fitted with secondary lights, as well as the primary light fixtures---the ones Aaberg had been shooting out. Sure enough, the control programs for the emergency lights had been locked behind laughably-simplistic firewalls with "encrypted passwords"---one of many terms the ALPA had appropriated to use for "nonexistant security", since the so-called encryption was so stupidly simple to crack. Ten bucks says he put his mom's maiden name in....oh, come on! Did he have to be that predictable?! With a smile, the brunette gynoid mentally shut down every firewall meant to "lock her out" from the emergency light controls.....

....and three seconds later, as Aaberg stalked down another aisle, the lights blazed on once again.

"Surprised, Björney?"

Aaberg turned, stunned beyond all belief to see the Lawson girl standing at the far end of the aisle, shaking her head. "I expected more from you," she chided. "I thought you would've at least grazed me---"

"ENOUGH!" The gunrunner/hitman stumbled forward, his fingers squeezing the triggers of the Benelli M-95es as he let loose with a wordless, gutteral roar---just as the lights flickered, temporarily plunging the room back into darkness. Oddly enough, in the brief flashes of light from the pistol barrels, it seemed like the Lawson girl was still moving towards him....and when the lights snapped back on, he saw that she was completely unharmed.

His thoughts of "How did she not get hit" evaporated when he heard the brunette giggle. "Is that all?"

Legions of potential replies flooded his thoughts as he squeezed the triggers again---and again, the lights cut out, making it impossible for him to see what he was aiming at. When they kicked on again, however, he saw that Vicki was not only unharmed, she was ten feet away from him.

"You.....how can you......there is no way....."

"Care to repeat that in actual English?" the gynoid Field Agent asked politely.

By this point, Aaberg was completely and utterly fed up. The girl was mocking him, the lights were acting on their own (apparently) and his best guns were doing nothing to tip the scales in his favor. With a snarl that would've sent a chill down a lesser man's spine, Aaberg threw down the pistols and pullled his backup gun---a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson Model 29 Magnum---from his waistband. "YOU WILL DIE FOR THIS!" His finger hovered over the trigger, as he prepared to empty the Magnum's chamber into the girl's heart and watch her die---


and just as the tip of his finger touched the trigger, the lights cut out for the third time.

He counted off the shots as he fired them, imagining the girl stumbling under the impact of each. Had he known that his aim was so wildly off that none of the bullets ever came anywhere near Vicki, he might've been somewhat less horrified (and more embarassed) when the lights kicked on again.

Instead, the arms dealer screamed loud enough to almost match the roar of the Magnum as it fired six times.

For a brief instant, he smiled, believing he'd finally taken down the stupid Lawson girl....

...only to stare, dumbstruck and frightened beyond all rational thought, as the lights came up to reveal her standing three inches away from him, smiling serenely. "First of all,", she politely informed him, "you shouldn't point a gun at someone unless you're willing to kill them. Secondly....."

She grabbed his free hand with her left hand, raised it...and dumped six spent rounds into it.

"I think those are yours," she finished, still smiling.

In a manner of seconds, Aaberg felt as if every neuron in his brain had stopped firing at the same time. He stumbled backwards, trying to get away from the girl who apparently couldn't be killed---but she never moved from where she stood. "I'd give some long lecture about how you had this coming, and 'this is for everyone you've hurt', and all," she remarked, "but to be honest....I don't really think you're worth it." She turned on her heel just as the lights went out again....

....then from behind Aaberg, her voice whispered: "But I do think you've earned this."

A jolt shot through Björn Aaberg's body, followed soon after by blackness and stillness.

Part 22

Reaver couldn't help but chuckle as the Field Medics carted Aaberg out on a stretcher. "Lawson must've done a number on him," he mused. "As soon as they were able to bring him back to consciousness, he just started babbling about witches and dark magic....he must think she's some kind of---"

"Some kind of what?" V.I.C.I. teased.

"He probably thinks the ALPA is something from beyond this world," Saturn joked. "Hell, he probably thinks we all came from Hogwarts!" The Field Agents shared a brief laugh; "To be honest," Vicki admitted, "all I did was follow the advice of the late, great Freddie Mercury: Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightning." She held up her hands, allowing arcs of bluish lightning to dance between her fingertips. "Well, more like 'screwing with the lightning and hitting him with Detaining Grip', but you get the idea...."

