Cold Blood

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DISCLAIMER

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The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Cold Blood” contains scenes of intense violence (human vs. human), graphic murder and brutal fight scenes (human vs. gynoid) and a trauma-induced malfunction. Some of this material may be disturbing to some forum members who are averse to graphic descriptions of killing and violence.

If that sort of thing is, well, your thing, on the other hand…just keep it to yourself.

Long story short: There’s no sex in this story, and no sex-induced malfunctions. This is a story about how a gynoid gets pushed to her breaking point trying to deal with a human serial killer, and what ends up happening to her when she nearly crosses the line and has to decide whether or not said killer should die. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not “robosmut” (not that there’s anything wrong with a good old robosmut story): This is Vicki Lawson vs. Faceless, and it is RAW.

Reader discretion isn’t just advised…it’s recommended.

Also, the last few pages may be emotionally traumatizing to some readers. I’m not going to ruin anything for you here, but let’s just say there’s going to be tears.

You’ve been warned.

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ALPA Monitoring Station – Cupertino, California – July 4, 2011, 12:04 A.M.

“….and you’re positive Epsilon won’t be a problem? Okay, okay, I’m just making sure…” Vince Nero sighed anxiously as he got the update on the Project Epsilon debacle from the ALPA head office; San Jose had seen enough chaos already over the past few months, and a psychotic cyborg would only add to their workload. “I just wanted to be perfectly clear….Epsilon’s not in the San Jose area anymore? You’re sure? Okay….I’ll hold.” He lowered the phone and stared up at the ceiling, already feeling like he needed a good night’s rest.

Of course, there was the small matter of clocking out first…

The ALPA’s Remote Monitoring Station in Cupertino was just on the outskirts of town---not close enough to be considered within the city limits, but just near enough so that nobody had to waste gas driving all over the damn place to find it. At its busiest, the building was only occupied by ten people at a time; seeing as how it was July 4, this particular day saw only seven ALPA employees---all human, as per the Monitoring Station’s regulations (they’d had problems with androids glitching out in the past)---were present.

None of them knew they wouldn’t live to see the Fourth of July celebrations they’d been looking forward to.

Alvin Winston, the self-described “Eddie Murphy of the ALPA” (not hurt by the fact that he bore a passing resemblance to one of SNL’s most famous graduates”), nearly fell out of his chair laughing at a story being told by Jay Silverstone, the oldest (and most respected) of the employees at the station. Mina Westbook did her best to ignore the two, focusing her efforts on the microwave so as to avoid nuking their Hot Pockets; a few feet away, Connor (he’d never told anyone if “Connor” was his first or last name, mostly to avoid the obligatory Terminator jokes that would’ve followed) was reading Asimov’s Robot Dreams (a popular choice with the ALPA crowd). Shelly Foster and Lori Winters, the only other two girls in the building, were poring over the latest app Shelly had bought from her iPad.

All of them, Vince Nero included, had dreams and ambitions, hopes of moving up in the ALPA’s ranks.

By the end of the night, those hopes would die with them.

“…and I’ll finish this story when I get back,” Jay promised the group. “I gotta go bleed the lizard right now.” He ignored the catcalls from the rest of the group, waving away their protests as he brushed past them on his way to the bathroom; his capacity for holding liquor had been legendary in past decades, but now that he was pushing seventy with a bum prostate, it wasn’t worth the risk to try and drink anyone under the table. Still, there was nothing wrong with the occasional beer now and the…save for the fact that it impaired his senses just enough for him to miss a black-clad figure standing at the end of the hall, watching…

…and moving…

The bathroom had been the only part of the building to be rennovated in the past few months, and for good reason; before enough money came in to upgrade it, the room was little more than a walk-in closet with a toilet.

Now, it had stalls, urinals---a perfect cover for someone to hide in.

Jay had just enough time to shuffle into the room and turn on the light before someone grabbed him by the back of the head, dragged him to the mirror and slammed him face-first into the glass. As he lay on the floor, coughing up blood and teeth that had been knocked loose, he had just enough consciousness left in him to see a black-gloved hand grab a shard of glass---and stab it into his throat, drawing the makeshift blade across his neck and severing his jugular vein.

Within seven seconds, Jay Silverstone lay dead.

Back in the break room, Alvin heard the sound of glass breaking; “Damnit to hell,” he muttered, “I told that old fool to bring a flashlight with him---JAY! YOU OKAY IN THERE, MAN?!”

Silence.

“I’ll go check on him,” Shelly volunteered, heading out into the hall---and noticing the emergency exit door was slightly ajar. “Guys,” she whined, “who left the fire exit door open? Again?!” A chorus of negatory responses drifted out of the break room, and she rolled her eyes at the lot of them. “Might as well close the stupid thing myself,” she murmured, heading over to the door to close it---

---only to notice that the dumpster outside was open as well.

“Oh, come on,” she groaned. “What is it with this place?!” She gave a frustrated sigh and headed over to the dumpster, shaking her head in annoyance. “Seriously, this is starting to get really old, really---“

Something slammed into her back with enough force to send her to the pavement.

Before she could even think of calling for help or trying to scream, that same something---someone---grabbed her by the hair, dragged her over to the dumpster and forced her to stare into it, with her neck resting on the edge of the bin. To her horror, the corpses of dead animals lay inside; they almost looked as if they’d been---

The lid of the dumpster was brought down on her neck with the force of a jackhammer.

Blood forced its way through her mouth, and trying to breathe became a labor in and of itself. There had to be some way---

Again, the lid of the dumpster was forced down on her throat.

Somehow, the impact shook her loose from where she “rested”, causing her to fall off the trash bin and hit the pavement with a brain-rattling thud. Even without her glasses, however, she could see the one whose attack had dropped her to the ground earlier…

…and she wished she hadn’t.

“N…no…not…you….”

Her attacker stared down at her silently.

“H…h…h…hel---“

She felt herself being lifted again, on top of the closed dumpster lid.

“Hel…help…” Her shout was reduced to a panicked bleat, nowhere near loud enough to be heard…

…though in a few seconds, the sledgehammer that her attacker was now weilding would make sure that no-one ever heard her cries---or any other words from her mouth---ever again. The thing looked like something used to crush blocks of ice at “radical” exhibitions of strength…if that thing slammed into her head….

“Help…me…”

The attacker raised the mallet.

“HELP---“

A thick, wet splat was the last sound Shelly Foster ever made.

Inside, Mila and Lori had decided to check out the app on Shelly’s iPad for themselves, too engrossed in it to notice the slamming of the door that she’d just gone to close. Connor, on the other hand, was already bored with the rec room; he’d been to monitoring stations before, and the pattern was always the same. Talk for a few hours, get bored, go smoke outside, get yelled at for it, go back to the rec room and stay bored all night.

There had to be something he could do to break the monotony…

…or not.

Cigs in one hand, lighter in the other, Connor headed out through the front entrance to take his unofficial smoke break. The night sky was almost picturesque---clear, starless and (most importantly of all) smogless. He smiled as he thumbed his lighter on, raising the cigarette to his lips---

---only to feel something constricting around his throat.

At first, he thought his asthma might’ve resurged---he’d managed to overcome it back in high school, with the help of inhalers and other drug treatments (ironic, considering he’d started smoking after graduating)---but he soon realized that the tightening feeling around his neck was from something being used to strangle him---in this case, the rope on the flagpole, pulled tight by two black-gloved hands. The breath caught in his throat as the lighter fell from his grasp, landing on the ground with a clatter…

…until the same hands that had been tightening the rope around his neck picked it up.

Even as he scrabbled at the rope, trying to free himself, Connor felt something being splashed on him---cold, smelled like stale piss…gasoline! At that moment, he felt certain that he was having a nightmare…

…and when he saw who had been strangling him and splashing him with gas, he wished he was.

6’1. Clad in black from head to toe, save for the bone-white mask that hid every inch of his mutilated face from view, except the cold, lifeless eyes. ALPA field reports had referred to him as “the Butcher of Lake Gilmour”, in reference to his two most infamous crimes; of course, he had his own preference regarding his name….

Connor tried to speak, to ask why he was being hanged from a flagpole and splashed with gasoline, but the rope around his neck was already wound too tightly. His vision was getting hazy; in a few more seconds, he’d be dead from asphyxia---

The lighter in his attacker’s hand flicked on.

One word cycled through his mind: NO!

Connor stared, helpless, as his murderer tossed the lighter at him and circled around the flagpole…

…and then, his entire world turned red.

The fire almost literally leapt onto him from the lighter, burning through his clothes and searing his skin in mere seconds. He barely felt the rope lifting him to the apogee of the pole, raising him to be a blazing beacon in the night. The cigarettes in his pocket began to shrivel up into withered husks---and at that moment, he remembered the can of body spray in his other pocket---

Slowly, casually, the black-clad killer strode into the monitoring station as the resulting blast turned Connor into a charboriled corpse.

Three down…

…four to go.


“What the hell just happened out there?!” Alvin demanded. “Did Connor just set off a bottle rocket…damnit, I told him not to pull this crap…” He shook his head, striding over to the front door. “CONNOR! You’d better get your ass back in here and---“

He stopped.

Saw the burned, ruined body hanging from the flagpole.

At that moment, Lori’s scream split the air in the hallway behind him; “JAY’S DEAD!” she shrieked, nearly tripping as she exited the bathroom. “What---what do you mean, he’s---“ Alvin stopped at the entrance of the restroom, staring at the blood-soaked corpse of his colleague on the tile floor. “Go tell Vince to get over here now,” he instructed Lori. “I don’t care if he’s on the phone, or whatever---just tell him to---“

Mina’s shriek cut off his sentence; “Forget what I just said,” he corrected himself. “Get to Mina!” Lori nodded and ran down the hall, silently praying that she wouldn’t meet the same fate as Jay had.

Instinctively, Alvin drew his sidearm from its holster and edged his way down the hall; whatever the hell was going on here, he knew that running around screaming like a moron wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. Lay back, think of a plan, and let cooler heads prevail…or, if all else failed, call the cops and tell them…what? That there was a slasher on the loose---

A sick wet sklitch---like someone cutting into a rack of beef with a sword---rudely interrupted his thoughts.

Just a few seconds later, a pained moan followed it.

All thoughts of subtlety left Alvin’s mind as he charged forward, gun raised to shoot whoever it was that had just attacked his co-worker; a vague memory of them on a “not-date” from a few years prior rose to his mind and was just as quickly dismissed. The two were friends, maybe more than that---but friends didn’t let friends get carved up like TurDukHens on Thanksgiving, did they? Hell no! He kicked open the rec room door, ready to spray hot lead---and nearly pissed himself.

Mina lay on the folding table in the middle of the room, her chest cavity completely ripped open. Worse, it wasn’t clean, the way autopsies are handled on CSI or NCIS---it looked like someone had stabbed her with the Jaws of Life with the blades closed, then slowly pulled them open…

….though the fact that Mina’s killer chose to bash Alvin over the head with a crowbar led him to reach a slightly different conclusion.

He was just able to turn himself over in time to see the crowbar descend again; a quick shoulder roll carried him far enough to avoid a second strike, which allowed him to avoid the skull-crushing force delivered by the weilder of the crowbar---a figure straight out of the ALPA’s worst nightmares.

He’d had a name like everyone else, once…but he dropped it in favor of his chosen title.

The Butcher of Lake Gilmour. The Dead Man Walking. The Man who Nuked the House.

The only human being to get hit with Detaining Grip at above-standard levels…and survive.

Once upon a time, he was known as William J. Rengold III.

Now…

…his name was just one word.

Faceless.


Another of Lori’s screams emanated from the rec room door; she’d just entered the room in time to see what had happened to Mina. She gave a horrified, wordless sob as she sank to the floor, no longer caring that the psychopath who’d killed her friends was ready and waiting to tear her limb from limb. It’d barely taken seven, maybe eight minutes from when Jay had left for the bathroom until now; as impossible as it seemed, she’d already lost four of her co-workers in that time frame.

As Alvin ran out to go find Vince, she had no idea that she wouldn’t live long enough to lose either of them.

For some reason, the image of her car stuck out in her mind as a place of safety, something that would get her as far away from this nightmare as possible. Yes, Vince and Alvin were her coworkers and friends, but they also had more experience in the art of self-defense than she did. There was no way in hell she could even hope to stand against a masked psychopath like Faceless and expect to survive; this thought ran through her mind as fast as she ran to the front door, ignoring Connor’s burnt corpse hanging from the flagpole. Her car was within sight; if she could just get in, start the damn thing and floor the gas pedal within the next fourteen seconds, she could easily---

The sound of footsteps rapidly approaching behind her effectively killed that line of hope.

Lori half-ran, half-stumbled for the car, already half-crippled by the grip of fear closing on her mind; if she couldn’t get to the car soon, she’d be as dead as her co-workers.

Feeling someone grab her by the back of her shirt really didn’t help.

She tore free of the garment, thankful for having had the foresight to put on an undershirt that morning; once it was off of her, she kept running for the car, hoping to escape her pursuer that way…

…only to feel the same hands that had torn her shirt off grabbing her by the shoulders.

What happened in the next few seconds would’ve made for a recurring nightmare, had she survived it; Lori felt herself being half-led to her car and half-thrown into it at the same time. Her impact against the driver’s side door shattered the window, dented the door and shook the entire car, in addition to knocking the breath from her lungs and leaving her in a crumpled, sobbing heap next to the underside of the vehicle. For a few brief moments, she actually pictured her attacker getting into the car and running over her skull with it---it would’ve been a truly horrifying way to die, feeling the weight crushing down onto her forehead (and her brain) until the very end.

Had she known what was about to happen, she might’ve actually preferred that method of death.

Those same damned hands that had thrown her at the car now dragged her away from it by the ankles along the pavement, cutting her arms and legs with every centimeter. By this point, she could faintly hear the steady droning hum of the electrical transformers that linked the monitoring station to Cupertino’s power grid---and a horrifying realization came over her. Her body had gone almost limp, but she was still conscious, still sobbing (and screaming, by now) and still aware as the man who’d slaughtered four of her friends lifted her by the shoulders towards the chain-link fence that was meant to keep bored kids or stoners from climbing onto the transformer and getting fried. Seeing as how someone had taken a bolt cutter to the thing and peeled it open, it wasn’t going to be living up to that purpose any time soon.

Also, it made it all the more easier for Lori’s killer to throw her into the thing face-first.

By the time the voltage stopped coursing through her, Lori’s heart had effectively exploded; her internal organs were effectively liquified, and she’d never even gotten a chance to scream for help.

Her killer, meanwhile, was already striding back towards the building.

The next bit was going to be…interesting…


“…and---hold on, the electricity’s being stupid. Just give me a minute, I’ll go check it out…” Vince shook his head; he’d been on the phone for at least 14 minutes, and in that time span, he’d heard snatches of sounds that warranted investigation. Someone had been yelling about the mirror in the bathroom earlier; one of the exit doors had been slammed (he’d lectured the group multiple times about why the doors weren’t supposed to be slammed), and now the damned lights were flickering.

What the hell kind of party are these people throwing?

That question would’ve given him a perfect reason to yell, had the circumstances been different; indeed, he was ready to start screaming at everyone as soon as he stepped into the break room…

…except when he got there, he had a very different reason to scream than originally intended.

Jay’s body was propped up in a chair, his head lolling back; the gaping wound on his throat was made all the more gruesome by the shard of glass stabbed into it. Shelly’s corpse was slumped over against the table, a conveniently-placed towel hiding her neck (and what was left of her head) from view. The slowly-spinning fan had a rope looped around its blades; a charred, blackened figure that Vince barely recognized as Connor was suspended from the rope, still smelling of gasoline and burnt flesh. Mina’s corpse was, for all intents and purposes, on display on the table Shelly was leaning on, dried blood and entrails hanging out of her flayed chest wound.

Through the window outside, he could see Lori’s still-smoking remains on the transformer; for some reason, Alvin was sitting behind the wheel of her car, bobbing his head as if he was either dancing…

…or trying to scream---

A clubbing blow slammed into Vince’s skull, sending him sprawling to the floor. He struggled to his knees, coughing up blood as he went---only to get smacked in the skull once again. Frantically, he scrabbled for grip on the tile floor, trying to pull himself further away from his attacker; his efforts proved fruitless, thanks to the black-gloved hands that hoisted him up and forced him to stare at the window. Once again, he could see Alvin frantically trying to scream through the duct tape around his mouth, but…there was something else…

…a reflection…of a white mask…

The realization hit him just seconds before he was hurled through the window: Faceless.

For a few seconds, he didn’t realize he wasn’t in the monitoring station anymore; apparently, the impact with the glass had given him a mild concussion. Random facts and statistics about blood clots, aneurysms and a few other quick and painless ways to shuffle off the mortal coil cycled through his mind at a fevered pace; the only thing worse than thinking about these things was knowing that his own death wasn’t going to be anywhere near as quick or as painless as dying in bed from a blood clot in the brain.

The blink-and-you’d-miss-it impact of a hard, metallic object against his head basically confirmed it.

Oddly enough, he didn’t really feel the second, third or fourth hits all that much; the first one hurt like a bastard, obviously, but after that, he just sort of…went numb. For a few, fleeting moments, the phrase “this won’t be so bad” drifted through his mind…

…followed soon after by a white-hot blast of pain shooting through his entire skull.

In the blink of an eye, the numbness was gone---as was the feeling in his legs, his arms, and everything above the beltline. He was faintly aware that his entire body was twitching uncontrollably, and that something warm and sticky was leaking out of the side of his head….

…only for a final strike to hit his skull, after which point he didn’t feel, hear, see, smell or taste anything at all.


From his vantage point in Lori’s car, Alvin tried his damndest not to piss himself as Faceless went to town on Vince with his own prize 9-iron. Vince was probably the third-biggest golfing fanatic in the entire ALPA, next to Clive DuBraul and Ted Lawson, and something about his favorite golf club being used to kill him qualified as cruel and unusual in Alvin’s book.

Twenty-one thwacks later, Vince twitched one last time and lay still, blood seeping out of his skull. Worse than that, however, was the fact that Faceless was now stalking towards Lori’s car. Alvin briefly thought of headbutting the psychopath, or at the very least---

The door was flung open, and Alvin felt the duct tape ripped away from his mouth before he was pulled roughly out of the car and thrown to the pavement. Faceless stood over him, the bloodied 9-iron still clutched in his right hand.

“You…you sick…WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, MAN?!” Alvin screamed. “We never did a damn thing to you---“

His sentence ended with a gasp as Faceless stooped to grab him by the collar, hoisting him to his feet. He no longer cared that he was pissing himself by this point; his focus was solely turned towards what the Butcher of Lake Gilmour had intended to gain from showing up at the monitoring station and massacring everyone inside. “What do you want from us?!” His words carried a helpless, pleading edge; not that there was anything he could do about it by this point..

The killer’s reply surprised him. “I don’t want anything from you people…other than what you’ve already given me.”

“What we’ve…already…..what?!”

Something in Faceless’ eyes told Alvin that the psychopath was probably smirking behind his mask. “You’ve all helped me to…send a message to a certain someone tonight,” he intoned. “You…colleagues…have already contributed to it, and now…” He threw Alvin to the ground, retrieving a gleaming object from one of the pockets on his coat. “…you’re going to add a nice little postscript to it.”

Another question escaped Alvin’s lips: “What the hell are you looking for?!”

The seven-word reply he received chilled him to his core: “I’m looking for Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson.”

No emotion, no spark of compassion or pity was in those words. In that instant, Alvin knew that someone, somewhere would have to be told about this, to keep Faceless from finding Vicki and obliterating her in the same way he’d obliterated everyone at the monitoring station. Part of him wanted to scream as the Butcher of Lake Gilmour raised the object he’d fished out of his coat pocket---a wicked, hooked knife---and held it aloft, like a bird of prey about to rip into a hapless victim with its beak. “I already know she hasn’t left San Jose,” he mused, in an almost conversational tone, “but…” A slow, hissing breath sounded from beneath the bone-white mask. “I just….have a feeling…she’ll come running once she hears about…” To Alvin’s horror, Faceless actually chuckled. “…all of this…”

Before he could even think of anything to say in response, Alvin saw the knife flash, descend---

---and a few short, merciful seconds later, he stopped seeing, hearing and feeling altogether.

Faceless stood over the corpse of his seventh victim of the night, savoring the thrill. He’d reached the quota once again with this one---21 back in his hometown, 14 at the icehouse in the Great White North…and now the number itself. Still, there was a lot of work to get done; the “proper authorities” would be on their way to lock down the scene in less than thirty minutes.

Another dry, mirthless chuckle emanated behind the mask. “Time to roll out the welcome wagon…”


“….this is just sick.”

Kevin Gayle shook his head, already regretting his decision to show up. “How in the name of all that’s holy and pure in this world does a guy show up and butcher seven people in twenty-one minutes?” he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Got all the specs?”

“I do,” Blair Murphy replied. “Jay Silverstone---former actor, age 61 years old…wrote and starred in a one-man play called ‘Man in the Mirror’ back in the 90s, made a decent reputation from it. Found in the bathroom, in front of the mirror…throat slashed by a shard of glass from that same mirror. Shelly Foster, age 34; worked at the local animal shelter to pay the bills for a while. Found outside by the dumpster; larynx crushed…same with her head, probably by a sledgehammer or some other heavy blunt object. Connor Myles, age 21…started working at the monitoring station as a form of probation for stealing from liquor stores. From what we can tell, he was hanged on the flagpole and then set on fire; they found what was left of a can of Axe in his pocket, which would explain why a chunk of his left thigh was missing….damn thing went off like a grenade---“

“I get the picture,” Kevin groaned.

Blair sighed and continued reading. “Mina Westbrook and Lori Winters, both 25; Mina did some local swimsuit modelling for a few months last year, and Lori was learning how to fix cars on the side. Causes of death: Mina…eviscerated with…something, probably a crowbar, and Lori was dead a few seconds after she hit that transformer over there.” He squeezed his eyes shut as he continued; “Vince Nero, 28….killed by repeated strikes to the head with a blunt object,” he droned, “which was then used for a post-mortem impalement; Alan Winston, 34, winner of the ALPA’s Best Costume award at the office Halloween parties for the past seven years…he was flayed alive and vivisected, with most of the internal organs removed.”

Kevin stared at the list. “The ages,” he muttered. “Other than Vince, they either total to seven, or they’re multiples of seven…the bastard isn’t even trying to hide his involvement in this---“

“Ah, as…important as that is, sir,” Blair admitted, “there is something else you might want to take a look at…” He gestured towards the front door of the building. “Seems like our masked murderer got a bit…creative once the victims expired… “ He followed Kevin inside, shaking his head. “You’ll probably be able to figure out how he did all of it once you---“

The sound of Kevin stumbling towards a trashcan---followed immediately after by him emptying the contents of his stomach into it---drowned out the rest of Blair’s sentence.

“We’ve already got the vans lined up to take the bodies out,” Blair continued, after Kevin managed to stagger away from the can, “so…any time you feel like packing up the gear and getting out of here, we can just go; maybe let another crew---“

“How’d he leave?”

Blair arched an eyebrow. “Ah, sorry, what?”

“How’d he leave?” Kevin repeated. “Faceless…how’d he get away from here so fast?”

At this, Blair cleared his throat. “Ah…there’s no evidence to show that Faceless actually did leave, Kevin,” he quietly admitted. “Either he hopped a fence and crossed some private lots on either side of the grounds…or he’s still here---“

“Damnit to HELL, man,” Kevin snapped, “this isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation! We’re dealing with a psychopathic murderer here, not some common burglar---I need to know if he left this monitoring station, how he left, which way he went and where the hell he’s going---“

“Allow me to spare you the trouble.”

Kevin and Blair glanced back through the exit door, horrified beyond all rational thought: Faceless was standing in the parking lot, surrounded by the corpses of the crew that, just a few short minutes ago, had been loading the bodies of the deceased into vans. “If you must know,” he added, “one of your…retrieval vehicles parked over a sewer grate…you can probably figure out the rest for yourselves. As for where I intend to go…”

He cracked his knuckles. “I’m on my way to San Jose.”

“Like hell you are,” Blair began, heading through the door. Kevin managed to catch up with him in time to put a hand on his shoulder; “So….you’re not even going to fight us?” he called out to Faceless.

“I’d rather let you two walk away with your lives,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour replied, turning his back on the pair. “It helps to….spread the legend, if you will…gives more credibility to all the stories you people seem to love circulating about me on your pathetic social media sites…” He chuckled darkly. “A new urban legend for the modern age…kind of appropriate, really, considering I’m already a legitimate legend in some circles---“

“You’re letting us walk away, just like that?” Blair inquired. “We just go home, in one piece, and that’s it?”

Faceless stopped in his tracks.

“I said I’d let you walk away with your lives,” he corrected, glancing over his shoulder at the pair, “but I never said anything about leaving you in one piece…” He took one more step away from the pair, as if he really was just going to walk away…

…then turned on his heel and hurled something at the two operatives.

Instantly, Kevin and Blair felt needles in their shoulders, followed by an icy-cold numbness spreading through their bodies. “My own personal muscle relaxant,” Faceless intoned, “derived from a number of exotic plants and…other sources. When one’s own mission is ending the lives of others, one can’t limit themselves to just using the weapons that slash, stab and pierce…you two will be the first to see if my new tranquilizer can actually do what it’s meant to do without…unpleasant side-effects..” He strode towards the pair, retrieving a pair of knives from his coat; “You will be walking away from this little experience,” he informed them, “but not without a few battle scars of your own…it’s a pity I’m on such a tight schedule; otherwise I could get viciously creative with the pair of you. Not that it’ll matter in 21 minutes---I’lll be long gone, and you two….”

Again, the dark, mirthless chuckle. “You’ll find out soon enough, won’t you?”

Kevin watched, helpless, as the masked psychopath twirled one of the knives expertly in his hand; he’s got a damn balisong?! The balisong, occaisonally known as the butterfly knife, could technically be opened with one hand (though the technique was difficult to master)---and, by all standards, it was also illegal in Cupertino.

