For Whom the Bells Toll

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V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary: August 23, 2011

Last night was the one of the worst nights of my life.

Maybe not top ten, possibly not even top twenty, but definitely top fifty.

Chasing an international cybercriminal across two continents is one thing, facing off against said cybercriminal and having to save the lives of three innocents (one of whom was a gynoid) is something else entirely…but I guess even that wasn’t enough to satiate Matthew Hannsen’s appetite for destruction. Just a few short hours after flying away from the Parthenon, Hannsen attacked the ALPA-funded hospital where his three former prisoners were staying---and the worst part is, I don’t even know which of them he took.

I barely got any time to recharge my backup power cells last night…or, for that matter, to activate Sleep Mode; as soon as the calls came in, I was told to grab my gear and head back to the safehouse.

Ten hours later…I’m on a beach in Singapore, waiting to meet my contact.

The news isn’t all bad, thankfully: I’ve got a few other Field Agents out here with me, and we’re getting some new equipment from HQ to help us out…but I still have a feeling that Hannsen is going to do whatever it takes to make our lives hell. He nearly killed three people last night, and I don’t even want to think about how many he’ll try to kill today just to prove some stupid point. All I know for sure is that he’s in Singapore, he’s basically re-kidnapped one of his prisoners from last night…and when I find him, I will make him pay for every second of hell he’s put me through.

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


Vicki saved the document and closed the Macbook, glancing around the beach as she shouldered her gear bag. Unlike nearly every other flight she’d embarked upon during the last few weeks, her trip to Singapore had been utterly chaotic, for lack of a better term. Oberon had stayed up all night calling airports in Greece to get the thing booked in the first place, and when he’d finally reached one that was willing to make last-minute changes to allow Vicki and her fellow Agents onto the plane, the manager of the airport got in a shouting match with him over the phone---not because of the schedule problems, but because the call had interrupted a soccer match.

At least I learned some fun new Grecian profanities, the brunette gynoid mused sarcastically. The incident had nearly ended with Oberon being reported to the police, until Stanislaus Pascalous intervened and promised to buy the airport manager tickets to the next match in the series.

Getting to the airport itself was another problem. The only way to make the flight on time was to drive by night, which was a bad idea in and of itself---but thanks to the same soccer match that the airport manager was trying to watch when Oberon had called, the traffic leading into (and going out of) Athens was atrocious. On no less than five separate occasions, Pascalous had nearly been forced to ditch the armored van used to bring the Field Agents to the airport; by the time they’d arrived, Pascalous and Oberon weren’t on speaking terms.

Seeing as how they got in a fistfight midway through the drive, Vicki recalled, I’m not all that surprised…

All memories of the fight faded from her mind as she noticed two figures approaching. The first was Alicia 5, looking considerably pissed off---which, given the fact that she’d been incapacitated by an EMP mine laid by Hannsen the previous night, was perfectly understandable.

As for the second figure…

Had it not been for Vicki’s internal sensors alerting her to the fact that the girl (college girl, to be specific---she’s got to be in her mid-to-late 20s at the very least) standing next to Alicia 5 was a gynoid, she probably wouldn’t have known. Whereas Stacy Tanque’s thin-yet-visible panel lines, “Miss Campbell’s” eye twitching or the Alicias’ identical appearances gave them away, the Malaysian girl looked perfectly normal---no plasticky sheen to her skin, no audible (even to Vicki’s auditory sensors) whine of servos as she moved…and this is why I always feel sorry for the people working on the Actroid.

“Before you say anything, Vicki,” Alicia 5 declared, snapping the brunette gynoid out of her revere, “I just got back from a phone call with Celeste---the House can’t provide any further assistance than having me out here.” She blew out a disgusted snort; “If this is her idea of working to build international trust,” she muttered, “I’m going to kick her ass….”

Vicki cleared her throat loudly.

“Oh, right. My insanely beautiful friend here is Sarina---envoy from the local ALPA offices.” The Malaysian girl smiled; “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Lawson,” she stated, her voice a pleasant contralto.

“Likewise. So….what’s the deal with Hannsen---“

“The deal with Hannsen is the least of our worries, Vicki,” Alicia 5 snapped. “Unless you want to see how badly corroded we’ll get from sitting around all this saltwater, we need to get the hell off the beach and into the nearest building….I am not going to go crawling back to HQ just because I got a little water up my---“

“I get it,” Vicki hastily replied, heading for the nearest sidewalk. Who pissed in her power cell this morning?

Ten minutes later, a noticably calmer Alicia 5 led Vicki and Sarina to the building that had been designated as their temporary base of operations during the Singapore mission. Unlike the Greek safehouse, this particular building wasn’t a preexisting structure given “upgrades” to function as a base---it was effectively a modern office building, owned by the ALPA and turned over to any operatives and/or teams who needed its services, which just so happened to include a full repair suite, satellite and WiFi throughout the building, a fully-stocked ALPA armory/supply depot, and even temporary living quarters.

“Welcome to your home away from home,” Alicia beamed.

Vicki tried to smile at the remark, only to remember what was happening at her true home. Jamie’s out of the hospital, Mom’s going back to her teaching job, and Dad… The thought of Ted worrying about her only stayed in the forefront of her thoughts for a second; with great difficulty, she turned the conversation to something less personal. “So, about this little jaunt of ours,” she mused. “I think I heard something about us getting a task force to bring Hannsen down?”

“You heard correctly,” a voice called from across the lobby; Vicki’s eyebrows arched in surprise as she saw James Lee Lassiter---twin brother of John Lee Lassiter, aka the Human Animal (and the protégé of the Butcher of Lake Gilmour)---striding towards her. “Nice uniform,” she remarked. “And you’ve already got a callsign?”

“Apparently, I’m something of a prodigy,” James teased, brushing off the “TALON” nameplate sewn into his vest. “I have you to thank for it, by the way---if you hadn’t suggested that I volunteer my services to the ALPA, I would’ve been stuck in a desk job…” He shrugged. “Guess life in the corporate world just wasn’t in the cards for me.” Good thing life as your brother’s fall guy wasn’t “in the cards” for you, either, Vicki mentally added, or else you might’ve been carted off to jail in his place… Her thoughts turned to the rest of the task force, which was comprised of Agents who’d already seen combat alongside her---Johnny Dash, from the raid on the fake Attic in February; Reaver and Jen, both of whom were eager to drag Hannsen back to prison after having endured monitoring duty at DragonTown, and Kylie Lyndon. From, the looks of things, each of them were just as eager to bring Hannsen to justice as she was.

“Right, now that we’re all here,” Alicia declared, “time to see what we’ll be dealing with. If you’ll all follow me…”

A two-minute walk down some otherwise nondescript hallways led the group to a meeting room, where they all turned in their weapons (standard ALPA policy---the last time someone had brought their sidearm into a meeting room, someone else had just so happened to spike the punch, leading to some rather unsurprisingly bloody results) and took their seats as Alicia wheeled a Smartboard into view.

“According to the intel we’ve been able to gather,” she informed the group, “Hannsen---what, Dash?”

Johnny Dash rose from his seat. “I was just wondering what you meant by ‘we’, seeing as---“

“The House and the ALPA are working together on this one,” Alicia informed him. “As I was saying, our---as in, SHARED between the House and the ALPA---intel has led us to believe that Hannsen may have infiltrated the offices of Omega System Enterprises, a Coalition-based company specializing in security systems…and, as our luck would have it, security androids. ALPA intelligence traced a phone call that implied Hannsen was going to be leaving Greece later in the week, but since that’s not the case anymore, we have to---“

Across the room, the door flew open---or would’ve flown open, had it not been for the design of the hinges. “I thought you weren’t starting the meeting without me,” Stacy Tanque declared, her 6’5” frame towering over the seated occupants of the room. To Vicki’s surprise (and amusement), Alicia didn’t flinch. “I was just about to mention you,” the blonde gynoid beamed. “Just have a seat, and---“

Stacy grabbed the microphone out of Alicia’s hand. “You didn’t even tell them that the Coalition is providing aide for this job, did you?” she intoned.

“I was getting to that---”

“You mean I’m getting to it.” Stacy’s glare subsided just enough for her to not throw the mic; “Seeing as how the Maestro---aka Matthew Hannsen---has targeted a Coalition company,” she informed the ALPA Agents, “I’ve been sent here as an…ambassador of the Coalition to aide and---oh, the hell with protocol! I’m here to help kick the Maestro’s ass, and if that’s not a good enough reason---“

“It is,” Alicia replied, “it definitely is…now can I have my microphone back?”

Stacy shot her a death glare, but handed over the microphone without complaining.

“Thanks….anyways, like I was saying, Omega Systems Enterprises just so happens to be a Coalition company that specializes in security systems, alarms, guardbots, blah blah blah. Long story short: we have a pretty clear-cut idea of why Hannsen’s hit them---Vicki?”

Just as Johnny had earlier, Vicki stood up. “He’s after their customer database.”

