Falling Away

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“A robot may not harm, or by inaction allow harm to come to, a human being.”

Anyone who doesn’t recognize that quote shouldn’t be reading this document, in my personal opinion…even as we all come to understand why the line above is, has been and forever will be outdated by our standards.

Asimov’s Three Laws were written when mankind as a whole still thought of machines as tools. Even Asimov himself could’ve never dreamed that, just a few years after he wrote those words. a certain group of commandos would find a hidden laboratory in the Black Forest, stocked with Maschinenmensch…thus marking the official beginning of the life we know today. The Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity, the House (in all its various iterations up to and including the one that---as of yesterday---was formerly led by Celeste I’Isle Adam), the DVS….and all other associated entities….all sprung from that one day, and have continued to evolve since then.

Yet that one rule, throughout the years, has been the wedge that divides us.

The ALPA has said, and will continue to say, that any sentient android or gynoid may---if his or her life, or that of their colleagues, family members or even lovers---use force, up to and including lethal force, against any aggressors whose presence can be proven to be a clear and present danger to all present. The Coalition will tell anyone who listens that androids and gynoids should only be allowed to use lethal force if their primary function is that of a soldier or law enforcement officer. The House preaches that androids and gynoids can “harm or allow harm to come to” human beings…but only if all other options have been exhausted. As for the DVS…the less said about their view, the better.

I say this not in levity, or to act as a provocateur…I mention the First Law because there are some in this world who simply don’t give a damn about any laws---whether they apply to humans, machines, or anything and everything in between.

Matthew Emmerich Hannsen is one such person.

As of now, his actions have resulted in casualties (which may very well have been preventable otherwise), the fraying of relations between the ALPA and the House, the near-assassination of multiple operatives (from our own organization and others), and a laundry list of offences that have contributed to this, his most foolish act thus far. For security reasons, I’m going to assume you all know what transpired in the Omega Systems Enterprises building in Singapore…and why we cannot allow such actions to occur again.

By the time you have finished reading this letter, the team deployed to the OSE offices will be arriving at their next destination, so as to prevent Matthew Hannsen from further enacting his plans---which, admittedly, were massively underestimated by the ALPA, the Coalition and the House. Among this team is Field Agent Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, known to her friends and family as Vicki….and, to a few of them, as the Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant/V.I.C.I., or simply VICI. Given her role in the events at OSE, some of you requested that Vicki be removed from the team and given a different assignment, to prevent---and I quote---“undesirable consequences during a potential confrontation with Matthew Hannsen”.

With all due respect, your requests have been denied.

Vicki Lawson watched her roommate die before her eyes, as a victim of a conflict she had nothing to do with in the first place. Part of that is her motivation for staying on the team…any further motivation is her concern, and hers alone. Asimov would more than likely be aghast at this development, claiming that Vicki is going beyond her limits by pursuing Hannsen….and if he were here now, I would personally tell him to piss off.

Oberon, Chairman Emeritus of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency


“If you send that letter the way it is, nobody will take it seriously.”

Oberon stared at the paper before him, the comment weighing heavily on his mind. “Believe me,” he replied, “I know perfectly well that the reaction to this letter will be…somewhat harsh, at first---” “At first? Try ‘for the rest of your natural life’….”

The ALPA Chairman’s shoulders sagged. “You’re not making this easy for me, y’know. You did a good job by giving Rachel a new place to live back in December---even if she did get caught up in that incident with Petra Fawkes---but I have to say….and please don’t take this the wrong way…nobody really asked you to come back to San Jose, Miss Brindle.”

“People only call me ‘Miss Brindle’ when they want something from me…or when they’re annoyed with me.”

“How lucky for you, then, that I’m neither wanting nor annoyed…though I still don’t know---”

“You can call me by my name: Harriet.”

Oberon sighed. “You know, I never thought I’d see this day,” he admitted. “Harriet Brindle, the nosiest of the nosy on her street, fighting her way back from cancer and becoming the next in line to run Aavyl Robotics…if Brandon and Bonnie weren’t in a hotel down the road, recuperating from last month's vacation in Dubai, they’d probably be here in person to tell me what a good job you’ve been doing.”

Harriet Brindle rolled her eyes at the remark. “You obviously haven’t been talking to Dad lately, then,” she replied. “All he wants to talk about is how I went from ‘freckles and teeth’ to ‘the next Bill Gates’….and, word to the wise: don’t mention my hair when you see him again. Last time someone said I had good hair, he started crying and saying how it grew back on its own after the chemotherapy…” She blew out a frustrated sigh. “I know he’s proud of me, and all,” she added, “but…sometimes, it’s just like he’s going as far out of his way as possible to embarrass me in front of everyone.”

“Father’s duty,” Oberon chuckled. “I don’t know from personal experience, but friends of mine---”

“You don’t have to cover for him, Oberon,” Harriet gently cut in. “I’ve met Hannah….Publius would be proud.”

The words drew a silent nod from the white-clad chairman.

“Anyways, I’ve been getting a lot of complaints about some new land development in Birmingham---the UK Birmingham, not the one in Alabama. A lot of vans are showing up in the middle of the night…GMC Savannas and Ford Transits, mostly; a few people have been complaining about gunfire, as well.” Harriet handed over an envelope filled with photos. “I take it you know who that guy is?” she inquired, pointing to a well-dressed man in one picture.

“Björn Aaberg,” Oberon muttered. “Bastard…”

“Aavyl’s been hearing a lot of whinging from the locals in regards to Mr. Aaberg’s…shall we say, unusual way of setting up camp,” Harriet continued. “Armed guards, attack dogs, ‘trespassers’ getting Maced---rumor has it that he’s considering buying up some old factory on the outermost reaches of town.”

Oberon shook his head; “He’s past ‘considering’ it,” he corrected. “Idiot’s already gone and bought the thing…”

“Well, then, we officially have a problem,” Harriet declared. “Aavyl was in talks to buy that factory from its original owner long before Björn Aaberg showed up, and I had the paperwork that would’ve made the whole thing official…but someone conveniently lost it on the day it was due to be signed. Five of my employees have already admitted to having been paid off by Aaberg, so that problem’s already been solved…but I have a bigger problem.”

“Aaberg’s flunkies?”

“Not even close.” Harriet handed Oberon another envelope; “I heard about the dustup in Singapore,” she informed him, “and that little globe-trotting expedition your people went on to catch Matthew Hannsen---”

Oberon’s fists pounded the desk, startling his guest. “Ah, is everything okay?” she asked.

“No,” the ALPA chairman growled, “everything is not okay…Hannsen’s been off the radar since Singapore, and you just happened to get a photo of him from Birmingham?!”

“If it helps,” Harriet admitted, “we didn’t know he was ever on the radar to begin with---everyone at Aavyl just assumed he was still locked up.” She paused, considering the ramifications of Hannsen’s presence; “You think he’s in Birmingham to team up with Aaberg?” she inquired. “I mean, I don’t get what a master hacker and a hitman/arms dealer would have in common other than the criminal element, but---”

A single hand gesture from Oberon prompted her to stop talking. “Where’s the best place to hide something?” he asked.

“Is this a trick question,” Harriet replied, more than a bit confused, “or….what?”

“Hannsen doesn’t want to hide,” Oberon realized, “he wants protection, he wants cover….and what better cover to have than a bunch of villainous types convening at an illegal arms deal? Aaberg’s probably looking the other way, or keeping Hannsen’s ass out of our sights long enough for him to enact whatever stupidity he’s got cooked up for us…” He leaned back in the chair, his eyes squeezed shut as he gripped the armrests; “If I had any say in the matter,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “Hannsen would’ve been thrown into the sea.”

Harriet wanted to say something to counter that statement, but it was no use---most of the ALPA would’ve liked to have thrown Hannsen into the deepest trenches of the ocean themselves, had they been given the chance (and the authority). “He won’t get away again,” she assured him. “You’ll catch him---”

“And then I’ll have to go through an inquiry as to why we can’t just hang him from the yardarm.”

“Nobody’s getting hanged,” Harriet insisted, “and nobody’s going to file an inquiry. I took a big risk coming out here, you know…Aavyl’s having a product demo in a few days…” She stopped herself. “How do you do it?” she asked. “I mean, seriously---how the hell do you make it look like you actually care about every single product launch from every single company, no matter how boring they are? This is the fifth one they’ve asked me to do---” Oberon grunted as he maneuvered the chair back to its usual spot. “You’re concerned about trying to sell things that look like people,” he mused. “It brings to mind…unfortunate implications.” “And you didn’t even have to ask,” Harriet muttered. “You get used to it,” Oberon assured her. “And I don’t mean that in a cynical way, or anything…once you start to understand the big picture, it gets less weird to think of…and you’ll see that the ‘customers’ don’t think of what you’re selling as merely products, either. The logic is a bit complex, admittedly…but it does make sense in the end.” He rose from the chair, glancing at his watch. “Damn…I’ve got a meeting in five minutes---” A beep from Harriet’s direction caught his attention; he turned to glance at her, noticing a key fob in her grasp. “I’ll let you have the passenger-side flatscreen TV for the whole drive,” she offered, grinning. “You and your superlimo,” the ALPA Chairman muttered, a wry smile crossing his face as he followed the crimson-haired Aavyl Robotics rep out. “I have a feeling your father would, indeed, be proud of you...”

“He already is,” Harriet admitted. “And he hasn’t tried to blow the horn since I left the car…”

Oberon’s laugh said more than any words could’ve. “I say let him blow the horn once, before we leave.”

“Deal. Just…don’t encourage him too much.”

LPA Safehouse – Outskirts of Birmingham, United Kingdom – August 26, 2011

“Is this really necessary?”

Eric Reaves’ question was one that everyone in the room had asked at various points during the red-eye flight to Birmingham, for various reasons. This time, he’d taken issue to the idea of trading in the ALPA’s usual tactics for a “standard” military approach---one that, in his past career, hadn’t always gone according to plan for anyone involved. “I mean, do we really need fire teams, squad loadouts and all that Tom Clancy BS just to go catch a single hacker?” he continued. “The ALPA has dragged Matt Hannsen back to court before---”

“That was then, Eric….this is now.” Jen Larssen’s firm remark was the only indication that she was annoyed with Eric; even the presence of an ocular sensor removal tool disconnecting her left “eye” from its exposed socket was treated as a minor inconvenience. “You’re the one who suggested I get this upgrade, by the way; I thought you would’ve been the one out of all of us to support---OW!” Her hand flew to her chrome eye socket, batting away a spark.

“…and here’s the part where you tell me to let someone else handle this.” Mr. Tell---preferred field mechanic for many android/gynoid Field Agents, with Vicki Lawson chief among them---steadied his grip on the tool. “If you want me to stop,” he offered, “just say the safe word…”

Jen gave him a look. “There’s no safe words for eye removal.”

“Well, make one up---‘divergasteen’, or something. Seriously, if this gets too intense, just say ‘divergasteen’, and I’ll throw in the towel.” Tell grinned; “It’s entirely up to you, of course,” he added, “though just between you and me, I’ve never lost a client to this procedure. At least, not yet.”

“It’s ‘just between you and I’,” Kylie Lyndon corrected.

Tell rolled his eyes. “I keep forgetting you’re human,” he mused. “Must be the skin tone…how frequently do you moisturize, if you don’t mind my asking? Seriously, you’ve got that whole ‘ethereal beauty’ thing going, and you’re not even pale---” Another jet of sparks from Jen’s eye socket prompted him to shut up.

“Man’s got a point, Kyle,” Johnny Dash mused. “You do look pretty robo-hot right now…”

Kylie arched an eyebrow. “’Robo-hot’?”

“Too hot to be human. Not that there’s anything wrong with human chicks…especially if they’re as hot as you.”

“So you’d find it more attractive if I---TALKED---LIKE---THIS?” Kylie replied, doing a stereotypical “robot” dance as she spoke. “I---AM---DESIGNED---TO---BE….oh, God, I can’t keep doing that!” She nearly doubled over laughing at her own pale impression of artificiality. “Jen,” she called out, “I am so glad gynoids don’t have that sort of movement set to default…I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the ‘robot walk’, either, since I never see you doing it?”

“Seeing as how it’s not the most efficient way of getting from one place to another,” the gynoid Agent replied, “I never employ the ‘robot walk’ in day-to-day activities….” A playful smirk crossed her face; “…though, if I didn’t know you,” she teased, “I might’ve confused you with an actual robot, judging by that dance you just did.”

Eric groaned and shook his head as Kylie lapsed into a giggle fit. “Jen, not now….”

“Better now than never,” Tell chimed in. “Always good to have a brief moment of levity before---”

The door on the other side of the room swung open, and Tell let the sentence die on his lips.

Vicki Lawson had arrived.

Her Field Agent uniform, cleaned and fully mended since the Singapore mission, gleamed with an almost sensual luster as she strode into the room. Twin ES-9950s were holstered at her hips via web-gear connected to her newly-acquired utility belt (similar to the one worn by Alicia 5 before her destruction). The one thing noticeable above all of this, however, was the fact that she wasn’t smiling…or frowning, for that matter.

The look on her face was, quite simply, that of someone prepared to go to war.

“Is everything, ah, okay?” Tell inquired. “You…you look---”

“How’s the ocular sensor upgrade coming, Agent Larssen?” Vicki asked, ignoring the mechanic entirely.

Jen nodded in Tell’s direction; “Left sensor’s still giving me trouble,” she admitted, “but the right one’s in, and it’s working fine so far.”

“Good. Lyndon, Reaves, Dashiel….everything all right?”

“Other than wondering when you turned into Vicki Terminator,” Johnny muttered, “we’re all good---” A light smack on the arm drew a pained hiss. “Seriously, Kylie?! I make a Terminator joke, and you hit me on the arm?!”

Kylie groaned audibly. “He was just being an idiot, Vicki…don’t take it the wrong way---”

“I’m not taking anything the wrong way,” Vicki calmly replied, only to feel Jen’s hand on her wrist. “If even a passive scan is picking up signs of mental fatigue on your behalf,” she quietly informed the brunette gynoid, “it isn’t about you taking anything the wrong way or not…it’s about you knowing your limits and dialing it down before you crack under pressure.” She let go of Vicki’s wrist, noticing the other gynoid’s hand trembling; “If you don’t stop bottling it up,” she added, “you may end up getting someone hurt, or---”“I KNOW,” Vicki thundered, smashing her hand into the wall---and shaking the entire room in the process. Eric, Johnny and Kylie exchanged frightened glances.

“You think I want to ‘bottle it up’?!” Vicki growled. “You think I enjoy keeping everything in, and having to put on my best blank face for the reports to Oberon and DuBraul?!” She knelt down to reach Jen’s line of sight; “I saw my own roommate killed in front of me,” she intoned, “and instead of running to break Hannsen’s arms or kick the gun away from him----instead of even pulling the weapon out of his hands with my EM field….I just froze. Everything I learned in Field Agent training, everything they taught me…none of it meant a damn thing in that moment, because Matthew Emmerich Hannsen dragged my roommate, someone who didn’t even know what I really am, into his stupid plan….” Her voice broke. “…and shot her in the head with a Colt Python.”

The room was silent.

“Vicki,” Tell began, “it wasn’t your fault---”

“Then whose fault was it?!” the brunette gynoid growled.

Again, silence filled the room….

…broken a few seconds later: “Sharon Wilson’s death wasn’t your fault, Vicki…nor was it hers. The only one to blame for this atrocity was Matthew Hannsen himself.” Kylie and Johnny moved away from the other door to see a dirty-blonde gynoid, clad in form-fitting BDU-like garb, entering the room. “We haven’t been introduced before now,” she mused, “so I think I’ll start---Sascha 'Tawny' Burton, Model 3, Mark II, from the local House offices. My friends call me Tawny---which is nice, since it's my call sign. And you are…”

Slowly, Vicki glanced up. “Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, ALPA Field Agent.”

Tawny shook the brunette gynoid’s hand, giving her a gentle smile. “Pleased to meet you, Vicki.”

Johnny’s muttered question of “How the hell did she get in here?” earned him another punch in the arm as the two gynoids sat down. “Oberon’s the one who sent me, by the way,” Tawny admitted. “Well, he requested that my backup body in the local House office be activated and sent---the ‘real’ me is still Stateside, lounging poolside, so…yeah.”

“I get it.”

“Good,” the blonde replied. “Now, I already know the details of what happened with Sharon at the OSE office, so you don’t have to tell me the whole story again….but one detail in particular, one that you just mentioned a second ago, is why we’re here right now.”

“The Colt Python,” Vicki tonelessly droned. “What about it?”

Before answering Vicki’s question, Tawny pulled a hip flask from her pocket. “Herbal tea,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “Always calms me down before an interview…want some?” Vicki nodded, accepting the flask silently as the dirty-blonde gynoid continued to speak. “Well, the interesting thing about that Python is that Hannsen didn’t acquire it in Singapore, or anywhere else one might legally acquire such a high-caliber gun; he got it from Björn Aaberg’s annual gun show last year.”

“Björn Aaberg?” Vicki echoed, after a pull on the flask. “I ran into him in Miami…he didn’t strike me as the type to be an arms dealer.”

“Officially, he’s not---the current Interpol warrant has him pegged as a ‘contract killer’, with no mention of any gun-running ops…but he is selling a lot of hardware that could easily end up in the wrong hands.” Tawny pulled another flask out of her other hip pocket; “The House wants him locked up for both, but seeing as how he’s pretty much mastered the art of covering his tracks when he handles a contract, we need definitive proof that he’s running guns before the Feds will intervene…and since Hannsen was carrying that Python on foreign soil with no permit or documentation, he may be the only link we have to Aaberg’s ‘gun show’.”

“And what about the fact that he killed my roommate in cold blood with that Python?”

“Trust me, Vicki,” Tawny assured the younger gynoid, “Hannsen will get what he deserves. Right now, though, we need to focus on Aaberg---specifically, the fact that he’s got another one of his tent sales ready to launch in Birmingham sometime this week. I’d go with you to check it out…but I’m more of a lover than a fighter.”

Johnny’s intended joke was cut off with a third punch to the shoulder.

“Also,” the dirty-blonde gynoid added, “there’s the small matter of Hannsen being seen near a location believed to be Aaberg’s staging area for his latest sale…it’s possible that Aaberg is pulling protection duty for Hannsen, especially since the Singapore op was a pretty expensive distraction…”

“And now Hannsen’s running scared,” Vicki finished.

Tawny’s reply was preempted by an involuntary gasp from Jen; “And there’s the second sensor,” Tell declared, pulling the skin back over the gynoid’s exposed socket. “I’ll go ahead and assume that it’s not too loose,” the mechanic mused, “since it’s not falling out of your head right now…”

He gestured for her to stand up. “How far across the room can you see?” he inquired.

“I can see just fine, thanks,” Jen replied. “Oh, and Eric, you need to stop firing defective Vampire rounds at the walls---just because they’re not good enough for the field, that doesn’t mean they’re safe to mess with.”

“Glad to see the upgrades are going well,” Tawny beamed. “Now, then, if you’ll all follow me, I think Sarina has some gear to help with the task at hand---and since the ALPA has signed the necessary papers to give you access to the necessary equipment, I think you might enjoy some of what she has…”


As soon as they entered the chamber Tawny had referred to as the “showroom”, Johnny, Eric and Kylie could only stare at what lay on the tables before them.

“Sarina,” Eric finally asked, after a few minutes of silence, “did you raid a gun show?”

“All of the gear in this room was delivered legally,” the Malaysian gynoid replied, “and I can see you already have a preference…” She grinned as Eric headed straight for a machine gun that looked as if it came straight out of a Rambo film; “M-60, never been fired before,” she informed him. “We also have fifteen crates of ammo belts for it…”

Vicki instinctively felt like passing up the guns, instinctively reaching for her holstered ES-9950s. “Those won’t get you far against Aaberg’s crew,” Tell reminded her. “He has a tendency to employ ‘pure-blood, 100% homo sapiens’ instead of androids…so if you’re going to join the team on this mission, then pick some hardware that can at least give the guys and gals at the hospital a good night shift.”

“Good advice,” a voice called out, “but allow me to make a personal recommendation.”

Tell and Vicki turned to see an early-to-mid 30s woman in what appeared to be a knit cap and a white bodyglove, with Kevlar armor molded into it at strategic points. “Ah, that uniform isn’t ALPA standard,” Tell frowned.

“Neither am I,” the woman replied. “I used to run with Aaberg’s crew, to be honest…until I decided to grow a conscience. Bastard told me to find some poor sod who hadn’t paid off Stahl in time---and to wipe his entire family out at Thanksgiving dinner. He conveniently neglected to mention that the aforementioned sod had two pregnant sisters, two cousins who were going in for chemotherapy, and a great-uncle who probably wasn’t going to survive until Christmas…I never made the hit.”

“So what happened?” Vicki asked, only to retreat a few steps as a gray-clad form limped forward. The woman smirked; “He showed up,” she informed the brunette gynoid, gesturing to the Man in Grey as he approached. “Perfect timing, too…he got everyone out of the house and to the airport before nightfall. Only one who didn’t make it was the original target---Aaberg took care of him personally.”

“And that was the end of Björn Aaberg’s first hit crew,” the Man rasped. “They all took the names of the guns they carried---Benelli, Colt, Browning, Makarov, Walther, Mossberg, Remington, Winchester…and, of course, Beretta.” He nodded in the general direction of the woman, who pulled off her cap to reveal shoulder-length, platinum-blonde hair. “After I ‘resigned’, the others either left the country or ‘died in their sleep’,” she added bitterly. “Aaberg never was a particularly graceful loser.”

Tell rolled his eyes. “We’re not that surprised…considering what he did to Jake---”

“Brightstar should consider himself lucky,” the Man interjected. “Most people who draw Aaberg’s wrath don’t even survive. As it is, I helped Beretta escape, and she managed to land a string of jobs that put her skills to a more…positive use than her previous employment ever did.”

Before Vicki could even think to ask what jobs he meant, Beretta counted them off on her fingers: "Bodyguard, private investigator, security officer, bounty hunter, competitive trick-shooter….and those were just in the first week after I quit. Even joined some private military contracting group---KnightWind, I think---but they were a bit too…shall we say, eager for employment. I left the group after a month, and spent the rest of the year keeping in shape and taking whatever work I could find…until your people called.”

“So…you were recruited for this job since you’d worked with Aaberg before,” Tell mused. “Understandable---”

“And foolish,” the Man spat. “She’s the last survivor of Aaberg’s original squad, and your superiors want to send her back to him?!” Tell threw up his hands defensively, trying to defuse the argument before it got too serious; Vicki, knowing a losing battle when she saw one, decided to let herself drift away from the debate.

After a few seconds of aimless meandering, the brunette gynoid found herself at a table laden with familiar weaponry---including one particular gun that caught the eye of a fellow Field Agent. “YES,” Eric declared, hefting another M-60 from its resting place inside a steel crate. “This is the kind of firepower we should’ve had at The Attic….” He nodded in Sarina’s direction; “I think I just found my primary for this op,” he called out. “Got any ammo for it?”

“Fifteen crates, out on the palettes in the back. I already told you---”

“Good---load ‘em up in the Rhino…” Eric glanced over his shoulder with a grin as Vicki approached. “Nothing against the ES-9950,” he boasted, “but when it comes to sheer stopping power…they don’t get much more powerful than this.” He patted the M-60 appreciatively.

“Let me guess,” Vicki mused, “your dad carried one in ‘Nam?”

Eric nearly scowled. “He carried a camera….but at least three of my uncles got over 50 confirmed kills with these.” He glanced across the table, his smile growing as he spotted yet another exotic weapon. “SARINA! I’M TAKING THREE OF THESE SWORDS WITH ME, TOO!”

“No, you’re not,” the Malaysian gynoid countered. “Those katanas are on loan from a friend of mine---”

“And I’ll return them in pristine condition,” Eric replied. “Can I at least take two?”

“No.”

“One, then---just one freaking sword…”

Vicki’s audible groan did little (if anything) to dissuade Eric from continuing his tirade; thus, the gynoid found herself ambling away from a second argument, in a little under two hours’ time. Standing around watching everyone argue over which guns to bring along didn’t exactly feel like the most productive way to spend her time; the memory of the Colt Python pressed against Sharon’s head---mere seconds before Matthew Hannsen squeezed the trigger and ended her life---was still fresh in her mind, and she needed to find Hannsen, drag him kicking and screaming out of whatever hole he was hiding in, and make the bastard pay. And if that meant busting up Björn Aaberg’s little gun show….

“Everything okay?”

Sarina’s question jolted Vicki out of her morbid reverie. “To be honest,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “no.”

“Figured that,” Sarina replied. “I’m guessing this isn’t just ‘first-time jitters’ about using lethal force, either…”

“Not even close,” Vicki muttered. “I saw my roommate---a close friend of mine, who never even knew the truth about me---get a bullet through her skull because Matthew Hannsen wanted to ‘make a statement’ or whatever stupid excuse he came up with…”

The Malaysian gynoid sighed. “It’s called ‘wanting revenge’, Vicki,” she half-teased. “Considering what you’ve just told me, not wanting Hannsen to suffer would be even worse than wanting to punt-kick him into the ocean yourself. Believe me, I know what it’s like to lose a friend---earlier this year, the MPs decided to start their whole door-to-door program again, and three of my friends got picked up. An ALPA crew was able to get two of them freed, but the other one…well, I doubt I’ll see her again.”

Vicki decided to give her fellow gynoid---and herself---a moment of silence, to reflect on the friends they’d lost.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the task at hand---arming up to storm Björn Aaberg’s gun show. “Since I’ve been a, ah, one-gun girl for most of my ALPA career,” Vicki admitted, “I’m kind of lost when it comes to this sort of thing….any recommendations?”

Sarina grinned. “Personally, I prefer machine pistols,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “like this.” She picked up a sleek pistol from the table; “Heckler and Koch SP-89,” she proudly declared, “my personal favorite. Nice rate of fire, small profile….and modded to hold ALPA-standard ammo.”

“Well….what about this one?” Vicki reached for a smaller gun, giving it a once over.

Her “tour guide” (for the moment, at least) arched an eyebrow. “Claridge Hi-Tec? It’s a solid piece, to be fair, but I’ve always found it to be…underpowered. Still, it is your call…but take my advice: stay away from the ‘popular’ guns, like the MAC-10 and the Uzi. Aaberg’s crew will probably be loaded up with them once we get to the arms sale, so you can just grab one there if your primary runs out.” She glanced across the room, where Eric was already cleaning the M-60. “Speaking of primaries,” she added, “don’t go for something heavy, like your friend over there.”

Vicki nodded sagely. “I didn’t plan on it….and why does that look like RoboCop’s gun?” She gestured to a long-barreled pistol sitting next to the Claridge.

“Technically, it is RoboCop’s gun,” Sarina replied. “The Beretta 93-R Auto 9---which, by sheer coincidence, was also the basis for your Sony ES-9950, with a few aesthetic changes to avoid potential copyright problems between Sony and Beretta. It’s a pretty good choice---I’ve got a specialized fast-open holster for it, if you want one.”

“I do.” Vicki hefted the Auto 9, aiming down the sights; “Feels just like the ES-9950,” she mused.