Considering Faceless’ stance on such laws, however….

A muted, gutteral scream issued forth from Blair’s lips as Faceless carved something into his left thigh with the butterfly knife; even though he was facing away from Kevin, the senior Field Agent could tell that the cuts were going deep, and that there was a strong chance of infection if someone didn’t get a first-aid kit into the building and cover Blair’s wounds. Faceless, of course, was too preoccupied to care; he methodically shoved Blair onto his side (allowing his wound to touch the bare floor) and began carving up his back.

Seven minutes later, Blair---his shirt and most of his pants cut away---lay bleeding and shivering on the floor.

“You should feel honored,” Faceless intoned, bringing the other knife---effectively a scalpel, with a lengthened blade that topped out at 5 inches---to bear within Kevin’s line of sight. “Yours will be the final line of the message that will send Vicki Lawson to me…and, by proxy, to her death…”

The tip of the blade touched Kevin’s leg; inside his mind, he screamed.

Ted Lawson’s House – San Jose, California – July 4, 2011, 8:30 A.M.

“Careful with those things, Vicki! If you drop that box---“

“I know, I know---Mom will have an aneurysm.” Vicki Lawson rolled her eyes at the joke---and at the irony of using her robotic monotone to drain the emotion out of such an obvious exaggeration. “I won’t drop the box, Dad,” she assured her father/creator (she always preferred thinking of him as the former rather than the latter, ever since the Big Upgrade), “so just chill out.”

Ted Lawson sighed. “I know, I know…I just don’t want the fireworks to go off before tonight.” He glanced out the window; “I have a feeling this Fourth of July is going to be one we’ll never forget, Vicki,” he beamed.

“I just hope it’ll be memorable for all the right reasons,” the brunette gynoid replied. “Remember last year, when the barbecue pit went up like a UFO after you tried using that ‘special lighter fluid’ someone from the office gave you?” She grinned. “The Fire Marshall couldn’t tell whether to be impressed or to haul you off to jail….of course, when we explained the situation to him in detail, he was a it more lenient than he would’ve been, given the ‘uniqueness of the situation’…” A giggle escaped her lips.

Despite his annoyance at her mentioning the incident, Ted couldn’t help but smile at Vicki. “Well, at least nobody got hurt,” he agreed. Both of them already knew better than to mention the other disasterous incident with fireworks that had affected their lives---specifically, Vicki’s rescue of Jamie from a shed during a late-night outdoor performance of “The 1812 Overture”, where a certain someone who hated the Lawsons with more than just a typical vengeance had rigged the pyrotechnic gear in the shed to go off exactly when the cannons in the song were fired---every blast firing right as Vicki ran past, burning off her exoskin and nearly destroying her in the process. “Let’s just hope that this July 4th doesn’t end with you getting another extreme makeover,” he added, prutting a humorous emphasis on the words to lessen the memory’s impact.

“If I do have to get one,” Vicki mused, “any chance I could come back blonde this time?” She made a pouty face and batted her eyelashes at Ted; “I just think I’d look marvelous,” she purred, her Marilyn Monroe impression prompting a laugh from the Lawson Robotics founder. “It’d be a nice change from this boring brunette look, don’t you agree…daahhling?”

Father and daughter shared a laugh at the cornball act. So he has overcome that memory…finally.

“Sometimes I think you’d do great in showbusiness, Vicki,” Ted chuckled. “Of course, if we’d been able to bring you to Hollywood instead of Vanessa…things might’ve gone a lot better for us all then they did---most importantly---“

“I get it,” Vicki insisted. She’d heard the tail of Vanessa’s shennanigans after the Lawsons returned to San Jose, with Vanessa deactivated and stowed in the trunk of the car. The “mechminx” herself had conned Vicki into getting back into her cabinet, “borrowed” one of her outfits and tagged along for the trip before trying to lock Ted, Joan and Jamie in a fake dungeon and obliterate them with a crushing wall; only the intervention of Ted’s sponsor for the trip kept them from gettting squashed. “Y’know, I’ve been wondering what happened to Vanessa after we moved to Palo Alto,” she mused. “Didn’t you say you wanted to have her live with your folks in Nebraska?”

At this, Ted shook his head. “She’d have been way too much for them to handle, believe me…I mean, I was able to give her the same appearance upgrades I gave you for a while, until…” His expression darkened; oh, scrap…he’s thinking about the attack again….

One of the most traumatic incidents in the Lawson family’s storied history had occurred at midnight on January 1, 2000. After a day of testing to ensure that the “Y2K bug” wasn’t affecting her systems, Vicki had gone to bed early to reacharge her backup power cells…only to have her rest violently disturbed when a black-clad, white-masked figure jumped through her window and chased her out of her room. When the intruder tried to grab her, she’d reflexively knocked his mask off---

---and, for the first time in her life, Vicki Lawson had stared down her most hated enemy.

Faceless.

“I got over it, Dad,” she reminded Ted. “It took me a few weeks---it took all of us a few weeks, really…but I got over it…and after what happened to him in May, I don’t think the ‘Butcher of Lake Gilmour’ will be bothering any of us anymore.”

Ted nodded. “I know…it’s just…I never thought something like that could happen to us…to you…..”

“Well, that’s why my window’s made of gorilla glass now,” Vicki beamed. “Unless Brock Lesnar decides to start breaking into random houses by punching through upstairs windows, I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about…and for the record, if some MMA musclehead does try to punch their way into my room for any reason at all, they’re getting a facefull of Detaining Grip and a trip to the ER.” She wiggled the fingers of her right hand, allowing the electricity from her built-in “tazer-grip” to dance across her palm.

“DAD! THE TOILET WATER’S TURNED GREEN!”

The shout from upstairs prompted an annoyed sigh from Ted; “Shall we?” he asked.

“Might as well…GIVE US A MINUTE, JAMIE!” She set down the box she’d been carrying. “Last week it was the sink acting up, now the toilet water turns green,” she muttered. “How does toilet water turn green, now that I’m thinking about it?”

“Either the plumbing’s not working correctly,” Ted replied, “or someone dumped something down the toilet that they shouldn’t have dumped…and no, I’m not saying that happened here…probably happened across town at two in the morning, when everyone else is asleep and nobody even thinks they’ll wake up to a toilet full of green water…” He stopped, glancing at Vicki. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I?”

Vicki made a pinching gesture. “Little bit.”

“Sorry…it’s just, I’m really anxious about this Fourth of July get-together thing!” Ted ascended the stairs, the conversation continuing as he went. “I want everything to go off without a hitch---is that so wrong?”

“Considering the fact that our toilet looks like something you’d see after a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration,” Vicki replied, “you might want to consider reprioritizing…but then again, that’s not really my business, so…yeah.” As if life in the Lawson household couldn’t get any crazier, we’ve got green toilet water now…and I can’t really bring myself to care. She grinned at the thought of Joan lecturing Ted about the bathroom situation; neither of them had gone through any major arguments ever since Vicki had been given the Big Upgrade, but she had faint memories of small incidents involving layoffs, strikes and other such matters beforehand. I just hope we don’t have to put up with any more of that any time soon, she mused, otherwise…

She decided not to pursue that line of thinking any further.

Upstairs, Jamie and Ted were puzzling over what could’ve tinted the toilet water with a rather bizarre shade of green. “Think somebody dumped their chemistry set down the drain, or something?” Jamie mused. “I mean, how else does someone turn toilet water green---“

“I don’t know,” Ted huffed. “I’m a roboticist, not a plumber…”

Vicki couldn’t help but giggle at the scene; Ted, who usually had everything organized to a “T”, was flustered by a change in the color of the toilet bowl water. “As long as it’s not harmful to anyone around the house,” she mused, “we could always just…I don’t know, let it go for the time being?”

Ted sighed. “Vicki, it’s times like this I’m glad I gave you the Big Upgrade,” he muttered.

“And why is that?”

“You always help me to put things in perspective.” He grinned and kissed the brunette gynoid on the cheek; “I still need to get someone out here to take a look at this as soon as possible,” he declared, brushing past Vicki and heading for the nearest phone. “If we can get this thing taken care of before your mother gets back…she’ll have a fit if she finds out---“

“About what?” Joan called from downstairs; a thumping noise followed by someone else muttering.

Before Ted could offer an explanation, Jamie shouted over his shoulder: “THE TOILET WATER’S TURNED GREEN, MOM!” Vicki tried and failed to stifle another laugh.

“Green toilet water?! Oh, Ted---“

“IT’S NOT MY FAULT! Jamie told me about it earlier, and I was just trying to…” Frantically, Ted glanced at Vicki and Jamie. “You two stay up here and, ah, try to figure out how to turn the toilet water back to its usual color,” he instructed. Jamie shook his head; “Toilet water doesn’t have a color,” he groaned. “It’s water…as in clear….”

“Not after one of your ‘morning constitutions’ to the bathroom, it isn’t,” Vicki began, only to feel something hit her in the arm. “Were you even trying that time?” she teased. “Actually, don’t answer that---we need to finish helping out with the downstairs stuff.”

“What happened to Dad telling us to stay put?”

The brunette gynoid chuckled. “This isn’t 1986, Jamie,” she reminded him. “We can go downstairs and finish helping load the fireworks into the van without having to worry about getting grounded.” She gave him a playful wink; “Besides,” she added in her robotic monotone, “I thought the ‘Big J’ would want to show how responsible he is when it comes to handling stuff like this.” She punctuated the sentence with a rendition of her old, “show off all your teeth” smile she’d “learned” from Jamie back in the 80s.

“You sure that upgrade of yours doesn’t need an update?” Jamie muttered as Vicki half-skipped away.

Downstairs, Derrick Snyder and Garth Pierce---both of whom had relocated to San Jose after a shakeup within the ranks of the House in Detroit---were hefting boxes of fireworks and moving them to a van parked on the Lawson house’s lawn. “Glad you finally decided to join us, Vicki,” Garth beamed. “What’s this I hear about your toilet water turning green?”

“I don’t even know the full details myself,” Vicki admitted. “Glad to see you two have adjusted to San Jose so quickly, by the way…” She grinned. “I take it you’ve already been given the grand tour by our very own Mr. Tell?”

“It wasn’t a tour so much as it was him nearly putting the car over fifty different curbs,” Derrick corrected, only for Garth to throw an arm around his shoulder. “Apparently, Derrick has become a fan of cycling,” he informed Vicki. “As in, riding a freaking bicycle around and not putting all those servo-driven muscles to good use---“

“What’s wrong with riding a bicycle?” Ted called out as he re-entered the living room.

Garth arched an eyebrow. “Well, for starters, if you brake too hard you fly over the front end and bust your---“

“We get it,” Ted, Vicki and Derrick replied in unison. Derrick sighed; “Dad never could get over the irony of someone from the ‘Motor City’ having such an affinity for bike-riding,” he mused. “Apparently, he thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world…”

“I’ve seen funnier,” Vicki assured the android. “C’mon, help me with this box…”

ALPA Safehouse, undisclosed location in Silicon Valley – July 4, 2011, 9:15 A.M.

Major Thomas Stephen Lane, formerly of NASA, stared at the two men on hospital-issue beds before him, a familiar feeling of disgust creeping through his mind. “He did all of this to them,” he muttered, “carved ‘em like a pair of pumpkins…and then let them walk away….someone needs to kneecap that bastard…”

Kylie Lyndon, the newest Field Agent assigned to work alongside the Major, said nothing. She’d had her own experience with getting mutilated less than 48 hours beforehand (her back was still covered in gauze pads and medical tape), and was all too aware that saying the wrong thing could easily set the “Impossible Astronaut” off on a rant.

After a few more seconds of silence, Tom headed for the observation room where Kevin Gayle was recovering, motioning for Kylie to follow.

Thanks to the extent (and somewhat unique nature) of his injuries, Kevin had been forced to forgoe the usual casts and “mummy-wrap” bandages in favor of an experimental new clear-plastic covering that fit over his limbs and face (with eye, nose and mouthholes) as a shield against bacteria and infections, all while allowing observers to get a close look at his wounds. “I feel like an MOC action figure,” he quietly joked, chuckling as the Major walked in. “How’s everything going, Tom?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” the Major replied. “And you do sort of of look MOC, now that I think about it…” He briefly cracked a smile. “Holdin’ up okay in here, Kev?”

“More or less.” Kevin glanced at his arms, the deep gashes cut into his skin somehow looking like an ornate map to a long-forgotten world…or (as he personally believed), an ancient curse damning him to suffer for all eternity. “Hurts like a son of a bitch any time I have to move,” he admitted, “other than talking, using the piss bag and breathing…” His smile faded. “I can’t even move my hands without feeling like I just stuck my finger in the socket,” he muttered. “Everything just…hurts.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t bleed to death before we got there,” the Major intoned. “I mean, I get why you crawled over to Blair and turned him over, but….” He glanced at the chart. “You’re pretty damn lucky,” he repeated.

Kevin shook his head. “Luck didn’t have anything to do with it. He wanted us to be found.”

At those words, Kylie felt a shiver of fear go up her back; she’d only heard rumors about the man they called Faceless, but she’d never expected that even he could be cruel enough to do something like this. “Did you get a good look at which direction he went when he left?” she asked.

The Major gave her a look, and Kevin laid back on the pillow.

“What?! I’m just asking---“

“Kevin and Blair were tranquilized,” the Major informed her. “They were bleeding all over the place, and if the circumstances had been different by just a few degrees, they’d both be dead right now. We’re damn lucky we were able to bring them back alive…” He retrieved a folder from Kevin’s bedside table. “I understand the forensics crew had you on some rotating frame thing to get all these pictures,” he mused. “I’d ask how it felt, but something tells me you’d just try to kick my ass...”

His remark prompted a laugh from Kevin. “Believe me, kicking your ass is the last thing on my mind right now…anyways, the harness didn’t hurt as badly as I thought it would. Being put into it and taken out of it was painful as all hell, but….other than that, can’t complain.”

“Good. Complaining hurts more than it helps…literally, in this case.”

In other circumstances, Kylie would’ve elbowed Tom in the side for such a lame remark.

“We’ve been tracking Faceless’ movements around the country ever since the incident in May,” Tom stated, moving just enough to let Kevin see the monitor that pivoted down from the ceiling. “It looked like a bunch of randon stuff until now---somehow or other, he got all the way to Boston, attacked a university owned by one Petra Malin Fawkes…the students were gynoids. Twenty-eight of our best support staff responded to the scene, and only one of them survived…until a search found what was left of him in the parking lot of an ice house in Canada. We think Faceless tried to attack the workers there, but he only got away with a sledgehammer. He showed up in his hometown of Lake Gilmour back in June. Cut a flash mob to ribbons---twenty-one people, killed in broad daylight. Turned up a week later in Oregon, at an ALPA server farm, killed 14 staffers and left seven more wounded…and now this.” He shook his head. “Pity Faceless never had his own Dr. Loomis…we need someone who can help us follow him whenever he goes on these ‘sprees’---“

“Don’t bother,” Kevin interjected. “He…pretty much told us why he was doing what he was doing…hell, he even said why he wanted to carve us up before he did it….”

Tom forced himself to stare at the monitor. “And why was that?”

“He wanted to get Vicki Lawson’s attention.”

Major Tom and Kylie exchanged stunned looks. “You’re kidding,” the Major muttered. “Dear God, please say you’re kidding…”

“Those were his exact words,” Kevin quietly replied. “He wanted to get Vicki’s attention. Said everyone who got killed at the monitoring station was going to be part of the ‘message’ he sent to her.” He glanced down at his arms again; “Didn’t think he’d be quite so literal about that part,” he admitted, “but then again, this is Faceless we’re talking about…”

Kylie turned away, not wanting to focus on the Latin writing carved into Kevin’s arms, legs and face. “How did he even know we had someone here who speaks that language?” she whispered to the Major. “I mean, we’ve never gone out of our way to---“

“He knows Oberon’s on our side,” Tom replied. “Case closed.”

Even as Kevin sighed and stared at the ceiling, there was something about the Major’s attempt at finality that just didn’t sit well with Kylie. “You’re saying that Faceless ‘knew’ Oberon was going to get those reports first, and that he carved up these two just so he could see the results?” she inquired. “That’s a whole lot of---“

“Assumptions?” Major Tom snapped, turning to glare at her. “Conjecture? Wild mass guessing? Call it what you like, Agent Lyndon, but I’m calling it for what it is---the truth. I’ve worked ops against Faceless for a good long while now, and I know how he thinks. He carved up Blair and Kevin to prove a point to us---that nobody in the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency is going to be enough to keep him from getting to Vicki---and he carved that message in Latin because he wanted to say something extra-special to Oberon himself…”

His eyes narrowed to slits. “…basically, he’s challenging us to stop him before he gets to San Jose.”

“So let’s stop him already!” Kylie insisted. “Call in the reinforcements---“

“WE CALL IN THE REINFORCEMENTS,” Tom thundered, “AND HE’LL SEND ‘EM ALL BACK TO US IN BODY BAGS! This is NOT the part where we just ‘call for backup’, Agent Lyndon…this is the part where we buckle down and get everyone into position around San Jose BEFORE HE SHOWS UP.” He stared her down without flinching; “That’s the mistake they made the first time at Haddonfield, and that’s the mistake they made at the Lake,” he muttered. “They waited until the last damn minute to prepare…”

Kylie shook her head. “This isn’t Haddonfield,” she insisted, “and Faceless isn’t like---“

“I KNOW G__DAMN WELL WHAT FACELESS IS LIKE!” Tom shouted, pounding the bedside table.

Silence filled the room for a full minute.

“We’re calling all our people to get into position,” he breathed, “and then---what? Why the hell are you looking at me like….”

He stopped.

Noticed the calendar on the wall.

“Oh, hell….”

“The ALPA’s Independence Day picnic,” Kevin muttered, groaning. “That psychopathic freak is going to attack the picnic…Jesus, it’ll be a bloodbath---“

“The HELL it will.” The Major headed for the door, ignoring the stabbing pains in his leg. “Get Oberon on the horn and tell him to roll out the cart---I’ll need a lot of hardware for this one.” He didn’t slow down until a bone shard in his knee shifted; he drew in a sharp breath, hissing as he grabbed at his knee. “This is too much,” he muttered, grinning in spite of the pain in his knee. “I said we needed someone like Loomis, and look at me…barely able to make it down the hall without a cane…” He managed a short, barking laugh at the sheer absurdity of his predicament.

Kylie caught up with him and eased him over to a bench. “The only hardware you’ll need right now is a knee brace,” she informed him. “You’re not going after Faceless like this, Major…”

“I know. I just…I’ve spent most of my ALPA career keeping tabs on that lunatic; he’s been running across state lines, over the border into Canada and back on this stupid ‘spree’ of his, and this is the closest we’ve come so far to actually catching him---“

“---and you want to be there when we slap the cuffs on him?” Kylie finished.

Tom chuckled mirthlessly. “Can you blame me?” Kylie shook her head. “I get why you’re obsessed with catching him, and I can tell that seeing him get brought down would take a lot off of your conscience…but Faceless has a knack for striking right when he looks like he’s at his weakest…and yes, I know that you already know that. I’m only mentioning it now---“

“Because you don’t want him to put a needle laced with paralytic right through my heart,” Tom muttered.

The statement didn’t annoy Kylie as much as it stunned her; “Someone has to care about your well-being,” she replied after a few seconds of silence. “Those frat-boy, rocket-jockey guys you used to hang out with were the same ones who’d be at your bedside in the hospital every time one of your test flights went wrong, so I know you’ve dealt with this sort of thing before…” She stared at the Major’s knee, trying not to wince at the dot of blood slowly blooming on his pants leg. “You can’t keep doing this forever…you’re only human.”

“So are you,” Major Tom replied, “but I don’t see you beating yourself over it.” It took Kylie a few seconds to realize Tom had just made a joke at her expense. “You’d prefer it if I wasn’t?”

“I’d prefer it if you helped me up off this damn bench.” With a grunt (and Kylie’s help), the Major lifted himself into a standing position. “Right, you’re on Faceless-tracking duty now,” he informed her. “You follow him to San Jose and kick his ass if need be…I’m staying here to keep watch over Kevin and Blair.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Kylie turned on her heel and strode away; “Agent Lyndon!”

“Yes?”

The Major grinned. “Make sure to kick Faceless in the jewels…as a gift from me.”

ALPA Barbecue – San Jose, California – July 4, 2011, 12:25 P.M.

“So,” Vicki mused, “think we’ll top last year’s barbecue with this one?”

Joan sighed. “As long as your father stays away from the grill, we shouldn’t have a problem.”

The ALPA Fourth of July barbecue was, so far, going off without a hitch; the stage had managed to remain standing without the need of a flatbed truck propping it up, nobody was complaining about the food tasting “off” or looking as if it had been trod on (last year had seen hamburger patties that bore “boot marks” thanks to the hardware at the processing plant they’d shipped from), and the entertainment (provided by Alicia 5 and the ALPA’s house band, which originally used a “funny and meaningful” version of the ALPA acronym suited to music but dropped it after they realized it sucked) wasn’t trying to upstage everything else.

Also, nobody’s kids were running around and throwing water balloons all over the place

“I think the ‘no kids’ idea was a good thing, personally,” Vicki admitted to Joan. “I mean, if I were charging in the corner booth over there, and someone kicked in the door and sprayed me with a Super Soaker---“

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Joan advised. “It was bad enough last year when the ‘Water Wars’ wound up on stage and nearly fried the poor guitarist; I’d hate to see something like that happen to you or anyone else this year.” She glanced over at the portable arcade that had taken the place of last year’s “Fun Corner” (aka a ball pit, moonbounce and mini petting zoo that had to be closed when the animals got out). “I wish Tell and his friends from Toborg’s could’ve found some better games to bring in,” she admitted. “I mean, it’s a bit late for me to complain about Mortal Kombat or anything else, but did they really have to bring in so many lightgun games?”

Vicki shrugged. “I guess it’s their preference…and at least they’re doing better than a certain someone at the DDR booth!” She stifled a giggle and gestured towards the Dance Dance Revolution machines, where Garth was completely and utterly ruining Jamie. “He looks like he’s about to fall over!”

“Well, he is trying to do at least five moves at once,” Joan admitted. “Maybe he just needs to---“ Her sentence ended in a barely-concealed laugh as Jamie tried to do a Michael Jackson-esque spin---which required him to let go of the guardrail---and lost a shoe as he fell off the platform into the mats surrounding it. “I…I think we should see if he’s okay,” Joan advised in between chuckles; even though the spill looked bad, the mats around the dance platform lessened the impact considerably.

The brunette gynoid nodded her agreement. “He’s probably just a bit dizzy, with a bruised ego to boot.”

As the afternoon continued, the audience was treated to Ted’s lecture on the “Wonderful World of Myogel”, which he’d been working on for at least a month in advance. Not surprisingly, Tell’s “speech”, which followed immediately aftr Ted’s, degenerated into a Nerf® swordfight with Anton Malvineous halfway through (he claimed he didn’t want the audience to sleep through the entire afternoon). A few ALPA staff members sang songs (or, in one case, performed an interpretive dance routine), and at least one tried to juggle. Vicki even took to the stage to give a speech on how her life had changed for the better since she’d become a Field Agent, which earned her a fair share of applause and cheers from the crowd.

By 3 PM, everyone had swapped stories, had a laugh or two and generally enjoyed themselves. For all intents and purposes, it was one of those days where it felt like everything was right with the world. In the minds of those who’d attended both this year’s celebration and last year’s (in which Ted’s ineptitude with the barbecue pit had nearly resulted in an impromptu pyrotechnics display that only ended when the fire department showed up), it felt like nothing bad could possibly happen.

Unbeknownst to them, there was someone at the gate who was rather…determined to prove them wrong….

…in a very, very detailed fashion.


“…oh, for the love of---Clem, get over here and take a look at this!”

Frank and Clem chafed at the designation “rent-a-cop”, mainly because in their opinion, they didn’t fit the bill in any sense of the term. They were employed by the ALPA on an “as-needed” basis. Case in point---they were needed at the Fourth of July Barbecue.

Both men hailed from Texas, and had long since endured their share of “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” jokes and other such shennanigans. On this occasion, however, their minds weren’t focused on Tom Landry’s beloved Lone Star team; they had a more pressing matter to attend to…a hearse, parked across the street from the entrance to the BBQ, that wasn’t moving an inch. “What the hell is that thing doing over there?” Frank muttered, shaking his head. “Halloween’s a long ways off…CLEM! WILL YOU GET YOUR BUTT OVER HERE?!”

“Quit yellin’,” Clem grunted. “Wha’ya wan’?” Clem’s philosophy was “Less words, more action”, and he never missed an opportunity to exercise it.

Frank jerked his thumb at the vehicle across the street; “There’s a got-dang hearse over there,” he replied.

“So?”

“’So’?! So get your butt over there and tell the driver to move!”

Clem, who many said looked like a surlier, shorter Trace Adkins, glared at Frank for a full minute before giving a slow nod. “Your turn next time,” he muttered, setting off for the hearse and muttering under his breath. As it stood, he was already missing a showing of his favorite action films from the 80s (it was one of those “uncut, commercial-free” marathons he kept trying to catch); telling a hearse driver to move was not on his to-do list.

“Probably just some punk kids,” Frank muttered. “Buncha no-good…” He stopped, frowning; Clem had leaned into the window to tell the driver to move, but now he seemed fascinated by something inside the hearse.

“CLEM! WOULD YOU QUIT GAWKING AND GET BACK HERE?!”

Silence.

As he made his way to the hearse, Frank could feel a migraine coming on. He’d been hired to keep any and all “suspicious types” out of the barbecue, not to play traffic controller! “Clem,” he warned, “there’d better be a damn good reason for you just sitting there…ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?! I swear, Clem, it’s like---“ He stopped, watching in horror as Clem’s lifeless body fell to the ground. A seven-inch gash had been sliced into his neck, severing the jugular vein and effectively ending his life within seconds.