“Disco. Seeing as how his main goal is ripping people off, something like the OSE customer database would give him access to everyone who’s bought security equipment from them---including the master unlock codes that would turn off all of those systems. Miss Tanque, if you would…”

With an annoyed sigh, Stacy took the podium. “Omega Systems Enterprises has a…unique customer support feature,” she informed the ALPA Field Agents, “at least, unique to companies within the Coalition. Due to an increasing number of customers forgetting passwords, or not wanting their friends and relatives to be at the mercy of a security system that could turn them into salsa if they put in the wrong password, OSE has taken to including master unlock codes in every single product they sell. Alarm systems, camera networks…even their androids and gynoids are all hardwired with these codes.” She gestured at the screen behind her; “The most recent client of OSE, Ezekiel Henry Comstock, also happens to be my current employer,” she admitted, “and the Coalition has reason to believe that, by going after OSE, Hannsen is targeting Comstock specifically, for as-yet unknown reasons.”

“And this project he’s working on is….what, exactly?” Vicki inquired.

Stacy’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Normally,” she growled, “I’d tell you that it’s none of your business…but, in this case, I have to make an exception. Comstock is working with Darren Ignatius Blunderwitz---the only one of the Blunderwitz brothers still in the robotics business---to revive the Crystal City robotics project.” More than a few shocked gasps went up, along with an arched eyebrow from Sarina; Vicki herself had learned, shortly after joining the ALPA, that the Crystal City project had gone completely off the rails when the project head, Demitrius Blunderwitz, was caught in an explosion/radiation leak that cost him an arm, most of his lower body and---presumably---his sanity. Demitrius re-branded himself as “Doctor Proton” and reprogrammed every robot in Crystal City, dubbed “Shrapnel City” by the ALPA, to kill all human residents inside it.

To the public, of course, the name Dr. Proton---and the name of the man who’d beaten him---were more known for being characters in a DOS game that had been released before the Shrapnel City incident; that part still bugs me, Vicki reflected, her attention turning back to Stacy’s lecture just in time to catch a rather important tidbit of information.

“…and since Lawson Robotics wound up being cleared of all charges after the Shrapnel City incident, I don’t think I need to tell anyone here how things ended up…anyways, Comstock and Blunderwitz want to bring the Crystal City name back to its former prominence, and if they can get the new project started in 2013, it’ll go a long way towards making that vision a reality.” The verlette gynoid handed the mic back to Alicia; “I think that paints a pretty clear picture of why we’re all here,” she informed the group as Stacy returned to her seat. “And if any of you need more incentive, here it is: Comstock has connections with a lot of powerful people, especially in politics---and if Crystal City gets their blessing, all of us will benefit. If it doesn’t…”

Silence fell over the room.

“Glad to see we all appreciate the gravity of the situation. Reaver, if you would…” Alicia stepped aside as Eric took the podium. “The situation at OSE is…unusual, for a number of reasons,” he admitted. “For one, there’s the fact that Hannsen appears to have actually taken control of the entire high-rise---“

“Wait, what?!” Vicki gasped.

Eric glared at her. “I thought the situation was made clear in the brief, Agent Lawson…”

“The brief only said Hannsen was trying to gain control of the building,” Vicki corrected. “It didn’t say he was actually in the building---the guy’s a hacker, not Hans Gruber!” Immediately, she realized everyone in the room was now staring at her. …and here’s the part where Reaver tells me to get back on the plane…

“As unoorthodox as his tactics are,” Eric agreed, “that doesn’t change our mission.”

So I’m not getting back on the plane…. “How exactly do we go about, ah, removing him from the building, then?”

“Seeing as how the police have blocked all access into and out of it, we’re forgoing the usual ‘sweep and clear’ style of approach,” Eric replied. “There’s too much potential for collateral damage, civilian casualties, ambush points and crossfire scenarios. This also means that we won’t be sneaking into the building, so this won’t be another Silicon Dynamics job---and no, Agent Lawson, that was not me ‘making fun of you’.”

“I get it….though I don’t get how we’re supposed to get into the building---“

“We get in the same way the cops do…because, technically speaking, we are the cops. At least for this job.”

Again, silence fell over the room.

“It’ll all make sense tomorrow morning when we get there---the entire area’s blocked off tonight, since Hannsen decided to start throwing tear gas grenades out of the windows. In the meantime, Sarina will be showing off some of the new gear we’ll be getting for this job, so if you’d all follow her…”

A few minutes later, the group entered the building’s armory---and Vicki couldn’t help but feel like she’d just stepped into a spy movie. “This is the latest-issue ALPA security, containment and protection gear available,” Sarina informed the group, gesturing at a table loaded with gear. “This, for instance, is an OmnEye round.” She held up a lightbulb-sized mass of metal and plastic. “It loads into a tear-gas grenade launcher, and is fired at a wall----“

“What’s it do?” Johnny inquired.

“Spoilers,” Alicia teased.

The group moved on to the next piece of kit on the table: a slim device that, to Vicki, looked a bit…useless. “Is that supposed to be protective gear for our hands, or something?” she asked. “I mean, it just looks like---“ She stopped, staring as Sarina slid the device into her palm, literally, via a slit in her hand.

“It’s not as painful as it looks,” the Malaysian gynoid assured her. “These speciallized palm phones are keyed to their owner’s specific OS, so once you get one, only you can use it. They’re completely hack-proof, and can be used to call iPhones, landlines and other phones without the risk of being traced. Other than the installation process, there’s no real downside to using them…though they only work with artificial beings like yourself, Agent Lawson.”

Stacy Tanque nodded her approval. “Outstanding. Hand it over.”

“You’ll get your loadout tomorrow morning,” Eric informed her. “Over here, we have---“

“What do you mean, ‘tomorrow morning’?!” Stacy shot back, only for Jen to give her a warning glare.

“I’m guessing we don’t get any grappling hooks, or anything,” Johnny mused. “I mean, are we even getting the usual night-vision goggles and stuff---and what the hell is with ‘sweep and clear’, while I’m thinking about it? I mean---“

Vicki cleared her throat again. “Those are all…sort of valid points,” she admitted, “but I think there are a few more important questions we should be asking: What has Hannsen done to take over the OSE building, how do we keep him from causing any more damage than he probably already has, and will we be getting any backup for this mission or going it alone?”

“We don’t know the answer to the first,” Alicia admitted. “As for the second---you’ll find out tomorrow. Backup is sort of a non-priority right now, since our main focus is stopping Hannsen.”

Eric nodded his agreement. “Every second Hannsen has control of the OSE building,” he added, “more lives are at risk…and that’s not even the worst of it. Either we get him out of there, or OSE will activate every single guardbot in the building, and they’re not going to care if Hannsen’s dead or alive when they bring him out. The ALPA has agreed to cooperate with the local police on the condition that nobody out of our number tries to kill Hannsen---”

“That’s your problem,” Stacy muttered. “Seeing as how I’m not ‘out of your number’, I think I’m pretty much---”

“You’re not exempt,” Alicia 5 interjected. “In fact, if you’re the one who puts a bullet between Hannsen’s eyes, I think the ALPA and the House will gladly bring you up on charges for it---Jen, I appreciate the thought,” she added, noticing Jen moving to restrain Stacy, “but I can take her---”

A loud thud caught everyone’s attention.

“Sorry,” Vicki apologized, “thought there was a mosquito on my desk or something….”

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Alicia 5 and Stacy returned to their seats.

“Tomorrow morning,” Eric declared, “we’ll be heading for the OSE building. Right now, everyone needs to get some rest and prepare…and you might want to brush up on your cover stories, because Singapore isn’t really a country that’s famous for hospitality to artificial sentient beings. They only know that OSE makes alarms and security cameras---we haven’t told them about the other stuff, so---”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Vicki cut in. “Singapore is anti-A.I. country?”

Eric stared at her. “They’re not ‘anti-A.I.’,” he corrected, “they just aren’t fans of androids and gynoids. A lot of the ALPA and Coalition companies operating out here have to stick to secondary markets so that the locals don’t have them thrown out. Most of them make software, like OSE; some others just hire themselve out as ‘computer specialists’ and take whatever work they can get. Long in a short: treat this as a mission in hostile territory. You get damaged, repair it to the best of your abilities and move on, ‘cause you won’t get to drop by the nearest repair shop to get fixed.”

Stacy scoffed at the news. “Not a problem for me. I’ve got contacts in---”

“No you don’t. We do this alone---no outside help, no ‘contacts’ and no running away from the fight. As it is, the police are only helping us because Hannsen is an international criminal; if he was a nobody, we’d be on our own.”

The meeting continued for a few more minutes, with Sarina explaining why the emphasis was on minimizing potential civilian casualties and property damage instead of just running in and pulling a Rambo. “The current situation regarding the ALPA and Coalition in Singapore is…delicate,” she informed the Field Agents. “Every company under the banner of either group must sign forms, make agreements and generally do their best to avoid antagonizing the government; if anyone goes out of their way to ignore the agreement…”

“The misdeeds of the few lead to punishment for the many,” Vicki muttered.

Sarina nodded sadly. “It’s effectively a stalemate---those who know what goes on have the power to protect or persecute every robotics company in Singapore, and if they aren’t able to keep a low profile or afford to pay off the fines charged by local officials…”

“We get it,” Vicki murmured.

“Good,” Eric replied. “And you should also understand that the ALPA isn’t just here in Singapore for any of that ‘build bridges and mend fences’ crap---we’ve got more than enough allies in this part of the world as it is, and if the government here wants to piss all over our efforts in the press, I won’t stand in their way. We’re here to get Hannsen out of the OSE building and keep him from wrecking things more than they’re already wrecked, not to start an ‘international envoy of understanding’….everyone clear on that?”

A resounding chorus of affirmatives rang throughout the meeting room.

“Outstanding. This meeting is adjourned.”