“Like I said, Beretta let Sony base the ES-9950 on the Auto 9,” Sarina beamed, “except the ES-9950’s a bit heavier. It’s not as ‘prolific’ as a Desert Eagle or as well-known as an M1911, but it’s got it where it counts.”

At that, Vicki managed a smirk. “It’s funny,” she murmured. “Here I am, a gynoid college girl, holding RoboCop’s gun…if Michael Bay was in charge of this, I have a feeling the Auto 9 would fire explosive rounds and come with a self-destruct to keep it out of ‘the wrong hands’….” She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“It does have biometric sensors on the grip,” Sarina admitted. “No self-destruct, though…at least, not yet.”

“Fair enough. So now that I have a ‘primary’….what’s next?”

“Actually,” the Malaysian gynoid stated, “the Auto 9 is a secondary---a primary is usually a rifle, a machine gun or a submachine gun. Only pros like her---” She nodded at the gunslinger known as Beretta. “---use a pistol as their primary…and no offense, but the ES-9950 isn’t enough to qualify you as an expert.”

“No surprise there…so what should I get for a primary?”

Before Sarina could even open her mouth, Eric yelled “M-134!” Vicki pulled a face; “He wants me to carry a minigun as a primary?” she groaned. “That’s….I can’t even dignify that with a response…” She turned her attention to the next table over, eyeing two rifles in particular.

“The Heckler & Koch XM-8 and the Beretta CX-4 Storm?” Sarina mused. “Good choices…”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll take both.”

Now it was Sarina’s turn to groan. “You want both guns?”

“We’re going into hostile territory to take down an arms dealer/hitman and an international fugitive, both of whom will probably be protected by at least a hundred or more thugs who could be armed with anything from missile launchers to laser rifles…got any better ideas?”

“No….but I do have one last thing you may want to take a look at.”

Abandoned Hannsen Electronics factory – Birmingham, United Kingdom – August 26, 2011

“…now this, ladies and gentlemen, is a gun.”

A group of at least four or five bored-looking thugs stared, only half paying attention, as the jean-and-cowboy-boot-wearing American in front of them spun a Smith & Wesson Model 29 Magnum on his fingers. “Dirty Harry never tried nothin’ like this,” he boasted, twirling the Magnum backwards and forwards on his trigger finger with almost zero effort---stopping only to shoot a row of bottles off a shelf ten feet away. “Let’s see one’a y’all try that without missin’ a shot,” he challenged, laughing as he holstered the Magnum.

One of the thugs stifled a yawn. “Enough of the gun show, Billy Jean…just give everyone a piece---”

“You don’t just get a Magnum,” Billy Jean countered, his shark’s grin already fading. “Ya gotta earn it.”

“And how do we do that?” another thug asked, his Cockney accent brimming with sarcasm. “Taking a walk in the moonlight with you?” The rest of the thugs howled with laughter.

“Real funny, Crumpet,” Billy growled. “Really hilarious…”

Over in the corner of the room, three others ignored the argument as it played out---they’d seen it far too many times before, and this one wasn’t looking to be any different. The farthest away from the dispute was slowly rotating the cylinder of a Mateba MTR-8 revolver, mostly out of sheer boredom; considering his background, it made perfect sense that Ivan Dovchenko was tired of the argument. He’d been ready to strike at the heart of the bloated capitalist monster that was America back in the 80s, when the Cold War could’ve turned hot at the drop of a hat…but instead, found himself working alongside the hated capitalists to “build bridges and heal a nation”. He’d often complained, loudly, that Mikhail Gorbachev never had any real manhood---and if he had, Reagan’s order to “Tear down this wall” would’ve been met with one thing: force.

Sitting opposite Dovchenko was someone who didn’t give a pair of dingo’s kidneys about Billy Jean’s latest debate over his sexual preference. Her real name had long been lost to the history books, but her creative (and sarcastic) teammates had already given her another, more ironic moniker: Blue-Eye. Whereas Ivan was yet another example of Soviet training turning ordinary men into “titans of the Motherland”, Blue-Eye’s only noticeable feature was the visor that covered every inch of her face between her nostrils and hairline, thus shielding her eyes from view. Rumors about why she wore the thing ranged from the plausible to the stupid, and she ignored every single one of them…

…unless she felt like having some target practice.

The third figure ignoring the argument was busy with a task of his own---testing the spring-loaded spikes on the end of his favorite weapons, a pair of nightsticks, to make sure they weren’t broken. Whereas Blue-Eye only looked strange because of her visor, the man known only as Mr. Whistler was impossible to not stare at---after all, one doesn’t usually see people with grated metal mouthguards fastened to their heads, at least outside of mental institutions. Whistler’s favorite---and only, if the evidence was to be believed---form of communicating with others was, as his name implied, whistling…though his preferred tunes (Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, for example) led to a few sleepless nights for the rank-and-file thugs in the group.

“…and if you say one more word about ‘holdin’ my hand’,” Billy Jean threatened, “I’ll rip your lungs out!”

“My lungs ain’t the part’o me you’re lookin’ at now, sunshine!” the offending thug cackled.

Ivan blew out a frustrated sigh. “Oh, for love of God,” he bellowed, “shut the Hell up!” To his annoyance, the arguing only got louder---new recruits to the organization either respected Billy Jean from day one, or gave him hell just because they could (or thought they could).

Even as Billy grabbed his own Magnum, Ivan raised the Mateba, thumbed the safety off---

“ENOUGH, all of you.”

Silence fell over the room, just in time for the assembled lackeys to crane their necks and stare, slack-jawed, at the svelte figure of Rosanna Ahlmquist. Unlike Ivan, Billy, Blue-Eye and Whistler, all of whom had been given opportunities to join Björn Aaberg’s hit squad, Rosanna had sought out Aaberg personally and proven herself worthy to gain a spot on his crew. “Mr. Aaberg has decided to begin the showcase tonight,” she informed the thugs, “and all of you will be manning the showroom floor to provide merchandise demonstrations by request.”

Had Billy or Ivan given the order, the idiot squad would’ve complained all night….but the usually-resolute men were putty in Rosanna’s hands. Muttered affirmatives sounded throughout the room.

“The guests will be arriving in…one hundred and twenty minutes. Get to your posts and prepare.”

Billy Jean nodded as the thugs filed out. “That’s right,” he sneered, “ just run along, now! And if any one’o you sons of bitches starts crackin’ wise about me, you’ll get a face-full of buckshot!” He scoffed at the retreating goons, shaking his head dismissively. “Buncha dumbasses…I don’t see why Borne ever hired ‘em in the first damn place.”

“Mr. Aaberg has his reasons,” Rosanna assured him. “You would do well to pronounce his name correctly---”

“And you would do well to quit tellin’ me how the hell to say the man’s name,” Billy spat. “Bee-yorn, B-yorn, Bay-yorn…any way ya say it, it just sounds stupid…speakin’ of which, why the hell are we throwin’ another damn ‘sale’?! Every time we have one, it’s like things fall apart---the cops show up, customers say they got ripped off, Beyorn always ends up kickin’ the crap out of someone…can’t he just wait another week for the sale, and then we can have it somewhere else, like in Germany, or something?”

Rosanna glared at the would-be cowboy. “You know why that isn’t possible,” she coldly replied.

“Yeah, yeah,” Billy drawled, “because Jackie nearly got her ass shot off the last time we were in Germany.”

Ivan glanced over his shoulder. “That was your fault. You lost the map, Jackie had to ask for directions.” His glance returned to the Mateba as he rotated the cylinder again; “Next time we are in Germany,” he added, “I will drive.”

“The hell you will,” Billy Jean shot back. “Last time you drove, you ran over that rag lady with the 7-11 cart!”

“She should have moved,” Ivan replied with a shrug. “Homeless people do not belong on the roads.”

Rosanna blew out a frustrated sigh. “For the record, the ‘rag lady’ wasn’t killed on impact,” she stated, “though it had more to do with Mr. Aaberg paying for her medical bills to avoid drawing attention to our operations in that particular area. Also, you both should worry less about who gets to drive the next time we head out on a mission, and more about the sale---we’ve got a lot of inventory to unload, and not a lot of time to work. Some of our best customers will be there, and---”

“They are paying in cash this time, I hope,” Ivan interrupted. “Splitting checks is…tiring.”

Any argument that Rosanna could’ve made was cut off by her cellphone ringing. “That’ll be Borneo hisself,” Billy muttered. “Prolly wants us to go line up all the fancy new rocket launchers, get ‘em nice and shiny for the payin’ customers…stupid toe-rag.”

“How fortunate for you that the ‘stupid toe-rag’ is a generous man,” Björn’s voice called from the opposite door.

Ivan stood at attention, leaving Whistler and Blue-Eye to help Billy up off the floor. “Oh, Rosanna, I nearly forgot to mention…I gave J4CK13 the number to your mobile phone,” Björn informed the raven-haired beauty as he planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “She has arrived with the second-to-last shipment from last week.”

“Including the rifles?” Blue-Eye asked, her voice tinged with the faintest Australian accent.

“We were…unable to acquire all of the rifles due to a certain competitor’s efforts,” Björn admitted, “but we have obtained something even greater…you remember the Venus Industries Model 0019624, given the designation of Lola….and how it---she was stolen from a convoy by one Jake Brightstar and handed over to that detestable fool known only as McMire?”

The others nodded. “She’s the one in the skirt an’ pigtails, right?” Billy inquired, rolling a toothpick between his lips.

“Indeed she was,” Björn replied. “Well…J4CK13 was able to breach McMire’s vault and…reacquire Lola for us---except that she must be sold off tonight, along with the rest of the inventory. J4CK13 has assured me that simply trying to reprogram Lola would be futile,” he added, “due to the Venus Industries safeguards hardwired into her after her assembly---any such effort would reduce her to nothing more than a beautiful, broken doll, and she would be useless to us in such a state. As such, she will be the top prize for whoever is willing to put their money where their mouth is, as the saying goes…” He smiled grimly. “…and if they are not so willing,” he murmured, “we shall do our best to…persuade them.”

“Very good, man,” Ivan declared, raising a glass of cheap vodka in Aaberg’s general direction.

Billy gave an exaggerated yawn. “At least the sale will be over and done with after tonight----what?”

“I…must confess that the demand for this year’s stock has been….overwhelming,” Björn slowly admitted, “and that a single night’s worth of selling our merchandise will not be enough---HOWEVER,” he added, speaking quickly to drown out Billy’s groaning, “three nights of working the floor will do wonders for our reputation---”

“Reputation comes second,” Ivan cut in. “First, secrecy, then reputation….then profit.”

Despite his annoyance at being interrupted, Björn nodded his agreement. “I must thank you again, Comrade, for finding this location for us on such short notice…otherwise, we would have had to scale back the scope of the event; holding a sale of this magnitude on a yacht, even one anchored in international waters, is…not exactly easy, from a logistical standpoint.”

“It ain’t easy from any standpoint,” Billy muttered, “’specially if you have the damn thing for three nights.”

Björn sighed. “When I first ‘got into this business’, Billy Jean,” he stated, “I had one shipment, containing no less than twenty-one guns. Out of that entire number, I sold all but three---and those three are still in my private armory to this day. The mentality of an arms dealer is far beyond that of a contract killer…one has to approach things from a slightly different perspective, otherwise you will begin to see every potential client as an eventual target---and even if they end up as such, you must conduct your dealings in a cordial manner.”

“And in English, that means….what?” Billy sneered.

The smile that greeted his question was that of a shark. “The line between client and target is easily blurred, Billy Jean. Never forget that simple fact---” Without warning, he drew his Ruger Mk III and fired, putting a bullet right between the cowboy’s legs.

“…and never, ever forget to be prepared for any and all eventualities,” he finished, “otherwise you may find yourself….missing a few things.” He holstered the Ruger, smiling as he turned on his heel and left the room.

Blue-Eye chuckled as her employer left; “Man knows how to make a point,” she stated.

“Indeed,” Rosanna agreed. “Now, then…shall we head to the showroom floor?”

For once, Billy couldn’t think of any reason to stay right where he was.

ALPA Convoy – approaching Birmingham, United Kingdom – August 26, 2011

“…and you’re sure they don’t know we’re coming?” Eric asked for the fifth time. “I mean, just because we’re sending one of our own in undercover, that doesn’t mean they’ll just sit on their asses and say ‘oh, I guess we don’t have to worry about the Alpa Brigade’ or something like that…”

“For the last time,” Sarina huffed, “the ALPA isn’t sending one of theirs in undercover. We’ve got a freelance agent going in, and he’s more than willing to keep us in the loop until the whole thing starts….and judging by the traffic, I’d say it’s just about to begin.” The Malaysian gynoid grimaced as a line of expensive cars drove past the convoy, many of them sporting blacked-out windows and “interior reinforced” armor plating. At least one Humvee thundered down the road leading into Birmingham, drawing a muttered curse from Sarina.

Kylie, meanwhile, was focused on the music. “Can we please find something else to listen to, Eric?” she asked. “I don’t hate Leonard Cohen, or anything…but ‘First We Take Manhattan’ is kind of a bad song choice for the moment…”

“The radio stays where it is,” Eric countered. “And when we get there, stick to callsigns---”

“What about those of us who don’t have one?”

Sarina smirked. “You get a temporary callsign for this mission,” she replied. “Yours is ‘Titanium’.”

V.I.C.I. nodded her approval. “Makes sense…and Reaver, I agree with Kylie---sorry, ‘Corona’, about the radio….find something else to listen to, please.” Her fellow Field Agent’s protest was interrupted by Jen (now going by the callsign Hummingbird) punching him in the arm.

“We’re getting close, people,” Talon interrupted. “Time to get into character.”

“’Get into character’, he says,” Johnny Dash muttered. “What is this, Pulp Fiction 2?”

“Can it, Raiden,” Reaver growled.

“I sincerely hope that ‘Raiden’ is the God of Thunder,” Dash drawled, “otherwise…”

Sarina slapped a badge onto his uniform. “Raiden’s not your callsign,” she informed him. “It’s Saturn…like the Sega console.” She smirked. “And before you start complaining about the connotations of having the same designation as a failed console, the alternative was Mr. Purple.”

“Better than being Mr. Blue,” Dash---now proudly polishing his Saturn badge---admitted.

“Can the chatter,” V.I.C.I. ordered. “There’s a checkpoint up ahead…”

Reaver guided the armored 18-wheeler (disguised as a catering truck, so as to gain easy access to the arms deal) to the checkpoint, smiling cordially at the guard, whose scowl was as intimidating as his midnight-black BDUs. “Identification?” the man asked, barely looking up from his clipboard. “Sure, no problem,” Reaver replied, handing over the fake license he’d received from Sarina. “Really big night tonight, ain’t it? Lotta traffic goin’ in…whatever’s happenin’ in town, it’s gonna be big!” The guard gave a thin smile. “Yes…very big.” He handed Reaver the license back. “Stand by for vehicle scan, please…do not move your vehicle until the scan is complete.”

With a polite nod, Reaver kept both hands on the steering wheel.

The scanning rig---a massive construct flown in from Japan at Aaberg’s request---was wheeled into place and passed over the 18-wheeler three times, with each run using three different types of scans (ranging from x-ray and infrared to radiation scanning) on the entire body of the vehicle.

Inside the tractor trailer, none of the Field Agents moved…or even breathed.

Three minutes after the scan started, the guard came back to Reaver’s window. “Scan’s clean, sir…but you’ve got a faulty taillight. Might want to get it replaced before you head out.”

“I’ll do that!” Reaver beamed, listening intently (or more accurately, pretending to listen---he’d already seen the map of Aaberg’s “borrowed” facilities for the arms deal and memorized it) as the guard told him where to park the truck. After a few more pleasantries were exchanged, the 18-wheeler lurched forward and continued to follow the Bentleys, Aston Martins, Veyrons and other obscenely expensive cars as they turned off the main road.

“Well,” Saturn declared, “that was harrowing…how much would it suck for an ordinary tourist---”

“The guy had a police uniform in the booth,” Reaver stated, already dropping the fake-polite tone he’d used earlier. “Anyone came through here who wasn’t with the group, they’d just be rerouted to another road, or told to take the main road into town. Aaberg doesn’t want more attention than he already has.”

Hummingbird nodded her agreement. “It’s better to temporarily inconvenience people than to turn their cars into Swiss cheese,” she added. “Any self-respecting criminal mastermind who’s seen Die Hard more than once knows that…and on a semi-related note, don’t try to signal for the cops. This is ALPA business…if the local authorities show up, they’ll only complicate things….Corona, Titanium, Saturn, and Wyvern---run a gear check, make sure your weapons are loaded and all other equipment is functioning correctly.”

“All systems functioning at 100%,” V.I.C.I. declared. “And for the record,” she added, switching back to her human voice, “the Auto-9 is just awesome…”

Reaver attempted a scowl, but ended up giving the brunette gynoid a smirk. “It suits you.”

“Are Beretta and the Man even there yet?” Saturn inquired, checking the clip from his Browning Hi-Power to make sure the thing wasn’t jammed. “I mean, yeah, Beretta’s got a kick-ass way with her guns, and all, but the Man only had---”

“What he’s carrying is enough,” Wyvern assured him.

“You’re sure about that?”

The Malaysian gynoid glared at him, but kept her voice calm. “Positive.”

A few minutes later, the truck rolled to a stop yet again, this time in its assigned parking space. “Nobody act stupid,” Reaver instructed, “and we can get out of this without any problems. Just…let me take the lead on this, and be cool.”

“’Be cool’?!” Saturn echoed. “We’re heading into an arms deal run by an internationally-known hitman, and your big advice is for us to be cool?! That’s about as useless as Coach Todd telling us to ‘lean into the hit’ when we were playing football---I mean, it would’ve been more effective in baseball, or even golf, but telling a WATERBOY to ‘lean into the hit’, when he’s handing out bottles of water…how the hell does that even work out?! Seriously, it’s---”

“Saturn,” Vicki muttered, “shut up.”

Reaver exited the truck’s cab, moving to help the attendants unload various crates loaded up with food (HQ had insisted that the truck bring along actual catering supplies). “As long as they don’t ask to check the sleeper cab,” Wyvern whispered, “we should be in the clear. If they do ask…”

“Let’s not focus on the potential negatives unless we have to.”

Even as she dismissed her fellow Field Agent’s concern about the sleeper cab, Vicki knew more than anyone else that a thorough inspection of the vehicle would reveal its secret---that the cab and the tractor-trailer were actually linked and that the back wall of the trailer was fake. Even worse, a well-trained inspector would more than likely rip out the fake wall, and every single Field Agent hiding behind it would be dragged out at gunpoint before either being shot or hauled off to stand before Aaberg himself…fortunately for Vicki, Reaver, Talon, Hummingbird, Wyvern, Corona and Saturn, however, the inspectors going over the truck were far from well-trained. After merely three minutes of helping unload the food, every single guard just sauntered off to parts unknown, leaving Reaver and his fellow agents alone.

Still, there was one precaution left to take…

Within the truck, Vicki could hear the telltale phew of an airgun being used to take out security cameras. “I told him to use the Blinder rounds,” she muttered, “but he’s shooting them out with an air pistol….does he want to get us caught?!”

The panel separating the Field Agents from the rest of the trailer slid aside, allowing the brunette gynoid to see Reaver grinning at her. “Coast is clear,” he declared. “Everyone, get your gear and leave the truck…we’ve got work to do.” He glanced back at Vicki, his smile dipping to a smirk; “Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that the cameras aren’t broken,” he added. “I test-fired the Blinders back at Wyvern’s….turns out they made a little too much noise when I shot ‘em out of a normal gun.”

“I get it,” Vicki hissed.

Reaver’s smirk faded; for a few brief moments, the brunette gynoid thought that he was going to do what every other Field Agent on the team had already done and ask if she was okay.

Instead, he turned on his heel and walked towards the main building.

For Vicki, that single gesture---actually leaving her alone instead of pressing the question further---was, at the moment, a good thing. She’d been enduring questions like “Are you okay?” and “Do you really want to go on this mission?”, among dozens of others…and even though every person who’d asked had good intentions, none of them realized a fundamental fact: Vicki was on this mission to take down the bastard who’d shot her roommate (and friend) in cold blood, as well as the moron who’d sold him the murder weapon. If she couldn’t get both, she’d easily settle for just one…and if Björn Aaberg knew that Matthew Hannsen had used that Colt Python to kill a defenseless college girl, then things would be that much worse for him.

She gave her sidearm a quick once-over, checking the clip, the sights, and every mechanism on the gun to make sure nothing was in danger of jamming at a critical moment. It was similar enough to the ES-9950 that, for a brief moment, she nearly considered checking the SCEMP indicator light to make sure it wasn’t using standard ammunition…but the moment was, indeed, brief, and she knew that this gun was going to be doing a lot more than her usual weapon of choice.

A few seconds after leaving the truck behind, the Field Agents arrived at an unguarded side door. “Talon, you and Corona throw in a few smoke grenades,” Reaver instructed, “and one tear-gas grenade. Get in, clear the area using NLTs (non-lethal takedowns) and signal for us when you’re finished. Got it?”

“What about Beretta?” Saturn whispered.

“She’s already in position. Talon, Corona---”

The quiet hiss of smoke grenades going off inside the building signaled that the two Agents had already started on their objective. Within a few short seconds, they emerged; “It’s clear,” Talon declared. Reaver nodded his approval. “Now, then, Titanium, I---”

He stopped, staring in disbelief at the patch of ground where Vicki had been standing mere seconds earlier.


Sorry, Reaver…but I have my own mission outline to follow.

Even as she sped away from the side door in record time, Vicki knew she was going into a fight that could turn against her in the blink of an eye. The palm phone built into her glove (she’d declined having it installed in her actual hand, for safety reasons) was linked directly to the earpieces of the Man in Grey and Beretta, allowing her to form a somewhat different mission plan than the one Reaver had envisioned.

“I’m away from the group,” she informed the two, holding her hand close to her face. “You?”

“Already where I need to be,” Beretta replied. “Aaberg’s got a lot of nice toys down here…I think one of them was in McMire’s private collection last year.”

“The south entrance is cleared,” the Man’s voice rasped in V.I.C.I.’s other ear. “Most of them refused to give up quietly…they’ve got scars, but they’ll live---and I suggest you hurry, otherwise they may be found, and that could put an end to all our dealings here.”

“On it. Hold your positions and wait for my call.” Even as she turned off the handphone (or more accurately, replaced the glove with one that didn’t have the flexible-screened phone built in), V.I.C.I. knew that her actions were going against every rule in the Field Agent handbook…and against everything she’d learned from Ted and countless others about teamwork and doing the right thing. Running off on some vendetta against an arms dealer and a hacker, just because they both had a hand in Sharon’s death, was stupid.

So why don’t I feel like the biggest idiot in the world right now?

The thought had barely passed through her processors before V.I.C.I. found her answer: Even if her approach to the matter was…unorthodox, this was, in fact, the right thing to do. Aaberg was a hitman as well as an arms merchant, and Hannsen had a death grip on the prison system that would never allow him to pay for his sins.

Both of them would soon learn the error of their ways.

A few feet from her current position, the brunette gynoid spotted what, at first glance, looked like a long piece of wood wrapped in oily rags…which wouldn’t have been all that important, except for the fact that it was sitting on top of a crate marked up with pictures of what looked like baseballs with spray pumps sticking out of the tops. Even with the simple pictograph giving her a good idea of what the object was, V.I.C.I. chose to run a scan on it anyways---using her newly-acquired CombatScan optical upgrades, just to be sure.

Scanning object….please wait. Scanning…scanning…scanning… Object ID confirmed: L-5 Federal Gas Riot Gun. Commencing chemical scan… Weapon is: Unloaded.

V.I.C.I. tore the rags off of the riot gun and flung them to the ground, hefting the weapon with her free hand as she did so. The gun was old---Aaberg probably stole it from a prison arsenal at some point, she reasoned, making a mental note to go through Aaberg’s records to see if he had, in fact, stolen the weapon. Despite its age, the riot gun still worked; none of the parts seized up or jammed when V.I.C.I. pressed the trigger (silently thanking whoever left the weapon unattended for unloading it), and a quick check of the barrel proved that it wasn’t clogged with mud, gunk, dead rodents or anything else that could’ve rendered it useless. Rounding out the gynoid’s find was the discovery of gas grenades in the crate below the gun. All the better for me to make a distraction with.

After putting her scanners in Passive mode, V.I.C.I. scanned a nearby building, ready to cause a veritable riot if she had to.

A few short seconds later…she found her target.

Thirty feet from her current position, a fifth-floor window of what had once been either an assembly line area or something remarkably close to it gave the Field Agent a perfect chance to put her newly acquired riot gun to use. Even better, her scanners were picking up armed guards inside---the more guards, the higher the chance one of them runs off to tell Björn what happened. She hefted the riot gun, aiming down the sights as her ocular scanners kicked on…

Potential Aggressors: 14. All subjects human, Caucasian descent, ages 22-45. Two (2) males armed with: Ithaca Model 37 shotguns One (1) male armed with: Mossberg 500 Cruiser shotgun Five (5) males armed with: Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns One (1) male armed with: Steyr AUG assault rifle One (1) female armed with: Fabrique Nationale FN2000 assault rifle Two (2) females armed with: Ingram MAC-10 submachine guns One (1) male armed with: Fabrique Nationale P90 assault rifle One (1) male armed with: M-79 grenade launcher

V.I.C.I. arched an eyebrow at the readout; the fact that one of the guards had a grenade launcher of his own was more than a little disconcerting…for a minute or so. Steadying her aim, she leveled the riot gun at the window, her expression blank---I’ll have time enough for the wisecracks and smirks once I’m done here. She squeezed the trigger…

….and, as expected, mass panic ensued within the building.

None of the fourteen guards inside were even able to see the red streak zoom across the grounds towards the building, just as they missed that same streak fly through the shattered window and into their midst. The first of them---the men armed with the Ithaca 37s, certainly felt the newcomer’s arrival before they saw her; both were grabbed around the shoulders, headbutted and sent to the ground in a heap. Next up was the idiot with the Steyr AUG, who chose to blind-fire at the nearest shape in the fog and wound up grazing the shoulder of a comrade.

Just as the mistake registered in his mind, a gloved fist and the butt of a riot gun smashed into his forehead in rapid succession, knocking him cold.

The MP5-toting group had chosen to stick together, using the “back to back” option seen in far too many old Westerns to count. In their mind, the tactic made it impossible for any intruder to pick them apart and/or jump them from any angle.

All five of them had obviously neglected to consider attacks from above in their equations.

Once the light fixture that sent the gunmen to the floor was summarily shot to pieces, the five quickly tried to regroup---except two of them had been hurled across the room by an unseen foe. The gunner who realized that fact soon followed his fellow thugs, courtesy of a myogel-powered hip toss that sent him flying into a stack of empty crates. As per the tradition of grouped enemies losing their composure, the last two MP5 gunners split up, with one being introduced to the floor soon after by way of a leg sweep/armbar takedown; seconds later, the last of the MP5 gunners was quietly choked out, lapsing into unconsciousness as he sank to his knees.

Seven down…...seven to go.

The Mossberg-toting guard had decided to don a pair of goggles equipped with thermal imaging opticals, which would’ve made it easy for him to spot the attacker…except for the fact that he still had his six comrades in arms to deal with. The fact that one of the others had grazed him with the Steyr AUG didn’t help…

…of course, the riot gun butt to the forehead didn’t do him any favors, either.