Frank felt himself stumble backwards, forcing himself not to look at the fallen body of his coworker…

…but what---or, more accurately, who---he saw inside the hearse was even more terrifying.

The darkened interior of the vehicle made it appear that only the white mask staring out at Frank was actually present, but as the door opened, the retreating guard got a good look at the black-clad figure who wore that dreaded mask. A glint of silver, stained with red, portruded from the man’s right sleeve---

---and that was all Frank needed to see before he turned to run.

A very, very bad move on his part.

Something hit him in the small of the back, followed by a sensation of numbness flodding through him…but it wasn’t enough to deaden the pain a few moments later, as he felt the bite of a cold, steel blade against his neck, followed by a sharp, sudden pain…..


Tell stared at the walkie-talkie monitor on the folding table in front of him, frowning. “Frank and Clem should’ve called in by now,” he muttered. “It’s been…what, four hours?” He shook his head in annoyance. Dinner was about to be served (again, everyone was thankful that a new supplier of hamburger patties and hot dogs had been found before the BBQ), and the fireworks display was to begin shortly afterwards; both Frank and Clem were on tap to guard the backstage area from any and all saboteurs.

For some unknown (and probably stupid) reason, they weren’t responding.

“Ted’s going to have an aneurysm, I can see it now…” With a bored, frustrated sigh, he headed out to the front gate to see what the hell the problem was. “IF I CATCH EITHER OF YOU TWO PASSED OUT OVER A JAGER,” he called out, “I’M KICKING YOU BOTH OUT!”

Neither of them responded to his threat.

“Are they that stupid?!” the field mechanic muttered. Within the ALPA, rules were rules---failure to respond to an event coordinator (or anyone in charge of an op, for that matter) was grounds for an automatic termination of employment. Even Vicki’s apparently beligerence when she refused to obey Eric Reaves’ orders during the Epsilon op had been a response (the correct one, even)…but even though she had probable cause to ignore Reaver’s orders, Clem and Frank didn’t have the luxury of a hunch to go on, or any other excuse Vicki might’ve had. They were working the gate, plain and simple, and they were ignoring check-in times and flat-out refusing to call in…

…except there’s no way to tell if they’re refusing because they don’t want to call in, or because they can’t…

The realization hit Tell like a curveball to the side of the head (which, coincidentally, was what had caused him to briefly lose his sense of smell back in 2006): Something had happened to Clem and Frank.

Even as the thought occurred to him, Tell realized that he had another problem on his hands---if someone had taken out Clem and Frank (there was no denying the fact that they’d been killed), that someone could just as easily reach the fireworks display, “adjust” a few things, slip out the back and then disappear before anyone could even catch them in the act. Especially if that someone was wearing all black---

“Something wrong, Dave?”

It was harder to tell which startled the field mechanic more---a hand touching his shoulder, or Ted Lawson’s voice in his ear from out of nowhere. “Damnit to HELL, Ted, don’t sneak up on me like that!” he hissed. “You know I hate it when people do that…”

“Sorry,” Ted apologized, the smile already fading from his face.

“Not your fault,” Tell admitted. “I just…Frank and Clem haven’t checked in all day, and I have a feeling that they won’t be checking in ever again.” He glanced around quickly; “I think someone may have killed them, Ted---“

A whistling sound, followed soon after by an explosion that colored the sky with green sparks, cut him off.

“I told them to wait!” Ted groaned, ignoring the smatterings of applause at the display. “Why didn’t they---“

Another whistle streaked off---but this one was followed by screams, and the crackling of flames. “Remember that thing I said a few seconds ago about someone having killed Frank and Clem?” Tell whispered. “Well, I might sound a bit paranoid here---but I think that same someone is now trying to burn us all to a crisp.”

Yet another whistle---shorter, and ending with a sick wet thud---sounded.

“He’s not trying to burn us,” Ted realized, “he’s trying to nuke the hell out of us!”

Over in the main staging area for the barbecue, where everyone had been eagerly awaiting the start of the fireworks show, panic had firmly set in. It didn’t take too long for those present to realize that a few fireworks had been lit early and “accidentally” set fire to the grass---someone was deliberately aiming the things.

For Vicki Lawson, the identity of that someone wasn’t too hard to guess…

“Jamie, stay here with Garth and Derrick. I’ll be putting the fires out.” The brunette gynoid headed off in the general direction of the fire extinguishers, hoping to quell the blaze before too long---only to duck behind a row of chairs as a massive, 16-inch bottle rocket flew past her and slammed into an arcade machine, blowing it to high hell. “On second thought,” she amended, “I don’t have a problem hanging out with you guys for a few more minutes…”

A feedback loop from the PA system squealed to life, drowning out her words in a distorted guitar wail.

That’s the National Anthem, she realized. Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem….

…and seconds later, she saw exactly who’d triggered it.

The scene was reminiscent of someone emerging from the mouth of hell; the entire stage, support structures and all, had caught fire, blooming into furious life (and charred, blackened death) around the individual who now strode forth at a slow, unsteady pace from the arch Vicki herself was meant to step through before her performance of the Anthem. 6’1”, black-clad, white-masked, a machete in each gloved hand…he looked like a harbringer of Death.

Which, technically speaking, he was…for that moment, at least.

Not him…not now…..

Faceless stepped down from the stage with a slightly uneven gait, but not from a wound---Vicki soon realized that he had two more machetes strapped to his back, and one holstered on each leg. The ones currently in his hands soon found themselves embedded in the foreheads of two Field Agents who ran forward to stop him from making any further progress; the two on his hips were ripped from their sheaths, cleaving the forearms off of another Agent before being slid between his ribs and straight into his vital organs. Almost as if he’d been rehearsing the routine, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour cross-drew the final two machetes from their holsters on his back, decapitating one Agent and disembowelling three more within seconds.

A slowly blossoming pool of blood grew at his feet, stemming from the seven bodies on the ground before him.

He looked up…

….saw Vicki…..

….and smiled.

That subtle curve of his eyes---the only part of his face visible behind that damned mask---was all the brunette gynoid needed to realize that he was, indeed, smiling. He’d just taken the lives of seven Field Agents in little under that many minutes, and now…

More Agents ran towards him. Five, ten, twenty…all of them prepared to rip him apart with their bare hands.

They never even got close.

“VICKI! WE HAVE TO MOVE! COME ON!” The sound of Garth’s voice in her ear rang hollow, almost as if he were shouting at her from a tunnel. The strains of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” seemed to still echo in the air, even after the song itself had ended. This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, it’s not real…

Five more Field Agents were struck down by the twin machetes clutched in Faceless’ grip. Two of them fell without even getting a chance to fire a single shot at him; a third lost both his hands, then fell forwards and got a not-quite beheading. The Agent behind him was actually able to draw her gun---but after her left arm was broken at the elbow thanks to a brutal axe kick, there wasn’t exactly much she could do with it while the one she’d been aiming for bent another Agent over his knee, drew a knife from his shoe and buried it in the man’s chest. A throwing knife from his sleeve took out another Agent, and the one with the broken arm finally tried to fire her gun…and missed, prompting her target to put another boot-knife in her throat.

And still, Vicki refused to even consider the horrifying reality of what she was seeing.

“How in the HELL did that guy even get here?!” Garth hissed. “Vicki, we need---VICKI!”

He’s here for me.

The thought swirled around the gynoid’s mind with horrifying clarity. Faceless came all this way to get to me, and now he’s going to kill everyone else here until there’s nobody left but us---

“VICKI!”

A slap across the face snapped Vicki out of her morbid reverie; Garth was staring into her eyes. “We need to get out of here,” he intoned.

“I…I know---“

“Then let’s MOVE!” Garth pulled the brunette gynoid to her feet, ready to run across the lot---

---only to flinch as a Roman Candle hit the dirt seven feet away from them, setting the grass alight.

Vicki stared back over her shoulder, a sickeningly-familiar feeling of helplessness coming over her as Faceless brutally disarmed another Field Agent and gutted him in seconds. Two other Agents ran forward, prepared to avenge their fallen comrade, only to get mowed down by the machete.

Sixteen…he’s killed sixteen people so far…I can’t let him kill anyone else…

Someone tackled her to the ground, dragging her away from the carnage. “Vicki, let it go,” Garth’s voice whispered in her ear. “You go up against him now, he’ll wreck you…this isn’t the time to fight him! This isn’t the time…”

Even as she tried to crawl forward, Vicki knew Garth was right.

That didn’t make it any easier for her to go with him.

More heavy, wet crunching and tearing noises---blades being slammed into (and pulled out of) every single ALPA Field Agent who stood between Faceless and Vicki---filled the air, accompanied by screaming, wailing and sobbing…along with the occasional gurgle or death rattle. The brunette gynoid couldn’t bring herself to look back over her shoulder at any of the carnage; all she knew was that between the time Garth tackled her to the ground and what she was doing now, eleven more Field Agents had been killed.

Twenty seven down…

…too many more to go.

Part of her still wanted to turn back and stop him, to rip that damned mask off of his face, jam her thumbs in his eyes and ramp up Detaining Grip until his brain boiled…but that would only lower her to his level, and put her on the ALPA’s Most Wanted List.

By the time she found herself across the street from the carnage, Vicki realized that she’d been crying all the while as she ran. I didn’t even feel the tears, she mused. She also realized that Kylie Lyndon, her ex-hallmate turned Field Agent, was waiting---and that she’d been crying for far longer than Vicki had; she nearly tackled her to the ground in a hug when she noticed her.

“This is just….how did that freakshow even get here?!” Garth muttered. “I mean---“

A bottle rocket soared past, grazing his arm---and revealing plastic beneath his sleeves.

“DAMNIT! I just got my freaking prosthetics changed out last month…” He glanced at Vicki, who was giving him a confused (and somewhat distant) look. “I was in a car accident in ’06,” he explained. “Lost my right arm, my left foot and my right leg below the knee…all replaced with ALPA-grade prosthetics. Had to change out my left elbow in ’08 after a few too many ‘accidental’ hits to the arm in batting practice…it’s a pain in the ass getting these things swapped out after crap like this, by the way.”

“Oh,” was all Vicki could think to say in reply.

Ted, Joan and Jamie arrived three minutes later, and all three looked as if they’d been through hell---Ted was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Joan was noticably calmer (and shaking uncontrollably), and Jamie looked as if he was going to kick the crap out of anyone who so much as looked at Vicki the wrong way. For a few seconds, nobody spoke; the fireworks were still going off across the street, but the screams from Faceless’ would-be victims were no longer sounding between explosions.

“Well,” Vicki murmured, “here we are…”

Anything she could’ve said next was interrupted by Joan hugging her tightly; “I thought we were going to lose you,” she whispered. “When I heard that song, and the fire….I nearly panicked…”

“It’ll take a lot more than some wayward Roman Candles to take me down,” Vicki quietly replied. “And no, that time I had to rescue Jamie from the fireworks shed at the outdoor concert doesn’t count…though it was the reason I look the way I do now.” She allowed herself a tearful smile. “For the record, I’m glad all of you are okay, too…” She let the sentence trail off as she felt something on Joan’s back; “You’ve…been cut,” she gasped, staring in horrified shock at the blood on her fingers.

Joan balked. “It’s nothing---“

“Getting grazed by a machete doesn’t qualify as ‘nothing’, Joanie!” Ted snapped. “That lunatic could’ve killed you…” He collapsed to his knees, sobbing. “We have to get you to a hospital and get that wound taken care of, or---“

Somewhere in the lot across the street, a sickening crack split the air.

“It’s just a little cut, Ted,” Joan insisted. “I’m…starting to feel a bit woozy, actually…” Vicki helped her to her feet; “Ted, you and Jamie can bring her to the hospital,” she instructed. “Garth, wait here for Tell, so he can repair your prosthetics---Kylie, you’re coming with me.”

Once again, the air of finality in her words left no room for argument.

At least, until something buzzed to life with the ferocity of a mutant mosquito.

“Please tell me that’s not a chainsaw,” Jamie groaned.

“It’s too small to be one,” Vicki replied. “But---“

The buzz turned into a veritable roar, followed by someone’s scream being cut silent.

As one, Vicki, Jamie, Joan, Ted, Garth and Kylie looked across the street…

…and watched, horrified, as another ALPA Field Agent’s head fell to the ground, followed soon after by his body. Faceless stood behind the dead man, a hedge trimmer on a four-foot pole clutched in his hands like a quarterstaff from hell.

Vicki could only think of one word appropriate enough for the situation….

“RUN!”

The Lawsons, accompanied by Kylie and Garth, tore across the lot, not bothering to look back as the Butcher of Lake Gilmour charged after them, his newly-acquired weapon slicing through any obstacle in his path (the vast majority of which consisted of wooden lawn chairs, benches and other easily-destroyed objects). A few times, the blade of the trimmer smacked something it couldn’t simply slice through, throwing sparks and making an ungodly demonic scraping noise as it went.

Don’t look back. Don’t you dare look back, Vicki…just run….

By the time the group stopped, the realization had set in that they’d effectively gone in a circle---their “escape route” had led them right back to the lot where Faceless had begun his killing spree.

As soon as she realized where they were, Joan collapsed to her knees and wept.

Ted hung his head, and Kylie held onto Garth for dear life, sobbing into his shoulder.

Jamie just stared silently, too stunned to say anything.

Vicki didn’t need to say anything….mainly because the carnage before her summed it up rather effectively.

Thirty-five ALPA Field Agents, of varying age, race, and gender, all lay dead before them. The vast majority of them were missing arms and legs; a few unfortunate souls were missing their heads. Vicki could count seven with knives still buried in them. A few small fires still raged in the grass, but the stage had been completely and utterly obliterated by this point, looking like a hellish shrine of sorts.

Its appearance was rather fitting, seeing as how the entire lot now resembled Hell on Earth.

Thirty minutes later, as the ALPA’s cleanup crews supervised the loading of the corpses into armored hearses for transportation to the morgue, the brunette gynoid felt the uneasy feeling that, even with all of the destruction she’d borne witness to, this was nowhere near Faceless’ “crowning achievement”. Nor was it a spontaneous rampage, despite all appearances to the contrary; there was something about it that was just too…perfect, too well-organized to have been carried out at random.

And, of course, there was the matter of the body count…

He’s been planning this since May, she realized. Ever since Boris Vlatko put a bullet in his back, Faceless has been waiting for this moment, just so he can wreak as much havoc on my life as possible and see how long it takes until I crack.

A feeling she hadn’t experienced in a long while began to rise up in her…pure, undilluted hatred.

No---that won’t solve anything! If I attack him, if I stoop to his level and try to do what he’s been trying to do to me, I’ll be just as bad as him…or worse! There has to be another way to stop him, without letting anyone else get hurt….

…or worse, letting him ruin any more lives.


Elsewhere in San Jose, the ALPA’s Chairman watched the massacre unfold on twenty monitors, the footage taken from security cameras hidden at the venue for just such an occasion.

Not surprisingly, he was more than a bit disturbed at what unfolded.

“You’re not going to learn anything new from watching that footage,” Clive DuBraul intoned. As President of the ALPA, he held the power to have surveilance equipment installed even at normally innocuous events like a Fourth of July barbecue…and for good reason, considering the usual shennanigans the Coalition engaged in around this time every yee. “It’s the same footage our connections in law enforcement are getting, and they’ll see the same thing---“

“They’ll see that Faceless is playing to the cameras?” Oberon replied, never averting his gaze.

DuBraul stared at the floor.

“Every single one of these kills was executed within range of at least three different cameras,” the white-clad chairman continued. “He knew they’d been set up, and he knew that he wouldn’t get our attention unless he pulled off something as stupid as this…stupid and brilliant, actually.”

The remark prompted a sigh from DuBraul; “I’d hardly call a massacre like this ‘brilliant’,” he mused.

“Well, to be quite honest,” Oberon replied, an ugly edge to his voice, “it doesn’t matter what anyone would call it. We’ve lost 35 people at the barbecue, seven at the Cupertino monitoring station---he’s left a trail too big for anyone to ignore. And that’s not even counting the other kills that’ve been piling up since May…we should’ve had a team watching his every move after Vlatko shot him---and no, Boris won’t be next. Faceless is after Vicki Lawson---and he’s not going to stop until she’s destroyed.” He steepled his fingers and returned his attention to the footage. After a few more seconds of silence, DuBraul shook his head. “I assume you read what was carved into Kevin Gayle and Blair Murphy?” he asked.

“Read it, re-read it and tried to forget that I’d seen it in the first bloody place,” Oberon muttered. “This isn’t some grand game, DuBraul…Faceless won’t stop killing until he gets Vicki. End of story.”

DuBraul shook his head. “It’s not the end…not now, not ever. I refuse to just sit back and---“

“YOU’RE MISSING THE POINT!” Oberon thundered, whirling to glare at DuBraul. “This isn’t about what you want, or what I want, or what anyone else under the bloody sun wants or refuses to do---this is about Faceless, and his obsession with Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, and the fact that he’s killed a hundred or so people in less than three months just to get back to San Jose and ‘finish what he started’. That’s it. That’s all this is about. You can stop trying to project any ‘noble causes’ onto it, or acting like you just want to do what’s necessary…” He glanced back at the monitors. “You and I both know that there’s more than one monster in this story, Clive….”

The ALPA President stared at Oberon. “I sincerely hope you’re not blaming me for this,” he coldly intoned.

“Not you,” Oberon corrected, “us. All of us. The entire ALPA.” He turned off the monitors, rotated his chair to face DuBraul and retrieved a folder from one of the desk drawers; “All from the early 90s,” he explained to his confused colleague. “Back when neither of us were in control of this organization, and the so-called ‘moral pioneers’ up on Capitol Hill were willing to look the other way as long as the bosses flaunted enough cash at them…”

A lone tear fell from his face. “…back when we killed androids before they even had names.”

“You’re talking about me missing the point?” DuBraul countered. “You just said that neither of us had any true power within the ALPA in those days…now you’re dragging it back out of the mud---for what? What does any of this have to do with---“

“We let the Coalition post his bail.”

Those seven words stopped DuBraul in his tracks.

“We were so busy trying to keep the funds coming in and keep everyone happy that none of us even glanced at the form,” Oberon muttered. “We signed it, delivered it and just sat back and watched…and they set the bastard free.”

DuBraul stared, too shocked to say a single word.

“All this time, we’ve been worried about Epsilon, about the Stylo virus, about Hannsen and Harrington and all the bloody idiots who’ve been doing nothing other than faffing about and wasting each other’s money,” Oberon continued, “and we’ve never even had the slightest reason to even think of assigning a field team to monitor Faceless’ actions…” He sighed. “We’ve been too busy trying to reassure ourselves that we’re not the bad guys here, that we’re not the real monsters…and we let the worst monster of all go free.”

“This feels like the Manhattan Project,” DuBraul muttered. “’ Now we are all sons of bitches’.”

Oberon nodded gravely. “There’s still time to rectify this, you know,” he mused. “Have a team on him as soon as he leaves the lot and---“

The door to his office opened. “Ah, sir?”

“Come in, Crystal…we’ve finished watching the security feed of the attack.” Oberon gestured for his gynoid secretary to enter the room. “If you still have that report about that little incident at the Expo---“

“Actually, it’s…something else. You might want to read this in private….” Crystal handed Oberon a folder, casting an apologetic glance at DuBraul. “No offense, sir,” she murmured, “but this information was classified as….’eyes only: ALPA Chairman’….and, ah….”

DuBraul nodded. “I’ll set up an appointment for us to finish this later,” he declared, rising from his seat. “I’ll---“

“Wait.”

Oberon’s eyes never left the folder, but it was impossible to ignore the tone of command in his voice. “When was this information collected?” he quietly asked Crystal. “How many sources verified it, and how many of our contacts were able to pass this on before being neutralized?”

“Sources verified…neutralized contacts---what’s this all about?!” DuBraul glared at Oberon. “I thought we---“

“We are about to be knee-deep in the dead,” the ALPA Chairman groaned, “if we’re not already. Crystal, get Folder I9256-1147 out of the Archives, and call the third, fifth and eleventh numbers on Page 64. We’re going to need every bit of help we can get with this one…” He handed the folder back to Crystal. “As much as it pains me to admit it,” he added, returning his attention to DuBraul, “Faceless might not be our biggest problem at the moment---one of our men on the inside just overheard the Maestro’s latest call.”

At the mention of the Maestro, DuBraul’s anger vanished. “You’re sure it’s him? We’ve had a few dead leads and false alarms before…he might just be stirring the pot to antagonize us, just like last year. I mean, he called in a threat on his own life---

“This isn’t a prank, Clive…I think we may have just found something big.”

DuBraul sighed, feeling more than a bit powerless in the face of this development. “Any suggestions?”

“Just one,” Oberon replied. “Pray.”

Rengold Cybernetics Corporate Offices – Palo Alto, California – July 4, 2011, 8:25 P.M.

Jimmy Buelick stared at the clock on the wall, already regretting his decision to pick up his co-workers’ slack after a round of food poisoning had left most of them puking into their trashcans. He’d missed his grandkids’ birthday parties for the last few months; he’d been cleaning up a coffee stain on the fiftieth floor of the building when his wife was on her deathbed…his job was becoming a bigger part of his life than anyone he’d ever known.

Well, except for one person….

He heard the footsteps a few seconds before he saw the reflection in the glass doors. “You!”

The reflected figure nodded.

“Long time no see, Mr. Will---ah, I mean….sir.” Jimmy kicked himself; the last time he’d used the real name of the man he was speaking to, he’d lost part of a finger…and didn’t complain. When he was still William J. Rengold III, this man had kept Jimmy employed for one reason: Jimmy owed him a favor.

Obviously, it was time to collect.

“You came back for the blades, right?” He didn’t expect an answer, and wasn’t surprised when none was given to him. “I, ah, got ‘em in the mail two months ago, no return address…figured you needed to disappear for a while…” Jimmy gave a mirthless chuckle, trying to sympathize with his former employer. “Then I saw the news…realized you never really went away at all…” His nervous laugh faded, replaced with an all too familiar sensation of terror. “I hid everything like you said,” he whimpered. “I…I did what you wanted---“

A black-gloved hand pointed into the lobby of the building.

The trip to “Jimmy’s Closet”---the janitorial supply room he’d managed to turn into his “home away from home”, mainly since his life had become increasingly dependant on his work---took fourteen minutes. Jimmy carried on a one-sided conversation with his employer all the while, hoping for some response…

…and receiving only silence in return.

“I read the note a few times, just to make sure it was you who sent ‘em,” he explained as he unlocked the closet and stepped aside. “Didn’t want no Federales showin’ up and laying claim to your property, or anything of that sort….wouldn’t have been proper. I knew you’d be waitin’ for ‘em…so I hid ‘em here…nobody ever looks in here anyways…” He nodded proudly. “I’ve done right this time, sir…just like you wanted me to! Just the way you said…”

He let the sentence trail off; his employer was staring at him yet again.

With a nervous sigh, Jimmy headed into the closet and retrieved the box that had been sent to him months ago. He’d been looking forward to this day with trepidation, knowing that the man he called his boss would either be proud of him…or indifferent.

“Here they are, sir...your, ah, tools of the trade.”

The box was handed over to its rightful owner, who opened it slowly…revealing a pair of death-dealing devices that could’ve easily been designed by daVinci, or any of the other Rennaisance geniuses. Blades, held within elegant (yet lethally-effective) harnesses, strapped to their owner’s wrists until the time arose for them to be deployed---a simple flick of the arm would lock them into place, turning them into an extension of their wearer’s arm.

As Jimmy watched, anxiously, his employer nodded.

“Like I said, I’ve been keeping ‘em hidden for you,” the janitor continued, even as his employer rolled up his sleeves and strapped the wristblades to his forearms. “I knew you’d come back to reclaim ‘em one day, sir, I just knew…”

He stopped.

Realized his employer was staring at him with a look that held everything opposite of “gratitude”.

“I…I did everything you wanted,” Jimmy pleaded. “I hid the blades, I kept ‘em safe…PLEASE don’t do this!”

Black-gloved hands grabbed a length of clothesline---usually meant to tie down stuff outside in the event of a storm---and pulled it taut.

“Please…Mr. Rengold----“

“No.”

Jimmy stared, horrified as his employer stared at him. “You don’t call me that anymore,” he intoned. “Nobody calls me that anymore--- “

A burst of adrenaline flowed through Jimmy’s veins as he pushed past his former employer, tears flowing from his eyes with every step. He’d given his life to the man once known as William J. Rengold III---he’d willingly served jail time for hiding evidence, burying tapes and other incriminating information to hide any proof of his boss’s “extra-curricular activities”…and this was the fate he’d earned---

The clothesline looped around his neck, cutting off his air supply and his thoughts with equal speed.

“I…I helped you,” he insisted. “All those years…I helped you…I…I went to jail---“

A folder hit the floor in front of him, showing pictures of a girl clad in red and white. Newspaper articles reading “LAWSON GIRL EXPOSES RENGOLD’S DARK SIDE!”, “UNITED ROBOTRONICS CEO TAKEN DOWN BY SWAT TEAM!” and other lurid headlines stared back up at him, and the realization mounted: his hard work had meant nothing.

“I….I didn’t---“

The clothesline was jerked towards the wall, sending him face-first into the unforgiving bricks. Blood, teeth and snot dribbled down his shirt as he tried to think of something he could do to get himself out of this hell---only to feel the line around his neck tightening again, pulling him along the tile floor.

“P…puh…please….I…I didn’t---“

A jerk on the line cut off his pleading. His breath came in rapid, terrified sobs. “PLEASE! DON’T---“

Before he could even blink, the line had gone slack---and someone was stomping on his chest.

Seven seconds of gasping later, Jimmy found himself being hauled upright and thrown into a room that he only vaguely recognized as the kitchen of the building’s cafeteria. The sink where the cooks washed their hands had been turned on, allowed to fill almost to the brim…and at that moment, Jimmy Buelick knew exactly how he was going to die. “Please…” he begged, “just…put me out quickly…don’t let me suffer, if you’re going to do this….”