With that, the Field Agents disembarked from the room to find their living quarters; Vicki was on her way to join them when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Whatever happens tomorrow,” Alicia 5 told her, “I just wanted to tell you…” She hesitated. “If this is an invitation to join the House,” Vicki began, only for Eric to interrupt them. “Alicia, phone call!” The blonde gynoid muttered a quick “Good luck” and headed off to answer the phone. Wonder what that was all about, Vicki mused. She was about to say something before the phone rang…eh, I guess if it’s important enough, it can wait. She headed off to her room, reflecting on everything that had been said during the meeting---and, more importantly, going over the details of tomorrow’s mission. As night fell on Singapore, none of the ALPA/Coalition task force members slept easy; deep down, each one of them knew that something might go wrong the next day.

None of them knew how right they were…

As dawn broke over Singapore the next day, the mood throughout most of the city was peaceful. Citizens slept for a few more hours, temporarily freed from all worries that plagued their waking lives…

…except for those who were already awake, especially if they were near the OSE building.

A phalanx of police officers (surprisingly, it was a literal phalanx, rather than just a bunch of guys standing in a line like pawns on a chessboard) had secured the front entrance overnight, and as the ALPA/Coalition task force arrived, the local cops were just finishing up the door-breaching. They stood aside as soon as the riot tank---driven by a heavily-armored and helmet-wearing Alicia 5---pulled up to the fully-breached door, its troops deploying as soon as the massive rear door of the tank opened. None of the police officers saw anything other than a quick blur of movement through the building’s tinted windows---and even that glimpse was short, as the security shutters closed over them mere seconds later.

The riot tank pulled away from the building not long after that, allowing its former occupants---now safely inside and away from the prying eyes of the locals---to discard their extraneous armor and helmets.

“Right,” Vicki declared, “next time we need to enter a building without being noticed, I’m going for the ‘sneak in at night and jump the fence’ option…and no, I’m not just saying that because I now have a REALLY bad case of helmet hair…although it is a major pain.” She blew a few loose locks of hair out of her eyes. “Anyways, now that we’re actually in the building…”

Something in the corner of the room burst to life in a squeal of static; every Field Agent present drew their guns and prepared to fire...

….and were rewarded for their quick thinking by an all-too familiar dry chuckle. “Jumpy bunch of idiots, aren’t we?” the Maestro taunted. “First sign of trouble, and a quiet lobby turns into the OK Corral…anyways, you’re all here, and I’m obviously here, so…what exactly are we going to do about that?”

“Save the speeches, Hannsen,” Eric declared. “We’re here to---”

“You are here,” the Maestro’s voice interrupted, “because your incompetent superiors don’t want me starting an international incident…which, by the way, is utterly hilarious, considering the state of world affairs these days. I mean, they’re more worried about me than, say, the political situation in North and South Korea, or any number of dictatorial regimes still in charge out there in the Middle East---oh, that’s right, they don’t actually care about the affairs of ordinary human beings unless there’s a glorified calculator living with them!”

Alicia 5 casually tossed her helmet aside, revealing (to Vicki’s annoyance) that her hair had survived the ride intact. “Hate to break it to you, Hannsen,” she sweetly interjected, “but this isn’t just the ALPA---the Coalition and the House are involved, too…and as for world politics, they are keeping an eye on things, so---”

“If I wanted to hear your voice,” the Maestro spat, “I’d stick a power line in your recharge port and listen to the screams…” The sentence ended with his trademark chuckle; “Ah, there I go forgetting what happened the last time I tried to tangle with the House,” he mused. “Aside from that, I don’t think your Matriarch would be too happy with me for something like that…or are you too worried about your own shelf-life to even think of what dear, sweet Celeste would do if I even laid a finger on you?”

Shelf-life? What’s he talking about? Vicki glanced at Alicia 5, expecting her to look unimpressed---

---only to notice a spasm of fear crossing the blonde gynoid’s face.

“The only one who’s going to be screaming before this is done is you,” Stacy interjected. “Stealing me from Comstock’s house was bad enough, but treating me like a glorified Barbie doll….” Her bright green fingernails dug into her palms as her fists clenched. “That earned you a one-way ticket to the Intensive Care unit---”

A hand touched her forearm. “Don’t,” Vicki warned. “He’ll just keep taunting you until you snap…”

“Oh, save it, Lawson,” the Maestro drawled. “None of them want to hear you being a self-righteous idiot with delusions of importance…next thing you know, you’ll be trying to save the day all by your lonesome---which, by the way, will only end up with you getting scrapped within a matter of seconds, so unless you want and/or need any assistance getting to the junk pile, then do yourself and your teammates a big favor and just listen.”

Vicki nodded. “We’re all ears.”

“Good….because what I’m about to say may very well mean the difference between you useless sods actually saving lives here today…and watching those same lives get snuffed out by me.”

None of the Field Agents said a word.

“Every single floor of this highrise building has been, shall we say, rigged---using the same products Omega Systems Enterprises sells under the pretense of defending life and limb. Now, under ‘normal’ circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem even for you lot; all you’d need to overcome the system is the master unlock codes and the override terminal, and every single trap I’ve set would be completely and utterly undone….except there’s a slight problem with that. See, I’M the one who currently has the master unlock codes, and as for that override terminal…” A dry, humorless laugh punctuated the statement. “Well, let’s just say it’s got one hell of a deterrent for anyone who even thinks about trying to get to it.”

Another glance around the room confirmed Vicki’s suspicions; none of them want to hear another word out of Hannsen’s mouth, she noted. Not surprising…especially considering the fact that I don’t want to hear another word out of him.

“Now, you’re all probably wondering what, exactly, this means as far as removing me from the building,” the Maestro continued, “though in all fairness, you should be worried about the poor, defenseless civilians I’ve got locked in here with me. Actually, now that I think about it, those two issues are connected…because those poor, defenseless civilians are as royally screwed as all of you.” The laugh emanating from the Tannoy turned sinister; “Most of ‘em aren’t even aware of what the hell’s happening, by the way,” the cybercriminal added with unbridled glee, “and I’ve even taken the liberty of blindfolding, handcuffing and otherwise impeding the progress of anyone who just wants to climb out of a window---meaning that they’re as vulnerable to my traps as all of you---and come to think of it, I think we’re about to see one of my favorite death-dealing devices springing into action as we speak!”

A TV on the far side of the room switched on---probably remote controlled from wherever Hannsen’s holed up, Vicki mused---and the Field Agents had to force themselves not to scream. A 70-something man, his eyes and ears wrapped with duct tape to keep him from seeing or hearing anything around him, was stumbling through a hallway and screaming in Vietnamese. “Yeah, he got stuck in the Hall of Razors earlier,” the Maestro admitted, “so he’s not exactly in the best shape---OOH, wait, he’s getting closer….”

Ignoring the deranged giggle from the Tannoy, Vicki focused on the monitor---and felt like breaking it as soon as she realized what Hannsen was so enthusiastic about. The man in the hallway was blindly making his way towards a three-foot high steel cylinder in the center of the room…unaware that the thing was connected to---

“He’s about to hit the tripwire!” Alicia 5 gasped. “He’ll set it off---”

On the screen, the man tripped over his own feet, falling face-first into the wire. For a few seconds, it seemed as if the cylinder was a dud, meant only to frighten potential intruders…except the screams that rang through the lobby from the TV speakers moments later proved that theory to be completely wrong.

“That’s mustard gas,” Eric droned. “The son of a bitch put CS gas in the fire supression systems!”

“Correctamundo!” the Maestro beamed. “Try to cheap your way out of this by getting all blowey-uppy, and any organic elements in your group will be effectively laid low by some high quality, WWII-era mustard gas that’s damn near guaranteed to add an extra bit of pain to your day!”

Every ALPA Field Agent in the room forced themselves to look away from the images of the man writhing in agony on the floor---just as Stacy yanked the TV’s plug out of the wall. “Enough of this crap, Hannsen,” she growled. “Either tell us what your game is, or---“

“That’s actually a pretty nice way of putting it,” the Maestro agreed. “The ‘game’, therefore, is this: You lot get to wherever I’ve decided to hole up in the building, and put an end to my reign over this facility…or die like the worthless lot of dogs you are trying to get to me. Considering some of your track records in your respective fields of employment, I think it’s a safe guess that I know exactly who’s going to do the kicking-in-doors bit, and which of you will by dying like the proverbial dogs…not that there’s really a difference, because from where I’m sitting---”

The speakerbox exploded in a shower of plastic, metal and sparks.

“Before anyone jumps on me for shooting that thing,” James declared, “you might want to take a look at what’s still hooked up to the speaker mount…” He gestured towards the ruined speaker. “Think you might find it a bit interesting.”

Eric shook his head in disbelief as Alicia 5 plucked a small Perspex box containing at least 3 USB drives, an SD card and a pinhole camera from the mount. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “I thought Hannsen was just kidding with all that ‘game’ crap, but now…Alicia, hold onto those flash drives until we can find a computer terminal. I want to know exactly what’s on them.”

“You sure you want to use any of the computers in this place?” Jen inquired. “Hannsen’s probably---”

“I don’t give a damn what Hannsen’s ‘probably’ done,” Eric snapped. “We find a computer, analyze the data and keep moving. If ANYONE HERE has a problem with that…” He glanced around the room, almost daring someone to say something.

Predictably, nobody said a word.

