Epsilon

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“There are no words to express how….disappointed I am with each and every single one of you.”

That single utterance from the Baron sent biting chills down the spines of the researchers gathered in front of the hastily-prepared stage within the facility’s cafeteria. Here, in this secret bunker, they had carried out several of the most heinous experiments in United Robotronics’ storied history…

…and now, the place was going to be their tomb.

“By allowing William J. Rengold III---a man known to most of you as Faceless---to obtain the unlock codes for my latest---and, to use the parlance befitting of the time, greatest---project thus far,” the Baron intoned, his face hidden from view (as always) by an intentional lack of lighting on the stage, “you have all failed to protect the integrity of the project, you have all failed to hold yourselves up to the highest of United Robotronics’ high standards…”

His voice dropped to a malicious whisper: “…and, most egregiously, you have all failed me.”

Every living soul in the room who wasn’t on stage squirmed in their seat. The Baron’s intolerance for failure was legendary---the stuff of nightmares, if some reports were to be believed. For those who didn’t believe the myths, it was dangerously close to becoming an in-joke---“who can get the Baron to yell first” was a popular prank on new hires for a few months, until the Baron found out about it and (if the reports were to be taken seriously) had the “geniuses” behind the idea taken out to the parking lot and kneecapped. The fact that three of them were in wheelchairs the next time anyone saw them bore some credence to that particularly-gruesome tale….

….though the fact that the rest were never seen again gave it even more credibility.

“None of you will be receiving any further pay raises, bonuses, or benefits of any sort until this matter has been rectified. Furthermore, none of you will be leaving the building for---“

From the back of the room, some unfortunate soul chose that exact moment to clear his throat.

The Baron’s eyes locked onto the man. “Do you have something you would like to add to the conversation, Mr. O’Malley?” he inquired.

“Ah, not that I, er….want to trivialize….ah, this….development, sir,” O’Malley stammered, “but…see, the Fourth of July is in a few days---next Monday, to be precise, and, ah…my family, well….” A nervous chuckle escaped his lips. “They’ve already kinda sorta made…plans….for the weekend, and stuff…..and, uh, well….I was kinda hoping you could, ah…..maybe let me---“

The report of a pistol rang out, and the man next to O’Malley slumped to the floor, dead.

A hooting noise filled the air as a figure stepped forward onstage; Otto Schmeisser, the right-hand man and chief of security for Coalition Chairman Harrington himself, blew the last wisps of smoke away from the barrel of his .45 and glared at O’Malley, his eye gleaming like a blue gemstone. “Consider that a warning shot,” the Baron intoned, “and return to your seat….unless you deisre a more…thorough look at Herr Schmeisser’s marksmanship…” He stared at the terrified researcher until the man sat down again, forcing himself not to look at the corpse on the floor. “If anyone else in this room has any objections to my proposals,” the Baron continued, “speak now….”

The entire room was silent.

“As I suspected. With that out of the way…..”

Elsewhere in the facility, several “guests” who hadn’t been invited to attend the conference proper (or chose to not take part out of concern for their own safety---the latter reason of the two being the more common) had been allowed into the executive breakroom, where they watched the proceedings on a massive, 90-inch wide flatscreen TV and several smaller monitors that allowed them to see things from various camera angles.

“I find it strange that the Baron did not invite his own secretary to take part in this ceremony,” Victor Vega mused, sipping champagne and arching an eyebrow. Celine---the aforementioned secretary---stared at the floor; “I…didn’t want to get behind on my workload,” she murmured, trying not to make eye contact with Señor Vega. There’s also the small matter of the Baron uses that stupid lottery of his to call up members of the audience and “allow” them to help “test out” his new project, she mentally added, and I don’t want to be anywhere near when they pass the hat…. She’d already asked for and received permission to take an extended leave of absence to focus on “personal issues” after this whole affair was over with, and she had every intention of getting as far away from her current location as possible.

Her words prompted an annoyed huff from someone sitting a few feet behind her. “So you’d rather park your ass here and bore the hell outta everyone else?” Brittney “Boom Boom” Delacroix muttered. “Girl, you need to go tell Baron Boohaha or whatever his name is to just chill the fu---“

“His name,” Tobias Wakefield interjected, “is most assuredly not ‘Baron Boohaha’, Miss Delacroix…” As CEO of Mantronix Inc., which had supplied the Baron with several million dollars’ worth of vital components and equipment for this latest project, Tobias had accepted the invitation to attend the proceedings for a few reasons, chief among them gratitude for the Baron’s continued patronage of his business. The desire to not be “terminated from the Coalition’s employ” came in at a close second, of course. “As for your remarks towards Celine,” he continued, “I suggest---“

“You can ‘suggest’ all you want, fool,” Brittney spat, “but I don’t have to listen to a damn word---“

“People, please.” Vivica Frost---longtime business partner of Victor Vega, and a rather imposing corporate presence in her own right---sighed; “The Baron let us in here to enjoy the show,” she reminded her fellow Coalition liasons, “so let’s just sit back and enjoy it.”

Vega nodded his agreement. “We should not let petty bickering ruin this auspicious occasion,” he declared.

“You’re the sumbitch who started the ‘petty bickering’,” Brittney muttered under her breath---earning herself an immediate death glare from Vega. “May I remind you,” he growled, “that it was my factory that built you, and my money that paid for the components used in your creation?!” Before the gynoid could even think to reply, Señor Vega grabbed her off the couch by the lapels of her expensive shirt; “Then let it be known, with every soul in this room as my witness,” he breathed, “that any further insolence from you, Miss Delacroix, will be met with swift, immediate and irreparable termination at MY COMMAND---“

“Get your damn hands off of me,” Brittney intoned from between clenched teeth.

“YOU DO NOT COMMAND ME---“

A pair of mocha-skinned hands closed around his wrists and tightened. “I said,” Brittney repeated, staring into the eyes of Señor Vega with unbridled hatred, “get your damn hands off of me….unless you feel like losing ‘em….”

Vivica Frost rolled her eyes. Here we go again…

After a few seconds of staring between the two, Vega let go of Brittney’s lapels, and she let go of his wrists.

“If you two are done being idiots,” Tobias Wakefield drawled, “they’re about to unveil the big surprise…” He gestured towards the massive flatscreen; “Wouldn’t want to miss the big moment, would we?” He chuckled as Vega returned to his seat, scowling; Brittney muttered a threat involving a saber saw and Vega’s nostrils.

Back in the conference room proper, the Baron gestured to a shroud-covered slab behind him; not surprisingly, the light playing off of the slab failed to illuminate him in any way. “For the past ten months,” he declared, “you have been working on a project that was stated to be the future of man and machine alike….and now, the fruits of your work will be revealed to you at last…” He splayed the gloved fingers of his outstretched hand, and the shroud was ripped away. “Ecce homo ex machina,” he intoned. “Behold the man and the machine, made one……”

The researchers stared, horrified beyond all rational thought, as the slab was brought forward.

What had once been the still-living body of a man brought to Block G in August of 2010 was…still a human being, in the loosest sense of the word. 50% of the internal organs had been removed, replaced and/or simply “repurposed”, to increase the efficiency of the being as a whole---the sexual organs, for instance, had been carved out (for lack of a better term) and cast aside, replaced with sophisticated air filtration systems and a new version of the Caloric Intake Converter. The liver, spleen and other “filtering” organs had been somehow refitted with devices meant to further screen out toxins and other potential killers; every inch of the circulatory system had been reinforced with a sort of non-stick, polymerized, chemically-treated coating, making it impossible for blood to clot within the veins and arteries. The ears and eyes had been left intact, albiet with alterations to increase the senses of hearing and sight; the nose and mouth were covered with a grid-like metallic mask, made from a titanium/tungsten alloy that also appeared in the form of implants along the arms and legs (or at least the parts of the legs that weren’t covered by the drab khaki pants the thing wore). No body hair was visible on any uncovered part of the being that stood before the researchers; its eyes were red, with yellow irises, and its breath was even and measured.

“Project Epsilon,” the Baron declared. “The purest fusion of humanity and technology.”

Slowly, the straps around Epsilon’s limbs loosened and retracted into the slab, freeing the 6’6” machine-man from its confinement. With a measured stride, it stepped off of the footrest of the slab, staring out at the crowd as protocols and directives loaded into the personalized chipsets augmenting its brain. “What you see before you is merely Stage 1,” the Baron continued; “in this form, Epsilon retains the appearance of its human component, and can easily be camoflagued as such by means of…specialized wardrobe choices.” The use of the word “component” to refer to the man that Epsilon had once been sent a shiver through the crowd; they all knew whose body had been delivered to Block G and “processed” for the experiment. “Even without the unlock codes, Epsilon remains loyal to those responsible for its creation….” He cleared his throat: “Epsilon.”

The machine/man’s head snapped to its left, staring directly at the Baron; the crowd held its breath, waiting for it to execute the inevitable command---

“Kill Researcher O’Malley.”

At this, the entire assembly broke into a panic---all save O’Malley ran from their seats, screaming, trying to force the doors of the cafeteria open so that they could escape. The Baron himself stood, still hidden in the darkness onstage as Epsilon ripped O’Malley’s throat out with its bare hands and crushed his skull like an overripe watermellon. “New Directive,” the United Robotronics CEO called out. “Kill all personnel in this room who do not possess Gold Level Security Clearance.”

Within the executive breakroom, the Baron’s guests watched as Epsilon massacred every single researcher in the cafeteria. Tobias Wakefield’s smile had long since faded; now, as he beheld the carnage, he realized that he was muttering a full decade of the Rosary to himself. Victor Vega had run to a nearby trashcan, claiming that something he ate no longer agreed with him; even the usually-unflappable Vivica Frost was forced to turn away. Celine murmured a paraphrased quote that seemed to fit the situation quite nicely. “’Now we have created death…..the destroyer of worlds.”

Behind her, she heard Tobias Wakefield utter a more realistic appraisal: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

Celine couldn’t really find any reason to argue with that.

“So….think it’s the same one as the last few?”

Vicki Lawson’s enhanced auditory sensors allowed her to hear the full question despite the fact that she wasn’t even paying attention to it; “Probably,” she replied, not taking her eyes off of the corpse on the floor. “How many does this make….five, six---“

“Eight,” Eric Reuben Reaves corrected. “All of them from major Japanese robotics firms.” He shuffled through a sheaf of papers that had been on the desk of the deceased before his untimely end; “He just got a grant to set up shop here in San Jose after that tsunami hit Japan earlier this year,” he added. “Just like the rest of them…died the same way as the rest of them did, too.” He shook his head in disgust. “They managed to get out of the country before an earthquake/tsunami combo could kill them, and someone decides to start playing ninja to bump them off once they reach Silicon Valley….”

As she stepped back to allow the EMTs to remove the corpse, Vicki realized that Reaver’s assessment of the situation was pretty appropriate. Already, seven other figures associated with the Japanese robotics industry had been killed, prompting a massive manhunt for Faceless (who hadn’t shown his face since the Kirsten Sanderson incident two months prior) that turned up nothing. “Find anything in his luggage?” she called out.

“Other than clothes, personal anemities and documents that we’re not allowed to read,” Reaver called over his shoulder, “nothing.”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. Figures… “What about his laptop?”

Reaver shook his head. “It’s not his---he borrowed it from a fellow researcher, Kazuya Katayanagi.”

“Katayanagi?” Vicki echoed. “He’s related to those DJ twins?”

“They just DJ on the side,” Reaver corrected. “They work as independent roboticists---hobby stuff, mostly, but some of their work is pretty impressive. I hear they were in Canada earlier this year for some big event---“

“Didn’t they get killed at that ‘big event’ when their wall of amps fell on them?” Vicki inquired.

“They got better, apparently,” Reaver replied, removing a flyer from the dead man’s luggage. “I don’t think a pair of dead DJs would be doing a show in Oregon for July 4, Vicki.”

His remark prompted a scowl from the brunette gynoid. “How come I still don’t have a callsign?” she asked, pouting. “I mean, you get ‘Reaver’, and every other Field Agent in our squad has a callsign they picked out for themselves…but I’m still just ‘Vicki’…” She sighed. “Why can’t I get something awesome, like ‘Nighthawk’, or ‘Dragonfly’, or---“

“We already have a Nighthawk,” Eric informed her.

“Let me guess,” Vicki sulked, “he’s some sort of techno-ninja guy who always carries two swords?”

“Actually, she’s one of our best pilots,” Eric corrected, chuckling. “Why are you so worried about a callsign---“

“Let me answer your question with a question,” Vicki countered. “How many missions did it take for you to get your callsign, Eric?” She gave him a wary look, arching her eyebrow and resisting the urge to tap her foot impatiently.

To her annoyance, Eric just laughed the question off. “I didn’t just ‘get’ my callsign, Vicki…I earned it.”

Oh, joy….and how many missions will I have to go through before I “earn” mine? With a sigh, Vicki resumed her search for anything that might’ve been left behind by whoever had killed the room’s former occupant. “Ah, Reaver?”

“Yeah?”

“This hotel doesn’t offer lotus blossoms as in-room decorations, does it?” Vicki held up a pristine white flower, staring at it intently. “I’ve got a few partial prints on it,” she mused, “but no red flags from HQ…” Her bubble-memory processor ran through her recorded observations from the past few crime scenes. “All seven murders so far have had nothing in common other than the Japanese robotics connection,” she mused, “until now.”

Eric glanced over his shoulder. “And you’re saying this….why?”

“All seven crime scenes had a lotus blossom left somewhere in the immediate vicinity,” the brunette gynoid explained. “We’ve still got people stationed at each spot, right?”

“Yeah, but---“

Vicki handed Eric the blossom she’d picked up; “Have them collect the lotus blossoms before anyone else shows up,” she instructed, “and whatever you do, don’t leave this room or misplace this…” Without another word, she left the room. “Call me if you find anything even remotely interesting about that blossom,” she added.

“I will,” Eric assured her, “but---wait, where the hell are you even going?!”

“Dad wanted me to give Carrie a ride back home!” The brunette gynoid glanced over her shoulder, giving Eric an apologetic look; “I promise I’ll pull a double shift next week to make up for this!” she called out. “Just…call me if anything comes up---“

She turned, just noticing the closed elevator doors in front of her---and colliding with them. “OW!”

Despite himself, Eric couldn’t help but chuckle. “You okay, Lawson?”

“I’m…I’m fine,” Vicki insisted, staggering to her feet. “Nothing I can’t walk off….” She gave herself a mental once-over just to be sure; CPU intact, ocular sensors still working, no damage to my cranial myogel lines or endostructural framework…yeah, it’ll take a lot more than something like this to screw me up. With a quick thumbs-up to Eric, she pressed the button to summon the elevator to her current location and waited for it to finish its ascent. Dad would probably have a fit about it, though, she realized, her thoughts returning to what had just happened. Then again, he might say it makes me “more human”…

“VICKI!”

Eric’s yell prompted her to turn around just as the doors closed; “Yeah, what is---MY BAG!” It would’ve been all too easy for her to hold the doors shut and retrieve her booksack, but the hotel had already been forced to repair one elevator due to “extensive damage” of that exact nature. “Scrap….have someone bring it to me---“

The doors closed in her face.

An annoyed groan escaped her lips as the elevator car descended. Whereas most androids or gynoids would be running self-diagnostics to check themselves for bugs after two embarassing/possibly-damaging incidents, Vicki knew she was just having an off day---and it definitely wasn’t the first. I seem to be having a lot more “off days” ever since the incident with Kirsten, she reminded herself; it’s bad enough the repairs took the rest of May and most of June, but now Tell is saying that she may be out for another week and a half?

The incident had been one of the most trying ordeals Vicki had ever faced thus far in her ALPA career---thanks to the machinations of Faceless, Kirsten Sanderson had been forced to confront the truth of her own existence as a sleeper gynoid…and thus far, the only part of her that hadn’t yet recovered was her mind---

Vicki’s revere was interrupted by the elevator doors pinging open, revealing a rather surprising sight.

“Forget something?” Anton Malvineous mused, holding the brunette gynoid’s booksack out to her. “Eric had the foresight to run over to the stairwell and, ah, deliver it to me---“

“He threw it down to you, didn’t he?” Vicki dryly remarked. “If this were any other day, I might be pissed off at him for almost breaking the thing…but since he did, in fact, deliver it safely, tell him I said thanks.” She shook the bag by its handles, listening for any indication of its contents having been broken. “You are so lucky this thing has impact absorbtion padding inside,” she informed Anton. “I had a lot of important stuff in here!”

The famed roboticist sighed; “If it helps,” he mused, “we could’ve replaced everything in that bag within a day.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Vicki replied. “Right now, I need to get going---Carrie’s probably waiting for me as it is, and I don’t want her to be stuck at some random friend’s house any longer than she has to be.” She glanced towards the exit, a worried look crossing her face; “I’ve heard talk that some of the students in her computer-related classes were practicing the ‘fine art’ of writing viruses during the school year,” she murmured, “and if it turns out that one of them is visiting the same friend she is, and decides to test out some new program they wrote…”

Anton nodded his agreement. “If she found out what she was due to a virus someone else wrote,” he mused, “it could destroy her entire sense of self-knowledge…hell, she might not even trust you if that happens.”

“Let’s try not to think that far ahead,” Vicki suggested. Especially since I don’t feel the need to give myself a case of the creeping horrors any time soon… “Feel like riding shotgun on the way to Carrie’s friend’s house? I could drop you off wherever you need to go afterwards…and why are you looking at me like I just told the most hilarious joke in the world?”

“To be honest,” Anton admitted, “Ted actually suggested I ride with you earlier today….”

“Somehow,” Vicki muttered, “that doesn’t surprise me…just let me call Reaver first, so I can borrow his car.”


Within the bowels of a plane that had once served as a cargo carrier during the days of Air America, the being known as Epsilon slept.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Tobias Wakefield inquired, silently thanking whoever had been responsible for installing the soundproofing inside the plane’s belly (he hated having to yell over anything). “I mean, if we’d have stuck to the original plan and deployed Epsilon in a heavily-populated urban environment, like Japan, I think we could’ve easily been able to fill the quota for potential test subjects for the next few phases! Hell, we might’ve even been able to---“

“There is a fine line between ‘might have’ and ‘would have’, Tobias,” the Baron intoned. “I have no desire to cross that line, and you should have no such leanings either. Furthermore, the recent….bad weather that befell Japan a few short months ago is all the more reason for us to stay out of the area.”

Tobias could’ve easily mentioned the Starlet Dolls’ Japanese tour (the proceeds of which were donated to a multitude of charities afterwards) and their lack of problems with the climate, but he wisely chose to change the subject. “Three more of our people got kicked out of Detroit,” he informed the Baron. “On Bill Brightstar’s orders, no less…” A humorless chuckle punctuated the sentence; “Maybe we should be dropping Epsilon on the Motor City,” he offered, “instead of---“

A loud, rapid beeping from Epsilon’s coffin-like stasis chamber cut him off.

“Calm yourself, Wakefield,” the Baron intoned. “Epsilon is merely…dreaming….” Even in the darkness that pervaded the cabin (and, as per usual, kept the Baron’s face hidden), Tobias could tell that the man was probably smiling. “Soon, those dreams will become a reality….and for Epsilon’s targets…a nightmare.”

Somehow, Tobias mused, I have a feeling that “nightmare” will involve me before this is all over with….


“Okay, someone’s going to have a lot of explaining to do….”

As Vicki guided Eric Reaves’ car up the drive of Carrie’s “friend’s” house, she could tell that something was up before she even put the thing in park---namely, due to the fact that Carrie was sitting on the doorstep, her chin rested atop her hands. “I’ll handle this,” Vicki murmured to Anton, exiting the vehicle (she’d changed out of her Field Agent uniform before the drive) and striding over to Carrie Anne Isley. “I thought the whole ‘going to a friend’s house’ thing meant you’d actually be in the house,” she joked, only to notice Carrie’s forlorn look. “Ah, something wrong?”

“Erin’s mom is having another fight with her boyfriend,” Carrie murmured, “and he said…well….” She glanced over her shoulder before whispering the word in Vicki’s ear---prompting a shocked gasp from the older brunette gynoid. “Erin said I should wait out here until they’re done,” she continued, “but---“

“I’ve got a better idea,” Vicki suggested, her voice barely holding back the rage she felt. “You go wait in the car with Professor Malvineous, and I’ll go in there and…have a word with this…boyfriend….” She nodded in the direction of Eric’s car. “I won’t take long,” she assured her stepsister; the younger gynoid gave a quick nod and ran for the vehicle just as Anton opened the passenger-side door for her. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite cheerleader in all of San Jose!” he beamed. “You look like you just stepped out of the uniform catalog---and yes, that is a compliment.”

The gynoid grinned; “Thanks, but---“

A loud crash from inside Erin’s house cut off her reply to Anton’s compliment; “Maybe we should find a good song on the radio to listen to,” the roboticist proposed. “Something with a good backbeat---“ He cringed as a pained shout split the air, followed soon after by someone crying. “…headphones would be nice right about now, don’t you think?” he inquired, handing Carrie a pair of black earbuds. “You can keep those, if you want, by the way; I’ve got loads of pairs at my house---“

The living room window of Erin’s house splintered as a male figure---clad in a t-shirt and boxers---flew through it, landing with a thud on the front lawn. Anton turned away as soon as he realized the man’s left arm was broken below the elbow; both his eyes were black, and he had trouble standing up even after he rose to a standing position. Even as he limped for the fence, the red-and-white clad figure of Vicki emerged from the window, using a table leg to bash through the shards that hadn’t left the frame. “Where the HELL do you think you’re going?!” she shouted, hurling the table leg at the retreating man. He collapsed again, screaming in agony as blood streamed from the back of his right knee as Vicki caught up with him. “If you EVER call anyone what you called my stepsister EVER AGAIN,” she warned, “this will feel like nothing---“ She stopped, her hands gripping the idiot’s shirt collar as he stupidly chose to use a similar insult against her.

“Oh, God,” Anton muttered. “Carrie, you might want to find a good book---“

A horrified gasp from the passenger’s seat confirmed his worst suspicions---Carrie hadn’t bothered to look away, and thus, saw exactly what happened after Vicki headbutted the moron who’d insulted her right in the nose. Within seconds, a veritable shower of blood, snot and cartilage erupted from his face---not that he had the time to notice, thanks to Vicki throwing him to the ground and giving him a solid kick to the sides. After a few seconds of silently staring at the man’s ruined face, she retreated into Erin’s house.

Anton squeezed his eyes shut, mouthing a silent prayer; Carrie chose to look over her homework, instead of staring at the beaten, bleeding man on Erin’s lawn. For a full seven minutes, neither of them even glanced in the direction of Erin’s house.

Not surprisingly, they both jumped when the backseat door slammed shut.

“Drive,” Vicki ordered.

Eric’s car sped away, leaving Erin’s house in the dust.

“Vicki,” Anton began, “before you say anything---“

“How many times has that bastard made those kinds of comments to you?” Vicki asked Carrie, completely ignoring Anton. “Once, twice a week? How often is he even there---“

“He shows up every few days,” Carrie interjected, “and…sometimes, he’s…out of it---‘

“That’s no excuse,” Vicki growled, staring out the window. “Why the hell is Erin’s mom even dating someone like that?!”

Anton took a calming breath; “As much as I may regret asking this later on,” he mused, “what exactly did this unfortunate soul do that warranted him getting beaten up, thrown through a window and headbutted hard enough to shatter his own nose---“

A wad of $10 bills landed in his lap.

“He was trying to shove those into Carrie’s skirt.” The words carried an uncharacteristically ugly edge, as if Vicki wanted to leap out of the car right then and there to go finish off the deadbeat. “He told her she’d look great on a pole, and that she could give him a ‘private dance’ any day of the week…he was even telling ERIN those things!” Her fist clenched around the door handle, which buckled under her grip; “He treats women like…like they’re nothing…” She stared out the window again, her breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps.

“Vicki,” Anton muttered after a three-minute wait, “I think we should---“

“Stop the car.”

“I don’t---“

“STOP THE CAR, ANTON.”

The car pulled over at a gas station, and Vicki nearly broke the door to get out, her sights already locked on a payphone. Three minutes later, the door slammed again---hard enough to rattle the entire vehicle. “Erin and her mom will be spending the rest of this week and next week at Tell’s apartment,” she tonelessly informed Carrie and Anton. “As for the douchebag without a nose….he’s lucky if he’ll survive his first week in jail.”

“If the cops pick him up,” Anton countered, “he’ll tell them---“

“Tell them what?!” Vicki snapped. “That he got his ass kicked because a ‘stupid whore’ stood up to him and decided to make him pay for treating his own girlfriend---and her daughter---like a couple of hookers?!”

Carrie sank in her seat, trying her best to ignore the shouting.

“Why the hell are you even concerned about this, Vicki?!” Anton shot back, finally losing his temper. “Yes, Erin and her mother shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of abuse, and yes, the idiot might have deserved to get thrown through a window, but---“

“Stop the car.” The air of finality pervading Vicki’s words left no room for argument. “Carrie, go call Ted’s and tell him we’re going to be late.” She handed the younger gynoid a cellphone; “Tell him that something’s come up, and that we have to take the long way back,” she added. “Okay?”

“Right.” Carrie exited the car and headed for a nearby building (which turned out to be a McDonald’s).

“Vicki,” Anton muttered, as soon as Carrie was out of earshot, “why in the HELL are we stopping here?! I have a schedule to keep, and you still have that murder case to work on---and I know that you know that Carrie has her own itenerary---“

A small, air conditioner remote-sized device landed in his lap.

“That guy I left bleeding on the lawn at Erin’s house was waving this at Carrie and Erin’s mom,” Vicki intoned quietly. “It’s an F-GRADE DeComm unit, Anton---he knew what it was, and he knew what it would do to Erin’s mom…” Tears streaked down her face; “She’s a sleeper, just like Carrie…”

Anton’s scowl faded. “I…I didn’t know….I recognized Erin, from when her father brought her to my offices one year during the Labor Day weekend, but….I never realized Selena wasn’t….” He shook his head. “And you’re saying that drunken idiot knew?”

“He’s been stalking her for months,” Vicki droned. “Got the remote from a former Coalition liason. If he’d have pressed the button when it was pointed at Carrie…I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened to her.” She wiped the tears from her eyes; “I lost control again, Anton,” she whimpered. “I…I shouldn’t have gone that far, even after what he said…I almost killed him.” There was something in her voice---some mix of fear and guilt---that struck a nerve with the roboticist. “I don’t want to cross the line when it comes to things like this, but…when Carrie told me what he said, and when she mentioned the remote….I…I just---“

“I know,” Anton replied, sighing. “For the record….I’m sorry for getting pissed off at you.”

Vicki looked up, finally allowing a smile to cross her face. “Apology accepted.”

Carrie re-entered the car a short while later; “Sorry I took so long,” she apologized, “but Ted sounded pretty busy. I think he might’ve been talking to a few other people when I called---“

“Talking to them about what?” Vicki inquired.

“I wasn’t trying to listen in on them,” Carrie admitted, “I was just trying to tell Ted what you’d told me.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki mused. “Anyways, Anton will have to be the one bringing you back to Ted’s tonight; I have some stuff to take care of, and I might not be back until later.” Especially since I’m heading across town to make sure that Kazuya Katayanagi is still among the living…

Anton dropped Vicki off at the Eastridge Center, where she wasted no time in changing into her Field Agent uniform and waiting for Eric (with Jennifer Larsson, his maybe-girlfriend and fellow Field Agent) to arrive (in Jen’s car, seeing as how Anton was still using Eric’s). I can’t let that whole thing with the D-Comm remote get to me anymore, she reminded herself. I have to focus on getting to Katayanagi and keeping him from getting bumped off by that lotus-dropping killer.

Five minutes later….

“We’ve been running the tests on those lotus blossoms left behind at the crime scenes,” Jen informed her, “and it turns out that each of them has a partial fingerprint on it…unfortunately, each of those fingerprints came from one of the other victims---and the one from the last crime scene has a partial print from Kazuya Katayanagi---“

“Which means we need to get to the hotel where he’s staying ASAP,” Eric finished.