Her words trailed off as a second stretcher was wheeled out of the building, bearing the unmoving figure of Leah Chambers. After a pause that was far too uncomfortable for anyone to admit, she spoke up again: "Did the doctors say how badly she's been damaged?"

"No," a familiar voice cut in, "but they did say that her last words before passing out were 'tell Vicki I owe her one'." Oberon sighed as he watched the Medics load Leah into an ambulance; "She'll probably make it through the night and most of tomorrow if we let her stay active," he muttered, "but any longer than that and she'll end up a vegetable....that, or her artificial components will undergo a cascade failure and shut down at any given moment----which would not be a quick and painless way for her to go, despite some idiots insisting that it would be. Still," he added, "if she keeps herself in a state of rest for...well, the rest of the month, we can have her prepped for the procedure by the beginning of September."

Vicki didn't ask what procedure the ALPA Chairman meant, mainly because she didn't want to know.

"If it's any consolation," Oberon added quietly, "it's not your fault. Aaberg was firing hollow-point rounds; one hit would've taken off a limb if he'd have shot you. As it stands, she would've died instantly if she'd still been 100% human---her enhancements took most of the damage. Her passing out was just a failsafe---her system was giving her brain a 'sleep' command, like you'd give a computer to keep it from using up too much energy, and to keep her from getting any vital artificial fluids into the wound."

After another uncomfortable pause, Vicki nodded. "I'm guessing Aaberg's finished here, then?"

"He is," Oberon nodded. "He'll be flown to New York tomorrow; they'll give him his court date, and he'll spend every waking moment until then in a cell. As for his little operation...." The ALPA Chairman rolled his eyes. "If some people hadn't taken the Rambo approach, we'd have enough to trace every client he's ever had---"

"DO NOT START," Major Tom bellowed, limping over even as Kimiko Mori tried to guide him back to his seat near the fleet of SUVs that had arrived ten minutes prior. "Do NOT go pinning that whole thing on me! I told my team to check their fire and---"

Both the Major and Oberon tensed as they felt Vicki's hands on their shoulders---and mild electric shocks going through them. "I call that setting 'friendly persuasion'," she informed them, "but I don't have a problem with ramping it up higher if you two insist on arguing..." Her stern expression lapsed into a giggle, prompting a wry grin from the Chairman and a groan from the Major. "Now that is a wonderful method for dissolving a tense situation," Oberon mused, clapping the gynoid Field Agent on the shoulder. "And for the record, Major, I wasn't going to 'pin the whole thing on you', as you so charitably put it....though I will have to ask you to send me the names of your squad members for this op, so they can receive mandatory firearm training."

"Fair enough," the ex-NASA operative grunted, shaking Oberon's hand. "So, are we all taking the SUVs, or..." He stopped, noticing Oberon's smile---and another Field Agent leading a horse into the parking lot. "Oh," he muttered, "Oh, God, no....."

Even as the Major started swearing, Vicki couldn't help but laugh.


"So.....Aaberg has failed us."

Michael Innes Grade and Anders Stahl tried their damndest not to look into the shadows that seemed to engulf everything behind the Baron's desk. "With all due respect, Baron," Stahl replied, "Aaberg had deliberately defied the orders I gave him---orders you personally told me to give him---"

"He defied you, Stahl....unless he received his orders from me personally, he only ever defied you."

The banking guild manager nodded quietly, taking a step back.

"There is...other news to report, Baron," Grade stated. "It seems that one of the fembots left by Hannsen wasn't actually a fembot---well, not one of Bradford's---"

"I am well aware of the intruder who used the attack on ALPA Headquarters to infiltrate their building," the Baron intoned. "What I do not understand is how this individual's presence escaped your gaze, seeing as how both of you carried out an inspection on every single fembot delivered to us, as per my orders..." The pause that followed those words was almost more deafening than any scream, roar or shout could've been. "I was told that you oversaw the inspection personally---"

"You were told wrong," Grade snapped. "We....we didn't have time to inspect the fembots. Aaberg wanted to deploy them---"

"Björn Aaberg does not answer to me," the Baron growled. "The two of you, on the other hand......"

Again, silence filled the room.