“Thought so.” Eric turned and headed towards the nearest elevator.

“I’d ask if he was always this high-strung,” Vicki whispered to Jen, “but something tells me I don’t want to know the answer…” She glanced at the elevator bank on the other side of the room, where Eric was punching the “door open” button (in the literal sense of the word) and muttering under his breath. “I’m guessing Hannsen knows about his issues; either that, or---”

“I don’t have to guess,” Jen quietly replied. “He does know…he proved it earlier this week, when Eric and I were on monitoring duty at DragonTown.”

Vicki’s eyes widened in shock; they put Eric on monitoring duty at DragonTown?! “Is he…okay? I mean---”

“He’s fine now,” Jen admitted, “but…the Maestro was trying to provoke him. He pulled that routine on every single person assigned to monitor duty there…and Eric wasn’t even the first one who snapped.” She glanced across the room, where James and Johnny were trying to restrain Eric from breaking the elevator control buttons. “Before he joined the ALPA, he had a career in law enforcement, and…he made a few mistakes on the job---the kind of mistakes that, well….”

“I get it,” Vicki murmured.

After a few more minutes of patiently (or impatiently, in Eric’s case) waiting, the elevator doors opened. The Field Agents managed to fit in without crowding or going over the weight limit; as a chime filled the lift car and the doors closed, Vicki silently hoped that everything would go smoothly.

Had she known what awaited them, she might’ve hoped for something a bit more…concrete…

A few short days ago, the seventh floor of the Omega Systems Enterprises building had seen a lavish office party celebrating the long, productive career---and well-deserved retirement---of a senior manager who had spent more than half his life working in the field of security systems development and production. Banners hung from the light fixtures gave the usually austere settings a festive look, and the staff had danced to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” and other party classics for hours on end.

Now, the entire seventh floor looked like a scene straight out of a Die Hard film.

Bullet holes marked the formerly spotless walls; framed pictures of those who’d been celebrating a few days prior now lay shattered and broken on the floor amidst the debris. Other mementos from the party---streamers, noisemakers and even a banner that had hung on the walls---sat ruined and useless, mere shells of what they had once been.

Across the room, the entities that had caused this damage stood dormant, waiting…

Both were humanoid, looking like 6’4” men clad in jet-black body armor with full face-shielding helmets; each of the two carried a sleek rifle with a mirrored finish that matched (or even rivaled) their armor, with a scope, laser sight and something that looked like a flashlight attached to the stock and barrel. Thanks to the layout of the floor, neither of them could see the elevator doors opening---a block of cubicles obscured their line of sight, which made it impossible for them to notice the eight individuals at a half-crouched run towards the nearest vantage point.

“Spartan-class humanoid sentry units,” James muttered, shaking his head as the rest of the team exited the elevator. “The sales pitch sounds like it was taken word-for-word from a RoboCop 4 script…they’re mainly designed and programmed for private peremiter defense, pursuit and bodyguard work.”

“Whoop-de-freaking do,” Stacy muttered. “How do we get rid of them?”

Vicki gave her a look. “You want to go around trashing OSE property fifteen minutes in?”

“I want to get the hell out of here with all my vital components intact,” Stacy shot back, scowling at the brunette gynoid. “Yes, Hannsen was a complete bastard when he grabbed me from Comstock’s office and took off like a thief---and yes, I still want to rip his throat out for having treated me like an overgrown Barbie doll before he turned me loose against you…but this is starting to feel like a bad idea. We don’t have enough weapons to outlast those things in a firefight---”

“Actually, we’re pretty lucky,” James quietly informed her. “The Titan-class sentries---”

Heavy footsteps prompted him to shut up and flatten himself against the wall as much as possible. A few short seconds later, the wall right next to the elevator the Field Agents had taken to reach the seventh floor opened up, revealing another Spartan-class sentry, as well as a newcomer---a feminine figure with polished white PVC armor covering her entire body, except for the rose-tinted Perspex visor built into her helmet. James let out a low whistle; “That’s a 4RT-IM35,” he murmured. “OSE was going to debut them at the Expo last year, but they had to delay the presentation due to some software issues…” He noticed the other Agents glancing at him with curious looks. “John Lee pretty much forced me to read up on everything robotics-related,” he admitted.

“Think they fixed those software problems?” Stacy inquired. “I’ve got a few things I could transmit---”

A hand grabbed her wrist. “No,” Alicia 5 warned. “No transmissions, no remote bot-jackings, no tricks. If we stoop to the Maestro’s level, it’ll just make it easier for him to find us and blow us to Hell. As weird as it’s going to sound, especially from me…we need to do this by the book.”

Kylie nodded her agreement. “I don’t think Mr. DuBraul will want to hear why we got our asses shot off---”

“Fine,” Stacy growled. “We do it ‘by the book’…but if that doesn’t work…”

“It’ll work,” Vicki assured her. “Assuming, of course, Alicia actually tells us which book we’re going by….”

The blonde gynoid rolled her eyes. “You have nothing to worry about, Vicki,” she assured her fellow gynoid, “I happen to be an expert at following ALPA procedure to the letter…and in the event that there’s no procedure on the books for something, I just make one up and go with it.” She grinned. “It hasn’t failed me yet, by the way,” she added, “so don’t get too worried about it.

Stacy shook her head in disgust. “This is the best the House could send us?”

“She’s a lot better than you give her credit for,” Vicki reminded her, “and seeing as how she’s actually making suggestions and all that stuff….” A death glare from the verlette gynoid convinced her to quit while she was ahead.

“Okay, so the plan thus far is taking shape pretty quickly,” Alicia admitted. “First, though---”

“The next words out of your mouth had better not be ‘I need someone to serve as the distraction’,” Stacy cut in, nearly elbowing Vicki out of the way to get right in the blonde House gynoid’s face, “and even if they are, you’d better not send me out there as anything even remotely resembling ‘bait’, ‘a decoy’, ‘a diversion’ or anything else that doesn’t involve beating the holy high Hell out of those sentries. I didn’t come here to run out and yell ‘LOOK AT ME, I’M A TARGET’ or anything like that---”

Alicia clamped her hand over Stacy’s mouth. “If you don’t want to be a target,” she whispered, “then shut up and let me explain my plan.”

“You might want to explain it quickly,” Jen suggested, “since the sentries are coming this way!”

“Good,” Alicia 5 beamed.

Jen, Kylie, Eric, James, Johnny and Stacy all stared at the blonde gynoid as if her processors had just caught fire. “Ah, you do realize that them coming this way is a bad thing, right?” Vicki inquired. “Not to mention the fact that they’re armed with…wait, Alicia, why are you crawling over towards---what are you doing?!”

“My job,” the blonde gynoid replied with a grin before disappearing around the corner of the cubicle.

“She’s lost it,” Stacy muttered. “She’s completely blown a fuse. If they spot her---when they spot her, we’ll be rounded up and shot…or probably just shot.” She transitioned from a crouch to a kneel as she spoke, clasping her hands behidn her head; “Maybe if I comply before they even get here,” she deadpanned, “they’ll let me join up with them instead of scrapping me---“ Her next words came out as an infuriated, muffled yell---she’d been knocked to the floor by Vicki. “Even though her, ah, ‘plan’ looks like anything but,” she admitted, “I think Alicia may be onto something, so I’d appreciate it if nobody else assumed the position for the time being and just gave A5 the benefit of the doubt---”

A few feet away, something exploded in a burst of purple light.

“That was a Thales Solaris X90,” Vicki quietly stated, motioning for the others to get a look. “They’re the only power cells that give off a purple light when they malfunction---either Alicia 5 just took out one of the sentries, or she’s got one hell of a plan---”

Another brilliant purple flash lit up a cubicle twenty feet away.

“Don’t tell me that was a Solaris, too,” Reaver groaned. “Is she trying to get us killed?!”

“She’s trying to keep the sentries busy,” Vicki reiterated. “So far, she hasn’t gotten any of us injured, damaged, captured or killed---and she’s also clearing the path for us to keep moving. As long as we’re able to get past the sentries’ post, we should at least make an effort to---”

Several more purple flashes, accompanied by an all-too female voice yelling “YEE-HAW!” and other “cowboy-ish” sayings at random intervals, rang through the air a few feet away. “Like I said,” Vicki continued with a nervous grin, “she’s keeping them busy…” …although I’d love to know how “keeping them busy” involves yelling “yee haw”, she mentally added, turning away just in time to keep the others from noticing her scowl.

Eventually, the purple flashes (and the yelling) subsided, followed soon after by Alicia 5 literally skipping back towards the group, a mischevious grin on her face. “Well, the sentries won’t be a problem any more,” she beamed. “Now, then---”

“What did you do to them?” Stacy groaned.

Alicia’s grin widened. “Nothing much….just threw a few of these.” She opened a compartment on her belt (oh, you have got to be kidding me---she actually brought a utility belt for this?!) and pulled out two small metallic cyllinders, almost the same size as an old-school Kodak film canister. “Cascade disruptor charges. Celeste insisted I bring ‘em along, just in case something came up…and seeing as how something did come up, with these sentries being the first obstacle in our way---”

“You could’ve fried us all!”