Vicki nodded her agreement; “You two brought full SCEMP clips, right?” she asked, slapping a full clip into her own weapon. “If we catch this lotus-dropper in the act, we might be able to take them down before they can slip out the window and do even more damage…” …which is a lot more than I can say for some of the other killers I’ve faced, she mentally added. “I just hope that whoever we’re dealing with isn’t a Faceless copycat,” she mused. “If they are, I might just scream.”

“If they’re as dangerous as Faceless is,” Jen replied, “screaming should be the last option on your list.”

The brunette gynoid let out an annoyed breath. “You’re probably right…”

In a hotel room, somewhere in San Jose, Kazuya Katayanagi waited.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who had been in the twilight of their lives (“had been” being the operative phrase---they’d all since been struck down), Kazuya himself was just entering his 40s; his hair hadn’t yet begun to turn grey, nor had his senses dulled to the point of uselessness.

Also, there was the small matter of his daughters-in-law….

“…and if you bring one more random guy into MY room, I’m going to have Kazuya-san give me your admin password, so I can alter your settings!” Eriko Katayanagi stormed into the meditation room, her scowl only slightly throwing off her beauty. “I swear, I leave the hotel for ONE DAY, and Kaori manages to drag at least FIVE MEN into my room….” She let out an annoyed huff. “If I had a power screwdriver, I’d---“ She stopped, finally noticing Kazuya. “My sincerest apologies, Kazuya-san,” she breathed. “I didn’t mean to---“

A quiet, barely-noticable sigh was the only reply she received.

Eriko nodded and backed out of the room, wisely choosing to forget her argument with Kaori (at least for the time being). “I’ll leave you to your meditation, then---“

“Wait.”

The lone word from Kazuya prompted her to freeze in her tracks. “Y…yes, Kazuya-san?”

“Join me in my meditation…or, at the very least, for a discussion about your current status within my family.”

After a few confused seconds, Eriko nodded and took her seat next to Kazuya. “Have I…offended you, Kazuya-san?” she quietly asked.

“You have not offended me,” Kazuya replied, “nor has your sister…” He sighed. “When I acquired Kaori-san and yourself, I meant to have you become the wives of my sons, when and if they ever chose to retire from their…disc-jockeying career. As the years have gone by, however, I have come to cherish both of you as my own daughters---“

“Don’t tell me you’re planning on doing that seppuku thing,” Eriko mused, frowning.

At this, Kazuya actually chuckled. “Far from it,” he informed the gynoid. “You are no doubt aware that many of my contemporaries from Japan have…died, rather suddenly, upon their relocation to San Jose in order to escape the tsunami…and that certain authorities have chosen to investigate their deaths as homicides?” After Eriko nodded, Kazuya continued. “It is my belief that I have been targeted by the same one who has killed so many of my countrymen…and that they are on their way here to finish their task by killing me.”

The calmness with which Kazuya made the remark stunned Eriko; “But…Kazuya-san,” she gasped, “you---“

“There is also,” the Japanese roboticist continued, “someone in transit at this very moment…someone who intends to prevent me from being killed.” A smile crossed his face as he glanced at the raven-haired gynoid sitting next to him in the sand; “You are aware of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, correct?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes, Kazuya-san,” Eriko replied, “but---“

“They are sending one of their finest to assist me,” Kazuya continued, “and from what I understand, she has a rather impressive level of experience in such matters.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “If I did not trust her completely, this entire building would ‘crawling with bodyguards’, as the popular phrase goes.”

Somehow, Eriko doubted that; Kazuya-san had never been a fan of security squads to begin with---

At the far end of the hallway outside of Kazuya’s room, something slammed into the wall hard enough to dent it, prompting a terrified gasp from Eriko---and another sigh from Kazuya-san himself. “The time has come,” he intoned. “Find Kaori and get her to safety…I do not wish for either of you to be in harm’s way.”

Despite the overwhelming feeling of fear creeping through her systems, Eriko nodded her agreement. “I will see you again, Kazuya-san,” she affirmed, refusing to allow for any potentiality that might end with the death of her benefactor. “Sooner, rather than later…” She stared at him quietly for a few more seconds before giving a quick bow and heading for the closet, which held a removable panel that allowed her access into the room she shared with Kaori.

Once the closet door closed, Kazuya finally moved from his spot on the carefully-tilled meditation garden, grains of sand dropping away from him silently. Had the hotel management known that the shallow pit also held a genuine samurai sword (despite having professed a disapproval for the stereotype that all Japanese owned a katana, Kazuya himself insisted on carrying one “just in case”---and because the thing was practically an heirloom in his family), they might not have allowed him to use the thing in one of their poshest executive suites…but then again, they also had no idea that Kaori and Eriko weren’t human, or that both of them had been programmed with a number of nonlethal takedown moves to incapacitate anyone who tried to inflict grievous bodily harm upon him.

Case in point: the white-clad figure that kicked in the door to his room just as his fingers closed around the hilt of his treasured katana.

“You have made a mistake showing yourself,” he mused, raising the blade out of the sand as he stood. “I am not as helpless or enfeebled as those others whom you have slain…and none of them deserved to die at the hands of---“

“Enough.”

The word was flat, emotionless…yet it carried just a hint of feminine undertones. “It is you, Katayanagi, who has made the mistake…seeking asylum on the shores of another land with your lackeys in tow, claiming some ficticious need to escape from a paltry storm as your excuse.” The figure stepped forward, angling a pair handheld scythes towards Kazuya. “You will pay for your insolence, and for that of your former colleagues….and then, you shall join them in death.” There was no mistaking the feminine sway to the figure’s walk; “If this is some form of retribution for any slight---real or imagined---that my honored colleagues may have committed against you,” the Japanese roboticist mused, “I will gladly make reparations---“

“The only reparation you need to make,” the figure replied, tearing off her kendo hood to reveal a kabuki mask beneath, “is paying for their sins with your life!” She charged forward, scythes raised---and didn’t flinch as Kazuya deflected the blow with his sword. “I am not the one who has wronged you,” he insisted.

His attacker drew back one of the scythes, attempting to hook it around his throat. “You may as well have been,” she growled. “I was meant to fulfill a greater purpose, to be something more than just a shell of a person…but that purpose was taken from me, stolen by those who sought to use me as nothing more than some glorified blowup doll…or worse!” She slashed again, refusing to accept Kazuya’s constant retreat; “Your colleagues knew I was being treated as a worthless toy,” she snarled, “yet they did nothing! Some of them even considered ‘joining in’…” She lunged forward with an aggressive ground-to-sky cut that would’ve easily cleaved Kazuya in half at the groin, had he not moved. “They are just as guilty---“

“They were drunk,” Kazuya countered, just as his blade intercepted both scythes. “They never would have made any attempt to ‘join in’ had they known the depths of the depravity to which your abusers sank! You are condemning them---“

“AS THEY DESERVE TO BE CONDEMNED!” The girl in white swung wide, going for Kazuya’s left arm…

…only to drop one of her scythes as the katana sliced into her right shoulder, drawing blood----

No. Not blood…no human being alive bleeds…purple?!

The fluid leaking from the girl’s arm---combined with her earlier statements---cast her apparently-misguided mission of vengeance in a horrifying new light. “You killed my colleagues because…you believe they saw you as expendable?” Kazuya inquired.

“It doesn’t matter how they ‘saw’ me,” the girl---the gynoid spat. “None of them treated me with any shred of respect! To them, I was but a toy, a pathetic doll with a mind that could be switched off---“ She lunged at Kazuya again, her blade grazing his arm. “---and a personality they could simply delete if they saw fit! NONE of them ever thought of me as a person---as an equal!” She slashed at Kazuya with every step, backing him towards a wall. “I was nought but a lotus flower,” she hissed, curving her arm so that the inside of the scythe blade was just barely brushing against Kazuya’s throat. “Fragile, beautiful…and easily discarded.”

“None of them thought of you as a toy,” the roboticist insisted. “Those who abused you---“

“Those who abused me are dead,” the gynoid growled, “and your pathetic friends have joined them…and so shall you…” She drew back her arm, preparing to embed the blade in Kazuya’s head. “Your soul shall never know peace, Kazuya Katayanagi,” she declared. “Even in death!”

Had she noticed the conspicuously shiny bit on the hilt of Kazuya’s sword, she might’ve backed away…

…instead, she took the black pepper charge to the face and staggered, allowing her prey to head for the exit.

“I am truly sorry that you have been wronged,” he called out, “but ending my life will not bring you peace---nor will it atone for the misguided actions of those others whose lives you have already taken---“ The scythe flew past his head and halfway-buried itself in the wall next to him. “Your lies will do nothing to spare you from my wrath,” the kabuki gynoid intoned. “Your ‘esteemed colleagues’ would’ve gladly submitted me to countless perversions, all for the sake of their own amusement…but now, the only delights they will gain are those of the next life---“

A wild yell of ”KIAI!” was the only warning the gynoid had before her own weapon was hurled back at her; the scythe cracked the porcelain of her mask, revealing the beautiful, unblemished face beneath. “You must learn to channel your rage,” Kazuya suggested, “and harness your beauty for ventures that might not end in your destruction….I can help you. Give me a chance, and I will find a home where you will be treated with the respect that you deserve---“

“RESPECT?!” the gynoid shrieked, pulling away the rest of her mask to reveal that the rest of her face was just as untarnished as what had been revealed earlier…save for a small, almost unnoticable scar on her right cheek. “You, of all people, would DARE to lecture me about ‘respect’….your own employees used me like a common whore---and worse---and left me in a back alley to be claimed by the ravages of time….” She knealt to retrieve the scythe; “You dare lecture me about respect,” she repeated, her voice a mere whisper.

“I only wish to help you---“

“The only help I need from you is your silence,” the gynoid spat, charging towards Kazuya---only to break into a backflip that ended with her knocking him to the ground, the scythe held aloft in her hands to tear out his throat and slice his heart to ribbons. “Say your last words now, pathetic dog….”

“How about this: You drop the weapon, or I put a round through the back of your head.”

At this, the gynoid turned---and gasped as the scythe was shot out of her hand.

“Guess I just made the choice for you,” V.I.C.I. mused, stepping forward. “Seriously, though,” she added, going back to her human voice, “just make this next part easier for the both of us and surrender…unless you actually want me to kick the scrap out of you, of course.”


Here’s hoping she actually follows my advice about the whole “surrender” thing….

As Vicki stared down the gynoid who, just seconds ago, had been poised and ready to decapitate Kazuya Katayanagi, her internal connection to the ALPA database kicked on, allowing her to get a comprehensive reading on her opponent. Nisandanku Cybernetics model #019662-71, name Hanako….wow. Every single owner she’s had for the past few years wound up in the hospital or dead---and that’s just over the course of last year!

“Look, ah, Hanako,” she reasoned, “is this really what you want---“

“YES,” Hanako hissed. “Kazuya Katayanagi---“

“Had nothing to do with your long and storied history of abuse,” Vicki interjected. “You’re just projecting the rage you’ve been feeling in regards to your past owners onto him and his colleagues…and then killing them because of that rage---so maybe you just need to chill out.”

Hanako glared at the brunette gynoid; “You have no business meddling in my affairs, gaijin,” she spat.

“I’m making it my business,” Vicki replied, assuming a classic “come get some” pose (more for effect than any actual intent to fight). “And as for that ‘gaijin’ crack? Technically speaking, this is my home turf, which would make you the ‘gaijin’---“

Her taunt was interrupted by Hanako shrieking like a white-clad banshee and charging at her, preparing to beat the ever-loving scrap out of her with nothing but her own two hands---which she easily could’ve pulled off, had it not been for the small matter of Vicki slamming her Detaining Grip-charged left palm into the Asian gynoid’s abdomen, sending her flying across the room with little effort. “Do that again,” she cautioned, “and I will end you.” She backpedaled to pick up the scythe Hanako had dropped, then hurled it towards a wall---and nodded her approval as the weapon sank into the wall right to the hilt. She won’t be using that little toy anymore---

A barbed chain wrapped around her throat before she could finish her thought. What the hell?!

“I came to this land with only one objective,” Hanako informed the brunette gynoid. “I meant to eradicate all those who stood to profit from my exploitation and suffering, or die trying…and I will not let some pathetic, brown-haired gaijin bitch stand in my way---“

Her declaration ended abruptly as an electric charge shot through the chain and straight into her hand, forcing her to let go of the thing before her synthetic flesh was permanently damaged.

“Right,” Vicki declared, “you don’t call me a bitch unless you’re really, really tired of your existance…” She gave a tug on the chain, yanking it clear across the room---and discarding it via a conveniently-placed garbage disposal chute. “I’ve got other things to tend to,” she informed the Asian gynoid, “so if we’re all done playing Kung-Fu Princess in here, can we just end this little fight and get moving? Oh, and don’t bother trying to find that chain, or trying to get the sickle out of the wall….”

Hanako glared at her. “You will pay for interfering in my work!”

“You’re the most annoying machine I’ve dealt with since Harriet dragged ‘Rodney’ to my house and it shook my hand,” Vicki muttered. “Actually, I take that back---at least that plastic pile of junk made for good conversation….even though he could only say one thing---“ She dodged another barbed whip attack. “Okay, THAT was just rude!” she protested. “Seriously, you should’ve at LEAST let me finish talking before---“ She ducked sideways again, narrowly avoiding a whiplash strike that would’ve lanced her cheek. “REALLY?!”

“I will obliterate you for this!” Hanako hissed.

“Right, you really are more annoying than Rodney…” Vicki muttered, drawing her ES9950.

Kazuya allowed himself a smile, despite the fact that Hanako was still armed. “I must admit, your arrival has been rather timely, Miss Lawson,” he called out.

“Thanks,” the brunette gynoid replied. “Still---“ She deftly spun on her heel to avoid another lashing strike from the wire. “---I could use some help here! Any chance you’ve got something I can use against her, or do I have to empty my entire SCEMP clip into her---OW!” The wire sliced her across the face. “That HURT!” she groaned. “Yeesh, could you---GAAAAHH!” Vicki cluched at her arm, reeling from yet another attack; “Will you QUIT IT?!” she screamed.

Hanako circled around her, her eyes narrowed to slits. “I will only ‘quit’ when you are dead,” she murmured, “and---“

The bite of cold steel across her back silenced her.

“Correction,” Kazuya replied, “you’ll quit when you are dead.” He angled the katana blade up, pushing the gynoid away from himself. “Miss Lawson, allow me to humbly offer my assistance---“

“Offer accepted,” Vicki replied. “Just make sure you don’t get killed.”

The Japanese roboticist nodded. “I’ll do my best not to die if you’ll do your best to keep me alive.”

Vicki grinned; “That’s what I’m here for,” she replied, grabbing Hanako’s whip in her free hand and twisting it around her forearm. “And as for Little Miss Whiptease…” She gave a hard yank on the wire-whip, which sent Hanako face-first into the floor. “Right, you’re NOT whipping me in the face again,” she informed the Asian gynoid, “or anywhere else.” She chuckled. “Also, for the record---white outfit with a kabuki mask? Talk about a cliché….”

“Every word out of your mouth will earn you another hour in HELL,” Hanako snarled. “I will---“

“Okay, dial it back a bit,” Vicki declared. “Why are you so hellbent on giving Kazuya the shish-kabob treatment anyways?”

“Kazuya Katayanagi and his colleagues are complacent, incompetent cretins who deserve to be slaughtered for all eternity,” Hanako replied. “He will be the last of those who refused to step forward and stop me from being abused…..and his shall be the most brutal---“

“Okay, okay, I GET IT!” Vicki shook her head. “Any chance you could explain this, Kaz?”

Kazuya stared at her. “Hanako believes that her abuse at the hands of others can be pinned on those who refused to provide assistance in her time of need,” he replied. “According to her ‘logic’ my colleagues are just as culpable as those who perpetrated the abuse…..” He sighed sadly.

“She’s too far gone to help now, Kazuya,” Vicki reminded him. If she still wanted to be helped, she wouldn’t be trying to fillet both of us right now!” Of course, she’ll have a tough time filleting either of us without her whips and sickles---

“LOOK OUT!”

Vicki turned---and ducked just in time to avoid getting raked across the eyes by Hanako’s fingernails, which glinted in the dim light. “What is it with you attacking people when their backs are turned?!” she groaned, doing her best to backpedal without tripping over her own feet. “I mean, seriously---“

“I suggest you cut back on the talking, Miss Lawson,” Kazuya suggested, “and focus on the fighting!”

“Good point,” the brunette gynoid nodded, grabbing Hanako by the forearm and dragging her to the ground.

“LET GO OF ME! You cannot interfere in my mission---Kazuya Katayanagi must be PUNISHED!” The Asian gynoid thrashed wildly as Vicki cinched in the armbar. “I will make him suffer, even if it means destroying you and this entire building to---“

“Word of advice,” Vicki grunted, “NEVER threaten a person who has you locked in an armbar!” She planted both feet against Hanako’s side and pulled---and beneath the white spandex of the other gynoid’s outfit, servos began to strain. “’I will rip your arm off if I have to,” she warned, “so just quit mouthing off and---cut it out, will you?!” Hanako started thrashing again, her free arm coming dangerously close to jabbing Vicki in the eye more than once. “You do that one more time, and I’ll break your fingers!”

“You…will not….keep me…from my objective!” Hanako growled through clenched teeth.

Care to make a wager on that? Vicki pulled back on the Asian gynoid’s arm again, this time seeing a visible tear in the spandex---and the synthetic flesh beneath it. “I’m guessing you didn’t hear my remark about losing the arm if you keep talking,” she mused, “so---what the HELL?!”

In what could only be called a contortionist’s masterpiece, Hanako twisted around and grabbed her still-pinned left arm with her right hand---and, as Vicki watched, her fist clenched just enough to sever the remaining connections inside her arm. The brunette gynoid nearly fell over as her opponent stood, wires and metal trailing from her left shoulder; “I will accomplish my objective by any means necessary,” she intoned. “The loss of a limb is a small price to pay for destroying a worthless piece of filth like him!”

“I guess we can forget about the whole ‘are you going to come quietly’ bit,” Vicki muttered, tossing Hanako’s severed arm aside as she rose to her feet. “Can we just end this already?” Hanako growled, clearly annoyed at Vicki for her overall lack of respect. “I will not allow you to---“

“Okay, I can see this is going to be a one-sided conversation all the way through,” Vicki declared, striding over to the Asian gynoid, “so how about we just cut the small-talk and get to the part where I beat you?” Her hands crackled with electricity as she approached Hanako; okay, time to find out where her main power cell is and overload it…shouldn’t be too hard, right? Her scanners kicked on, allowing her to pinpoint the location of Hanako’s internal power cell---right where a human being’s heart would be. Kind of makes me glad my RTG is stored lower, she mused, though it’s a bit weird knowing that my “heart” used to rest just above one of my thighs, instead of…well, where hearts usually go---

Another wild strike from the Asian gynoid cut off her introspection. Right---fight now, reflect later! She easily dodged out of the way, drawing her right palm back as she went. “Time to put you to sleep…” Before Hanako could even think to react to the seemingly-childish insult, Vicki’s palm slammed into her chest.

Kazuya arched an eyebrow as his former attacker slumped to the ground after ten seconds, twitching for a moment or two before going still. “That….should not have taken as long as it did,” he mused, approaching the downed gynoid carefully. “Are you sure she can’t attack us again?”

“Positive,” the brunette gynoid replied. “That shock disabled her CPU, her personality drivers and pretty much every other program, process and/or directive that could allow her to do anything other than just sit there on the floor…” She sighed. “I just need to call for a cleanup crew to help get this place looking…well, relatively normal, at the very least,” she informed Kazuya. “After that, I’ll be out of your hair, and you can get back to doing whatever it was you were doing before this whole thing started…” Her sentence trailed off as she noticed Kazuya sitting on the floor in the half-lotus position, hands upturned, eyes closed. “I’ll…just leave you to it, then,” she murmured, turning on her heel and heading for the door.

The cleanup crew showed up on time, bagging Hanako’s unmoving form (and her severed arm) quickly and with a minimum of noise. A few others stayed to sweep up the small bits of sand from the meditation area; the rest headed for the hotel restaurant to enjoy their lunch break.

After what I’ve just dealt with, Vicki mused as she strode towards the elevator, a lunch break would rock…

“I’ll be honest with you, V---this isn’t even the fifteenth time I’ve seen this sort of trauma mess up a ‘bot this badly…hell, it’s not even the twentieth.” Mr. Tell shook his head sadly; “One owner too many used her as a punching bag and a ‘love pillow’,” he muttered, “and pretty soon she hates the entire male gender…or, at the very least, those members of the male gender who bore as close a resemblance to her own previous owners as possible for her supremely screwed-up motivations to kick in.”

Vicki nodded silently, reflecting back on her own encounter with Erin’s mom’s boyfriend earlier in the day. “I’m just glad I never got treated as badly as Hanako did,” she murmured. “I mean, it took me a while after the Big Upgrade to get over all the times Dad said I was ‘just a robot’…”

“Speaking of getting over things,” Tell mused, “I, ah, heard about your little incident at Erin’s house---“

“The guy had an F-Grade DeComm unit, Tell,” Vicki stated. “He was waving it at Erin, and her mom---hell, he was trying to stuff a wad of dollar bills down Carrie’s cheerleader skirt!” She stared at the floor; “If he’d have waved that remote at Carrie, and his finger would’ve slipped….” She plopped down on a nearby stool, her chin rested atop her palms. “You probably think I’m nuts for headbutting him the way I did,” she murmured.

Tell sighed theatrically and sat next to the brunette gynoid; “If it’s any consolation, V,” he admitted, “I’m actually a bit proud of what you did.”

“You’re proud of me for breaking a guy’s nose?”

“I’m proud of you because you stood up for two people who didn’t even know they were in danger,” Tell replied, a sly smile crossing his face. “Though, to be fair, bashing a guy’s nose in with your forehead was probably a bit too, ah, conspicuous…”

Vicki lightly punched him in the arm. “I didn’t even feel that one,” he deadpanned. “Was that a hit, or---“

A second, far more solid hit impacted his shoulder. “Okay, I felt that one,” he admitted, rubbing his arm. “Ow.”

“I didn’t even hit you that hard,” Vicki teased, grinning. “Seriously, though….you actually don’t think I’m nuts for having headbutted someone into unconsciousness?”

The sound of Ted Lawson calling out for Vicki drowned out any reply Tell could’ve made. “I have a feeling you might want someone else’s opinion before you get mine,” he mused. “Just try not to look too enthusiastic about having busted the guy’s face,” he whispered, “or Ted might suddenly decide to put you through the debug cycle all night long.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Vicki replied, rising from her seat. “Dad, I can explain---“

“There’s no need,” Ted interjected, sounding surprisingly calm. “I heard the whole story on the way over.”

Vicki and Tell exchanged confused looks; “Ah, you mean the whole story about Katayanagi,” Tell inquired, “or the story about, ah….a certain someone getting in a, ah, what’s the word….altercation with….someone else….” His words trailed off. “V, help me out here!”

“It’s okay, Dave,” Ted assured him. “I know about what happened at Erin Cholyer’s house.” He placed his hands on Vicki’s shoulders; “Sweetheart,” he murmured, “even though you did potentially cross the line with the whole ‘exploding-nose headbutt’ thing….” He pulled her in for a hug.

“Thanks,” Vicki quietly replied, instinctively knowing what the gesture meant.

After a few seconds, Ted broke the embrace. “Carrie’s okay,” he assured Vicki, “and Erin’s mom thought the whole thing with the remote was just a prank. As for that piece of trash who was dancing around like an idiot with the remote…well, as soon as they fix his face, he’s going to the state penitentiary for a good long while.”

“If I may turn this discussion away from this, ah, somewhat morbid train of thought,” Tell cut in, “you two might want to get a look at some of the stuff I found on Hanako’s hard drive…” He retrieved his laptop (he’d already explained to Vicki that he’d use the thing as long as it still worked), gesturing to the results of the InocuLAN test he’d just finished running on the Asian gynoid. “Seventy-seven viruses,” he intoned. “All of them obtained while our white-clad kunoichi was looking for ways to bypass the built-in safety features that were meant to keep her from going after people…” He shook his head in disgust. “The way she was treated, I’m sorely tempted to say that I don’t blame her for going as far as she did…not that I’m condoning---“

“We get it,” Ted and Vicki replied simultaneously, glancing at each other with arched eyebrows mere seconds after they spoke. “That….was weird,” Vicki mused, “but in a cool way.” A sly grin broke out on her face; “I’m starting to rub off on you, Dad,” she beamed.

Ted chuckled. “It’s times like this I wonder why I used to think of you as ‘just a robot’,” he mused.

“ANYWAY,” Tell half-shouted, “back to the seventy-seven viruses on this here gynoid’s hard drive…” His eyebrow twitched, as if he was trying not to laugh at his own forced Texan accent in the latter half of the sentence. “Most of these are in conflict with each other---they’re trying to nuke the hell out of shared rootkits and other such stuff, which normally wouldn’t be a problem….but in this case, there are five main red flags that I’m seeing right now---and before you ask, V, the Stylo virus isn’t one of them.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” Vicki muttered.

Knowing that Tell was going to go on a tangent about something completely off-topic if Vicki interrupted him again, Ted decided to guide the conversation back to its original topic. “What exactly are these ‘red flags’, then?” he asked.

“Two macro-wipers, two crash cycler worms and something that I’ve never even seen before,” Tell replied. “I can take care of the macro-wipers without a problem, though they might wipe out chunks of her memory in the process…considering some of the stuff she’s experienced, that might almost be a good thing---anyways, I can get rid of those and the crash cyclers with no problem, since they’re not caught up in this stalemate web that the last of the red-flags seems to be at the center of.” He stared at the screen thoughtfully; “Whatever the hell this file is,” he murmured, “it’s altered every single permission, ownership registration protocol and firewall in her system…it’s like a keystone, almost---you pull it out, and the whole thing---“

“I get it,” Vicki declared.

“I…wasn’t trying to….never mind. Like I was saying, this one remaining red-flag is more than enough to screw everything up in a matter of seconds if anyone even tries to look at its properties for too long. It’s not written in English, either---more like five or six different languages at once, some of which have no business being in the same file, or even the same words, together. This thing is…” He shook his head. “It’s like a freaking Rubik’s cube, almost---“

“That’s it.”

V.I.C.I.’s monotone voice prompted a bemused glance from Ted. “Ah, what’s it, Vicki?”

“Isolate that program,” the brunette gynoid continued, “and create a secure connection from another laptop to that one. I think I may know how to figure out what that program is, who wrote it, and what it’s doing on Hanako’s hard drive.” Her eyes remained fixed on the screen of Tell’s laptop, even as another technician retrieved one for Vicki to use. “I mention a Rubik’s cube,” Tell muttered, “and she suddenly has a plan…” He grinned. “It’d be hilarious if this weren’t a serious issue…”

“You should see her play chess,” Ted muttered, grinning.

“I need to concentrate here,” V.I.C.I. admonished, though her face bore the slightest hint of a grin.

As soon as the second laptop was fully booted up and running, with the last of the red-flag files loaded, the brunette gynoid’s fingers flew over the keyboard, her gaze never leaving the screen. “My pride and joy at work,” Ted beamed. “Let’s see some lame chess computer beat her!”

Tell was somewhat more blunt in his praises: “How the hell is she doing that?!”

“Trade secret,” Ted replied.

“But…it’s impossible---I mean, no human being could---“

“Bingo.” Ted grinned again. “She’s not just another pretty face, y’know.”

“I know,” Tell insisted, “but---“

“Program restructuring complete,” V.I.C.I. interjected. “You two shouldn’t have a problem seeing what it really is now.”

Tell’s eyes widened; “But…that…that was just three minutes!” he gasped. “I…you…how---“

“Just take a deep breath, Dave,” Ted suggested. “You’ve known her for almost a full decade, and this is what surprises you?”

“To put it simply,” Tell replied, “yes.”

“As much as I enjoy you two discussing my computational skills,” Vicki mused, “you really should get a look at this file…” She waited until Ted and Tell were both looking over her shoulders before continuing; “I’ve only ever seen this code structure once before---back in May, after someone had the bright idea to analyze the code extractor that was left behind after the parking garage brawl at Santana Row…”

Ted and Tell’s expressions turned grim. “Oh, dear mother of Woz,” Tell muttered, shaking his head.

“This…this isn’t even possible,” Ted stammered. “How….she downloaded this from the Internet! How could she get this?! It…this can’t---“

“It can,” Vicki corrected, “and it is---the last remaining unlock code for Project Epsilon.”