Neither of the MAC-10 guards were all too keen on staying put---right after the Mossberg guard fell to the floor, the two ran for the nearest exit and began swearing in Spanish for someone to open the door. The guard armed with the FN-2000, meanwhile, was steadily losing her composure---every corner she turned warranted a burst of fire from the rifle, which added up to a full clip wasted in less than 30 seconds. Even worse, the crate holding spare clips was on the other side of the room. Even as she broke into a run to retrieve the ammo, the guard saw her P90-toting comrade get taken out by something hitting him in the knees. A very brief thought of helping the guy out passed through her mind…and left just as quickly, thanks to a spinning backfist that nailed her in the solar plexus, followed by a knee to the head.

Both MAC-10 guards were completely panicking by now, screaming their heads off and shooting the ceiling for no apparent reason other than to hopefully hit whatever was attacking them. The only other guard left in the room had chosen to yell at the pair in between their sporadic shooting---which did no good for any of them, and served only to give their attacker the perfect opportunity to zero in on the M-70 guard and knock him out.

Shortly after that, several crates on the far side of the room exploded.

The MAC-10 wielding girls screamed, turning to run for the door; their hands had just grasped the door handles when something pulled both of them back, flinging them to the floor. The two girls (twins, coincidentally) stared up at the red-and-black clad figure looming over them…

“Where is Björn Aaberg?”

Instantly, the girls started jabbering in a mixture of Spanish and English, trying to say that they were just there for the weekend, and they didn’t know the owner, and several other pithy excuses that they’d used to get out of prison sentences before then---

“WHERE IS HE?”

Something about that voice---cold, flat, almost robotic---sent the girls into a tearful, half-incomprehensible rant about Björn treating them like crap, and how they had to drop out of college; even though every word was true, they were still stalling for time, trying to figure out a way to---

“Tell me where he is NOW…or you’ll both die.”

At this, the twins finally gave up. One of them explained that Björn was on the far side of the complex, going over the last few details for the night’s proceedings; the other added that Björn’s personal cadre of assassins had been spotted on the grounds, looking to make short work of any would-be interlopers before they could wreck the sale. Both girls concluded their explanation with a final plea, delivered in Spanish and English, for their attacker to spare them, and to please let them go back home so they could turn their lives around---

“Get up. NOW.”

The girls stood, their eyes watering from the smoke (and the lingering tear gas).

“Tell Björn everything you saw here,” the emotionless voice ordered. “Tell him that this is the last arms deal he’ll ever conduct. Tell him that his flunkies were only spared because they don’t deserve to die in the service of such a fundamentally flawed man…”

A brunette girl stepped out of the smoke. “…and tell him that I’m coming for him.”

With a great deal of nodding, jabbering and weeping expressions of gratitude, the twins fled through the busted window, using a fire-escape ladder to descend to the ground just as the fire-suppression system kicked on. A light mist of chemicals doused the flames around the room, leaving the unconscious guards out of harm’s way.

None of them saw a red streak burst through the locked exit doors, moving towards the heart of the complex…

ALPA Field Agent Briefing Center - San Jose, California - August 23, 2011, 10:05 PM

“So what’s on your mind now, Oberon?”

Harriet’s question didn’t so much jolt the ALPA Chairman out of his self-induced funk as it did prod him enough to wake him up. He gave the Aavyl Robotics representative a lazy stare from behind his mirrored sunglasses, his eyelids already drooping.

“I know this is hard for you to deal with,” she continued, “and I just want to---”

“You want to know what’s on my mind, right now?” Oberon muttered. “Everything. Celeste hiding out in the Sunshine State, tending to her treasured knight…a team of Field Agents stumbling around in the dark, trying to put an end to an arms deal that may not even begin…and a girl who saw her roommate die, storming the castle of one madman to destroy another…” He chuckled mirthlessly. “That, Miss Brindle, is what’s on my mind right now….that, and this bloody kriegspiel game against Harrington.”

“You’re playing chess at a time like this?”

“Don’t see why not. Mirrors the situation quite well…play the right way, and you can have an opponent at your mercy for the entire game. Play the wrong way, and you’ll be stepping on your own toes all the way until the bitter end. This one’s even better, ‘cos I have no idea where his pieces are on the board…you can have a look, if you want.” Oberon gestured for Harriet to glance at the monitor of his MacBook; “Sascha’s moderating,” he added. “I once tried to bet on a chess match between her and Big Blue, y’know…IBM was willing to back the entire thing, until I told them that Sascha had beaten seventeen grandmasters. They got a case of cold feet after that…probably ‘cos they knew they’d lose.”

“That’s…understandable,” Harriet reasoned. “I’m still trying to work out---”

“Why Harrington and I have such a cordial relationship?” Oberon finished. “Simple. The Coalition aren’t the bad guys, in any real sense of the word…it’s just a matter of difference of opinion. We see things one way, they see things another way…and we manage not to kick the crap out of each other because of it.”

Harriet frowned. “Too bad the rest of the world doesn’t work that way…”

“They wouldn’t want to get to ‘that way’ the same way we did,” Oberon warned her. “After ’83, the ALPA and the Coalition nearly had---no, we did have a Cold War of our own. The rest of the decade was nothing but a massive falling out between the two superpowers of robotics around the world: the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency and the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity. We actually spent just under seven years fighting each other, trying to establish supremacy…”

He didn’t finish the sentence…and, as Harriet knew, he didn’t need to.

“We learned our lesson in the end,” the chairman murmured. “All of us did….and those who didn’t learned it the hard way in ’93, at the Expo…” He pulled his sunglasses off, shaking his head. “’Building Tomorrow Visionaries’,” he scoffed. “Such a daft, stupid name…”

Had it not been for the fact that Brandon had returned from the event, Harriet would’ve had no clue what Oberon meant. Instead, she stood by silently, remembering her father’s rather skewed recollection of the Expo in comparison to what she’d learned about it after joining Aavyl. While the mass media cited a gas leak under the building, the truth was far more disturbing: before a presentation that would’ve revealed their true nature to a worldwide television audience, seventy-five androids and gynoids, all of whom had been modified with BTV issue upgrades, self-destructed in the central pavilion of the Expo---killing all 60 members of BTV, and severely injuring numerous bystanders.

Two decades later, the matter was still unresolved.

“Funny how everyone associates red rings with video-game consoles failing,” Oberon deadpanned, “yet we know that term to mean something far more sinister…the Expo was nearly classified as a red ring event, and for five months, we debated over whether or not it fit the bill.” He glanced up at Harriet; “You know why the ALPA fears the term ‘red ring’, don’t you?” he asked.

“If intel can be proven,” the crimson-haired manager replied, “it means that an event has caused all androids and gynoids in a given area to cease functioning according to factory-default parameters.”

Oberon nodded wearily. “Hollywood gave it another name,” he muttered. “They called it SkyNET, gave it an army of Arnold Schwarzeneggers and nukes, turned humanity into a ragtag bunch of resistance fighters led by a guy who looked different every movie…except SkyNET can’t exist. Not in this lifetime, at the very least…we made damn sure of that after the Bloody Valentine.” He breathed out a sigh that mingled sadness with a tinge of something bordering on guilt. “Did they ever tell you, over at Aavyl Robotics, about Celeste’s daughter?” he asked quietly.

Harriet arched an eyebrow. “You’re bringing that up now…why?”

“I had a theory,” Oberon stated, as if Harriet hadn’t spoken, “that if a machine could be raised by decent, kind people and taught that humanity had the potential for great good, even in the face of unspeakable evil, then that machine could learn to appreciate, accept and even assist humanity in becoming better as a species. It took me years to find a volunteer family that wasn’t screwed up in some way…and when I did, I gave them a machine---a gynoid---that would learn from them and understand why humanity was worth saving. I gave them Celeste’s daughter.” He smiled wistfully at the memory; “I had other reasons, of course,” he admitted, “the biggest of them being that Celeste had only gone and pissed off a good number of people by speaking out against the inclusion of androids and gynoids in Ollie North’s Iran-Contra deals…”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Figured that…and you’ve probably also heard that my little experiment with Celeste’s daughter was a total success. Except, of course, for Celeste briefly going through one of her insane patches and trying to have me killed for ‘corrupting the innocence’ of her daughter, and all that rot…she probably had a bit of the Festering Hate in her---the Apple //gs virus, not actual festering hate, ‘cos the House was still using a lot of Apple-based OS code at the time…ANYWAY, it was a rather trying time for all around.”

Harriet stared at him. “You just said SkyNET could never exist,” she mused, “and yet---”

“Celeste tried to have me killed. See, the thing is, I forgot---stupidly forgot, if we’re being honest---about the whole ‘maternal instinct’ factor…but I’m going off on a tangent again. Fact is, Celeste was a liability back then because of her desire to reclaim her daughter from the ALPA…and as of right now, she’s a liability for having lied to us about Alicia’s previous relationship with one Matthew Emmerich Hannsen…a.k.a. the Maestro---and don’t start with me about how lies of omission are ‘half-lies’, or any of that bollocks, either.”

“I….wasn’t going to say anything.”

"Good---because I'm already tired of talking about it....and now I can't think of anything else to talk about for the next few minutes, which is just bloody annoying..." He turned his chair to glance out the window; "How much do you know about Castle Walls, Harriet?" he asked.

"I know it's a codename, and not any single place."

Oberon chuckled as he nodded. "Good...very good. They've taught you well, over at Aavyl...Castle Walls is, indeed, a codename. Any time the ALPA needs to prepare for something massive, one specific location, as chosen by the Chairman and President, is picked as their stronghold. For the duration of the event, that location is henceforth known as Castle Walls---fittingly, a few of them have actually been castles---and it becomes the home-away-from-home of the ALPA central command structure until the crisis has passed."

"And you're mentioning this....why?"

"There's a very good chance that this Hannsen/Aaberg thing is going to spiral out of control---farther so than it already has, at least. If either of them---or, God forbid, both of them---decide to go completely off the rails with this, then we may have to call in a Castle Walls alert before anyone up on the hill gives the okay to scramble the tanks, jets and troops..."

Harriet stared at the ceiling, trying not to meet Oberon's stare. "Who do we know 'up on the hill' who has that kind of pull?" she quietly asked.

"Too many people," Oberon muttered. "Most of them hear the word 'robot', they automatically think 'Roomba', and they all need to be kneecapped for it." He gave a small grin; "At least people like you know what the hell you're doing," he added. "Aavyl's always been moving in the right direction, but with you at the helm, it's even better off now than it was in the past decade. You're a beacon of hope for all ALPA-based CEOs, Harriet...and if we could get a few more like you, we might just stand a chance of not having everything we know and love pissed on in favor of 'imminent domain' or whatever bollocks they can come up with....and I'm ranting again, aren't I?"

"A little bit," Harriet admitted.

"Figures...this whole bloody thing's got my blood pressure at an absolute boil. I feel like ringing Sascha up and asking her for some of that tea....it'd do wonders for my nerves, to be honest. So, Harriet....now that you know a bit more about this great dirty world of ours---"

"If you're trying to scare me here," Harriet chided, "it won't work. I'm sticking with the ALPA until this situation is resolved....and even after it's done, I'll still be here."

Oberon rose from his seat, crossing around the desk to clap Harriet across the shoulders. "And that, my dear, is why Aavyl Cybernetics is going to be the crown jewel of the unaffiliated corporations," he declared. "Fair warning, though...if you do decide, when this is all over, that casting your lot with the ALPA is worth it...you're going to have a pretty big target on your head. Your own company may have to endure things that you'd never wish on your worst enemies....and no, I'm not still trying to scare you."

"Good. I don't scare easily."

"If you did, you wouldn't be anywhere near the power structure of Aavyl....and now I really wish I had some of that tea, because I need a bloody drink." The ALPA Chairman glanced at the door, already feeling tired. "The girl with the drinks cart will be passing 'round soon," he mused. "Want anything? I could go for a nice Earl Grey myself...though a few of my colleagues would probably prefer a good lager."

Harriet shrugged. "Just as long as it doesn't have caffeine in it, I'll be fine."

"Understandable. Caffeine this late at night....you'll be lucky to get three hours of sleep." Oberon stifled a yawn as he spoke; "...and that's my cue to remember that we've been waffling about for the past hour and a half," he murmured. "I can't think straight without getting at least eight hours of rest a night..."

"I know the feeling....and I guess we'll continue this discussion tomorrow?"

"We will indeed." Oberon took Harriet's hand in his own and gave it the lightest kiss (a "habit" born of his gentleman's manners) before holding the door for her. "Sleep well tonight," he advised, "because I have a feeling we won't be getting much rest for a while...starting tomorrow." Even as she looked away, Harriet knew he was right. "You sleep well too, Oberon..." The door closed quietly, leaving the weary ALPA chairman to his thoughts.

I wish I could, Harriet...I really wish I could.

Abandoned Hannsen Electronics factory – Birmingham, United Kingdom – August 26, 2011

"Aw, hell...."

Billy Jean felt the makings of a migraine coming on as he observed the twins (he could never remember their names; all he knew was that one of them spoke English and the other spoke only Spanish) running away from one of the auxiliary support buildings. He'd just left the "showroom" where Aaberg's gun sale was to be taking place, and his original plans revolved around getting back to the bunkhouse, watching TV and drinking Jim Beam until he passed out.

The arrival of the twins pretty much shot that plan to Hell.

"All right, all right," he called out, raising his arms to get the twins to slow down (and not run him over in their mad dash to the gate), "what the hell's the problem now..." His words were buried in a torrent of panicked English/Spanish mixed in with sobs, profanities and an overall air of confusion. "ONE AT A TIME, DAMNIT!" he ordered. "Start again---AND IN ENGLISH."

Within a few seconds, the twins managed to relay the story of what had happened inside the building---a girl (apparently college-age) had somehow jumped straight up from the ground level to reach---and subsequently break through---a window, after firing a few gas grenades through it. This same girl then proceeded to beat the crap out of everyone in the area, disarming them and knocking them senseless. She apparently chose to spare the twins because she wanted Björn to know she was coming for him...and that nothing would stand in her way.

Or something along those lines.

Even as he nodded and went through the usual "Yeah, okay, uh-huh" responses, Billy Jean realized that this wasn't exactly a run-of-the-mill intruder alert situation. This girl, whoever she was, had effectively taken down an entire room of guards with....what, her bare hands and a few gas grenades? Even Rosanna wasn't that good...and she had Spetznaz training! Any lingering thoughts of an all-night kegger quickly vanished from Billy's line of thinking as he considered the possibilities. "Did this....ah, girl, have any...tags on her?" he asked. "Name tags, badges, patches on her uniform....was she wearing a uniform?" He gave the twins a look; "You did see if she was wearing a uniform, right? I mean---"

His inquiry was drowned out, once again, by the girls' screaming incoherently.

The hell with this... Before either of them could start wailing again, Billy lashed out with a vicious backhand that sent both twins to the ground.

"Now SHUT UP and listen," he ordered, sounding equal measures tired and pissed off. "I'm callin' Björn and tellin' him exactly what you two just told me---SHUT UP!" He reared back to hit the twins again before they could launch into another cacophonous drone of screaming. "I'm callin' him right now, and if he wants to deal with it, than that's his business. You two, meanwhile, need to get ya'll selves to the bunkhouse and get to bed. I'm not gonna sit here all night and listen to a bunch of bullroar about some random-ass girl breakin' a random-ass window."

Even as they left, the twins were still sobbing quietly to themselves; first thing tomorrow, Billy silently vowed, I'm cleaning out the tequila bottles in the bunkhouse. The way those two throw 'em back, who knows what they saw..... With an annoyed grunt, he retrieved his cellphone from his pocket. Time to call the bossman---

He had just enough time to hear the shot before he saw it hit the ground three feet away from him.

"JESUS H. CHRIST!" The Stetson-wearing hitman fell over his own two feet trying to scramble away from where the bullet had hit the ground, already dreading the worst. A girl breaking into the old assembly line building was one thing, but getting shot at---

Another shot blasted the smartphone out of his hand mere seconds after he'd pulled it from his pocket.

Slowly, anger began to drown out his fear. This wasn't the first time he'd found himself under the scope of a sniper---wasn't even the second or third time, to be honest---but it was still an infuriating experience, to know that he was at the mercy of some assclown with a Dragunov, a Remington or any other scoped rifle specially designed for pinpoint long distance shooting.

Usually, this sort of thing ended badly for the poor sod in the crosshairs.....

...mainly because the poor sod in the crosshairs rarely (if ever) had an ace up their sleeve.

Even now, in one of the more boring stretches of his career, Billy kept up the tradition of carrying more than one sidearm---most of which came from his own collection. Tonight, one of those very same guns would be pulling his bacon out of the fire: a scoped AMT Hardballer Longslide, dubbed the "Killer 7" due to its uncanny resemblance to the pistol of the same name from Resident Evil 4. By itself, the Hardballer was a pretty good piece of hardware, having seen Billy through a decade and a half of insane jobs...but tonight, with the aid of that beautiful, blessed piece of gear known as a scope, Billy Jean was going to show whoever the hell was sniping at him why such an action was a bad idea.

A quick glance at the ground (and his ruined smartphone) reminded the cowboy to find cover before he pulled the pistol from its holster; he wasn't about to lose the Hardballer this early in the fight. He very nearly shouted a taunt, which would've riled his attacker something fierce---but the memory of more than a few past jobs going wrong for that exact reason (among others) convinced him to stay silent.

Besides, why shoot off his mouth when he could let the Hardballer speak for him?

Contrary to popular belief, the scoped pistol was nowhere near as useless against a sniper as some might've believed. In the right hands, it could easily work wonders against any target---even one wielding an anti-tank launcher. When used by an expert shootist, a scoped handgun was as deadly as any rifle...as Billy would soon---

"HELP! SOMEBODY HELP ME!"

The Stetson-wearing gunslinger frowned, glancing around to make sure he wasn't hearing things. It hadn't been the first time a random female voice cried out for assistance on Aaberg's property---he'd gone through a "phase" of bringing in mail-order brides under the premise of letting his underlings marry them, only to put them through a grueling auction block that drew plenty of comparisons (all of them negative) to the pre-Civil War slave trade---and most of the staff had long since learned that ignorance was bliss in situations such as this...but there was something different about this one.

"Damnit, Billy," the cowboy muttered angrily, "why'd you have to grow a conscience now?!"

Even as he headed in the direction of the cry, Billy knew he hadn't just "grown a conscience"...one of the few things he'd never been able to tolerate, in anyone, was abuse towards women. That deciding factor had been his raison d'etre for shooting his own father in the back....which, in turn, put him on the path to joining Aaberg's crew and spend the rest of his life running from the law. His reverie would've gone uninterrupted, had it not been for another distinctly feminine scream for help.

With a semi-annoyed grunt, Billy holstered his pistol. The sniper would have to wait.

A few seconds' worth of walking brought him to the source of the cries---a locked dumpster outside of the ammo storage room. His frown turned to a genuine scowl; even by Aaberg's standards, locking someone in a dumpster was cruel and unusual...even worse than putting the poor girl on the auction block.

Steeling himself, Billy rapped his knuckles against the dumpster. "You still breathin' in there?"

A quiet whimper of "help" was the only reply he received.

"Just gimme a minute, I'll get ya out." Billy drew the Hardballer from his shoulder holster and prepared to shoot the lock off of the dumpster; even if Björn had a reason for locking the girl (whoever she was) inside, that didn't mean jack squat to Billy. "Get back from the lid if ya can...I'm gonna shoot the lock off this sonovabitch."

"Get me out of heeere...."

A brief flashback---a stifled cry for help from the freezer in the basement, after one particularly heinous fight between Mom and Dad---hit Billy like a crowbar to the gut. "I'll get ya out," he declared. "Just gimme a second here..." The thought occurred to him at that moment that the whole thing could be one of Björn's stupid tests, a sick game meant to prove how "hard" he was....and if being "hard" meant a willingness to let a woman die from oxygen deprivation in a squalid dumpster, then Billy Jean would rather be dead.

He squeezed the trigger of the Hardballer, his face expressionless as the lock shattered....

...only to lapse into something near panic when he didn't hear the girl in the dumpster.

"Damnit, damnit, damnit...." The gunslinger wasted no time in throwing the lid open, staring in shock at the figure inside---a twenty-something girl, clad in a loose, stained t-shirt and cotton briefs...and nothing else.

He barely had any time to react to the sight before something smashed into his skull.


Reaver stared at the fallen gunslinger with equal measures disdain and curiosity. Yes, he'd effectively used a teammate as a lure to exploit Billy Jean's "soft spot" for women in peril...but the playbook had already been thrown out, ever since Vicki pulled her disappearing act, so playing by the rules wasn't exactly a viable choice anymore.

That, and he wasn't in the mood to deal with rules and regulations.

"You okay in there, Wyvern?" he called out, keeping one foot planted on Billy’s back as he spoke.

"Fine, thanks," the gynoid drawled. "Just give me my uniform back....this t-shirt smells like something died in it." She wrinkled her nose as she peeled off the shirt; "You did remember to stow my uniform like I told you to, right?" she asked.

With an annoyed sigh, Reaver handed over a shrink-wrapped packet. "Let me guess....you put it in the wrong barrel?"

"It was labeled as 'non-potable water'," Reaver spat, "and it turned out to be a barrel of hydrochloric acid! I told Johnny to find another damn barrel, but he didn't listen....." He shook his head angrily. "We need to get to a safe spot," he muttered, "otherwise Aaberg's troops are going to find us and kick the crap out of us. They were running marching drills on the other side of the compound before we got out here, blaring some kind of crappy military music for 'motivating the troops'...." Wyvern rolled her eyes as she ripped open the shrink-wrapping to extricate her spare uniform from it. "Makes sense, considering Aaberg's rumored heritage---supposedly, he's got a swastika or two in the family tree, on his father's side. I hear his granddad was a Barbie fan---'Barbie' as in Klaus Barbie, not plastic Barbie."

"Let's save the ideological discussions for later," Reaver intoned. "The others should be on their way---"

"Now?" Johnny Dash's cheerful inquiry nearly prompted a backhand from Reaver. "DO NOT SNEAK UP ON ME WHEN I HAVE A LOADED SIDEARM!" the Field Agent roared, "I COULD'VE SHOT YOU POINT BLANK IN THE FACE!"

"Could've," Johnny admitted, "but didn't---"

The Malaysian gynoid interjected before the two could start getting too rough. "Now, boys, we've got a mission to complete, remember? Vicki may not have gone full AWOL, but as of right now, she's not a part of the vital mission structure...at least, unless she does something spectacular in the next few minutes."

"She'd better not do anything too 'spectacular'," Reaver groaned. "As it is, we barely have enough people for a line abreast or a defensive diamond formation across this stupid complex...and NO, Saturn, we are NOT going column. Column formation is weaker than aluminum foil, and we'll get picked off in seconds." He glanced at his watch, muttering profanities under his breath; "We have just enough time to get back to the truck and get our spare gear," he added, "and no extra time for tactical reviews or any of that---WHAT, SATURN?!"

"Why the hell are you going on about formations?" Johnny drawled. "And do we really need to stick with the callsigns, or---"

"WE ARE STICKING WITH THE CALLSIGNS TO KEEP RADIO FREQUENCIES CLEAR OF POTENTIALLY DAMAGING INFORMATION," Reaver shouted, grabbing Johnny by the collar of his uniform. "And as for the formations," he growled, "if we don't move in a tight, streamlined formation, we open ourselves up to enemy fire from ALL SIDES. Do you or do you not understand?"

After a few seconds' pause, Johnny extricated himself from Reaver's grip. "I get the picture."

"Really?" Reaver shot back. "I'm not exactly sure about that....especially considering the fact that you flunked out of Field Agent Training twice before you finally made the cut---"

Wyvern waited a second too long to say "WAIT!", which made no difference in the end---Johnny's right cross knocked Reaver to the ground all too quickly. Before he could even offer an explanation (or do anything else), Reaver punched the dirt and rose to his feet. "GIVE ME YOUR BADGE. NOW," he ordered. "AND your sidearm---you're dismissed---"

For the second time in a row, Wyvern's hesitation allowed Johnny to strike; this time, he tackled Reaver to the ground, elbowing him in the stomach for a full minute before the gynoid pulled him off. None of them said a word, though Reaver spent a good three minutes coughing (and occasionally hocking bloody loogies) due to the elbows he'd just endured. Johnny eventually broke the silence with a question: "Did they tell you?"

A few sputtered coughs punctuated Reaver's own question: "Tell me....what?!"

"Why I flunked out twice....and why nobody talks about it anymore." Despite the calmness of his expression, there was an edge to Johnny's voice that unnerved Sarina (though she never would've said it out loud, even she was getting tired of the callsigns) as he spoke. "First year, I was at the head of the class---they said I'd be the best on the force once I'd finished all the tests....and then I get a phone call that night, telling me my dad rolled his car on the way back home, that he might not make it through the night. I rush back home, fearing the worst, and I find out that Dad's okay---he just wanted to 'borrow a few bucks' off me. We get in a fight, I break his jaw, and I spend a night in the drunk tank....come time for Field Agent final exams, I make it back late, the assclown at the front door won't let me in....and I miss the finals."

Sarina stared at the ground, already dreading what she'd hear next.

"So, a year passes, I enroll in the course again, and it comes time for finals---lo and behold, I get another call about Dad, but this time I don't even listen. I hang up, I spend all night cramming for the test, and I get to the exam building extra early for it...except Mom, Kelly, Greg and the rest of the family are parked outside, looking pissed off as all hell and asking me why I wasn't at my own father's bedside when he breathed his last." He gave a mirthless chuckle; "Turns out the old man really did roll his car last time," he added, "he was just too scared to tell me about it....and this time, well....he'd done a bit more than roll it---veered through three lanes of traffic and plowed straight into the middle of a bus. 15 people killed...and Dad joined them three hours later."

"You don't have to tell him the rest of it," Sarina whispered. "He---"

"Greg comes up to me," Johnny continued, ignoring the gynoid, "calls me a shithead and a waste of space, says I never did anything good with my life, and I tell him to go home and do whatever the hell he does with that former porn star of a girlfriend he has. Kelly tells me to leave him alone---and I just snap. I start screaming at everyone in earshot, and as soon as I feel a hand on my shoulder, I turn around, throw a punch----and then nobody's saying anything..."

"Johnny," Sarina warned, "don't---"

A half-sob cut off her plea. "I look behind me.....and...and I see Mom, on the ground....and there's this red stain on the pavement, beneath her head..." Johnny wiped something off of his face as he stared into Reaver's eyes. "DuBraul told me that Mom had called him in advance, to say that she was bringing everyone over to congratulate me for finishing my exams---she thought I was about to join the LAPD---and that if Dad hadn't had his crash.....well, you get the idea." Again, he gave a mirthless chuckle; "When I showed up to retake the course that second year," he muttered, "I told myself that nothing was going to get in the way of me finishing the final exam. Turns out, something did...staying at the assisted living facility with Mom, to make up for the fact that I basically gave her brain damage with that one stupid fucking punch...."

Reaver wiped a trail of blood off of his jaw. "That.....that was you?!"