"I see now that our failure can be placed solely on Aaberg's shoulders," the Baron muttered. "His refusal to comply, paired with his compulsiveness, doomed this plan from the beginning....if Hannsen had not been incapacitated by the Lawson girl...." His gloved fingers steepled. "There will be time enough for speculation later. Stahl, Grade---both of you are will be given your new orders by Celine on the way out. I have too much work to tend to at the moment....." With that, the Baron gestured for the two to leave. "You are dismissed."

Stahl gave a curt nod and turned on his heel, heading for the door---but Grade didn't budge.

From behind the shadows, the Baron smirked. "I believe I told you that you were dismissed, Mister Grade---"

Grade pulled a Ziploc bag from his jacket and tossed it on the Baron's desk. "Y'know the funny thing about the girl who broke into the ALPA headquarters?" he inquired. "According to the footage from their security cameras, she looks more than a bit like 'the Lawson girl'.....and that eyewitness got at least fifty pics of a girl matching that description near the San Jose International Airport two nights ago. Took my people half a day to catch up with him, get the SD card and compare the pics...."

Silence.

"I'm saying we can find this girl," Grade continued, "get her to tell us what she knows---"

"You are dismissed, Mister Grade," the Baron thundered. "That will be all."

Any protest Grade could've used in his defense died on his lips as Stahl nearly shoved him towards the door; the two left without another word, leaving the Baron to turn the bag over in his hands. "So a new player has chosen to enter the game....one with no connections, no ties....."

He held the Ziploc bag to the light, a brief flash of gold piercing the darkness.

".....and no idea what kind of a world she has just intruded upon."


"....and the papers you gave them had the tracers in them, correct? Wonderful. Thank you for the update, Cel, we'll be in touch." Richard Baker sighed as he ended the fifteenth phone call he'd answered since arriving in San Jose; "What I wouldn't give for a bottle of cognac right now," he muttered, settling into the chair that had been abandoned since Celine's departure.

"If it helps," Oberon volunteered, "Tawny's great at making herbal tea....but I have a feeling you're in the mood for something with a bit more kick to it." He grinned. "Anyways, seeing as how we both know each other, I assume we can skip the formal introductions and get straight to the heart of the matter...." His grin faded. "I've been told that one of Hannsen's fembots wasn't who or what she appeared to be."

Richard nodded, handing over a folder. "Other than the fact that she looks remarkably like your Agent Lawson, we've got nothing on her---and we both know Vicki wasn't near the server room at the time."

"Indeed....which makes this all the more troubling." Oberon frowned as he leafed through several pictures from the folder. "She was spotted at the airport beforehand, even posed for a picture with some tourists and one of our undercover men---" He removed a folder of a brunette girl smiling and standing next to a few other college-age girls, all of whom were posing near a silver-clad (and painted) man with a cane; "It's not like we found him in the bathroom stall missing his wallet, or anything," he added. "We got a call from him about some idiot trying to vandalize a payphone, but other than that....nothing." The ALPA Chairman sighed. "Might as well get some of that cognac now---Celeste kept a fully-stocked minifridge behind the third bookcase."

The admission prompted a chuckle from Richard. "I'll be surprised if she didn't bring it all with her..."

Oberon shook his head. "She didn't take anything other than clothes, her ID papers and a few keepsakes from the old days. Everything else had tracers on it---well, everything other than the car."

"You let her take the Bentley?"

"Wasn't my call to make." Oberon pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the makings of a migraine coming on; "The worst bit about it," he muttered, "is that we all got it wrong. Even me. I thought he convinced her to run off to Florida or wherever, but it turned out she wanted him to go. She pulled the same thing with me...."

"And you had the good sense to say 'no'," Richard finished. "She tried it with me, too, if it matters."

That remark nearly made Oberon fall off his chair. "You're joking. While you were with Sylvia?"

"New Years' Eve, 1993," Richard chuckled. "She tried to write it off by saying she was drunk, but I knew..."

Oberon shook his head. "I knew she had a type, but I never thought she would've gone after you the way she went after Jake, or even the way she went after me.....somehow, I thought she would've respected a little thing called 'holy matrimony'---"

"She did," Richard admitted. "Said she would be fine 'sharing' me with Sylvia....anyways, you and I both know what was taken from the servers, and what will happen if any of that information gets leaked---and this isn't a situation where it gets leaked 'to the wrong people', because anyone who may find themselves getting a hold of that information could potentially be 'the wrong people' even if they're on our side." He grabbed a bottle of cognac from the hidden minifridge; "We even breathe the wrong way on this," he muttered, "and we lose."