Tell turned away, yelling for another technician to get HQ on the phone. “I recognized the code structure from the deleted unlock codes Faceless tried to get off of Kirsten’s hard drive,” Vicki quietly informed Ted, “and as soon as Mr. Tell mentioned the Rubik’s cube…I remembered that Faceless’ code extractor ran some sort of quad-matrix multi-calculation routine to pretty much rip the codes from the rest of Kirsten’s files…” A lone tear snaked down her face as she stared at the screen. “From there, the rest just sort of…fit.”

“Except for the whole question of how she got this file in the first place,” Ted insisted. “Vicki, the unlock codes for Project Epsilon are like the keys to a missile silo from the Cold War---they’re not something you just leave lying around on the coffee table in plain sight! Her having this file on her hard drive---“

“She got it from an archived site,” Vicki informed him. “It went down in ’06…that file was all that was left.”

The revelation that an archived website had one of Project Epsilon’s unlock codes didn’t sit well with Ted. “I’m calling DuBraul and asking him to look into this,” he muttered, more to himself than to Vicki. “If anyone from United Robotronics finds out---“

“TED!” Tell’s urgent shout drowned him out. “WE NEED TO LEAVE NOW!”

Vicki sighed. “I’ll get my stuff…”


From his vantage point inside the helicopter, the Baron smiled. So far, Epsilon was performing brilliantly…

…just as planned.

“This is insane,” Tobias Wakefield muttered. “Tentrex is going to sue the crap out of us if any one of their guys can link Project Epsilon to United Robotronics---the thing’s flipping over cars! It’s going to kill someone---“

“And you would have it merely…wound them?” the Baron mused.

Tobias couldn’t bring himself to stare into the darkness that seemed to have enveloped the bench across from him. “You said we were just going to scare people with Epsilon,” he replied, “that you just wanted to shake things up and send a message…” He glanced out the viewport at the parking lot below, cringing as a Tentrex employee was thrown into the side of a building. “This, though…this is just wrong!”

“Coming from the man who claimed he would make Vicki Lawson’s life a living hell,” the Baron countered, “I almost find that…funny.” The caustic sarcasm in his voice left no doubt as to his true opinion.

Knowing that he’d already overstepped his boundaries, Tobias chose to shut up.

Not that it would make a difference, in the end….


“What the hell?!”

Ted didn’t bother admonishing Vicki; he’d had a similar (albiet more extreme) reaction just a few short seconds after the Tellmobile slowed to a stop. “Did someone drive a tank through here, or something?”

“This wasn’t done by a tank,” Tell muttered, scowling. “Whatever hit these cars didn’t penetrate---and last time I checked, tanks didn’t fire shells with titanium fists at the end.” He glanced across the parking lot, shaking his head as people ran past, screaming. “Vicki, get your---“

“Already on it.” V.I.C.I. stepped out of the Tellmobile with her ES9950 raised, scanning for any sign of the being that had trashed the lot. “You two might want to circle around,” she advised. “If this thing can punch through cars, there’s no telling what it’ll do if it gets a hold of either of you.” Not to mention there’s no telling what I’d do if it got a hold of either of you, she mentally added. I nearly lost Dad once already this year…and I am not going to risk losing him again!

As the Tellmobile backed away and began circling the building, V.I.C.I. thought back to the discovery of the Project Epsilon unlock code on Hanako’s hard drive. The fact that she had that thing in her system to begin with is just…wrong. Seriously--- The sound of crunching metal in the distance caught her attention. Right. Focus…this is going to be---WHAT THE HELL?! A car door sailed past her, slamming into a wall a few feet away and knocking half a dozen bricks loose in the process.

A few seconds later, the thing that had thrown the car door strode into view.

Standing at 6’3”, wearing khaki pants that looked as drab as its almost greyish flesh, the entity that slowly strode towards V.I.C.I. was nothing short of a walking horror show. Metallic spots stood out from the rest of the thing’s skin, looking like dulled chrome set into dull, brownish-grey Play-Doh®. If its mouth and/or nose were still intact behind the grid-like mask, they were probably radically altered to match the rest of…whatever or whoever this thing was.

Not that it mattered at that moment, of course…

“Miss Lawson,” a familiar voice intoned from the parking lot’s intercom system. “Allow me to present you with the instrument of your impending demise: the true future of man/machine interfaces, and United Robotronics’ most powerful---“

“This ‘instrument’ looks like it used to be a human being!” Vicki countered.

A slow, dry chuckle filtered through the speakers; “Impressive!” the voice boomed. “Not many people would’ve recognized the handiwork of UR’s G-Block research and development staff…though as you can plainly see, this former human is now far more powerful than he ever hoped to be in life, thanks in no small part to a number of…shall we say, enhancements.”

He’s not kidding about the enhancements, the brunette gynoid realized; a simple cursory scan, by itself, was picking up multiple cybernetic augments, most of which had been deemed too unsafe by the ALPA for human use. Even stranger, several of the augments had been added onto the subject’s internal organs---a factor that both boosted his potential by several degrees and gave Vicki a case of the creeping horrors. “I don’t know what the hell you’re playing at by letting this…thing…loose on a Tentrex building,” she declared, “but if this is some kind of---“

“I would focus more on the beast itself,” the voice informed her, “rather than the one holding its leash…unless you prefer being ripped apart in excrutiating agony…”

Even as the words registered in her auditory sensors, Vicki could already feel a wave of….nausea? Since when do gynoids get nauseous?! Whatever this bizarre---and definitely unwelcome---sensation was, it made it nearly impossible to focus on anything other than the figure lumbering towards her. Just concentrate, Lawson….don’t let this…whatever it is…get the better of you… She drew her ES9950, only to notice a slight tremor in her arm as she aimed. “What…I…” A buzzing sound in her left ear prompted a quick jerk of her head, as if to shoo away whatever insect had gotten too close to her. What’s happening to me?! That thing hasn’t even laid a hand on me yet---

Something wriggling at the end of her arm caught her attention.

With the menacing figure still coming towards her, she raised her left arm---and was horrified to find that the “wriggling thing” was her own hand, its fingers curling and opening every five seconds. How can my hand be doing that?! I’m in control of my own body, damnit---

Her thoughts ended with a violent clang; for a second, she thought the figure walking towards her had picked up something and hurled it in her general direction---but a closer inspection of her surroundings told her the truth---somehow or other, she’d managed to trip sideways and hit the side of a dumpster, even though she hadn’t been walking or even backpedalling before. What…what’s going on?! Why---

“Something troubling you?” the voice from the speakers inquired.

“What…are you…DOING to me?!”

The taunting laugh that replied only served to further frighten her. “To be quite honest, I am not doing anything to you, Miss Lawson…though Epsilon’s innate abilities are giving him a rather unfair advantage. Seeing as how I am, in fact, a major proponent of fair play, I’ll turn them off…like so…”

Almost as suddenly as the feeling of nausea had washed over her, Vicki felt it fade away.

“…and now you can fight him one-on-one.”

It took less than five seconds for Vicki to realize the thing---Project Epsilon?! THAT’S Project Epsilon?! I---

A mottled-fleshtone fist slammed into her side; somehow or other, shaking off the unpleasant after-effects of Epsilon’s “innate abilities” was taking up more of her internal OS’s resources than just fighting back or trying to run. “Okay…that hurt,” she winced, rising to her feet again---and getting hammered back down by a brutal axe-handle smash. Epsilon wasted no time in following through on the attack, directing brutal stomps towards Vicki’s limbs, torso and face. I’m starting to think this guy’s getting less and less human by the second…

By the time she was able to roll away from the assault, the brunette gynoid was already beginning to feel a bit winded---okay, this is officially starting to get scary. I’ve never been this tired after a fight---I’ve never been tired, come to think of it…except when my reserves got low--- Something slammed into the side of her head, sending her world into a blur of static squeals, corrupted pixels and angry red error messages. She could hardly even feel herself stagger towards something to keep herself upright; by the time her ocular sensors had recovered from the effects of whatever had hit her, she realized that she was leaning against a wall---and that Epsilon was once again stalking towards her. Reflexively, the gynoid went for her ES9950---only to realize she’d dropped it after the earlier attack.

Right, think of something with just as much power as an SCEMP shot….

She focused on her hands, managing to stop the reflexive clenching of her left hand and reroute a surge of power from her RTG to it. Let’s see how Epsilon likes a facefull of DG v3.4! Without waiting for her enemy to attack, the brunette gynoid charged forward and slammed her palm into the middle of Epsilon’s face.

“Say goodbye, Epsilon---“

Arcs of blue lightning danced from V.I.C.I.’s fingers over Epsilon’s face, but for some reason, the thing refused to even stagger. How is this even possible?! DG to the eyeballs usually knocks anyone out cold…either this guy’s cheating, or---GYAAAHHH! Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by a sudden flight through the air, one that only stopped when she hit the side of a building.

“Your party tricks will do nothing to keep you from being obliterated, Miss Lawson, therefore I humbly suggest that you submit, and avoid further humiliation.”

“This, coming from the idiot who sicced this thing on me,” Vicki growled. “I’m not giving up, do you---“

Epsilon’s unyielding grip on her shoulders forced her to confront the possibility that she might, indeed, have to give up soon. “The choice is no longer yours to make,” the voice of Epsilon’s handler casually informed her, “so I again humbly suggest that you submit, and prove that you are the inferior combatant in this particular fight. There is no way you could possibly win against such a superior specimen as this one…at least, not without help.”

Something in the way those words were spoken infuriated the brunette gynoid. “I…WON’T….SUBMIT!”

A somewhat annoyed sigh filled the air. “Very well…may it be on your own head. Epsilon….”

The next two words came as an almost demonic hiss: “Crush her.”

Vicki barely had time to even think of a potential way out of her predicament before the cybernetic horror threw her across the parking lot. Her red-and-white clad body slammed into---and through---a parked car, shattering its doors and taking a sizeable chunk out of the wall behind it…but before she could even hope to recover from that attack, the gynoid was grabbed by the legs and flung across the lot again, hitting a billboard and crashing down into a dumpster. Her field of vision was slowly being overtaken by system alerts and failure notifications as her limbs began to give out; I…can’t keep going….like this….. She struggled to regain her composure, nearly falling on her face as Epsilon stalked towards her.

“This was inevitable, Miss Lawson,” the voice of Epsilon’s handler informed her. “Consider your fate sealed.”

Even as her body failed her, V.I.C.I. managed to stare up at her attacker one final time. “Not….to----“

ERROR: MULTIPLE SYSTEMS FAILURES POWER LOSS CRITICAL EMERGENCY SHUT----


“….Vicki?! VICKI! VICKI!”

Huh? I…I don’t---

“Vicki, answer me, please….oh, come on…..TELL, GET THE TOOLKIT!”

I…I can’t…Dad? Why are

“…you here?”

“Vicki---you’re awake! SHE’S AWAKE!”

Just as suddenly as her world had cut to black, Vicki felt herself being shaken back to full consciousness by Ted. “I…what’s happening?” she asked, struggling to stand up. “I was….that thing, it was kicking me around like a Hackey Sack….and….ow…” She reflexively grabbed at her left thigh to massage away the pain, only to find that moving her arm hurt just as much.

“Dad,” she murmured sadly, “I think Epsilon broke me.”

“On the contrary,” Tell called out, “Epsilon almost broke you---and yes, we’re all more than a bit surprised that Project Epsilon is, indeed, functioning and currently active in the San Jose area.” He looked over the gynoid’s form as she lay on a portable workbench; “As soon as we heard the Baron taunting you over the PA system---“

“Wait,” Vicki interjected, “the Baron?! The same douchebag---“

Ted cleared his throat loudly.

“…I mean, the same guy who threw me out of a helicopter last year?”

Tell nodded solemnly. “Turns out he was flying around overhead in that same helicopter,” he informed the damaged gynoid, “and the little prick actually had a camera with him this time. That, or it was some sort of control unit to keep Epsilon from going too far off the rails.”

“In any case,” Ted added, “that’s not our main concern---we need to get you repaired and run an analysis on that signal he shut you down with---“

“What?!” Vicki gasped. “Epsilon shut me down?! With a signal?!”

Ted and Tell exchanged worried looks; “From what we can gather,” Tell explained, “Epsilon is using some sort of homebrew version of the Venus Industries standard-issue optical data transfer; since you weren’t built with that as a default, the transmission was regarded as an illegal operation instruction---“

“---and your internal failsafes activated your emergency shutdown to prevent you from being reprogrammed, damaged or controlled by it,” Ted finished. “And, of course, your CPU sent me the panic signal as soon as you shut down, and after Epsilon left---“

“Dad,” Vicki murmured, “I get it.” She allowed herself a grin; “Thanks for getting here so fast,” she whispered.

“We should be thanking you, really,” Tell admitted. “That signal that triggered your emergency shutdown was seriously screwing up the range of the panic signal; if we’d have been just seven feet farther out than we were, we might not have caught it at all….” He glanced around the lot, as if Epsilon was going to jump up out of the nearest manhole; “Seriously, V,” he muttered, “we nearly thought you were gone for a few minutes…if Ted hadn’t caught that signal---“

Vicki blew out a sigh and laid back on the workbench. “I get it…now can we leave this stupid parking lot?”

Twenty minutes later, the Tellmobile was backing into the hidden rear driveway of Tell’s workshop, followed soon after by several unmarked moving vans. “Y’know,” he informed Vicki as he wheeled the mobile workbench (with her still strapped to it) from one of the vans, “I could add an upgrade to your optical sensor suite, if you want…it’d let you give Epsilon a taste of his own medicine the next time you face him.

“Thanks,” the brunette gynoid replied, “but I’ve got enough tricks up my sleeve to take him on my own.”

Ted nodded proudly. “I can’t think of any other girl her age who could keep pace with a pickup truck going 45 MPH down a freeway,” he declared, “or lift that truck off of its owner after it falls on him!”

“Who says all pickups are owned by guys?” Vicki teased. “It could be a female construction worker.”

“That’s not the point, Vicki---“

A loud throat-clearing noise from Tell interrupted Ted’s rambling; “As entertaining as the by-play between you two can get,” he mused, “we do have an important task ahead of us---specifically, fixing Vicki and make sure she won’t get ripped in half by that Epsilon freak when she faces him again.” He glanced down from his clipboard to wink at the brunette gynoid. “Under any normal circumstances,” he added, “I’d wholeheartedly advise against trying to fight someone or something as powerful as Epsilon appears to be…but, just like any seemingly-invincible opponent, there’s bound to be a weak point on him somewhere.”

“And all I have to do is find it and hit the thing,” Vicki droned, “and he’ll come tumbling down.”

“Exactly.”

“That’s a great theory, Tell,” Vicki murmured, “it really is….but how the hell am I going to find a weak spot on him if he’s staring at me the whole time, trying to shut me down with some sort of signal from his eyes?”

“Once I can get to my tool cabinet in the workshop, V, I’ll be happy to give you the gear you’ll need to do just that.” Tell was almost skipping as he approached the workshop, despite the fact that the path into the place gave Vicki an angle of sight into the room identical to her last memory of seeing Dianne Isley (or, to be more accurate, the gynoid duplicate of Dianne Isley) intact. “Just…promise me that you won’t let Epsilon completely trash me the next time I fight him, okay?” she quietly asked. “I….I don’t want my ALPA career to start with me helping Sophia Starlet and end with me getting my butt handed to me by a psychotic cyborg.” And I don’t want to end up in the scrap pile because “the Baron” wants to see me break….

Tell gave a lengthy sigh, but nodded. “We’ll do the best we can to keep you from getting junked out there, V,” he assured her. “It would be remiss of me to send you out against that walking demolition derby without a few dirty tricks of your own---“

“She doesn’t need any ‘dirty tricks’!” Ted insisted.

“So you’re saying we should just let her go out there on her own and get kicked in the head?” Tell countered.

“I’m not saying that, I’m just saying---“

”GUYS!”

The one-word shout caught the attention of both Ted and Tell, who stared at Vicki with a mix of surprise and just a hint of annoyance. “I know both of you want what’s best for me,” she admitted, “but this isn’t the way to go about it! Arguing and complaining like a bunch of…well, like a bunch of jerks…..it’s not going to solve anything, and it’s not going to get me repaired so I can stop Epsilon from tearing San Jose apart.” She stared up at both men; “Can we please cut the arguing and get back on track with this thing?” she pleaded.

After a ten-second pause, Tell nodded. “Fair enough.”

“He’s right,” Ted agreed. “And…to be fair, we should’ve waited until HQ got the full intel on Epsilon before we sent you out there, Vicki…if we had---“

“If you’d waited,” the brunette gynoid interjected, “a lot of employees at Tentrex might not be alive right now.”

The gravity of that statement stunned Ted into silence.

“Damn, I nearly forgot,” Tell hissed. “We need to get someone out there to make sure Epsilon didn’t go after the Tentrex crew after we left! DAMNIT!” He fished his cellphone out of his pants pocket and quickly dialed a number; “Yeah, Gayle? It’s Tell…yeah, we’ve got Vicki out here at the shop---Epsilon is active, and---no, Gayle, I’m not freaking kidding---why would I even lie about that? Why the hell would I make up something like---no, I’m not still pissed off about last year’s April Fool’s pranks…look, would you just LISTEN, already?!”

Vicki sighed and laid back on the slab as two technicians ran a de-sealer over her bared midriff. “As weird as it may sound,” she mused, “this is actually one of the things I like most about this life…the unpredictability.”

“Unpredictability can be a dangerous thing,” Ted reminded her, stepping aside to let a technician adjust one of the gynoid’s titanium ribs. “I mean, in the wrong circumstances, an unpredictable situation could easily spiral out of control into a complete and total---“

“Dad,” Vicki groaned, “I get it.”

“Right, right…I just don’t want you to get hurt, Vicki, that’s all.”

Ted’s concern brought a smile to Vicki’s face. “Every time you say that something like that,” she whispered, “I think back to all those times you said I was ‘just a robot’….and I’m so glad you chose to upgrade me, so that you could realize what Joan and Jamie knew all along…and to see me like they did…” She closed her eyes and lay back, taking a calming breath (out of habit---the emulation of such a human action helped her to steady her thought processes and ignore the fact that there was someone sticking a power screwdriver into her stomach). “If you need me to shut down or anything,” she offered, “I can do that right now---“

“That’d probably be a good idea,” Ted mused.

“----and the next time I call on you to secure a parameter,” Tell thundered into his phone, “YOU DAMN WELL BETTER SECURE THE PARAMETER!” He ended the call and rolled his eyes; “Gayle’s been having a bit of trouble prioritizing,” he explained to a thoroughly-confused Vicki. “Methinks he gazed into the bosom of the sun too long when last he left this land for times of merriment and leisure…and I’ll quit with the Fakespeare talk, because I can see it’s just going right over your head anyways.” He chuckled, and retrieved a mini-socket to adjust the “bones” in Vicki’s left leg. “Tell me if this starts to hurt…”

“I don’t think it’ll---OW! What the hell are you doing down there?!”

“I’m fixing your kneecap, V---it’s pretty bent out of shape. Now just lie still and let me do my job…”

With that, Vicki sighed again, laying back on the slab so that Tell could finish repairing her without any further incidents. At least this wasn’t as bad as the Detroit Marriot incident, she mused. I mean, yeah, Epsilon shut me down with a stupid signal, and he kicked me all over the parking lot before hand, but I was active…and I could actually fight back… Indeed, this particular incident, as physically draining as it might have been, was nowhere near as traumatic as her ordeal in the Motor City had turned out.

Next time, I’ll be the one leaving under my own power…and Epsilon won’t be leaving at all.

She closed her eyes at Tell’s suggestion, allowing herself to enter sleep mode.

I have a feeling I’m going to want to kick some serious butt once I wake up….

Tobias Wakefield had no idea how he was supposed to feel.

When the news came in that Epsilon had somehow managed to render Vicki Lawson unconscious, but not kill her, he knew that something had gone terribly, horribly wrong…and yet, he couldn’t feel even the slightest twinges of fear, grief, guilt, anxiety or anything else. All he knew was that he had to fix the problem, and soon, or the Baron would likely---

“Mr. Wakefield.”

The mention of his name snapped Tobias out of his funk. “What?”

“Allowing yourself to fall asleep again, Tobias?” Something about the way the Baron spoke those words gave the Mantronix CEO a case of the heebies---it almost felt like he knew… “Ah, no, sir, I wasn’t asleep,” he hastily admitted, “I was just….thinking---“

“About Epsilon’s failure to permanently dispose of Miss Lawson.”

An almost tangible chill shot up Wakefield’s spine; he does know! “I….wouldn’t go so far as to call it a failure,” he replied, “and I do have a team working on Epsilon’s optical data transfer bus to see what caused this to happen…but yes, I am thinking about it.” He shuffled the papers on the table before him, trying to find anything that he could use to keep the discussion going in a direction that wouldn’t end with him either fired or dead. “You might be pleasantly surprised to know that Epsilon’s running speed exceeded our initial---“

“Who made the optical data transfer bus hardware that was installed in Epsilon?”

Oh, crap…. “Ah…the consumer electronics devision of Mantronix, Inc.---“

“The consumer electronics division,” the Baron echoed. “You gave us hardware for an industrial project from your own company---not from the military electronics division or even the specialty electronics division, but from consumer electronics….cheap, useless gimcracks that have no business being mentioned in the same sentence as Project Epsilon.” From the shadows behind his desk, the Baron leaned forward, his gloved hands and the pinstriped forearms of his jacket sleeves almost seeming to fade into view as he steepled his fingers. “This is the second time you’ve disappointed me in less than a month, Tobias,” he stated.

Crap, crap, crap… “The individuals responsible for the optical data bus fiasco have been fired---“

“Have they, now?” the Baron inquired. “I was led to believe that seven out of the fifteen individuals who signed off on the consumer electronics optical data bus for installation in Epsilon were recently given a well-paid vacation and enough money to…leave the country for the remainder of the year.”

“I…I never authorized that transaction---“

“Yet you seem to have just heard about it now,” the Baron countered, “and your financial advisors have done little or nothing in the way of alerting you to this blatant embezzlement of your own funds, nor have they made any move to apprehend those responsible.” A dry, humorless chuckle punctuated the sentence; “It seems to me, Tobias, that you no longer care about Mantronix Incorporated holding a spot within the hallowed ranks of the Coalition,” he mused.

Anything Tobias could’ve said to refute the point sounded weak, even in his own thoughts.

“Or,” the Baron continued, “could it be that you refuse to take part in the destruction of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson?” For the briefest second, Tobias could’ve sworn he saw a flash of gold from the shadows---just where a man’s head might be if he were seated directly behind the desk without slouching.

“I….I don’t---“

“Celine,” the Baron lazily called, “send in Epsilon.”

Tobias felt the chill that ran up his spine somehow transition to a warm feeling snaking down his leg; it took him less than two seconds to realize that he’d just pissed his own pants. The briefest flash of embarassment shot through his mind, finally replaced with the feelings that he’d been anticipating earlier---fear, anxiety, guilt and a half-dozen more.

Behind him, the door slid open.

He didn’t bother turning around.

“Epsilon,” the Baron stated, the barest hint of smugness pervading his words, “scan Tobias Wakefield.”

The now-damp carpet made an ungodly sloshing noise as Tobias shivered where he stood; either this was some sort of sick joke at his expense, or the Baron was actually about to do something unspeakably horrible.

A flat, mechanical voice that could never be mistaken for human declared “SCAN COMPLETE.”

“Good.” Once again, that almost-permeable air of smugness; “Now, then,” the Baron crooned, “give him a ten-second head start to make his way to the elevator….”

His voice took on an ugly edge as it dropped to a whisper: “…and then kill him.”

In that instant, it felt as if time itself was flowing like syrup---slowly, yet still fluidly. Tobias himself could barely feel his own feet moving, or hear the jeers of those whose offices lined the hall as they gave way to panicked cries.

He barely even felt himself breathing.

The only thing he could feel---indeed, the only thing he could focus on---was the pounding of his own heart as he ran. It didn’t matter that there was still a river of piss trailing down his leg, or that he’d left his rebuttal of the Baron’s remarks about failing back at the office; all that mattered at this moment was getting the hell away from that soulless thing that had once been a human being, until the Baron and his cronies carved out everything that made it human and poured in precision-machined parts and other crap, all in the name of science and---

From behind him, screams split the air.

The chase was on.


“…and your insolence has been rewarded,” the Baron muttered, “with the prize you so greatly deserve….”

He’d always known Tobias would be a liability, ever since his promise about making Vicki Lawson’s life a living hell had fallen through. Of course, he’d hired someone else to handle the McMire issue at the same time, and that one had ended badly as well…

Still, things could be worse.

As he settled back in his chair, the Baron realized that a pungent reek had filled the room. Yet another reason why Tobias Wakefield will never show his face in this building again… “Celine,” he drawled, “have the carpet cleaners up here in eight minutes…someone’s had an accident on the rug.”

“Right away, sir.”

In the darkness, the Baron smiled. Once again, things were back on track…just as he’d expected.


Tobias Wakefield knew what to feel, now….

…and he felt afraid.

Epsilon---a project he’d worked on, one that he’d helped upgrade and improve---was now chasing him down with the intention of ripping his lungs out through his ass and turning his spleen inside out while it was still inside him…or something just as graphic as those potential fates. Never mind the fact that the thing was part human (he’d originally thought of Epsilon as half-human, but it was all too clear that the human side was fading fast), part machine---or that it pissed all over Asimov’s “Three Laws” just like Tobias himself had pissed his pants in the Baron’s office…in any case, it didn’t matter.

All that mattered was that Epsilon was going to kill him, and he’d never even be able to---

No.

By the time he reached a thrift store and threw a wad of $20s from his wallet onto the counter, Tobias found himself feeling less afraid of Epsilon and more enraged---not at Epsilon itself, of course, but at the Baron. The bastard had treated Mantronix Inc.’s Consumer Electronics division like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, as if everything it had ever produced was a flop---yet just last year, before the whole Starlet Doll thing had even been a blip on the radar, Tobias himself had rallied the troops and come up with an idea for a relatively-expensive, but cost-efficient “home entertainment system” that was effectively a gynoid/android kareoke player of sorts, with only Level C sentience on the Andrews Scale. Had the Baron actually given the go-ahead for that particular project, the Starlet Dolls’ novelty might not have been enough to keep them interesting…

…instead, he ordered the destruction of everything related to the project, including five working prototypes, all documentation and blueprints, and the exclusive new media format Mantronix had designed to work with the thing. Seven employees, all of whom had shown outstanding skills before this incident, had been laid off, and two others had either killed themselves or vanished without a trace.

Either way, it showcased what the Baron did best---making “bad ideas” disappear.

Obviously, he now thought of hiring Tobias Wakefield as a “bad idea”.

Five minutes after he’d bought an entire rack of clothes with $140 in $20s, Tobias emerged from the changing room, leaving his urine-soaked trousers and sweat-stained dress shirt behind. The sweatpants and pullover he’d changed into stank like a compost heap at high noon, but if he stayed hidden and made it impossible for Epsilon to actually see him, he could easily make it to where he needed to go.

That, in and of itself, was going to be…interesting.

He’d never told the Baron why he volunteered to “make Vicki Lawson’s life hell”, or why he never actually did anything to further that cause…because in all honesty, he knew that his survival might depend on her (or her allies) helping him. Now, with Epsilon itself tracking him down like a bloodhound, Tobias had only one recourse to follow---surrender to the ALPA, give them everything he had on Epsilon (he still had a portable hard drive filled with files on the project at his hotel room) and accept whatever sentence they gave him.

Anything would be preferable to being killed by that murderous cyborg at this point.

As he called a taxi to bring him back to the hotel where he’d been staying, Tobias knew that the next few hours (or even the next few days) could determine any number of factors---his own survival being the second-most important one on the list.

The most important factor, of course, was one that he didn’t want to think about at that moment…

…because when/if it came into play, he probably wouldn’t be alive to see how it was implemented.

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

If at first you don’t succeed…head to a repair shop and hope you don’t get scrapped the next time.

It’s been a full day since I last had to tangle with Project Epsilon, and one of the only positives I can think of right now is no schoolwork. Seriously, if I had to worry about getting assignments done on time and not getting jumped by a killer cyborg, I’d probably be insane right now. Tell’s repairs are holding up pretty well, and I’m not having any flashbacks to the shutdown (Tell said to tell him if I did, because it might be a virus), but I just can’t help shake the feeling that the next time I see Epsilon…something really, really bad might happen...