"Yep. The dumbass recruit who nearly killed his own mom over a stupid argument was, in fact, me. DuBraul managed to quell enough of the details to keep anyone from hating my guts the third time around; he even put a spin on it to say that it was a female recruit....but that didn't exactly make it easier for me." He retrieved his badge from his pocket; "You still want this?" he asked.

Sarina turned away, dreading the answer----

"Keep it. We need every Agent on this team right now...even the ones who're off doing their own thing. And you can ditch the callsigns...." Reaver removed his own badge from his uniform, shaking his head. "As soon as I find Hannsen," he muttered, "I am going to punt-kick this thing into his forehead."

"Yeah, well," Johnny began, "I think we'd all like---" A burst of red erupted from his shoulder, prompting a shriek of pain. Reaver nearly threw him to the ground; "Get behind cover," he ordered Sarina, "and do not let him bleed out---I'll cover you from here. NO QUESTIONS, just GO!" He didn't bother waiting for the gynoid to comply before drawing his sidearm; even as she hefted Johnny to his feet and half-carried him towards a nearby shed, Eric was trading gunfire with unseen snipers and guards emerging from other buildings in the compound. The thought occurred to her, briefly, to just ignore Reaver's request and run back out to help him take on the guards...

And this is why nobody will ever understand the burden sentient androids face, she realized. Just because we can choose not to follow orders and directions...it doesn't always mean that we will. She muttered a curse under her breath, slinging Johnny's arm around her shoulder again and helping him towards the exit.

Out in the main yard, meanwhile....Reaver was beginning to feel a sense of foreboding.

He'd seen this exact sort of situation before, mostly during his days in the FBI----and it never ended well for the lone officer at the mercy of however many rooftop shooters there were.

They're not even shooting to wound, either, he realized. They want me to shoot back. They want me to waste ammo...or give up. Bastards....

Just as soon as the shooting had started, Eric threw down his gun. "I SURRENDER! I'M UNARMED---"

A bullet tore through his left knee, sending him to the ground in a heap.

Damn, damn, damn...

"Agent...Reaves, I believe?" Björn Aaberg's voice sounded cordial, almost friendly....as if the whole fact that Eric had just been shot was a non-issue. "How good of you to join us here, on this auspicious occasion...do not bother reaching for your badge, I already know who you are. Your...charade with the catering truck was an impressive endeavour...a bit juvenile, to be honest, but impressive....though your timing leaves something to be desired." He casually strolled over to the downed Field Agent, arching an eyebrow as he beheld the unconscious form of Billy Jean; "I see you have met my head of security," he quipped.

"Save the bullshit for someone who cares," Eric spat. "You know why I'm here." He nearly said "why we're here," but even if Björn knew about the other Agents, there was no sense risking their exposure so soon.

Aaberg sighed. "Yes, I know all about your...encounter with Mister Hannsen back in Singapore...rest assured that I had nothing to do with his appearance there, by the way. In any case, I understand your frustration with him---"

"Then call off your sharpshooters and let me kill the bastard," Eric growled.

His remark prompted an arched eyebrow from Björn; "Under different circumstances," the arms dealer casually admitted, "I might be tempted to simply let you continue on your mission to eliminate Mister Hannsen....but at the moment, he is under contract to me. As such, allowing you to complete this mission of yours would be counter-productive---"

"WHO GIVES A SHIT?! Hannsen killed someone with a gun YOU sold him---ILLEGALLY---and if he goes down for this, I guaran-DAMN-tee that you’ll go down in flames with him!"

Björn's semi-bland smile faded into a genuine scowl. "I do not respond well to threats, Agent Reaves...from you or any other 'authority figure'. Mister Hannsen will continue performing the services outlined in his contract until I see fit to give him leave...and as for you, Agent Reaves..." His scowl faded into a smirk as several armed guards approached, their weapons trained on the downed Field Agent. "As for you, we shall let Billy Jean handle you when he regains consciousness." To the guards, he offered only a nod: "Handle it."

Two of the guards hoisted Eric up by the armpits as the other two kept their weapons trained on him. “You’re making a big mistake here, Aaberg!” he shouted. “You work with scum like Hannsen, and you’ll get dragged down with him, too!”

"I am afraid that you are wrong, Agent Reaves," Björn coldly replied. “The only mistake that has been made here thus far is yours…and that any fellow agents of yours within this complex shall pay dearly---with their lives, if need be---for your own failure.” He turned on his heel, leaving Reaver alone with the guards (and the still-recovering Billy Jean). “Should you survive whatever they decide to enact upon you,” he called out, “take care that our paths should not cross again…if they do, you will not live to regret it.”

The hell with that…. Eric didn’t bother trying not to snarl as Aaberg walked away; if he truly wanted to make a scene, there was always the throwing knife hidden in his boot---which, if he chose, could easily have taken the arms dealer down a few pegs. Then again, such an action would’ve justified Aaberg’s claims even more…and would’ve given him all the reasons he needed to have every other Field Agent inside the compound shot on sight if they were spotted. As if he needs another freaking excuse… Even as the guards half-carried him to whatever homebrew torture chamber Aaberg had set up, he made no move to go for the knife, or to stop one particular thug from taking his sidearm and other gear. Going the Rambo route wouldn't help him, or anyone else....

Vicki, wherever the hell you are…I sincerely hope you’ve got a good plan.

A few feet away, three other guards were rousing Billy Jean from his unconscious state; not surprisingly, he looked more than a bit pissed off---especially when one of them gestured at Eric and muttered something.

Something tells me this is going to be a long, long night…..

Across the compound, Eric’s hope that V.I.C.I. had a good plan were confirmed---in a remarkably different way than he ever could’ve expected.

For starters, she was wreaking absolute havoc on Björn Aaberg‘s would-be “inventory”.

Her earlier jaunt against the group of guards armed with everything from AKs to FN-2000 assault rifles had given the brunette gynoid a few more extra weapons---chief among them an FN-2000, fully-loaded, an MP5 (and two spare clips of ammo), and the M79 grenade launcher. The next few rooms in the building held more guards, mostly armed with pistols---which gave her more ammo for the Beretta Auto-9.

All the more for me to wreck Aaberg’s shop with.

The room before her was---well, had been a fully-stocked inventory of weapons meant for the “sale“ that night, most of which were assault rifles, submachine guns, machine pistols and a few “heavy weapons”. Had it not been for the ALPA, every single weapon in the room would‘ve been sold off to the highest bidder---many of whom would’ve then gone on to infamy in the headlines, CNN breaking news reports and investigations that, inevitably, would only end with nobody being able to trace the original seller of the weapons.

With the aid of a certain brunette gynoid, however…

The M79 proved invaluable to the Field Agent, thanks to the fact that its original wielder had been carrying more than enough spare ammo to level the entire storage room. V.I.C.I. had no trouble lining up complicated bank shots with the grenade launcher, allowing herself a smirk as the tables full of weaponry went up in flames with every shot. Thanks to someone’s incomprehensible decision to store ammunition for each weapon underneath their spots on the table, V.I.C.I.’s job was made that much easier.

At least, it would be…as soon as she started firing.

For reasons that eluded her at the moment, the gynoid Field Agent hadn‘t actually fired a single round out of the M79. Maybe it was one of those moments of not wanting to get blown to Hell, or maybe she just didn‘t feel like pulling an Ahnuld at the moment…

…but then she remembered Matthew Hannsen.

Matthew Hannsen, the bastard who had shot Sharon Wilson point blank in the head with a Colt Python in an effort to goad V.I.C.I. into some stupid fight, then ran off when she just stood there, shocked…the sociopath who had kidnapped three individuals from a hospital in Greece, killed one and possibly held the other two as his “bargaining chips” for whatever pathetic reason he could think of….Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, aka the Maestro, aka the nut job who had loosed the Stylo virus upon the world.

Suddenly, taking out the weapons storage room with the M79 made a lot more sense.

Sharon wasn’t the first he’d killed, either, she reminded herself. How many lives has he ruined by this point---even without the Stylo virus? The answer to that question wouldn’t come from just standing around and speculating…but then again, it wasn’t about answering a bunch of questions or making Hannsen pay for a bunch of random killings from the past. As much as she hated to admit it, V.I.C.I. knew that this was nothing short of a vendetta---and that her fight with Hannsen was, to put it simply, personal.

So what the hell are you waiting for, Lawson?

With all doubts about her task finally diminished, the brunette gynoid loaded a round into the M79. Yes, she was about to embark upon a course of action that some would consider too extreme…and even as the nearly infinite number of “but in times like these” excuses filed through her mind, she ignored them all.

This was not the time for excuses….this was the time for---

“And you‘re sure the door was locked when you last checked?”

V.I.C.I. dove under the nearest table, her finger hovering over the trigger of the FN2000. Out of all the times for Aaberg to send in a security team, it had to be now… Even with her upgrades, facing armed opponents without knowing how many there were (or what, if anything, they were armed with) probably wouldn’t go too well in her favor; most types of synthetic skin (V.I.C.I.’s included) could resist anything from high-caliber BB guns to long-range small-arms fire and even shotgun blasts, but anything within the range of assault rifles and machine guns was liable to cause irreparable damage. Worse, certain “experimental” weapons, like so-called microwave lasers and anything running an EMP, didn’t have to puncture the skin to cause damage.

Knowing Hannsen, every two-bit guard in this facility is carrying an EMP blaster…

Even as the thought crossed her mind, V.I.C.I.’s sensors kicked in to inform her that none of her as-yet unseen aggressors were carrying any EMP-based weaponry. There were only three of them---two males and a female---and all of them were human...though, oddly enough, the lone female of the group was outfitted with bionic replacements for both arms below the elbow and both legs below the knee...and both eyes.

“Doors do not open by themselves…it was locked, last time I was here. J4CK13 can check.”

The woman with the artificial eyes stepped forward, unspooling something from one of her prosthetic arms; okay, V.I.C.I. mused, that‘s new. She watched, silently, as the woman plugged a cable from her limb into a USB port on a nearby laptop. “How long is this gonna take?” one of the male voices drawled. “All of this inventory should’ve been moved out of here fifty minutes ago; if it’s not on the showroom floor soon, Aaberg’s going to have a coronary.”

“I know what I’m doing,” the woman replied, her voice tinged with a European accent that V.I.C.I. couldn’t quite place. “And quit with the ‘J4CK13’ crap, I have a name---”

“J4CK13 is your name for now,” the second male voice---this one bearing a noticeable Russian accent---shot back. “As long as you work for Aaberg, your real name means nothing. You owe him your life…and part of your debt is accepting your designation. When he decides that you may return to your real name, then---”

“And when will that be?! How long do I have to pretend to be one of his stupid dolls?!”

The non-Russian male voice sighed. “Speaking of ‘stupid dolls’, 131.95, 286.23, 650.39 and 527.35 are unaccounted for…409.46, 571.74, 139.24, 290.51, 647.56, 303.78 and Z873.47 have all been prepped for the auction tonight, and I have a feeling that Aaberg’s going to be more pissed off than usual if we can’t get those last four ready for the auction block.” The sound of a page being torn from a notebook filled V.I.C.I.’s auditory sensors; “These were the last locations the four missing units were seen in,” the man continued, “so comb them thoroughly and make sure you look for any possible traces of them. If we can get them deactivated before the auction starts, we may have a snowball’s chance in Hell---”

“You don’t get to talk about Hell,” Jackie muttered. “Hell is having one eye gouged out with a Pepsi bottle and the other…” She stared at the floor. “I have seen what Hell is, and I know that a worthless snake like you would never survive it.”

The reply Jackie received was unimpressed---and too unintelligible for V.I.C.I. to detect. “Enough talk,” the Russian interjected. “832 and 112 were recovered near the riser in the main showroom last night---neither of them are fit for auction. Same with 839 and 361---they were hiding out in the E/C wing during the power outage, trying to recharge…839 was too damaged to repair, but 361 was intact. 832 and 112 need major repairs, and 839 has been sent to the Shop; as for 361.…she will be made presentable and put up for sale with the rest---including Lola.” A pause served to punctuate the sentence; “Comrade Aaberg will not do ‘package deal’,” the Russian added.

"Figures," the other man scoffed. "Guy doesn't know a good idea when he sees it."

"These are not toys, Mr. Delmaire," the Russian coldly replied. “We do not sell them by the case, like your G.I. Joe action figures…they are sold to those who can pay; those who cannot pay will not get them.”

Delmaire snorted derisively. “The people who want to buy them will probably disagree with you on that.”

“It does not matter,” the Russian growled. “The deal is, one sale at a time. They want more than one, they can bid on more than one and hope to win. Simple as that.”

Only Jackie‘s intervention kept the argument from going any further, thus sparing the brunette gynoid from having to hear Delmaire and the Russian from trading verbal barbs. “If Aaberg wants the droids found, then you two can find someone else to handle it. I have enough to deal with in here…the weapons need to be sorted for the showroom floor, and I know you two will want to watch Billy Jean torture our newest prisoner.” Without another word, she turned her back on the two men and set to work unloading a crate of Colt Commando rifles.

Delmaire stepped forward to aide her only to be stopped by the Russian who said, simply, “Her job.”

After an incomparably tense three minutes, the two men finally left the room, leaving Jackie to her appointed task…

…and V.I.C.I. with a brand new set of problems to solve.

On the one hand, she could easily take out Jackie, destroy the weapons room and make her grand escape, but on the other hand, there was the small matter of the “units” still on the loose inside the compound---not to mention a prisoner being tortured. More than likely, the prisoner was one of her own allies---a possibility that brought a fresh pang of guilt for having left them in the lurch near the entrance of the compound. And, of course, the androids/gynoids that were still on the loose needed to be rescued….as did those who were already prepped and waiting for the auction block. First thing‘s first…Silently, V.I.C.I. approached Jackie (who looked to be of possibly Ukranian descent) and grabbed her lightly by the shoulders, with just enough immobilizing DG v5.5 energy to keep her from going for a weapon. “Don‘t talk,” she ordered, switching back to her human voice. “Just listen. The androids your friend mentioned---”

“Delmaire is not my friend,” Jackie sobbed. “He….is part of the reason I am like this…”

“I‘m guessing he‘s the one who took your other eye, then?” Vicki quietly replied. Even as Jackie gasped, the brunette gynoid continued; “I heard the entire conversation, and allow me to spare you the trouble of trying to figure out who I am---I’m an ALPA Field Agent, and I was sent here to find and apprehend Matthew Emmerich Hannsen---” She nearly recoiled as Jackie’s body quaked with sobs. “I….guess you’ve got a history with him, then,” she muttered. “It doesn‘t matter,” Jackie whispered. “You want to find the missing robots….I can help you find them.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “And I should believe you---”

“You should believe me because Björn Aaberg has put me through Hell, and I want to make him pay for it.”

Fair enough…

“Okay, so where exactly do I find them, and how can I get all of them---and the ones already prepped for the auction block---out of here without garnering any unwanted attention from Aaberg’s flunkies?”

Jackie handed over a Post-It® sized piece of paper, with two columns of two-letter notations on it. “Each of these is one of the abandoned areas of the factory,” she explained, “that nobody goes to anymore. The left column represents the building designation, the right column represents the room designation. The four robots still on the loose are hiding in each building, in the rooms marked in the right column.” She paused, glancing at Vicki with something resembling hope in her eyes; “When you find them,” she added, “could you…”

“I know a few people who specialize in removing illegal mod chips from cybernetic components,” the brunette gynoid replied. “If Aaberg‘s put a chip in you to keep you on the leash, they can take it out with minimal fuss.”

After a few seconds of silence, the two parted ways---but Jackie had one more bit of information to relay. “If you want to find the rest,” she called out, “follow the arrows.” She pushed her way through one of the self-locking doors on the far side of the room, and a hollow, metallic clang drowned out the echoes of her words.

There weren’t any arrow signs on the way over here, Vicki recalled, so she must be talking about something else…let’s see if my teammates can shed some light on the subject. She tapped her ALPA-issue earpiece and waited a second for the static to clear. “I’m guessing both of you caught all that,” she mused, hoping that the Man in Grey and Beretta had indeed heard everything she’d just borne witness to. “Buildings…BH, RD, RS and GD need to be searched thoroughly, and look for any arrows---scratched into walls, painted, drawn with Sharpie® pens---on walls and other stuff. We need to get those other androids and gynoids out of here.”

“Understood,” the Man in Grey rasped. “And what about the prisoner?”

Scrap…I nearly forgot! “Beretta, think you can handle it?”

“If any of Björn’s people see me, they’ll kill me on sight. I’ll look for the arrows and reclaim the androids meant for the auction.”

“Fair enough.” And thus, my catchphrase of the day is born. “Just remember to keep the collateral damage to a minimum, otherwise we’ll be paying property damage for the rest of our lives.” Even as she said the words, Vicki almost had to laugh at the thought of being worried about property damage. “If we can pull this off and get the gynoids and androids out of here, it’ll be a massive thumb in Aaberg’s eye….metaphorically speaking, of course.”


“Indeed it will,” the Man agreed. “We’ll rendezvous with you in the main courtyard when we’ve found all of the androids…which brings to mind a rather pertinent question---”

“We’ll activate them after this is over with,” Vicki cut in. “We have enough to worry about as it is.”

The Man nodded sagely, more out of habit than anything else. “Just get to the main showroom and stop that sale,” he advised, “otherwise Aaberg’s ‘loyal clientele’ will be armed to the teeth by the time we’re finished…” He paused, already feeling a sense of dread at the words he was about to speak. “Also…Reaver has been captured by Aaberg’s men. Saturn took a bullet to the shoulder, but Wyvern’s unharmed…the rest of the Field Agents are still in hiding. Should we---”

“Focus on the task at hand. Find the androids and get them to the courtyard, then help the others.”

A rasping, hoarse sigh escaped the Man‘s lips. “I will.”

“Good. Kylie---or Corona, or whatever her stupid call-sign is---already knows my plan, so if you run into her, just give her the Cliff Notes version and she’ll get the picture. As for Saturn…have Wyvern bring him to the truck and patch him up. We don’t need any walking wounded here.”

Had the circumstances been different, the Man would’ve berated Vicki for her callousness, or even demanded an apology from her…but the brunette gynoid had a point. Every member of the team was either an asset or a liability by now, and if Saturn’s shoulder wound wasn’t treated… “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied. “In the meantime, Beretta will be in position to locate the prepped androids and intercept them before they can reach the showroom…”

An idea---brilliant in its simplicity---sprang forth from his mind. “Unless…”

“No.”

“If we can get the others to help search for the androids,” Beretta interjected, “it‘ll make our job easier---and put more skin in the game. Aaberg‘s got his men crawling all over this compound, and with them occupied trying to keep our people from getting to the androids, it’ll give us more time to---”

“To what, Beretta?!”

The gunslinger rolled her eyes. “To prepare a plan of attack that won’t end with every single one of us getting shot in the face,” she replied. “Getting the other Field Agents in on this will give everyone space to do what they need to do. If they’re off doing their own thing while we’re doing our thing, the only end result is going to be a completely uncoordinated group that has no clue what the hell is going on---and that’s not going to help when we get to Aaberg.”

Silence.

“Beretta has a point,” the Man in Grey added. “We…need to work with them, instead of trying to function as an independent squad. You have to understand, Titanium…this is more than just a mission of revenge…”

After what felt like an eternity, Vicki finally replied: “You send them the information I’ve sent you, and you tell them to get every android they can find out of here and into the truck in one hour…and to get the hell out of here after that.”

“Understood.”

“And one more thing….” The Man in Grey could almost hear the smile in the brunette gynoid’s voice as she spoke: “Call me Vicki.”

“Will do.” The Man closed the comm-link, chuckling despite himself.

“Ah, hate to break up your introspection,” Beretta murmured, “but I think we won‘t have a problem with the whole ‘follow the arrows‘ thing…” She gestured at a table next to her; “Looks like one of Aaberg's clients has a thing for bow hunting,” she informed her gray-clad comrade. . “That, or they just really like laying out bows and arrows on tables to stare at…which sounded as stupid in my head as it did just now.”

“This part of the compound isn‘t as widely used as the rest,” the Man noted. “The androids may have been able to set this up themselves before being deactivated…” He followed the makeshift trail laid out on the various tables, stopping only when he reached a series of locker-like constructs set up at the opposite end of the room. “Aaberg disabled the locks,” he intoned. “Probably for quick transportation between these pods and the showroom…”

“Well, let‘s not keep them waiting,” Beretta replied. “I‘ll open these three---you take the rest.” She opened the door to the nearest pod; “These clothes come standard?” she inquired. “This one’s kitted out in a $50 hooded sweatshirt, designer jeans and a pair of Nikes that haven’t even hit the stores yet…I’m starting to think that Aaberg’s not just limiting himself to contracts and gun sales.” Her comments went unnoticed by the Man in Grey. “These were educational units,” he muttered, scowling behind his mask. “Teachers, both of them…”

“Now's not the time,” Beretta reminded him. “We have a job to do....” The Man gave her a withering glare, but nodded silently. “The other two are domestics,” he muttered, “with ALPA papers...Aaberg truly has no shame.” Carefully, he unhooked the gynoids from the interior of the pods, taking great care not to damage the connector ports on their backs. “Vicki would want them activated,” he mused, “but....in the best interests of our own security---”

“Leave them powered down, I know.” Beretta nodded.

The Man nodded. “We can reactivate them at the nearest ALPA base. For now....we get them out of here and move them to the truck.”

It took a little under a minute for the two of them to get all seven of the fully-prepped units---four gynoids and three androids---disconnected from the pods, but their efforts paid off with the quiet hiss of the last connector retreating into its outlet within the final pod.

“That’s the last of them,” Beretta stated. “I’ll go fire up the truck, and---what?” The unblinking stare (at least, she thought it was an unblinking stare) she received from the Man in Grey perturbed her to no end; “We’ve removed all the androids and gynoids from the storage pods, so what’s wrong now?!”

“There are more.”

Even as Beretta realized what those three words meant, the Man was moving one of the empty stasis pods aside. “Aaberg purchased this compound three years ago,” he continued, “after it had been leased to Faber Konzern…they retrofitted the buildings with modular storage---carving out new chambers beneath the existing buildings, reinforcing them and using their own pod-based android storage system to hold them below ground until shipping time…” He stared at the newly-revealed patch of metallic flooring; “There could be dozens more,” he whispered, his voice on the verge of cracking. “Hundreds, even, right below our feet…”

“And Vicki was just worried about getting eleven androids out of here,” Beretta muttered.

“Call the others,” the Man ordered, the rasp in his voice doing little (if anything) to hamper the commanding tone. “Corona, Talon and Hummingbird need to handle this---now.” His gaze never left the metal floorplate below the pod; “We may need another truck,” he added quietly. “Too many down there to load into just the one…”

Beretta turned away, going for her earpiece and finding the frequency for the other three Field Agents.


Björn Aaberg was restless.

Within the "main showroom" of the compound, the hitman/arms dealer was feeling ill at ease; the incident with Billy Jean had already gone pear-shaped, and communications with the android storage building (informally known as the “greenhouse”, due to the pods used for holding the androids looking like something out of a hydroponics facility) had been lost due to unknown circumstances. Furthermore, there was the matter of the prisoner Vasilly and Gunnar were guarding….

….no matter which way he looked at it, Björn felt that something was about to go catastrophically wrong.

Even worse (as if the situation wasn‘t already a powder keg), Matthew Hannsen‘s presence at the compound was attracting the sort of unwanted attention that would easily wreck the entire sale. There were enough problems with his own staff---namely Jackie---to worry about….

Still, things could be a lot worse.

Other than the androids, every last item in the inventory had been accounted-for, down to the last bullet. The customers were arriving, and many were eagerly anticipating the purchase of whatever their favorite death-dealing device happened to be at the moment

Björn Aaberg was not about to disappoint them.

After shrugging on the shoulder holster that held his Swiss-made Sphinx 3000 pistol, Aaberg grabbed his best silk blazer from the nearby coatrack, pulling it on with gentle tugs so as not to wrinkle the fabric. He smiled as he looked himself over in the mirror; even after all of the losses he’d endured so far, the night was still young, and the top prize---Lola---was still in storage. If all went according to plan, the sale would be as big a success as the last few---if not bigger.

With one final word---“Showtime”----Björn left his “dressing room”, ready to greet his loyal customers.

Out on the showroom floor, the rabble had already begun to peruse a few of the weapons that had been set up in display cases earlier that day. Like any good salesman, Björn had set up most of the display cases to intersect various lines of sight from the entrances to the showroom; no matter which door one entered from, one would invariably notice something that looked promising…and then Brendt would show up to give them the specs, the sales pitch, and---if all went well---a receipt.

In her five years working for Björn Aaberg, she‘d never lost a sale.

She never used her full name---Willhemina Strauheim Brendt---anymore, ever since a former coworker had taken to calling her “Willie” for the hell of it, which earned him a broken nose. She also never told any of her new colleagues that she’d been augmented, much like Jake Brightstar---except her implants were less about issuing WiFi commands and more about beating the ever-loving crap out of anyone who crossed her path. A set of titanium-reinforced artificial vertebrae, myogel-powered titanium-carbon joints in every limb she could get them in (her toes, fingers, ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders…even her neck), combat-tested Kevlar biweave membranes sewn into the skin of her chest, back and forehead (to make kill shots even more difficult for her enemies)….she was, essentially, the definition of a human being turned into a killing machine.

Considering what she‘d gone through to gain all of these “upgrades”….it was definitely worth it.

Snippets of conversations in Russian, Farsi, Hungarian, German and countless other languages drifted in and out of her hearing range as she worked the showroom, giving a seductive smile whenever necessary. She wasn‘t particularly voluptuous, though she did fit the bill for what many writers had referred to as “leggy”---her Marine-quality workout helped with that. Lithe, with “homegrown” curves that rivaled those of any gynoid on the market, and with a smile that could melt men’s hearts…and empty their wallets (with their consent): Brendt was, without a doubt, the most valuable member of Björn Aaberg’s team at the moment.

Which made sense, seeing as how the others were either working guard duty or…doing other things.

Even as she moved through the room and convinced the various buyers to drop massive cash on weaponry that would more than likely be used to execute them in a year‘s time, however, Brendt failed to notice one particular “guest” who wasn’t the least bit interested in the wares. Every few seconds, she glimpsed a faint figure---a female, brunette probably between the ages of 20-30---on the fringes of one group or another, only to lose track of the entity as soon as she was distracted. She dismissed all thoughts of a potential shoplifter, seeing as how the last idiot who’d tried to steal from Aaberg had been dumped at the nearest hospital, with his hands showing up at the same building the following day in an ice chest….

….so what was it about this one girl that was giving her a world-class case of the heebies?

After showing a potential buyer how to correctly work the safety on a Sig Sauer P220 Sport, Brendt headed over in the general direction of the brunette girl, hoping to at least find out why she was there. If she was an actual customer, just browsing the merch, things would go on as usual---no harm, no foul. If, on the other hand…

“Are you going to say it, or am I?”