The rest of the team stared, somewhat shocked, as Vicki stared down Alicia. “Cascade disruptors have been banned from the ALPA,” she coldly stated, “because they carry a risk of permanently wrecking the power cells of any android or gynoid in the vicinity…and they run on carcinogenic chemicals! If you’d dropped one of those at the wrong time, you could’ve fried Jen, Stacy and yourself---not to mention me---and given Reaver, Talon, Johnny and Kylie cancer!” She stepped forward---slowly---with every word, until she was mere inches away from Alicia’s face, allowing her to grab the blonde gynoid by the collar to emphasize her next question:

“What the HELL were you thinking?!”

Maddeningly, Alicia didn’t flinch---and even worse, she started laughing.

“ANSWER ME!”

“Oh, Vicki,” Alicia cooed, “always thinking that ‘your team’ is always the gallant heroic side of the coin, and that everyone else is either the bad guys or morally ambiguous…” She sighed. “If I hadn’t thrown those charges, the sentries---including the ones who were hiding in the fake wall behind where you were camped out---more than likely wouldn’t have had any difficulties in cutting all of you down in a crossfire.” Something about her expression looked positively venomous; “And for the record,” she added, “you’re welcome---”

Reaver and Talon barely had time to duck as Vicki hurled Alicia 5 across the room.

“What the hell?!” Kylie gasped. “Vicki, she’s on our side---”

“She doesn’t believe in ‘sides’,” the brunette gynoid coldly replied. “She’s here to make sure the House gets their name in the headlines of the next ALPA/Coalition bullitens…no matter who else gets killed or scrapped in the process.” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Take her weapons. All of them.”

Johnny motioned for Alicia to hand over her belt. “You’re making a mistake, Vicki,” she calmly intoned.

“My only mistake was letting you get repaired after you stepped on that EMP mine.”

Even with their nearly-emotionless delivery, those words prompted a profound change in Alicia---her calm, somewhat triumphant look faded into a genuinely hurt expression. “That…was crossing the line,” she murmured. “You didn’t have to---”

“Save it. Everyone, back in the elevator…we have a criminal to apprehend.”


The mood in the lift car was positively caustic as Reaver, Talon and Johnny stood in front of Alicia 5. “Vicki, you’ve got this whole thing all wrong,” she insisted. “I didn’t bring the charges along just for the hell of it----they were supposed to be a last resort thing---”

“And yet you wasted them on entry-level guardbots.”

“They were too heavily armored for anything else! I didn’t want---”

“What you want and don’t want are no concerns of mine. You could’ve killed this entire team if one of those things had gone off before you intended to use them---every Field Agent knows that Cascade Disruptor Charges are no longer allowed as op-standard ordinance---which, by the way, is the exact opposite of your earlier ‘by the books’ remark .” Vicki barely turned to glance over her shoulder; “That’s two strikes against you,” she added. “Using illegal weaponry…and being a pathetic hypocrite.”

Once again, the brunette gynoid’s words hit Alicia just as hard as a slap to the face. “You think I’m pathetic?” she countered. “You think I’m just a self-serving sexbot who’s in this for the attention?!”

“You haven’t proven me wrong so far---”

“YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL I’VE BEEN THROUGH!” Alicia screamed. “You weren’t there when I was first online---you never saw what the House had to deal with after Iran-Contra!”

Vicki turned, staring at Alicia with a “what did you just say?” look. “What does Iran-Contra---”

“They didn’t just sell weapons,” the blond gynoid sobbed, “they were selling androids. Any company that had a surplus of ‘humanoid autonomous robots’ was forced to hand them over to the military for reprogramming, retrofitting and anything else that would turn them into the perfect little tin soldiers that Ollie North wanted to give the rebels…except they didn’t check the manifests. There were sleepers waiting to be delivered to their families that got shipped off because of Iran-Contra….” Tears streaked down her face. “My family…all five of them…I was supposed to be the oldest daughter, as part of a mobile surveilance team…and instead….I wasn’t even an orphan!” She collapsed to the floor of the lift car, her entire body spasming from her cries.

For Vicki, the news hit like a ten-ton hammer. “I…I didn’t know…”

“I did.”

Every gaze in the room turned to stare at Talon. “We…John and I….did a lot of hacking back in the days when I was still swapping lives with him,” he admitted, “and one of the things we…stumbled upon, for lack of a better term…was a secure archive on a House-affiliated server. The documents inside had Federal seals---”

“Did they have anything on Iran-Contra?”

“Everything on that server was about Iran-Contra. They weren’t just sending surplus droids, either---a lot of the robotics companies in the 80s were actually considering the mass-production of ‘autonomous humanoid robots designed specifically for warfare’. Basically….”

“They wanted Terminators.” Vicki shook her head. “And I haven’t heard about this until now…why?”

None of the others in the lift car could answer her…but someone else in the building did.

“Are you really that surprised, Agent Lawson?” the Maestro taunted. “I’m surprisd you haven’t figured it out on your own---people like the idea of sending off robot soldiers to get blown to pieces instead of John Q. Public or Joe Sixpack. Hell, if it wasn’t for the ALPA, you’d probably be a---”

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

A somewhat staticky chuckle sounded from the tannoy. “Always one to cut to the chase…I like that. The fact is, Miss Lawson, your blonde honeypot over there has a pretty good point: Nobody cared. They wanted the total package---Rambo’s brain in RoboCop’s body---and they did not give two shits about ‘sleepers’ or any of that nonsense. To them, robots were things…not people. I’m still amazed that old Teddy Boy ever bothered with giving you the gift of free will and something even remotely resembling sentience in the first place---”

One SCEMP round through the speaker ended the Maestro’s rant. “Give Alicia her weapons back,” Vicki quietly instructed. “All of them.”

“But---”

A hollow, resounding clang filled the lift car---which, coupled with the sight of the massive dent Vicki’s fist had left in the wall of the thing, persuaded everyone to stow their complaints. Talon and Reaver handed Alicia her utility belt and sidearm, never taking their eyes off of Vicki for a moment.

“Vicki?” Kylie whispered. “Is everything---”

“Stacy,” the brunette gynoid declared, “see if you can tap into the building’s surveilance systems and locate the floor that Hannsen’s on. Look for any other human lifesigns, as well---any of the workers who might be trapped here, or the patient taken from the hospital back in Greece before we left. Reaver, Talon, call HQ and have them perform a secure search of the House servers, looking for anything related to the Iran-Contra deal---and ask them to have those documents delivered to Oberon by tomorrow.” She nearly pulled Johnny off his feet as she tightened his helmet strap; “The way you’re wearing that thing, it’ll fall off your head after it takes a single bullet,” she muttered. “Three clicks is tight enough---what, Kylie?”

“I….jus wanted to know if everything was okay,” Kylie stammered. “I mean, you…and Alicia….the way you were yelling at her---”

“Everything is not okay, Kylie. I acted like a complete bitch on the grounds that Alicia was here to steal the spotlight and get recognized for helping bring Hannsen to justice…and then I find out that the family she was meant for was shipped off to another country without even knowing who or what they were.” Vicki shook her head; “I didn’t even know she had a family until now,” she muttered. “I just thought she was built, programmed and given sentience by the House…”

A pair of arms wrapped around her. “s’alright,” Alicia 5 whispered tearfully, resting her chin on the brunette gynoid’s shoulder. “There’s a lot that you don’t know about me…about us---the Alicias, I mean…like how Steak Sauce technically isn’t the first me to exist…it’s complicated.”

“I get it,” Vicki quietly replied.

“Well, I sure as shit don’t,” Reaver complained. “One minute, you two are ready to kick each other’s heads in because of some Cascade Disruptor Charges, and the next you’re kissing and making up?! What the hell is going on here?! And why in the hell did she---” Jen pressed her finger over Reaver’s lips. “Less shouting, more listening,” she advised. “This whole mission might be compromising Alicia 5’s mental stability---if it hasn’t already---”

“It’s not.”

Jen glanced at Stacy; “And you know this…how?” she asked.

“I’ve got scanners that detect emotional alterations and signs of significant stress in android/gynoid thought patterns,” the verlette gynoid replied, “and right now, Alicia’s thoughts are a hell of a lot clearer than one might think they are.” She shook her head, as if to admit (however reluctantly) that the gynoid was better than even she’d expected. “I don’t know if it’s just the multi-generational memory/personality transfers, or what, but those tears aren’t tears of sadness…”

The elevator door slid open with a ping, putting an abrupt end to the emotional analysis session. “Weapons up, people,” VIcki declared. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us out there---”

“Then allow me to enlighten you.”

An audible groan went up from everyone inside the lift car. “Any chance you can find the next set of speakers and shoot them out, Vicki?” Reaver quietly asked. “I’m starting to get real sick of that guy talking…”

“Oh, very funny,” the Maestro’s voice drawled, “especially coming from the loose cannon cop---I mean, former FBI Agent who couldn’t tell the difference between a drug bust and a birthday party! Honestly, how many nights of sleep did you lose after that little incident, ‘Agent Reaves’? Or did you just drown your sorrows in the bottle like dear old Dad---”

Every light fixture in the vicinity flickered.

“Ah, right, sorry I forgot to mention it,” the Maestro admitted, “but it seems my upgrades to this admittedly boring building have put a bit of a strain on the power grid---meaning you lot might want to finish your business here in a rather timely fashion, unless you have a strong desire to see anyone else stuck in here going mad from heat exhaustion, among other things. Oh, and I’d strongly suggest that you get as far away from the lift as you possibly can, starting….now.”

Vicki barely had time to yell “OUT OF THE ELEVATOR, NOW!” before she heard the cable snap---

---followed soon after by Alicia, Jen and even Stacy pushing everyone else out of the car and leaping for the floor, all to the cacophonous sound of the Maestro’s laughter.