Before Oberon could offer his reply, the door to Richard's office opened. "Call for Oberon," Tawny declared.

The ALPA Chairman sighed. "Looks like the night is just starting for both of us."

"Indeed. Hopefully, this one's good news for a change."

"Despite my doubts," Oberon murmured, "I sincerely hope you're right."

Part 23

"Should we tell her?"

Harcourt's question didn't jolt DuBraul out of his funk; instead, it was more like a shove that did nothing to rouse the President of the ALPA from his morose thoughts. "We should've expected this," he muttered. "After all the training for a red-ring scale event, we never thought someone would use it for cover....."

"Clive."

The mention of his name finally caught DuBraul's attention. "Yes?"

"Should we tell Vicki about this or not?"

It didn't take nearly as long for an answer. "No. Not this time. If she knew what had happened---if she knew what was at stake---she'd start taking risks, and those risks could land her in even deeper water than the Dawley incident did. If we tell her about this---if she finds out about this---we could lose her." DuBraul shook his head, staring at the folders on the table. "I assume the confirmation already came in about the perpertator of the break-in...."

"It did, sir---"

"And has Ted been notified?"

"We're....we're working on it, sir, but..."

DuBraul actually smiled at Harcourt's hesitation. "He's bringing Vicki back home....and I don't blame him. After the hell she's endured, the girl deserves a rest---we all do." With that, he rose from his seat; "Cedric," he declared, "despite the fact that we've had what I can only call the worst bad day in recent history---"

"If this is an invitation to go golfing," Harcourt protested, "I'm afraid I have to decline---"

"I know, I know, prior engagements and everything...." DuBraul grinned. "I was going to suggest that we go over my list....the one the Doctor told me to make two years ago, when I thought I still had a chance to live past 2015...." His smile faded slightly. "I want you to help me get ready, Cedric....I need you to help me."

Something in the tone of his voice made Harcourt nervous. "You....you're not---"

"It's been getting worse. Every night, the pain starts off as a dull feeling, then just gets sharper, almost to the point where I half-expect myself to start coughing up blood. I can't keep putting this off forever...I need to prepare. To get ready for when the time finally does come....Cedric, I don't want to leave an absolute mess behind when I die." DuBraul stared out the window at the courtyard of the ALPA HQ; "Oberon already told me he's not going to take my place as President," he added quietly. "He's got enough to deal with."

"And what about---"

"Vicki Lawson," DuBraul intoned, "doesn't need to know about the break-in---not even after we wrap up the case. If she knew it had happened---especially if she knew who did it---she'd never trust any of us, including her own father, ever again. It's bad enough she doesn't know what happened to Vanessa...." He let the words fade out with a sigh. "I know I've said I'm getting too old for this job before now," he muttered, "but for the first time in a long time, I'm starting to feel it."

With that, DuBraul sighed again. "I have a feeling we're not going to accomplish anything by sitting around here all night, Cedric....I have a feeling it'll do us both some good to sleep in our own houses for a change, instead of spending the night at a desk."

"Sir," Harcourt replied, "that's probably the best idea I've heard all week."


Well, here I am.....home sweet home.

As she took in the familiar sight of the Lawson house's living room, Vicki couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief---after everything she'd been through, everything she'd done and everything she'd felt over the past year or so, there truly was no place like home. Every sight, every sound, even every smell seemed to instantly wash away any sense of worry, dread or fear she'd been feeling up until that moment.

It was the most beautiful feeling she'd had in a long, long time.

"I called Joan and Jamie to let them know you'd be staying with us for a week or two while things get sorted out at the university," Ted informed her, "and---" Before he could even finish, he found himself being pulled in for a hug.

"Thanks, Dad," Vicki whispered, smiling as she rested her head on his shoulder.

"Ah...you're welcome, Vicki....but d'you think you could let me get inside before you start with the hugs?"

The brunette gynoid giggled a bit, stepping back to let Ted cross the threshhold. "I never thought I'd be so glad to be back here," she admitted. "After all the stuff that happened with Faceless...hell, even after Oberon said all that stuff about not hesitating if he had to.....well, you get the point, and none of that's what I'm thinking of right now." She giggled again; "Right now," she added, "I just want to go lie down and sleep for a full day, maybe two---you look like you could use a nap yourself, by the way. In the meantime....." Vicki allowed herself to flop down onto the couch. "How much trouble am I going to be in when this is over?"