It took a full minute for Brendt to realize that the girl was talking to her. “If you‘re asking about the M202A2,” she calmly replied, gesturing to the missile launcher in a nearby case, “I‘ll be happy to give you the specs, even a price---”

“Not what I had in mind. I meant, are you going to tell me to drop the gun I‘m holding?” Something about the girl‘s voice hit a nerve with Brendt…almost as if she was daring her to say it. “We don‘t prohibit customers from carrying their own weapons on the showroom floor,” she replied, “but we do ask that they leave the safety on---”

“Even if I intend to use this gun to kill your boss?”

Brendt‘s smile vanished. “If that was meant to be a joke---”

“Oh, no joke,” the girl replied, glancing over her shoulder. “I came here to kill Björn Aaberg---or at least give him a few new holes in his head. It’s what he deserves, after all…especially for harboring a gutless piece of scum like Matthew Emmerich Hannsen.”

None of the would-be buyers near them heard the exchange, prompting Brendt to grab the girl by the arm. “I‘d watch your mouth, if I were you,” she hissed, “seeing as how most of these people here wouldn‘t hesitate to put a bullet between your pretty little eyes for a comment like that. And as for Hannsen---” She stopped, noticing that the girl wasn‘t flinching away…or even moving. Something about the whole situation was seriously wrong….

“I didn‘t come here to deal with ‘most of these people‘,” the girl quietly replied, “so as long as they stay out of my way, I‘ll stay out of theirs. Your boss, on the other hand…he‘s the one who deserves a bullet between the eyes---as if you don‘t already know that. And as for Hannsen….”

She turned, facing Brendt for the first time…

…and the ex-Marine nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw that the girl‘s eyes were glowing.

“As for Matthew Emmerich Hannsen,” the girl continued, "I intend to see him dragged to the nearest prison before the end of the night...and if you've got any brains in that head of yours, you won't try to stop me." She smirked as her glance fell upon Brendt's holstered sidearm; "That won't be enough, by the way," she added, "if you're thinking of going for it. You'll graze me in the arm, maybe, or just piss off a whole room full of 'clients', but it won't do anything to stop me. My advice....just stay out of my way."

Brendt let go of her arm, but didn't move back. "You must have a death-wish," she snarled. "Walking into this building, threatening to kill Björn Aaberg...you really think anyone here is going to let you get away with any of that?"

"Actually," the girl replied, "I never really wanted to kill him....but if he gets in my way, I will."

As the brunette walked off, disappearing into the crowd of soon-to-be buyers, Brendt felt that she'd made a huge mistake in letting the girl go. Maybe it was something about the fact that she’d just threatened to off Aaberg if he “got in her way”, or maybe it was something else…like the glowing eyes, maybe?!

Even as Brendt tried to figure out what it was about the girl that made letting her go such a bad idea, the girl in question was making her way to the far end of the room, all too glad to be away from the older woman‘s prying eyes. I think it was Jamie who told me “Talk tough enough, and you‘ll never be afraid again”, Vicki reflected, glancing back to see Brendt whispering to a few security guards. I don’t think the “never be afraid again” part is going to matter in this case, though…I had a point that I needed to make, and I made it…

Her tough talk to Brendt had been exactly that---talk. She never intended to kill Aaberg, even if he did try to keep her from getting to Hannsen, though she would’ve liked to give the bastard a black eye---metaphorically or literally, if the need arose---if at all possible. Still, she wasn’t there for the arms dealer…

…she was there to catch the man who‘d killed her roommate in cold blood.

At the moment, she was standing near the back of the room, pretending to enjoy the champagne that some random servant (Aaberg had insisted on bringing his hired help to provide for potential customers) had just handed her. She‘d never been asked for proof of her identity, an invitation, or anything that would identify her as a potential provocatrix…which in and of itself was suspicious, considering the fact that Reaver had only gone and gotten himself captured earlier in the day.

Still…she wasn‘t going to leave without ruining Aaberg‘s big moment…

The man himself emerged from a balcony on the far side of the “showroom”, smiling down at all the “valued clientelle” there to buy guns, get loaded on expensive booze and potentially end up in compromising positions with the waitresses after the whole thing was over. For someone who’d just had an entire potential product line get swept out from under his feet (Vicki suspected he’d already found out about the missing androids), Björn wasn’t the least bit perturbed---if anything, he looked almost serene as the strains of “First We Take Manhattan” (that song again?!) filled the room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out, “I have no doubt that you are ready to begin bidding on the night’s inventory….but due to several unforeseen developments, we shall begin with what was initially meant to be the last of the merchandise.” He nodded to someone out of Vicki’s line of sight, and five pallettes’ worth of crates were wheeled into the room.

“Two M202A2 missile launchers,” Björn called out, “fully operational, cleaned and prepared to storm a fortress within a day’s time.” He smiled again, hamming it up for the loyal buyers; “Surely, one of you would be proud to own such glorious devices?” he offered, spreading his arms. “If not…I have clients on the phone---”

Almost immediately, the bidders surged forward, just as Brendt called out the starting price of $105,000. More than a few swear words penetrated the cacophony, but at least seven bidders stood their ground for three whole minutes, with the final two nearly resorting to fisticuffs before Björn picked one (completely at random) to give the launchers to. “A valuable purchase indeed, sir,” he declared as the lucky bidder ordered his adjutants to retrieve the weapons. “Next up, are the assault rifles….”

Vicki could‘ve easily let the auction continue in this fashion all night long, picking her spot until the clients had all gone home and Björn was completely vulnerable…but such a move was completely stupid. Instead, as the unwashed masses (literally, in this case---some of them hadn’t bathed since they left their native lands) tried to shout over each other for the chance to own a crate of XM29 OICWs (which Björn had apparently boosted from a crashed Royal Army supply convoy earlier in the year), the brunette gynoid slipped out through the back entrance of the showroom, unseen by the visibly-intoxicated security guards.

Considering what she was about to do, it was all the better for her that their judgement was impaired.

Because of his desire for complete and total control over the showroom, Björn had ignored the advice of his chief of security and installed at least three more balconies, so that he could potentially enter from whichever he chose on any given day. This setup also gave his security forces the perfect vantage point for looking out over the entire showroom floor…though it gave Vicki an equally perfect vantage point.

She’d decided early on that carrying a full suite of guns with her wouldn’t exactly be the best tactical approach to the job, and had decided to get Sarina to air-drop a few of them into the compound. Fortunately for her, the building Hannsen chose to use as his “showroom” had at least five skylights in the roof, allowing Sarina to perfectly drop the XM-8 and the CX-4 Storm in through one particularly inviting hole. The weapons were undamaged, fully-loaded, and wrapped in waterproof neoprene “skins” that made it impossible for them to be clogged up with anything that usually ruined guns on field ops. As the crate of OICWs was delivered to its new owner by the still-frazzled Brendt, Vicki checked the sights of her rifles---both of which were aligned.

With the XM-8 cradled in her grip, she took aim….

Down on the showroom floor, Björn smiled as the next shipment of weapons was brought out. “For those of you who consider yourselves pistoleros,” he called out, “we have an assortment of handguns. Browning Hi-Powers, Desert Eagles, M1911 Colts, Tokarevs…any and all pistols you could ever want or need---”

From across the room, gunfire raked the floor.

Aaberg‘s smile faded, a second or two before screams rang out from several of his loyal clients. Brendt had already drawn her pistol, aiming at the other three balconies to spot the shooter---only to reel as one of the guards took a shot to the knee and collapsed. “We’ve been compromised,” she hissed. “Get to the---”

“Do I have everyone‘s attention?”

Björn stared, confused, as Brendt‘s lips peeled back in a snarl. “Her…” Without waiting for her employer to give her the word, she fired into the other three balconies at random; every shot was accompanied by a shouted profanity, adding to the growing cacophony of noise from the showroom floor as customers began panicking. “Brendt,” Aaberg whispered, “calm yourself…this is nothing to be concerned about. The guards will capture this provocateur within minutes---”

The word “and” had barely formed on his lips before Brendt’s pistol was shot out of her hand.

“Everyone here who isn‘t Björn Aaberg is free to leave,” a female voice declared from the tannoy---the same female voice, in fact, that had spoken earlier. “As for Mr. Aaberg…I have a few questions I need answered, and until you tell me what I need to know, you‘re not going anywhere.”

“You do not have the power to give that order,” Björn called out. “My guards will find you, and---”

“Actually, forget what I said earlier---none of you are leaving until Björn answers my questions.”

Just as the last of the “clients” in the showroom realized what this meant, a hollow, heavy clang drowned out the residual echoes of the feminine voice. “The security doors,” Brendt moaned. “The bitch just locked us in here!”

“Björn Aaberg is harboring a known fugitive,” the voice continued. “Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, also known as the Maestro, is hiding in this compound. Recently, Hannsen killed a close friend of mine---using a Colt Python sold to him by Björn Aaberg, he shot her point blank in the back of the head. She had no means by which to defend herself, and had been confined to a cage for an indeterminate amount of time before being murdered…hence, Hannsen shot her in cold blood, and is now seeking refuge with Björn Aaberg.”

Brendt turned to glance at Aaberg. “You never said Hannsen had killed anyone!” she hissed.

“It was none of your concern,” Björn quietly replied. “Mister Hannsen and I have a mutual arrangement, and the ‘bitch’ you alluded to earlier will do nothing to change that. We shall evacuate the customers, find this intruder and carry on the sale tomorrow night---”

The cold steel of a Beretta 93R Auto 9 pressed against the side of his head. “You sure about that?”

Every single “client” and “customer” on the showroom floor stared, horrified, as a 20-something girl, clad in red and black, emerged from the shadows behind Aaberg. “You probably have no idea who I am,” she informed him, “but…we’ve actually met before. I’ll spare you the details, because they’re irrelevant---what I want to know is, where is Matthew Emmerich Hannsen?” She thumbed off the safety of the Auto 9, her expression blank.

“I…I do not have to tell you anything---”

Something slammed into his leg, and he could feel the bones begin to fracture. “Where is he?”

“You touch him again,” Brendt snarled, “and---” A bullet pierced the ground at her feet; “Tell me where Hannsen is,” the girl repeated, “right now….or she dies.” She held her gun to Aaberg’s temple, her expression as emotionless as her voice. “Tell me where I can find Hannsen,” she ordered, “or I’ll shoot her where she doesn’t have a Kevlar biweave in her skin…and then I’ll shoot you in the exact same place where I’m going to shoot her, and I have a feeling it’ll be even more painful for you.”

“He‘s in the southern-most building of the compound,” Björn replied. “The door security code is---”

“Don‘t need it,” the girl replied, not lowering her weapon. “How many guards?”

Björn squeezed his eyes shut. “He…he does not trust any of my people…”

At this, the girl grinned. “Good to know.” She lowered her weapon…and in the blink of an eye, grabbed Björn by the collar and---as a horrified Brendt watched---hurled him over the balcony, directly into a stack of crates marked “S-GUN”. The crowd, predictably, panicked, surging towards anything they perceived to be an exit as the girl with the Auto 9 turned her attention towards Brendt.

“So….what are we going to do now?”

Either it was the way she said the question, the wording she chose, or something about the almost calm tone of her voice as she spoke the words---but whatever it was, those eight simple words scared the ever-loving crap out of Brendt. “You….you just threw him….over the balcony,” she gasped. “I….how…..who the hell are you?!”

“Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson,” the girl calmly replied, turning to glance at Brendt. “My friends call me Vicki.”

The nonchalant remark was the proverbial back-breaking straw---even with a gun pointed at her, Brendt felt like ripping the bitch limb from limb. “Your friends are about to call you dead,” she growled, lunging forward to grab Vicki‘s gun from her hand---

---and getting a face-full of bear Mace in the process.

“Funny,” Vicki mused, “all the procedures you underwent to keep your vital organs protected…yet you never thought that someone would have the common sense to target something just as vulnerable---your eyes.” She stepped back just in time to avoid being clocked across the forehead by Brendt’s flailing arms; “I’d get to an eyewash station as soon as possible, if I were you,” she advised. “The capsaicin levels in that Mace are just a bit more potent than the stuff you can buy in hunting supply catalogs…”

Brendt was too busy screaming to hear the brunette gynoid‘s advice.

“Might want to watch your step,” Vicki added, “or you‘ll fall over the balcony and join your boss---” She cringed as the still-flailing Brendt staggered right into the railing, falling headfirst over it and plummeting towards the floor---or more accurately, towards two confused guards---below.

Well, that‘s the end of---

Two thunderous blasts shot through the floor on either side of Vicki, drowning out her thoughts in a shower of gunpowder and splinters. “VICTORIA ANN-SMITH LAWSON!” Björn Aaberg thundered. “A small word of advice: if you are going to hold a gun to someone’s head, pull the trigger.” He rose from the wreckage of the “S-GUN” crates, weilding a pair of burnished black steel weapons that looked like futuristic hand-held cannons of some kind. “BEHOLD,” he shouted, “the Pancor Jackhammers---the instruments OF YOUR DOOM!”

Vicki‘s scanners kicked on as soon as she heard the name “Pancor Jackhammer“, allowing her to determine that the guns were, indeed, fully-working automatic shotguns based on the designs first produced in 1987. Both were made of lightweight titanium-carbon alloys (that explains how Aaberg can pull a John Woo with them), and both held hollow-point rounds that could easily rip through a human being…or pulverize the internal components of an android or gynoid caught in their sights. Even as she calculated a path through the room that would render the Jackhammers useless, Vicki was running calculations on how to avoid getting anyone else in the building killed---

More explosions rocked the floor, as splinters flew up like some bizarre anti-rain.

“YOU WILL BE LEAVING THIS BUILDING IN PIECES, VICTORIA ANN-SMITH LAWSON!” Björn shouted, squeezing the triggers of the Jackhammers and obliterating the supports for the room’s fluorescent lights. In seconds, darkness descended upon the room, broken only by a few brief flickers from the ruined lights.

In the shadows above the showroom floor, Vicki smiled. Time to play the game….

Sporadic bursts of fire from below sent the “customers” scattering as Björn peppered the air above him with gunfire. None of his shots hit anything even close to the mark, instead splintering the balconies and tearing chunks out of the walls around him. “YOU CANNOT HIDE FROM ME FOREVER,” he screamed, pausing to load another set of ten-round magazines into each gun. “I WILL MAKE YOU SUFFER FOR THE INDIGNITY THAT YOU HAVE FORCED UPON ME---”

A bullet grazed his left ankle, drawing blood.

“That was a warning shot,” Vicki‘s voice taunted. “Next time…I‘ll aim higher.”

Infuriated, Björn opened fire again---missing his target completely. “YOU WILL BURN IN HELL, LAWSON!” he roared. “EVEN IF IT TAKES ME THE REST OF MY LIFE---”

Gunfire raked the floor in front of him. “Just keep talking, Björney…make my job that much easier.”

Finally, the arms dealer realized that discretion truly was the better part of valor---shooting out the lights had been a stupid mistake. He needed to escape---Brendt, Whistler, Blue-Eye and the rest could all take care of themselves, so they wouldn‘t be a problem. All he needed to do now was get the hell out of the compound…

…and at that moment, he knew exactly how he would escape.

The rush to the exits gave him the perfect cover to snatch a few keys from the pockets of his panicked “clients”, none of whom gave a damn about the weaponry on display anymore. If he could just get to a car and drive out, it’d be an absolute clean getaway…if he could call Etta and tell her to wait at the safe point outside of town, it would be even easier to flee. When and if he could call her and get her to bring the car around…except the notion of simply “borrowing” someone else’s car was beginning to look very appealing.

From her vantage point, Vicki watched Aaberg as he headed for the parking lot. She‘d already anticipated his decision to steal a car---considering the blow she‘d landed to his leg earlier, he wasn‘t going to be walking out of the compound….at least, he wouldn‘t be walking very far. Still, there was the slim chance that he might actually make a break for it if given the opportunity---and Vicki wasn’t about to let that happen.

At least, not without raising a bit more hell…

With a smirk, she picked up a Heckler & Koch 69A1 grenade launcher (which had been in a display case until seconds ago, when someone knocked it over in the mad dash to the exit) and fired--not at the fleeing customers, but at the other guns. Someone (probably Aaberg himself, she noted) had stupidly chosen to load each and every weapon before putting it on display, which caused them to explode spectacularly in a shower of metal, plastic and other assorted bits with every grenade lobbed their way. The end result, as Vicki had predicted, was sheer chaos---fleeing customers were running in every direction to escape the shrapnel from the destroyed guns, and many of them had resorted to fighting each other to try and reach the exit.

Not surprisingly, this put quite a damper on Björn’s progress.

The surge of people towards every available way out of the building made it virtually impossible for the arms dealer to get through without being knocked over at least three times in as many minutes. If she‘d felt like it, Vicki could‘ve easily strode through the crowd and beaten Aaberg to a pulp…but even she knew that it was taking a step too far. Thus, she sat back and watched as the masses converged, clawing and kicking and punching (and even biting) at each other just to get the hell out of the building. Had she been of the proper temperment, Vicki may have even laughed at the almost comedic display of incompetence…but she had more pressing matters to tend to.

Still….no sense in letting Aaberg get away scott-free on account of a technicality.

Looks like the game is still on, Aaberg…..

“So, ‘Agent Reaves’….how’re ya liking your accomodations?”

Billy Jean chuckled at the bound figure of his captive, already anticipating the response he‘d get. “You can be a hard-ass if you want,” he added, “but it ain‘t gonna get ya through this any faster. See, unlike some people, I tend to…take my time with what I’m doin‘. Makes it easier to appreciate every single moment….” His hand brushed against the Hardballer holstered at his hip, and a grim smile played at his lips. “Now, under ‘normal’ circumstances, you’d be getting’ a face fulla this,” he informed the bound Agent. “Seein’ as how this ain’t exactly what I’d call normal, though…” He approached a table nearby, plucking another gun from it. “Now, this here is---HEY! Look at me when I‘m talkin‘ to you!” He grabbed Reaver by the cheek; “I said look at me,” he growled.

Eric Reaves didn‘t flinch. “What the hell am I supposed to be looking at, anyway?” he deadpanned. “A drama queen in a cowboy costume---”

The butt of the Hardballer slammed into his face. “I AIN‘T NO G__DAMN QUEEN!” Billy shouted, dragging Reaves up by the shoulders. “Listen here, you son of a whore---if you EVER call me a fuckin‘ queen again, I will rip your eyeballs out and---” Someone on the other side of the room cleared their throat, prompting him to cut the threat short.

“As I was sayin‘,” he continued, a half-sarcastic, half pissed-off drawl tinging his words, “this gun---you see it? You see this thing right here, right in front of your stupid fuckin’ face?” He waved the pistol in front of Eric’s eyes, “This gun….heh, this gun is a Walther LP-53. Now, it ain’t nowhere near as powerful as a Hardballer Longslide---shit, it ain’t even as good as a Walther P99...but what it is good at is blowin’ off them stupid little body armor plates from that dumbass uniform you got on right now.” He twirled the LP-53 on his finger; “See, I have…somewhat of a talent for, shall we say, firearm modifications,” he boasted, “and this right here…well, it’s got a punch that’ll sting like a wasp every time it hits. So, Agent Reaves…”

He knealt down to look Eric right in the eye. “We’re gonna play a game of 20 Questions,” he beamed. “Every question you get right, I take one bullet out of the clip for the Hardballer. Every question you get wrong---”

Before Eric could even think to move, Billy shot him in the knee with the LP-53.

“For every question you get wrong,” the gunslinger continued, raising his voice to drown out Eric‘s pained cries, “I will shoot you with the Walther, and it will hurt like a sonovabitch. Comprende?” He grinned as Eric gave a slow nod. “Damn straight! Now, then, first question: Who sent your dumb ass here?”

“GO TO HELL!” Eric growled.

Billy Jean gave an exaggerated sigh. “Wrong answer, Holmes…”

The LP-53 fired faster than Eric could blink, putting a bullet through his left shoulder pad.

“Next question---and quit bleedin‘ on the damn carpet, that thing ain‘t easy to clean! Next question…you got any…friends out here, runnin‘ ops of their own, or is this one of those Rambo, Lone Wolf McQuade type of things?”

Eric gave his best defiant stare….then spat on Billy Jean‘s boots.

Three shots rang out, hitting the Field Agent in the right shoulder pad, the left wrist and the right earlobe---the last of which was unbelievably painful. “Those were $35,000 boots, asshole,” Billy sneered. “You get outta this alive, you will buy me a new pair…or I‘ll shoot something o‘yours that‘ll hurt a HELL of a lot more than your damn ear.” He blew out an exasperated sigh; “I‘m startin‘ to think you don’t like playing 20 Questions with me,” he mused, a mocking tone of sorrow in his words. “I may just have to switch to the Hardballer right now, if you don’t feel like talkin’ straight with me…” The thinly-veiled threat dissipated into a chuckle. “Aw, hell,” he admitted, “I’ll just get the Hardballer anyways and get this BS over with---”

“THEY‘LL FIND YOU!”

Billy stopped, turning to glance at Eric with an arched eyebrow. “And who might ‘they‘ be?” he drawled. “FBI, CIA, InterPol, Mounties? Who the hell you work for….boy?” The last word dripped with contempt; if Eric had been anything other than white (which, unbeknownst to Billy, he was---he was Japanese/Korean, at least on his mother’s side of the family), the remark would’ve constituted a full-blown racial slur.

Fortunately for Billy, the Field Agent knew better than to let such purille talk get ot him. “I work for the ALPA.”

“The hell you say?”

Even with the impact of the LP-53‘s bullets still stinging, Eric managed a sneer. “A…L…P…A, dumbass,” he spat. “Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency. Not that it means anything to a hick like you.”

“Alpa?!” Billy stared, dumbfounded, as if Eric had just calmly stated that he worked for the Gaflargle Nesbitt Institute of the Royal Flowering Cabbage. “Artificial…..what kind of hippie bullshit---”

“Don‘t play dumb,” Eric countered. “One of Aaberg‘s other flunkies is a gynoid, and you‘ve got a woman with cybernetic components---illegal cybernetic components---installed in her, so you have to have some basic knowledge of the world of robotics. Oh, and my friends got an anonymous call about that little android storage bunker you‘ve got out back…expect a couple hundred thousand dollars‘ worth of citations for it.”

At this, Billy shook his head. “I…I knew this shit was going to happen. I told Borneo, I told him that havin‘ some woman who ran on batteries would just come back to bite him in the ass, but he didn‘t listen! I told him she was gonna be trouble---”

“She runs on a Thales Micro-6 condensed fuel core,” Eric groaned, “not ‘batteries‘.”

Billy glared at him. “I don‘t know how the hell you know that,” he spat, “and I don‘t care…” The smile slowly returned to his face as he continued; “Seein‘ as how you just gave me one hell of a lecture, though, I might just put the Hardballer away for the rest of the night…” He picked up the LP-53 again. “Of course, I could keep shootin’ off your armor all night,” he continued, “and I will not hesitate to admit that I really like that option…y’know what? I think I’ll just go with that one.” His grin turned sinister as he aimed the LP-53.

“YOU WON‘T GET AWAY WITH THIS!” Reaver screamed.

“Au contraire, Agent Reaves,” Billy crooned. “I ain‘t gonna get caught if there ain‘t nobody to stop me…” He aimed the LP-53 directly at Reaves‘ groin. “Now be a good little monkey and say goodnight to your family jewels---”

A feminine scream pierced the air---from outside of the room.

Billy nearly dropped the Walther; “Damnit to hell…” he swore, “that‘s the same girl from the dumpster…” Eric almost laughed at the fact that his captor hadn‘t made the connection between “dumpster girl” and his current captive---a mistake that was about to cost him dearly. Wyvern had never “broken character” when Billy had gone to investigate the screams from the dumpster; as such, the gunslinger never had any reason to suspect that she wasn’t who (or what) she appeared to be---and the idiot was determined to “rescue” her from whatever nonexistent threat she’d managed to invent for the occasion. Still, there was the off chance that Billy might somehow get wind of what was about to happen…

….then again, considering his soft spot for women in peril, that wasn’t really likely.

“Gimme a sec…if I can just get the damn door open….” Billy fumbled with the keybad for the door, never once realizing that his precious AMT Hardballer Longslide was still laying on the table near Reaver. If Wyvern could just provide a convincing distraction…

“…and THERE---oh, my God…”

Even Reaver had to admit that Wyvern had gone the extra mile with her “distressed damsel” look---her loose t-shirt and cotton undies were now thoroughly stained with motor oil and what appeared to be blood. Billy, not surprisingly, was more than a bit perturbed; “What happened?” he asked. “Where’d you…you got out of the dumpster?”

Wyvern nodded silently. Just keep him busy, Reaver mentally ordered, don‘t let him turn around…

“There‘s someone after you, or what?” Billy inquired. “If it‘s Whistler, I‘ll go kick his ass right now---fifth time this week he‘s gone and grabbed someone off the road for no damn reason at all…” He shook his head angrily. “How in the hell does Borneo keep letting crap like this happen?” he hissed. He held the door open, moving aside to allow Wyvern entry into the room; “I‘m just finishin‘ up with something in here,” he informed her, “and--”

He heard the blood-curdling scream mere seconds before he saw that Eric had grabbed the Hardballer.

“Finish THIS!”

Two shots slammed into Billy Jean, one in each kneecap---and both hurt. In seconds, the cowboy dropped to the floor, screaming in agony as Wyvern turned tail and fled (good thinking, Reaver mentally noted. If you stay and gloat, it‘ll just blow your cover). With an arrogant smirk, the formerly-bound Field Agent (the handcuffs Billy had used to restrain him were piss-poor imports, absolutely useless for anything other than magic tricks where a quick escape from a trunk was required) rose from where he’d been kneeling, chuckling as he stood over the downed gunslinger. “Guess today just wasn’t your lucky day,” he drawled.

“You….SON OF A BITCH,” Billy gasped. “YOU SHOT ME IN THE DAMN KNEES!”

“Well,” Reaver replied, “I figured killing you quickly wouldn’t be payback enough for all of this crap…” He shot the wounded man again, this time in the thigh; “The way I see it,” he continued, “you’ve got two choices: Run after me as soon as I get out of here, bleed out and die like a moron…or get medical treatment and live to fight another day. Your call.”

Billy‘s only response was to thrash around for a bit like a wounded seal, screaming profanities all the while.

After ten seconds of listening to his former captor scream, Reaver shook his head and managed to walk out of the room without limping…though as soon as he was clear of the door, the Agent dropped to his knees with a pained hiss. “And I thought air pistols were supposed to be relatively painless,” he muttered. “Not when they‘ve been souped up like that Walther,” Wyvern mused, emerging from behind a nearby stack of crates. “Nice job with the pointless choice, by the way…think he‘ll actually try chasing after you?”

“He‘s stupid enough to think it‘ll work worth a damn,” Reaver muttered.

“Speaking of stupid,” Wyvern half-teased, “it‘d be a really stupid decision to keep walking…Billy Jean over there isn‘t the only one who needs medical attention.” She helped Reaver limp over to a bench; “There‘s a sick bay a few buildings down,” she informed him. “Once Saturn and the others finish their job---”

“And what job is that?” Reaver demanded.

Wyvern sighed. “They found another one of Hannsen‘s prisoners, guarded by two of Aaberg‘s heavies. Once they‘ve finished rescuing the guy, they‘ll meet us back here and we can get to the sick bay to get those bullets out of you.”

“Makes more sense than anything I could come up with,” Reaver admitted.

Slowly, the two headed off for any potential safe haven they could find.