Vicki stared at the screen of her PC, frowning. “This is what I hate about diary writing,” she muttered. “You have one main event to write about, and then the rest is just filler…”

A knock at the door interrupted her revere; “Room Service,” Ted deadpanned from outside.

“It’s unlocked.”

The door edged open, revealing that Ted was carrying lunch. “Thought you might be, ah, hungry,” he mused, “and I know you technically don’t need to eat, but…well, it’s better than just sitting in here all day moping, or anything like that.”

“First of all, I wasn’t ‘moping’,” Vicki corrected. “Secondly…” She smelled the covered tray; “You didn’t cook this, did you?” she asked.

“Seeing as how McDonald’s has me on the ‘do not hire, even in the event of an emergency’ list,” Ted joked, “I can honestly and truthfully say that I didn’t.” He grinned and removed the cover with a flourish; “Your favorites from the Golden Arches,” he declared proudly. “Figured you’d want something other than a PB&J after that little bout with Epsilon the other day…”

“You figured correctly,” Vicki replied, nodding her approval at the spread. “Big Mac and a Quarter-Pounder, a 20-piece Chicken McNugget, large fries and…” She sipped the drink. “Mountain Dew?”

Ted grinned. “I thought you might need a bit of a boost,” he explained. “That, and I wanted to see how the PNP handles it---and no, I don’t expect or want you to turn into a walking Nerf ball again; I’ve been thinking about upgrading the PNP to---“

“Can we please not talk about upgrading what’s essentially my stomach before I eat?” Vicki requested.

A few minutes later, the two were discussing various topics in the dining room as they ate lunch (Ted had bought himself a Big Mac). “I’m guessing you’ve been looking over every available scrap of information that has anything to do with Project Epsilon,” Vicki mused in between bites, “because I can’t really see you just sitting around and waiting for something to just fall into your lap in a case like this. I mean, you do have some general idea of what makes Epsilon tick, right?”

A loud gulp was the ony reply she received.

“Ah, Dad? Is everything---“

“Vicki,” Ted muttered, “what I’m about to tell you cannot leave this room. This isn’t just me joking around, like I did with ‘Project Blender’ or ‘Project Clean-Sweep’….this is actually important. More than that, though---if the wrong people find out…it could be devastating.”

“My lips are sealed,” V.I.C.I. promised, smiling.

“Good.”

The brunette gynoid’s grin faded; this really is serious, if the whole “talking like a robot” thing doesn’t even get him to crack a smile. “So, what’s this big secret about Epsilon, anyways?”

After a quick glance around the room (and at the windows, just to make sure nobody was “pulling a Harriet”, as Ted and Vicki used to call it), Ted sighed. “You’ve already been made aware of the fact that Project Epsilon involves the use of cybernetic augmentations to turn a human being into a fully-programmable cyborg soldier, right?” he asked.

“…yeah,” Vicki replied, “but---“

“As it turns out,” Ted continued, “you actually managed to get a bit of Epsilon’s skin under your fingers during the fight in the parking lot….” Tears welled up in his eyes. “Vicki, Epsilon….he used to be Tony Sanderson!”

Silence.

“We ran the tests three times, just to be sure,” he went on, “and it’s conclusive---“

“Kirsten.”

Ted looked up, noticing that Vicki looked more stunned than anything else. “She never knew,” the gynoid muttered. “All this time, she thought he just…disappeared…and the Baron turned him into that….thing?”

“It’s not just a matter of him being ‘turned into’ Epsilon,” Ted reiterated, “he is Epsilon now. We found whole reams of documents in his apartment describing exactly what United Robotronics had in mind for people who were chosen or drafted into the project…neural pathway alteration, emotion-supressing drugs, Pavlovian conditioning---these are exactly the kind of things the ALPA is against, and Project Epsilon pretty much embodies all of them!”

Vicki shook her head; somehow, she didn’t want to believe it…but she had to.

“It’s bad enough that Kirsten still hasn’t fully recovered from what happened in May,” Ted continued. “I mean, we’ve been working around the clock to keep her from lapsing into…something…but if she finds out that Tony Sanderson---her own father---is a mudrering cyborg…” He shook his head. “I think it would ruin her.”

“I know it would,” Vicki murmured. “When I looked into Epsilon’s eyes…there was nothing. No life, no trace of anything that even resembled Tony Sanderson….I mean, I remember when I met Tony Sanderson at the Lawson Robotics barbecue, back in ’09, and he was smiling, telling jokes…basically the life of the party…but when I stared into Epsilon’s eyes…I didn’t see any of that.” She shuddered at the thought; “I’ve only ever seen that look in one other man’s eyes,” she whispered, “and the last time I saw him…” She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to remember the incident that had landed Kirsten Sanderson in Tell’s repair shop for the better part of two months.

Ted stared at the floor, waiting for Vicki to overcome the intensity of the memory.

After a full minute, the brunette gynoid opened her eyes. “We have to figure out a way to stop Epsilon without killing it,” she stated, that famous air of finality already present in her voice. “No matter what happens to her, I don’t want Kirsten to wake up and find out that her father was turned into a killer cyborg and then shot dead---“

“He won’t be,” Ted assured her. “The ALPA has teams working on non-lethal containment procedures---“

“Containment won’t be enough,” Vicki shot back. “We have to incapacitate Epsilon without killing it…and if we can’t, then….” She lay back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. “What the hell was the Baron planning to do with Epsilon in the first place?” she muttered.

“He was going to send it to Japan,” Ted replied, “but---“

Vicki held up a hand to silence him. “You’re saying he was going to send that to a country that just got hit by an earthquake and a tsunami?!”

“Like I said, he was going to send it to Japan,” Ted reiterated, “but I’m willing to bet the White Lotus killings are what changed his mind…whatever the case may be, Epsilon never left the shores of San Jose, and as a result, we’re pretty much stuck with the thing until we can figure out how to incapacitate it without killing it---“ A trilling, MIDI version of “Can’t Turn You Loose” (the car chase theme from The Blues Brothers) emanated from his pocket. “Tell changed my ringtone again?! Give me a minute, Vicki, I have to take this…Ted Lawson here, what’s---ahuh. Yeah. Yes, okay, I---no, I completely understand. And he’s got---slow down! You’re saying he has the full documentation? Okay. Tell him---tell him to meet---look, could you get the dog to stop barking while I’m going over this?! Tell him to meet me at my office---wait, he wants to talk to Vicki?!”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow; and just who wants to talk to me?

“….I’ll tell her. Okay, thank----yes, she’s right here with me, we were having lunch. Okay---okay, thanks---no, I don’t…I’ll tell her! Okay, thank you.” Ted hung up the phone with an exasperated sigh; “I think it’s high time the receptionist at my building had her assertiveness dialed down a notch,” he muttered. “She barely let me get a word in edgewise!”

“We’ll deal with her assertiveness another day,” she assured him. “Now, who exactly wanted to talk to me?”

At this, Ted gave the room a once-over to make sure nobody was “pulling a Harriet” outside; “I don’t know the full veracity of this,” he informed her, “but Tobias Wakefield---the CEO of Mantronix Inc.---just got ousted from the Coalition yesterday after your little fight with Epsilon in the Tentrex parking lot. He showed up at my office in sweatpants and a pullover, saying it was to hide his smell----and one of the documents we recovered from Tony Sanderson’s apartment was a detailed analysis of an artificial olifactory sensory upgrade that would allow machines to detect any one of a full spectrum of odors…a sense of smell for robots!”

“That makes sense,” Vicki mused.

“Oh, you sound just like Joan when you do that,” Ted beamed, kissing her on the forehead. “She’ll want to hear all about this when she gets back from her summer school teaching gig…anyways, back to the whole Epsilon thing. Seeing as how the Baron has put a bounty on his head, Tobias wants to help us figure out how to incapacitate Epsilon without fully destroying it---“

“Has anyone checked to see if this is legit?” Vicki interjected. “I mean, don’t get me wrong---I’m not saying that Tobias is trying to play us for saps, or anything….”

Ted sighed. “Vicki, this may be our only chance to stop Epsilon from becoming a nationwide issue,” he sternly informed the gynoid. “We have all of the information about what makes Epsilon strong…but if we can meet with Tobias, he can tell us its weakness---“

“And how do we know that he knows its weaknesses?” Vicki mused.

“Vicki, Tobias Wakefield supervised the Consumer Electronics division of Mantronix,” Ted explained, “and from the scan results Tell was picking up during the fight, most of Epsilon’s mechanical components were made by Mantronix! He knows every shutdown code, every killswitch command---“

“I get it!” Vicki declared, grinning. “Looks like it might be worth it to meet him…but let’s finish lunch first, ‘kay?”

The two continued their lunch, the conversation taking a more upbeat turn as the meal went on. By the time they were done, their moods had drastically improved, and both were ready to meet with Tobias Wakefield to discuss the downfall of Project Epsilon.

Hopefully, Vicki mused, this will be the last really annoying thing I have to deal with all summer….

“Ah, Dad? Not that I don’t mind the extra security or anything, but…is that a SWAT tank?!”

By the time Ted’s car was parked in his usual space at the San Jose offices of Lawson Robotics, Vicki could tell that things were a lot more serious than she’d anticipated---case in point, the FROSTs packing their very own lightweight armored transport. “If Epsilon shows up in the middle of our meeting with Wakefield,” Ted explained, “they need something to fight back with…I mean, you don’t want them to get completely torn apart, do you?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

A dozen or so FROSTs were waiting inside to escort the pair to the meeting room, where Tobias waited for them. He nearly fell over himself trying to shake hands with Ted, and upon noticing Vicki, he broke out in a nervous sweat. “Is he feeling all right?” the gynoid whispered to one of the FROSTs standing nearby.

“The Baron sent Epsilon after him,” the armor-clad man replied. “He’s…a little bit freaked out about it.”

A little bit? Vicki forced herself to ignore the discrepancy between the statement and how Wakefield was behaving, focusing instead on the conversation he was having with Ted.

“…and you mentioned that you had information on how we might be able to at least weaken Project Epsilon,” Ted mused, “so if you’ve got anything of that sort with you right now, it’d be a great time to share the wealth and give us a few pointers.”

Tobias chuckled mirthlessly. “A few pointers,” he echoed. “I could give you the entire playbook on how to take down Epsilon, if I absolutely had to.” He shook his head, staring into the coffee cup he’d been handed; “The only reason I ever agreed to work on Project Epsilon was ambition---my cardinal sin, in the end. I never cared about who might get hurt in the process, or what damage might be done…even after they told me who they’d ‘picked’ to be the ‘test subject’, I wasn’t all that concerned…” He choked back a sob. “…then, I saw what they were doing to him, how they were…turning off parts of his brain, for lack of a better term. I saw all of the tools that they used to pretty much clean out what they didn’t need and jam in what they did---he was awake during the first few hours of surgery…..awake, and screaming….” He forced himself to take a sip of coffee. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I, ah…I actually had nightmares for a few weeks after my first day on the job in G Block…sometimes I see things, or think about certain things, and it’s like….”

“We get it,” Vicki murmured, gently placing her hand on his shoulder. “Speaking as an ALPA Field Agent, I can promise you that we’ll provide whatever protection you need from Epsilon---and yes, I do have the authority to make that statement, Captain,” she added, glaring at one of the FROSTs. “I checked.”

Ted waved the man away. “She’s a licensed Field Agent,” he assured him. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“If I didn’t know what I was doing, I wouldn’t be here,” Vicki added, “and I can say right now that I definitely know what I’m doing.” She returned her attention to Tobias; “Like my dad said, we need any information you have on Project Epsilon that may help us to…well, not get killed by it whenever it returns.”

After a few seconds of staring at the floor, Tobias sighed. “If the Baron hadn’t let that….thing chase me out of his building,” he muttered, “I’d have no reason to tell you any of what I’m about to say. As it stands, though, I’ll be more than willing to help you beat the hell out of Epsilon.” He retrieved a Walmart bag from under the table and set down a portable hard drive; “I’ve been saving up every last bit of data related to Project Epsilon---or at least my time working on the thing---as possible, just in case something like this came up,” he explained.

“I’m guessing you finished what Tony Sanderson started,” Vicki mused.

“Finished it and improved on it,” Tobias bitterly admitted. “The Baron wanted us to create ‘the most perfect hybrid of man and machine’, something that could fight---and win---any battle on any terrain, anywhere on the planet…”

Vicki gestured for someone to hook the hard drive up to a laptop. “If everything here is as you say it is,” she informed Tobias, “you’ll be taken into protective custody by the ALPA until---and after---Project Epsilon has been rendered inoperable.” I’d say “killed”, she mentally added, but I don’t know if there’s enough of Tony Sanderson left in him for that to mean anything… “Also, we’ll need to know if your family is in the area, so that they can be---“

“My father is in a veteran’s home,” Tobias replied, “and my mother is…was living in Boca Raton, last time I checked. I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“We can send a team to check on her as soon as this whole thing is over with,” Vicki assured him. “Right now, our main concern is finding every possible weakness of Project Epsilon that we can, so it won’t start destroying whole city blocks the next time it shows up.” …and more importantly, so that it won’t start destroying me the next time it shows up… “Is there anything we need to know that the general workforce of the project didn’t have access to?”

Tobias exhaled a shuddering breath as he clicked open a document on the laptop. “At its peak performance, Epsilon is able to…shall we say, transition from its default form into two further phases…thus sloughing off the…base material…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “it’s just…when it was mock-ups and models and drawings on graph paper, it made sense to use such clinical terms to refer to this stuff…but when you see it in action…” He turned away. “A lot of the guys demanded transfers from Block G to other departments that would keep them as far from anything Epsilon-related as possible…” He cleared his throat. “’Phase 1’ is effectively what you saw out in the parking lot---it’s Epsilon’s starting form, and was pretty much designed…such as it is…to maximize the organic matter still present in the subject, filtering out all possible toxins and turning every fiber of its being, every single bit of it, into a perfectly-calibrated fighting machine.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki mused. “What comes after Phase 1?”

At this, Tobias drew the laptop closer to himself, clicking to the next screen. “Phase 2 is…pretty much meant to be the humanoid equivalent of a tank,” he admitted. “The muscles are injected with a variety of hormones and steroids from inside the body, and the centers of the brain that control emotional response are further deadened with other drugs…and the pain response mechanism is effectively turned off. In Phase 2, Epsilon becomes a meat cyborg---the only way to stop it is to obliterate the brain stem. Damaging the mechanical components won’t do anything to even slow it down.”

Despite her growing sense of fear, Vicki steeled herself and asked “What about Phase 3?”

“Trust me,” Tobias replied, “you don’t---“

“No,” Vicki interjected, “I do want to know, because if I can glean even a single bit of information from this that can help me from being reduced to a smear on the pavement the next time I run into Epsilon, it’d be a great benefit to every single person here, so tell me NOW.”

Silence hung in the air for a few seconds.

“Since you put it that way,” Tobias replied, looking equal measures shaken and (to Vicki’s surprise) relieved, “I might as well let you in on the ‘trade secret’ about Phase 3: Nobody knows what it’ll do.” He stared at the laptop, shaking his head; “The only thing they told us about Phase 3 was that it ‘streamlined’ Epsilon, but they never went beyond that. There were a bunch of theories about how it all worked…but since they outsourced it to foreign companies---all non-Coalition, of course---we never knew if they were true or not.”

Ted glanced at the laptop, shaking his head in disgust. “I just can’t believe they actually did all this to a human being,” he muttered. “I mean, what the hell was the Baron thinking?! This violates enough multiagency rules to classify as a crime against nature!”

“I know it does,” Tobias quietly informed him, “and it only gets worse from there.”

Vicki couldn’t help but groan. “I hate it when people say that…why can’t it ever be ‘trust me, it only gets better’ or ‘this is the easiest assignment you’ll ever have’, or---“

“Vicki,” Ted cautioned. “We’ve been over this…”

“I know, I know,” the brunette gynoid admitted. “It’s just…I was really hoping for things to get less challenging as time went on, y’know?”

Tobias nodded in sympathy. “Dealing with Epsilon tends to get complicated no matter who’s trying to reign it in,” he mused. “I know from experience…years of experience, actually. In any case, I’ve got every last byte of information I could smuggle out of the offices on this portable hard drive, and if it can do anything to help you people stop Epsilon from wreaking havoc…then I’ll be able to sleep at night.” He stared at the floor again; “It’s the least I can do to atone for ever having aided in the creation of that…monster…to begin with,” he muttered bitterly.

“It’s more than enough,” Vicki assured him. “You’ve done a great service to us---“ She stopped.

“Ah, Vicki,” Ted asked, “are you---“

“You said Phase 3 of Project Epsilon was outsourced to foreign companies,” Vicki murmured, “all of whom were outside of the Coalition’s jurisdiction.”

“I did,” Tobias replied, “but---“

“How many of those companies were situated in Japan?”

After a few seconds of thought, Tobias replied with “Ten, but I don’t see---“

“The CEOs of eight Japanese robotics companies have been murdered over the course of the past few days,” Vicki explained, “and I was trying to figure out what they all had in common other than their nature of work and their homeland…” She handed Tobias a sheet of paper with nine names. “How many of these people were associated with Phase 3 of Project Epsilon?”

Tobias’ eyes went wide. “Every single one of them,” he muttered. “I was there during the first meeting…” He let the paper fall to the table, shaking his head in disbelief. “The Baron paid someone to kill them?!”

“More like ‘guided’,” Vicki corrected. “The killer believed that she’d been wronged by her targets---“

“’Her’ targets?!” Tobias echoed in disbelief. “You mean it wasn’t Face---“

“Trust me,” Vicki interjected, “he’s the least of our problems right now. We have to focus on the here and now, specifically the fact that two of the CEOs---Kazuya Katayanagi and whoever the killer had pegged as Target Number 10---are still alive, and we need to get them into protective custody ASAP, so we can see what they know about Phase 3 and glean that information from them as soon as we can…otherwise, the killer will get to them first, and then we’re all royally screwed---and Ted, please don’t tell me to watch the language!”

Ted suddenly found reason to stare at his shoelaces. “I…I wasn’t going to say anything---“

“Good. Oh, and someone might want to get Tobias started on the paperwork to grant him asylum with the ALPA---I don’t want him getting stomped by Epsilon because of some stupid red tape issues.” With that, Vicki turned on her heel and headed for the door.

“She’s…driven,” Tobias mused. “And incredibly focused.”

Ted smiled proudly. “You think she’s impressive now, you should see her play chess.”

To those who had been working in his offices for the better part of the last decade, it seemed that the Baron’s reaction to Tobias Wakefield’s exodus from United Robotronics was…understated, to say the least. Many expected him to embark upon a room-breaking rampage, ending with a mass firing and many expensive things being broken.

Instead…

…he had tea.

None of his employees had ever seen him consume anything---he never ate his meals in the cafeteria, due to the lighting in that particular room being part of the building’s main electrical grid and thus out of his own control, and even his closest advisors had never witnessed him enjoy dinner in his own office---but on this occasion, Celine (who’d already been sworn to secrecy for having seen her employer’s face) sat by quietly as the Baron sipped his Earl Grey. Something about the way the cup seemed to fade into the shadows as he raised it to his mouth unnerved the gynoid secretary more than she cared to admit; a random thought process even spun into being to calculate the probability of that particular teacup being oblietarated after the day was over with, so that no trace of it ever having touched the Baron’s lips would be preserved---

“A penny for your thoughts, Celine?”

The sound of the Baron’s voice nearly caused Celine to experience a panic-related lockup. “I was…thinking,” she mused. “About a few things---“

“You’re wondering whether or not this teacup will survive beyond this day,” the Baron mused, his dry chuckle punctuating the sentence. “I am not a fool, Celine, nor am I ignorant---the subtle shifts in your posture are as telling to me as any grand gesture, and as revealing as a diary laid open on a bedside table…that, and you’re bored enough to think of such outlandish things without fearing reprisal from myself.”

Celine nodded meekly. Even when he wasn’t threatening, the Baron still had an air of menace about him…

“You are also wondering,” he continued, “why I have chosen not to pursue any further recourse against Tobias Wakefield, formerly a trusted ally of the Coalition.” The teacup was raised again, followed by a thin, almost hissing sound…which was then followed by a contented sigh. “There is nothing in the world so fine as a well-made cup of tea,” the Baron mused. “Even in times of crisis, it calms the nerves and gives the drinker a sense of inner peace…a bastion of stability amidst the tumultuous sea that is life.” The cup was lowered again, resting on the bone China plate with the barest hint of a clink. “Back to the matter at hand…Mr. Wakefield will be punished enough before this ordeal is over with, mark my words…but not by my hand, or by the hands of any member of the Coalition. I allowed him to leave---albiet on terms other than his own---and he left; thus, he is no longer worthy of Epsilon’s attention.”

Despite herself, Celine heard the words “Are you out of your mind?!” escape her lips. Oh, hell…way to earn yourself a trip to the scrapyard--- “Tobias Wakefield has full, detailed knowledge of Project Epsilon stored at his residence, and you’re just letting him walk away?! What kind of a moron are you---“

Instantly, the gynoid clapped her hands over her mouth. Goodbye, United Robotronics, hello, DeComm…

The Baron’s response was…unexpected.

He laughed.

“Celine,” he intoned, “you truly are a magnificent piece of work. Any other secretary---be they human, gynoid or anything else---would simply have reduced herself to obsequeciousness and fawning…but you have shown, time and again, a tenacity above and beyond mere ‘programming’…and I admire that.”

“Thanks,” Celine murmured, still awed at the fact that she wasn’t being fired or DeCommed.

After another few silent sips of tea, the Baron turned his attention back to Celine. “Allowing Tobias to abscond with pertinent data would, in most cases, be a matter worthy of immediate termination of employment for a number of parties,” he declared, “and rest assured that several individuals have received their…pink slips, to use the parlance of our times…by this point in time. However, the data is not what concerns me, nor am I worried about anything Tobias could potentially do with this information…”

“So…what are you worried about?” Celine asked, instantly wanting to kick herself.

“My concern,” the Baron replied, “is that Tobias will seek to move his entire company away from the Coalition, and thus put all of its resources out of our grasp. A large portion of the resources that went into Project Epsilon came from Mantronix Inc.; without them, any future iteration of Epsilon will be…somewhat lacking.”

Once again, Celine felt her ire rising. “We have other companies that can replace Mantronix when the time comes for the next phase of Project Epsilon,” she stated, “and most of them would probably kill each other for that kind of an opportunity! We could even work with an unaffiliated group to keep things moving---you always said you wanted to get some new blood into the Coalition, after all!” She let out an annoyed huff; “Even if a lot of the most advanced technology in Epsilon came from Mantronix,” she insisted, “you haven’t exactly been their biggest cheerleader before now---hell, you cancelled fifteen of their proposed projects just last year, and most of them were either out of beta or in the final rounds of testing!”

The only reply she received was the Baron taking yet another sip of his tea.

“Actually, forget everything I just said,” Celine snapped. “Everyone working on Project Epsilon voiced their opposition to the project from the get-go, and you ignored the crap out of them just so you could keep pouring more money and resources into it. You effectively killed a man just to use him as the ‘organic base’ for this stupid thing, and you’ve employed serial killers, incarcerated computer hackers, mercenaries and a well-known fugitive on the run from the FBI---not to mention a schizophrenic gynoid who used to be a slightly-insane computer program! You’ve been using up United Robotronics’ resources as your own personal pawns on some stupid non-existant gameboard, and I, for one, have had just about enough!”

After a few seconds of silence, the teacup was returned to the plate yet again.

“Is that…your entire opinion on the current state of affairs within United Robotronics?” the Baron inquired.

Celine stood firm. “Yes. Everything’s been going to hell, and---“

The Baron held up a hand to silence her. “And you truly believe that I am to blame for all of this?”

“Yes.”

Again, the Baron chuckled. “Honesty is an admirable quality in any employee,” he mused, “especially those in such a unique position as yourself. You should be proud that your opinions on the operations of United Robotronics are held in such high esteem.”

“Thanks,” Celine murmured, already beginning to wish she’d just kept her damn mouth shut.

From the darkness that shrouded his desk, the Baron leaned forward in his chair. “Many others before you have voiced their concerns over my….unique hiring strategy,” he stated, “but none of them have proven themselves worthy of voicing such thoughts without drawing my ire. Consider yourself fortunate that I respect you far more than I ever respected any of those less fortunate souls, and that it is my respect that has led me to hear you out all these times, rather than lashing out against you.”

Yay for me…. “So….you’re not pissed off at me, then?”

“I am not,” the Baron affirmed. “Now, then…what were we discussing before this turn in the conversation?”

“We were talking about Epsilon,” Celine informed him, “and the whole Mantronix Inc. angle---“

“Indeed we were…and I believe you attempted to sway my mind into believing that the resolution to this would involve simply hiring another company to work on the next iteration of Epsilon…or possibly even cancelling the project altogether.”

Guess he’s not going that route, then… “So you’re not going to cancel the project or hire anyone else?”

The Baron’s gloved fingers steepled as his stare remained fixed on Celine. “To hire anyone else for such a delicate job as this would be tantamount to hiring a freshman art student to retouch the ‘Mona Lisa’,” he stated, “and I would never lower myself or the company’s standards by committing such an egregious error. Still, a future verion of Epsilon could indeed be made to work without the Mantronix components…many changes would have to be made to the overall design of the project, but in the short term, it is entirely feasible.”

“And what if---“

“If Tobias Wakefield attempts to sell the data he already has to any other company,” the Baron declared, “I will make every possible effort to discredit him, disavow any knowledge of the data and distance myself from the whole sordid affair if it takes too long to resolve. I will not have United Robotronics’ name kicked into the mud by a lone dissenter…nor will I allow him to have the satisfaction of ‘cheating me at my own game’…if worse comes to worse, I could simply call one of the…colorful individuals you yourself previously mentioned, and have them retrieve the data for me. They could even eliminate Tobias, if the need arose…”

Celine tried not to let her voice showcase any of the panic she was feeling as she spoke: “I…don’t really think it’ll come to that….”

“And if circumstances forced my hand so that things did, indeed, ‘come to that’,” the Baron mused, “what would your reaction be?” He leaned further forward, and Celine could just barely discern the outline of his head in the darkness; “I trust you understand that I only ask this question so that I may know without a shadow of a doubt where you stand on this,” he reminded the gynoid.

“My reaction…would be irrelevant,” Celine finally replied, “because in the end, the call is yours to make, and not mine.”

At that, the Baron leaned back in his chair. “Correct…but would you prefer if it was your call to make?”

“I…what?!”

“One day,” the Baron intoned, “the Coalition’s leadership will change hands….Harrington and his ilk will have to answer to someone other than myself, and I would be remiss in my duties if I let this opportunity pass without telling you that I would personally back you as a leader of this organization---not just of United Robotronics, but of the entire Coalition. Not that I have any intention to retire any time soon, of course…there’s still life in these old bones.” He chuckled sardonically at his self-depreciating ageist joke.

Despite her shock at the proposal, Celine nodded. “If the circumstances led to it…I’d be honored to take up the mantle as the Coalition’s newest leader. I have to ask, though…why mention this now? The Chairman won’t be calling for your resignation just because of---“

“I never said Harrington would call for me to resign,” the Baron countered. “I was merely…contemplating a very interesting possibility.” He set down the teacup once again, steepling his fingers. “I have a private call to make, Celine…if you would be so kind---“

“Of course.” The gynoid nodded and turned to leave, making sure the door closed behind her.

Why do I have the feeling I just signed my own DeComm order?

As the ALPA-issue armored van sped off towards the hotel where Kazuya Katayanagi was staying, Vicki couldn’t help but feel a bit brilliant at having made the connection between Hanako’s targets and Epsilon---with a bit of assistance from Tobias Wakefield, of course. I have to hand it to him, the guy knows how to keep calm in high-pressure situations.

“So,” she asked, “what exactly led you to cast your lot in with the Coalition at first, instead of with the ALPA?”