Her question prompted a confused stare from Ted. "I, ah, don't follow you---"

"You don't have to lie, Dad....I know that the ALPA is probably pissed at me for some of the stuff that I've had to do." Vicki sighed; "At least tell me how much of the bill for rebuilding the HQ I'm going to have to cough up, so I can start setting aside my cash so they'll have enough to foot the bill."

At that, Ted couldn't contain his laughter. "Vicki, the floors of the HQ you wrecked had been vacant for a long while---the R&D department was going to expand into them anyways, and you basically helped the process along...." His smile faded along with his laugh. "As for the other things...namely, what happened in Dawley between you and the Maestro---"

His words were cut off by a knock at the door. "If it's an insurance salesman," Vicki teased, "tell him we don't need any."

Ted was about to say something in response to the lame joke when he opened the door---and found an all-too weary Oberon standing on the other side, accompanied by a gentleman in a pinstriped suit who looked oddly familiar. "Any chance you have a minute to talk to a pair of very tired men who've been filling out an ungodly amount of paperwork for an hour or so?" the ALPA Chairman inquired, smiling weakly. "I come bearing gifts, as well---including one Vicki may be interested in reading."

Vicki nearly tripped trying to get up from the couch and reach the door, only for Ted to politely ask her to stand back and let their two guests enter---which they did, followed by Oberon nearly falling on his face when he reached the couch. "Might've had a bit too much of the cognac," he admitted.

"You only had two," the pinstripe suited man reminded him.

"And I conveniently forgot to mention the stuff goes through me like fire through ice," Oberon replied. "It's not important, anyways....we're here to give you the news in person, regarding your future with the ALPA and all that wonderful stuff."

So we're getting to that now..... "How much trouble am I in, then?"

Oberon nearly fell off the sofa laughing. "Trouble?! Vicki, you seem to have a remarkable lack of faith in your actions as of late---you're not in trouble, believe me." He calmed down a bit; "Well, you're not going to be seeing jail time or the inside of a DeComm chamber, at the very least," he corrected. "You are going to be spending the rest of 2011 and most of 2012 in the United States, though....Clive and I thought it best to, ah, revoke your travelling priveleges for the time being."

"Fair enough. But what about---"

"Your attack on the Maestro was.....regrettable, to say the least. If he'd died, or been rendered a vegetable, we would've had a much harder time deciding whether or not to DeComm you. As it stands, he'll live---but it'll be an outright miracle if he walks again on his own two feet. Damn, where the hell have my manners gone? The gentleman who's been standing next to me waiting his turn to say something is Richard Baker, fresh off a successful stint as Patriarch of the United Kingdom branch of the House---the duties and privileges of which are being transferred to his new position as Patriarch of the House here in the United States of America." He gestured to Richard, who shook Vicki's hand and gave her a piece of paper. "A team of counselors from Stepford will be here next month to see you," he explained. "They'll be monitoring your mental state, your ability to handle crises at school and on the job, and other such things....and they'll be reporting directly to Oberon and Mr. DuBraul. My first order of business as Patriarch is to declare that you're effectively off-limits to the House, for the time being at least---not realizing that was Celeste's first mistake, among many."

"That makes sense," Vicki murmured. "So...what happens to me for the next few weeks?"

At this, Oberon gave her a reassuring smile. "You get to live your life, here, with your family. You get to forget about all of this for a few days, and just....live. No missions, no updates from ALPA HQ. It's not a reward, but it's not punishment either---to put it simply, it's what you need: a break."

The brunette gynoid nodded. "I was kind of hoping for one, after everything that's happened...."

"I think all of us were," Richard admitted. "I take it you'll be ready to resume work in September?"

"Now hold on just a minute," Ted protested, before Vicki could even get out of her chair. "She's just endured a very trying situation, and even with the rest of the month off to recuperate, she may still feel some after-effects of all of this---" A gentle tug at his shirt sleeve stopped his rant before it could get out of hand. "You don't need to protect me, Dad," Vicki assured him. "If they want me back to work in September, I'll be happy to help them out."

For a few seconds, Ted was too stunned to say anything...but he eventually settled for giving Vicki a hug.