Anyone hoping for a quiet drive along the streets of Dawley would‘ve been highly annoyed at Björn Aaberg---if they didn‘t want to risk his wrath, at the very least. It was bad enough that the original owner of the “borrowed“ Citroen that Aaberg had commandeered tried to beat him to death with a shoe to keep him from getting to the car (to be fair, the vehicle‘s owner had been heavily drunk at the time), but with rumors of a road block set up to check for smuggled goods (and potentially people) already circulating, Björn was not in the mood for any delays.

Even worse, the girl who‘d completely ruined his arms deal just so happened to be chasing after him.

Whereas Björn had picked a Citroen at complete random, Vicki had retrieved an ALPA-issue motorbike kitted out with enough gear to make the CIA want to reallocate their budget. Full satnav, target tracking for up to ten individual vehicles or five groups, a “stealth run” mode that muffled the engine and killed all lights on the bike for up to 20 minutes of silent running…and best of all, two MP5 submachine guns hidden away in “holsters” fitted to the frame of the bike when it was built. Vicki wasn’t using either of the weapons just yet---she’d kept the FN-2000 rifle from the compound, and was firing it (one-handed, at that) in bursts, to shred the tires on Björn’s “borrowed” ride.

Not surprisingly, the arms dealer chose to go the extra mile---figuratively and literally---to rid himself of the troublesome Field Agent.

Dawley had been chosen for the arms deal primarily because it was an out-of-the-way part of Birmingham, a town where virtually nothing happened except for the occasional chav incident and the usual rowing between geriatrics at Bingo Night. Obviously, something had changed---the presence of a police barricade was more than enough to make all potential customers of Björn’s realize that the sale was off---but even Björn himself had no clue just how screwed up things were until Agent Lawson had shown up to ruin his fun.

Time to show her what happens to those who interfere in my affairs…

As it just so happened, Dawley---being a relatively peaceful town, apart from the aforementioned chav fights and Bingo Night rowing---also had a spectacular set of roads for car chases. There were enough bends to make Jason Statham nervous, and the fact that oncoming traffic wasn‘t about to move off to one side of the road just to accommodate some psyhcotic tourist on a bender with a stolen Citroen made for some potentially harrowing near-misses. In short, if Björn so desired, he could easily use the people of Dawley against Vicki just by pulling off some of the stupidest, most dangerous driving maneuvers a human being‘s brain could possibly conceive.

Case in point---charging into the oncoming traffic lane and nearly running a caravan off the road.

Had Vicki been driving anything other than a motorbike, she may not have escaped the near-collision without scratches. Fortunately for her, the bike’s compact design (and overpowered engine) allowed her to maneuver out of the way just in time to avoid getting flattened by the out-of-control caravan in seconds. She resisted the urge to let loose with a burst of fire from the FN-2000, choosing instead to open the throttle and speed back towards Björn‘s stolen Citroen. I need to get him back to the compound….but how? Gunfire ripped through the night, snapping the gynoid out of her reverie. She needed to get Aaberg back to the compound, otherwise he was likely to ventilate some innocent motorists for some stupid, arbitrary reason (or just out of sheer malicious intent).

Right…fun time is over.

After discarding the FN-2000 (which was running out of ammo anyways), Vicki retrieved .one of the MP5s from its “holster” on the side of the bike. Aaberg was already lining up a shot that would’ve shattered the front tire of the bike when the brunette gynoid opened fire; the resulting stream of bullets ripped through the Citroen’s windshield, forcing Björn to swerve into the other lane---and narrowly avoid a pickup truck.

What happened after he avoided the truck was….unexpected.

Vicki barely noticed the silver BMW in the opposite lane at first---at least, she didn‘t see it until it flashed the hi-beams directly at Aaberg‘s Citroen. As expected in the type of situation where someone blinds you with their headlights turned up to full, the arms dealer swerved out of the way of the BMW, careening off the road into a speed bump---which sent him flying through the windshield. The car, meanwhile, continued without its driver until it smashed into a tree.

Okay, so…that just happened. Vicki parked the bike and stared at the wrecked Citroen for well over two minutes, shaking her head in disbelief---until a pained moan caught her attention. Might as well see if Aaberg‘s bought the farm or not… After killing the engine, she strode past the totaled car, switching over to her medical-grade scanners (given to her by Inspektor 12 as an “early birthday present”).

Scanning for life signs…please wait. Life signs found: Björn Lundquist Aaberg, Age 49, blood type O+ Commencing x-ray scan… Scanning… Scanning… Scanning… Scan complete. Injuries: Compound fracture of left tibia Blunt-force trauma to central rear cranial region Blunt-force trauma to lower abdominal region Minor lacerations of left and right arms WARNING: Compound fracture of left tibia could lead to infection, blood loss and potential death. Immediate medical treatement recommended.

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes at the recommendation; if I can get an ambulance out here, she mused, I might stick around to make sure they get him to hospital…

Her thoughts, once again, were interrupted---this time, by the arrival of the silver BMW. Immediately, one hand drifted to her holstered Beretta Auto-9; if the driver‘s with Aaberg, she realized, there‘s no way I‘m getting out of this without taking them down. Her thumb hovered over the safety….

The driver‘s side window cranked down. “You with Aaberg?”

Might as well be honest. “No.”

“Good.” The BMW‘s door opened, revealing a feminine figure clad in black leather from head to toe. Shirt, jacket, gloves, pants---even her cowboy boots were black leather. Her face---a heart-shaped, very nearly ethereal visage---was framed by a cascade of shoulder-length black hair. “That swine Aaberg took someone from me,” she called out. “I came out here to either get that someone back, or to make the bastard pay for taking them in the first place…” She glanced over her shoulder. “It‘s too open out here. We need to find somewhere else to talk---assuming you don‘t want to pull a coup de grâce on our mutual enemy here.” She gestured to Aaberg’s prone figure.

“I wasn‘t going to leave him out here,” Vicki protested. “I was going to call an ambulance---”

“You don‘t have to justify it,” the leather-clad woman replied. “Getting medics out here is the smart thing to do anyways---otherwise, that leg wound would fester, and he‘d end up dead before sunrise.” She tossed Vicki a cellphone; “The number for the nearest hospital is already in it,” she explained.

A few seconds later, the brunette gynoid and the BMW‘s mysterious driver were both in the BMW---heading back towards Aaberg‘s compound, strangely enough. “So what do I call you?” Vicki inquired, glancing at her newfound ally. “You look like you‘re…well, not local, at the very least---”

“Nina. My name is Nina.”

Vicki nodded, shaking hands with Nina. “Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson. My friends call me Vicki.” She flashed a brief smile to punctuate the introduction. “So,” she continued, “what exactly brings you all the way out here to Dawley? It‘s not the type of place that looks to have a rich nightlife, or anything…and I just remembered the whole thing about you wanting to rescue someone that Aaberg had taken from you.” She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling like a complete idiot. “Sorry if I seem a bit…off,” she apologized. “It‘s just---”

“Don‘t explain,” Nina interjected. “Not yet…you asked why I‘m here, and I‘ll tell you.”

Well, I did ask…. “I‘m all ears, Nina.”

Nina‘s eyes never left the road as she spoke, giving her an almost…detached look as she told her story to the brunette gynoid. “A few years ago, in Sweden,” she began, “I met someone who turned out to be the love of my life. We moved to Amsterdam, bought an apartment….everything was beautiful. Then…my love was called to active duty---RAF, I think it was. Three whole months, I was alone…and then I started getting the letters. ‘Injured in action‘, ‘missing, presumed dead‘, ‘unable to locate‘….it was like a nightmare.”

A pause… “…and then it became a nightmare.”

“Aaberg?” Vicki offered.

Her reply was met with a nod. “He told me that someone I knew owed him a debt, and that they wouldn’t be seeing me again for a long time. I knew it wasn’t anyone from my family, or any of my old friends…there could only be one logical answer. I knew who he’d taken…and I knew that I could never get her back.”

That last line took a second to register with Vicki. “Ah, her?”

“Jackie,” Nina whispered. “Her name was Jackie.”

A sudden realization hit the brunette gynoid: “Wait…you said Jackie owed Aaberg a debt, right?”

“Yes, but---”

“I think I get the whole picture now. Aaberg used his funding---and probably a lot of stolen tech---to turn Jackie into a cyborg; I ran into her back at the compound, and she actually helped me get something done that I might not have been able to pull off on my own. If we get back there in time---”

“We can save her,” Nina finished, tears welling up in her eyes. “I…I can never thank you enough…”

Vicki allowed herself a smile. “You won‘t need to.”

As the BMW neared the compound, the brunette gynoid groaned; “The security checkpoints are still up?” she muttered. “Seriously, after all the insanity that‘s gone on tonight, they still kept the stupid checkpoints up---I bet they just did that to keep the ‘loyal customers‘ from getting away with a few freebies….and why aren‘t you slowing down?” Even as the question left her lips, Vicki realized Nina‘s intent. “You‘re….going to ram the gate, with a BMW. With both of us inside of it.”

“That is the plan, yes.”

Any protest Vicki could’ve come up with died on her lips as the BMW roared up the path towards the security checkpoint, smashing through the insanely flimsy gate with almost no effort. Ironically enough, the checkpoint wasn’t even manned; the guards had deserted as soon as the shooting started inside the compound, leaving the entrance and fleeing for their lives. Not that it mattered to Vicki, of course---she was going in to find Hannsen…and make him pay.

Game on, “Maestro“…. .

Gunnar Bosson wished he was back home.

Ever since he‘d left Iceland to become a contract killer, his life had absolutely sucked. He hadn‘t seen his wife or daughter ever since his “retirement party”, which was meant to signify that he’d finally decided to stop being a killer and start….well, living. That idea had pretty much fallen to pieces with the kidnapping of his beloved Nessa, and their beautiful daughter Astrid…

…so now, here he was, eking out a meaningless life as a murderer in the employ of another murderer.

It didn‘t help that he was now guarding a prisoner---a prisoner taken by a complete stranger, at that, rather than his original employer---and was essentially forced to listen to that damned Russian, Vassily, constantly mocking the captive. Vassily, originally born in Russia but now “proudly hailing” from some part of the Ukraine far from his true place of birth, was cynical, sadistic and a fan of needlessly torturing those he’d been hired to guard. Had it not been for his “low, low asking price” (which Aaberg had refused to disclose to Gunnar upon hiring them both”, Vassily would’ve probably been arrested for criminal trespass, or worse. Instead, he was flogging the prisoner with a sock full of American quarters…because, in his words, “he felt like it”.

For the fifth time that day, Gunnar quietly wished he was somewhere else.

Vassily was rearing back with the sock, preparing to flog the prisoner somewhere that would probably hurt for the rest of his life, when the door to the room opened; Delmaire, Aaberg‘s “attorney” and the only person in Aaberg’s inner circle whom Vassilly wanted to torture more than the prisoner, strode in, accompanied by the girl (even though she had to be in her late 20s, Gunnar couldn’t help but notice her resemblance to his daughter, and thus thought of her as a “girl” rather than “woman”) known only as J4CK13. “Right,” Delmaire stated, “I’d like a word with the prisoner, in private….and then you two can keep doing whatever the hell you do around here.”

Gunnar nodded, but Vassily sneered defiantly. “And you are in charge now?” he taunted. Gunnar stared up at the ceiling, waiting for the inevitable browbeating Delmaire would hand out.

Suprisingly, the other man only chuckled. “Just go stand outside until I call for you. That‘s, outside---as in out of the building, not out of the room.” He furrowed his brows, giving his best disapproving stare; “I don‘t have all day, you know,” he added. “Aaberg‘s orders.”

Again, Gunnar nodded and headed for the door---but Vassily was determined to be a nuisance. “Says you…”

“Yes, says me,” Delmaire admitted, “and I can also ‘say’ that your paycheck needs a few deductions…”

The Russian‘s grin faded. “Fine,” he snarled. “You get ten minutes---”

“Twenty,” Delmaire corrected. “This is….important.”

With an annoyed grunt, Vassily followed Gunnar out of the room; a few seconds later, the click of the doorknob leading outside confirmed that he had, indeed, left the building. Delmaire glanced out the window to make sure that the two guards/assassins were outside…

“Well?”

Jackie‘s one-word inquiry did little to phase him. “Well,” he casually replied, “now is the part where I tell you a bunch of stuff that would‘ve gotten me killed if those two idiots hadn‘t walked out just now. For starters, I‘m not an attorney---not anymore, anyways; it‘s just a cover. My real employers, the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, have been monitoring your…shall we say, situation…for the past few months, and they’ve decided that it was high time for someone to, ah, intervene. And for the record…sorry about having to take your eye.”

Not surprisingly, Jackie was more than a bit confused.

“It‘s….a lot to take in, I know,” Delmaire admitted, “but that‘s not important right now. What is important is that when those two thugs come back in here, they‘re going to ask you to shoot that man---” He gestured to the bound captive. “---in the head.” He handed Jackie a pistol; “It‘s an Astra 400,” he explained. “Real gun, used as far back as the late 1800s. Still takes modern caliber bullets---including this one.” With a quick grin and a magician‘s flourish, the ersatz attorney pulled a bullet from his pocket. “Wax-tipped round,” he informed the bionic-enhanced operative. “I‘ll examine the ‘corpse‘ after you fire the shot, and they‘ll leave…then we both take the ‘corpse‘ out of here---”

“Why?”

The question didn‘t surprise Delmaire in the least. “Because, to be honest, he doesn‘t need to be here. He‘s a victim of a crime wave being perpetrated by Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, and that means that he‘s useless to your current employer…soon to be your ex-employer. Once this business is over with, the ALPA can get you out of this country, to a safer part of the world---”

“No.”

Delmaire looked confused. “And why would you---wait, I think I get it. The report said something about you having a lover…well, rest assured that we can get her out as soon as we extract you. One of my colleagues is looking into it as we speak.” He decided to leave out the part about his “colleague” having busted through a security checkpoint with the aid of Jackie’s lover---and a BMW. “In any case,” he concluded, “we’ll have you out of here once we finish our business with the prisoner.” Even as Jackie continued to look bewildered, the ALPA cover agent glanced at his watch. “We’ve got about five minutes left….just let me handle the two idiots, and you fire when I give the signal, okay?” His smile turned to one of reassurance; “That shot won’t hurt him at all,” he promised. “You can trust me on this.”

After what felt like an eternity, Jackie nodded.

Vassily and Gunnar entered once again after Delmaire called them---Gunnar looked like he‘d been thinking, yet again, about going AWOL, while Vassily was humming Chopin‘s “Funeral March” and giving the prisoner smirking glances.

“If everyone‘s ready,” Delmaire stated, “J4CK13 will commence with the execution of the prisoner.”

Gunnar gave a slow, tired nod; as soon as the captive was dead, he‘d be on his way to the other side of the compound, to do whatever he damn well felt like doing. Vassily, on the other hand, rolled his eyes. “It should be me shooting the prisoner,” he muttered. “Just give me the gun, J4CK13---you never were a good shot anyways, even before Aaberg had to pull you out of casualty and turn you into a cyber…whatever the hell you are.”

“J4CK13 is performing the execution at Aaberg‘s request,” Delmaire cooly informed him. “If you have an issue with it, you can take it up with him. Now, then…” He handed the “killing” bullet to Jackie; “Fire when ready,” he stated.

For a few seconds, the only sound in the room was Jackie‘s deep breathing.

She took aim, lining up the shot to hit the captive directly in the center of the forehead…

…and squeezed the trigger.

Even with her top-of-the-line optic sensors and other upgrades, the cyborg almost thought she‘d actually killed the bound man. There was just something…visceral about how the spasm of his body as the bullet hit, the almost lifeless way he fell out of the chair…

“Call it,” Delmaire ordered Vassily. “I‘ll confirm the kill.”

“Why the hell do you get to confirm?!” the annoyed Russian growled. “Let me do it---”

Gunnar‘s hand on his wrist was the only thing that kept Vassily from charging across the room. “It‘s done,” he intoned. “Let Delmaire handle it, and we can get out of here.” He shuffled towards the door, one hand closing around the knob….

“Just a minute.”

Delmaire‘s words prompted a raised eyebrow from Gunnar, and a predictable groan from the Russian. “What now?! The captive is dead, J4CK13 is due for a software check, and I have things to do---what the hell do you want from us now, lawyer?!”

“Aaberg has requested that the corpse be removed from the premises,” the attorney replied. “I have a truck waiting out back…it won’t take that long. As for J4CK13, you can bring the equipment in here and start the, ah, software check or whatever it is that you need to do.” He flashed the Russian a brief smile; “Shouldn’t take that long,” he assured him. “I’ll just get the corpse out of here, and you and Gunnar will be able to conduct whatever business needs conducting.” He glanced at Jackie, giving an almost-imperceptible nod.

“FINE,” Vassily spat. “Take the body. Just get the hell out of here before we have J4CK13 kill you.”

The empty threat prompted a gesture of surrender from Delmaire. “It won‘t have to come to that, I think…but I may need help carrying the corpse to the truck.” He gestured for Jackie to help him; “Like I said, it won‘t take more than five minutes---”

“Four. Any longer than that, I‘ll shoot you myself.”

“Fair enough. J4CK13, if you would…” With Jackie‘s help, Delmaire hefted the “corpse” up; as Vassily and Gunnar watched, the two carried the apparently slain prisoner to the waiting truck out back.

Even as Jackie returned to the interior of the building, Delmaire started the truck and drove off, checking his watch as he went. “And five, four, three, two….” He grinned as the “corpse” in the backseat sat up, coughing and sputtering. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Golden,” Delmaire beamed. “Your execution was a smash hit---even the guards didn’t think you survived.” He handed over a flask; “You might want to drink from this,” he advised. “The sedative you’ve been on is still partially in your bloodstream…”

“And this‘ll flush it?” Sterling Golden asked.

“Indeed it will. My apologies, by the way, for not removing you from the compound sooner…” The FCW powerhouse shook his head. “You don‘t need to apologize,” he muttered, after a long pull on the flask. “That Hannsen bastard is the one who should be sorry…grabbing me from a hospital, of all places. If I had my way, he’d be kneecapped with a tire iron.” A half-cough, half-belch escaped his lips.

“Trust me,” Delmaire wryly remarked, “Hannsen will get what‘s coming to him.”

“Damn good,” Golden nodded. “So where‘re we headed?”

“An ALPA safe house. I‘ll call Agent Lawson and tell her you‘re in safe hands once we get there.”

At the mention of “Agent Lawson“, Golden cracked a smile. “She‘s the one who‘s going in after Hannsen?”

“That would be an affirmative, Mr. Golden.”

With a chuckle that barely stopped before turning into a full-fledged yawn, Sterling Golden stretched out in the back seat and smiled. “Bobby,” he stated, “if you ever find another girl like her on the face of the Earth, let me know---I could use someone like Vicki as my manager.”


“Can you tell where she is inside the compound?” Nina inquired, barely raising her voice to be heard over the roar of the BMW‘s engine.

“Working on it,” Vicki replied, fighting the urge to speak in her robotic monotone. Her scanners had already picked up Jackie‘s implants, which meant that finding her wouldn‘t be the problem. Getting past the guards would probably be even less of an issue, considering the fact that both of them were unaugmented guys who probably didn‘t even want to be there. The only real problem the brunette gynoid faced was the fact that Jackie appeared to be undergoing some sort of programming test; if we cut the connection as soon as we bust in, she reminded herself, it might screw up her internal data storage system…or worse.

Brief, fleeting memories of her own “resurrection,” brought about after Faceless had stabbed her through the head and chest, swam to the forefront of her thoughts. Even after the psych evals and Ted’s assurances that she was “good to go”, Vicki never admitted that, for lack of a better term, she didn’t feel like her old self anymore. It wasn’t just the carbon-titanium framework, or all the new hardware inside of her---this…whatever it was, it was far more than just a physical sensation (or lack thereof). It was as if some fundamental part of herself, whether it was code, programming or something impossible to define in scientific terms, had died when the blades pierced her…and that a new, almost more evolved form of whatever that something was had been installed---no, had grown within her to take its place.

I‘m still me, she reminded (or was it convinced?) herself. I‘m still Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson…so why do I feel like something‘s changed? Why is it that every time I wake up and look in the mirror, I feel like there should be a different face staring back at me?

Nina shouted something that Vicki didn‘t quite catch, and she forced herself out of her somewhat-morbid reverie. “What?”

“I SAID, DUCK!”

The BMW plowed through another barricade, which peeled back the rag-top roof as easily as one peels the foil lid off of a packet of barbecue sauce. Nina and Vicki managed to hunker down in their seats just in time to not get decapitated by the low-slung obstacle; “Next time,” the black-clad woman shouted, “pay attention!” In any other situation, the words would‘ve been angry, meant to make Vicki feel somewhat stupid for nearly getting her head taken off…but the Field Agent could sense an undertone of worry in her ally‘s voice.

“I‘ll keep that in mind,” she promised, projecting her familiar air of finality. I won‘t screw up again.

After a milisecond‘s hesitation, Nina gave a curt nod. Apology accepted.

Several minutes later, the BMW peeled out in front of a nondescript building, knocking over a trash can in the process. “She‘s in here,” Vicki stated. “Along with two guys, both unarmed---they‘re running a programming update on her---what are you DOING?!” The BMW was rearing back, angled at the wall of the building.

“I’m rescuing Jackie,” Nina quietly replied. “Either help me or stay out of my way.”

Guess she won’t listen to reason, then, the brunette gynoid sulked . “I know rescuing Jackie is important to you,” she admitted, “but if we get horribly injured beforehand, it might, ah, sour the moment when you two get to reunite and all that stuff---”

“Shut up and brace for impact,” Nina intoned.

A “please” would be nice…seriously, is it too much to---

Vicki‘s somewhat-annoyed train of thought was effectively derailed as the BMW hurtled towards the wall, never slowing down for even a second. Even in the face of near-certain death, however, the gynoid didn‘t scream---though she did consider punching Nina right in the kidney for doing something so stupid…

…except all thoughts of kidney punching vanished as the car tore through the wall.

It was hard to tell who was more surprised---the two men (Gunnar Bosson and Vassily…no last name, Vicki mentally corrected, as her internal search engines brought up pages from numerous international police groups) standing next to Jackie‘s unmoving form, or Vicki herself. Nina, of course, was out of the car in seconds, demanding that both men step away from Jackie.

Vassily sneered as he stepped forward. “And what if we refuse?” he taunted.

Nina took three steps towards him, staring right into his eyes…

…and then dropped him with a brutal knife-edged chop to the throat.

It didn‘t take the flashing Subject: Deceased text in her HUD for Vicki to know that Nina had just killed Vassily via internal decapitation---the angle of her flattened palm hit him in the neck at such speed and with such great pressure, his spinal cord was severed in mere seconds. Nor did it take any great length of time for Gunnar to realize his “colleague” was no longer among the living. “You….killed him,” he stammered, staring at Nina with a horror-struck gaze. “You…you didn’t even---”

“Get away from Jackie,” Nina ordered, “or you‘ll meet the same fate as he did.”

From her vantage point (stationed behind Jackie to disable the links to the compound‘s intranet), Vicki could see a definite change in Gunnar‘s body language. Before Nina had spoken, it was all too clear: the Iceland native did not want to get involved. Now, however…the balled fists, the tensed muscles, the minute twitch of an eyebrow, or a lip peeling back---Gunnar Bosson was ready to fight.

Nina was all too happy to oblige him.

The first few punches on either end of the brawl merely pissed off their respective recipients, but in the span of five seconds, the two were throwing each other into the walls. Even as she worked to disconnect Jackie from Aaberg‘s infranet, Vicki had to admit that Nina was nowhere near as fragile as she may have looked---a fact proven by the raven-haired fighter dropping Gunnar to the floor with a head scissors takedown and hammering elbows into his skull. Gunnar, for some reason known only to himself, decided to retaliate by biting---which would‘ve prompted a lesser opponent to scream in pain at the very least. Nina, however, was not a lesser opponent---as evidenced by her decision to rake her fingernails across Gunnar’s eyes.

Even Vicki flinched when she heard him scream.

As she disconnected the last of the links between Jackie and the compound‘s infranet, the brunette gynoid turned to tell Nina that their business was finished…only for the remark to die on her lips as she observed her newfound ally choking out Gunnar with a front facelock. “Nina, we’re nearly done here,” she called out.

Her words fell on deaf ears.

“Nina,” she repeated, “Jackie‘s disconnected from the compound‘s infranet…”

Gunnar was slowly turning blue as Nina muttered curses in his ear.

“NINA!”

The Cold Killer dropped to the floor, unconscious but still alive. “They should not have taken her from me,” the black-clad fighter murmured. “She is my life…without her…” She couldn‘t bring herself to finish the sentence, choosing instead to glance over at Vicki and Jackie. “She is all right?”

“She will be. I just need to shut off a few more things…”

Just as it had with Gunnar, Nina‘s entire demeanor changed in an instant. “Will she be okay?” she asked, her voice surprisingly soft (at least, surprisingly soft coming from someone who‘d just dropped a guy head-first into the floor). “These…things, hooked up to her…they will not hurt her, will they?”

“Not anymore,” Vicki assured her. “Actually, they never hurt her to begin with---unless you define ‘hurt‘ as ‘being controlled by someone else‘.” She turned her full attention back to the task of fully severing every last link between Jackie and the infranet; “Aaberg‘s put a hell of a lot of time and effort into slaving her to the system,” she informed Nina. “As far as Jackie is concerned, what she‘s going through right now is just a really bad dream…probably the baddest of bad dreams she‘s had in a good long while.”

“Good. I don‘t want her to suffer any more than she has at the hands of this bastard.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “You‘ve dealt with Aaberg before?”

“Only because Jackie was employed by him. She was going to work for a man called Comstock before she was called away to active duty…and Aaberg took her from me before she could return.” Nina turned away from Vicki, not wanting the gynoid to see her tears. “Comstock was going to give us a new beginning,” she whispered. “A new start, away from…this…”

Guess Aaberg and Hannsen don‘t have a monopoly on screwing up people’s lives, Vicki realized. Out loud, she informed Nina that she had one more code to enter to deactivate the last of the connections between Jackie’s implants and the infranet. “Cross your fingers,” she advised. “Otherwise…” She let the sentence trail off as she entered the keycode: U2FD-S2LA-H4KA-UEPB. Hopefully, my scan of the Infranet gave me the right code for this stupid thing, otherwise Jackie may end up missing a very large swath of her memories from now until…who knows when. “And…..enter!”

Jackie shuddered, twitched…and let out a gasp.

“You‘re safe,” Nina whispered, drawing Jackie in for an embrace. “You‘re safe…I‘m here.”

“Nina,” Jackie breathed, crying into the black-clad woman‘s shoulder. “How…”

Vicki made a throat-clearing noise. “I, ah, ran into her after chasing Björn out of the compound,” she informed Jackie, “and we decided to come back here and cut your ties to the infranet.” She grinned; “Least I could do after you told me where Aaberg hid all those kidnapped gynoids.”

Now it was Nina‘s turn to be confused. “Gynoids? What is she---” Her inquiry was cut off when Jackie threw her arms around her; “Let‘s not worry about it now,” she whispered. “We must leave this awful place, and go back home…” She rested her head on Nina‘s shoulder.