His former employer stared at him….

…and dragged him over to the sink, holding him above the water.

“NO---“

Jimmy felt the ice-cold water sting his face, even as he tried to hold his breath. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he’d thought that William J. Rengold III was just someone who needed help getting back on the right path---and he had done everything in his power to believe in that for all these years.

Now….he knew the truth.

William J. Rengold III had been the mask all those years. The name, the look, all of it…a mere façade.

The real William J. Rengold III---the merciless killer, the psychopathic murderer---was all there had ever been.

After twenty-one agonizing seconds, Jimmy was pulled up out of the water. “No more,” he gasped. “I---“

His head was shoved back into the sink before he could think of holding his breath.

Tears and blood mixed in the water as the doomed man realized that he’d been a damned fool to help the man who was holding him under. He’d always held the belief that God forgave even the most heinous crimes, and that evil men could be turned to the path of righteousness by the right person…but William J. Rengold III was one of those who’d been born evil. Never haunted by guilt, never feeling the slightest bit of wrong intent or remorse…he’d even thrown away his own family name like so much garbage.

Now, he went by a name that perfectly summed him up---

Yet again, Jimmy felt himself being hauled up out of the sink. He opened his mouth to beg for his life, only to be thrown to the floor, slamming against the unforgiving steel leg of the prep table where countless steaks had been carved up and served to Rengold Cybernetics’ best and brightest.

He had no doubt in his mind that the same was about to happen to him.

“Please,” he whimpered, “just…let me go….have mercy on me….William…”

The black-clad, white-masked figure glared down at him…and spoke: “No.”

A hacking, wheezing sound filled the air; Jimmy was coughing up blood, too terrified to avert his gaze as his killer silently crossed the room, grabbing a fire axe from the wall. “I…I was good to you, William….I helped you---“

He stopped, staring as a shadow fell over him.

“My name,” his former boss intoned, “is Faceless.”

The axe was raised. “NO---“

A sickening, wet crunch split the silence.

Faceless stared down at his latest victim, a sneer of contempt hidden behind his bone-white mask. The man had to have been delusional to think that he’d earned a chance to live…he was nothing more than a loose end, and as of now, that end had been severed. Of course, he had retrieved the wristblades via priority mail, which saved the Butcher of Lake Gilmour considerable trouble in keeping his tracks hidden from every federal law enforcement agency other than the ALPA…but he no longer needed to hide.

Now, it was time to do what he did best: kill.

He turned on his heel and left. Time to get back to work….

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary

It’s been three days since Faceless slashed up the Fourth of July barbecue, and just like every boogeyman in the movies, he’s managed to disappear without a---

Actually, I take that back.

The Field Agents found a janitor with his head split in half over at the Palo Alto offices of Rengold Cybernetics; from the little bit I was able to read of the reports, I found out that a fire axe was taken from the kitchen where they found the poor guy. Supposedly, he’d been helping Faceless hide the evidence of his crimes as far back as the 90s, including all the stuff he did that eventually got him fired from United Robotronics…

…the stuff I dug up and showed off to the Board of Directors.

By now, everyone with a functioning brain has come to realize that Faceless isn’t just going on a random spree or anything---he came back to kill me. Oberon’s been calling almost every hour, saying I’m welcome to stay at his place; Reaver apparently volunteered to lead a patrol around the house and have background checks run on anyone who wants to visit. Even the House is offering their support---and they’re still reeling from what Faceless did to them!

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not grateful, or anything…but I don’t want their help.

It’s not because I think I can handle this on my own---that fight between me and Psycho McCrazyMask back at the Silicon Dynamics plant proved that I can’t. The reason I don’t want their help is because I don’t want them getting killed in the crossfire…and I know that Faceless would exploit that and use them to lure me in---which is exactly what he did back in the summer of ’07 when he kidnapped Jamie, locked him in a fireworks shed at that outdoor concert, and nearly blew me to Hell by rigging the fireworks in the shed to go off just as the cannons in The 1812 Overture fired. That bastard already cost me my old face and my old voice---though I’ll admit that I did grow to like the “new me”---and now he’s mowing down everyone he can just to get to me…

Unless someone does something now, Silicon Valley will become the Valley of the Damned.

Today’s July 7, so I can’t even leave the house---July’s the seventh month of the year, and on the seventh day of that month…come to think of it, I got fried in the fireworks shed on July 7, 2007…triple sevens. No wonder he was laughing like a hyena when I showed up!

Anyways, back to the original topic: since today’s 7-¬7-11, I’m technically under house arrest…I mean “protective custody”. Seriously, he’s already managed to screw up my life more times than I can count, and now this…all because I got him fired for being a sociopathic whackjob. To be honest, I’m sort of glad that he’s fixated on going after me---if I found out he was following the Starlet Dolls around on their tour, I’d be there in a minute to kick him off the nearest bridge.

Then again, kicking him off a bridge would just make me as bad as him….

Every time Faceless shows up, this sort of thing happens. People get hurt---or in this case, they die---and I always think back to what Ted used to tell me about how “life is precious” and how everyone has a bit of good in them. Personally, I think Faceless never had any good in him at all---and if he did, it’s run dry by now.

Well, I might as well end today’s diary entry on that note…nothing happened today anyways.

It’ll probably be like that all week, now that I think about it. I just hope this whole thing ends soon…either with Faceless getting caught, or him disappearing and never being seen again.

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


Vicki stared at the computer screen, wondering why she hadn’t mentioned any of the other “landmark events” that had taken place over the last few days. There’s the whole thing of Mom having to get stitches where that stupid machete “grazed” her, for starters…

A soft knock at her door interrupted her thoughts. “Yeah?”

“Just checking up on you to see if you’re still sane,” Tell’s voice called out.

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes; at least he’s honest… “You can come in, Tell.”

“Y’know, you could save a lot of time by getting an intercom installed,” the ALPA’s star field mechanic mused as he entered. “A video screen on the wall next to your bed, a pinhole camera instead of an actual pinhole in the door….all you’d have to do is look at the wall, check to see who’s knocking---of course, you’d also want a remote door unlocker thingie---“

“I get it!” Vicki laughed. “Anyways…you said you were here to check up on me, so….”

Tell nodded and took a seat on the bed. “Standard Operating Protocol for instances like this---which I have to refer to as ‘Class 5 Traumatic Events’---is a psych eval by a trusted colleague…in this case, me.” He stared up at the ceiling; “Y’know,” he mused, “if you don’t want to do this---“

“I do,” Vicki cut in. “It’s been a rough few days…I really do think I need to vent.”

Over the next few minutes, Vicki admitted that she’d been terrified when Faceless strode through the arch on stage, with fire blazing around him and the entire lot burning up. “I just…I didn’t think he’d do anything that crazy after having been shot in the back,” she mused. “I guess I thought he’d go back to his hometown and forget all about me, y’know?”

“So you actually thought he’d do these things, or you were hoping he would?”

Might as well be honest… “A little of both, actually.”

“I don’t blame you,” Tell replied. “To be honest, he actually did go back to his hometown---for a week, after the incident at Santana Row…tore up a flash mob with a chainsaw---in broad daylight, no less---and pretty much ran amok. He was moving all over the States after that; he even crossed the border into Canada at one point, just to chase down someone from Oregon and fillet him in an icehouse parking lot.” He stared at the ceilng again, a sad sigh issuing from his lips.

After a few seconds of silence, Vicki finally decided to speak: “So….how’re you holding up so far?”

Her inquiry drew a chuckle from Tell. “As a great man once said,” he replied, “it’s been pretty much ups and downs, strikes and gutters…I wasn’t there to personally witness several of my colleagues get cut to ribbons at the barbecue, so I didn’t really have to worry about that…” He sighed again. “This isn’t the first time I”ve lost co-workers,” he admitted. “I mean, the ones that die thanks to accidents or natural causes---those are easy to deal with. This, though…it’s never easy.”

“That’s actually a good thing,” Vicki murmured. “If it gets too easy…”

“I know, I know,” Tell reiterated. “I don’t want this sort of thing to get easy, V…I’ve seen too many old friends burn themselves out trying to ‘drown the pain’, putting on a ‘brave face’ at funerals and then punching holes in the walls of their crappy apartments…” He shook his head. “Ignoring pain is worse than succumbing to it.”

Vicki nodded her agreement. “Good thing Mom didn’t go for either option,” she mused.

“She’s tougher than you give her credit for,” Tell replied with a grin. “Trust me on that.”

By now, the proper thing to do would’ve involved turning the conversation toward more positive topics (which Vicki wouldn’t have thought possible after what took place at the barbecue), but Vicki couldn’t really think of anything “positive” to say. “Tell,” she murmured, “why the hell hasn’t anyone just thrown Faceless in jail and let him rot?”

“Believe me, V, they’ve tried,” the field mechanic assured her. “They’ve done everything short of putting an ankle monitor on the guy, just to make usure they always know where he is…and it still hasn’t worked.”

“So why the hell don’t they just put an ankle monitor on him?!” Vicki snapped.

Tell sighed again, staring at the floor; “It’s not that simple, V,” he quietly replied. “Even before he started on this whole Faceless thing, William J. Rengold III was a loose cannon---and that’s putting it very, very mildly, to be brutally honest. He beat the crap out of his own guys in the middle of meetings, he threw a senior manager down the stairs for falling asleep in the middle of a presentation…hell, I heard he spent a whole weekend at a tech conference in Boston slashing the tires of anyone who cut him off in traffic trying to get to the venue!”

“See,” Vicki mused, “that’s the kind of thing that he should’ve been arrested for in the first place.”

“He’s been arrested before,” Tell reminded her. “At least three times already…he got out on bail the first time, and he escaped the second time.”

I’ll probably hate myself for asking this… “And the third?”

“He never even made it to the lockup the third time.”

A shudder ran up the brunette gynoid’s spine; sometimes, I think I learned human emotions a bit too well… “If he never made it to prison the third time,” she reasoned, “wouldn’t that make him a fugitive---as in ‘America’s Most Wanted’? Someone has to have found out about this by now, right?” She stared out the window. “They know he’s armed, dangerous and completely nuts---“

“Which is exactly why they don’t want SWAT teams kicking in doors looking for him,” Tell reminded her. “If he knew they were after him, he’d just be able to stay seven steps ahead of them, just like he always does…and then the lynch mob mentality would set in….long in a short, it’d be a domino effect.”

“That makes sense…I just hope someone can stop him before he kills anyone else…”

The feel of Tell’s arm around her shoulder braced her against the bluntness of his words: “As much as I hate to admit it, that’s….almost impossible.” He shook his head sadly; “This time…Faceless seems to be deviating from his usual norms---yet he’s sticking to some of his other patterns just as much as he usually does…and we’ve already been able to rule out the possibility that there’s a copycat posing as him, because the…shall we say, messages…he’s been leaving all point towards him coming after you.”

“Gee,” Vicki muttered, “that makes me feel so much safer…” Tell rolled his eyes at the gynoid’s deadpanned remark. “If it helps,” he offered, “you’ve got some of the best security specialists in the country working on how to keep him from getting to you and doing any more damage than he’s already done.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Vicki admitted, finally letting herself grin again. “So…I’m still sane, then?”

“100%,” Tell replied with a grin. “You passed your eval with flying colors.” He clapped Vicki on the shoulder as he stood; “You might want to get a good night’s recharge just to be on the safe side,” he advised. “Staying up for 24 hours isn’t exactly the best idea in the world…”

He stopped; Vicki was already curled up on her bed, the “Sleep Mode” light on the wall outlet a calming blue.

“Rest easy, V,” Tell murmured, smiling as he closed the door. “I have a feeling you’ll need the break.”

Rengold Cybernetics Corporate Offices – Palo Alto, California – July 7, 2011, 11:21 P.M.

As he stood outside the doors of Rengold Cybernetics’ last remaining building in Silicon Valley, Harold Landy couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive. He had, after all, been given control of the company by a board of directors that had all received death threats, promises of swift vengeance and “house calls” from the man---

No. He’s not just ‘a man’ anymore.

---from the psychopath who had once been in charge…and even as that self-corrected thought swam through his mind, Harold realized just how far he’d come. July 7---already a pair of sevens---was still upon them, and in a few short minutes, the digits that made up the time would add up to another seven. After that…it was anyone’s guess as to what would happen.

The hands of his watch ticked down---11:22.

One more minute to go.

All of the men surrounding Harold had been hired from various private security firms, in place of those who served on his usual security detail. He’d requested and received permission to put all of them on leave after the Beulick incident was uncovered; it still galled him that a single, delusional employee could do that much damage by way of his belief that a murderous sociopath could even hope to “change his ways”, much less understand the concept of “friendship”. Worse than that, there was the rather strong possibility that his return to the Rengold Cybernetics offices was for something more…lethal than a mere “social call”…

His watch beeped. 11:23 PM.

A millisecond later, one of the security guards seized up, then fell to the pavement.

The other guards swarmed around the fallen man, taking all of two seconds to realize that the throwing knife embedded in his throat was what had killed him. As if that weren’t enough cause to worry, the blade had struck right in the thin gap between the throat protector and the man’s helmet…

…which narrowed down the list of murder suspects pretty quickly.

Three more guards convulsed, grabbing at their throats before hitting the ground; small, thin blades, almost like razors, had been hurled into their throats, once again slipping into the minute gap between their helmets and their throat protectors. Only someone with the most precise control over the aim of their throw could’ve hit that kind of target; Harold Landy knew of only a dozen or so individuals who qualified, and out of them, only one ever had any sort of reason to attack him now.

“You can show yourself, Rengold,” he called out. “We know you’re---“

“Here?”

If the voice had come from the trees lining the driveway, or a window several stories up, Harold might not have panicked the way he did. If it had come from the door of the building behind him, he wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

Seeing as how the voice came from right behind his left shoulder, however…

Seven guards (eleven had been deployed initially, to not give Faceless a chance to exploit any multiple of his “favorite number”) whirled to find the white-masked, black-clad killer standing directly behind their employer, a Japanese tanto blade clutched in his right hand---and angled at Harold’s throat.

“Tell them to stand down,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour hissed.

Harold glanced at the men, nodded. “All of you, stand down. NOW!”

All seven guards stared, dumbstruck….then fell to their knees.

“Poison? Really?” Even as Faceless stepped in front of him, Harold felt as if the whole thing had been rather… anticlimactic, if such a term was appropriate. “You come all this way to kill me, then you take them out with---“

“Sedatives. Slow-acting, for the last few…”

At this, Harold shook his head. “I’ve got a full SWAT team inbound,” he stated.

“You paid them to guard a corpse.” Faceless threw the tanto aside casually, retrieving another blade from his coat. “This…visit…is merely a formality.”

“A formality,” Harold echoed. “Funny…you’ve sedated seven hired guns, killed four others---“

“All of them got hit with sedatives. The only one dying here is you.” The murderer flicked his wrist, and for a moment, Harold thought he’d deployed the infamous wristblades that had become his trademark; as Faceless paced back and forth, it became apparent that he was using a balisong knife with a serrated blade attached. “If you think that’s going to scare me,” the Rengold Cybernetics CEO declared, “you’re dead wrong---“

“It’s not meant to ‘scare’ you, Harold,” Faceless replied coldly. “This knife…was designed for field surgery.” A harsh, almost grating laugh issued forth from behind the bone-white mask; “Just think of what it can do…to a relatively-healthy specimen like yourself…”

Harold shook his head, shrugging off the jacket he was wearing. “You’ve done your homework…most idiots would’ve just stuck to calling me ‘old man’ and making jokes about my prostate. Not a lot of people out there know how I keep in shape…” He cracked his knuckles, sizing up the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. “All that crap about me taking up knitting in my spare time was just a gag,” he taunted. “I’ve been waiting for you try and come back, Rengold---though I was thinking you’d try that whole ‘retake the throne’ schtick first, instead of this whole---“

“My name,” the killer growled, “is FACELESS!”

It took a few seconds for Harold to realize that his predecessor was charging towards him (the black outfit was almost perfectly camoflagued against the dark pavement and the poor lighting), but he was more than ready for the attack. He knew that his axe-handle smash against Faceless’ head would do more than enough to put the masked sociopath off balance, sending him to the pavement in a sprawl---which it did, at least to enough of a degree that Faceless would’ve stumbled…

…had he not grabbed Harold by the sleeve, pulled himself closer to the man who’d effectively taken over his company (not that he cared---as far as Faceless was concerned, Rengold Cybernetics could rot in Hell) and driven the “field surgery” knife deep into his side.

“You can exercise from dusk ‘til dawn,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour snarled, “but it won’t save you from this!”

Harold barely had a chance to cry out as the knife was ripped from his side; even as he staggered away, he heard the footsteps pacing towards him, felt the hand grabbing him by the hair---and screamed as the blade sliced into his scalp, right at the edge of his forehead. His own cries mingled with the ripping, tearing sound as the knife severed his scalp from his skull like something out of an Eli Roth Western; pain---sheer, inescapable pain---shot through his skull as the morbid deed was done.

He collapsed to the ground, screaming as he tried to crawl away, only to be hoisted up into a kneel….

Seven seconds later, the blade pierced his throat and tore it open, silencing his screams forever.

Faceless stared into the building through the plate-glass door, already imagining the reactions of those hiding inside. He had no doubt that they’d panic as soon as he shoulder-blocked his way in, broke everything in his path and generally went out of his way to hunt them down and give them what they so rightly deserved. For a brief second, he considered going the easy way and using the wristblades….

No.

They don’t deserve to die that way…the blades are for the final act.

Specifically…the blades are for Vicki.

A sneer crossed the psychopath’s face behind his mask; he’d gone through great pains (figuratively speaking, of course) to distance himself from his familiar weapons over the past two months, even mailing them to a series of post offices around the northern half of the United States (and Canada), and staying on the move with them. Whereas someone like Victor Vega could’ve simply had the desired object shipped directly to him, such luxuries weren’t exactly the kind of thing a masked killer could afford to count on…

…not that it mattered in the end.

Another glance at the door confirmed that nobody was gathering inside to plot his downfall---at least, nobody was in the hallway that was easily visible through the door. Faceless strode over to where he’d discarded the tanto blade earlier and picked it up, inspecting the blade for defects or damage and finding neither.

Silently, he returned the weapon to its hidden, padded pocket in the lining of his jacket.

Earlier in the day, he’d “bumped into” the building’s gardener and dispatched him in a typically-brutal fashion; his concealment of the act was as simple as parking the van just out of range of the parking lot cameras on the right side of the building, where it would remain invisible except to those who were actually looking for it. Now that he’d taken down the latest idiot who’d appointed himself to run Rengold Cybernetics, Faceless felt like getting a bit…creative with the next part of his latest spree. Thus, as he retrieved the pruning shears from the back of the dead gardener’s van, he could almost hear the screams of his soon-to-be victims.

A symphony of blood, death and fear….

If he’d been feeling more artistic, Faceless could’ve easily come up with a piece of music that fit that title---and the hellish scene he was about to create---perfectly. Still, there were more important things to worry about now than just making music…tonight, he was sending yet another message to Vicki Lawson.

By the time she rose the next morning, that same message would spur her to find him….

…and, thus, to die by his blades.

With a last glance at the fallen figure of Harold Landy, Faceless strode towards the front door of the Palo Alto offices of Rengold Cybernetics. He’d prepared himself for the next bit already, thus taking all apprehension out of what he was about to do---after all, how often does one get to shoulder-block through a plate-glass door?

He took several steps back, lowered the shears, and got a running start…

Fourteen seconds later, the door shattered.

For the next half hour or so, twenty-eight people ran, screamed and nearly tripped over each other trying to evade the wrath of the white-masked, black-clad killer. A few of them attempted to escape, while others stood their ground and tried to take him down.

None of them survived the night.

Ted Lawson’s House – San Jose, California – July 8, 2011, 07:21 A.M

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 99.8% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 98.6% Good evening, V.I.C.I.; today is Friday, July 8, 2011.

A yawn broke the silence in Vicki’s room as she booted up, her internal HUD fading into view as it did every morning. Guess I’m used to waking up earlier than usual on Fridays, she mused, staring out the window. Of course, there’s always the chance that something’s gone terribly, horribly---

Downstairs, something hit a wall and shattered.

“…wrong…oh, scrap---DAD!” The brunette gynoid threw her sheets off her bed and ran for the door, forcing herself to dial down her strength so as not to break the doorknob or rip the entire thing from its hinges. “Dad, are you okay?” she called out, praying that she wouldn’t find anyone laying dead on the kitchen floor. “I heard something breaking,” she added, reaching the foot of the stairs, “and---“

She stopped, her sentence ending in a shocked gasp.

ALPA Field Agents were checking every inch of the ground floor to make sure that the area was secure. A few of them nodded or saluted as Vicki passed; one of them directed her to the kitchen, muttering something about requesting permission to “shoot the bastard” on sight (I know he’s not talking about Ted…at least, I sincerely hope he isn’t). Once she entered the kitchen, Vicki couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming surge of shock: Ted was seated at the table, his face buried in his hands as he wept. Tell was staring out the window, shaking his head and uttering something under his breath. Conspicuous by their absence were Jamie and Joan---though a quick check of the security system revealed that both were still asleep.

Might as well see what the problem is…. “Dad? Is everything---“

Tell gestured to a folder on the table in the seat next to where Ted was sitting.

“Thanks,” Vicki replied quietly, picking up the folder, leafing through it---and staring in shock at the photos it held. “What….where are these from?” she gasped. “How recent are they?” She nearly asked “who did this?”, but she already had a feeling that she knew the answer to that question.

“Rengold Cybernetics building surveilance cameras picked those up last night,” Tell croaked. “Twenty-eight dead in the main building, two dead outside…plus five more in the parking garage. HQ got the panic signal two minutes before midnight…all they found when they got there was a discarded tanto sword in the garage and a pair of gardening shears embedded in the wall…and someone’s head.” He forced himself to continue as he glanced over his shoulder; “One of the victims was a good friend of Ted’s from the early United Robotronics days,” he added. “Gave him a few pointers on the facial composite software that was used to generate your original appearance…Ted even considered appointing him as your godfather.”

It took less than five seconds for Vicki to realize the significance of that: “He was killed because he helped Ted to make me,” she murmured, leafing through the folder and glancing at the names of other employees. “All of these people worked on various aspects of Project Apollo at one time or another---“

“We know,” Tell muttered. “Faceless made it pretty clear why he was there…”

Vicki turned to the last picture---and immediately looked away. “Who….was that?!”

Tell shuffled over, glancing at the image of the flayed, spread-eagled figure chained up between two support pillars in the parking structure. “That was Harold Landy,” he informed the gynoid. “Until last night, he was the CEO of Rengold Cybernetics---and a close ally of Anton Malvineous. The forensics crew said he was the first to die…stabbed in the kidney, scalped, then had his throat cut. Apparently, Faceless wasn’t done with him after that…the criminologists are claiming that he tried to emulate Jack the Ripper by writing ‘Death to Vicki Lawson’ in blood on the wall---Vicki, where are you---“

“I need to talk to Oberon.” The brunette gynoid grabbed her coat and headed for the door, paying no heed to the fact that the Field Agents were giving her a wide berth. “He needs to do something about this freakshow before any more people get killed.”

“The ALPA’s best agents are working on this, V,” Tell assured her. “We’ve got---“

“The ALPA’s best agents aren’t at risk of losing their family to a psychopath,” Vicki countered.

“Vicki---“

“Don’t.” Vicki glared at Tell, that air of finality once again projecting itself into that single word…and those that followed it. “Don’t you dare try to talk me out of this, Tell, because I’m sick and tired of seeing photos, footage and reports about innocent people getting mowed down by some whack job who thinks he can get to me by painting Silicon Valley with blood. I’m not stopping until he’s brought to justice, and I’m not going to settle for anything less than him being made to pay for each and every single life he’s taken, so unless you want me to get really, really angry, don’t try to stop me.”

Tell stared at her silently, not knowing what to say.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Vicki turned on her heel. “Don’t send anyone after me, and don’t try to follow me,” she declared, her hand closing around the doorknob as she spoke. “This is something I have to deal with alone---Faceless wanted my attention, after all…and he’s got it now.”

She turned the doorknob, pulled the door open…

…and stared, silently, as Oberon stood before her.

The entire Lawson house fell silent; every Field Agent present stopped talking all at once, staring in shocked, dumbstruck silence as the chairman of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency stood before them. Yet his stare never fell upon them, nor did he even pay them any mind. His gaze was fixed solely upon Vicki, whose anger had vanished as rapidly as it had come. Even with that in mind, the first words out of Oberon’s mouth weren’t harsh criticisms or rebukes for her attitude towards Tell…they were a simple invitation:

“Join me for a walk?”

Vicki stared silently at his offered hand, his gentle smile. “I…I was just---“

“You wanted an opportunity to speak with me, if I’m not mistaken,” Oberon mused, “and I’m giving it to you…if it’s still what you want. Actually, a walk might be too troublesome---I’ve got a car waiting, we can ride around town…get this whole thing off our chests, so to speak. Think that’d help?”

Every Field Agent watched as Vicki nodded.

“Good.” Oberon smiled, clapping the brunette gynoid on the shoulder as he looked past her; “Ah, someone pass the word on to Ted that Vicki and I are in conference at the moment,” he called out. “Won’t be but a few minutes, hopefully…” He returned his attention to Vicki. “Well, the car’s out front…shall we?”

Again, the gynoid nodded silently.

Vicki could hardly feel her legs carrying her down the walk that led from the street to the house (or in this case, from the house to the street). The whole thing had a sort of detached, almost dreamlike air to it; part of her numbly realized that it probably had something to do with the shock of seeing Oberon standing at her door just a few minutes after declaring that she was going to pay him a visit and demand that he do something about Faceless. Or maybe---

The sound of a car door closing cut into her thoughts.