“To be honest,” Tobias admitted, “I never really gave it that much thought. The one in charge of the Coalition apparently thought I was ‘uniquely qualified’ to take charge of some facilities he’d planned on opening all over the world, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me so…and then it turned out that the facilities he wanted me to manage were basically putting androids and gynoids through death courses to ‘weed out the weak’, as he called it. At first, I tried to justify what I was doing by telling myself that they weren’t human…that they couldn’t feel pain…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Then I heard their screams….and I knew I was wrong.”

The revelation was more than a bit surprising for Vicki. “So…after that, I’m guessing you tried to tender your resignation?” she inquired.

“I couldn’t,” Tobias bitterly replied. “Apparently, I was ‘too valuable’ to let go, so they kept reassigning me to a bunch of projects that didn’t really mean anything. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to put me in charge of Project Epsilon, and Mantronix ended up contributing 90% of the upgrades that were used in it. Of course, if I’d known then what they planned to do with Epsilon once it was finished….”

“You wouldn’t have let Mantronix get involved at all,” Vicki finished.

“Exactly. I even thought of telling every single employee to just not show up to work for at least half a year, but somebody stooged me out…funny enough, I didn’t even get in trouble for it, but the guy who blew the whistle on my plan went missing. After that, it was like Mantronix didn’t even matter to the Coalition anymore; all of our projects were either ignored or shot down, and the ones that did get approved ended up getting cancelled before they even left beta stage. A lot of people quit over that period of time, and even more got fired---usually for stupid reasons…so then, I got another reassignment.”

“Which would be…”

Tobias sighed. “As stupid as this may sound---and please don’t get pissed at me for saying this---I was told to, and I quote, ‘make Vicki Lawson’s life a living hell’.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “Someone at United Robotronics wanted you to harrass me?”

“They said that Lawson Robotics---and, by extension, anyone connected to it---‘had a lot to answer for’, which meant I pretty much had to just do the stupid job, no questions asked. Unfortunately, I was already signed up to work on at least fifteen or sixteen other projects, and I didn’t even know why the hell anyone wanted to make your life hell, so I just sort of ignored all inquiries to that regard for about a month…and then half my workforce got laid off. Long story short---working with the Coalition has done nothing to improve my morale or my work ethic, and if the ALPA is willing to accept me---and to accept Mantronix Inc.---then I’ll be more than happy to help them out.”

The brunette gynoid nodded her approval. “Well, at least you didn’t hit rock bottom before,” she beamed.

“This is as close to ‘rock bottom’ as I ever want to get,” Tobias muttered. “Being chased out of the building by Epsilon isn’t exactly something I’d ever want to relive, or to wish upon anyone else…” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “I just want this whole ugly mess to be over with soon.”

That makes two of us, Vicki mused.

Eventually, the car reached its destination. “Stay here,” the gynoid ordered Tobias. “If Epsilon’s up there---“

“It’s not.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “And you know this…how?” she inquired.

“Its tracking signal is on the other side of town,” Tobias replied, “and unless I’m sadly mistaken, it’s not even active. If there is something trying to get to Katayanagi up there, it’s not Epsilon…and if it’s the killer you told me about earlier---“

“Then I need to get up there now,” Vicki cut in, racing towards the front entrance of the building. “Stay in the car and wait until I get back!” Tobias yelled something that her auditory sensors translated as “don’t get killed”; I’ll do my best not to, she silently replied, slowing down to avoid shattering the entrance doors or knocking anyone else to the ground. Her scanners kicked on as soon as she stepped through the door; nothing so far, but that might just be a byproduct of all the interference I’m picking up…only one way to know for sure!

As luck would have it, none of the elevators were being used at that moment. Vicki entered the nearest one and pressed the button for the floor where Kazuya’s room was located, mentally preparing herself for whatever she might encounter. If this all goes well, I can just tell Kazuya that I figured out the other connection between the lotus murders, and he’ll agree to be taken into protective custody by the ALPA before Hanako, Epsilon or anyone else can do anything stupid.

Seconds after she entered it, the elevator car’s doors closed, and it slowly ascended towards its destination…

…which, judging from the sounds filtering down the elevator shaft towards the car, was either an off-the-grid MMA fight, or something a lot worse.

Okay, Hanako’s still out of commission, and Epsilon isn’t even active right now…so what the hell---

A staticky hum in her earpiece drowned out her thoughts. “Vicki,” the voice of Eric Reuben Reaves declared, “get the hell out of the hotel! We’re scanning the buildng right now, and there’s a power source in there that’s off the scale---“

“Wakefield said Epsilon’s offline,” Vicki countered, “so---“

“Its original power source is,” Reaver corrected. “We found what was left of it across town!”

Vicki’s eyes widened in shock; “It’s running on a brand new power source?” she whispered, horrified. “I mean, isn’t its power source…well, its heart?!”

“Whatever the hell it is, it’s changed batteries, and it’s---“

“It’s making its way towards Kazuya Katayanagi, is what it’s doing!” Vicki mentally kicked herself for having left her ES9950 at home. “Can you send in some backup to help me out with this? I don’t want to go in there without---“

“HQ just gave the order to pull all agents out of the hotel, Vicki! DO NOT engage Epsilon---“

“Sorry, Reaver,” V.I.C.I. replied, “but I’m not waiting around for anyone to get killed.”

“THIS ISN’T OPEN FOR DISCUSSION, AGENT LAWSON! GET OUT OF THERE NOW, OR---“

“Or nothing.” V.I.C.I. blinked, terminating the connection with Reaver. “Sorry, Eric, but this is my op---not yours.” She wasted no time in removing a panel from the wall of the elevator, gripping the exposed wiring in her left hand and sending a jolt of Detaining Grip energy into the cables.

Seconds later, the lift finished its ascent at a speed slightly faster than the factory standard.

“Right,” Vicki muttered, “no gun, no backup and no way of knowing what the hell I’m about to throw myself into…in other words, just a typical day in the life of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson.” She rolled her eyes at her own joke; “I’d be ridiculously lucky if I could just talk my way out of another beating from Epsilon,” she mused, “though I don’t think that it has the capacity to understand humor…let alone anything more than commands…”

The elevator doors opened…revealing a seen that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the next Die Hard film.

One entire side of the hallway had been completely demolished---walls had been knocked down, furniture torn apart, glass broken…everything that came standard with hotel demolitions. The other side, by contrast, had been spared, except for the door of one room in particular---whereas the destruction on the opposite side of the hall had been indescriminate and completely random, the door in question had been carved up like some sort of ancient billboard---if ancient billboards had ever existed, and been written in archaic Japanese. Most noticable on the door was the kanji for “death”---Hanako’s been here, Vicki realized. Guess she wasn’t as far ‘out of commission’ as I thought…

Carefully, the brunette gynoid pushed the door open, instinctively flinching at the sight she beheld. A pair of gynoids---identical twins, at that---lay on the floor, twitching and sparking as their internal fluids leaked out from matching wounds in their sides. One of the maids employed by the hotel (a human maid, Vicki realized with a twinge of horror) was handcuffed to the bed, the back of her uniform ripped open to reveal bloody welts and scars where someone had brutally slashed her, again writing the kanji for “death”.

After a quick check to make sure Hanako wasn’t still in the area, Vicki approached the maid and “unlocked” the handcuffs with a quick flick of the wrist. “Are you okay?” she gently asked. “I’m here to help…do you need a doctor?”

The maid shook her head. “You…you should’ve listened to Reaver, Vicki.”

At this, the brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. “Deep cover human field agent---of course. How long have you been up here?”

“Not long,” the “maid” admitted. “I was trying to get Kazuya-san to the elevator, when that gynoid in the white suit, jumped through the window. Kazuya got away, but…” She wiped a tear from her eye. “The gynoid knocked me down before I could even try to stop her, and then---“

“She decided to vent her frustrations on you with a little body modding,” Vicki finished. “If we can get you to a medic, they might be able to prevent further blood loss…” She winced as she noticed one particularly horrible cut that went straight to the bone. “What about those two over there?” she asked, gesturing to the twin gynoids on the floor. “I saw one of them chatting up the cleanup crew after the last time I fought Hanako---the gynoid who tried to carve up your back like roast beef…”

“Kazuya bought out their contract,” the ersatz maid explained. “Their original owner died years ago, and they were sort of slumming around Tokyo for a while…then they met Kazuya, and he made a few arrangements---“ Her sentence ended in a hiss; “I…I think I need to get to a hospital,” she murmured.

Vicki nodded. “I still don’t get why Reaver didn’t want me up here,” she mused. “Or how you know me---“

“Agent Kylie Lyndon,” the “maid” replied. “I was across the hall from you when you started out at SJSU.”

“That was you?!” Vicki gasped. “With the Hanson posters on the wall of your room, and---“

Something bellowing across the hall cut off her nostalgia trip. “That’s why Reaver didn’t want you up here,” Kylie continued. “Epsilon showed up right after Hanako left---and it never left.” She winced again; “I think you might want to call for backup---“

“Good idea,” V.I.C.I. replied. “They’ll get you out of here…and I can pick up where Epsilon and I left off.”


Ten blocks away from the hotel where Kazuya Katayanagi was staying, the Baron smiled.

His efforts had paid off in spades thus far; Vicki Lawson was encountering chaos every which way she turned, and even if she didn’t show any signs of strain yet, they’d start appearing soon enough. Ironically, this was exactly the sort of thing Tobias Wakefield had been hired to do from the get-go---make Vicki’s life a living hell by any means necessary, then strike when she was at her weakest.

Obviously, she had a ways to go before she reached that particular low, but still….

There was still the matter of Kazuya’s escape to contend with, but the Baron always had loved a challenge. If it ended with him fighting (effortlessly, of course) to gain his prize, then it was all the better---a good battle made for a satisfying finish after a long chess game against a worthy adversary, even moreso if there were legions of unworthy adversaries to be crushed before the final moment. Chess had always been one of the Baron’s favorite hobbies, even extending to Kreigspiel; on those rare occasions when Harrington paid him a visit, the two would sit for hours in silence, each with their own board and pieces while Schmeisser or the Accountant (or even Celine) moderated.

At this moment, his game against Vicki was going better than he’d ever expected…

…partially because she had no idea she was even playing the game to begin with.


“Uh, okay, we’ve got a killer cyborg on the other side of the hall who won’t hesitate to rip us to shreds if he so much as smells us,” Vicki mused, “and there’s no possible way we can get out of the windows without falling at least 20 stories and winding up as sidewalk pizza. Your thoughts?”

Kylie blew her hair out of her eyes. “I thought you did this sort of thing on a daily basis now,” she groaned.

“Yeah,” Vicki admitted, “but with backup, equipment and a proper strategy! For the record, it’s not exactly standard operating procedure to run in with only the faintest idea of a plan, no sidearm and a fellow agent yelling in your ear for you to get out of the building…anyways, we need a better plan of escape than ‘swan dive out the window and hope there’s a mattress truck underneath’, because I really don’t see that one working out---what are you doing?!”

“I’m looking for a way out,” Kylie replied. “Feel like helping me?”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes; “Might as well,” she murmured, “so that you don’t cut yourself on anything and bleed out---“

Across the hall, something was smashed into pieces.

“---and we’re probably going to need to get this done as fast as possible,” she finished, glancing over her shoulder to make sure that Epsilon wasn’t about to break the walls down and rip them apart. “Seriously, that thing has some serious anger management issues…if it can even feel anger anymore….” She carefully made her way over to where Kylie was crouched, removing a large floor vent cover and helping the wounded Field Agent crawl into it. “Just keep moving, no matter what happens up here,” she advised, “otherwise Epsilon will catch your scent and try something incredibly stupid…if he isn’t too busy ripping me in half, or something along those lines.”

“I’ll do my best to not bleed out,” Kylie assured her, handing over a pistol made of high-impact plastic and ceramics, done up in a blue and silver color scheme. “Press your thumb to this panel on the grip, and you’ll be able to fire the gun without losing a hand.”

Vicki nodded her approval. “I have a feeling I’m going to need this before the day is over---“

A flatscreen TV sailed past her head and slammed into the wall .

“Right,” she declared, switching to her robotic monotone, “get moving---I don’t want Epsilon targeting you.”

“Kick his ass!” Kylie cheered, setting off at a crawl through the vents.

V.I.C.I. allowed herself a smirk; I’ll make sure to do that, Kylie, she promised. Once Kylie was out of sensor range, the brunette gynoid checked the ammo loadout on her borrowed weapon, which was made by L.E.I., an ALPA company she’d never heard of before. It’s got the same ammo types as the ES9950, so it can’t be that different---

Her thoughts on the gun were interrupted by a bellowing noise from across the hall. “That’s starting to get really old, really fast,” she intoned, flicking the safety switch off. “Time to end this…”

Had the door still been on its hinges, she could’ve easily kicked it open and made a dramatic entrance into the corridor, gun drawn and ready to fire. Instead, the thing was barely hanging on by the time she approached it, and what little remained of it fell to the floor with a sad, pathetic thud before she could even think about kicking it down. So much for that idea…still, it’s not like my entire plan for beating Epsilon hinged on kicking in a door or anything…guess now would be as good a time as any to get ready for anything that monstrosity can throw at me---

The thought had barely finished running through her bubble memory processors when her internal proximity sensors detected something flying towards her head at a speed resembling terminal velocity. With reflexes usually seen in Olympic gymnastics events, the gynoid dropped down into a full split, just in time to glance up at the underside of a microwave oven as it soared gracelessly over her head.

Okay, when this is all over with, I am not paying the repair bills for all this!

After the oven slammed into the far wall of the hallway, V.I.C.I. rose to her feet---and saw Project Epsilon at the other end of the hall, slowly making its way towards her. “You don’t have to do this, Anthony,” she stated, keeping her borrowed gun levelled at the cyborg. “I can take you to someone who can reverse this process, restore you to who you were before…we don’t have to kick the scrap out of each other just because the people who turned you into this want to use you as a weapon.” I hope that whatever’s left of Tony Sanderson can still hear and understand what I’m saying, otherwise…..

Epsilon stared at her for what felt like an eternity. Come on, let the thought process itself…just think, instead of trying to rip me in half….

After what felt like an eternity, it took a step forward.

“You don’t have to fight me, Anthony!” V.I.C.I. insisted. “I’m not your enemy here, no matter what your mental conditioning is telling you! I only want to help change you back into the person you used to be, and I know you probably want that, too…”

Her pleas fell on deaf ears; the cyborg took another step towards her, its stare never wavering.

“Think of your family, Anthony! Think about Raquel…about Kirsten!”

That stopped Epsilon in its tracks.

“Kirsten still misses you, Anthony…she still loves you as her father, and as someone who’s always been there for her! Killing me won’t do anything other than take Kirsten’s best friend from her, and I know you don’t want to do anything that would hurt her! Just listen to me, Anthony…I can help you turn back into who you were! Just give me half a chance, and I promise I’ll do whatever it takes to undo everything United Robotronics did to you!”

Epsilon cocked its head quizically, as if it were actually considering the offer…

It’s working, V.I.C.I. realized. It’s actually working! If I can just---

Without warning, Epsilon collapsed to its knees, an ungodly scream issuing from the mouth hidden behind the gridlike mask covering its face. No…not this! Not now! “Anthony, you can beat this,” she stated. “This pain is just temporary---“

“On the contrary, Miss Lawson…Epsilon’s pain is eternal.”

The voice of the Baron prompted feelings of rage within the brunette gynoid. “You’re the one who turned him into this abomination,” she declared, “so I suggest you stop trying to force him to take your side and just---“

“As much as I am loathe to admit it, Miss Lawson,” the Baron countered, “I am not trying to ‘force’ Epsilon into doing anything---“

“His name is Anthony Sanderson,” V.I.C.I. declared, “and he’s got a wife and a daughter who want him back to the way he was before your psycho scientists turned him into this. Either you let the ALPA take him into custody and reverse every single change you’ve made to him, or I’ll have a team of FROSTs find you and drag you to court.”

A smug laugh issued from the hotel’s Tannoy system. “Miss Lawson, your allies won’t be ‘dragging me to court’ any time soon,” the Baron crooned. “In fact, I’d wager that you are more likely to be punished. Your efforts to destroy Project Epsilon have been documented and catalogued, and the legal department of United Robotronics is currently working on…” The sentence degenerated into a dry chuckle. “If only I could’ve kept a straight face…trying to ensnare you in a lawsuit would be nothing compared to the hell that Epsilon will put you through.”

“Here’s a better idea,” V.I.C.I. coldly replied. “You let him go, and I won’t break you in half if our paths ever cross again---“ Her sentence ended with a gasp; Epsilon’s limbs were beginning to extend, the bones cracking as machinery built into its arms broke and lengthened the bones. Even stranger, its entire figure was becoming bulkier---

Wait a minute. Tobias mentioned something about steroids and hormones…oh, scrap!

“I humbly present Phase 2 of Project Epsilon,” the Baron’s voice intoned.

As the cyborg rose to a standing position, V.I.C.I. could already see how fast the changes had taken effect; it now stood a little under seven feet tall, and its flesh now had a distinctive grey pallor to it. And the emotional response center of his brain has just been shut off, she recalled. Oh, joy…so much for the whole “think about Kirsten” strategy. Still, there has to be something I can do to keep it from killing me…and speaking of which, why the hell is it just standing there?

Apparently, the Baron agreed with her unspoken question. “Epsilon,” his voice growled from the hidden speakers in the ceiling, “move into attack position and kill her!” The cyborg never moved from its spot, staring at V.I.C.I. as if she were a mildly-interesting object…

…and then, it turned around and simply walked away.

“Well,” the Baron intoned, his voice now carrying a distinctively menacing edge, “that was…unexpected. Still, United Robotronics put Epsilon on this Earth, and we will figure out a way to repair whatever damage has been done to its mental functions…and then, Epsilon will break you.” The Tannoy cut out with a hiss of static, followed soon after by a burst of sparks from the formerly-concealed ceiling mount that held it. All the while, V.I.C.I. stared at Epsilon’s retreating form, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

Either his mental reconditioning is flawed, or someone else just pulled my bacon out of the fire….

“So you’re saying it just turned and walked away? It didn’t even try to fight you?”

At the ALPA safehouse where he was being held in protective custody, Tobias Wakefield was rather surprised at Vicki’s retelling of the “fight” with Epsilon at the hotel. “I mentioned Kirsten Sanderson, and he just sort of went catatonic,” she admitted. “Then…well, he dropped to his knees and started screaming, and then the Baron triggered Phase 2.“

“That’s impossible,” Tobias countered. “Epsilon itself is the only one that can---“

“Epsilon himself,” Vicki corrected. “Anthony Sanderson is still there, even if they carved out half his organs and stuck twenty-thousand machines in him to play Universal Soldier or whatever they’re going for…when I mentioned Kirsten, he stopped and listened. That part of his mind---the part that remembers Kirsten---was still functioning before the Baron did something to trigger Phase 2.” She stared at the ceiling, trying to make sense of it all. “So you’re telling me that Epsilon himself is able to activate these changes in phase?” she inquired. “I mean, that doesn’t really sound like something the Baron would allow---“

“It doesn’t matter what the Baron would ‘allow’,” Tobias spat. “Triggering a phase shift by external means could compromise the subject…the augmentations could become unstable, or backfire…I don’t know how he was able to pull this off, but we have to incapacitate Epsilon, and soon, or else it---he could become even more dangerous than he already is….”

Vicki rested her chin on her hands and sighed. “Just when I think I have all the answers,” she murmured, “the Baron has to go and change the questions…” She gave a mirthless chuckle; “I actually thought that mentioning Kirsten would be enough to keep Epsilon from turning me inside-out,” she added, “and instead, it just makes him stop long enough for the Baron to give him some sort of power boost and turn him into something even more dangerous than he already is---and Reaver, DON’T START about me not listening to you when you were yelling at me to not go into the building, because if I’d followed your orders, Kylie would be dead right now.”

Eric glared at her, but Kylie cut him off before he could offer any truly scathing rejoinders: “If it hadn’t been for her, I would’ve been dog food in a few minutes. That psycho-gynoid from Japan messed me up badly enough as it is---“

“That ‘psycho gynoid’ isn’t the issue here,” Eric growled. “As of right now, we’ve got a missing roboticist to find and bring into protective custody, a homicidal gynoid on the loose, and Project Epsilon wreaking havoc…” He glared at Vicki again. “As much as I want to blame this on you or anyone else right now,” he muttered, “it wouldn’t do anyone here a damn bit of good…Epsilon has to be incapacitated before it kills someone, and Hanako needs to be neutralized now. Sitting here bitching about it won’t get anything done---“

“So let’s get out there and get things done,” Vicki insisted. “We’ve got enough Field Agents in San Jose to form multiple squads---one can take down Epsilon, and the other can go after Hanako. Hell, we can even form a third squad to get Kazuya to a safehouse!”

To her annoyance, Eric stared at the table and rubbed his temples, as if the very idea of deploying multiple squads was something that gave him a massive migrane. “Vicki,” he muttered, “I know you have your ways of going about things, and I’d usually agree with you 100%…but this is not the kind of situation where the Rainbow Six approach would work. We send three squads out there, and we risk tipping our hand---and with Epsilon entering into whatever the hell Phase 2 is, you can bet your backup power cells that---“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Tobias interjected. “What do you mean, ‘bet your backup power cells’?! She’s---“

Vicki cleared her throat. “Tobias,” she murmured, “it’s time you know the most likely reason why the Baron wanted you to ‘make my life hell’…” She signed. “At any point during your tenure with the Coalition, did you overhear anyone mentioning something called Project Apollo?”

“I did,” Tobias replied, “but---“

“Well, the thing is,” Vicki interjected, “Project Apollo…is me. Was me, technically speaking---that designation was used back in the 80s to refer to the Variable Industrial Cybernetic Implement, later changed to the Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant….V.I.C.I., for short. Add one letter to that, and you get---“

“Vicki,” Tobias breathed. “Dear God…it all….everything makes sense now…” He shook his head in disbelief, leaning back in his chair as if a fog had lifted from his mind. “I thought the Baron was just going senile or something, having all of his people going after some random college girl,” he mused, “but this---I mean, this actually makes sense!” He sighed. “I…you’ll have to forgive me, Vicki---I can call you Vicki, right?”

“Sure.”

“You’ll have to forgive me for going on about my…former assignment like this,” Tobias continued, “but…Project Apollo was always thought to be a one-off project that never amounted to anything. I mean, the V.I.C.I. stuff was pretty impressive, but some of the other things that were being worked on….well, they just didn’t make sense! United Robotronics didn’t really have the resources to match Tentrex or Robodyne back in the 80s, after all, and---“

“Hold on,” Vicki cut in. “Ted never said anything about Project Apollo turning out ‘other stuff’ besides me…”

Tobias arched an eyebrow. “You’re telling me you never heard about---“

“THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME,” Eric thundered. “Nobody else here gives a rat’s nutsack about Project Apollo, so can we please get back to the topic at hand?! Epsilon’s not going to just sit around and wait for us to show up and blow it to pieces with a bazooka, or anything---if we’re going to stop it---“

“Him.”

Eric turned to glare at Vicki, only to notice her shrugging; with that, he glanced at the door---and instantly felt like an idiot as Ted Lawson stared back at him. “Even with every bit of technology installed into his body by the Coalition,” he declared, “Epsilon is still Anthony Sanderson, and we’re not going to treat him like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster just because United Robotronics tried to turn him into one.” He strode over to the table and gave Vicki a brief hug; “I’m assuming everything went okay back at the hotel?” he inquired.

“Other than Kazuya no-showing and Epsilon being triggered into Phase 2,” the brunette gynoid replied, “things went pretty well. Oh, and I told Tobias what I really am…” She gave an apologetic smile.

“Not to worry, sweetheart,” Ted assured her. “Seeing as how Tobias is officially on our side now---“

The words prompted the Mantronix Inc. CEO to bolt upright, nearly knocking his chair over. “All of my links to United Robotronics and the Coalition have been cut?!” he gasped. “I…how….the Baron still has the blueprints and technical data for all of my works in progress---“

“Data,” Ted replied, “that was transferred to thirty-five flash drives brought in by non-Coalition IT specialists before being wiped from the United Robotronics servers an hour ago.” He grinned and held up a bag of USB flash drives; “Funny how something so innocuous as a ‘Rickroll worm’ can cause enough damage to warrant a complete inspection of the servers,” he mused, chuckling. “Oh, and you might want to clear your e-mail inbox of all Coalition-related material before the end of the week, otherwise---“

“I get the picture,” Tobias replied, grinning. “I guess I can finally start using my real first name…I was never really comfortable telling anyone at United Robotronics that my full name is Ashley Tobias Wakefield, to be honest---“

“What’s to be embarrassed about?” Vicki asked. “The hero of Evil Dead was named Ashley…”

Eric groaned. “He used the name ‘Ash’ in those movies,” he muttered.

“Ash Wakefield,” Ted mused. “Sounds like the lead character from one of those zombie shoot’em up games, to be honest…but it’s better than nothing.” He grinned and shook hands with the newest addition to the ever-growing ranks of the ALPA: “Welcome to the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, Ash.”

“Glad to be here, Ted,” Ash replied, nodding proudly.

Vicki clapped both men on the shoulder. “See, this is why I love doing what I do,” she declared. “People banding together for a common good, pooling their resources and letting go of their checkered pasts to move forward with their lives and make a positive impact…” She smiled. “This is almost too awesome for words…”

Ted chuckled. “Speaking of awesome things,” he mused, “I actually came here to deliver some very awesome news to you from Mr. Tell, regarding a certain friend of yours…” He motioned for Vicki to sit down before he continued; “D’you remember that little incident with Kirsten Sanderson a few months ago, when she was, ah, rendered inoperable, for lack of a better term?”

“Yes,” Vicki replied, “but how---“

“Let me finish. Do you also remember how you…gave her a choice, before she got stabbed?”

The brunette gynoid frowned. “How exactly is this awesome?”

“Well, I figured you might want to join me in a ride down to Tell’s shop and here which choice she made…from Kirsten herself, no less.”

Instantly, Vicki’s frown melted into a surprised gasp. “She’s…online?!”

Another groan from Eric came dangerously close to ruining the moment. “Why in the hell are we even talking about this?! Epsilon’s still on the loose---“

“You’re forgetting that Epsilon used to be Tony Sanderson,” Ted reminded him, “and that Tony Sanderson’s daughter, Kirsten, spearheaded the efforts to find him and bring him back home earlier this year…which means that technically, she could be the key to helping us stop Epsilon from running loose in San Jose. That’s why we’re talking about this, Eric.”

Despite his annoyance---both with Vicki and the situation in general---Eric nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Glad we’re all on the same page,” Vicki beamed. “When do we get to see how Kirsten’s doing?”

“Tonight,” Ted informed her with a smile. “Anton and Tell have been working their hardest to make sure that she’s functioning at 100%---or at least at 97%---so don’t worry about her glitching out or anything when we get there…”

“Right, right…and what about---“

“Like I said earlier, Vicki…I have a feeling you’ll want to hear it from her.”

Again, Vicki nodded her approval. “Sounds like a plan to me…and if she can actually get Epsilon to quit with the rampaging, we might just have a shot at bringing him down without having to kill him.” She turned to glance at Ash; “Think you can come up with something to deactivate any dirty tricks Phase 2 might be hiding while we’re out?” she inquired. “I’d feel a lot better about facing Epsilon again if I knew he wasn’t going to shut me off with a signal…”

“I think I can arrange a little something before you get back,” the Mantronix CEO replied with a smile.

“Awesome. Ted, lead on!”


The Baron, as could be expected, was not happy.

“I was told that Epsilon would respond only to the commands of any individual with Priority Gold clearance,” he muttered, “yet someone or something else has managed to override my priority and order it to leave Kazuya Katayanagi’s hotel, rather than destroy Vicki Lawson…”

“Let me guess,” the drawling voice of the Maestro mused from a monitor, “you want me to fix it?”

Under any circumstances that could be counted as “normal”, the Baron would’ve tolerated the response just enough to make a sarcastic remark; in this case, however, not even that was warranted. “I want you to keep from meddling in my affairs, Hannsen,” he growled, “and I also want you to stop using your ‘connections’ to spy on my operatives in the field. I have enough to worry about with Tobias Wakefield absconding with vital data….” He stopped, noticing the smirk on the Maestro’s face. “What?”

“Ah, it looks like your man Tobias might’ve ‘absconded’ with more than just some data…”

The news ticker that ran across the bottom of the screen prompted a reaction the Baron hadn’t experienced in years…

….rage.