“As touching as it is to see you two reunited,” Vicki cut in, “I, ah, need a favor---”

“Name it,” Nina declared, just as her embrace with Jackie ended.

“Matthew Hannsen is hiding somewhere in this facility, and I need to know where.”

Jackie pressed a piece of paper into Vicki‘s hand. “The building he‘s hiding in,” she explained, “and the codes to unlock every door between you and him.” She stared into the gynoid‘s eyes; “Make him pay,” she intoned, squeezing Vicki‘s hands in her own. “Make him pay…for helping Aaberg take me from Nina, for having me played like a fool….make him pay for everything he has done, and for every single life he has ruined. Make him pay….please.”

The sound of a gunshot rang through the Field Agent’s thoughts. “Trust me,” she replied, “he’ll pay.”

She turned on her heel and strode past the BMW. Oh, he‘ll pay, all right…with interest.

“So, tell me again how you got these kinds of wounds from an air pistol…”

In any other situation, Reaver would‘ve smacked Saturn upside the head for making that kind of remark. “You know damn well how this happened,” he growled. “That Billy Jean punk modded the LP-53, made it as strong as a PPK---then took his sweet time shooting every plate of my armor off.”

“At least you survived,” Kylie reminded him. “And can we please stop using call signs now?”

“Agreed,” Johnny Dash stated. “I mean, ’Saturn’ is a good name for a console, but for me, personally…”

Any and all talk about codenames was stifled by the sound of a car hurtling through the compound at well over the speed limit posted on various signs scattered about the premises. “That’s not one of ours, is it?” Johnny asked casually, glancing over his shoulder at the approaching noise. “Last time I checked, we didn’t have any BMWs running anywhere near this op---and before anyone asks, I’ve made it a habit to recognize every make and model of car just by their engine noise. I’m something of a connoisseur when it comes to automotive sounds.”

“Whoop de freaking do for you,” Eric muttered, wincing in pain as Jen extracted another pellet from his leg.

Sarina rolled her eyes. “You just stay put and try not to bleed all over everyone,” she half-jokingly told Eric as she headed towards the approaching car. “I‘m going to see who‘s coming…”

“With an unloaded SP89?” Johnny frowned.

The Malaysian gynoid glared at him, but took the hint; in seconds, the SP89 was reloaded as its breathtakingly beautiful owner checked the barrel, the trigger and every other moving part of the weapon before nodding and continuing towards the car. “You can stop the vehicle there,” she called out. “Hands where I can see them---”

“We‘re not armed,” a female voice called out. “Titanium sent us.”

Sarina arched an eyebrow. “Sorry, I don‘t know anyone by that---”

“20-something brunette girl, with Robocop‘s gun. Said to meet you here.”

At this, the Malaysian gynoid actually chuckled. “Told her the Auto 9 would make an impression….right, you can kill the high-beams, we‘re all friends.” She lowered the SP89 as two women---one looking rather shaken, the other noticeably calm (and clad in a leather motorcycle-riding suit)---emerged from the BMW. “She needs to be taken to…this man,” the woman in the leathers informed Sarina, handing over a piece of paper. “Her implants are still linked to a private server, if our mutual acquaintance was correct…”

“She was,” Jen stated. “Even from here, my optical sensors are picking up a lot of activity…”

“Speaking of activity,” Eric grunted, “you‘ve still got about fifteen or so ball bearings to pluck out of my legs, Jen…” An exaggerated groan from Johnny cut off the sentence; “Can we please not hear about stuff getting plucked out of your legs?” he pleaded. “Seriously…that‘s an image I can live without.”

James returned the line of inquiry to its main point: “You said Vicki sent you. Where is she now?”

The raven-haired woman in leather sighed. “She has a debt to settle with Matthew Hannsen.”

“DAMNIT!” Eric’s fist nearly drove Jen’s tweezers into his leg as he punched the ground. “I knew this whole thing about Sharon getting a bullet in the head was going to screw everything up, I just---AAAARRGH! JEN, WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO?!” The gynoid Agent didn’t lose her composure; “Actually, Eric,” she replied, “you just shifted your weight enough for that pellet to slide a centimeter to the left, and I didn’t have enough time to move the tweezers after it…so you pretty much did that to yourself.”

“JUST SHUT UP AND PULL THE PELLET OUT!” Eric shrieked.

Sarina guided the black-clad woman and her still-shivering partner away from the argument. “I‘ve heard about you,” she informed them. “At least, one of you…Aaberg paid top dollar to have you fitted with bionic implants, didn‘t he?” The shaking woman managed a nod. “Well,” Sarina assured her, “we‘ll have those implants out of you before the day ends; once Vicki‘s done here---”

A gloved hand on her shoulder cut off the promise. “She said to go on without her,” the raven-haired woman intoned. “She made it very clear to us that we were to leave before she found Hannsen.”

Like ice in the path of a flamethrower, Sarina‘s smile almost literally melted. “She….what?!”

“We gave her the codes,” the shaking woman muttered. “The codes…for the doors, where Hannsen is hiding, to help her get to him faster…” She turned away. “He was going to infect me,” she whimpered. “He said something about the Stylo virus….I thought I was going to die….” She huddled closer to her black-clad partner, tears streaming down her face.

“You won‘t die,” Sarina assured her. “As soon as we get out of here and find a place to get your implants taken out, we can---” Her words were drowned out by the loud, thrumming roar of a helicopter rotor from overhead. “That’s the extraction chopper,” she shouted. “Who the hell called for the extraction team…” Even as she protested, Sarina realized that Vicki herself had likely signaled for the chopper to arrive and “collect” her teammates. “Sometimes, I give her less credit than she deserves,” she mused, shaking her head. “If she‘s that hellbent on stopping Hannsen…”

Within the chopper, Tawny (who insisted on being called by her codename) passed around her usual flask of herbal tea to the rest of the group. “I‘d say that we‘re making a huge mistake by leaving Vicki behind,” she admitted, “but given the circumstances, this is probably the best thing we could do for her.”

“And what---OW!----makes you say that?” Eric winced.

“Well, for starters,” Tawny replied, “Vicki wasn‘t the only one who issued the order for the chopper to swing by and pick you up---HQ has been calling for the last 25 minutes. You‘re to wait at the nearest airport until Agent Lawson completes her mission, and then all of you will return to San Jose post-haste, blah blah blah.” She shrugged. “I didn‘t get all the details, but I know it‘s inter-agency---the Coalition, the House and the ALPA all have their people gathered for whatever the hell‘s going on back home.”

The Field Agents exchanged worried glances. “How big d‘you think this thing could be?” James inquired.

“All I know is how big it isn‘t,” Tawny replied. “It‘s not a red ring-scale event yet, so you won‘t have to expect anything that bad…but if it‘s inter-agency, then don‘t expect this to be over by the weekend, or anything---and that‘s without the committee meetings, the allocations of budgets and all that other boring junk.”

James muttered something about “obstructive beaurocracy” under his breath.

“Any chance they can send any more info to us before we reach the airport?” Kylie asked. “I‘d kind of like to know what we‘re going up against before we have to go back home…not that I don‘t trust them, or anything, but I prefer being well informed and well armed when I‘m preparing for an op, as opposed to one over the other.” She glanced at the other Field Agents; “Anyone else here think we need more info about what we‘re getting into now?” she called out---knowing exactly the kind of response she‘d get.

Not surprisingly, her question was answered with a chorus of affirmatives.

Tawny rolled her eyes at Kylie‘s predictable win. “Majority rules,” the Field Agent declared. “Now, then---”

Her question was cut off by a chorus of beeps coming from the helicopter‘s cockpit.

“Not now,” the House gynoid groaned. “Everyone, hang on to something---we‘re about to go into evasive maneuvers!” Even as the last syllable of “evasive“ sounded, the Field Agents began fastening the harnesses built into their seats, knowing that a fall from their current altitude would more than likely kill/scrap every single one of them. “Try to shake it,” Eric advised. “Whatever the hell‘s on our tail, try to lose it---pull a barrel roll or something!”

His “advice” earned him a death glare from Tawny. “You want us to crash?!” she growled.

“I want us to not get killed!” Eric angrily shot back. “If that thing hits us, we are dead. If we run out of fuel trying to shake it, we‘re dead. If we have to ditch the chopper in the water and that thing catches up to us before we can get away from it, we‘re---”

“I GET THE POINT!” Tawny screamed. “JUST SHUT UP AND SIT THERE, DAMNIT!”

For a few, impossibly-tense minutes, nobody spoke.

Then, another noise from the cockpit---or rather, a voice:

“Apologies for the, ah, false positive target lock signal, folks…seems our infrared signal beam is too close to a targeting laser for your bird.” A collective groan, mixed with a sigh of relief, greeted the voice of James “Stinger” Harrington as it sounded over the Tannoy; “Oberon suggested I send an escort craft out,” he continued, “to make sure you all get to the airport without any further stress…speaking of which, how‘s everybody doing?”

Tawny almost laughed as she picked up the radio headset. “We‘re doing fine here, Stinger,” she replied. “A little pissed off, but otherwise fine. Could‘ve used a warning beforehand, though…”

“Well, we would‘ve called,” Harrington admitted, “but we didn‘t want the transmission to get intercepted---and then your bird started having a mid-air seizure, and I figured you didn‘t realize that the lock-on was a beacon, not a targeting laser. In any case, there‘s no ordnance headed your way, so feel free to fly casual for the remainder of the trip.” The Field Agents could almost hear the smile in his words. “Oh, and for anyone who thinks this was just a sick joke or something---”

“We get the picture,” Tawny drawled. “Setting autopilot…” With a sigh (and a nervous laugh), she settled back into her seat. “Well,” she muttered, “that was the most exciting thing I‘ve had to put up with in a while…”

Eric shook his head. “Swap ‘exciting‘ for ‘stupid,’ and you‘ve got it. What if we‘d have opened fire on them?!”

“We didn‘t,” Jen reminded him. “We all know the situation now, and everything‘s cool.”

“Indeed,” Johnny agreed. “The frootest of the froot, one might say….what? ‘Froot‘ is a Chris Jericho thing…”

The rest of the flight went remarkably smooth, with no incidents of any kind (other than Johnny‘s insistance on introducing “froot” to the pop-culture lexicon at large); by the time the Field Agents landed at the airport, the near-miss with the Coalition’s beacon had been forgiven. “I‘m guessing Lawson and the other two are still busy,” Harrington mused. “Hopefully, they can finish what they‘re doing and get back here ASAP, otherwise we may have to---”

“Three,” Kylie corrected. “We had three other agents in the compound besides Vicki.”

Harrington nodded. “Nearly forgot about the undercover guy….well, hopefully they can all regroup here soon, because from what I understand, we‘re going to need all hands on deck once we get back to San Jose.” He glanced out at the horizon,sighing; “I just hope she leaves Hannsen in one piece,” he muttered.

Though none of the Field Agents spoke out loud, every one of them agreed with him.

Silence. Emptiness. Stillness.

Those three words exemplified everything Vicki felt as she stepped through the last doorway standing between herself and Matthew Hannsen…and they also happened to describe the location itself perfectly---or at least, what filled that location. Now that Aaberg‘s clients had run off with their tails between their legs, the air was silent, the compound empty…and the night was still.

It was enough to make Vicki want to scream.

A less-attentive soul would‘ve thought she was angry---which was true, in a sense; she was definitely angry, and rightfully so. Hannsen had killed Sharon Wilson with a single revolver shot to the back of the head---in cold blood, no less---and that fact reverberated in the brunette gynoid‘s processors with every step she took through the cold, lifeless hallways. Another part of her tried to drown out the thought, focusing on the subtle noises made by the fluorescent light fixtures…and just as she‘d managed to bury the memory of Sharon‘s death, the incessant buzz of the flickering lights slowly (and painfully) began to overtake everything else in the Field Agent‘s range of hearing…

…and in seconds, Sharon‘s execution was back in the forefront of her thoughts, with the added, hellish effect of the buzzing lights now permanently part of the grisly reverie.

Ignore it, the gynoid ordered herself. Just stop thinking about it, and keep moving. Once you‘re done here, this whole thing will be another…oh, great, I almost said “another brick in the wall,” didn‘t I? Great move, Lawson---comparing your mental state to a Pink Floyd album---which, by the way, is about a guy going insane because of past traumas…

After five more minutes of walking the halls in silence, Vicki shot out every fluourescent light in her path.

Good thing Ted gave me enhanced vision, she mused, traversing the truly silent corridors with ease. Seeing as how I don‘t want to be tripping around here any longer than I absolutely have to…and I don’t give a damn if Hannsen heard those shots or not. If he did…at least he knows I’m still here.

If he didn’t….

Vicki had to stop herself from imagining all manner of grisly fates that she wished to inflict upon the Maestro, chiefly because she was trying to keep herself from getting lost.

Over the next few minutes, the brunette gynoid proceeded to find (and back out of) every dead end in the building, including one room that was set up as a makeshift morgue---albeit without any actual bodies. Guess Aaberg was preparing for the worst… Another grisly discovery was a “surgical theater” of sorts---probably where Jackie got her implants, the Field Agent reasoned. Very incriminating stuff, to be sure…but this still doesn‘t get me any closer to---

“VICKI!”

The scream registered in Vicki‘s auditory sensors faster than she could turn her head---which was actually a good thing; her internal analysis programs could locate the scream‘s point of origin faster than the human brain could, by several milliseconds (at the very least).

Of course, the fact that she knew who had screamed was more than coincidental…

What started as a half-casual jog turned into a full-blown run as soon as Vicki heard her name screamed again; damn you, Hannsen, she swore. Damn you to Hell… Her trip through the corridors now took mere seconds, as opposed to minutes---ending with her skidding to a stop just as she entered a massive chamber.

Predictably, the sight that awaited her wasn’t pretty.

The image of a figure chained up in the center of the room, their limbs pulled taut to keep them from being able to move in any direction, would’ve broken the spirit of a lesser operative. Even worse, the figure in this case was Raquel Sanderson---someone who, by all admission, had nothing to do with Hannsen’s revenge plot---

Except she was supposed to be his prison guard.

“Raquel? It’s Vicki….Vicki Lawson….” The brunette gynoid entered the room slowly, hoping that Raquel could still function. “I…I heard you scream…I’m going to get you out of those chains---”

“DON’T!”

It was hard to tell who was more shocked at the exclamation---Raquel or Vicki. Both turned---Vicki, slowly and calmly; Raquel, with a hint of fear in her eyes---to regard the third figure in the room. “You touch those chains now,” Matthew Emmerich Hannsen warned, “and I will pull her apart….and you can drop the Auto 9 as well, ’Agent Lawson,’ unless you want me to rip her limb from limb. The other guns, too---drop them all. NOW.”

Slowly, deliberately, Vicki set down every weapon she’d been carrying.

“Damn straight,” Hannsen sneered. “Now, then….you’re here, I’m here, and the Victim of the Week is here---I think we’ve got the makings of a pretty decent Lifetime Original Movie, if I do say so myself.” That sarcastic grin spread across his face, accompanied by an equally spiteful laugh. “Then again, I have a feeling my, ah, particular brand of entertainment wouldn’t exactly go over well with the suits at the FCC…not because I’m killing you two, of course, but because you might, ah, interfere with certain broadcast frequencies or some bollocks like that. Eh, more for my private collection, then…” His grin faded as he pulled a remote from his pocket. “First, though, I’m going to tell you two a bit about what’s going to happen---”

“No.”

Vicki’s statement prompted a frown from Hannsen. “‘No?’ REALLY?! We‘re about to enter the endgame here, and you have to pull that?! Honestly, what is it with you saying ‘no’ to dramatic declarations?!” He shook his head in disgust as he glared at the two gynoids. “Absolute bleeding travesty….”

Under her breath, Vicki muttered something that Hannsen couldn‘t catch.

“What was that?!”

She repeated her remark: “You going to bark all day, little doggie…or are you going to bite?”

Hannsen glared at her, his eyes looking as if they were about to pop out of his head. “You….you don‘t talk to me like that,” he mumbled. “NOBODY talks to me like that…” He ran his free hand through his hair, his lips peeling back as he sucked in deep breaths. “NORMALLY,” he stated, “I‘d have busted your face open with a pry bar for that…but I‘m feeling generous today. So, in lieu of smashing you to bits, I‘m going to tell you a little story---and you‘d DAMN WELL better listen.” He threw off the patched overcoat that he’d been wearing, pacing back and forth as he stared at the two gynoids. “I suppose you’ve already heard about the link between myself and a certain Miss Alicia Lehane,” he began.

That put an end to Vicki‘s arrogant remarks. “Connection…between you and Alicia?!” she stammered.

“Not so high and mighty now, are you?” Hannsen taunted. “Yes, your favorite whore from the House…oh, who the hell am I kidding, she wasn‘t a whore back then.” The bravado left his voice as he continued; “All that stale old shite about her being the light of my life and all…it wasn‘t just bollocks. ‘course, it‘s over now…but she knew me. She knew what I did. And I knew her, what she was….what she did. Which brings us to the here and now, appropriately enough---”

“Get to the point, Hannsen,” Vicki ordered.

“Right, right, I forgot I was dealing with the Flashback Police here…” Hannsen rolled his eyes at the gynoid Field Agent‘s impatience. “ANYWAY….it all started going down south when I decided to help Dear Old Dad fall off the wagon---again---seeing as how he tore up my thesis paper on artificial intelligence. WELL, he tore up the backup copy…I kept the main one in the safe under the mattress, just in case he pulled any crap on me, but that’s beside the point. THE POINT BEING….Alicia knew what I did. She knew exactly what I worked on, and who I was hanging out with---and she very nearly became part of the Great Dirty World Wide Web, for a week or so. Got closer to getting in than most of the other birds we dragged out to the Circuit Hub….”

“So what happened?”

Vicki‘s question drew a scowl from Hannsen. “What happened, Agent Lawson, is that Alicia Lehane had this tiny little problem known as a conscience,” he spat, “and she point-blank refused to help me discredit Dad after the thesis incident. So, I decided to do it anyway---except she took pictures. Claimed they were for posterity‘s sake, when she really just wanted to hand me over to the rozzers. The last night we were together, Dad showed up---completely soused…said he was gonna put bars on the windows and locks on the doors…”

“So you killed him.” To Vicki’s surprise, it was Raquel who spoke. “You murdered him with a cricket bat, and told the judge you’d do it again if you had the chance…you treated your own father like common filth.” She stared at the floor, shaking her head in disgust. “They should’ve just put you in the chair….”

“BUT THEY DIDN’T,” Hannsen shot back. “Instead, they broke up the band---drove the Great Dirty World Wide Web out of business, pissed all over their legacy and WRECKED about fifteen or so projects we’d had going…of course, Anton Malvineous turned Queen’s evidence and got a nice big reward, whereas Matt Hannsen gets one life sentence stacked on top of another sandwiched in between two more…not exactly the way I wanted to leave the scene, to be honest.”

I can guess where this is going…“So you manipulated the system,” Vicki concluded.

“CORRECTAMUNDO!” Hannsen beamed. “Manipulated them, lined their pockets, turned every last one of them into hopeless, greedy sheep….” His smile faded. “…except for her,” he hissed, nodding at Raquel. “I honestly swore I’d have you dropped in the Seine if I ever had the chance…seeing as how we’re not in Gay Pairee right now, though….I have a much more fitting punishment in mind for you.” He pressed a button on the remote, lowering Raquel to the floor.

Vicki was at her side in an instant. “You okay?”

“I‘ve been better,” Raquel admitted. “We need to get---” Her sentence ended with her face frozen mid-word.

“Need to get what?” Vicki asked. “What do we need to get, Raquel?”

“Vi….cki…” The older gynoid‘s half-whispering voice, emitting from frozen lips, sounded completely and utterly terrified. “I‘m…I…I’m…burning….” Even as she tried to comprehend what that meant, the brunette gynoid looked down and nearly gasped---a ragged hole was eating its way through Raquel’s stomach, burning through her from the inside-out. “Help….m-m-m-meeeeeeeeee----” Something impacted Raquel’s head, sending her stumbling forwards; Vicki was forced to backpedal or risk getting set alight.

I‘m sorry, Raquel…I‘m so, so sorry….

Even as she stumbled forward, trying to find something to cling to, Raquel‘s body---and face---were burning from the inside, eaten away by the thermite that had been fired into her. Vicki forced herself to look away as Raquel’s face peeled and warped, revealing blackened chrome and plastic.

Within seconds, Raquel Sanderson collapsed to the floor and ceased functioning altogether.

“Well, now that the distraction is out of the way,” Hannsen beamed, “time to get back to our sordid little----”

A red-gloved fist slammed into his jaw, sending him to the floor in a heap. “That was for Raquel,” Vicki stated, her voice devoid of any emotion as she hauled Hannsen back to a standing position. “This is for Sharon,” she continued, her expression neutral….even as her iron grip closed around the neck of the man who called himself the Maestro. “And everything else,” she added, “is for everyone else you‘ve hurt…” Her calm gaze stared into Hannsen‘s own eyes, which were now beginning to go bloodshot; just thinking about the ways she could hurt him---

Three seconds later, he found himself slumped on the floor, a sizeable dent in the wall behind him matching up with the throbbing pain in his back.

“This is me holding back, by the way,” Vicki informed him. “This is me trying not to hurt you…and believe me, if I wanted to hurt you---” She crossed the room in seconds, grabbing him by the wrist. “All I‘d have to do is squeeze,” she whispered. “You can feel it already, can‘t you? The hairline fractures starting to form, the bone just beginning to crack under the pressure---”

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

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

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

The faint memory of Chopin sounding in the elevator shaft of the OSE building in Singapore filtered---rather quickly---through the brunette gynoid‘s thoughts. “I should,” she whispered. “I really should…” Her grip on his hand tightened, just a bit…

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

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

“YES!”

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

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

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

“YES, G__DAMNIT, YES!” No more of the “Maestro” act now; this was true fear. Inescapable, blinding fear.

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

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

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

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

Before he could think to move, a pair of hands grabbed him, lifted him off the ground---and then threw him into a cluster of lockers on the far side of the room. Every bone in his body hurt, and he could feel a sharp, stabbing pain in his left side. “No more,” he pleaded, “no more---”

A red-shod foot slammed into his ribs.

“I know every way to possibly injure you without ending your life,” V.I.C.I. informed him, her cold, robotic monotone flattening every last ounce of emotion out of the words. “As I said before, death would be too good for you---an easy way out, compared to the deaths of Sharon Wilson and Raquel Sanderson. You don’t get an easy way out, Hannsen…not after everything you’ve done. And that’s not even going into the Stylo virus---”

“I CAN CURE IT!” Hannsen screamed. “I…have the source code…I can….reverse-engineer it…save billions of androids…”

“No. You won’t. You’ll make the cure, and then put a backdoor program in it to take control of every ‘saved’ android and gynoid, then charge double for the next ‘cure’, and you’ll keep doing it until you get bored and decide to just have every android and gynoid destroy themselves. No more begging, Hannsen---it’ll just make you look weak. At least, weaker than you already are.” Yet again, V.I.C.I. appeared next to Hannsen in a blur of red, silver, white and black; her hands closed around his lapels…

…only for a bullet to hit the floor three centimeters away from her feet.

“Put him down,” Rosanna Ahlmquist demanded. “NOW…or the next shot will hit right between your---”

Hannsen slammed into the gynoid with enough force to knock her off her feet; even as the two collapsed to the floor, V.I.C.I. was advancing on them. “This is none of your concern,” she calmly informed the other gynoid, “so leave now---or I will break you.” Even as she spoke the words, the brunette gynoid knew that Rosanna had no intention of backing down.

Predictably, she was proven right. “The only one getting broken here is you,” she coldly replied.

“I think not.”

Before the Russian gynoid could begin calculating an effective method of evading any attack V.I.C.I. launched against her, a lightning-quick punch slammed into her face. Half a second later, another punch slammed into her stomach---followed by another punch to the head. Hannsen, from his kneeling position in the corner of the room, watched in horror as the gynoid Field Agent‘s fists smashed into Rosanna like wrecking balls from Hell, breaking internal components with every hit. Seven seconds after her assault on the Russian gynoid began, V.I.C.I. stepped back, shifting her posture to a defensive stance. “Now, then…I believe you were about to leave?”

Any words that would‘ve been spoken in response to the question were drowned out in a torrent of static from the speaker built into Rosanna’s cranial assembly. Her head twitched to the left every three seconds, while her mouth worked soundlessly like a bad ventriloquist dummy. One of her ocular sensors had cracked in its socket, while the other had been pushed so far back into her head that it was effectively buried in her CPU assembly housing.

“I told you I would break you,” V.I.C.I. intoned, “and I did. Now, then….”

She glanced over her shoulder, giving Hannsen a shark‘s smile. “Back to the business at hand.”

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

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

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

“No.”

Hannsen couldn‘t bring himself to look up.

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

Her grip closed around his ankle, and for the briefest moment, Hannsen expected her to hurl him across the room again. “Just do it,” he moaned. “Throw me into the window, or put me through the ceiling, and BE DONE WITH IT!” Nothing mattered now---not the Stylo virus, not the DVS, not Alicia….the only thing that he could focus on was getting the hell away from Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, or---failing that---forcing himself to not die a pathetic, cowardly death.

Considering the pain he was in, the second option was looking more and more impossible by the minute.

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

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

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

The agonized scream that filled the room now could‘ve easily haunted the nightmares of anyone present, had the situation been different. As it was, V.I.C.I. simply stared down at the man whose ankle she‘d pulverized, without a shread of remorse.

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

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

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

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

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

“NO.”

Both Hannsen and the brunette gynoid turned---one hesitantly, the other defiantly---to see the Man in Grey standing in the doorway. “You won‘t finish him,” the Man declared, “because that will only begin the path that ends with your destruction….”

He pulled his mask off, allowing the gynoid to see his face. “…a path that I intend to keep you off of.” .

“We‘ve got a problem.”

Harrington‘s words prompted a groan from Eric; “What kind of problem?” he muttered. “Vicki’s doing her thing at the compound, so---”

“‘Her thing’, at the moment, seems to consist of beating the ever-loving crap out of Matt Hannsen,” Harrington coldly replied. “His vitals are dropping by the second---and I know this because the Coalition paid for biometric medical sensors to be installed in his clothes. As of right now, his heartbeat is too damn fast, and his breathing is getting shallow---if she doesn’t stop beating him, he’ll die.”

The Field Agents exchanged horrified glances. “She‘s…killing him?!” Kylie whispered.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Harrington assured her, rising from his seat and heading off in the direction of a Jeep. “If the plane lands before I get back, tell the pilot to wait….otherwise, Vicki‘s going to end up a murderer before the day ends.” .


“What the hell are you even doing here?” Vicki asked, her voice barely even annoyed. “You and Beretta were supposed to get those androids out of the compound---”

“We did,” the Man grunted. “She‘s delivering them to the airport as we speak…and I chose to return to keep you from making the biggest mistake of your life. The moment you accept that killing Hannsen is ‘right’, the downward spiral begins, with every decision leading to you falling away from what you truly represent---”

Vicki‘s fist slammed into the wall, sending an echo through the room.