“Well, here we are,” Oberon mused. “D’you like it?”

It took a few seconds for Vicki to realize that she was now sitting in the backseat of a car---a limousine, she self-corrected. “It’s, ah…it’s a limo,” she muttered dumbly. “We’re in a limo.”

Oberon nodded. “Correctamundo. We are, as you’ve said, in a limo.” He grinned. “Thought it might be a nice change of scenery from the house or my office at ALPA HQ…which brings us to the reason why we’re both here right now.” He steepled his fingers and stared at the brunette gynoid from beneath furrowed brows. “It’s come to my attention that you want me to, as the phrase goes, crack down on a certain masked psychopath whose actions have been aversely affecting your life.”

“I…I do,” Vicki admitted, feeling stupid for not having instantly realized what Oberon meant. “I…I feel---“

“Slow-witted, in comparison to your usual response?” Oberon mused. “Sorry about that…” He reached into his shirt pocket, and Vicki felt the “fog” in her mind get even worse, to the point of clouding her vision---

---only to vanish, seconds later, leaving her clear-headed and alert.

“Before you ask,” Oberon admitted, “I can’t tell you how I did that…trade secret. I will admit that it was only meant to keep you from lashing out at me or anyone else; it’s not that I don’t trust you, or anything…it’s just that I know what effect Faceless’ actions can have on people---yourself included.” He gave her a reassuring smile; “You can run a full check on your perceptual filters and systems if you want, down to the core level,” he added, “and you’ll be pleased to find that nothing has been altered. I haven’t given myself any command priority over you, nor have I overridden any of your settings…unlike some individuals, I don’t need to resort to trickery to make my point.”

Despite her unease, Vicki ran the scans on herself---and all of them came back green.

“Right,” she murmured, “you didn’t mess with my perception, my personality or anything else in me…so why go through the whole show back there? You could’ve just let me walk to the limo on my own, or at least had a few Field Agents escort me---“

“Like a criminal?” Oberon finished.

The realization hit Vicki like a brick.

“I did say that I was doing my best to keep you from losing control of yourself,” Oberon reminded her. “In any case, we’re here now, in the limo---it’s armor-plated, resistant to all types of ammunition short of anti-aircraft, and can withstand impacts and blasts that would reduce a fully-armored Humvee to scrap metal. Long story short, we’re safe.” He grinned again. “Now, then, as to the reason why we’re here…” His grin faded as he stared at Vicki. “I believe you wanted to talk to me about Faceless.”

Vicki nodded without hesitation. “I did…and I still do.”

“Figured that.” Once again, Oberon steepled his fingers. “Some of what you’ll hear may be…disturbing---“

“I can handle it,” Vicki insisted.

With a sigh, Oberon nodded. “If I didn’t think you could, I wouldn’t be telling you anything that you’ll be hearing on this little ride…and before I start, I’d like to make it very, very clear---all of the information I’m telling you is to be taken in the strictest confidence. Nobody else can know any of this…do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Good.” Oberon tapped the glass behind him; “Driver…follow the route I gave on the map.”

The limo stopped (it had been going up the road since Vicki had entered it), turned a corner, and continued.

“I suppose it would be best to begin at the beginning of this sordid tale,” Oberon mused, “except…the actual start of it is rather hard to find. A few accounts say that William J. Rengold III had a normal childhood---and they’ve been ‘authenticated’ by so-called luminaries in the field of psychology---but the vast majority of stories say that William was…well, I might as well say it---evil. All the usual signs of sociopathy were there---he tortured and killed animals, incapacitated a classmate for mocking his ballet lessons, showcased an uncanny ability to charm people---but I’ll spare you the details of that, since we’ve already got a full department of Agents working on it…” He sighed again. “Our journey down the twisted paths of William J. Rengold III’s history start just a little before you first became aware of him: 1992.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “I remember meeting him during the summer of that year,” she recalled. “I spent the rest of it trying to get him fired---“

“Indeed you did,” Oberon agreed. “It was the year before you first crossed paths with him, however, that bears more of an impact on this whole thing…you see, 1991 was the year he cemented his status as a murderer, thanks to his ‘little appearance’ at the Rengold family reunion in New York State.” He stared at the floor, his expression grim. “October 31…Halloween night…the Rengolds had gathered at a prestigious estate, on the outskirts of Harley-on-the-Hudson…never even dreaming that their night of revelry and merriment wouldend the way it did.” He stared out the window of the moving limo as he spoke; occasionally, as the car passed under bridges or through shaded areas, Vicki thought her visual processors were malfunctioning---any other explanation for Oberon’s sudden aging wouldn’t make sense, after all---but each instance only lasted for a few seconds, at most. Eventually, she stopped noticing these “hallucinations” and chose to sit back and listen….

“There were 21 of them there---he was obsessed with the number seven back then, like he always has been and always will be. Relatives, family friends, business associates…cousins, aunts, uncles, even a few neices and nephews. All of them gathered for a reunion meant to celebrate their prosperity…and all but one would be dead before the end of the night, their lives ripped away from them and destroyed by one of their own gone wrong----actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer, to be honest…some say he was ‘wrong’ from the start.”

A low, deep breath sounded; sounds like this is a story he’s had to tell too many times before, Vicki realized.

“The official police report said he got in through the cellar, but it’s bollocks---the bastard crawled in through an open bathroom window, killed one of the janitors employed by the estate and stole his keys. The night wore on, everyone who was old enough managed to not get so drunk that their senses were dulled…but it didn’t matter in the end. The first of them died in the sitting room on the ground floor---head bashed in with a poker, shoved into the fireplace and burnt to a crisp. It only got worse after that. The estate had been built by a man who, by all accounts, was as out of his mind as Faceless himself…there were coffins in the basement, and an underground hedge maze---an underground hedge maze, for cripe’s sakes! There were plenty of other insane tricks, traps and treachery to make any would-be ‘party-goers’ nervous, of course…and Faceless was all too happy to use every single damned one of them to his advantage. By the time anyone was able to figure out what was going on, he’d locked the front doors and secured an arsenal of his ‘favorite tools’ to get the job done…and before the clock struck midnight, he did a bit too good of a job in that regard. Aside from the twenty-one I already mentioned, he killed seven of the estate’s personal staff---groundskeepers, maids, cooks and the like…it’s a miracle anyone ever survived.”

Vicki barely heard herself whisper “Who was left?”

“His sister,” Oberon replied. “Karen Rengold…not that Faceless ever thought she was actually related to him, of course---since his parents had gone to extremes to…shall we say, make sure she didn’t turn out the way he had…he was on record as saying that she was ‘nothing but a test tube baby’, and not even worthy of the name Rengold. This, of course, coming from the person who disowned that name on account of everyone who bore it being weak…but that’s another story for another day. In any case, Faceless cornered Karen in the estate’s chapel, and was about to do to her what he’d done to everyone else who stood against him that night…but she did something he never expected. She fought back.”

At this, Vicki’s eyes widened.

“Somehow,” Oberon continued, “Karen had managed to sneak a few things in with her on the off-chance that the reunion ‘got boring’…she’d brought a few bits and bobs from her chemistry set, to show off in front of the relatives, and a few fireworks to set off in the yard. Well, as it turns out, both those things saved her life---she was able to use the chemicles she’d brought to make…something, and whatever the hell she concocted wound up in Faceless’ face---he’d left the mask off for his ‘final kill’, according to the journal they recovered from the bathroom. She wasn’t able to blind him with a Roman candle, but she did light the bastard on fire with a sparkler---he’d thrown up his hands when she threw the chemicals at him, so they’d taken the brunt of the damage that time, but the fire really got him. By the time the authorities arrived, Karen was hiding in the confessional, and Faceless---he was still using his birth name at that time, of course---had escaped…but it was the first time anyone had ever stood up to him and actually fought back.”

“So…how does this tie into the first time I---“

“I’m getting to that, Vicki. Now, after news of that ‘little incident’ leaked, William J. Rengold III was no longer welcome within the family business---especially Rengold Cybernetics. He spent the rest of 1991 and the first half of 1992 getting his face fixed to show up in court, where he secured a few loopholes for himself that would allow him to return to any of the companies with the Rengold name on it as long as he kept that name…though he also added a few provisions that meant he could use whatever name he wanted when he wasn’t running the companies, and I’m not even going to go into that now, because I’ll get cross if I keep talking about it. In any case, one of his loyal employees, Jimmy Beulick, proved to be a bit too loyal---he chose to help William dispose of any and all evidence of wrongdoing to keep him from being fired from Rengold Cybernetics…he admitted in court that he ‘thought William was a good man deep inside’, or some such nonsense. Again, this is while William was still showing the trademark signs of sociopathy---charm included.”

“I’m guessing he ditched it when he showed up at United Robotronics in ’92, then,” Vicki mused.

“You guessed correctly,” Oberon stated. “He’d never really bothered trying to separate his public life from his exploits as Faceless---at least in terms of attitude towards others and the like---so by the time he first set foot in the UR building, he was a seething cauldron of rage. I’m still amazed that he never turned against Ted, to be honest…though in retrospect, he was probably more worried about how he was going to punish Beulick for not doing a better job with the evidence-hiding. In any case, you remember all about how that turned out---“

“Some of the stuff I found was from the 80s,” Vicki interjected. “You said the family reunion incident was his most notorious crime…so why didn’t anyone figure out that he’d been killing people for well over half a decade or so?”

Once again, Oberon sighed. “I’ve asked myself that question far too many times, to be honest…the only good answer I can come up with is that he hid the evidence too well, or at least Jimmy did. Whatever the case, he was able to go about his business as he pleased until ‘those fools’---aka Ted Lawson, Brandon Brindle, Rob Jennings and a certain Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson---stopped him.” He grinned at Vicki. “You put quite the dent in his plans, y’know…saved a lot of lives, as well. He actually spent a full week in prison for those crimes, before the scum-sucking idiots in charge of the Rengold corporate empire bailed him out. In any case, he sort of disappeared from the proverbial radar for a good long while…”

“So how long did it take for him to fully drop his ‘public life’ in favor of Faceless’?” Vicki asked.

“Not long,” Oberon admitted. “Hell, the first thing he did after those MORONS bailed him out was kill them all, to eliminate the paper trail. After that, he headed back home to Lake Gilmour to find Karen---and as soon as he found out that she’d been undergoing therapy to forget ever having seen him before, he was, to put it mildly, pissed off. As soon as her class went on a night time ‘field trip’ to the old Lake Gilmour high school---the same one William J. Rengold III had attended, and the place where he honed his craft---he decided it was time for whatever was left of William J. Rengold III to be sloughed off, thrown out and left to rot…and for Faceless to take the stage.” A pause… “He killed all but three of the students who showed up, Karen being one of the last to die---after she scarred him again. Even worse than that, he decided to ‘enhance’ his wounds---the plastic surgery had already been undone by Karen’s dying gesture, but he went ahead and…” A choked, gasping sound, almost like a sob, issued from Oberon’s throat. “I don’t think I need to go into detail about what he did to himself,” he muttered.

“You don’t,” Vicki replied, her mind flashing back to midnight, January 1, 2000.

“Anyways,” Oberon continued, composing himself, “he pretty much dropped off the radar after that---until New Year’s Eve, 1999. A black day in the ALPA’s history---Gabriella, Veronica and Helena Guy all murdered in their home, along with their mother, 16 Field Agents and a freelance security officer posing as a maid. I’m guessing Ted told you all the sordid details after that…”

“He did.”

Oberon nodded. “And, of course, you had the misfortune of being introduced to Faceless at the final hour of January 1, 2000---then again, having a masked lunatic jump through your bedroom window and chase you downstairs with the intent to kill you isn’t exactly something any sane person would want to remember…to be fair, though, you’ve handled it remarkably well all these years.”

“Thanks,” Vicki replied, “though he did get the jump on me with the fireworks incident---“

“The same incident that led to your new look, if I recall correctly,” Oberon reminded her. “Still, you survived it, and you’re still going strong…which, to Faceless, makes you all the more appealing as a target. When he first arrived at SJSU, his motives were…difficult for the ALPA to discern, but now that he’s going out of his way to make you a target, it’ll be easier for us to do something about it…and I might as well admit now that the only reason I didn’t act sooner was because something came up…something involving a key player in the Coalition, and that individual’s plans to….” He shook his head. “Never mind. Hopefully, it won’t come to anything…but if it does---“

“I get it,” Vicki insisted, allowing a grin to creep across her face. “I’ll be ready for whatever happens.”

Oberon nodded his approval. “I sincerely hope so,” he replied, “because Faceless isn’t going to let any further defeats keep him from getting what he wants. He’s been cutting a swath across Silicon Valley for the past few days, and I do intend to stop him…and as for the thing that’s been the subject of my attention so far---“

“You’ll handle it when the time comes?” Vicki offered.

“Indeed,” Oberon beamed. “Well, I sincerely hope this little talk has been enlightening enough for you, and that Faceless’ raison d’etre is no longer a complete mystery…and that you can give him the thrashing he deserves the next time you have to stand against him.”

Vicki nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied. “Ah, one thing, though…where are we going?”

“The last stop on this rather interesting tour,” Oberon informed her. “Hopefully, it’ll be the last piece of this rather macabre puzzle. Oh, and for the record, this place has been open to the public for a good long while, so there’s nothing in here that poses a threat…” He opened the door on his side; “Shall we?”

Even though Vicki was more than a bit confused, she nodded in agreement. This should be interesting…

Rengold Estate – Mountain View, California – July 8, 2011, 08:06 A.M

Faceless stared at the front door of the house his father---the incompetent, braggardly fool---had tried to use as an incentive to “go back to being normal” all those years ago.

Obviously, the plan hadn’t worked out all that well.

Still, as he strode up the walk, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour reflected on how well the house had served him in his early days---he’d invite “co-workers”, total strangers most of the time, to “wine and dine” at the place, and they’d gladly take him up on the offer, never realizing that their food and drinks were laced with tranquilizers and sedatives until they suddenly started feeling tired….

If they were lucky, “tired” was the last thing they ever felt.

For some infuriating reason, the front door was unlocked---more than likely by decree of the city of Mountain View, on account of the house being slated for demolition a record six times and never actually being torn down. The fools at Rengold Cybernetics did have their occasional uses (bailing “their true leader” out of prison being one of them), after all…but there were limits on how many times they could successfully bail a man out before their loyalty became suspect. The memory of the first bunch recoiling in terror as he stood before them, shocked at his “sudden” betrayal, came back to the forefront of his mind with crystal clarity…

…and he welcomed it.

In times like this, Faceless welcomed any memories of his triumphs, his victories---and until two months prior, he’d been revelling in them. The unlock codes of Project Epsilon had been in his grasp, that fool Vlatko had believed every single bit of his lies in regards to the Baron wanting to give him a “second chance”…had the Russian actually shown up at the Baron’s doorstep, he probably would’ve been cut down in seconds.

Funny, the masked killer mused, the man with the golden eyes manages to be even worse than me when it comes to dealing with defeat… Had he been in the mood for it, Faceless would’ve actually laughed at that idea---the Baron, the picture of calm within the Coalition, screaming his lungs out for Boris Vlatko to be drawn and quartered at sunrise for stealing the Epsilon unlock codes---and for having the tenacity to show up at United Robotronics, eagerly awaiting his “new start”…

An amusing prospect…but now, to business…

The living room of what had been called “The Faceless House” (ironically, Faceless himself preferred to call it “Newblood Manor”, in reference to the new blood it pumped into his withering public life at the time he’d moved into it) was spacious, a bit too much so for its owner’s tastes. The furniture was handpicked and selected from a carefully-screened list of manufacturers---Faceless still remembered having smashed up the expensive Ikea set that had been “chosen for him” by his father, and threatening to disembowel the architect who’d tried to add on a pointless garage to the building. He’d claimed that he had “reasons” for not wanting a garage, at the time, and in retrospect, he’d been telling the truth---he had a perfectly logical reason for it.

And thus, the story comes full-circle….

It was that exact reason that had prompted Faceless to return here, in the middle of this vendetta against his newest, most hated opponent thus far. That exact reason echoed in his mind as he strode through the living room, down the corridor and past the study, the rec room and the kitchen, ignoring the staircase that would’ve taken him up to the guest rooms that were only occupied for one or two hours a night before their “residents” met their untimely ends.

That exact reason thundered to the forefront of his thoughts as he strode out to the back lot of the property.

Now….finally….the Butcher claims his own…

Many had believed that Faceless was burying bodies in the backyard, or holding some sort of occult rituals that allowed him to walk through walls and run on water, or some other stupid nonsense. In truth, the back lot of Newblood Manor was hiding something even more important than bodies, evidence or ancient magicks.

It hid one of the few places on Earth where Faceless truly felt comfortable.

A shaft that had once been a well, some time back in the days of the gold rush, had been converted into an elevator to bring him down into the subterranean chamber that he’d carved out of the Earth himself. On some occasions, he’d covered the entrance to it with any number of structures---a fake construction tent warning of confined spaces, or one of those stupid portable bathrooms that everyone seemed to want to tip over if they’d had too much to drink. Regardless, none of his “guests”, back in those days before he started wearing the mask full-time, had been allowed to examine it.

If they had…well, things would’ve gone wrong in a rather spectacular fashion.

A sense of….peace? Tranquility? Such feelings were the mark of a pacifist, or at the very least someone who had never taken another man’s life. Faceless pondered what it was---calm, that was it. A sense of calm…that feeling of knowing that even now, with the ALPA gathering their best and brightest to hunt him down and put an end ot his rampage, they would never get close enough to do any damage. Yes, that was it. A sense of calm seemed to emanate from every pore as the lift car descended.

Behind his infamous mask, the murderer smiled.

It’s been too long…far too long.

Slowly, the car glided to a stop, the doors opening with a ping. Faceless stepped out into the chamber, his arms spread in a gesture of welcome as he uttered the two words that only this place had earned:

“I’m home.”

“Home”, in this case, was a massive room lined floor-to-ceiling with stainless steel, white tiles and countless racks of gleaming tools. Gloves of varying materials and lengths rested on a rack of their own, as did aprons, goggles and face-shields (cleaning the mask was a pain). A speaker in the far corner of the room piped in Schubert’s “Die Forelle”, one of the few songs that served as a fitting soundtrack to what was about to happen within the room.

Speaking of which…

As he stepped over the threshold, Faceless nodded his approval at a cage being lowered from the rafters above him. The system had taken a while to perfect, but in the end, it was worth it---having the subject for his latest work brought to him in such a fashion was far more convenient than going after them in broad daylight.

He allowed himself a chuckle as he crossed over to one of the racks bearing gloves and aprons; as his soon-to-be helpless victim slowly awakened from a tranquilizer-induced stupor, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour pulled on a pair of elbow-length latex gloves and a custom-made black canvas apron, which slid over his usual attire with only the slightest of noises. Time to wake up our “special guest”… He thumbed a button on the far end of the rack, sending a mild level shock through the cage.

Predictably, the fool in the cage flinched. “Huwaaah?”

“You were caught trespassing on my land,” Faceless intoned, “and…soiling some of the plant life.” He casually strode over to a tool rack, retrieving a hospital-issue bone saw from one of the pegs. “The police won’t hear about this, obviously,” he continued. “I think…I should choose your fate---“

“Wait, wait,” the caged man complained. “What the hell are you---“

Faceless thumbed the button again; “Die Forelle” grew louder just in time to drown out the screams of his captive. “There will be no trial by jury,” the masked killer continued, “no begging for lenience or your freedom; here…there is no law but mine, as you’ll see soon enough.” He smirked, wondering if the idiot in the cage had noticed his tendency to speak in seven-word statements until now. It was a minor quirk, nothing to be worried about---at least, not in comparison to some of his more…extreme habits.

“All I did was take a piss in the bushes, you weirdo! You can’t---“

The voltage in the cage increased just enough to paralyze the fool, giving Faceless enough time to stride over to the cage and unlatch the door. “I was going to anesthetize you,” he stated, “but I think this little lesson of mine will have more of an impact while you’re still awake.” He dragged the man by the hair over to a steel slab, “accidentally” slamming his chin against it in the process of shoving him onto it. “And…for the record, your pathetic attempt at disguising yourself as a homeless person is, quite simply, laughable---“

At this, the “vagrant” groaned; “You were spying?!”

“I had no need to---especially since the candy wrapper over your badge is half-torn…” Faceless’ eyes almost shone with a malicious light. “Did Harrington give you this particular assignment?”

“Harrington’s a twat---“

Any further complaints against the Coalition chairman were silenced by Faceless’ elbow slamming into his captive’s nose. “It won’t matter in a few seconds….I get to choose your fate now.” He set to work fastening the straps built into the table around the helpless man’s limbs.

“You do this,” the bound “vagrant” declared, “and the Coalition will be on your ass in hours!”

The remark didn’t phase the Butcher of Lake Gilmour in the least. “Let them come.” He glanced at the bone saw, shook his head and set it down, turning away to head for a rack on the far side of the room. “YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH THIS!” the captive Coalition agent shouted. “THEY’LL FIND YOU, AND THEY’LL FIND WHAT’S LEFT OF ME, AND THEN THEY’LL BLOW THIS PLACE TO KINGDOM COME!”

Strains of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto filled the room, drowning out his cries.

Seconds later, a buzzing sound---that quickly escalated to a roar---drowned out Rachmaninoff’s Third.

Instantly, the Coalition agent screamed, all thoughts of reasoning with Faceless fading fast as the blade of a chainsaw came into view. “I have a feeling this will hurt,” the masked killer mused, “but…try not to scream too loudly…I want to hear this particular song while I work.”

Bloodcurdling screams rang through the room as the chainsaw tore through flesh and bone, severing the left leg of the Coalition operative right below the thigh. By the time the leg was off, the formerly stainless table now bore a reflective pool of blood at the end of the ruined limb. The agent stared at his severed leg, the vestiges of shock already beginning to take hold as his blood poured out of him; Harrington had wanted him to monitor the house, to keep an eye out for any strange activity…“harmless weekend job” my ass...

“My favorite part is coming up now,” the masked psychopath mused. “It just gives me chills every time…” He raised the chainsaw above his head, staring right at the midsection of his captive; as the man screamed and begged, Faceless closed his eyes…felt that wonderful sense of calm wash over him….

Vicki Lawson…your death will be sublime….

He savored the moment, held onto it…and then the chainsaw descended.

It was a thing of pure beauty.

WonderWorld Toys and Games – San Jose, California – July 8, 2011, 08:27 A.M

“Whoa…”

Vicki stared, dumbstruck, at the entrance to WonderWorld Toys and Games. “Faceless has a connection to this place?!”

“Not Faceless,” Oberon corrected, “his parents. The Rengold family always wanted to give back to San Jose after their son turned out to be…shall we say, not what they expected.” He grinned as Vicki’s gaze travelled over the vintage ads posted outside the popular toy store; “I used to beg Ted to bring me here during the summer,” she murmured. “They had every single Starlet Doll toy ever---the one with Sophia in the glider, and the stage playset with all the lights and batteries included, the outfit sets…it was just awesome!” She turned to glance at Oberon; “And you’re telling me Faceless’ parents are the ones who founded this place?” she asked.

Oberon nodded, the gesture carrying equal measures of pride and sadness. “It was the last thing they could give back to the community before their…untimely deaths,” he admitted. “Their parents---William J. Rengold Jr. and his wife, Isabelle---who came up with the idea…they’d bought the WonderWorld name from the family that owned the estate where the Rengold Family Reunion had been held…and where most of the family met their ends. William Jr. loved toys, and he loved bringing joy to children---his major regret in life was that he never got to play Santa Claus, because he couldn’t put on enough weight…” He wiped a tear from his eye.

“So the Rengold family decided to pool their resources and start the WonderWorld toy store chain in order to give themselves a legacy beyond what Faceless did?” Vicki nodded her approval. “That’s…epic, actually.”

“Indeed it is…but that’s only part of the reason we’re here.” Oberon smiled and gestured for Vicki to follow him into the store; “There’s something else I think you’ll want to see,” he informed her. “They keep it in the back room, mainly so it won’t get stolen by plonkers…” As he led her through the store, Vicki felt a surge of both nostalgia and giddiness in her bubble memory processor, which effectively cancelled out the creeping terrors she’d been feeling after having learned of Faceless’ past. Leave it to WonderWorld to make me forget about that psychopath…I just wish I could stay here all day!

A few short minutes later, the brunette gynoid watched as Oberon conversed with a man in a grey flannel suit and matching hat…with facepaint resembling the typical makeup of a mime covering his face. One of the “Wonder Workers”, she mused. Come to think of it, he looks a lot like the one who was here when Ted bought me the Starlet Dolls playset back in ’91… She dismissed the thought, choosing instead to focus her attention (and her enhanced hearing) on what Oberon was chatting with the employee about…

…except their conversation seemed to end just as she focused in on it. “They’re letting us in to see it,” Oberon informed her with a grin. “Just follow me, and try not to be distracted by anything…” He chuckled as the man in the mime makeup led them towards the room that held the object they’d come to see. Vicki sighed, more anxious than annoyed, and followed him. Slowly, her memories of the place were coming back to her; the last time she’d been there, the Wonder Workers had served not just as store employees, but as impromptu entertainers for the patrons. From what she could gather, most of them were jugglers, stage magicians, singers, dancers and actors in their spare time; not exactly the sort of crowd one associates with Faceless, she realized. I’m guessing that whatever we’re here to see isn’t his sort of thing either…at least, I hope it’s not his sort of thing.

After a few more minutes of walking, the pair reached the area that led to the stock room---but the man in the mime makeup gestured towards an unassuming door, handing Oberon an envelope before leaving. “Ah, not that I don’t trust these people,” Vicki mused, “but---“

“It’ll make sense in a few seconds,” Oberon assured her, opening the envelope and removing a keycard.

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Is it weird that I’m nervous about this?” she quietly asked.