“That son of a bitch,” Stacy growled, “is going to wish I’d just kneecapped him.”

“When did you ever kneecap him?” Alicia gasped.

“Never….but when I find him, he’ll wish that’s all I’d do,” the verlette replied.

“Save the vengeful thoughts for later,” Vicki suggested. “Hannsen wasn’t kidding about the power grid---I just tapped into the system; that flicker was a sign of a massive drain in power output from all five generators, including the backups. Whatever he’s got planned for us…I don’t think the OSE offices are going to survive.”

Johnny arched an eyebrow. “Buildings can stay standing without electricity,” he mused.

“True,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “but this one probably has a few ‘extra surprises’ built in by Hannsen to make sure we all get squashed like roaches as soon as he’s finished toying with us…and that’s if he doesn’t’ overload the generators to the point where they basically go up like Roman candles. We need to finish up here and rescue anyone who may need rescuing…after we show Hannsen why screwing around with us is a terminally bad idea.”

Alicia 5 nodded her agreement. “Think we should find another elevator first?”

“Knowing Hannsen,” Vicki replied, “every elevator will be rigged---look for stairs. Oh, and Alicia---”

“You don’t have to apologize again, Vicki,” the blonde gynoid replied. “I was an idiot for bringing the CDCs, and the way you reacted was…proportionate to the offense committed, if I remember the rulebook correctly. Well, except for the part where you threw me across the room….but even considering that---water under the bridge.”

Vicki couldn’t help but grin. “Glad to hear it. OKAY, PEOPLE---let’s find some stairs!”

With that, the intrepid team of Field Agents, House operatives and “independents” continued onward…

…and about fifteen minutes later, found out that taking the stairs up to the next floor was just as dangerous as using the elevators had been.

“He’s mined the stairs,” Stacy growled, shaking her head in disgust. “That son of a whore mined every damn stairway on this floor---and probably in the whole building, too!” She nearly threw Johnny back when he tried to take a step forward; “You want to lose a leg that badly?!” she hissed.

“I was just going to check for pressure plates or---”

“Allow me to correct my earlier statement,” the verlette gynoid replied. “He didn’t just mine the stairway---he mined the supports, too. All I did was run a cursory scan on those things---a passive scan---and I can tell you right now that if you so much as fart in the wrong direction while you’re on those steps, it’s likely to set off the whole damn thing and blow us all to Hell…so keep your mouth shut and your cheeks clenched while I go through the detailed scan.”

Johnny arched an eyebrow as Stacy started her scan. “’Keep your cheeks clenched’?” he whispered.

“She doesn’t want any…errant movements setting off the mines,” Vicki assured him.

“I get that,” Johnny acquiesced, “but did she have to put it that way? I mean---”

“We have a problem.”

Those four words prompted a chorus of groans from everyone present---even Vicki. “I’m guessing this isn’t one of those ‘let’s just find another staircase’ types of problems,” Jen remarked.

“If every other staircase is set up like this one,” Stacy grimly replied, “then we’re better off scaling the outside of the building. My internal scanners are showing that the staircase here is mined at random---not one every other step or two every third step, but completely and utterly random. And the mines aren’t just standard-issue land mines, either; he’s got those, Claymores, EMP mines and some stuff I’ve never even heard of before…all jammed into that stairwell and triggered to go off if someone steps on even one of them the wrong way---which is bullshit, since there’s no ‘right’ way to clear this thing. Anyone feel brave enough to go check the elevators, I’ll help, but there is no way in Hell we’re going up these stairs.”

“And here I thought you were in this just to kick Hannsen in the nuts,” Reaver muttered. “Those scans---”

“Are as detailed as we’re going to get without throwing one of you on the stairs and seeing how fast you get turned into salsa,” Stacy shot back. “You don’t trust me? Fine. You want to lead the team in the completely opposite direction? Fine. But I’m telling you that this staircase is rigged to kill anyone who walks on it!”

“Then let’s not walk on the staircase.”

Stacy’s scathing reply died on her tongue as she turned to glance at Vicki. “’Not walk on the’….what?!”

“You said the stairs and the supports are mined,” the brunette gynoid recalled. “What about the rest of it?”

“I….what?! What the hell do you mean, ‘the rest of it’?!”

Vicki gave Stacy her best Kubrick stare. “The walls, the ceiling….anything that isn’t the stairs themselves. If we were able to, say, wall-run our way up the whole stairwell without even touching the actual steps, then we could easily clear the thing without getting blown to Hell.” She grinned. “Am I right?”

The verlette shook her head. “You want to wall-run….up the stairs.”

“Using the windows and railings as handholds and kick-off points, yeah.”

Something about Vicki’s cheerful attitude struck Stacy as completely and utterly wrong. “You realize that if you screw up, even for a second,” she muttered, “you’ll fall off, hit the steps, and die. This isn’t mountain climbing at the Y, ‘Agent Lawson’---you don’t get a second chance if you mess up!”

“Then I’ll just have to be extra careful, then,” Vicki replied, taking a few steps back. “Wish me luck---”

“WAIT!”

Reaver’s shout prompted a knowing smile from Vicki; I was wondering when he was going to chime in… “You have a better idea, Eric?” she inquired.

“We’ve got grapple lines,” Reaver declared, sounding more hesitant than pissed. “I was thinking we could do a modified climbing system and sort of…scale the stairway like a climbing wall. And YES, I KNOW it’s not a ‘by the book’ procedure, but the damn book doesn’t have any precedents for something like this! They don’t teach ‘bypassing mined stairways’ in ALPA Field Agent Basic Training’---”

“---but they do teach ‘bypassing disabled stairways’,” Jen reminded him quietly, “and this is a textbook case of a disabled stairway if I ever saw one.”

“Well, then,” Vicki suggested, “let’s bypass the hell out of this disabled stairway, shall we?”

Everyone stared at her as if she’d just suggested they grow wings and fly up the stairwell.

“What?”

“Vicki,” Jen breathed, “it’s not exactly simple to bypass a disabled stairway---you have to determine the nature of the damage, and how the surrounding structures---aka the walls---are still holding up.”

“So…how do we do that?”

Jen grinned. “Leave it to me.”

Within a few seconds (and after several wild throws of the grappling line, now equipped with a pulley rated to handle up to 1,000 pounds of weight, human or android/gynoid), a makeshift rigging system---dubbed the “Hay Bale Elevator” by Johnny Dash---had been established to assist the Field Agents in their harrowing wall-run ascent of the elevator shaft. Essentially, the ropes had (with trial and error---moreso of the latter than anyone would’ve liked, to be honest) two ropes had been secured around an upper-level railing and made for a rather sturdy system of pulleying anyone across the wall of the stairway as long as they wore the safety harness (formerly Reaver’s flak jacket) to keep themselves from slipping.

“That…looks like it came straight out of Action Park,” Johnny muttered.

“Don’t say that name,” Kylie warned him. “I went on a field trip there once in the 90s…nearly broke both my legs trying ski downhill…on grass.” She glanced up the stairwell, trying to make sense of the “foolproof” pulley system. “You’re sure this thing won’t leave me in a neckbrace?”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about!” Vicki beamed. “As long as one of us is holding the end of the rope that’s down here, you won’t fall on your butt and set off the mines hidden in the stairs…unless the one holding the rope suddenly has an arm cramp, or anything…” She shrugged. “You’ll be fine---I’ll even hold the rope for you, if you want, seeing as how I don’t cramp easily.” I nearly said “I don’t get cramps” that time, she mused, glancing over her shoulder at Stacy. I don’t need her interrogating me right now…..

Kylie nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Okay, then…put Reaver’s vest on, hold the rope, and don’t let go!”

After a running start and some help from Vicki pulling the rope, Kylie was able to leap from the base of the stairs to the first window---not an easy feat, even with the brunette gynoid’s assistance. From there, it was a matter of doing the hand-over-hand “crawl” across the windowsill to a spot where she could kick off and propel herself to the other wall. A few tense seconds after that…she finally touched down on the next floor.

“Easier than riding a bike!” she called out, grinning.

Stacy rolled her eyes. “You’re forgetting the difference in weight a flesh-and-blood human being and…well, a gynoid like myself,” she informed Vicki. “If I get on that thing and it snaps, I get dropped onto the stairs---”

“Except you have more kicking power than Kylie,” Vicki countered, “and that means you can push farther off the wall than she could, thus clearing the stairs without actually touching them. At least, I’m pretty sure you can pull off something like that…” She arched an eyebrow, giving the impression that she didn’t know what the verlette gynoid was fully capable of (she still doesn’t realize I’m like her, after all…and as long as that’s in play, I have to keep up the act…otherwise, this whole thing could go downhill, and fast!). “I mean, you are able to do that sort of thing, right?”

Reaver nearly said something, but a gentle touch on his shoulder convinced him not to. “She’s handling this,” Jen whispered.

With an annoyed snort, Stacy gestured for Kylie to throw the harness back down. “Word of advice, Lawson,” she intoned, glaring into Vicki’s eyes. “NEVER question my capabilities again. I was designed to take down combat units three times my size, and getting up a stupid stairwell without getting obliterated will be just as easy as outmaneuvering an Abrahms tank.” She flashed a smug grin. “I suggest you stand back and let me do what I do best…”

Well, at least we don’t have to worry about her being too modest… “Swing away, Stacy.”