Seconds after the Maestro had pointed out the ticker, the monitor flew across the room and shattered against the wall…and even if they’d have had to peer into the darkness behind his desk, anyone who entered the room at that moment would’ve been able to tell just how genuinely angry the Baron was.

“Wakefield,” he growled, “you will pay for this indignity in full….”


As Ted’s car rolled to a stop in the parking lot of Tell’s workshop, Vicki was already anticipating her reunion with Kirsten. The last time she’d been online, the former sleeper had accused Vicki of lying to her (which was technically true---Vicki had been forced to keep the truth of Kirsten’s existance a secret from her in order to keep her from being sought by the Coalition and other “unsavory parties”), mere seconds before Faceless stabbed her in the chest---more specifically, in her central power core.

There was also the small matter of Kirsten screaming that friends didn’t lie to each other….

“Well,” Ted beamed, snapping Vicki out of her reverie, “we’re here. Anton and Tell are waiting inside---with Kirsten, of course---so….ah, something wrong?”

“No,” the brunette gynoid replied, “I’m just…what if she still hates me, Ted?”

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, Vicki.”

“But how do you know for sure---“

Vicki felt Ted’s hands on her shoulders. “Just trust me on this one…she doesn’t hate you.”

“Right…” The remark did little to dissuade her from feeling anxious; if anything, it only served to reinforce her fear that Kirsten had chosen to have her memory of her true nature erased---and I told Oberon that I’d preferred Kirsten the way she was, instead of knowing what she is… if she had her memories erased and doesn’t remember that she’s a gynoid, explaining this Epsilon situation to her will be even harder! And if she did keep her memory, she’ll remember everything that happened in the garage---

“Vicki?”

Ted’s voice once again snapped the brunette gynoid out of her funk. “Yeah?”

“She’s waiting for you inside. You want us to go in with you, or…”

“I can handle it.” I hope… With a final deep breath to calm her nerves, Vicki pushed open the front door and made her way towards the main work area of the building. Just stay calm, she reminded herself, this probably won’t go as badly as you think it will…

Kirsten was sitting on the slab with her back to the door as Vicki entered. Right…start off with a simple “hello” and just go from there… “Ah, hi, Kirsten,” she called out. “I…I heard Anton and Tell helped you…recover from that thing that happened in the parking lot---“

“You mean when Faceless stabbed me in the chest?”

So she remembers that… “Yeah, that….well, the thing is….I, ah….”

“You don’t have to make any excuses, Vicki…I’ve made my choice.” Kirsten glanced over her shoulder; “I’ve decided not to have my memories erased.”

The tension in the room became almost palpable. “And?”

“And…” Kirsten maneuvered herself around on the slab, allowing Vicki to see that she was smiling. “….I also choose to forgive you.”

As soon as she heard the words, Vicki felt her anxiety almost literally melt away. “You…you forgive me for---“

“Anton gave me the whole story,” Kirsten explained. “He told me why you had to lie to protect me from anyone who could’ve exploited me for what I am, or what I’m capable of…and in retrospect, I was mostly pissed at you because I had no idea how to handle myself at that moment in time---I mean, I was being held hostage by a psychopath in a mask who was using a code extractor to remove information from me!”

“That would be a bit harder to explain than some other things,” Vicki admitted. “Still…I’m glad to see that you made the right choice.”

Kirsten smiled. “I had help from the best friend someone like me could have…”

With that, the two gynoids hugged. “Welcome back, Kirsten,” Vicki whispered.

“I’m glad to be back,” Kirsten murmured.

The two gently broke the embrace, exchanging quiet grins for a moment; this is surreal, Vicki realized. It’s just like the way it used to be, except she knows, now…and she’s not phased in the least! I just hope that sense of calm will last once she finds out what happened to her dad…

Outside, Anton and Tell were waiting by Ted’s car. “I see you two have been reintroduced,” Tell mused, a wry grin crossing his face. “Just so you know, V, we actually ended up reinstalling something in her that a certain masked lunatic tried to take out---and before you go off the handle and try to clothesline me or anything, just let me say that it was for her own good…and it might even give you an edge the next time you face off against Epsilon---”

“You put the unlock code back in her, didn’t you?”

Tell arched an eyebrow. “Am I that predictable?”

“A little bit,” Vicki teased. “That, and the code fit perfectly to fill in the gaps in Kirsten’s personality drivers.”

“Remind me to never doubt your phenomenal memory ever again,” Tell mused, chuckling.

A few minutes later, in the back seats of the Tellmobile, Vicki explained her current mission to Kirsten---albiet with a few “certain details” omitted, to spare her from knowing the full details of what had happened to her father. “…and basically, we have to incapacitate Epsilon before it does any more damage than it already has, otherwise we’re all royally screwed.”

“I’m guessing it’d be a complete understatement to say ‘that’s intense’,” Kirsten mused.

“More than just an understatement,” Vicki replied, “it’d be the biggest understatement anyone’s ever made in my life. The last time I fought Epsilon, it shut me down with a signal!”

Kirsten looked more than a little nervous. “It…wasn’t a virus or anything, was it?”

“It was just a remote shutdown signal,” the brunette gynoid assured her. “It didn’t leave anything behind when it hit me, so…nothing to worry about. In any case, I’m not giving it the chance to use that against me again---“

“You’re fighting it again?!”

Vicki sighed. “Kirsten,” she murmured, “Epsilon is dangerous. I can’t just let it run around campus and break stuff---I have to stop it before someone gets hurt. More importantly, I have to make sure it doesn’t attack any other androids or gynoids on campus; it might’ve just used a shutdown signal on me, but there’s no telling what it could do to any other robots that just so happen to cross its path.” Especially if one of those robots happens to be you, and Tell’s little trick doesn’t do enough damage to keep Epsilon from tearing you in half…

“It makes a lot more sense when you put it that way,” Kirsten admitted. “Still, I’d be a lot less worried if I knew what exactly this Epsilon thing was…”

Damnit… “Epsilon was---is a human being, one who’s undergone a ton of surgical procedures and had illegal cybernetic augmentations installed to turn them into the purest definition of the term ‘cyborg’---except their brain has been effectively mutilated beyond repair to ‘turn off’ the emotional response centers, among other things---what?” Vicki noticed Kirsten staring at her with a stunned look. “What did I---“

“Dad’s notes,” Kirsten murmured. “He…he was working on something that sounds exactly like what you’ve just described…” She blinked a few times. “He must’ve installed them in me before he…went missing…”

Either you can tell her now, or she’ll hate you forever when she finds out… “Kirsten,” Vicki admitted, “your dad didn’t exactly just ‘go missing’…and I actualy know where he is right now.” She blinked back tears. “The fact is, the human being that was used as the base for Project Epsilon---“

“Don’t.”

The suddenness of the command shocked Vicki. “Don’t…what?”

Kirsten blinked back tears of her own. “The night before he disappeared,” she murmured, “I had a nightmare about Dad…he was going down a hallway, into some room…and then this cylinder came down…right over him…and this gas started filling it…and…then…” Her breath came in ragged sobs. “They…they were cutting him open…taking things out of him, putting things in…it…it was horrible….and…it didn’t feel like a dream…it was..it was like I was seeing what he was seeing…”

Vicki stared, horrified.

“I never told anyone about it because I thought it was just a bad dream,” she admitted, “and over the last few months, I actually started forgetting it…but when we were in the garage, and Faceless was threatening me, it all just…started coming back…and I knew…”

The Tellmobile slowed to a stop. “Vicki,” Tell called out, “you might want to take a look at this…”

“Take a look at what?” Vicki began, stepping out of the vehicle---and instantly getting a very, very good look at what Tell wanted her to see. “Oh, my God…”

Someone had taken the time to draw out the kanjii for “death” in the middle of the road---in fire. “Well,” Anton mused, “at least we know Hanako passed this way after she left the hotel…either that, or Epsilon’s become rather creative---“ His cellphone went off, interrupting his snide remarks. “Anton here, how can I---what?! Are you positive that she---no, listen to me, calm down….just tell me what happened…right…okay…all right, I’ll tell her, but---no, I’ll tell her. Thank you.” He ended the call, an exasperated sigh escaping his lips. “Vicki,” he muttered, “I don’t know how to say this---“

“Mom and Jamie are okay, right?” the brunette gynoid quickly asked.

“They’re fine,” Anton assured her, “but…it seems that someone in a white outfit and a kabuki mask was seen in the vicinity of Erin Choyler’s house…they’ve taken Carrie.”

Vicki was faintly aware of a hollow, dead feeling in the pit of her gut. “Hanako…took Carrie?”

“We’ve got Field Agents converging on her last known location now,” Anton continued, “but---Vicki, wait!” He nearly fell over his own feet trying to keep up with the gynoid as she headed back to the car; “You can’t just go running head-first into this sort of scenario without knowing all the deatails! We---“

“Every second we sit here,” Vicki calmly intoned, “Carrie is in more danger.”

“I know that,” Anton insisted, “but---“ He felt someone shoulder past him. “What the hell---“

“Ashley Tobias Wakefield, formerly of the Coalition, currently with the ALPA as of half an hour ago.” Ash shook Anton’s hand. “You can call me Ash.” He scooted into the front passenger’s seat of the Tellmobile and began sifting through the contents of a duffel bag he’d brought with him. “If Vicki can get us to Erin Choyler’s place within the next 35 minutes, I might be able to shut down Hanako before she hurts anyone,” he explained to a thoroughly-puzzled Anton. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

Anton stared at Ash, his annoyance slowly giving way to respect. “So you’re working with us because you want to protect the rights of A.I.s around the globe, and not just because the Baron tried to kill you?”

“50/50 blend, to be honest,” Ash replied, “though a lot of the stuff the Coalition has been proposing in regards to their stance on sentience/obedience hasn’t really been sitting well with me lately…and that’s not even counting what they did with Project Epsilon.” He pulled a handheld device from the bag and examined it; “If I get one chance to hit those bastards where it hurts,” he muttered, “I intend to make it count---and to leave a pretty damn big scar.”

Kirsten was somewhat surprised. “So…you worked with my dad?” she asked.

“Only a few times,” Ash admitted, “but those were enough for me to know that he was a hell of a decent human being…and something tells me that he’d be proud of you right now.” He glanced at her with a smile; “He even gave you his eyes,” he muttered. “You’ve got that same shade of blue as his had…” Anton and Tell exchanged glances; neither of them had actually noticed that Kirsten’s eyes did, indeed, look like those of Tony Sanderson.

Anything Kirsten could’ve said was cut off by the rumbling of the Tellmobile’s engine. “Everyone buckle up,” Vicki called out. “I don’t want you people flying through the windows if I have to make a sudden stop, or anything like that.” She fastened her own seatbelt and took a deep breath. “Everyone ready?”

Ash nodded, and Kirsten gave a thumbs-up. “Good. Tell, Anton, you two feel like coming along?”

“Seeing as how it’s my car,” Tell replied, “I pretty much have to…”

“I knew you’d say that,” Vicki stated, putting on an overly-exaggerated Sylvester Stallone accent (which slipped right at the end of the line, just as she started giggling). “Anton?”

The famed roboticist grinned. “Since Ted’s supervising the squad that’s looking for Kazuya Katayanagi,” he mused, “I might as well join this merry band.” He climbed into the back of the Tellmobile and buckled his seatbelt, giving Kirsten a reassuring smile.

“Okay, then, that’s everyone in the car…” Vicki grinned. “Hang on to your butts.”

“Ah, Vicki,” Tell cautioned, “you might want to just stick to the speed limit, and---GYAAHHHH!”

The Tellmobile shot off down the road like a bottle rocket, going well over the average speed of any other Ford Focus before or since. Amazingly, the vehicle slowed to the exact speed limit right at the exact point when V.I.C.I. noticed a red light up ahead; even more amazing, it actually glided to a stop at the light, without edging over the line or throwing anyone out of their seats. “Everyone okay back there?”

“Other than an onset of mild nausea,” Tell muttered, “I’m fine.”

“Nothing to report here!” Anton called out.

“What he said,” Kirsten squeaked.

“And you?” V.I.C.I. asked, glancing at Ash.

“I’ve driven Formula 1 cars on company retreats before,” he replied with a wry smile. “What you just did was interesting…but I don’t think I’ll be needing a barf bag any time soon.”

The brunette gynoid grinned. “Good.” The light turned green, and her focus was once again on the road; “Let’s try to keep it that way,” she added, “because until we get to where we’re going, I don’t intend to slow down for anything.” Before Tell could voice his protests, V.I.C.I. shifted into top gear and left the light in the dust, ignoring Tell’s half-yells from the backseat.

Twenty minutes later….

“Right,” Anton declared, “I think we need to establish a few rules about who gets to drive the Tellmobile from now on…and by the way, Rule #1 is ‘no skidding into a grass lawn’, even if the situation’s an emergency.” He glanced at Tell, who’d nearly fallen out of the car when it stopped and was now puking onto Erin Choyler’s lawn; “Also,” the roboticist added, “we may need to start leaving barf bags in the car for things like this, seeing as how I don’t think the homeowners will appreciate having to clean Tell’s…regurgitations…”

“Time enough for that later,” Vicki interjected. “I can already see one android inside the house---Jeff Mears, Erin’s boyfriend and an ALPA deep-cover agent.” She winced; “Looks like Hanako went to town on him with a cleaver,” she added. “No sign of Erin, her mom or---wait, scratch that, I’m picking up a heartbeat.”

Anton nodded. “Erin’s still alive, then…”

“Alive, and panicking,” Vicki murmured. “They must be near the back of the house…I’m picking up a power signature from Hanako, but nothing from Erin’s mom…or Carrie…” She glanced over her shoulder at Ash; “If you’ve got any brilliant ideas, now’s the time to share them with the group!”

“Give me a minute…I’m making some adjustments on this---“

“Not to be rude, or anything, but could you adjust whatever you’re adjusting faster?” Vicki shifted her weight from one foot to the other, anxiously waiting for Ash to elaborate on his idea. “I just hope we didn’t get here too late,” she muttered, “otherwise---“

“Done,” Ash declared, proudly holding up a Game Boy-sized device. “This is basically a handheld version of the ocular sensor upgrade Epsilon already has, except it’s a lot more precise---aim it right at the target, hold down the button, and they’ll be deactivated in seconds.”

Vicki accepted the gadget with more than a bit of trepidation. “You’re sure it won’t backfire on me?” she asked.

“Not only will it not backfire,” Ash informed her, “this thing can lock onto a target’s CPU and only deactivate it, instead of just turning off everything in a five-mile radius. Trust me, there’s no safer way to take down Hanako than this thing---“

The sound of something shattering in the back of the house ended his sentence.

“Guess there’s no time like the present to see just how well this thing works!” Vicki declared, running for the fence and scaling it in record time. Stay low, don’t make too much noise, don’t do anything stupid… She ran through the ALPA Field Agent manual’s advice on how to take down a suspect without drawing attention. If I can pull this off, I might end up earning a codename that’s just as---no. This isn’t about me earning some stupid codename, or anything like that…Carrie’s in there with a derranged gynoid, and I have to get her out before something goes wrong…

Another shattering sound broke the silence, and Vicki dropped to her stomach. I’ll have enough time to clean off my outfit later, she reminded herself. Right now---

“GET AWAY FROM ME!”

Carrie’s scream brutally cut into Vicki’s thoughts. Scrap! Hang on, Carrie… She crouch-ran up to the window and managed to avoid overshooting it; I’ve got one shot to get this right, or else…

“…and your blood will forever stain these walls as a reminder of what happens to those who interfere in my work,” Hanako declared, holding a cleaver to Carrie’s throat. “Now…you die…” She moved the blade to touch the terrified gynoid’s forehead before raising it---

“HEY, HANAKO!”

The white-clad gynoid turned a second too late, and barely felt the beam from Ash Wakefield’s remote shutting off her vital processors one by one. Ten seconds later, the cleaver fell from her hand.

“Vicki!” Carrie nearly tackled her stepsister to the floor, barely giving the older gynoid any time to make her way into the room. “You can thank me by finding something else to listen to other than Bieber,” the brunette gynoid teased. “First, I need to see how everyone else is doing…” Her attention turned to Erin and her mother; Erin’s in shock, she mused. Not surprising, considering what she’s had to endure…Selena’s still functioning, but she’s in standby mode---her systems must’ve gone for something as close to passing out as possible, to trick Hanako into not attacking…pretty good call. She made a show of checking Selena’s pulse, just to make sure Carrie didn’t suspect anything. “They’ll be okay,” she stated, “but they’re going to need to rest up---“

A terrified gasp from Carrie cut her off; oh, you have got to be kidding me! Hanako’s formerly motionless hand was beginning to twitch, followed by parts of her face. Spasms in her arm and leg servos gave the impression that she was either having a delayed seizure or about to break into a dance. I hope one more jolt from this will be enough to shut her off, she mused, raising the remote again---just as Hanako collapsed to the floor, no longer even twitching.

“Right,” she mused, “let’s…let’s get out of here…” Vicki made a mental note to call someone to bring Erin and Selena to a safe house, and collect Jeff for repairs. “I’ll drop you off at Ted’s…I’ve got a lot of stuff to do tonight…”

…with “Stop Project Epsilon” being number one on my list.

"You’ll be happy to know that the blood Hanako used to draw that massive death kanji on the road didn’t come from Kazuya Katayanagi,” Anton declared as the Tellmobile made its way towards the site of Epsilon’s latest rampage. “Not that knocking over a blood bank van is any less of a crime than murder, or anything---“

“Let’s not continue this discussion any further,” Vicki interjected. “I’m trying to focus here.”

Anton quietly cleared his throat. “Right…”

The drive continued in silence for a few minutes until Kirsten asked a question: “Is Dad…still alive?”

Vicki never took her eyes off the road. “Technically speaking, he is,” she replied, “but most of what made him your dad has been…turned off, for lack of a better term. Think of it as losing channels from your TV and not being able to get them back without paying an arm and a leg---if we could incapacitate Epsilon and get it…him to an ALPA facility without any unwelcome interruptions from those who turned him into what he is now, there’s a strong chance that we might be able to reverse the process…except there’s an even stronger chance that we might end up causing him excruciating pain. There’s no way we could restore his physical appearance, of course---“

“Doesn’t matter,” Kirsten replied. “As long as I can get my dad back, it’ll be enough.”

Her response surprised the brunette gynoid, but she did her best to focus on the drive. “That’s a pretty strong statement to make,” she mused, “especially since you spent all that time searching for him…you sure you’d want to take him back as he is?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

Vicki had to consciously suspend her response process in order to avoid putting the Tellmobile through a lamppost on the side of the road. “I…I never really thought of it like that,” she gasped.

“You’ve also never had to deal with your father going missing for a whole year,” Kirsten replied. “This isn’t something that I take lightly, Vicki---and don’t bother trying to talk me down from it just because he’s ‘just the one who built me’, or anything like that…he’s my dad, I love him, and I’ll do whatever the hell it takes to get him back. End of story---“

The Tellmobile skidded to a halt in the middle of the road.

“Kirsten,” Vicki murmured, “I’m only saying this because you’re one of my best friends, and I don’t want to see you get killed….again…but for the love of all that’s holy and pure in the world, just let it go.” The familiar air of finality in her words took on a distinctively harsh edge; “Even if we’re able to incapacitate Epsilon and get him to an ALPA base,” she hissed, “there’s no guarantee that the process will even work on him---it’s not like we can just take his brain out, flush out all the mental reconditioning they put him through and then shove it back in there---it could take months, even years to get him back to who he used to be, if we can even do anything to get him back at all---“

“I DON’T CARE,” Kirsten thundered. “I know he’s still there, underneath all that Epsilon crap---“

“Do you?” Vicki snapped. “Do you really know he’s in there, or are you just hoping he is?”

“Vicki,” Anton cautioned, “that’s enough---“

“You didn’t have to watch your father get taken,” the brunette gynoid continued, her voice dripping with hatred as she spoke. “You didn’t have to sit there and listen to someone go on and on about how your father was forced to take part in testing the Stylo virus on robots---sentient robots, robots that didn’t even have names---“

“Vicki,” Anton repeated, “that’s---“

“NO, IT’S NOT ENOUGH!” Vicki shouted. “It’s not enough, and it’ll never be enough, because we keep doing this day after day after G__damn day, and everyone expects it to be like the movies where the bad guys get put in jail or blown to hell…BUT IT’S NOT! The bad guys keep coming back, and they keep getting away with it because they have everything they need to pay off whoever they need, and nobody cares about a bunch of nerds working on circuit boards or building dinky little robot arms because everyone in the world thinks robots are dumb machines that can only do as they’re told! Everything we do is to keep androids and gynoids safe, and the really stupid thing is, most of them don’t even know about it, and most of them don’t care---hell, most of the world wouldn’t care about it unless we put it on MTV, had everyone get drunk five times a day and spent all our time getting wasted, having sex and acting like retards! NOBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT WHAT WE DO EXCEPT US, ANTON…and nobody except us ever will give a shit.” She stared at the road ahead, not blinking; “Everyone else get out of the car,” she muttered. “I’ll finish this mission by myself.”

“Vicki---“

“GET OUT OF THE DAMN CAR.”

Anton stared at her, his expression neutral. “You’re wrong, you know,” he muttered. “Whether you like to admit it or not, people do ‘give a shit about us’…and they’re the reason why we keep doing what we do---“

“Oh, great,” Vicki drawled. “Enough people care to pay us so we can chase after scumbags who keep getting bailed out because they have more money than God---that really makes up for it---“

“Money has nothing to do with this!” Anton thundered. “We do what we do because---“

“We do what we do because if we left it up to people like Jake Brightstar,” Vicki snapped, “every gynoid on the planet would be living in Michigan and having sex with him fifteen times a month---“

“JAKE BRIGHTSTAR IS NOT THE ISSUE HERE!” Anton shouted.

“THEN WHO IS?!”

For a brief second, the other occupants of the Tellmobile thought Vicki and Anton were about to start swinging at each other. “No one person is at fault for everything that’s wrong with the ALPA,” Anton finally murmured after several minutes of tense silenc, “the same way no one person can be faulted for what turned Tony Sanderson into Project Epsilon…the fault lies in each and every person who either fails to act or chooses not to. We don’t do this for the money, Vicki, or for the fame…we do this because we genuinely and honestly believe that humanity and artificially intelligent beings can coexist peacefully on this planet, with neither one ‘ruling’ the other. That’s why we do what we do, Vicki…at least, it’s why I do what I do. It’s all there in the name, really: Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency. We protect androids and gynoids…from any and all threats to their well-being that may exist. Nobody signs up for this to be famous, or for the paycheck…they sign up for it because they truly desire to help androids and gynoids coexist with humanity.”

Silence.

“That…was some pretty deep stuff there, Anton,” Kirsten murmured.

“HELL yeah,” Tell agreed. “That ranks right up there with ‘I Have a Dream’…in my opinion, at least.”

Ash nodded silently.

“That’s three out of four,” Anton mused. “Vicki….”

A quiet sobbing sound filled the Tellmobile. “Looks like we already know her opinion on it,” Tell mused.

Kirsten put her arm around her fellow gynoid’s shoulders. “I…I’m sorry---“

“No,” Vicki cut in. “You…you don’t have to apologize…” She choked back a sob. “Sometimes…this whole thing just gets…give me a minute…” She composed herself. “Sometimes, this whole thing just gets really, really stupid, and hard to handle, and I just feel like I’m the only one who’s trying to make a difference…right now, I feel like the world’s biggest idiot---“

“You’re not an idiot,” Tell assured her. “Everyone has low points…some worse than others---“

“The point is,” Anton interjected, “everyone has to go through their dark night of the soul---that one moment where they consider just giving up and moving on with their lives---and this is yours.”

A half-hearted chuckle escaped Vicki’s lips. “So you don’t want to tie me to the front bumper or anything?”

“Well, we were going to do that on the way back, just for funzies,” Tell began, only to get elbowed in the side by Anton. “It’s water under the bridge, Vicki,” the famed roboticist assured her. “Everyone says things they don’t mean from time to time---especially under extreme circumstances---and I think we can all agree that you were just…ah….”

“Venting,” Ash offered.

Anton nodded. “Exactly. You were venting.”

Vicki rolled her eyes; “I picked a hell of a time to vent, didn’t I?” she mused. “Here we are, heading out to face Epsilon again, and I have a psychotic episode---“

“Believe me,” Anton assured her, “this was about as far from psychotic as things could possibly get. You were just overwhelmed, and---“

A gut-wrenching crash cut off the sentence, followed by Vicki’s world going black.


“Are they all alive?”

Andrew Sharpe felt like puking his guts out instead of answering Otto Schmeisser’s question, but he swallowed his pride (and the surge of bile coming up from his stomach) and shouted “YES!” instead.

“Good,” Schmeisser called back. “All we need to do now is find Katayanagi and put him through the wringer, then we can dump ‘em all in the Bay and call it a week.” He approached the overturned Ford Focus, chuckling as his support team pulled the passengers out; “The Baron wasted all that money going after Kirsten Sanderson,” he mused, “and here she is in a car crash. There’s something ironic about this…” He chuckled again as Anton Malvineous and David Allen Tell were dragged out.

“Why the hell are we doing this?” Sharpe insisted. “I’m the head of United Robotronics’ PR department, not some random mook who runs around picking up bodies in the middle of the night!” He stared up at the sky, cursing his latest change of fortune.

“If the Baron says you’re a random mook,” Schmeisser replied, “you’re a random mook. Deal with it.”

Sharpe glared at him, but said nothing.

“Right, that’s all of them,” Schmeisser declared a few minutes later. “They want to see Epsilon up close and personal, then damnit, we’ll give them Epsilon up close and personal!” He smiled broadly. “Chin up, Andrew,” he suggested. “Tonight may just be the most entertaining night of your career!”

Again, the urge to puke nearly overwhelmed Sharpe.

Not for the first time…and not for the last time…

By the time Ted pulled into his driveway, he knew something was terribly, horribly wrong. For starters, Kylie Lyndon was standing outside talking to Jamie---and Joan; the fact that she was there before the end of her summer school teaching gig was just one sign that things had gone to hell.

The presence of Clive DuBraul and a squad of FROSTs didn’t exactly help things…

“Oh, Ted,” Joan cried, running over and hugging him tightly as soon as he got out of his car. “What is it?” he asked, thoroughly confused (and worried). “I just got finished bringing Jeff Mears in for repairs…why’s there a FROST squad out here?!” One look from Joan was all it took to let him know what was up; “Something’s happened to Vicki,” he gasped. “Is…is she all right?”

“We don’t know yet,” DuBraul intoned. “Joan called us as soon as she saw this laying on the front steps…” He handed Ted a DVD-ROM disk with the words “EPSILON LIVES” scrawled on it in red.

Not wanting to ask the question that was already haunting him, he made his way to the front door.

A few minutes later, Ted, DuBraul, Joan and Jamie---and about half a dozen FROSTs---watched in horror as the DVD played out its grisly tale. An entire roomfull of researchers, all of them known employees of Coalition companies, were being slaughtered by a hideous-looking figure clad in dull khaki pants. For seven whole minutes, their screams split the air as Epsilon tore them apart.

What they saw after those seven minutes, however, was far more disturbing.

“Oh my God,” Joan gasped, burying her head in Ted’s shoulder. Jamie was too stunned to even speak; many of the FROSTs were staring at their shoes, the floor, or anything else in the room. Even DuBraul himself was visibly shaken by the footage.

Not surprisingly, Ted felt like he was about to scream.

The only thing visible on the TV was a slab…with a very familiar, red-and-white-clad brunette collegiate girl chained to it. “Theodore Lawson,” a voice intoned, “your…daughter…has interfered in Coalition affairs for the last time, and she will pay for her arrogance with her life. Project Epsilon has come too far to be hindered by the actions of a pathetic girl such as herself, and unless you agree to my demands, the last thing she will ever see is going to be Epsilon’s fist…seconds before it caves in her face.” Farther back in the room where Vicki was chained up, a light clicked on, revealing a barred cell---and a particularly enraged figure. “As you can see, and most likely hear,” the voice continued, “Epsilon will be more than happy to obliterate Miss Lawson should I give the signal…”

A dry chuckle punctuated the remark. “Of course, it wouldn’t be fair of me to make these statements without informing you what my demands actually are, now would it?” An address appeared on the screen; “Pause the footage, if you must, and take down the details that are being displayed at this moment.”