“Not at all,” Oberon replied with a smile as he swiped the card and turned the door handle. “Ladies first…”

Vicki entered the back room, the rows upon rows of toys she’d never seen before---including the first of the new Starlet Dolls line---already intriguing her. Even so, she knew that there was something greater ahead, especially since Oberon himself had brought her to the place.

After a few minutes of winding through shelves and carts, the brunette gynoid finally emerged in an open area of the back room. A large steel capsule, its Perspex lid fogged over for some reason, sat in the center of the room, connected to a bank of monitors and terminals along the walls. Something in the capsule illuminated whoever (or whatever) was inside of it, allowing Vicki to discern a female outline nestled amidst the padded interior.

Tentatively, she brushed away some of the vapor that had clouded the lid…

…and stared in wide-eyed wonder at the peaceful, sleeping visage she’d just revealed.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”

Oberon’s words barely drew a reaction from Vicki---mainly because she couldn’t stop staring at the girl in the capsule. “She was meant as the Rengold family’s gift to Silicon Valley,” the ALPA Chairman continued, “a bright beacon of hope for man and machine alike…” He sighed sadly. “They were supposed to be the ones to activate her for Christmas this year,” he muttered, “until Faceless decided to add them to the ever-growing list of dead Rengolds. His parents, I mean…they were the ones who would’ve activated her…”

“I get it,” Vicki murmured. “Did they even name her?”

“Never got the chance. The authorities found one of them in a meat locker, and the other floating downstream at Harley-on-the-Hudson…a week before Christmas, at that. In any case, their project…” He nodded towards the capsule. “…was put here as per their requests---or rather, the request of the Rengold Estate. Faceless was on another one of his sprees at the time, so the executor of his parents’ respective wills handled the whole thing, going to great pains to keep it out o the newspapers.”

Vicki nodded her approval. “So who was the executor of their wills, then?” she asked.

Oberon smiled. “Someone who wanted to make sure that the name ‘Rengold’ would be remembered for more than a psychopath,” he replied quietly. “The gynoid inside that capsule is the last positive thing the Rengolds were able to leave behind before Faceless slaughtered them---and I’d like to make it very clear that none of the other Rengolds were as cruel, hateful, or downright evil as Faceless. This gynoid…” He gestured to the capsule again. “…is a symbol of everything Faceless hates---happiness, joy, freedom from fear….if he found out about her, I have a strong suspicion that he’d go out of his way to obliterate her, and to destroy everything connected to WonderWorld.”

“Except we’re not going to let that happen,” Vicki replied.

“Indeed, and---“ Oberon stopped, frowning as he retrieved his phone from his pocket. “What’s happened this time….what? He---no, slow down and start again. What happened---okay….and you’re sure he’s---yes, yes, I understand, but---right. I’ll be there as soon as possible.” He ended the call and muttered something under his breath. “Out of all the times he had to pull this stunt, it had to be now…” Without even acknowledging Vicki, the ALPA Chairman turned on his heel and headed for the door.

“What happened?” the brunette gynoid called out.

Her question prompted a response that held equal measures of anger and sadness: “An ALPA patrol just came across the remains of a Coalition operative dumped outside one of our repair shops, and they’re pretty sure Faceless is the one who killed him. The bastard’s trying to start an inter-agency war!”


ALPA-Funded Repair Shop – San Jose, California – July 8, 2011, 08:58 A.M

A sizeable crowd had formed around the scene by the time Oberon and Vicki showed up; Anton Malvineous, in particular, looked more than a bit perturbed. “They couldn’t even tell what they’d found at first,” he informed Oberon, looking away from the bloody mess on the steps of the shop as he spoke. “I’m no forensic specialist, but you’d have to be a moron to not realize that the guy was cut up with a chainsaw.”

“Did anyone see who left the…remains…here?”

“There’s one old guy who swears up and down that a hearse was parked outside for seven or eight minutes,” Anton replied. “We can pull the footage from the building’s security cameras if we have to---“

“No need,” Oberon interjected. “It’ll only show the hearse that was last seen parked across the street from the Fourth of July barbecue.” He scowled; “I’m guessing Harrington will want a full explanation,” he muttered, “if he hasn’t received one already from his underlings…if nobody’s told him by now, I might as well call him and break the news---“

“He already knows,” Anton cut in. “He’s at the Santa Clara Convention Center for a presentation right now, but we got a call from him before you showed up---he’d ‘greatly appreciate it’ if you showed up to talk with him.”

Oberon sighed. “As long as he doesn’t think I’m the one who did this---“

“What about me?”

Anton and Oberon glanced at Vicki. “I don’t want to just sit here and wait for whatever stupid stunt he tries to pull next time,” she declared.” I don’t even want him to get a ‘next time’. This thing of him carving up whoever he wants just to get to me---it stops now. If I have to testify before a Coalition panel to make that happen---“

“This isn’t the type of scenario that warrants jumping in head-first,” Oberon countered. “The Coalition---“

“The Coalition are as much to blame for this as anyone else,” Vicki snapped. “They’re the ones who never told anyone why they ‘let him off the leash’, so nobody knew he was a complete whack job who ran around killing people in his spare time. If they’d have just grown a pair and had him committed, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now…” Her voice softened as she continued. “I just don’t want anyone else getting hurt because of him,” she murmured.

After a few seconds of silence, Oberon nodded. “In that case,” he replied, “you’re more than welcome to join me…” He grinned and rested a hand on Vicki’s shoulder. “You truly are Ted Lawson’s greatest creation,” he informed her. “Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Seeing as how I’m pretty much his only creation active right now,” Vicki replied, “that won’t be a problem.”

Strangely, Oberon’s smile seemed to falter at that remark, but only for a split-second; before Vicki could even think to mention it, he composed himself and nodded. “Indeed. Well, then, I think we should be off---care to join us, Anton, or will you be holding down the fort here?”

“I’ll drive,” Anton replied, heading for the front seat of the limo. “We’ll get their faster and be done sooner.”

“Fair enough.” Oberon glanced at Vicki; “Shall we?”

“I was waiting for someone to ask that,” the brunette gynoid replied with a grin as she entered the limo. “I just hope the Coalition will actually be willing to put the kibosh on Faceless’ latest spree…” …if they’re not too pissed at me for bringing up their failure to keep him contained in the first place.

“That makes two of us, Vicki,” Oberon replied as the limo set off. “Maybe this time, they’ll be more sensible…”

Santa Clara Convention Center – Santa Clara, California – July 8, 2011, 09:30 A.M

“I’d like to start this emergency meeting off by thanking all of you for being able to get here as fast as you have, especially given the circumstances…” Coalition Chairman James “Stinger” Harrington glanced out at those who’d answered his summons---Oberon, Anton Malvineous and Vicki Lawson included---with a stare that held none of his usual dry humor. “Earlier this morning, someone killed a Coalition operative. That in and of itself is grounds for this individual to be labeled an enemy of the Coalition…but this individual---“

“Faceless.”

Harrington glanced up from his notes to see Vicki staring at him. “’This individual’ is Faceless,” she repeated, “and the only reason he killed one of your operatives is to distract everyone from his real objective---getting to me---“

“And you have proof of this?” the man known only as the Accountant countered. “Actual physical proof---“

A folder slid to a stop in front of him. “He carved those into the bodies of two ALPA Field Agents,” Oberon told him. “Written in Latin, meant for my viewing…he wanted us to know what he’s doing, so that we’d feel totally powerless when he was able to slip past our security. He’s been wracking up a body count ever since---“

“Thank you, Oberon,” Harrington drawled. “That will be all---“

“---and he’ll keep killing,” Oberon continued, “until he gets to Vicki Lawson---“

“THANK YOU, CHAIRMAN.” Harrington glared at Oberon with unveiled contempt…except there’s more to it than just contempt, Vicki realized. He’s…afraid?

“The Coalition has been keeping an eye on William Rengold III ever since his actions on May 6 of this year,” Harrington continued, his voice noticably calmer. “That being said, there have been…gaps in our surveilance network, mostly due to Mr. Rengold’s tendencies to cross state lines mere hours after being seen murdering someone---“

“You keep calling him ‘Mr. Rengold’, like there’s some chance of him actually being a borderline-decent human being,” Anton Malvineous interrupted. “He’s not like you and I…there’s no empathy in him, no compassion, no sense of mercy---and before anyone decides to question my right to make these claims, I’ll say it now: I’ll admit that I’m not a psychoanalyst or criminologist by any degree, but I do know that the man you refer to as William J. Rengold III is a psychopathic murderer who should’ve been institutionalized back in the 90s…instead of being ‘cut loose’ and allowed to run United Robotronics into the ground.” Vicki silently thanked him for not mentioning the fact that she was the one who had gotten Faceless fired from UR.

Harrington exhaled a deep breath. “While your statement about Mr….Faceless are indeed correct, including the retroactive knowledge that having him institutionalized would’ve been a much safer way of dealing with his actions,” he admitted, “I’d like to make it clear that we never actively let him commit these atrocities---“

“That doesn’t matter,” Vicki snapped, slamming her fists on the table. “You knew what he was doing---“

“Vicki,” Oberon whispered, “I don’t think---“

“YOU KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING,” the brunette gynoid thundered, “and you let him go anyway!” Her glare turned on Harrington; “What if he would’ve gone after your family?” she inquired. “What if you would’ve come home one night and seen---“

“Seen what?” the Accountant countered. “The Chairman’s family is well protected, and---“

“THAT’S NOT THE POINT! Faceless could’ve gone after anyone, and---“

A loud, echoing thud---Harrington slamming the palm of his hand down on the table---silenced all yelling in the room; Vicki was stunned to see a lone tear snaking down the Coalition Chairman’s face. “Everyone except ALPA Chairman Oberon and Vicki, please leave the room,” he intoned, his voice still calm. The Accounant nearly said something, but a warning glance from Otto Schmeisser, Harrington’s right-hand man, persuaded him to keep his mouth shut.

Within a few seconds, everyone but Harrington, Vicki and Oberon had left.

Before Vicki could even think to apologize for her outburst, Harrington rose from his seat and strode over to the windows, closing the blinds as he went. “Ah, I’m…sorry for that remark, Mr. Harrington,” the gynoid apologized as she watched him draw the blinds shut. “I didn’t mean anything by it---“

“He did.”

The two words cut her off before she could continue. “What?”

“Faceless did break into my house,” Harrington informed her, the faintest tinges of fear creeping into his voice with every word. “Right after he showed up at your place on January 2…I was working late at Plastech, as a consultant for their latest software package. I got home at 11:52 on January 4, and the front door was open…I went upstairs, thinking that Catherine had forgotten to lock it….and I….” He buried his face in his hands.

To Vicki’s surprise, it was Oberon who continued. “Faceless had entered the house seven minutes before James got back…killed his wife just as the car stopped in the driveway. While he was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, staring at the dead body of his wife, Faceless was down the hall in his daughter’s room, with a machete in his hand…the only thing that kept Charlotte from getting killed was---“

“My scream.”

Vicki and Oberon turned to see a slender, raven-haired girl who looked to be in her late 20s (or very early 30s, the brunette gynoid mused) standing in the doorway. “Dad always said my yelling would either get me in trouble or land me a recording contract,” she teased, ambling forward into the room as if she’d walked in on someone watching a cheesy movie. “Never really thought it would do anything to save my life, but…there you go.” She shook Vicki’s hand; “Charlote Biritta Harrington, aka…nothing, yet,” she admitted. “I’ve been trying to earn a nickname as good as ‘Stinger’, but nothing seems to stick---speaking of which…DAD, you can stop with the crying now. I think they all get the fact that I survived---“

“I wasn’t crying,” Harrington insisted, his voice once again calm. “I was just…overcome by the memory---“

“And you started crying,” Charlotte finished. “Simple enough.” She grinned at Vicki; “He doesn’t like it when people see him getting emotional,” she whispered. “Something about ‘maintaining a dominant image’…not that I really care.”

“So you don’t care about the fact that a masked murderer killed your mom?” Vicki asked, arching an eyebrow.

Charlotte sighed theatrically. “The fact is, Mom was a bit…off, to put it politely,” she admitted. “She was in a bad car accident the year before she got killed, and after she got back from the hospital, she was never the same again. She insisted that some guy with curly hair, a long scarf and weird teeth was the one who pulled her out from under the car…even though nobody matching that description was seen at the site of the crash; Dad always chalked it up to a hallucination, brought on by trauma. Anyways, a few months after the crash, she started saying she could see her own death. She kept saying that she could see ‘eyes without a face’ sometimes…and when I saw Faceless standing over me, I knew she was talking about him.”

“That’s…a bit weird, actually,” Vicki admitted.

“Figured that,” Charlotte agreed. “Anyways…back to the topic at hand---“

“Indeed.” Oberon steepled his fingers and stared at the table, deep in thought. “As loathe as I am to admit it, we may need to work together on this one,” he informed Harrington. I think we need everyone back in here to hash out a plan---“

“Allow me,” Charlotte offered, striding over to the door. “Everyone, get your butts back in your seats now.”

The Coalition representatives, along with Anton and a group of ALPA Field Agents who’d shown up before Oberon and Vicki had arrived, took their places at the conference table and waited for Harrington to say something. This is going to be tense, Vicki realized. I can already tell some of them are going to get pissed…

“In light of the…unique nature of this particular incident,” the Coalition chairman informed the group, “I have come to the conclusion that we must work alongside the ALPA---“ He stopped, almost as if he’d reached the same thought Vicki had…but nobody jeered him. “As I was saying, we must work alongside the ALPA to keep the murderer known as Faceless from claiming any more lives, no matter which side of the divide they may hail from.” He glanced around the table, staring at several visibly-nervous colleagues; “This isn’t a case where our difference in philosophies will be a factor,” he reminded them. “This isn’t like the Bloody Valentine case---this time, the killer we’re looking for is 100% organic homo sapien, just like myself, and just like Professor Anton Malvineous…just like the vast majority of people in this room. Because of this, all of our usual arguments about sentience, sapience, free will and obedience are irrelevant---we are dealing with a sociopath who could very easily kill all of us just to prove his warped, twisted point---“

“And what point is that?” Schmeisser drawled. “That he’s obsessed with some girl getting him fired back in the 90s, and he’s too stupid to get over it?” He flashed a smug smile in Vicki’s direction, which made the brunette gynoid want to punch his teeth down his throat more than anything else.

Harrington frowned at him, but decided not to pursue the topic. “The fact is, Faceless is too dangerous for the Coalition or the ALPA to handle alone…and before anyone says ‘let’s just look the other way and hope he gets shot up by the cops’, I’m going to say it right now: NO. Too many people---including some of our own agents and associates---have been subject to Faceless and his hyperdestructive appetites as it is, and I will not ‘just look the other way’ while he’s on the loose. We’re teaming up with the ALPA to take him down, and that’s final---this isn’t a matter that’s open to negotiation.”

Once again, several of the other Coalition members around the table looked visibly uncomfortable. One or two actually squirmed in their seats; a few were muttering to themselves. Out of the whole group, only Schmeisser didn’t look too concerned---though that was mostly due to him giving Vicki his smug grin.

“Let me handle this,” Charlotte suggested, rising from her seat. “Okay, assclowns, this is how it’s gonna be: If Faceless isn’t caught soon, any of you could get---are you people even listening to me?!” She glared at the assembled Coalition representatives; indeed, few of them were even looking up from the table. “I don’t care if this is a matter of pride, or if you’re just too stupid to get what the hell is happening here,” Charlotte snapped, “but there’s a murderer on the loose, and every single one of you is a target! Do you understand that?!”

Again, her words were met with silence.

“Look,” Vicki added, standing up from her own place at the table, “I know that you have your fair share of bad blood with the ALPA, but unless we pool our resources and work together on this, everyone here will end up being killed in cold blood…and I know that’s not something any of you are looking forward to, right?”

One or two of the Coalition representatives muttered affirmatives.

“If it was a matter of protecting your families,” she continued, “would you be willing to help the ALPA?”

Several other voices joined the throng that was answering in the affirmative.

“Good. Now, then---“

A low, droning hum from the center of the conference table drowned her words, as a multisided speaker rose from the formerly-featureless table in sync with a montior lowering from the ceiling. “And here, I thought that my suboordinates knew better than to bring in outside forces,” the bassonic voice of the Baron intoned. “I would very much like to hear an explanation for this breach of security, Chairman---“

“It’s Faceless,” Harrington replied without hesitation. “He killed our monitoring operative at his house---“

“A matter of small consequence,” the Baron countered, “especially in light of your blatant disregard for the rules and regulations which every member of the Coalition has sworn to enforce…three members of the ALPA in a Coalition-owned facility, without armed guards at their sides…is this a sign that you are no longer interested in holding the position of Chairman, James?”

Harrington sighed; “This has nothing to do with my position in the organization,” he declared. “In fact, this has more to do with the Coalition being too lax towards Faceless---I was told to have a minimum of security officers outside his house, and only one responded to the summons I personally issued. That one officer is now dead, sir…with all due respect, I think ‘the organization’ is the least of Faceless’ concerns.” Others around the table murmured their agreement. “Furthermore,” Harrington added, “there’s the small matter of Faceless having had access to Coalition facilities in the past, with clearance given to him by---“

His sentence ended in a pained gasp as electricity arced from the arms and back of the chair into his body; the other Coalition representatives nearly fell over as they stood up, horrified at the sight. Charlotte screamed “DADDY!” and ran forward, only to stop as the voltage ceased---Harrington had survived, but was already weakened by the shock.

“Consider that a warning,” the Baron intoned. “Question me again, and I will not be so lenient---“

“Screw with your leniency!” Vicki shouted, glaring at the monitor. “You’re the one who took an innocent human being and turned him into a cybernetic killing machine, and now you’re refusing to help apprehend a serial killer---what the HELL is wrong with you?!” Anton and Oberon stared at her in shock, but she refused to back down; “I don’t care if you have a beef with anyone here,” she growled, “or even if you want to put me in one of your shock chairs…but Faceless has been mudrering people---killing human beings---just because he’s obsessed with killing me---and yeah, I just admitted that this whole thing is technically my fault! Thing is, though, I’m willing to accept that and help my friends stop him---so what the hell is your excuse?!”

Silence.

“I asked you a question,” the brunette growled.

Again, silence.

“ANSWER ME!” Vicki thundered. “WHY THE HELL DON’T YOU WANT TO HELP US CAPTURE FACELESS?!” Her voice took on an ugly edge; “You’re just as scared of him as we are,” she whispered. “You don’t want him tracking you down and skinning you alive…you stupid, pathetic coward---“

“Vicki, stop,” Oberon warned. “This isn’t the time---“

“WRONG. This is the time for this, Oberon---and I’ll tell you all another thing: The Baron doesn’t want to help us track Faceless because he’s paid him to off people in the past!” The brunette gynoid glared up at the monitor; “You think I’ve forgotten Silicon Dynamics?” she demanded. “You’re pathetic---“

“Vicki,” Oberon hissed, “enough---“

“NO! IT’S NOT ENOUGH!” Vicki climbed up on the table and stared into the center of the monitor; “You’d let innocent people die just because you don’t want anyone to know that their killer used to work for you,” she murmured, drawing her right fist back. “I hope you burn in Hell---“

Before anyone could do anything, the Baron….

….laughed.

Schmisser’s smug smile vanished, replaced with a look of pure, unadulterated fear. Harrington had shrunk back into his seat, muttering prayers under his breath; Charlotte, meanwhile, was too awed (and terrified) to say anything.

“Vicki Lawson,” the sonorous voice intoned, “the so-called beacon of hope within the ALPA, wants me to burn in Hell…” Instantly, the tones that issued from the speaker took on a venomous edge: “You know nothing of Hell, pathetic girl! You perceive yourself as the knight in shining armor, riding through Silicon Valley with your merry band of fools and ‘saving the day’…yet you remain ignorant to even the basest truths.” For a split second, the brunette gynoid could see twin flashes of gold from the darkness on the screen, and a shiver of fear ran through her; don’t let it get to you, she told herself, don’t you dare crack….

“If I’m so ignorant,” she countered, “then go ahead and…enlighten me.”

Predictably, the Baron wasn’t amused.

“The only ‘enlightening’ you deserve is a deathbed epiphany,” he snarled. “Faceless’ presence on my payroll is none of your concern, nor is it even remotely relevant to his current activities. If you want to apprehend him, then I humbly suggest you do what any sensible citizen would and [i]call the police---leave my organization out of it---[/i]“

A sound from the far side of the desk interrupted him; Harrington was clearing his throat. “I’ve already made up my mind,” he stated. “All of my available operatives will be helping the ALPA find Faceless.” Charlotte nodded proudly. “Count me in, too,” she stated. “Any enemy of my dad’s is an enemy of mine…and from the looks of it, you might do well to unfriend this Faceless guy ASAP.” To Vicki’s surprise, the Accountant nodded his agreement; “I know from experience how much of a pain he can be,” he casually remarked, “so if they want my help, then they’re getting it…free of charge.” Others around the table rose and pledged their support to the ALPA’s efforts.

“Looks like the majority rules, Baron,” Oberon stated, smiling triumphantly. “And I don’t think the DVS would be too happy if you had all of them executed for this one…” Despite himself, he chuckled. “They’re all on our side, so I suggest you make up your mind quickly---are you in, or out?”

The only sound that could be heard for the next few minutes was a slow, quiet hiss.

“Mark my words,” the Baron finally intoned, “and mark them well…I have run this organization before most of you were even born, and I will continue to run it when all of you are nothing but mouldering bones laid to rest in a graveyard…but if you must insist on this foolhardy course of action---with or without my consent---then I will…humbly step aside and allow you to carry out this search, in order to prevent any further loss of life from our ranks.”

For a few brief seconds, the conference room filled with cheers.

“BUT KNOW THIS,” the Baron’s voice thundered, silencing the brief celebration. “You are to conduct this ‘manhunt’ with your own resources, out of your own pockets and on your own terms. As of now, I hereby declare that all liabilities and damages are to be waived from the records…as are all mentions of William J. Rengold III, henceforth and forever known as Faceless, as an ally to any company within our ranks. From this day forth, Faceless is an enemy of the Coalition.” Even though she couldn’t see it, Vicki felt the Baron’s stare fall upon her; “…and as for you,” he added, “pray that you find and contain him quickly…for if any attempt on my life is made by him, it shall be paid back a hundred fold [i]on you[/i].”

With that, the monitor went back up into its ceiling cradle, and the speaker retracted back into the table.

“Well,” Harrington mused, after several seconds of silence, “that was…interesting…”

A few minutes later, after the other Coalition representatives had left, Vicki found herself overlooking the stage where the Starlet Dolls had given an impromptu concert while a remote-controlled version of their tour bus was being shot at by Boris Vlatko and Victor Vega. A quiet, sad sigh escaped her lips; why is it that those days felt so much simpler?

“Penny for your thoughts?”

The brunette gynoid glanced over her shoulder, noticing Charlotte Harrington leaning on a column. “I was just thinking how great that stage would look for a concert…pretty random, I know---“

“Not a problem,” Charlotte replied, girnning. “Speaking of random…I think you managed to set a new record in there for ‘biggest balls in the Coalition’---nobody else in that room would’ve even thought half of the stuff you just said! And standing up to the Baron?! I mean, seriously…” She shook her head, still grinning. “The guy put my dad through the shock chair treatment, and you just chewed him out like it was nothing!”

Vicki shrugged it off. “I don’t like it when those in power just sit back and watch, instead of act,” she replied.

“Well, you certainly got the Baron to get off his ass and act,” Charlotte teased, striding over to stand next to Vicki. “Seriously, that…that was some pretty inspiring stuff.” She allowed her forearm to drape across the gynoid’s shoulder; “I think my dad’s only ever been able to stand up to him once,” she admitted. “He was on crutches for a few weeks afterwards, but still…”

I hope she takes this as well as Alicia did… “Ah, not that I don’t like the gesture,” Vicki mused, gently moving Charlotte’s arm off of her shoulder, “but---and please don’t take this the wrong way---“

“You don’t swing that way?” Charlotte offered.

“I wasn’t going to say it like that,” Vicki admitted, “but…pretty much. If you want to hear the whole ‘we can still be friends’ spiel, I’ll be glad to go through it---“

To her relief, Charlotte laughed it off. “It’s no big deal. I’ve had a few too many partners over the year as it is; I’ve had to change my number three times just to keep one of my ex-boyfriends from calling during Spring Break…which, of course, he did---my GF at the time was a bit miffed…”

“I get the picture,” Vicki stated. “So…I guess we might end up working together later on….” She smiled.

“Probably,” Charlotte agreed. “Well, catch ya later---I’ve got Yoga in twenty minutes!” She jogged off towards an exit door, only to stop. “Ah, before I go,” she called out, turning on her heel and striding back towards Vicki, “I wanted to give you something…” She handed the gynoid a piece of paper.

“Your number?”

“A map. Specifically, to the last Rengold Cybernetics factory that hasn’t been bought by the new CEO. A lot of weird crap has been happening there lately, and after your…impassioned statement back there, I thought you might want to look into it.” Charlotte handed the paper over; “If anyone asks,” she whispered, “just say you got it from Google Maps.” She winked, turned again and headed for the door. “Be seeing you!” she called, glancing back over her shoulder and waving.

Vicki nodded cheerfully and waved back…even though her thoughts were nowhere near as sunny as the smile she wore. Why do I get the feeling Faceless would’ve “finished me off” at this stupid factory of his? she asked herself. Not that it matters anymore…because the only one getting “finished” is him.

With the map clutched in her grasp, Vicki left to meet up with Oberon. Your move, Faceless….


Charlotte sighed as she watched Oberon’s limo drive off; “Well,” she murmured, “there goes the unattainable prize I’ll probably be pining for all through the summer…” Within seconds, the car was gone, and Charlotte rolled her eyes and headed back to the conference room.

Once inside, she didn’t seem all that surprised to find herself making out with…well, herself on the table.