The lame pun earned a scoff from the verlette gynoid, but within the next few seconds, she lived up to her own boasting---whereas Kylie took at least three minutes to ascend the stairwell without falling, Stacy managed to clear the entire thing in a little over three seconds. “Right,” Vicki muttered, “everyone…just clear the stairs, so we can get this over with.” …and so I don’t have to hear her gloating about this for the rest of the day. She let Reaver go next, trying not to look up at the overhang where the rope had been looped; I just know she’s giving me a smug grin, she fumed. Seriously, I’m about to just tell her that I’m a gynoid and get it over with, if it’ll get her to stop trying to one-up me…

After Johnny managed to narrowly avoid falling onto the steps, Vicki grabbed the harness after it was tossed down to her---and instantly realized the crippling weakness of her plan. “Ah, guys,” she called up, “I, ah, think we have a problem….there’s nobody here to hold the ropes for me---”

“Then let’s just eliminate this particular stairway altogether, shall we?”

In what felt like a split-second after the Maestro’s taunt finished, the entire stairwell erupted into pillars of fire, completely eradicating the structure and damaging the walls. “Leave it to the team leader to let her entire squad go ahead,” the smug voice cackled, “while trapping herself on the lower floor! Now that, my friends---”

Something---someone landed next to Vicki; “Miss me?” Alicia 5 grinned. “Figured you might need a hand…”

“What the hell are you doing?!” Vicki hissed. “The team needs you---”

“You need me right now, more than anything,” Alicia corrected. “And for the record, I’m actually glad you threw me across the room earlier---great way to clear my head.” She chuckled. “The others can handle themselves just fine without me…besides, I know another way to get to the next floor.”

The brunette gynoid’s shoulders sagged. “You could’ve told me that before you jumped…”

“Ah, sorry if I’m interrupting anything,” the Maestro sarcastically drawled, “but this ISN’T an ice-cream social here, ladies---you either run, or die. Your call.”

“Sorry,” V.I.C.I. intoned (silently thanking the circumstances for putting Stacy out of earshot), “but the last time someone offered me a choice like that, things didn’t exactly end well…for them. We will find you, Hannsen, no matter what tactics you try to keep us trapped here…”

Her lips curled into a lion’s smile. “…though you might want to find a new hole to hide in…just in case.”

For a few seconds, no sound emerged from the speakerboxes situated at semi-regular intervals throughout the room; “I think you finally got to him, Vicki,” Alicia beamed. “Not a moment too soon, either---”

“ALL AVAILABLE UNITS, CONVERGE NEAR STAIRWAY ALPHA-FIVE-DELTA-SEVEN-NINER!” Every word screeched with distortion, as if the Maestro was screaming into the Tannoy using a megaphone. “ALL TARGETS ARE TO BE TERMINATED WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE! DO NOT LET THEM ESCAPE!” A heavy breath sounded as something on the Maestro’s end of the line fell (or was dropped); “You want me to find a new hole to hide in, do you?” he rasped. “To just scurry into a corner and wait, like a RAT?!”

“I….might’ve overdone it on that part,” Vicki admitted, “but---”

“NO MORE ‘BUTS’, LAWSON!” the Maestro shrieked. “YOU AND THE WHORE WILL DIE BEFORE YOU EVER FIND ME!”

Alicia stared at the nearest speaker. “He just called me a whore, didn’t he?” she asked, with all the enthusiasm of someone choosing paper or plastic bags at a supermarket.

“I think he just called you a whore,” Vicki agreed.

“I don’t like being called a whore, y’know,” Alicia informed her fellow gynoid. “It’s not exactly polite…”

“You’re an operative of the House, too,” Vicki added, barely glancing over her shoulder at the oncoming wave of humanoid sentry-bots. “I hear Celeste really hates it when people call her agents ‘whores’…she’s liable to take this as a major insult, don’t you think?”

“Probably.” Alicia casually drew a pair of gleaming silver pistols from her boots. “How many clips d’you have?”

“Enough. You?”

“More than enough.”

“I knew you were going to say that…you take the 15 on the right, I’ll get the 15 on the left.”

“Eh…I was thinking we could just do a back-to-back thing, maybe a little gunkata for the hell of it---”

“So you want to accidentally shoot me in the ass, then?”

“Okay, okay, no gunkata…your targeting system’s been fully upgraded, right?”

“I don’t need a targeting subsystem---I can lock onto their power cores and just---”

“ENOUGH! Both of you just shut up and accept your destruction like the obedient little dolls you are, or I’ll wipe out the entire FLOOR! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!” The sentries were now advancing in formation, a few of them hiding behind riot shields and using natural cover.

“Alicia,” Vicki whispered, “let’s clean house.”

The blonde gynoid grinned. “With pleasure, Vicki.”

As the first sentry broke ranks, Vicki spun around to put an SCEMP round right between its optical sensors; more ‘bots swarmed forward as their “comrade” fell to the floor, ignoring its spasms entirely.

Most of them joined the fallen ‘bot a few seconds later, thanks to Alicia’s guns having some rather…interesting modifications. “You put a spread-fire barrel on that thing?!” Vicki mused, emptying another clip into the oncoming hoarde. “I thought that kind of modding was illegal!”

“Not if it’s made in-house,” Alicia replied, jamming her left-hand gun into the right “eye” of a sentry and pulling the trigger. “Heh, ‘in-House’…I just made a pun!” She twirled her other gun in her around, grabbing the barrel as a spike emerged from the clip and using it to bash another sentry in the forehead. “Got anything better than that ES-9950, Vicki?” she called out. “I think we may need something a bit heavier…”

“Thought you’d never ask,” the brunette gynoid replied with a grin, pulling something out of her backpack. A few seconds after it emerged, the Erector-like construct seemed to unfold into a rifle. “Just got it before we left Greece,” she bragged, squeezing the trigger and unleashing a round of bluish-green rounds. “You like?”

“I love!” Alicia beamed, spin-kicking another sentry’s head off its shoulders. “Got another one?”

Vicki tossed another rifle over her shoulder without looking back, allowing Alicia to catch the thing just in time to mow down a column of feminine sentries with a single squeeze of the trigger. “Right,” she called out, “I’m asking Celeste to give ALL House Agents rifles like this for standard field ops as soon as I get back home---this thing is chingón, baby!” Her maniacal laugh matched the stream of bullets almost perfectly as another swath of sentries was cut down.

“I thought you’d like it,” Vicki replied casually---just as she crushed the heads of two sentries together and sent them both to the floor in a sparking heap. “I was going to save it for your Christmas gift, but---” Her sentence was briefly interrupted by an overly-grabby sentry---whose hand on her shoulder was severed as soon as the brunette gynoid grabbed its wrist and shot it point-blank in the arm. “Like I was saying, I was going to save it for Christmas, but seeing as how you pretty much need it now---” The grabby sentry’s other hand brushed against her other shoulder, earning the offending robot a DG-charged punch right through the middle of its head.

“I get it,” Alicia called out, swinging the rifle around to club three sentries across their own cranial units.

“That’s my line!” Vicki laughed, shooting two sentries approaching her from different directions.

The oncoming legions of sentry-bots began thinning out after about seven minutes, none of them bothering to retreat or form a defensive line. “This is almost getting too easy!” Vicki shouted. “If this is Hannsen’s best, I’d hate to see---”

A low, droning rumble drowned out her boast.

“Oh, scrap,” Alicia muttered. “That’s…..Vicki, we need to get out of here NOW!”

“Why?” the brunette gynoid asked, disarming three more sentries and shooting them through their power cores with their own weapons (good thing they’re not sentient, she reminded herself, otherwise I’d be on one hell of a guilt trip right now). “It’s not like….”

The rumble got louder. “Vicki,” Alicia whispered, “we. Have. To. Leave. NOW.”

Any question as to why they had to leave died on Vicki’s lips as the source of the rumbling noise appeared in a haze of obliterated particleboard, dust from collapsing walls (and ceilings), and a smell like ozone, almost as if something had just fired lightning at the walls of the room.

“That’s….what is that?” the brunette gynoid heard herself ask.

“An OSE 2098 Anvil-class Ground Assault Drone,” the Maestro’s voice proudly declared. “Every single armor plate on this beast was forged in fire, tempered by hand….and so far, completely and utterly resistant to any and all forms of small arms fire---INCLUDING your pathetic SCEMP rounds---making it ideal for taking out the two of you with little or no problem at all.” Indeed, the GAD looked like an eight-foot tall gladiator, with tank treads in place of a lower body and two menacing-looking cannons mounted on the end of each pneumatically driven arm. The “head” of the ‘bot was essentially a spherical mass of metal with two high-res cameras mounted within, along with all the necessary sighting devices that would allow it to assault any grounds it damn well pleased.

“Want to know what it’s nickname is?” Hannsen taunted….

…just as the GAD’s cannons spat twin gouts of flame, literally melting the sentries standing in front of it.

“Behold….the HellRaiser,” the Maestro sneered.

The shove that moved Vicki out of the GAD’s line of fire, accompanied by Alicia’s shout of “RUN!”, were all the motivation the brunette gynoid needed to get the hell out of Dodge. The rumbling sound behind her drowned out Alicia’s profanity-fueled screams as she opened fire on the droid’s exposed “eyes”. “VICKI! GIVE ME A VAMPIRE ROUND!”

“WHAT?!”