“Pause the tape,” Ted muttered. “PAUSE IT---“

One of the FROSTs found the remote and paused the video, allowing Ted to write down the address and other important details. “Make sure everyone gets that down,” he declared. “As soon as this video ends, we’re going out there to get Vicki back!”

DuBraul nodded. “Unpause the tape,” he instructed.

The image on screen flickered, then returned to the room where Vicki was chained. “If you wish to see your precious Vicki in one piece after this day ends, bring the full documentation of Project Apollo to the address that was just displayed. Bring however many people you need as ‘backup’, if you must, but I warn you…any attempts at treachery on your behalf will be met with swift, decisive and permanent actions. Oh, and I suggest you stand back from the DVD player in the next twenty seconds…”

As Ted and the others backed away, sparks erupted from the DVD player’s vents---seconds before the entire device burst into flames. “Everyone, get to your vehicles!” DuBraul ordered. “Get your weapons ready, and---“

“No.”

Ted’s statement prompted a gasp from Joan. “You’re not going to give that psychopath what he wants, are you?! We didn’t give in when Rengold was after her, and we’re not going to give in now…” She glanced at the FROSTs standing around the room. “We could send in a whole squad of soldiers to get Vicki and her friends, and then---“

“That’s not going to work, Joan,” Ted insisted. “I’ve come too close to losing Vicki too many times…I’m not going to lose her now! Jamie, call the bank and have them bring the key for my saftey deposit box---“

“TED,” Joan snapped, “I’m NOT letting you do this! You can’t just hand over Vicki’s blueprints---“

“Project Apollo was more than just V.I.C.I.!” Ted countered. “We don’t know if that’s all---“

“HE’S GOT HER CHAINED TO A SLAB!” Joan shrieked. “WHAT ELSE COULD HE POSSIBLY---“

Three loud, hard knocks on the door frame cut off their argument before it could get too intense.

“Sorry for the interruption,” Major Thomas Lane declared, “but I was just driving by on my way to the In & Out Burger…great restaurant, by the way…and I happened to hear a kinda sorta maybe loud argument coming from here…” A smile crept across his face. “Okay, I was kidding about the In & Out Burger,” he admitted, “but I was told to get my ass out here as fast as I possibly could---which, all things considered, is pretty darn fast---“

“Tom,” Joan declared, “Ted’s about to hand over the Project Apollo documents---“

“You mean these?” Tom replied, holding up a locked security bag.

“Give them to me,” Ted instructed. “That psychopath has Vicki chained up in a room with Epsilon, and---“

Major Tom held up his hand, prompting Ted to shut up. “See, the thing is, I got the briefing about this whole thing on the way over here,” he mused, “and I was just going to show up at the place where they filmed that little home movie, kick in the door and do my best Snake Plisken impersonation…” He shifted his weight to reveal a cane in his left hand. “…but as you can see, I haven’t exactly recovered from what Vlatko’s last batch of dolls did to me, so…yeah. I’m pretty much on the bench for this one---“

“Just give me the files,” Ted insisted. “If I hand them over, the idiot who has Vicki will---“

“Probably keep her locked up while his cronies start mass-producing V.I.C.I.s with the attention span and mental capacity of a hamster,” Tom countered. “That wasn’t just some random Coalition stuffed shirt who sent that tape…that was the Baron himself---“

“I DON’T CARE!” Ted thundered. “I don’t want him to hurt Vicki----“

“You think I want to see Vicki get hurt?” Tom asked. “Hell no! She’s one of the best agents in the ALPA, and a damn good friend to boot…but charging in there and handing over her schematics isn’t the way to go about this, Ted. This sort of thing requires planning, time…and thinking outside the box.” He moved aside to reveal a familiar face. “I was going to keep the House out of this for as long as possible,” he admitted, “but as soon as the word got out that Vicki was in trouble, a certain someone just had to tag along…”

“Can you blame me?” Alicia drawled. “I haven’t talked to Vicki in forever, and---“

Ted’s groan cut off her remark before she could finish.

“The fact of the matter is,” the Major continued, “we need all hands on deck for this one. Running in and trying to do the Rambo isn’t going to accomplish anything other than putting our best men in the morgue…we have to play this one by ear.” He held up the security bag. “If that means handing over the Project Apollo files to the Baron, then so be it…though I sincerely hope you intend to go down fighting, as it were---HEY!”

Alicia grabbed the bag from him and tossed it to Ted. “Are we saving Vicki or sitting around here and waiting for the worms?” she teased. “I want to see the Baron get his butt handed to him already!”

Ted glanced from Alicia to Joan; “Please don’t hate me for this,” he pleaded. “I just want Vicki back safely---“

“We all do,” Joan assured him. “And…if it means giving the Baron the stupid Project Apollo data, then I guess there’s really no choice…just make sure he doesn’t take you prisoner, too…” She pulled Ted closer and kissed him on the cheek; “Don’t let them do anything to hurt her,” she whispered.

“I won’t, Joanie. I promise.”

With that, Ted, the Major and Alicia headed outside. “Hold down the fort and keep the home fires burning,” Tom called out. “We’ll be back before sunrise, hopefully…if not, get Oberon on the horn and tell him to call down the thunder---and tell him I told you to. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. OH, and one other thing…make sure nobody messes with my car.”

“Wait,” Ted mused, “I thought we were---“

“You want to sit between Alicia and yours truly all the way over there?” the Major inquired. “I got permission to bring the Rhino along for this one…seeing as how it served us so well at the Salton Sea, I figured it was time we dusted it off and called it back into service one more time---and where the hell do you think you’re going, Lyndon?” Kylie was already halfway out the door as she turned to glance at Tom. “I was Vicki’s guardian angel for her whole first semester at SJSU,” she reminded the former NASA operative, “so if anyone’s going to help---“

“Point well taken. Welcome aboard. Any other volunteers…” He stopped as Clive DuBraul stepped forward.

“Not to be disrespectful, sir,” Ted mused, “but---“ DuBraul’s wry chuckle cut off whatever comment Ted could’ve made. “Trust me, Lawson, I’ve still got a few good years left in me…and I’ve wanted to spit in the Baron’s eye for quite a while now. I’m not a doddering old fool who’ll just get in the way and wind up being captured…”

“And we’ll make sure you get to hoc the mother of all loogies into the Baron’s peepers before this night is over with,” Major Tom declared. “Anyone else feel like joining us? Thought not. Let’s…” He sighed. “Yes, Jamie, you can ride along and even get an SCEMP-compatible sidearm for the duration of this op, but when this is over, you hand it back to me personally.” He glanced over his shoulder at Jamie, who hadn’t even made a move to go towards the door. “You coming or not?”

“….yeah! I just…give me a minute, I have to pee!” Jamie bolted up the stairs towards the restroom. Tom grinned. “Better he takes care of it now than while we’re on the road trying to get to wherever Vicki is,” he muttered to Ted. “Right, we’ve got…me, you, Alicia, Kylie, DuBraul and Jamie…if one more person signed up for this, Psycho McCrazyMask would be all over this bus ride like stank on dog dirt.”

“Let’s just be glad we’re not dealing with him, then,” Ted replied. “D’you really think we can get Vicki back?”

“Ted,” the Major intoned, “I have no doubt in my mind that we will.” He clapped Ted on the shoulder.

As the others walked out, Ted couldn’t help but think that he wasn’t anywhere near ready for this. Stilll, he had promised Vicki that he’d do whatever it took to keep her out of the hands of scumbags like the Baron…and if that meant storming an enemy stronghold with nothing but a crazy plan to save him, then so be it.

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. ERROR: Subsystems 55964 and 55965 not responding RAM: OK ROM: OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. WARNING: Multiple subsystems non-responsive. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good evening, V.I.C.I.; today is ERROR: Date and time calculat9353qjl5qj53%#3#$

Just as “normal” people shook away the last bits of morning dopiness, Vicki shook her head to try and clear the corrupted data from her mind.

Good evening, V.I.C.I.; Today is July 3, 2011. The time is now 12:01 AM.

“Engh….I’ve…how long have I been out?!” Vicki tried to move, to find some way of knowing what the hell had happened right before everything went black---

---and then she saw what was screaming at her from the cage across the room.

The fact that her own limbs were shackled didn’t really come as that much of a surprise; as the memory of the Tellmobile being flipped over by the sheer force of the crash that had put her out of commission came back to her, it became all too obvious that it wasn’t just a random traffic accident.

Seeing as how Epsilon was locked in a cage on the far side of the room, staring at her as if it was going to rip her apart as soon as the chance came, any notions of “randomness” were pretty much dead.

Slowly, she became aware that a figure was entering her field of vision---the same blondish-white-haired, somewhat-athletic looking man she’d last seen in Kalani’s chamber at the Silicon Dynamics plant “Vicki Lawson,” James Harrington beamed. “I’m…well, surprised, to be honest---“

“Save it,” Vicki spat, more than a bit worried at the subtle digitized undertone of her voice. “Why am I here---“

“A misunderstanding,” Harrington replied. “Simple as that. I told my man Schmeisser to follow you and take any actions he thought would be necessary to ensure your…non-interference in the Baron’s work, and he, ah…well, he went a little bit overboard with that, as you can see…mainly because he tends to pay more attention to the one who signs his paychecks instead of the one who hired him.” He smiled apologetically. “Rest assured, Miss Lawson, your…current predicament was not thought up by me---“

“But it was ordered by the Baron,” Vicki replied, once again wincing at the digitized sound of her words.

Harrington sighed. “Despite the power that comes from my position as Chairman of the Coalition,” he stated, “a lot of my orders get shot down or pocket vetoed by the Baron because…well, because nobody in their right mind would ever dream of trying to stand up to him---“

“Get me out of these stupid chains,” Vicki growled.

“I’d love to,” Harrington replied, “but…well, the Baron wants to see just how well you stack up against Epsilon in a little bit of one-on-one combat. Still, just because you’re, ah, restrained at the moment, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a complete asshat…hell, you can ask me anything you want about Project Epsilon---“

“Why?”

“Ah, I beg your pardon---“

“Why was Project Epsilon started in the first place?”

Harrington sighed. “To be honest, Project Epsilon was never meant to be as…convoluted as it’s become,” he admitted. “Back in the early 90s, United Robotronics was in the running for a coveted military contract---one that eventually went to Thales Robotics Systems---and needless to say, morals and ethics were the last things on people’s minds when the time came to start work. Nobody gave a damn if we were working on wounded Gulf War vets or the ‘homeless population’…as long as it got results, they were satisfied---and before you even ask, Ted Lawson had nothing to do with it. He was busy working on some ‘big upgrade’ for another project’…”

A.K.A. me, Vicki mused. “So…when did things go so---“

“Terribly, horribly wrong?” Harrington finished. “1992---the same year one William J. Rengold III took over United Robotronics.” He sighed again; “Initially, the upgrades were non-invasive---exoskeletal frames powered by shoulder-slung ‘backpack batteries’. Once Rengold got a hold of the project…test subjects were getting carved up like Thanksgiving turkeys. Half of them died in the first month, and those that survived after that wished they were dead…mainly because that was the turning point in Project Epsilon’s history. The focus of the project went from affordable cybernetic upgrades to cutting people apart, sticking a crap-ton of machinery inside of them and sewing them back together---and then doping them up on depressants and all sorts of other drugs to keep them from feeling anything after they blew the enemy’s face off.”

I should’ve known he’d be tangled up in this… “Why didn’t they just stop working on the project after he got kicked out?”

“Technically speaking, they did…until Bob Jennings got fired. The one who came in after he left pretty much ordered everyone to get back to work on Epsilon, so they did…except they were using Rengold’s notes instead of the ones from before he got there. Truth be told, some of them actually liked working that way---and they were the ones who got the most bonuses and promotions within G Block.”

“And you never thought to put a stop to it?” Vicki inquired.

The sigh she got in response was somewhat sad. “Believe me, Miss Lawson, I tried,” Harrington muttered. “I really did---despite the, shall we say, ‘popular image’ of the Coalition, I personally have no desire to see anyone, be they machine or man, suffer under needless cruelty at the hands of another…and Project Epsilon was exactly that, times a thousand.” He stared at the massive figure pacing in the cell across the room; “If I had my way,” he added, “Tony Sanderson would be at home with his wife and kid, instead of looking like the bastard son of Frankestein’s Monster and Grave Digger…every damn day I have to hear the Baron calling people about this thing, it just makes me wish I’d done more to stop him.”

“Why didn’t you?” Vicki insisted. “You’re the Chairman of the Coalition---“

“And he’s the one who put me here,” Harrington replied. “If I tell him to piss off or try to raise a stink about the latest stupid plan he’s come up with, guess who’s butt will be in the unemployment line tomorrow morning. As much as I hate to admit it…he’s the power behind the throne.”

Vicki thought back to her last encounter with Harrington; “What about the other DVS members?” she asked.

Harrington arched an eyebrow in surprise. “So you remember the DVS…I’m impressed. The thing is, Miss Lawson, the DVS aren’t there to rein in the Baron when he gets too out of control---they enforce his will and make damn sure everyone is doing their jobs. He did answer to them, once upon a time…but then the original leader died under mysterious circumstances. Of course, it’s not exactly a stretch of the imagination to figure out how he wound up under the wheels of an 18-wheeler on a Nevada highway at two in the morning…”

“I get it,” Vicki muttered. “Does the Baron know you’re here right now?”

“If he did,” Harrington chuckled, “this conversation would’ve been over before it started.”

“I figured you’d say something like that…but why are you telling me all this?”

To her surprise, Harrington gave her a wry smile. “The fact of the matter is, Miss Lawson, the Coalition never set out to be the bad guys in this little…engagement. Part of the problem we have is that so many of the companies in our ranks are headed by whack jobs, psychopaths and megalomaniacs with delusions of grandeur…and the ALPA gets all the polite, well-spoken ones. That’s not a joke, by the way---compare Victor Vega with Anton Malvineous, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.”

“When you put it that way, it makes a lot more sense,” Vicki began, only to notice a sort of control booth light up somwhere above Epsilon’s cage. “So much for the Baron not knowing you’re here,” she muttered.

“All I told him was that I’d give you some encouraging words,” Harrington assured her. “I’m not going to do anything to weaken you before the fight starts…hell, I want you to thrash Epsilon. That thing’s a walking symbol of everything that’s wrong with the Coalition…and if you’re wondering why I never tried to kill it myself, I’ll tell you this…some of us have a lot more to lose by playing the stealth game than by open revolt.” With that, he turned on his heel and left, leaving Vicki alone with Epsilon…and whoever was in the control room. Just as she heard the sound of a door slamming, Vicki felt the chains around her wrists go slack.

“Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson,” the Baron’s voice declared. “I trust your…rest…was pleasant?”

“Other than the fact that you had me strapped to a slab, it was pretty nice,” the brunette gynoid replied.

“Good…I would hate to put you in the ring against Epsilon in a weakened state. Speaking of which…” The cell surrounding Epsilon collapsed, freeing the cybernetic monstrosity from its prison. “There will be no remote shutdown signals this time,” the Baron declared, “and no trickery on my behalf. Your goal is simply to survive against Epsilon for as long as possible, or until your friends submit to the various interrogations they’re undergoing---“

“NO!”

Kirsten Sanderson’s voice rang out from another area of the room; instantly, a spotlight shone down on her pounding on the plexiglass box she’d apparently been locked in. “…it seems that Harrington has gone out of his way to dillute my original arrangements for this test,” the Baron growled. “No matter. My rules still stand: Survive against Epsilon, and earn your freedom---“

“What about the others?” Vicki demanded. “What happens to them” A dry chuckle filled the room. “Their fates are their own concern---“

“You’re going to free them if I win,” Vicki declared, “or I’m not even going to waste my time trying to fight---“

“Refusal to compete will result in the immediate termination of your allies,” the Baron spat. “I suggest you make up your mind as to what truly matters in your pathetic existance…and make your choice quickly. I can only keep the leash on Epsilon for so long, after all…”

It took Vicki less than four seconds to make up her mind. “I’ll fight.”

“A wise choice indeed…now then, shall we begin?” Spotlights flared into existence, shining down onto Vicki as corny, synthesizer-fueled “fight music” blared from hidden speakers around the room. Just ignore the sound and fury, and focus on Epsilon, she reminded herself. Tune out everything else---

“VICKI, LOOK OUT!”

Kirsten’s shout almost came too late; the brunette gynoid barely had time to duck under a wild haymaker.

So it’s like that, is it?

She countered Epsilon’s next move with an elbow to the gut…and the fight was on.

The shin-breaking kick she planted into Epsilon’s left leg would’ve easily crippled a normal human being, but she wasn’t exactly surprised when the cyborg shrugged it off as if it were a mosquito sting. It didn’t help that her move put her right in the path of a spinning hook kick that would’ve shattered her own ribcage if she’d been human; something tells me Epsilon’s been programmed to rely as much on its---his barehand fighting skills as much as his built-in tricks, she realized, backflipping away from another kick---and slamming into an electrified mesh fence.

“THAT’S NOT FAIR!” Kirsten shouted at the Baron. “She didn’t even see that---“

“Hold your tongue,” the Baron declared, “or I shall crush you like a roach.”

Kirsten bit back a blistering retort, choosing instead to return her attention to the fight---just in time to see Vicki get clotheslined halfway across the room by Epsilon. Come on, Vicki, she silently prayed, I know my dad’s still in there…just figure out how to get him out!

To her credit, Vicki was trying her hardest to not beat the snot out of Epsilon for that exact reason---which was made all the more difficult by the fact that the cyborg was fighting as cheap as an SNK boss. Every punch she aimed at his head was deflected with a forearm or elbow strike; every kick directed at his ankles was either dodged or countered with a stomp that would’ve snapped her shin. This is really starting to get old…this guy has to have some sort of weakness! Despite her earlier failure with the maneuver, she decided to give Epsilon a Detaining Grip-enhanced eye-rake….

…and to her surprise, it sent the cyborg staggering backwards.

This might be easier than I thought, she realized---only to stare, horrified, as blood streamed from the cyborg’s eye sockets. “DON’T HURT HIM!” Kirsten shrieked.

“He’s trying to kill me, Kirsten!” the brunette gynoid began---only to be rocked by yet another electrical blast, this time from a turret mounted in the wall. “I believe the phrase is ‘less talking, more fighting’, Miss Lawson,” the Baron declared. “Failure to continue the battle will result in Miss Sanderson’s immediate termination---“

As soon as the name “Miss Sanderson” was announced, Epsilon glanced over at the cell where Kirsten was held. He recognizes her! Vicki realized. Time to put my theory to work… “That’s your daughter!” she called out, pointing ot the cell. “That’s Kirsten! Kirsten Sanderson! She’s been looking for you ever since you went missing last year…she was waiting for you to call her at 5:30 the day you vanished…she never stopped waiting for you to call her! She still loves you….Tony Sanderson! THAT’S who you are---your name is Anthony Sanderson, not Epsilon!”

Slowly, Epsilon lumbered over to the cell where Kirsten watched, stunned.

“She still loves you, Anthony,” Vicki called out. “She always has, and she always will!”

Kirsten touched the Perspex with her palm, and Epsilon mirrored the gesture. “Kir…sten….”

“Dad?” The tears were rolling down Kirsten’s cheeks as she spoke.

Up in the control room, the Baron was pissed. “Epsilon, CRUSH HER,” he demanded. “Rip her head from her shoulders and smash it between your hands---obliterate that useless waste of plastic and steel, and then kill Vicki Lawson! YOU MUST…YOU WILL OBEY ME!”

Epsilon stared into Kirsten’s eyes; “Kir…sten…I…hurt….”

“I know,” Kirsten sobbed, “and once this is over…I’ll take you somewhere safe…”

“Keep talking to him!” Vicki shouted. “Keep telling him---“

“ENOUGH!”

The Baron’s voice wasn’t coming from the control room speakers this time---the man himself was standing where Epsilon’s cell had been, shrouded in darkness. “You have meddled in my affairs for the last time, Vicki Lawson,” he spat, “and now you will pay for your interference…” His hidden gaze turned towards Epsilon. “In fifteen seconds, that worthelss pile of walking waste will no longer acknowledge the existence of its own false daughter---“

Before anyone could say another word, a wordless howl from Epsilon rang throughout the room.

“WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?!” Vicki shouted.

“Your accusations are pathetic,” the Baron shot back. “Epsilon is merely suffering the effects of a flaw in its mental conditioning, nothing more---“

“He can’t hurt me!” Kirsten cried. “Someone programmed him to not hurt me…and it’s killing him!”

Her words prompted a chuckle from the Baron. “I knew that ‘recruit or remove’ directive Vlatko gave his girls had another connection to Epsilon,” he mused. “Pity I didn’t remember that he could only be directed to hurt those that hadn’t been removed…it seems I forgot to add ‘not recruited’ to the command string---”

“You programmed Tony Sanderson to attack his own relatives?!” Vicki shouted.

The Baron’s reply was drowned out by Epsilon pounding the floor and screaming; if that program isn’t shut off soon, the brunette gynoid realized, it’ll push his internal organs beyond their maximum operating limit!

“Help him!” Kirsten shrieked. “Do something---“

“I was just about to ‘do something’ before this entire interlude began,” the Baron stated. “Phase 3 of Epsilon will deactivate the signal…and purge the humanity from Epsilon’s remaining organic components---“ His words were cut off by another roar from the cyborg. “If you’re going to do something,” Vicki warned, “then just---“

“NO!” Kirsten cried out. “I…I don’t want to lose him----“

“Then allow me to make the choice easier for both of you,” the Baron sneered. “Unless I activate Phase 3 in the next seven minutes, Epsilon will either suffer a massive brain hemmorhage and die, or succumb to a coma from which there can be no possible recovery. The only thing that will stave off either of these outcomes is Phase 3, so I suggest you let go of any misplaced sentimentality towards this empty shell that was once your father and---“

Yet another roar cut off his sentence---followed by Epsilon charging towards him and knocking him to the floor with a powerful elbow smash. “GET AWAY FROM ME, YOU IDIOTIC BEAST! STAND DOWN! I ORDER YOU TO---“

A sickening crack split the air.

I know you’re not supposed to wish death on anyone, Vicki mused, but seeing as how this is the Baron we’re talking about…wait, I just heard another crack… She stared into the shadows, wondering what the hell was going on---and instantly regretted her decision. No…that’s…Ash said it wasn’t possible…

“You should have listened to me, Miss Lawson!” the Baron thundered. “Phase 3---“

“Phase 3 would’ve made him an even worse monster than you are,” Vicki shot back. “We just need to…”

She stopped.

Stared at the metal spikes portruding from Epsilon’s back, shoulders, elbows, knees and chest.

Barely registered the warning on her internal InocuLAN scanner that Epsilon was---and had been, ever since he’d first appeared---infected with the Stylo virus.

“You bastard,” she muttered, her voice rising along with her anger. “YOU SICK BASTARD!”

“What’s happening?!” Kirsten cried. “What’s going on---“

A red-white blur sped towards her Perspex cell, followed by a fist pounding on the plastic and splintering it without effort. “We have to get out of here,” Vicki informed her. “Epsilon’s been infected---intentionally, might I add---by the Stylo virus…and he’s not answering to anyone anymore.”

“But…what does that---“

“Find the others and get them to the exits,” Vicki continued, “and just run. Don’t look back, don’t wait for me, and don’t let Epsilon catch up with you…even if part of your father is still in there,” she added quietly, “the Stylo virus is surpressing whatever it can find of him and trying to overwrite it---“

“Wrong, Miss Lawson,” the Baron called out. “Epsilon’s mental pathways have been…shall we say, altered, so that the Stylo virus has no detrimental effects on them. Far too many have been trying to simply ‘cure’ Stylo; Epsilon was designed to accept it, and integrate it into---“

“ARE YOU INSANE?!” Vicki screamed. “Integrating the Stylo virus---“ She ducked into a roll to avoid a chunk of wall hurled at her by Epsilon. “The hell with this,” she growled. “Kirsten, go help the others---WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” She stared, horrified, as Kirsten walked up to Epsilon and gently touched her hand to his cheek. “Dad,” she murmured, “I know you’re in there somewhere…please, just listen…”

To Vicki’s amazement (and the Baron’s chagrin), Epsilon stopped rampaging and stared at Kirsten.

“Dad…I don’t know how else to say this, but…come back…..” She wiped a tear away from her eyes. “Come back as the man you were…the father who loved me and Mom with all his heart…come back home, back to what you were…”

Epsilon stared at her silently.

“Please, Dad,” Kirsten sobbed, “just…come back….”

Amazingly, a lone tear rolled down Epsilon’s mottled grey face…

…seconds before he turned and ran, crashing through a wall on the far side of the room.

“Dad….” The sight of her father running away from her was more than Kirsten could take; even as Vicki ran to her side, she sank to the floor and sobbed. “Dad…come back….” The blonde gynoid buried her face in Vicki’s shoulder, weeping uncontrollably.

Not surprisingly, the Baron was nowhere to be found.

Somewhere else in the facility, klaxons were blaring. “We need to get out of here and find the others from the crash,” Vicki reminded her fellow gynoid. “We can look for your dad later, Kirsten…right now, you have to help me get Anton, Tell and Ash out of here…”

After a few more seconds of quiet sobbing, Kirsten nodded.

“That’s the spirit,” Vicki beamed. “C’mon…I think I know a quick way to get to them….”

“Ah, call me crazy, but is it a good sign or a bad sign if the guards are running away from the base instead of trying to…y’know, guard it?”

Major Tom didn’t even bother groaning at Alicia’s question---mostly because he’d been thinking the same thing himself. “If we’re still doing this,” he mused, “I say we follow Han Solo’s advice from Return of the Jedi: Fly casual. Well, except for the ‘fly’ part…I guess it’d be ‘act casual’, in this case…” He sighed. “Just follow my lead and don’t do anything stupid---TED, WHAT THE HELL---aw, jeez…TED! GET BACK IN THE DAMN RHINO…”

Ted had already unbuckled his safety harness and dramatically kicked open the door; his patience had worn thin enough as it was, and every minute he spent in the armored transport was another minute that might see Vicki defeated. “If you’re going to follow me, then go right ahead,” he called back to the Major, “but don’t even try to stop me, or else…”

He stopped. Realized that the Major and Alicia weren’t following him. “Isn’t this the part where you two try to talk me out of running in like a moron and getting my butt shot off?”

“It would be, in someone else’s movie,” Alicia admitted, “but since this isn’t a Michael Bay flick, and there’s no real script for us to stick to, we’re happy doing things the way we’re doing them right now.” She grinned; “Plus, I bet the Major you’d try something like this as we were pulling into the driveway,” she added.

“It wasn’t a formal bet,” the Major countered. “We didn’t even shake hands---“

Their mock argument was interrupted by the fact that Ted was already inside the building. “Not to rag on either of ‘em,” Alicia mused, “but if Vicki was Ted’s flesh-and-blood daughter, I’d have no problem seeing where she gets that independent streak of hers from…” She cracked another smile. “And yes, that’s a compliment.”

“Did I say it wasn’t?” Major Tom countered.

“You were thinking it, probably,” Alicia began, only to be interrupted by a shout from Ted. “Looks like he needs our help,” she muttered. “Shall we?”

“Ladies first.”

“Prick.” Alicia stuck her tongue out at the Major, just to ensure that he knew she was just yanking his chain. “I hope you don’t intend to have me reprimanded for that one,” she added. “I’ve got a ton of work to get done next week, and paying off a community service debt would be a hell of a lot more than I could handle…after what Psycho McCrazyMask pulled on the House, every android, gynoid and homo sapien in the ranks is pulling quadruple shifts just to make up for all the lost hours.”

“I wasn’t even thinking about reprimands,” Tom admitted. “I was going to mention your cute butt---“

He ran for the front door before Alicia could even try to hit him.

Once inside, the two found Ted helping Anton Malvineous and Mr. Tell carry a wounded Ash Wakefield to the door. “He got a pretty bad gash on his head during the crash,” Tell explained, “and they actually treated him before they put us in our cells---“

“Cells?” Anton echoed. “More like one-person hotel rooms! I don’t know exactly what this place is, but it’s not kitted out to be used as a prison. They also didn’t intend to keep us here long; I noticed the locks weren’t the usual keycard/keypad/biometric scanner combo most of the robotics company buildings have been using. If I had to guess---“ A moan from Ash cut him off. “Of course, we could always finish this conversation in a much safer location,” he added.