“Can’t I leave you two alone for one minute?” she drawled, prompting a surprised gasp from one of her “twins” and an annoyed groan from the other. “You two need to save that stuff for when Dad’s out on a business trip, not in the middle of the freaking conference room.” She chuckled as her two dopelgangers scrabbled to get off of the table; “We thought you were going with him, y’know,” one of them pouted, adjusting the strap of her bra and grabbing her shirt.

“Yeah, you said we’d get some private time,” the other agreed.

Their annoyed looks only made Charlotte chuckle. “I think I put a little too much of myself in your programming when I built you,” she admitted. “Then again, I’d probably have a lot of trouble getting mad at me if I was in either of your positions---“

“Careful with that word, Miss Harrington…wouldn’t want to accidentally switch them to ‘sex mode’, would you?”

The Accountant’s dry humor did little to phase Charlotte; “And why are you still hanging around?” she inquired, glancing back at the Coalitions’ premiere fixer. “I thought I might ask you the same thing,” the Accountant calmly replied, “especially since you saw fit to give the Lawson girl a roadmap that leads directly to the last Rengold Cybernetics factory that wasn’t bought out by the company after Faceless lost the lawsuit.” He sat down near the Charlotte gynoid who was still pulling on her skirt; “You’re not trying to…rig the game, are you?” he asked, steepling his fingers.

“’Rig the game’?” Charlotte answered.

“You want Vicki to reach Faceless before the others do,” the Accountant reasoned. “You want her to break into the factory, kick the living hell out of him and…possibly…go over the line.”

Charlotte groaned. “Just because I look at a girl, it doesn’t mean I have a crush on her,” she insisted.

“So you were putting your arm around her just to…talk to her, then?”

The twin gynoids arched their eyebrows in surprise.

“That….might’ve been a little bit too much,” Charlotte admitted, “but---“

“But nothing,” the Accountant snapped, his voice cold. “You saw how the Baron reacted to Lawson’s ‘offer’---if he’d have been here in person, she wouldn’t have made it to the limo downstairs. The Coalition is already on thin ice thanks to some of our…less sensible business partners, and if we botch this---if we let Faceless slip from our grasp again because of any single mistake on anyone’s part…” He stared into Charlotte’s eyes without flinching. “We are all going to Hell in the proverbial handbasket.”

After a thirty-second staredown, Charlotte nodded. “I won’t mess up,” she promised.

“You’d damn well better not,” the Accountant calmly replied. “When your dad eventually passes the company torch to you---and he will---you’d better be ready to handle every aspect of running the Coalition blindfolded, with both hands tied behind your back. Otherwise…someone else gets it, and we all get screwed.” He sighed, rose from his seat and left; “Oh, and tell your, ah, dolls to put some clothes on,” he suggested. “If I can see the outline of their rear access USB ports, anyone can.”

Charlotte groaned; guess I really did put too much of myself in them…


James Harrington was concerned.

On any normal day, he’d be mildly annoyed, somewhat puzzled or even a bit agitated with the daily reports that came in regarding the Coalition’s activities…but this was beyond even his worst expectations. The Baron had essentially threatened him in front of the entire staff, and called out Vicki Lawson---a girl who, for all intents and purposes, was only trying to help bring down a psychopath---with a promise of vengeance if said psychopath attacked any further Coalition operatives…chief among them, the Baron himself.

Long in a short: Things were not looking all that great.

Still, he wasn’t all that worried. Yes, there was the possibility that the Baron would, indeed, make good on his threat to strip him of the coveted position of Chairman…but who would he appoint in his place?

Of course, the answer to that question was simple: he’d appoint whoever bent their knee to him first.

The fact that the DVS was even still an issue bothered Harrington; that ancient council of idiots hadn’t held any real power since the 70s, back when the name “John Franklin” could be followed up with “leader in the field of robotics”, not “power-crazed lunatic”. Of course, considering the circumstances at the time, Franklin was no more a lunatic than an actor playing a psycho killer in a slasher movie---anyone else in his place would’ve been just as desperate as he was.

And speaking of slashers….

Faceless, of course, was the elephant in the room---if elephants wore all-black and gutted people with blades hidden in their sleeves. The man wasn’t just insane, or sadistic, or any one thing---his thought patterns were effectively a grabbag of nightmares, all rolled up into one. Capturing him---the ALPA’s goal---was never going to work; it was a rather brutal variation of closing the stable door after the horse has already escaped. If his patterns thus far had been any indication (which, to someone as skilled at reading the signs as Harrington was), then Faceless was only getting started.

When/if he managed to get to Vicki and get her out of the picture…well, then everyone would be a target.

“We’re damned if we kill him,” Harrington muttered, “and damned if we don’t…” Damned if they did, because the Baron would find out---and then he’d order a cull on all those involved. If the Coalition didn’t figure out how to get Faceless out of the picture permanently, then there was the “apocalypse scenario” of him running amok in Silicon Valley for years to come, slicing and dicing his way through any number of movers and shakers before being brought down…by which time it would be too damn late to do anything about it. A perfect no-win scenario, by all accounts.

“Why the hell do I keep letting myself get caught up in these things?” Harrington asked himself. Unlike the vast majority of his colleagues, he’d joined the Coalition with the intent of actually improving things in the world of human/robot relations…yet, more often than not, he got sidetracked by weekly doses of craziness. Had this been a decade earlier---hell, even five years earlier---he’d have tendered his resignation by now, packed up the car and driven himself and Charlotte off to Canada or somewhere else to live in relative obscurity for the rest of his days. Not having a complete tyrant for a boss would be a bonus, of course…as would the privacy, the freedom to go on vacations whenever he damn well pleased…then again, Faceless had killed his wife, and tried to kill his daughter.

“…and thus, we return to the heart of the matter,” the man known as the Stinger declared, not caring that his driver was giving him her pattented “shut up” look. He’d help the ALPA to avenge his wife, and then it’d be back to the status quo.

Just like always.

“Can we swing by the In and Out Burger?” Harrington called out. “I’m feeling a bit hungry…”


Behind the blood-stained walls of his underground sanctum, Faceless waited.

At any other time, he would’ve felt the irresistable urge to cut another swath through San Jose and wreck as many lives as possible, just to spite the ALPA and remind them why he was not one to be trifled with. On any other day, he’d have cut down seventy people just because he was bored.

But on this day…there was only the calm.

The calm that came before the last stalk…the final kill.

The ultimate kill.

Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson had made a mockery of him one time too many---she’d escaped him, fought him to a standstill and somehow managed to save her best friend from certain doom only two months prior…and now, it was his turn.

Now…the game was finally his to win.

Within the innermost bowels of the Rengold Cybernetics factory---his factory, the only one he’d been able to maintain control of after the lawsuits thad had decimated his corporate empire---hunter and prey would have their final face-off. It was inevitable that the Lawson girl would track him there…and even better, it contributed a lot to the symbolism of their fight (if there was any such symbolism to contribute). Faceless hadn’t laid traps or set out any snares at the factory---such cheap tricks would only corrupt the end result of the fight, rendering the entire battle useless.

Obviously, such tactics were…beneath the Butcher of Lake Gilmour.

Once Vicki Lawson was out of the way, both the ALPA and the Coalition would be treated to a festival of chaos the likes of which they’d never seen before, with Faceless as the master of ceremonies. He’d already burned his bridges with the Coalition when he killed their surveilance man; there was no doubt in his mind that they were waiting to return the favor.

Then let them try…and fail, pathetically.

None of the sycophants within the Coalition’s ranks could possibly hope to match his skills…except for that damned idiot they called the Accountant. Somehow or other, the man had lucked out the last time he “bumped into” Faceless, and managed to fight to a draw---a DRAW---within 35 minutes. This time, though…there would be no “fight to a draw”. There wouldn’t be any eleventh-hour savior, or a miraculous plan that would “save the day” and let Vicki walk away without so much as a scratch. This time, there would only be Vicki and Faceless, the final girl and her ruthless masked attacker…and they would fight, and they’d keep fighting, until one (or both) of them could no longer stand.

If one was still standing…

…whoever survives will be the final victor.

Those words had echoed in Faceless’ mind for the longest time, and now, he knew. There could be only one true win in this confrontation, one definitive champion to rise from this fight. The others he’d killed were naught but a means to an end…

….specifically, the end of Vicki Lawson.

As the sun set over Silicon Valley, Faceless waited.

Vicki Lawson…your time has finally come.

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary

July 9. Faceless’ last stand…so I hope.

Everyone else is on their way to one or more of his other known hideouts, thanks to the intel the Coalition has “graciously volunteered” to let the ALPA use. Reaver and his team are stationed near Rengold Cybernetics’ office in Palo Alto, just to make sure he doesn’t try to hit there again; a lot of the other Field Agents are going on patrols all over San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley to flush him out if he’s still on the move.

As for me…well, I already have a feeling I know where he’ll be.

There’s probably a good reason why Charlotte Harrington gave me that map to the last remaining factory that Rengold Cybernetics wasn’t able to buy back from Faceless, and it’s not just because she has a crush on me (at least, I hope that’s not the only reason). She knows, just like everyone else does by now, that Faceless is too dangerous for just the ALPA or just the Coalition to handle…and she knows this because she’s seen first-hand just how destructive that masked lunatic can be---he killed her mom, and he would’ve killed her if he had the chance.

Come to think of it, why didn’t Harrington get pissed at the Baron for hiring Faceless earlier this year?!

Anyway….

It’s 7:05 PM right now, and I’ve been here most of the day, waiting for the “Butcher of Lake Gilmour” to make his grand entrance.

If he doesn’t show up by 7:15…

…I’m going in.

Supplemental Journal of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson/Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant (V.I.C.I.) 7:05 P.M., July 9, 2011


Vicki stared out at the entrance of the factory from her hiding spot---if it could even be called that---across the street. Yes, she was technically breaking ALPA rules by showing up without backup, but seeing as how she’d been given a map to the place by the daughter of the Chairman of the Coalition, she wasn’t about to let an opportunity like this go. Faceless needed to be brought to justice---and not just because he’d made Vicki’s own life hell, but because of every other life he’d ended that week.

…and for all those he tried to end, the brunette gynoid mentally added, the image of the stitches running down the left side of Joan’s back returning to the forefront of her mind. Clearly, Faceless had a whole littany of sins to answer for.

Tonight, he’d either repent (which Vicki herself thought unlikely) or go down fighting.

Five minutes later, Vicki---already cursing herself for not having the patience to wait until 7:15---sprinted for the front door of the Rengold Cybernetics factory. Either I get the jump on him and end this quickly, she reasoned as her myogel-enhanced reflexes carried her across the street towards her destination, or he tries to get the jump on me, and this one ends with both of us being carried out of there…and for once, I’m not all that worried about it.

Tentatively, she tried the door…which, not surprisingly, was unlocked.

This is it, Lawson…the one you’ve been waiting for…

Slowly, she pushed the door open and made her way inside.

The interior was a lot cleaner than she’d expected it to be---apart from the stale air, blacked-out windows and a sense of lonliness that woud’ve driven a lesser Field Agent mad. In retrospect, that feeling of isolation, of total solitude, was almost a crushing force unto itself; compounded with the fact that the people who’d worked in the factory back when it was still operational had families, lives, hopes and dreams of their own (all of which had been ground into the dust when Faceless fired them all), the entire place had an almost-tangible feeling of sadness to it.

Sadness….mingled with something else---

“So. V.I.C.I. and Faceless, back together again….”

Vicki’s enhanced hearing allowed her to detect the precise spot on the catwalks above where the taunt came from. “Nice try, Faceless,” she called out, “but I’m not going to let you bait me into doing something stupid---“

“Indeed…you’ve taken care of that yourself.” A dry scoff punctuated the insult. “Showing up here…alone…to fight me…one might think you want to die.” The slow, scraping sounds of someone pacing the catwalks above did little to break Vicki’s concentration; “The only thing I want right now is to drag you out of here,” she called back, “and put you in a cell---“

A harsh, grating clang cut off her words.

“No prison walls could ever contain me,” Faceless intoned. “The Coalition, the ALPA…both have failed to do anything that could neutralize me. What chance could you possibly have…Vicki?”

That lone whisper, almost literally dripping with hatred, could’ve easily sparked a rage in the gynoid…

…but she stayed calm.

“I’ve got a better chance than any of your past victims from all week,” she replied. “The Coalition wants you dead, and the ALPA---myself included---wants you in a cell…but there’s this little tiny nagging thought in my bubble memory processors that keeps saying something, over and over again….”

Her face twisted into the best sneer she could muster: “It says ‘knock him the hell out’.”

A slow, quiet chuckle began to reverberate through the room, rebounding off the walls and gaining strength with every second. Soon, it evolved into a full-blown maniacal laugh. Guess that wasn’t enough of a threat for him… “You won’t think it’s so funny when I’m kicking your teeth down your throat! I can---“

Every light in the factory kicked on at once before Vicki could even finish her sentence.

The gynoid flinched reflexively, letting her enhanced sensors filter out the over-saturation of the lights until they returned to their usual luminesence. “Nice trick,” she lied, “but it won’t be enough to stop me…and it wasn’t even remotely terrifying---“

“Indeed…but this next ‘trick’ will be!”

It was hard to determine what scared the hell out of Vicki more---the fact that Faceless’ voice was coming from right behind her, the fact that she hadn’t even heard him approach…or the fact that the masked psychopath wasn’t behind her.

Of course, he made up for it by leaving behind something even worse.

A smallish TV---about the size of a computer monitor, with a live video feed connecting to another part of the factory---sat on a cart about 21 feet away from where Vicki was standing. The brunette gynoid approached with trepidation, already dreading what she might be about to see.

As the static faded out, her fears were pretty much confirmed.

“The unfortunate soul chained to the railing just above the scrap shredder is Sydney Allwine,” Faceless’ voice informed her, seconds before the man himself appeared on the monitor. “Back in the opening months of the semester last year, Mr. Allwine---or ‘Sydeline’, as he prefers to be called---was my go-to informant for any and all information pertaining to you, ‘Miss Lawson’. Sadly…it seems that his skills were a bit too out-of-date…”

Faceless leaned over the railing, scraping the blade of a wicked-looking knife against Sydeline’s neck. “…as was the information he gave me,” he finished. “And he knows damn well what that means…isn’t that right?”

Sydeline’s only response was to whimper pitifully as tears streamed down his face.

“Now, I could just let him fall,” Faceless continued, “but…I want this to be visceral. A ‘hands-on’ moment, for both of us…” He held up an industrial remote and pressed a button---and the chains holding Sydeline above the shredder lifted him (and the bit of railing he was chained to) up, depositing him unceremoniously on the catwalk. “Seeing as how this is a live feed,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour continued, “I’ll give you…seven minutes to figure out where---“

A red-and-white blur sped away from the TV screen…

…only to appear on it a minute later.

“Let him go,” V.I.C.I. demanded. “This is between us---“

“If he’d given me the right information,” Faceless countered, “his life wouldn’t be at risk tonight---“

“SHUT UP.” The harshness of her own words would’ve shocked her a few minutes ago…but the time for being subtle was over. “Let him go now, or I’ll---“

“I have a much, much better idea,” the masked sociopath countered. “You stop telling me what to do, and I MIGHT let this twat survive.” He chuckled. “Your call…if you’re feeling brave enough.”

“No deal. Let him go---“

V.I.C.I. didn’t notice Faceless reaching into his coat until it was too late; even as she moved forward, intending to ramp up the magnetic energy in her left hand and pull the knife away from its weilder, Faceless---with Sydeline still locked in a chokehold---savagely buried the blade in the hacker’s neck, effectively carving an ear-to-ear line through the man’s throat. Blood showered down over the dying man’s clothes as his limbs spasmed frantically.

Seconds later, he was still.

“You should’ve gone for my…generous offer,” Faceless mused. “But…I’ll follow your earlier suggestion and…”

He turned towards the missing spot of railing. “…let him go…”

“NO!”

Even as she ran forward to tackle him, V.I.C.I. was too late to stop Faceless from dropping Sydeline’s corpse into the shredder. A horrible grinding, tearing noise erupted from the machine as Sydney Allwine---chains, slashed throat and all---was torn to bits by the massive machine.

From the catwalk above, V.I.C.I. stared, horrified, as Sydney’s hand seemed to be reaching up towards her…

…seconds before being sucked into the shredder and pulverized.

“Now, then…”

Yet again, Faceless’ words were punctuated by a dry chuckle. “After all this time,” he crooned, “all the near misses, escapes, and fights to a draw…it’s just you and I….here, in the last remaining symbol of my father’s idiotic ‘mechanical manservants for the masses’ vision. He never called it that, of course…he had some stupid name for it….but that’s obviously not why we’re here.”

His eyes narrowed to slits behind his mask. “We’re here to fight…isn’t that right?”

Before the Butcher of Lake Gilmour could laugh at his own rhyme, V.I.C.I. grabbed for her ES9950---

“Leave it,” Faceless hissed. “This…this isn’t going to end with you putting a round through my skull, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson…this ends when one of us dies. Preferably, at the other’s hand…but if you feel like taking a swan-dive into the shredder to join the late Sydney Allwine, I won’t stop you---actually, I take that back. I’d very much like to be the one to finish you off myself…so what’s say we take this fight to somewhat…safer grounds?” He gestured towards a staircase leading to the factory floor. “Tradition and manners dictate that the lady goes first,” he drawled. “That, and I just want to get this over with as quickly as possible…” After a few minutes of glaring at him silently, V.I.C.I. made her way towards the stairs and descended to the ground level.

By the time the soles of her boots touched the concrete floor of the factory, V.I.C.I. could tell that Faceless was just toying with her---he was taking the steps two at a time, stopping every so often to glance back at the scrap shredder and let out a snort of derisive laughter. After a good three minutes of faffing about, the killer finally made it to the ground level. “Well,” he declared. “Here we are. Alone, at last…”

“Enough of your banter,” V.I.C.I. snapped. “Your killing spree ends here.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it did,” Faceless admitted. “You know---“

“You want to know what I know?” Vicki cut in, switching back to her human voice. “I know that you’re a sadistic lunatic who disfigured himself after he killed his only sister. I know you murdered a loyal employee whose only crimes were failing to hide every scrap of evidence related to your ‘hobby’, and believing that you could be a good person. I know you killed James Harrington’s wife and tried to kill his daughter---the night after you tried to kill me in my own bedroom. I know you murdered your own parents, and that you killed every single person from Rengold Cybernetics who ever bailed you out of prison, just to keep the paper trail from getting too long. I know you hacked up a Coalition security agent with a chainsaw just to keep the ALPA busy. I know you have no pity, no remorse, no empathy and nothing even remotely resembling compassion…and above ALL THAT…”

She glared at him with death in her eyes. “I know that I will kill you.”

To her horror, Faceless nodded his approval. “And that, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, is exactly what I wanted to hear.” He clapped slowly, almost sarcastically; “The other weaklings of the ALPA---and even the Coalition, if we’re being brutally honest---would never dirty their hands with my blood---“

“This isn’t about whether or not killing you is beneath me,” Vicki growled. “It’s what needs to be done.”

“Asimov must be turning in his grave,” Faceless remarked. “And why does it ‘need’ to be done---“

“BECAUSE YOU’RE A FUCKING MONSTER!” the brunette gynoid screamed. “You kill because you think it’s fun. You build up trust in others and give them reasons to hope that you’re a decent human being, and then you slaughter them to keep anyone else from tracking you.” Her voice trembled; “There is nothing that could pass for common decency in you,” she muttered. “You won’t stop killing innocent people until someone else stops you….”

Blue lightning danced across her fingertips. “…so I’ll do what the ALPA couldn’t…and put you down.”

Faceless swung his arms wide, allowing both of his infamous wristblades to emerge from his sleeves and lock into place. “You’ll try.”

The two charged at each other, and the dance of death began.

V.I.C.I. slammed one D.G-charged fist into Faceless’ side, bashing the other into his head before he could counter---but the move left her open to a stab that pierced her uniform and drew a trickle of grey. Ignore it, she told herself, keep moving! She pushed away from the murderer and clubbed him in the abdomen, spinning on her heel to smash her palm into his face---only to sustain an ugly cut across her left arm as Faceless lunged forward, his right-hand blade scything downward and biting into her uniform with the cold efficiency of a razor.

Don’t hold back, the gynoid reminded herself. This is a fight to the death, not a sparring match.

Before her opponent could even draw back to attack her again, V.I.C.I. managed to leap just high enough to plant her left foot into the back of his head, kicking him towards the pounding pistons of a nearby machine…which he then pushed off of with the efficiency of a professional acrobat, charging back towards her and arcing his left arm upwards, ready to stab her in the head. “Had enough?!” he taunted.

“Never.”

The downward arc of the blade was intercepted with a well-aimed slap, knocking Faceless off-balance enough to give V.I.C.I. the needeed leverage for a well-aimed palm strike to the center of his chest---a strike that was interrupted by Faceless’ hand grabbing V.I.C.I.’s arm, then pulling her in close for a CPU-rattling headbutt. As her vision clouded over with corrupted pixels and static, V.I.C.I. staggered backwards---and felt another wristblade pierce her shoulder; he’s trying to keep me disoriented…to force me to rely on my “natural” senses instead of my enhanced sensors…

Shaking off the dizziness, the brunette gynoid managed to focus enough to hear the scrape of a shoe against the concrete and react accordingly---grabbing Faceless’ left wrist just before he could stab her in the ear.

“My turn.”

Her free hand swung down and nailed the killer directly in the side, forcing him to stumble away to avoid any further attacks. “You never should’ve come back,” she called out as the murderer retreated. “Getting your revenge against me won’t be worth it when you’re stuck in a hospital bed, pissing blood---“

A ferral scream cut her off, and her quick shoulder-roll was all that saved her head from meeting a similar fate.

“Getting desperate?” she taunted. “Maybe you should just quit now---“

By now, her vision had recovered enough to let her detect the thermal signature of Faceless’ arm---and the blade attached to its wrist---swinging towards the left side of her head; thus, she dodged out of the way and lashed out with a kick, nailing the masked killer right in the thigh. “Not even close,” she teased.

A slow, uneven laugh was the only response she received.

“You can submit now,” V.I.C.I. offered, “and---“

For the second time in under seven minutes, her vision dissolved into corrupted pixels.

“You forgot Detroit already?!” Faceless hissed into her ear. “Very, very bad move on your part---“

A fist slammed into his throat, cutting off his taunt (and his breath) with brutal impact.

“I never forgot Detroit,” V.I.C.I. coldly replied. “I was just waiting for you to try something that stupid.”

Faceless drew in a pained breath; “Poor judgement…on your part,” he hissed, stumbling sideways. He raised his mask just in time for a geyser of blood to erupt from his mouth; “You won’t do that again,” he hissed.

“So you say,” V.I.C.I. intoned. “You want to stop me, get over here and---“

The masked psychotic, who’d risen to his feet and managed to get a good running start going as V.I.C.I. spoke, lunged forward, his left fist slamming into the side of the gynoid’s face and sending her to the floor in a heap. “YOU ARE NOTHING COMPARED TO ME!” he screamed. “YOU NEVER HAVE BEEN, AND YOU NEVER WILL BE!” He drew back his fist to punch her again---

---and, instead, was paid back for that brutal headbut he’d used earlier.

“Still think I’m ‘nothing’?” V.I.C.I. inquired, returning to a standing position as her opponent staggered. “You can still give up,” she offered, “though you won’t be getting any---“

She stopped.

Stared at the lead pipe Faceless had retrieved.

“Put it down,” she ordered. “NOW.”

“The only way I’m putting this down,” Faceless sneered, “is when I bury it IN YOUR PATHETIC SKULL!” He ran forward, swinging like a madman and smashing his newly acquired weapon into a railing---then hurling it at V.I.C.I. as she ran, striking her in the kneecaps and sending her to the floor. “Guess I had to put it down a little bit sooner than I planned,” he leered, “stalking towards his downed opponent.

“That didn’t hurt,” V.I.C.I. countered. “In fact---“

The feel of gloved hands lifting her up off the floor cut off her taunt before she could get too far into it. “You will suffer for every single peurile taunt,” Faceless’ voice hissed. “I guarantee it.” Before the brunette gynoid could offer a rebuttal, she was dragged towards a menacing-looking presser---the same kind that had taken Mr. Tell’s left arm during his ill-fated stint on the factory floor before he joined the ALPA; if it could take his arm off, she realized, that thing could crush my skull like a watermellon at a Gallagher show!

“Now,” Faceless sneered, “you die---“

“NOT TONIGHT!”

The voice that shouted those words wasn’t Vicki’s, nor was it the voice of any of her friends---in fact, the last time she’d heard the voice was when the Human Animal had been about to violate her with a power drill back at the Detroit Marriot. “You?!”

Faceless’ voice instantly took on an even uglier edge; “NO….” He turned to glare at the interloper, a low growl emanating from behind his mask; “You should’ve stayed dead when the Animal carved you up,” he hissed, “but like every pathetic lapdog, you---“

V.I.C.I. turned herself over just in time to see a grey streak charge towards Faceless---

---and fall to the floor, revealing the bleeding figure of---James Harrington?!

“Surprise,” the Coalition chairman wheezed, looking up with a sly grin. “You were expecting someone else?”

Before V.I.C.I. could even think to ask any questions, Faceless raised his blades and prepared to decapitate the Stinger. “You pathetic, worthless son of a whore,” he growled. “PREPARE TO JOIN YOUR USELESS WIFE IN HELL---"

The impact of an empty toolbox knocked the Butcher of Lake Gilmour out cold.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” Vicki demanded, helping the wounded Coalition chairman up. “And how did you get that costume---“

“It’s on loan from Oberon,” Harrington replied. “Charlotte told me about the map she gave you…about how she wanted to see someone put an end to this whole Faceless thing…and I figured I’d show up, lend a hand and maybe give you a bit of a morale boost. The costume was Oberon’s idea---for some reason, he thought it would piss off Faceless---“

“Which it did,” Vicki informed him, “to the point where he almost killed you!” She sighed; “I appreciate the help and all,” she admitted, “but---“

A rising groan from Faceless cut off her sentence. “I get the picture,” Harrington mused.