“You think I like doing this?!” she hissed. “You think I want to throw Hannsen around the room all day because it’s fun?! He deserves this---every second of it!” She glanced at the corner of the room where Hannsen lay (he’d passed out due to blood loss a moment after the Man in Grey entered); “Why the hell do you care if I throw my life away just to punish him?” she spat. “What the hell do you know about what I’m going through?”

The Man didn‘t hold back. “I‘ve killed before, Vicki. At least a dozen men and women…their screams haunt me to this day.” He held up his mask; “This,” he added, “was---is my shield, to protect me from who I used to be. Every day I see this in the mirror, I take solace in it…because it conceals. It hides. It erases the monster I once was…at least for me. The world will forget that monster, but I never will…and if you continue destroying Hannsen, you will never forget the monster you‘ll become.”

“So that‘s what this is,” Vicki muttered. “You‘re saving me because of a stupid guilt trip---”

“THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME!” the Man roared, his voice beginning to break. “THIS IS ABOUT YOU MAKING THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF YOUR LIFE!” His chest heaved with ragged breaths; “When my fast caught up with me,” he intoned, “I lost everything---my family, my wife…”

He stepped forward, staring into Vicki’s eyes. “I won’t let you make the same mistakes I did.”

Vicki had intended to shoot down his latest remark, to completely brush off his attempts at “saving” her and just continue with punishing Hannsen…but even as she tried to fight it, a memory broke through her thoughts to the forefront of her processors: the memory of her own death. That chilling voice, whispering those two words: “I win”….. and everything became horrifically clear. “What have I done?” she whispered, staring at her own hands…and at the broken, bleeding figure of Matthew Emmerich Hannsen.

Slowly, she looked back up, into the eyes of the Man in Grey. “What have I done?!”

“You‘ve stopped yourself,” the Man quietly replied, “from committing an act of murder.”

At the mere mention of the word “murder”, Vicki Lawson broke down in tears.

“You understand, now, why I intervened,” the Man continued. “Killing him will not bring you peace, nor will it give Sharon Wilson a peaceful repose. By destroying Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, you would have become a target for every single one of his allies, a symbol of everything that the ALPA is against---”

“I did it again.”

The Man stared, silently, as Vicki beheld her own hands with a look of unspeakable terror. “I…lost control, just like at the Starlet Dolls concert….but this is worse…” She backed away from Hannsen‘s unmoving form as her processors began running through the potential resolutions to the “problem”. “Ted…he’ll think I’ve snapped,” she whispered. “He’ll have me DeCommed, or he’ll send a team to neutralize me---”

A pair of hands gripped her shoulders. “You are not going to be neutralized---”

“I NEARLY KILLED HIM!” Vicki screamed. “I beat the shit out of Hannsen, and I would‘ve….” Her rant ended in tears. “What the hell is wrong with me?” she sobbed. “Why…why can’t I stop losing control?”

“If you had truly lost control,” the Man replied, his voice little more than a whisper, “Hannsen would already be dead.” He stepped away from Vicki, pulling his mask back on. “We must be on our way, Vicki…a situation has arisen in San Jose that needs our immediate attention.” He bent to retrieve Hannsen from the floor; “We may as well bring him with us,” he added, “otherwise---”

Every light in the room cut out.

“You will leave Matthew Hannsen where he is,” a sonorous voice declared. “Back away from him…now…or the consequences will be most dire for the both of you.”

Despite her fear at almost having killed a man, Vicki stepped forward. “By whose authority?” she called out, her eyes searching the darkness as she spoke. “Who do you speak for, and why is Matthew Hannsen‘s welfare any concern of yours?” She didn‘t expect a reply---at least, not a civil one---and wasn‘t surprised when her question was met with silence. “And what do you mean by ‘consequences’, exactly---” The question had just left her lips when a crippling wave of electricity shot through her.

“VICKI!” The Man in Grey was at her side in an instant, only to be dropped to the floor.

“Consider this your first and only warning,” the sonorous voice stated. “Further defiance will be met with increasing force…and will end when one or both of you chooses to submit, or either of you perishes. Stand away from Hannsen, now.”

Even as the voltage coursed through her, Vicki managed to cycle through her ocular sensors‘ various modes to try and get a good look at whoever had spoken. Surprisingly, there were three entities in the room---two of them, both androids, were hoisting Hannsen up by the shoulders and hauling him to the door; the third (the speaker, most likely) was standing across the room, his hands folded behind him (Vicki could just barely recognize the figure as male). “Who….are you?!” she managed.

“We are everything your Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency fears,” the figure replied.

“They…don‘t even know….you exist!”

The brunette gynoid almost knew the figure was smirking: “They will.”

As suddenly as they had deactivated, the lights flared back into existence, nearly blinding Vicki before she could switch back to her default vision mode. The Man in Grey had been knocked to the floor by his unseen attacker; a faint spot of blood stained the back of his mask.

With a quiet, reserved sigh, Vicki set to work helping the Man back to his feet.


Björn Lundquist Aaberg shifted in his seat, swearing under his breath as his Citroen (not the “borrowed” one from the compound, but a vehicle from his own personal garage) sped towards the nearest hospital.

“Damn you, Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson,” he muttered. “Damn you to the depths of Hell.”

In the driver‘s seat of the Citroen, Henrietta Gardner (known as “Hank” to Björn, but preferably called Etta) said nothing, even as her employer swore vengeance against the Lawson girl. She’d seen him endure far worse situations than this, and had helped him endure crises that would’ve easily broken a lesser man…but this was rapidly shaping up to be the worst of the incidents he’d had to face.

For starters…

“Mister Stahl called while you were in the compound, sir,” she politely informed Aaberg. “Apparently, he has a few complaints about…information you sold him?”

A stream of profanities, all in foreign tongues, erupted from the passenger seat.

Etta ignored the swearing, choosing instead to remember her last vacation in Spain. The weather had been exceptional, and the food, in particular, was exquisite. Quite simply, it had been the best week she’d ever spent away from her employment, and she’d even managed to stay an extra three days after Björn had come down with fever, necessitating a brief stay in hospital. Nowadays, any time she felt overworked, overstressed or just plain fed up, Etta thought back to that wonderful stay in Spain, and reminded herself that no matter how bad things got----

“….and Stahl will NOT overstep his boundaries again!” Aaberg thundered, obviously finishing the rant that his loyal driver had been ignoring all the while. “Turn left,” he barked, “and call up the staff of my summer home; tell them that we will be arriving shortly.”

Once again, Etta drew in a sigh. “Ah, sir, about that…” She gestured towards Aaberg‘s phone.

The “call waiting” from Anders Stahl wouldn’t have been enough to set Björn off before, but in this particular set of circumstances, it provoked….nothing, actually. Despite his earlier swearing, the arms dealer/hitman was actually able to pick up the phone and speak to his employer without threatening to send a hit squad to his house. Etta had heard the report between the two plenty of times before; no matter how often they tended to declare war on each other, they always found some reason to remain friends (or at least allies).

From what Aaberg was saying, however….this time might be different.

“Cancel the call to the summer home,” Aaberg instructed after the converstation with Stahl ended. “We may need to return to the compound…there have been some…unpleasant developments.” He stared out the window; “Hannsen has been injured,” he murmured. “Rosanna….has been damaged, possibly beyond repair; I will need to clean up the entire compound, which---given the circumstances---will most likely take up the remainder of the week.”

Etta nodded. “Will you require any further assistance?”

“Hopefully, no. Call Whistler and Blue-Eye just in case…we may need extra protection.”

Again, Etta nodded. In situations like this, it was best to not antagonize Aaberg, or give him anything that he could eventually use as leverage; such scenarios almost invariably ended with the termination of employment for anyone unfortunate enough to have incurred his wrath.

“You will pay for this, Lawson,” Aaberg snarled. “You will pay…”

Whoever the Lawson girl was, Etta almost felt sorry for her.

“…c‘mon, Dad…..pick up the phone….please….”

Vicki stared at the ceiling of the airport‘s lobby, silently hoping that Ted would get her call. “Pick up….pick up, already!”

A trilling tone---followed by the ubiquitous “Your call has been forwarded” message---dashed her hopes.

“Tough night?” Jen asked, as the brunette gynoid closed her cellphone. “‘Tough’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Vicki sulked. “I nearly killed Matthew Hannsen….and this is the second time I’ve almost snapped during an op!” Something in her eyes, that sense of genuine fear, added a weight to her words that Jen couldn’t fail to notice. “If the Man in Grey hadn‘t been there..”

“I would‘ve been,” James Harrington interjected, drawing a semi-startled gasp from Vicki. “Hannsen‘s shirt had a biometric sensor installed in it, during his…brief tenure with the Coalition---his vitals were all over the place when you were kicking the crap out of him, and I was on my way over with a Jeep. Not to rescue him, in case you‘re wondering…but to get you as far away from him as possible before you went too far over the edge for anyone to bring you back.” He shook his head; “I can understand why you wanted to break the guy in half, though,” he admitted. “He’s an absolute bastard---magnificently so, on occasion, but still.”

“I get it,” Vicki murmured.

Harrington sighed as he sat down on the bench across from Vicki. “He could‘ve been an absolute genius,” he mused, “if he’d followed Anton’s advice. Instead, he unleashed the Stylo virus on the world and screwed every single one of his potential friends over. If the right people had been in charge of his trial---”

“He’d have figured out how to get to them.”

The fact that Tawny had picked that particular moment to give her opinion wasn‘t all that surprising, especially to Vicki----she still remembered the House gynoid counseling her before the team was deployed to Aaberg’s compound. “So you’ve heard,” she murmured.

“Kind of hard not to hear,” Tawny admitted. “Also, the fact that the Man in Grey is back in the hospital kind of ruins any hope you may have had for privacy after something like this…” She shook her head. “The DVS hasn‘t claimed responsibility for saving Hannsen,” she added, “but it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that they’re the ones who dragged him out of there. Also, Aaberg himself is running damage control in regards to what happened with his ‘sale’…not really any surprises there.”

Jen rolled her eyes at the mention of Aaberg. “Right now, I think he‘s the last thing we should worry about.”

Tawny chuckled mirthlessly; “That kind of thinking will get you killed,” she admonished. “Seeing as how you tromped all over his sale, he‘s probably going to want payback as soon as possible---”

“WHO CARES ABOUT AABERG‘S PAYBACK?!” Vicki screamed, startling all present (including the usually unflappable Tawny). “I nearly killed someone with my bare hands, so forgive me for not giving a damn about Björn Lundquist Aaberg!” She buried her face in her hands; “Something’s wrong with me,” she whimpered. “I thought the upgrade would’ve fixed it…but it didn’t….it’s just like at the Starlet Dolls’ concert, except this time is…it’s worse….” She glanced up at Harrington. “When will you send it?”

The Coalition chairman was more than a bit confused. “Send what?”

“My DeComm notice.”

To her surprise (“shock” may have been more accurate), Harrington laughed. “Vicki, Vicki, Vicki,” he chided, “if I had to hand out a DeComm to every android or gynoid who got pissed and beat up someone over the smallest issues…” He let the sentence fade out with his smile.

“You think this is funny?” Vicki growled.

“Let me clarify what I’m going to say here,” Harrington suggested. “Yes, I think it’s funny---a little bit, at the very least---that you’re naïve enough to think this warrants a DeComm, and no, I don’t think it’s funny that you nearly killed Matthew Hannsen. The fact is, Vicki, a lot of people would probably have done the same---”

The brunette gynoid turned away. “No. Don‘t give me that. I don‘t care what ‘a lot of people’ would’ve done.”

“You should,” Tawny insisted. “You could’ve killed Hannsen, but you didn’t---and not just because of Publius. If you had really, truly wanted to end Hannsen’s life, you would’ve ignored any and all suggestions to the contrary and killed him…but you didn’t. That’s why you’re not getting DeCommed---”

“It doesn‘t matter that I stopped,” Vicki snapped. “The fact is, I wanted to hurt him---to cripple him, even!”

Tawny wasn‘t phased. “And you think that‘s enough to warrant a DeComm? Vicki, you need to understand---”

“THE ONLY THING I NEED TO UNDERSTAND IS THAT I WANTED MATTHEW HANNSEN DEAD!” Vicki‘s outburst ended with her collapsing to her knees, her face once again buried in her hands. “I need help,” she whispered. “I seriously need help…”

Harrington and Tawny exchanged glances. “We‘ll have Ted waiting at the airport,” Harrington began, “and---”

“What?” Vicki blinked away her tears, looking up at Harrington again. “Why would he be….” Her question trailed off into a half-sob. “Something‘s happened back home,” she realized. “This…all of this bullcrap with Aaberg, it was just a distraction---”

A pair of hands held her down where she sat. “Vicki,” Tawny warned, “calm down. Please.”

“What happened in San Jose? Why are we going back now?! I HAVE TO KNOW! JUST TELL ME---”

Instantly, everything went black…and then, a voice:

“Sorry for doing something this drastic, Vicki…but we really don‘t have a lot of time.”

“Dad…you shut off my motor functions and put me in standby mode so I wouldn‘t start lashing out.” If the circumstances had been different, Vicki might‘ve smiled---leave it to Dad to make a point as dramatically as possible. “What‘s happening back home, and why is it so important that we all have to get back there ASAP?”

“Hannsen had a contingency plan…a big contingency plan. You remember Drake Bradford?”

“I‘ve been trying to forget him, but…oh. Oh, no….you don‘t mean---”

“I do. I‘d tell you more, but this connection is too open to interception…you‘ll get the full briefing on the plane.”

“Understood. And Dad?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Thank you.”

The slightest whisper of “you‘re welcome” sounded in the brunette gynoid’s ears as the world returned in a flurry of color, sound and smell. “You can let me out of the chair now,” she murmured. “I’m not going to throw anything. I’m ready for the flight back home…”

….and whatever we have to face when we get there.


“So…..we know the extent of Vicki Lawson‘s breaking point.”

None of the others at the table dared to question the Baron‘s claim, mainly due to the evidence of it being right there in front of them---the “fight” between Vicki and Hannsen was replaying on the monitors in front of every seat. “Had it not been for the intervention of the Man in Grey,” the Baron continued, “there is a very strong chance that Matthew Emmerich Hannsen would not have survived their encounter.” The undertones of what could very well have been a smirk tinged his words; “Even in defeat,” he added, “the Maestro has done us a rather large favor.”

“His defeat would have been permanent, had it not been for my intervention,” a low, sonorous voice---the same voice that Vicki heard mere seconds before Hannsen was “removed” from the compound---cut in.

“Agreed,” a younger, female voice added. “The termination of Kirsten Sanderson‘s maternal surrogate was an unnecessary risk, as well---he just as easily could‘ve threatened to gas the entire compound and kill the Lawson girl‘s teammates. There‘s also the matter of Jaquelline Melissa LeClaire, designation J4CK13---had she been utilized against the Lawson Girl---”

“Your suggestions are dully noted, Diamond Viper,” the Baron cooly replied. “As are yours, Stone Shark.”

From the shadows around the table, the two figures nodded.

“Now, then,” the Baron declared, “to our current business. As you are all well aware, a sizeable number of Franklin-designed fembots has recently…been acquired by United Robotronics, under the guise of being sent to a reclamation facility, dismantled and stripped for parts.” Again, those around him could almost sense his smirk; “Unbeknownst to United Robotronics,” he continued, “the facility that has agreed to dismantle the fembots does not, in actuality, exist. They have, instead, been delivered to our hidden reprogramming site, under the supervision of Steel Pariah.” He gestured to another seat at the table. “General, if you would…”

The man known as Steel Pariah nodded. “The fembots are intentionally being subjected to stimuli that would trigger a red-ring scenario in ‘normal’ circumstances,” he explained. “Within 24 hours, they’ll be deactivated and shipped to a front building meant to serve as the reclamation facility; once there…” He hesitated.

“General,” the Baron intoned. “Continue, please…”

A moment‘s pause… “Once there, the fembots will be remotely reactivated…with the newly-installed chipsets and programming changes overriding Bradford‘s safety protocols, thus allowing the fembots to enact what we believe the ALPA will see as a seemingly-random path of destruction throughout San Jose.”

Everyone present saw a brief flash of gold as the Baron nodded. “Excellent.”

“Hardly,” another voice countered. “A more productive course of action would‘ve had the fembots being sent directly to the ALPA‘s base of operations, rather than causing random destruction---and as for this ‘random’ bit, by the way----”

“Thank you for your concern, Iron Tiger,” the Baron drawled.

“I merely wish to avert a greater---”

“Thank you for your concern,” the Baron repeated, a not-so-subtle note of menace in his words. Even as Iron Tiger leaned back in his seat, the atmosphere in the room remained tense; few had ever dared to speak up against the Baron, especially in this---their most sacred meeting chamber. “If anyone here has productive advice,” he offered, “they may speak now without fear of reprisal from anyone else at this table.” He paused, mainly for effect. “If not….”

Predictably, nobody had any better ideas.

“Until we can prove that Vicki Lawson is nowhere near as unbreakable as she appears to be,” the Baron stated, “the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency will continue to use her as a spearhead. Hers will be the face on their recruitment posters, and the voice of their calls to arms. We all know the consequences if we allow this to happen…and that is precisely why Hannsen‘s defeat has been as much a boon to us as it has been a setback. We know what Vicki is capable of, what she can do…and what she will not do.” A pause, again, for effect more than anything; “Some of you may believe that acting on this information now would be a pertinent course of action,” he mused, his gloved fingers steepling as he spoke.

Silence.

“As I suspected….however, there are others among you who believe that Vicki Lawson is as much a potential ally to our cause as she is a potential threat---speak now, if you wish, but there‘s no need; your names are known to me even now.” A low, quiet, hissing laugh sounded from the darkness enveloping the Baron‘s throne-like chair. “As…valued as your opinions are,” he informed all present, “they are also irrelevant.”

He considered leaning forward, just to see who---if anyone---would be willing to challenge that claim.

None of them took the bait.

“Until Matthew Hannsen recovers, we are to remain on our present course of action,” the Baron declared, a bit disappointed that none of his underlings had tried to defy him. Contrary to the popular rumor, he enjoyed those who challenged his word; not only did it give him free reign to squash their rebellious natures beneath his heels, but it served as a multifaceted demonstration: silence could mean a room full of yes men, or a room full of intellectuals who knew when to speak and when to stay silent, so as to not be labelled fools. Clearly, this was a room full of people who knew exactly what they wanted, and how to get it.

The Baron nodded. “Now, then, if there are any other questions…”

Predictably, there were none, and the meeting thus turned to other orders of business. Victor Vega‘s latest outburst over the failure of his “homegrown” attempt to restart his Anchorage operation took precedence, as did a few other pithy matters; the Baron would’ve slept through them all, had he the luxury, but chose to give his blessing (or advise against particular courses of action) instead---better to blindly give favor than to deny anything to everyone on account of boredom. Eventually, the time came for the gathering to disperse, and all present gave the usual salutations and oaths before departing. By the time the lights in the room flickered on, every seat in the chamber was empty.

Every seat except one.

“Something wrong, Viper?” the Baron inquired. “You wish to beg a boon of me without your peers---”

“You‘re wrong,” the girl known as Diamond Viper stated. “About Vicki Lawson.”

From anyone else, those words would‘ve been followed by a swift, painful death---but the Diamond Viper may have had a point. “You truly believe my analysis of the situation to be…flawed?” the Baron mused. “I must know, then---”

“What she did to Hannsen was nothing. She was holding back---trying not to kill him.”

Even through the darkness around his chair, one might‘ve seen the Baron arch an eyebrow.

“If she‘d really wanted Hannsen dead, Vicki would‘ve snapped his neck as soon as she got close enough. The fight we saw…it was meant for Hannsen, not us. She wanted him to pay for what he‘d done to her friends.” Diamond Viper rose from her seat; “Think it over,” she advised. “She‘s more dangerous than you know.”

Darkness descended upon the room again, leaving the Baron lost in thought.

Mineta San Jose International Airport – San Jose, California – August 27, 2011

As soon as Vicki saw the group waiting on the tarmac, her fears about getting DeCommed diminished ever so slightly. For starters, every member of Lawson’s Eleven was there---including Ted obviously---along with Alicias 1-4, Tawny 1 and several other House gynoids Vicki had never even seen before. Jessica Lovecraft (the police gynoid Vicki had last seen during her encounter with the Family of Steel), General Hardcastle and a full contingent of ALPA FROSTs waited by a white-and-silver Rhino, along with Derrick Snyder and Garth Pierce. Even Joan and Jamie (who now looked more than a bit like that Joseph Gordon…something or other actor; I can never remember his full name, Vicki mentally groaned) were there.

Of course, the two people standing near the front of the congregation stole the show.

Clive DuBraul looked the slightest shade paler than he had the last time Vicki had seen him, but other than that, he still seemed to be in good health. He‘d trimmed his beard and gotten a mild haircut, as well, giving him the look of a king preparing to step down from the throne---though Vicki had a feeling he wouldn‘t be stepping down any time soon.

As for Oberon…

…he looked as if he was ready to go to war.

Somehow or other, he‘d shown up in a full suit of armor---not the medieval armor, worn by knights of old, but a modern, SWAT-approved suit of Kevlar/Nomex plating over a body glove, all of it decked out in white, silver, gold and grey. Oddly enough, instead of the expected gun holster, his belt held a scabbard---with the hilt of a sword extruding from it. Considering the fact that nobody was pointing and laughing, Vicki decided not to mention it unless it was mentioned to her first.

Part of her expected the group to swarm her when she exited the plane, and she was actually glad that they didn‘t. Of course, they did start clamoring for her to ride back to base with them; in the end, she chose the armored limo occupied by Oberon, Clive, Alicia 1 and Anton Malvineous---with Ted, Joan and Jamie following close behind in another limo. Once the vehicles were on their way, the brunette gynoid allowed every question that had been brewing in her mind to come forth. Aaberg, Alicia, the current Project Apollo data she’d found in Florida, Matthew Hannsen---anything and everything that could be asked about, was.

None of her questions were answered until she learned why she‘d been called back to San Jose.

“As annoying as this may be,” Oberon informed her, “it‘s standard protocol---we don‘t want you to face what‘s coming half-cocked, after all. Before you went all Lesnar on Hannsen, he set a few things in motion that we‘re going to have to deal with before too long---”

“What sort of things?”

Oberon chuckled. “Straight to the point…I like that. Well, as it turns out, the things Hannsen set in motion are very likely going to end in tears. He bought up a metric ton of Franklin-designed fembots---had them built to order from companies across the board, no less. Ordered in groups of 21---probably to frame our favorite psychopath---and then left them in warehouses across the valley, where they’d be found by anyone who felt like looking…not a very good plan, you might be saying. And you’d be right---except his real plan involved those same fembots being sent to a reclamation center. I know this because our people have been tracking the movement of independently hired shipping vans across Silicon Valley for the past few weeks---”

“So what does he want with a bunch of fembots?” Vicki cut in

“We have a pretty good idea,” Anton replied. “The general consensus is that he‘ll deploy them in some sort of a red-ring scenario---or at least a very convincing recreation of one---and try to force our hand to contain them, which could end badly no matter how you slice it.”

DuBraul nodded gravely. “A red ring scenario, in case you‘re wondering, is effectively what happened in the Terminator films,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “Robots stop functioning according to factory-installed parameters, and all hell breaks loose…except this won’t be a real red ring scenario, at least by the ALPA’s definition of the term. It’ll be a lot like a Civil War reenactment--except the casualties don’t get to just roll off a hill out of sight and go take a lunch break.”

“Put it simply,” Oberon added, “a manufactured red ring scenario is only slightly less dangerous than the real thing, due to the damning evidence that can be faked by it. Of course, there’s also the possibility of it turning into a real red ring scenario…”

Alicia 1 nodded. “Basically, we need to kill this before it starts,” she informed Vicki. “‘We’ meaning all of us in this case. ALPA, Coalition, House---all hands on deck.”

Vicki nodded silently. “How‘re you holding up, by the way? After---”

“I‘ve had worse,” Alicia admitted. “Still, losing…myself, the way I did at OSE….it’s not something I want to have to go through again. Ever.”

“Understandable,” DuBraul agreed. “A pseudo-red ring event isn’t going to something you’ll want to deal with more than once, either---assuming we can avert this one.” He coughed lightly, turning away from the rest of the group for a moment; Oberon picked up where he left off. “If Hannsen weren’t in hospital right now, he’d probably be running this show himself---which would make it a lot easier to expect what’s coming. As such, we don’t have the luxury of knowing what to expect from the fembots when/if they’re unleashed, or where they’ll be set loose. Hell, for all we know, the bastard could’ve turned them into Stylo carriers---would’ve turned them, if he weren’t in an iron lung right now.”

For a few tense seconds, nobody spoke.

It was Anton who eventually broke the silence. “We’ve already decided not to send out any further alerts until we know the full extent of the situation, so there won’t be a Castle Walls scenario---at least, not yet. If worse comes to worse---”

“It won‘t.”

Those two words drew every eye in the limo to Vicki. “Hannsen’s already done enough,” she muttered, “and he’s ruined too many lives to count…but even if he is still in the hospital, his stupid plan ends here.” Her eyes squeezed shut as the memories of Sharon Wilson and Raquel Sanderson returned; “I’m not letting him destroy anyone else,” she stated. “He’s done enough of that already, and I won’t let him, or even his stupid plans, be used by anyone, ever again.”

Everyone in the limo nodded their agreement. “Truer words have never been spoken,” Oberon mused.

“Good point,” Alicia agreed, “but we‘re going to need more than words to win this.”

Even as the conversation continued, Vicki found herself calculating various odds, probabilities and factors that might come into play against this fembot army Hannsen‘s allies had somehow amassed. Yes, the odds weren‘t exactly in her favor…

…but they‘d never been before, either.

So, she mused. This is what it feels like to be on one of those “fate of the world”-type missions…I have to admit, it feels kind of…exciting, maybe? As the ALPA convoy continued on its course, Vicki closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat. Like the late, great Dr. Thompson once said: Buy the ticket, take the ride…

…well, Doc, this ride is going to bring me through Hell and back.


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

I’m not even going to pretend that I’m enthusiastic about what’s going to be happening in San Jose soon, mainly because I’m still hearing the details about it. On the plus side (if it can even be called that), I now know that red rings aren’t just something that Xbox 360 owners have to worry about.

To put it simply, they‘re the ALPA’s worst nightmare.

Considering what I almost did to Matthew Hannsen…..

…never mind.

I could fill ten whole pages with my fears about this scenario, but that’s not who I am…and I really wish I hadn’t written that, because now I want to go into my fear that something about me was either left out or just changed completely by the upgrade last month. Wasting page space on it at this point would just make me less effective when the time comes for us to fight back against this whole red ring scenario thing, so I won’t go into it. What I will do is say this: Yes, I’m excited, a bit nervous---even scared, if you want to go that far.

Then again….

Considering all the stuff I‘ve put up with leading up to now, this may almost be anticlimactic…or it could be a Michael Bay-level insanity march, complete with explosions galore and no real resolution to anything.

I really hope that’s not how this turns out.

Whatever happens next, however insane this gets, I don’t want to lose control again…and if I do, I don’t want to know how far I’ll go.

Hopefully, things won‘t get bad enough for me to find out.

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


.To Be Concluded in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Valley of the Damned” coming this July to Fembot Central!


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