“Good call,” Major Tom agreed. “Bring him out to the Rhino---“

“I’m not leaving without my vehicle!” Tell protested. “It’s been---“

Alicia groaned audibly. “Can we not get into an argument about exhaust pipes and horsepower while we’re escaping the baddie’s stronghold?!” she hissed. “I’ve got as much love for the hot rod scene as the next girl, but---GAAHH!” Ted half-dragged her down the hall before she could continue her complaining.

“I guess that leaves me to look after the wounded,” the Major mused. “Right, you two get…ah, what’s his name again?”

“He’s using his real first name now,” Tell informed him.

“The abbreviated version of it, actually,” Anton corrected. “Ash Wakefield---“

Major Tom waved the remarks away. “Just get him out to the Rhino,” he instructed. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Anton and Tell exchanged glances, then shrugged. “Might as well bring him out,” Tell admitted.

“Indeed…though that noise is starting to get on my nerves…”

“Ah, what noise would…that…be---HIT THE DECK!” Tell, Anton, Ash and Major Tom barely had any time to jump out of the way as the Tellmobile came barrelling down the hallway with Vicki at the helm. “Surprise,” she beamed. “Thought you guys might need a hand in getting out of this dump…so I, ah, liberated this car from the impound garage---“

“Impound garage?!” Anton echoed. “That would mean that this place---“

“Used to be a base for roboticists of the Project Oberon days to meet and hash out new ideas,” Vicki informed him, “before a certain valentine incident ruined everything…the ALPA’s used the building, too. I checked the records while I was fixing the dents in the Tellmobile.”

Tell’s eyes went wide. “There were dents?”

“Yes,” Vicki sighed, “and I fixed them. We’ll talk about it after we leave---“

“VICKI!” Ted’s shout reached the gynoid’s ears (and auditory sensors) seconds before he approached, nearly out of breath; “There…whoo, give me a minute….there you are!” He managed a smile. “I was wondering when I’d run into you here…”

“Dad,” Vicki muttered, “just…get in the Tellmobile and---“

“WE HAVE TO GO!” Kirsten shouted. “Vicki, we need to---oh, hi, Mr. Lawson, Mr. Tell, Jamie, Major Tom, Professor Mal…Mala…Anton….” She glanced at the motley crew of “rescuers”. “Did the ALPA send you to get us out of here?”

Ted immediately stared at the floor, not wanting to relive the chest-thumping, “Rambo-approach” idea that had gotten him to that point. “Ah….yeah,” he muttered. “That’s…exactly why we’re here. Even got an armored transport waiting outside---“

“Armored?” Kirsten echoed. “Sounds like a plan to me! Vicki, let’s---“

“What did you two break?” the Major sarcastically asked.

“Nothing,” Vicki assured him. “Though…right now, something’s after us that might try to…break…us…”

A familiar roar echoed down the hall behind them.

“Damnit,” Tell swore. “Just when I thought we were rid of Epsilon, it KEEPS COMING BACK…wait, wasn’t that the tagline for one of the Jaws movies?”

“Forget Jaws,” V.I.C.I. stated. “We need to get out of here now, otherwise Epsilon is going to tear us in half when it catches us.” She gestured for everyone to get into the Tellmobile as she slid into the driver’s seat; “Buckle up and don’t look back,” she advised. “This one’s going to get pretty wild…” With one last glance in the rear-view mirror, she shifted into top gear and floored the gas pedal….

….and nothing happened.

Tell was livid.

“They drained the gas tank, didn’t they?! Those scum-sucking bottom-feeding pond swill MORONS…the next chance I get, I’ll kneecap every last one of ‘em---“

“Tell,” V.I.C.I. droned, “they didn’t drain the gas tank.”

Jamie looked more than a bit confused; “If they didn’t drain the tank, then why---“ The brunette gynoid pointed to the rear-view mirror, allowing Jamie to see Epsilon holding the rear end of the Focus off the ground. “Oh,” he replied, instantly wishing his artificial sister hadn’t pointed that out. “Tell, you might want to forget about the whole kneecapping thing…”

“Way ahead of you,” Tell replied. “EVERYONE IN THE TELLMOBILE, NOW!”

Once her friends, relatives and allies had managed to secure themselves, V.I.C.I. pressed the bumper release switch (similar to the fender release switch that had allowed the Tellmobile to run down Malchus in the parking lot of the Westgate Mall) and smiled as the bumper came off in Epsilon’shands….and then, as Ted, Tell, Anton and the others watched, she jumped out of the open driver’s side door.

“VICKI! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Relax, Dad,” the brunette gynoid replied. “I have a plan…” She gave him a reassuring smile. “Just go,” she added, slipping back into her human voice, “and make sure Ash’s head wound gets tended to before the night is over with---“ She didn’t flinch when she heard a car door slam, nor did she overreact when Kirsten walked up to stand next to her. “You sure you want to help me with this?” she asked. “Fighting your own father, knowing that he could easily rip you in half?”

“My dad’s still in there somewhere,” Kirsten quietly replied, “and I’ll do whatever it takes to bring him back.” Vicki nodded her approval. “Good call. Just so you know, these situations tend to get…crazy…”

“I can handle crazy,” Kirsten assured her. “Remember that whole thing in the parking garage?”

“To be honest, I was trying to forget that…but I see your point---“ An agonized scream/roar cut them off. “Right, looks like he wants to play now,” Vicki mused. “Ready?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look ready.”

“Thanks.”

The two gynoids stood shoulder-to-shoulder as the Tellmobile drove off, leaving them to finish the fight against Epsilon. “Ah, quick question,” Kirsten murmured. “Are you ready?”

V.I.C.I. didn’t hesitate to reply: “I was built ready.”

"Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave them there?” Anton inquired, as the battered Tellmobile edged its way up road. “I’m not saying they couldn’t possibly win against Epsilon, it’s just…the odds aren’t exactly in their favor, and---“

“Ever see that one part in The Empire Strikes Back where Han says ‘Never tell me the odds’?” Ted replied.

“Yes, but---“

“Well, this is me saying that exact same thing: Never tell me the odds. When it comes to Vicki, things like probability and statistics mean a whole lot less than they usually do.” He smiled proudly. “She can take Epsilon, trust me…oh, by the way---while I’m thinking about it, Major---“

A snore interrupted his question.

“Ah, Major?”

“He’s asleep,” Alicia replied, fighting the urge to laugh. “Apparently, this whole thing wasn’t exciting enough for him…”

Ted sighed. “Well, at least he’s getting a good night’s rest out of all this…”


Real good thinking, Lawson---give him a massive club so he can bash your brains out. Real smart…

As Vicki dodged another series of swings from Epsilon’s newly-acquired weapon---the rear bumper from the Tellmobile---she realized that her opponent wasn’t actually trying to attack her. In all likelyhood, the presence of the Stylo virus in his mind was wreaking havoc---the computerized “attachments” were probably going haywire, and the organic components were in a constant state of pain as a result. And, of course, there’s the slight problem of the “no kill” stipulation…

“Dad,” Kirsten called out, “you don’t have to do this! We’re trying to help you!”

Epsilon’s only reply was to smash the bumper into the wall, knocking out a huge chunk of the masonry and causing a ceiling tile to drop onto Vicki’s head.

And this is the part where I thank Ted for getting rid of the emergency shut-off switch under my scalp… “Let’s just focus on tiring him out and restraining him for now,” the brunette gynoid called out to Kirsten, “and save the memory-recalling bits for later.”

“Right,” Kirsten replied, sounding more than a bit crestfallen at the concept.

Vicki stepped back, allowing Epsilon to attack the walls and floor instead of trying to bash her with the bumper; “If we can get him to something that generates a lot of electricity,” she informed Kirsten, “I might be able to purge the Stylo virus from his system without too many problems…but I might as well admit it now, the idea does involve me effectively electrocuting Epsilon, so…yeah.” She gave a polite cough. “Just thought you might want to---“

“Can it save Dad?”

“You’re…not worried about frying him?”

“At this point, I’m worried about not getting killed,” Kirsten admitted. “If you could save him by finding a radio and blaring Aerosmith at him, or something, I’d do it…and besides that, I trust you, Vicki.” She grinned, ignoring the tears that stained her cheeks. “If anyone can help me save him, it’s---“

“Let’s save that for after we get through this,” the brunette gynoid suggested---

---seconds before she got clocked upside the head with the bumper.

“VICKI!” Kirsten knealt beside her stricken friend, staring up at Epsilon as he dropped the weapon and began screaming again. “Are you okay?”

“Just…a little tired…of getting hit…in the head,” Vicki haltingly replied. “Give me a minute…”

Running internal scan Endostructural integrity: 98% Bubble Memory Processors functioning normally RAM: OK ROM: OK Backup Power Cells functioning normally All Systems Functioning

“Right…well, I’m still running, so that’s a relief.” She grinned. “Also, I just came up with a plan that allows me to utilize that whole ‘Electrocute Epsilon’ thing…and it involves us leading him to the electrical transformer behind the building and…well, throwing him into it.”

Kirsten was more than a bit surprised at that; “We have to throw him? Both of us?!”

“If I try to throw him by myself,” Vicki informed her, “there’s a very strong chance that he could impale me in the eye or anywhere else on my entire upper body with one of those spikes. If we both take an arm and a leg to give him the old ‘heave-ho’, it’ll work out a lot better---and there’s less of a chance that we’d get stuck by those stupid spikes that are coming off of him.”

After a few seconds of pondering it, Kirsten nodded. “That makes sense.”

Vicki grinned; “You sound like my mom when you say that…”

Another pissed-off roar reminded both gynoids that their opponent was still conscious---and still in the grips of the Stylo virus. “Right,” Vicki declared, “less talking, more fighting.” She dropped into a crouch. “Ready?”

“Yeah.”

“You look ready.”

Kirsten grinned. “You don’t look too bad yourself.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment---now RUN!”

The two gynoids sprinted down the hall, not bothering to turn around and make sure that Epsilon was giving chase…except there was a slight problem. “Ah, why isn’t he clomping around after us?!” Vicki hissed, skidding to a stop. “This whole plan hinges on him clomping after us and---“

“Vicki,” Kirsten whispered, “look!”

She did…and immediately wished she hadn’t.

The lights in the hallway behind them had died out as they ran, which provided the perfect cover for an all-too familiar pinstripe-suited figure to enter and inject Epsilon with something. That bastard… Even though she couldn’t see his face when he turned to regard them, Vicki could tell the Baron was probably smiling---

Wait…his eyes…are they…gold?!

“VICKI, RUN!”

For some reason, the brunette gynoid became faintly aware of Kirsten halfway dragging her down the hall, and it took her a few seconds to compensate by willing herself to run. Those eyes…what the hell did I just see back there?! There’s no way his eyes can actually be gold…they…they looked so…lifeless…not lifeless as in “doll-like”, but lifeless as in “soulless”…the kind of soulless you read about in Lovecraft’s novels---

“KEEP RUNNING, VICKI!”

Kirsten’s shouted suggestion was purely reflexive---she didn’t need to tell Vicki more than once to keep running as they made their way through the complex. Out of sheer curiosity, she glanced back over her shoulder---

--and nearly screamed.

The Baron was standing at the end of the hallway they’d just come from, the dead lights shrouding his features from view…all except those eyes….

Keep running, just keep running, get as far away from him as possible, don’t let him catch you….

She’d only ever felt as helpless as she did now a select few times before in her life: confronting Faceless in the Winchester Parking Garage when Kirsten’s life was at stake, laying frozen on the bed of her Detroit Marriot hotel room as the Human Animal loomed over her….but this was a new, even more terrifying variation of feeling powerless.

Somehow, she felt that even if she escaped this time…the Baron would reap his revenge someday.

Those damned eyes of his didn’t help at all.

Maybe it’s just a trick of the light, she tried to assure herself. There’s no way in hell his eyes can actually be gold…maybe it’s just contact lenses, or some special kind of sunglasses…or just a trick of the light…but if it’s a trick of the light, how come I couldn’t see the rest of his face?!

These and other horrifying thoughts raced through Vicki’s mind as she ran down the hallway, trying to put as much distance between herself and the Baron as possible. The only other time she’d encountered someone with “no life in his eyes” had been her first encounter with Faceless, at midnight on January 1, 2000; after he’d taken a flying leap through her bedroom window and loomed over her like some hell-spawned slasher-film stalker, she’d stared into his eyes, seeking some form of compassion…

…and found two soulless pits staring back at her.

The memory seemed to rise back to the surface of her mind with frightening clarity, almost causing her to trip over her own feet. NO. Keep running, Lawson, don’t you dare stop now…don’t even look back, not for one second…just keep running---

“Vicki! VICKI!”

Kirsten’s voice snapped the brunette gynoid out of her funk. “Huh? What….”

“We made it! We’re outside!”

Vicki only barely realized that Kirsten was right---the two had, indeed, made it out of the complex. She glanced behind them, noticing a half-opened fire exit door; “What…what just happened?” she murmured. “I…I know we were running…but…”

From inside the building, something roared---and this time, there was no agony, no pain…just power.

“Oh, scrap…”


The Tellmobile was three and a half blocks away from the facility where Epsilon had been kept by the time the dash-mounted WiFi phone started ringing. “Vicki?” Ted called out. “If you’re finished with the whole Epsilon thing, just---“

“Ah, yeah, Dad---about that ‘whole Epsilon thing’?” Vicki’s voice didn’t exactly sound all that confident…

…and more importantly, it sounded like she was running.

“Sweetheart, you’ll have to speak up,” Ted began, only to flinch as Kirsten’s scream rang through the interior of the Tellmobile. “The thing is,” Vicki continued, “we’re, ah, actually being chased by Epsilon right now---and we think he’s in Phase 3---RUN FASTER! Kirsten, you have to keep running---“ The sound of something slamming into the pavement with the force of a cannonball fired straight down. “KEEP RUNNING! DO NOT LET HIM CATCH UP WITH US!”

Ted didn’t even have to wait for anyone else in the Tellmobile to speak up---he already knew what to do.

In less than seven seconds, the vehicle skidded to a stop and spun in a textbook handbreak turn.

“Everyone…hang on.”

By the time Kylie was able to think of a protesting remark, the Tellmobile was already rocketing back towards the Coalition-owned complex. The screen on the dash changed to show the ALPA’s GPS map of the area, with two dots very close to the current position of Tell’s car. The right turn that put the group closer to Vicki’s location was made in silence---inside the car, at least; outside of it, screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber wafted through the night air, like a long-lost spirit from some forgotten drag race that might’ve taken place on that very road ages before. The feeling was lost on those in the Tellmobile, though, as it took the corner like a champion F1 car.

Nothing would keep Ted from getting Vicki out of this insanity in one piece.

“I see them up ahead,” Anton declared. “Slow down, man! You’ll run them over---“

Once again, the Tellmobile skidded to a stop. “VICKI!” Ted screamed, frantically waving his arms above his head. “OVER HERE!” He nearly fell out of the Focus as Vicki approached; father and daughter (neither could bring themselves to think of their relationship as merely “creator and creation”) nearly bowled each other over as they embraced. “It’s okay, Dad,” Vicki whispered. “I’m fine…we’re both fine…” Tears of joy ran down her cheeks as she said the words; as long as she had her friends backing her up, she would, indeed, be fine.

“Ah, I hate to break up the reunion here,” Tell mused, “but…” He pointed into the distance.

Ted turned….

…and saw.

The figure that approached the Tellmobile was still Epsilon, but it no longer resembled a “human tank”. He was now far leaner and maybe a bit taller, with the appearance of a gymnast/sprinter instead of a roided-up hulk of a man. The skin was a somewhat healthier fleshtone, a, but there was far less of it than there had been on the arms and chest; more chrome showed through than before, looking like armor molded into the skin rather than coming up through it. None of the spikes that had pockmarked its surface earlier remained.

“Phase 3,” Ash muttered from inside the car. “It’s…he’s streamlined…”

Epsilon strode forward purposefully, never looking at anyone other than Vicki Lawson. Strangely, the look in his eyes wasn’t one of brute force or unrestrained malice; instead, it almost seemed…forced, as if this new form had been laid upon him against his will.

Knowing the Baron, Vicki realized, that could easily be the case…

Twenty-one feet away from the Tellmobile, Epsilon stopped.

Stared at Vicki---

No.

Stared past her.

Kirsten stepped out from behind the Tellmobile, staring at the thing that her father had become. “Dad…I know you can still hear me,” she murmured. “I know…I know that you’re not just a bunch of parts bolted onto a person, or anything else like that…I know you’re still my father, who loves me more than anything else in the world…”

A strange sound emanated from behind the mask that covered Epsilon’s nose and mouth. Vicki focused in on it; is he…crying?

Before Ted or anyone else could stop her, Kirsten walked towards Epsilon, staring up into the eyes that weren’t her father’s. “Whatever you do next, I won’t stop you,” she declared. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you from this, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to endure whatever it was that the Baron put you through…but I will find a way to help you---“

“YOU…ARE….”

Kirsten looked up, stunned. “What did you say?”

“YOU…ARE…HELPING.” The voice was a halting, electronic staccato, but there was no mistaking the level of anguish in Epsilon’s words. “MY MIND…HAS BECOME…HELL…I CAN’T DREAM…CAN’T FEEL…YOU…” A sound came from deep within the cyborg’s throat, and his next words sounded far less pained: “You take the pain away, Kirsten…”

By now, tears were welling up in Kirsten’s eyes. “Dad…”

“The Baron tried to turn me into his lapdog,” Epsilon continued, “but…he failed. The brain of a human being isn’t like a computer’s hard drive---it takes far more to override thoughts, emotions…memories, than just a few simple keystrokes.” A half-choked sob issued through his mask; “Even if I stay trapped in this…thing for all time,” he admitted, “I’ll still have the memories…” He haltingly reached down to touch Kirsten’s cheek. “These moments…however brief…will keep me sane….”

Even as she cried, Kirsten found herself smiling as she touched her father’s hand. “They’ll help me, too…”

Another muted sob rose from Epsilon’s throat; “I…I can feel…the orders, the…programming…” He flinched, trying to use the small grasp of control he still had over his mutilated form to keep from lashing out. “I don’t have much time…until the Baron…takes over…” He staggered backwards, both hands clutching at his head. “Kirsten…go….leave me! I…I can’t let him take you, too…” A half-yell escaped his lips. “I won’t let him take the memories….”

“I can’t leave you like this!” Kirsten sobbed. “Dad---“

“GO!” The command carried equal measures of pain, anger and….hope?

Vicki guided Kirsten back to the Tellmobile. “I…I don’t know what to say,” she admitted.

Epsilon stared at her. “Tell Kirsten…I’ll always cherish her time with me….”

The brunette gynoid nodded, fighting back her own tears as she climbed into the driver’s seat of Tell’s Focus; all this time, she realized, I thought he was nothing but a monster….

She looked back one last time in the rear-view…

…and saw Epsilon nod at her.

The message was all too clear: Run while you still can…this is all I can do for you now.

With a nod of her own, Vicki shifted the Tellmobile into top gear and floored the gas pedal. We’ll return the favor someday, Anthony, she silently promised. We’ll bring you back…somehow…

A wordless howl split the night just as Epsilon was out of range in the rear-view mirror.

We’ll bring you back, Anthony. Someday….


Harrington couldn’t help but feel a bit bored; he already knew what the Baron was going to tell him after this latest incident, and he also knew that the chances of him being punished were slim, at best. He may have made an ass of himself by trying to steal his superior’s spot all those years ago, but the fact remained: the man they called the Stinger was still valuable to the Coalition.

Hopefully, the Baron would have the good sense to remember that.

“This latest breach of our security has been…annoying, to say the least.” Harrington had to smile at that one; even in defeat, the Baron refused to treat his loss as anything but annoying. “We must act quickly to recoup our losses, and to ensure that such activities never blight our record again---“

“Here’s a better idea,” the Coalition Chairman mused. “Why not just…shift focus?”

In the shadows behind his desk, the Baron’s eyes narrowed. “Explain.”

“Going after Project Apollo the way you did was---and please don’t hate me for saying this---a rather egregious gesture on your part. Trying to blackmail Ted Lawson into handing over the data…bush-league stuff. You’re better than that, Baron…you and I both know it.” Harrington chose his next words carefully: “Project Apollo is too lofty a goal, even for you.”

A low, hissing growl was the only reply he received.

“Of course, the future may turn up something unexpected,” Harrington added, “and we could easily---“

“ENOUGH.”

The single word carried enough malice to shut the Chairman up. “Know this, Harrington,” the Baron growled, “I choose to spare your life only because it would be in poor taste to kill you now…and not just because the company picnic is approaching. Your…charisma is a valuable aspect to the Coalition---“

“Thanks for noticing,” Harrington beamed.

“BE THAT AS IT MAY,” the Baron thundered, “you live this day only because I have…other business to attend to.” He steepled his fingers. “Leave, now, unless you wish to see how fast I can change my mind about killing you.”

With a polite nod, Harrington rose from his seat and left. Well, at least he’s admitted to needing me for now…

Something told him the Baron would keep “needing him” for a good long while.

“….so, is the mission over yet?”

Major Tom’s half-yawned question would’ve made Vicki groan under any other circumstances; this time, she was too focused on the exchange between Kirsten and Epsilon. “The mission’s been over for an hour, Major,” Alicia drawled, playfully smacking the ex-NASA operative on the arm. “Turns out you brought along that bag from the bank for nothing---“

“Not really,” the Major replied, stretching his arms and yawning. “There was nothing in the thing but those dye packs they use at banks…” He chuckled. “I’d have loved to see the Baron looking like a Blue Man Group reject after he opened the thing…and I can see a certain someone isn’t in any mood to hear me crack jokes about icons of the Las Vegas entertainment scene.” He leaned into the front part of the car, nearly falling over as he did so; “stupid friggin’ seat covers. ANYWAY, Vicki…what’s got you looking rather depressed on this particular occasion---“

“I wanted to kill Epsilon.”

The words came out as an emotionless drone. “Ah, what---“

“I would’ve killed Project Epsilon,” Vicki murmured. “I…I thought he was nothing but a monster, a brainwashed cyborg ordered to kill…but…part of him remembered. He couldn’t hurt Kirsten…and on the road, he actually talked to her…”

The Major climbed into the front passenger’s seat and sighed. “I’m guessing you were still sore about having been shut off by that little optical signal he blasted you with at the Tentrex building, right?”

“It wasn’t just that! It was…I wanted to beat him, to wipe him off the face of the Earth---“

“Because you had no idea that the mental reconditioning hadn’t worked the way the Baron thought it would,” Tom finished. “You didn’t know…and believe me, it’s wouldn’t have been the first time someone from the ALPA charged into a situation without knowing the full story. Hell, they’ve probably still got that file on every time I screwed up because I didn’t read the brief---“

Alicia’s throat-clearing sounded a lot like the words “SHUT UP”.

“Right….anyways, it’s like this: You didn’t know there was any part of Anthony Sanderson that was still alive inside Epsilon, and you felt like beating the snot out of him because of…well, whatever reason you could come up with that wouldn’t sound completely stupid. The thing is, Vicki, you’re not the first one who’s thought that way---and at least you can say that you didn’t act on it. You had a chance to trash Epsilon, but you let logic prevail over pride…and that is truly epic.”

Vicki nodded. “That makes sense…I guess…but what if---“

“If you’d been right about Epsilon being a mindless killing machine,” the Major finished, “we’d have called down an airstrike to finish him. That, or I’d have done this whole thing with a cement truck, a pair of pliers and an orchestra performing the 1812 Overture to get rid of the bastard. Or not.”

Alicia stared at the Major as if she’d just smelled something dead.

“So…what now?” Vicki asked, hoping to steer the conversation in a more sensible direction. “What happens to Epsilon if the ALPA finds him? They’re not going to…y’know, kill him or cut him open while he’s still alive, or anythng…right?”

Major Tom sighed. “All I can say is that we’ll treat him better than the Coalition ever could.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “It’s better than nothing, I guess…”

Later that night, as she stared at the ceiling, Vicki reflected on the sheer chaos she’d endured over the past few days.

Epsilon a being she’d assumed was nothing but a killer, turned out to still have some trace of Anthony Sanderson still trapped in his mind. Kazuya Katayanagi was either back in Japan or hiding elsewhere in Silicon Valley, because the authorities weren’t turning up any traces of him. Ash Wakefield---the ALPA’s newest ally, thanks to a typical bout of douchebaggery from the Baron---was too busy recovering from a head wound to analyze Hanako’s hard drive and figure out what, exactly, made her snap. Carrie was staying at Erin’s house for the weekend, and Kirsten was back at her mom’s house.

And, of course, there was that feeling of ice-cold fear Vicki herself had felt when she saw the Baron’s eyes….

Still, things could be worse.

The fact that she’d wanted to kill Epsilon no longer bothered her; to be honest, she was glad she’d never had an opportunity to “finish the fight”. Whatever was keeping that last fragment of Tony Sanderson imprisoned in Epsilon’s body had to have been either a programming fluke or something else entirely, she realized. That, or the Baron and his crew just plain sucked at brainwashing.

Had things turned out different, Vicki would’ve been fuming over having been “cheated” out of her rematch with Epsilon, or not feeling like she’d earned a “happy ending” to the story that had unfolded over the week. As of now, she knew that a rematch with Epsilon wouldn’t have ended well even if she did win---because Kirsten Sanderson would’ve never forgiven her for destroying him. If she’d have lost…well, she’d already had to undergo a full body upgrade once, and if the need arose for it again, she’d call Tell’s workshop and tell them to get the tools ready.

All just another part of being one of the ALPA’s finest.

Her computer was still on screensaver mode; she had no doubt that her inbox would be nearly overflowing with e-mails (including at least a dozen from the Twitter Twins, all of which would be deleted without ever being opened).

Like John, Paul, George and Ringo said, life goes on.

She rolled over in bed, wondering how Kirsten Sanderson’s life would go on now that she knew what she was, and that her father’s disappearance was the precursor to his being turned into Epsilon. I know I’d be feeling pretty messed up if I ever had to deal with that…

Then again, Kirsten had chosen to keep her memories, and to acknowledge what she was.

That was definitely a good sign.

With a yawn, Vicki entered the password on her computer and checked her e-mails; sure enough, the Twitter Twins had been on a mass mailing campaign for yet another one of their stupid “fashion protests”. Once those were safely relegated to the trashcan, it only took a few seconds for Vicki to go through the rest of her inbox. If anyone has a better way of coping with what I’ve just dealt with, I’d love to hear it…because this is probably the least-weird thing I’ve had to put up with all week.

A few minutes later, the computer was off, and Vicki had returned to her bed, the recharger cord plugged into her right underarm outlet to charge her backup power cells through the night. Yes, the week had been weird, but she’d survived it…

…and as her R.E.M. generator kicked on, she had a feeling that she could survive anything life threw at her.

Life goes on…and Vicki Lawson is ready to face it with a smile.

ALPA RECOVERED DOCUMENT

SEIZED ON JULY 3, 2011

From the Journal of [NAME ILLEGIBLE] (word “Faceless” scrawled next to it in red substance)

=======================================================================

Vicki Lawson…

You have made my life HELL.

For the past seven months, you’ve elluded me, escaped my grasp, defeated me in one-on-one combat and HUMILIATED ME, multiple times…

…and now, finally, I get a chance to return the favor.

I’ve left this page where your pathetic friends will find it, so they know what’s coming…and that they can’t do a damn thing to stop me. This little game between us ends soon, and only one of us will be walking away from it.

I will be the one walking away…

…because you’ll be too busy laying at my feet.

Broken.

Dying. In cold blood.

=======================================================================

Vicki Lawson’s toughest challenge lays ahead---because come July 9, Faceless takes San Jose!

Ever since Boris Vlatko tried to put him down with a bullet in the back, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour has been absent from Silicon Valley for a month. Now, the time has come for the black-clad killer to strike back, and Vicki’s friends and family may very well be caught in the crossfire as Faceless pursues his vendetta against V.I.C.I. ….will she triumph over the murderer again, or will his hatred be enough to strike her down?

Find out next time in 2013’s first story from The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Cold Blood”!


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