“You need to get to a hospital!” Vicki insisted. “Otherwise---“

“I know, I know…” Harrington gave Vicki a thumbs-up and headed for the exit. “KICK HIS ASS!”

I’ll do my best, the brunette gynoid mentally replied---

---just as the flat of an axe smashed across the side of her head.

“No more distractions,” Faceless hissed, “and no more interruptions….now, YOU DIE!”


Across the street from the factory, the Accountant checked his watch. “If he’s not out of there soon…”

“What’ll you do?” Harrington inquired, smiling despite the wound in his side. “Steal my tires again?” He looked back at the factory; “She’s in there right now, fighting him,” he informed the Accountant.

“Good. Think we should wait before we call in the cavalry, or just let them finish this amongst themselves?”

Harrington shook his head; “They’re going to need help with this one,” he admitted. “I think the costume was a bit much, to be honest…as soon as Faceless got back on his feet, he was about ready to cut my head off.” He shucked off the imitation uniform of the Man in Grey, revealing his usual business attire underneath. “Get Oberon on the horn now,” he instructed the Accountant. “If those two keep going at it like this, there might not be enough of them left to drag out on a stretcher.”


Three minutes later, every Field Agent in San Jose was on their way to the factory.

“Of all the bloody cheek,” Oberon muttered, “he actually wore the damn suit when he charged in there for the save…I never thought he’d have it in him.” Despite the seriousness of the moment, he allowed himself a chuckle; “Publius would probably be livid, of course,” he admitted. “Still…”

“Don’t say things could be worse,” Major Tom warned. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Oberon shrugged. “I wasn’t going to say that things would get worse,” he remarked. “They might, of course---“

From the driver’s seat, Major Tom groaned.

“We’ll get there in time to keep things from getting too far out of hand,” Oberon assured him. “Vicki can handle herself against Faceless until we arrive…and he’ll probably be in no shape to fight anyone by the time our people get to the factory. Hell, he probably won’t even be conscious!”

Even as he said the words, the ALPA chairman knew that something was destined to go wrong….

Within the confines of the Rengold Cybernetics factory, V.I.C.I. and Faceless were reliving their nightmarish battle from Silicon Dynamics, in all its bloody, furious splendor.

The only difference this time, other than the setting, was that this fight was even worse.

V.I.C.I. threw Faceless against another massive machine and drew back to cave his skull in with her fist, only to get a leather-gloved thumb in her eye before she could even complete the move. Seconds later, Faceless tried to follow up with a slash that would’ve taken the gynoid’s nose off, but ate a clothesline---that transitioned seamlessly into a suplex---instead. The only thing that kept him from getting dropped on his head onto the concrete was a well-timed slash at V.I.C.I.’s kees, which sent her into a sideways collapse onto the cold, hard floor.

From there, things only got more brutal.

A fire extinguisher, normally a tool used for saving lives, became an implement of ending life in the hands of Faceless; even as V.I.C.I. got to her feet, the extinguisher was slammed against her head enough times to drive her back to the floor, denting the hell out of the tank in the process. Even after he finished teeing off on her skull with the extinguisher, Faceless was already three steps ahead of the gynoid, grabbing a wrench and raising it above his head, ready destroy her control panel with it---

---at least, until her right leg shot out and hit him in the shins with enough force to fracture them.

The scream that emanated from Faceless’ mouth afterwards rang through the factory like a demonic chorus, accompanied by the scraping sound of the wrench as it skidded across the concrete floor before hitting a hydraulic line. Not surprisingly, the line was knocked loose of its moorings.

Even less surprising, the wrench threw off a spark just as it stopped sliding.

What happened next, of course, was completely and utterly insane.

The machine that had once been used to “skin” Rengold Cybernetics’ robots---basically a mold that fit over their unfinished frames to put the synthetic flesh covering in place over their vital systems---erupted in flames, thanks to the fact that no health and safety people had been allowed into the building to drain the hydraulic fluid from the tanks. Within minutes, more machines caught fire, turning the battleground for V.I.C.I.’s fight with Faceless into a literal hellscape.

Of course, V.I.C.I. was too busy beating the crap out of the Butcher of Lake Gilmour to notice…

…at least, until he grabbed her by the hair and tried to hold her face over the flames.

The backfist she’d used to get out of the hold was meant to hit Faceless in the leg, but ended up nailing him right in the groin. Had any other man been behind the mask, the fight would’ve ended right then and there; as it stood, Faceless gave a very, very pained howl…but managed to stay standing.

“Had enough?” V.I.C.I. asked, throwing his own words back at him.

“Never,” the psychopath snarled.

The two faced off, each mentally preparing to do whatever it took to incapacitate the other---

---and then something in the far reaches of the factory exploded.

Alarm klaxons were ringing out all over the facility by this point, their various drones, wails and howls filling the air like a chorus from the depths of robot purgatory. Most of the machines in the factory were now letting off smoke and flames, only adding to the hellish atmosphere.

Both V.I.C.I. and Faceless knew that there was no turning back now.

Only one of them would be emerging from this alive.

Just as they’d done to start off the fight, both combatants charged at each other---and instantly regretted it.

V.I.C.I. allowed herself to get stabbed through the left side so that she could smash her palms into Faceless’ ears as hard as possible, disorienting him for the better part of five minutes---at least, that was the plan, until Faceless pushed off of her and stabbed her in the right side as well.

The HELL with this….

As she drove her elbow into Faceless’ elbow, V.I.C.I.’s thoughts flashed back to Silicon Dynamics, and the sheer brutality of her fight with the killer in the plant’s showroom. That time, she’d pushed herself to such an extent that she wasn’t even able to leave the showroom under her own power. This time, she had to limit herself just enough to be able to walk out…

…and despite the teachings of everyone from Ted Lawson to the ALPA, she didn’t really think it would matter if she left Faceless to burn with the building.

Speaking of which….

“Your elegy will be a symphony of screams,” the white-masked killer snarled. “Your remains will be lost among the twisted hulks of this factory’s useless machines….AND I WILL BATHE SILICON VALLEY IN BLOOD---“

His boast ended with V.I.C.I. spearing him right through a wall of fire.

Coincidentally, the move also put both of them through an actual wall.

The part of the factory where the two ended up was, surprisingly, a showroom---except the robots held within didn’t look as if their skin was made of moldy cheese. Before Faceless could express his outrage at anything in the room, the brunette gynoid lifted him off the floor by the neck and stared into his eyes; “This is the legacy that the name ‘Rengold’ should’ve had,” she declared. “Building androids and gynoids to interact with human beings and eventually be treated as equals by them…not some pathetic idiot hiding behind a mask and taking every single life in his path.”

“You…dare…call me pathetic?!” Faceless spat.

“Only because it’s true,” V.I.C.I. replied, seconds before she hurled him into the desk across the room.

“This is the kind of impact you want to make on history?” she continued, switching back to her human voice. “A body count, a list of pissed-off relatives and the undying hatred of every single human being on the planet until the end of time?” She shook her head; “If you were anyone else---and I do mean anyone else---there might actually be a snowball’s chance in Hell that, one day, you could somehow be redeemed…but seeing as how this is you we’re talking about…”

A tinge of actual sadness gave a melancholy weight to her words: “I almost feel sorry for what I’m about to do.”

Maddeningly, Faceless only laughed. “You…feel sorry?!” he scoffed. “You…the idiot who knew she was going to kill me….feel sorry?!” His laugh turned into an angry growl. “YOU INCOMPETENT, PATHETIC, MEWLING QUIM!”

“Trust me,” Vicki admitted, “I’ve never wanted to kill anyone in my entire ALPA career….”

Not even her monotone voice could flatten the emotion out of her next words: “…except you.”

The desk collapsed beneath Faceless as he struggled to his feet. “Then I suppose it’s only fair to inform you that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU FEEL,” he spat. “My life was PERFECT before your little stunt got me fired from United Robotronics…I could’ve gone years---decades, even, before anyone ever knew…but you had to stick your nose in my business and dig up the evidence….just like the BITCH you are!”

V.I.C.I.’s stare never wavered. “If you want to walk away, you still can.”

“No,” Faceless hissed. “I will NOT walk away from this…from the opportunity I’ve waited for ever since our first encounter….”

Behind his mask, his mutilated lips twisted into a smile. “Tonight…I will make you suffer.”

“You’ll try.”

Faceless was already on his feet as V.I.C.I. ran at him, but the shifting desk beneath his shoes made it all the more difficult for him to effectively dodge her clothesline. Indeed, the maneuver wasn’t so much a dodge as it was him tripping over a piece of the desk; even worse, Vicki turned on her heel and kicked him hard in the back as he went down. ”Still think you can win?”

A growl---and a lunging stab---were the only responsed V.I.C.I.’s question garnered.

“Why…won’t…you…just DIE?!” Faceless screamed, swinging at V.I.C.I. with every step forward. “I wasn’t programmed to die,” the gynoid replied calmly, grabbing Faceless’ hand after one particularly overdone stab and crushing his fingers in her grip. “You, on the other hand, seem to have it in your head that I’m just like every single person you’ve killed already…except I have a few things on my side that none of them could ever have.” Slowly, deliberately, she raised her free hand, released her grip on Faceless’ fist….

…and struck the killer hard in the side of the head, sending him crashing into a display case.

“Asimov’s laws were meant to protect humans from robots if they ever went rogue, by the way,” the gynoid added. “He never factored the potential for humans to abuse robots into the equation…and if he did---or if he’d ever had any inkling that someone like you would ever exist---then maybe he would’ve relaxed them a bit….” Tears streamed from her eyes as her human voice kicked back on; “You could’ve been a force for good in this world, William,” she insisted. “You could’ve just turned yourself over to the authorities after the Coalition cut you loose, or even lived somewhere in isolation, without any other people to kill…but---“

“ENOUGH!”

The gynoid that had fallen to the floor was kicked aside savagely as Faceless scrabbled to his feet. “I have had ENOUGH of this,” he spat. “You just don’t get it, do you?! All of this psychobabble, all of this bullshit about ‘being a force for good’…I don’t care! Never have, never will…..” He grabbed his mask off the floor, securing it to the straps hidden beneath his hair. “All I care about is death…specifically, the deaths of anyone and everyone who stands in my way---“

“Even your own sister?!”

A low, slow sigh issued from behind the mask. “My ‘sister’,” Faceless replied, “was nothing but a pathetic test tube baby who never should’ve been congealed in whatever laboratory her ‘donor material’ was sent to. She only scarred me the first time because she was lucky….I let her finish the job the second time…”

Again, he smiled. “…right before I finished her.”

Vicki could’ve said anything at this point, but there was no need for words anymore.

The fact was, he’d just proven why containing him would never be enough.

Without waiting for the masked killer to get back up, Vicki strode over to where he’d landed and grabbed him by the neck…and not feeling a single pang of remorse at the fact that she could literally kill him with just the tiniest bit of pressure. Somehow, all the fears she’d ever had about losing control of her own strength seemed to melt away…

…because in the end, it wasn’t worth it.

Disgust, anger and something that might have been pity were in her eyes and in her words as she dropped the killer to the floor. “This is over,” she muttered. “This whole thing you wanted our battle to be…it’s done.”

Faceless stared up at her, more pissed off than anything else. “What?!”

“You’re not even worth killing…it’d just be like stepping on a roach.” Vicki headed for the door, hating herself for ever having come to the stupid factory in the first place. “I’ll just tell them you died in the fire---“

The impact of something (or rather, someone---namely, a masked, black-clad someone who wanted to rip her head off and punt-kick it into the ocean) tackling her through the solidly-locked door---and, by proxy, right back into the still-burning factory---cut off her sentence in a rather brutal fashion. “Killing me is ‘like stepping on a roach’, is it?!” Faceless snarled.

“I…might’ve exaggerated on that one,” Vicki admitted. “Can’t we just---“

One of Faceless’ wristblades dug into her left thigh. “You die tonight, ‘Vicki’,” the psychopath growled.

“Not…if I…can help it!” The gynoid dug the blade out of her leg, shoving Faceless back as she did so. “I won’t kill you,” she reiterated, “but I don’t have to save you, either…” With that, she turned on her heel and headed for the exit---

---except Faceless ran at her again, knocking her to the concrete before she’d even taken seven steps.

“You DON’T walk away from me!” he hissed. “NOBODY walks away---“

Vicki shoved the murderer off of herself and sprinted for the door…a task made considerably more difficult by the falling debris and fire all around her. She couldn’t even tell if Faceless had recovered from that last shove, or if he’d been pinned under the wreckage of the ceiling.

By this point, she didn’t even care.

The front door was within reach; just a few more feet---

Even as she stepped towards the door, Vicki stopped. Reflexively, she tensed; this would be a great time for him to jump on me and start stabbing me in the neck, she mused. Either that…or he really is pinned under something back there…

She decided that it no longer mattered.

As far as she was concerned, Faceless was dead.

Flames raged around the brunette gynoid as she reached for the door; with any luck, she realized, I can get back home, take a nice bath and get to bed before Ted gets back…which, now that I think of it, would be the best possible way to end this day.

With that thought in mind, she sighed, pushed open the door…

…and was greeted by one hell of an unexpected sight.

ALPA and Coalition agents were standing outside, watching as the building burned; as soon as Vicki emerged, every single one of them---no matter what their affiliation---were cheering. Oberon, Harrington (still in the ruined replica of the Man in Grey’s suit), the Accountant, Charlotte and Anton, among a host of others, were applauding as the building burned; I guess they all agree with me on the view that Faceless was too dangerous to live, the bruntette gynoid realized…only to notice one figure in particular standing in front of the pack.

Ted.

With a tearful smile, she stepped forward, wanting more than anything to embrace him----

---and then, out of nowhere, she froze…

Something was sticking out of her chest, exactly where a human being’s heart would be.

“But…I…” She stared down at the object---the blade---and looked up, an expression of shock frozen on her face. “I…I don’t---“

Another stabbing, searing pain pierced her thoughts---and her head.

I I I I cancancancan’tcan’tcan’tfeelfeelffeeeeeeeeeeeeee#%#+)%I#QW%I#Q(+% %##QT!!$$!!%%

WARNING! WARNING! SYSTEM ERROR CRITICAL HARDWARE C0MPR0M1S3D C41T1CA7 $%%%%%%%%%%%%% EMERGENCY SHUTDO---


The assembled masses watched, horrified beyond all rational thought, as the blade in Vicki’s stomach was pulled out; seconds later, the one embedded in her forehead was ripped away as well.

Silently, the brunette gynoid fell to the ground, revealing the figure of her killer.

Faceless.

Every ALPA and Coalition operative stared, silently, as the murderer watched his victim fall…

…then, almost casually, he looked up. The corners of his eyes tilted slightly, as if he were smiling…

….and then he spoke the two words that sealed the full horror of the moment:

“I win.”

In less time than a man could blink, every operative in the area drew their guns and fired, none their shots even coming close to hitting the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. For reasons unknown, he ran back into the factory (which was still burning like a funeral pyre); everyone who’d opened fire on him gave chase, following him into the building. At that moment, all differences in philosophy between the ALPA and Coalition meant exactly jack shit; he’d stabbed Vicki Lawson---killed her in cold blood---and then declared that he had won.

To those chasing him, the only thing the bastard had “won” was a free funeral.

The chase would continue on through the night, and most of the next morning, but at that moment, every single operative who’d followed Faceless into that burning building---man and woman, human and machine, ALPA and Coalition alike---all knew one thing.

Faceless was going to pay.


Ted Lawson stared.

It was all he could do at the moment, really; one minute, his creation---his daughter was emerging from a burning factory, looking like she’d just won the lottery…and the next minute, she had one blade sticking out of her stomach and another in her head.

Then they were pulled out of her, and she just…fell.

And then he saw exactly who it was that had stabbed her.

Faceless.

That sadistic bastard………

As the crush of ALPA and Coalition agents ran forward, Ted felt himself take the unsteadiest steps he’d ever taken in his life, moving closer and closer to the figure of his daughter. He felt something on his face; it took him a few minutes to realize he was crying. There was a certain irony to it, really; back when he’d first made Vicki, he’d said she was “just a machine”, and occasionally even refused to refer to her as “her” or “she”…and now, here he was, crying his damn eyes out over a girl who was “just a machine”…

…except she was far more than that.

It felt like an hour before he finally got close enough to kneel over her and cradle her in his arms, but he found himself in exactly that position. A flood of memories---some happy, some sad---rushed through his mind in that moment, and for the briefest instant, all he wanted to do was hold onto them, keep them as close as he could.

Instead, he cried.

Gunshots were still ringing out in the factory; from behind him, Ted could vaguely hear the footsteps of Oberon and one or two others…but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Faceless…that bastard…had just killed his daughter, stabbed her right in the heart---

“She’s not gone.”

The words sounded like they’d come from somewhere beyond the stars, instead of from Oberon.

“Ted…”

He felt a hand on his shoulder. “We have to go, Ted. Now.”

Someone helped Ted to his feet, and another set of arms scooped up Vicki out of his grasp. None of it felt real to him…but it was real, every damned second of it. Behind him, someone said something about “prepping the backups”, and someone else said they’d call ahead and have all the equipment ready…but none of it really registered with him. For the first time in his life, Theodore “Ted” Lawson felt as if he’d lost one of his own children…because, as far as he was concerned, he had. Vicki Lawson was more than just a machine…she was his daughter….and Faceless had just slain her.

Ted was vaguely aware that someone just buckled his seatbelt…and, for that matter, that he was now sitting in a car. At the moment, though, the only image that ran through his mind was the look on Vicki’s face.

I’m sorry, Vicki…I’m so, so sorry….

As the TellMobile’s engine turned over, Ted buried his face in his hands and wept.

The night would bring no rest for him.


David Allen Tell’s Workshop – San Jose, California – July 10, 2011, 03:00 A.M

“Well?”

Oberon looked up from the still figure of Vicki Lawson, feeling considerably older than he looked. “’Well’, what, Clive?” he muttered. “You and I both know the extent of the damages---tertiary power source shot to hell, primary bubble memory processing network completely trashed…if he’d hit her in the RTG, there wouldn’t even be enough of her left to rebuild.” He shook his head; “That useless wanker should’ve been given the chair years ago,” he growled, “instead of getting a bronze parachute and a kick up the arse by the Coalition.”

“Hindsight won’t help us now,” Clive DuBraul gently reminded him. “Vicki did a hell of a thing surviving against him as long as she did…but now that he thinks he’s killed her---“

“THINKS he’s killed her?!” Oberon echoed. “LOOK AT HER, CLIVE! He’s only gone and stabbed her through the fucking forehead---AND, might I add, he’s also taken out her tertiary battery! A few inches either way on either of those stab wounds and we’d be looking at….” He let the sentence trail off. “Did they get the backup mainframe on yet?” he asked calmly.

“They just got it running last hour,” DuBraul replied. “If we can get a new bubble memory processor network set up by this time tomorrow, she won’t forget a thing.”

“That’s…that’s good, actually,” Oberon admitted. “The thing that worries me, though, is the whole problem with the tertiary battery…if that starts leaking too much---more than it’s already leaked, to be honest---then we’ve got another Dianne Isley scenario on our hands, and nobody wants that.” He stared at the slab again, all thoughts of throttling the life out of Faceless long gone. “I’m guessing Ted is still turning down all offers of sedatives and counselling?”

DuBraul nodded sadly. “If we can’t fix her…it might ruin him.”

“It’s not just about fixing her, Clive,” Oberon insisted. “She’s not just an appliance, or a thing…she’s a person, and she needs more than just a full repair job and upgrade…”

He glanced at Vicki’s unmoving form again. “We need to call them in.”

“On any other day of the week, I’d be arguing with you about this,” DuBraul mused. “Hell, I’d be arguing now, if the situation was any different…but when you’re right, you’re right.” He reached for the phone on the desk near him; “The Eleven must unite again,” he intoned. “Though under far less sunny skies than when they last convened…I just hope they won’t tell us she’s a lost cause before they even get the tools out.” He glanced at a clock on the wall; “I’m going to have to turn in for the night,” he muttered. “Or the morning…”

“Sleep all day, if you want,” Oberon agreed. “The way I’m feeling, I may lock myself in my bedroom for a whole month after this nightmare ends.” He stifled a yawn and checked a monitor next to him. “Who’s taking your shift?”

DuBraul examined the list Ted had tacked up on the wall; “Tell, apparently.”

“Has he stopped crying?”

“Weird thing, that…he wasn’t so much ‘crying’ as he was punching the walls, throwing things and swearing at the top of his lungs,” DuBraul replied. “We’re considering adding ‘cubbyholes’ to some of the walls to cover the dents…”

As pissed off as he was, Oberon couldn’t help but grin at the idea. “I think Vicki would approve of that.”

“She probably would,” DuBraul agreed.

The morning wore on, and Oberon was pleasantly surprised to find that Tell was no longer in the mood to punch, shout at or throw anything. Oddly enough, the tragedy seemed to bring out the best in him; he was already making plans on how to remove Vicki’s tertiary battery without damaging any of her other components, and he’d used up half a notebook of grid paper mapping out the new bubble memory processor network that he could make.

Of course, there was still one major problem….

“We have to figure out how to stabilize her once the new processor network is in place.”

Oberon’s statement reminded Tell just how much work still remained in getting Vicki back up and running. “If the blade had hit higher or lower,” he replied, “then we’d really be in the crapper…but as it is, we’ve got about a 50/50 shot of saving her or bricking her. I just wish this was something simple, like a virus…”

“You’d prefer running code purges on her?” Oberon inquired.

“Well, yeah! I mean, with a code purge, it’s not running the risk of damaging the physical hardware or anything like that…what you’re asking, though, has the potential to completely wreck her systems if I do even one thing wrong. One single tool slip, the whole thing is just shot to shit…and Vicki isn’t coming back. At all.”

Silence filled the workshop for a few minutes.

“She will come back,” Oberon finally declared, “because you won’t be working on this project alone. I’m calling in a lot of old favors to help you out with this one…” A smile crossed his face. “I’m reuniting the Eleven.”

Tell stared, dumbstruck. “You’re…you’re getting Lawson’s Eleven back together?!”

“They said they’d be there to aid him in his time of greatest need,” Oberon replied, “and that time is now. They have the tools, the experience and the know-how to repair Vicki’s physical form while Anton, myself and a few others restore her shattered mind…” He gently stroked the brunette gynoid’s forehead. “…and you can mark my words that we’ll make every second count.”

“Damn right we will,” Tell declared. “What about Faceless?”

The smile on Oberon’s face turned the slightest shade sinister. “Trust me…he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

If the words scared Tell at all, he didn’t show it. “Fair enough. Either the Coalition gets to him and gives him an old-fashioned necktie party, or the ALPA drags him kicking and screaming to the nearest court…either way, we win---“

“I never said either of them would find him first…I just said he’d get what he deserves.”

This time, the response from Oberon sent a minor chill down Tell’s spine…but it faded just as quickly.

As Tell continued mapping out the proposed bubble memory processor grid, Oberon took a seat near the slab where Vicki’s unmoving form lay. “Well,” he whispered, “this is the part where you either rise like the phoenix or go down like the Hindenberg…and personally, I have a feeling that your glorious comeback will be exactly the thing that makes Faceless realize how foolish he was to go after you from the start.” He smiled tearfully as he continued; “We’ll all be here waiting for you, Vicki,” he murmured, “and I know you won’t let us down.”

Gently, he lifted her hand and kissed it. “Rest well, Victoria…you will be avenged.”

He lowered her hand back to rest at her side, then crossed the room to his iMac (technically, it was Tell’s, but it was reserved for any times he appeared at the workshop) and began to type out the message that would bring Lawson’s Eleven back together….


Ladies and Gentlemen….

We stand on the precipice of a catastrophe the likes of which the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency has not seen since the 1980s. For years, we have fought against those who would remove the rights of androids and gynoids, and keep them from living in harmony with human beings…

…yet our newest adversary cares not for our efforts in that field.

All of you are familiar with William J. Rengold III, known---and hated---the world over as Faceless. Last night, at 7:58 PM, Vicki Lawson entered the last unclaimed Rengold Cybernetics factory with the intent of---and I might as well be honest here---killing Faceless. Before any of you leap to conclusions about her mental state, it was agreed between Coalition and ALPA representatives alike that the self-proclaimed “Butcher of Lake Gilmour” is far too dangerous to be left alive---the man has been slaughtering ALPA, Coalition and unaffiliated operatives and associates for well over a week…these actions alone have proven him to be a remorseless killer who cannot be allowed to continue operating in Silicon Valley.

Last night, however…he killed Vicki.

I’ll spare you the gory details and just get to the crux of it---she’s been stabbed in her tertiary battery, and her central bubble memory processor drivers have been damaged as well, thanks to the fact that Faceless impaled her through the forehead as well. Repairing her physical damage is going to be difficult---and, in fact, I’ve called upon all of you to return to the fold for exactly that purpose.

Fixing her mental damage, of course, will be another matter entirely…

Rest assured that Faceless will receive his just desserts in due time. For now, we must focus on repairing Vicki Lawson…

…because if she dies, the future of the ALPA might very well die with her.

Oberon, ALPA Chairman.


TO BE CONTINUED…


Vicki Lawson may be down for now…but will it be “lights out” forever?

As Faceless’ killing spree continues, the ALPA and Coalition unite to track down the murderer and avenge Vicki’s “death”…all while Ted Lawson’s inner circle from the early days of Lawson Robotics reunites to save Vicki from a fate even worse than death! As they work to repair her body, Oberon and other old friends do their best to restore her mind…but can she be repaired in time to stop her own brother from taking the law into his own hands and killing the Butcher of Lake Gilmour himself?

You won’t want to miss the shocking finale of the next entry in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Lawson’s Eleven”---coming to Fembot Central this February!


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