"Now that is a heartwarming sight," Oberon declared. "Speaking of which, the Internal Affairs investigation into the Dawley incident has concluded that, while the injuries to Matthew Hannsen were severe, they weren't in any way life-threatening---meaning you won't be brought up on charges. Just....don't make a habit out of it."

Richard gave him a look. "I sincerely doubt she intends to 'make a habit out of it', Oberon."

"Just making sure she gets it. In any case...we'll be in touch if you need anything." With a pleasant wave, the ALPA Chairman and the newly-selected Patriarch of the House bade their farewells and turned to leave---but not before Oberon remembered one last detail. "Damn and blast, why do I keep forgetting these things?!" A quick search of his jacket turned up the what he'd wanted to hand over; "Thought you might want to read this," he informed Vicki with a smile. The brunette gynoid's call of "What is it?" fell on deaf ears as the Chairman followed Richard out the door; she gave Ted a quizzical look. "It might be something useful," he offered. "Heck, it might be plane tickets for our next vacation---we'll never know until you open it!"

Vicki sighed, rolled her eyes and tore the envelope open. "I just hope it's not from---"

Her words died instantly on her tongue. "Dad," she whispered, "you might want to take a look at this..."


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

I have no idea how to start this diary entry off, other than by saying that the last few days have been absolutely insane....but to be honest, I'm sort of glad things happened the way they did. For starters, I'm not being DeCommed---if I'd put Hannsen in a coma, I wouldn't be writing this right now. And there's the fact that my team and I put an end to Aaberg's little gun-running enterprise for the forseeable future, which means I won't be seeing him on any ALPA dossiers when I go back to work in September (which is Good Thing #3, if anyone's counting). Of course, the most important thing about all of this is the fact that, despite everything I've had to go through, I'm still me.

After what Faceless did to me last month, it took me a while to consider that concept, and even longer to even think of accepting it. Every time I had to make a decision, it felt like it was someone else making up my mind for me...or at least I let myself think that was the case. I guess some part of me just wasn't ready to admit that what happened to me on July 9 wasn't the end...or that I was too afraid to think that myself.

In any case, I know one thing for sure: There's nobody I'd rather be than me.

On any other circumstance, I'd end there, but I might as well end with some more good news: Everyone on my team (including me, obviously) will be receiving commendations for the op we ran against Aaberg, the floors of ALPA HQ that I had to bust up to get to Anton's lab are already being repurposed for the R&D department (so Ted won't have to foot the bill), and I get a two-week break before I have to go back to school. There's also some rather awesome news that Oberon himself told me about... ...but that's another story for another day.

For now, I'm just glad I'm still me....and that my family's happy to have me back under their roof for two weeks.

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

=======================================================================

And thus, the first season of The V.I.C.I. Diaries draws to a close.

Right now, I just want to thank everyone who's commented, contributed story and character ideas and helped me out in any other ways: Saya, DarkRexx, Baron, Gorgo, WilloWisp, Spaz, Kishin, LongTimeLurker, Uhoh, TW and, last but definitely NOT least, DollSpace---all of you have done more to keep this project going than I could've imagined possible. Also, thanks to the artists and other writers of Fembot Central whose work has inspired me---there are too many of them to name, but I tip my hat to all of you.

When I started The V.I.C.I. Diaries, I intended it to be a one-off---I never had any idea it was going to span over 3 years of my life, much less contain a full 20 stories in this first "season" alone. Now, with that season behind me, the inevitable question has to be asked: What now? What comes next?

The answer is pretty obvious: Sheer, undilluted, concentrated epicness.

Even with Vicki and company taking the rest of this year off, you can all rest assured that they'll be back for more adventure, mystery, comedy and tragedy (and maybe a bit of horror) next year. And yes, the loose ends I left hanging in this season will more than likely be tied up some time in 2014---or the year after that, or maybe the year after that. However things go, you can take comfort in the fact that, unlike the show this fanfic is based on, The V.I.C.I. Diaries won't be ending any time soon. Hell, some of the ideas I've got in mind for "Season 2" might make you wish this was on TV.....

....but I digress. It's been a wild, weird and wonderful ride so far, and I have no intention of slowing down when 2014 starts----Vicki would probably hate me for it if I did....and if she actually existed. And I could end this by going into a spiel about how she does exist in our hearts and minds...but instead, I'll say this: You ain't seen nothin' yet, and what you will see in 2014 is going to be....fantastic.


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