“JUST GIVE ME A GORRAM VAMPIRE ROUND NOW!”

Vicki tossed Alicia a whole clip of her desired ammunition. “DO NOT WASTE ANY SHOTS,” she ordered, “OR I’LL HAVE TO RETAKE THE TRAINING COURSE AGAIN!” The ALPA didn’t just hand out Vampire rounds to anyone---thanks to the fact that they effectively leached the power source of their target until it couldn’t even stand up straight, let alone fight back---and if the recipient of the Vampire rounds wasted more than five of the things in one op, they lost the rest of the clip and had to take a recertification course just to get it back.

So far, Vicki hadn’t wasted a single round from the clip.

She almost didn’t notice Alicia’s sneer as she replied with “I won’t miss”….

….seconds before emptying the entire clip into the GAD’s “eyes”.

A series of clicking, beeping noises emanated from the robot’s head, followed by a Perspex shield sliding down over the ruined cameras. An ultra-deep, ultra-male and definitely ultra-robotic voice intoned “RADAR TRACKING ENABLED”, followed by two pod-like devices emerging from the side of the GAD’s head. “Ooh, you’ve made him mad now,” the Maestro cackled. “Going for the eyes---bad idea, especially since he can traverse ANY TERRAIN IN THIS BUILDING!”

“Alicia,” Vicki groaned, “I think you just made things worse.”

“NO SHIT!” the blonde gynoid snarled.

“Now, now,” the Maestro admonished, “don’t swear…seeing as how I am, at heart, a sporting gentleman, I’m willing to give both of you a headstart against the GAD. Seven minutes sounds fair, I think…and unless you can get to the next floor within that time, both of you will be, for lack of a better term….dead.”

Even as the memory of her fight with Faceless on July 9 resurfaced, V.I.C.I.’s reply was devoid of emotion:

“Game on.”

Matthew Hannsen grinned as he beheld the monitor before him. “Good choice, Agent Lawson,” he declared, giving a brief round of applause to his artificial adversary. “Your seven-minute head start begins at the count of three: One…..two……THREE!”

Every light on the floor Vicki and Alicia were currently on cut out.

“And THAT is why you DO NOT TAUNT the Maestro!” Hannsen cackled, turning off the montior and nearly dancing across the room. Already, things were just the slightest bit behind schedule---his “contacts” on the island had almost been stopped at the airport five times while preparing to ship their “confiscated” black-market celebrity lookalike androids and gynoids---but with the GAD now in play, he could easily dispose of the Field Agents and have OSE on their knees at the touch of a button.

“Speaking of weaklings on their knees…”

The grin that crossed his face was one of pure malice as he approached the cage holding his prisoner. He’d had no idea who the poor soul had been during the chaos at the hospital, but after getting to the chopper and heading to Singapore, he’d been allowed a brief glimpse at his captive…

…and he knew, now more than ever, that Vicki Lawson was going to regret ever crossing him.


“So you pissed him off, and he sends a GAD after you…I’ll admit, that’s pretty good. But this whole ‘turn off the lights’ thing….lame!” Even in the dark, Alicia 5 had no problem maneuvering over and around the various office furniture that the GAD hadn’t obliterated. “He could’ve flooded this whole floor and forced us to swim for our freedom or something, but no….” She laughed off the idea of having to run in the dark---while perfectly sliding over a desk and landing on her feet.

“You wouldn’t be laughing if we didn’t have upgraded optics,” Vicki mused. “If that was the case---”

“Optics have nothing to do with it,” Alicia countered, sidestepping to avoid tripping over an overturned mail cart a few feet in front of her. “This is about knowing every way in and out of the building, and how to get from floor to floor---which, luckily for both of us, is not a problem for yours truly.”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Let me guess…you downloaded the schematics for the entire building?”

“Are you piggybacking on my internal WiFi?” the blonde gynoid teased. “Yes, I got the blueprints---and as luck would have it, the ventilation shafts connecting each floor are easily accessible, roomy enough for both of us to climb/crawl through side-by-side, and completely unsecured. It’ll be a cakewalk compared to running around like headless chickens while the GAD chases us down with those damn flame cannons…and I just had to remember that there are a few halls that curve up ahead.”

“So?” Vicki asked, confused.

“So,” Alicia replied testily, “you put a gynoid in a room with three hallways that curve, tell her one goes in a circle, one leads out of the room and one leads to her destruction, and she’ll short-circuit trying to pick one.” A low growl escaped her lips; “Even high-sentience androids and gynoids can fall prey to that stupid trick,” she muttered. “Took me a full month to learn how to get around it….just use the random factor, pick a path and move on.” The grin returned to her face. “How’d you get over it?”

Vicki mumbled something that sounded like “flshcrds”.

“Sorry, what---”

“FLASHCARDS, okay?! After the Big Upgrade, Ted…thought it would be a good idea to skip all the boring ‘1+1’ stuff and go to geometry, probability and other complicated stuff. It worked out for me in the end, so I don’t think curvey hallways are going to be a problem for me.”

Alicia grinned. “And that, Vicki, is what makes you fantastic.”

“Good to know…but what about you? I never really asked you about your past, and that little reveal back in the elevator was a bit…spontaneous, to say the least…”

The blonde gynoid sighed. “Let’s get to the vents first, then we’ll talk. Sound fair?”

“Fair enough…for now, at least.”

Neither Alicia nor Vicki were particularly surprised when the GAD began pursuing them before the Maestro’s “generous” grace period of seven minutes had expired---the two had long since accepted that he played by no rules other than his own, and even those were likely changed more frequently than even he could keep track of---not that it mattered, seeing as how they both had a vast lead over the assault ‘bot. “I’m guessing he’s already taken the liberty of hacking every robot in this building,” Vicki mused, narrowly avoiding a chair that had been carelessly moved into the middle of a row of cubicles.

“Hacking the ‘bots, installing rootkits on the security systems and using his custom-written admin tools to gain access to every single nook and cranny of this building,” Alicia corrected. “And that’s not counting any and all sentient androids or gynoids he may have overridden just to play this stupid game of his…seriously, that guy has issues.”

“You’re saying this like I didn’t already know it,” Vicki dryly remarked as she kicked a chair out of the way.

By the time the two gynoids made it to the ventilation shaft that would take them to the next floor, the GAD’s flame cannons had effectively obliterated everything behind them. “Going up?” Alicia politely inquired.

“After you,” Vicki insisted.

The blonde gynoid grinned. “If I wasn’t such a stickler for showing off my butt---especially in this tight little number---I might be offended,” she informed Vicki, only to cringe at the roar of the GAD’s flamethrower. “I guess that means ‘joke later, mission now’,” she murmured.

“Pretty much,” V.I.C.I. agreed.

“Y’know, I don’t get why you ever gave up using that voice on a permanent basis,” Alicia remarked, all the while unlocking the security hatch that was meant to keep her from doing what she was about to do. “I mean, it fits you perfectly---electronic, yet inviting; robotic, but with just a hint of emotions that gives you an air beyond that of ‘machine’ or ‘human’….that voice is you, Vicki, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is just talking out of their ass---and not the funny way, like in Ace Ventura.”

“I seem to recall someone saying ‘joke later, mission now’ a bit earlier,” the brunette gynoid mused.

Alicia laughed the remark off. “I’m not joking, Vicki!” she insisted. “That voice of yours is enough to---”

The wall behind V.I.C.I. erupted in a blossom of fire that burnt its way through the cheap partition in less than a second. The GAD’s robotic voice bellowed “TARGETS DETECTED,” just as the haze of smoke cleared enough for both gynoids to see the assault ‘bot a little over 30 feet away. “It’s firing napalm bursts,” V.I.C.I. realized. “We have to get up to the next floor, now!” She ducked behind a desk as another blast of napalm flew past her, narrowly missing Alicia’s leg as she climbed up the vent.

“Just…give me a minute,” the blonde gynoid gasped, wriggling her way up the vent shaft. “I’m almost---”

Another napalm round slammed into the wall, breaking apart into smaller blobs---one of which hit Alicia’s leg.

“GAAAAH! Holy SHIT, that burns! VICKI, A LITTLE HELP HERE?!”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” the brunette gynoid promised. “First…I have to do a bit of redecorating.” She ignored the groan that issued from the ventilation shaft, choosing instead to expand her awareness to the fire supression systems. The barest seed of a plan to get rid of the GAD (or at least slow it down) had been forming in her CPU ever since she’d first seen the robot’s flame cannon in action; if this works, she reasoned, it’ll be a hell of a lot harder for that thing to catch up with us. If it doesn’t work…

No. It will work… A smile played at her lips. …and I have a feeling “the Maestro” won’t even expect it.

As the GAD’s cannons slowly swivelled towards her, V.I.C.I. bolted across the room and grabbed a hold of a pipe running along the wall. Relying on the past to keep myself from getting scrapped in the future---if Dad was here, he’d probably have a joke ready for just such an occasion… A brief memory of her mission at the Silicon Dynamics plant flashed through her head as her temperature-management systems focused all heat in her body through her hands; during the Silicon Dynamics mission, she’d been told not to turn on the sprinklers, otherwise every gynoid in the area would’ve been severely damaged---and, more than likely, she would’ve been stripped of her potential Field Agent career before it even began.

Now, however…

The torrent that gushed from the sprinklers overhead wasn’t exactly the mild, chemically-infused spray that V.I.C.I. had expected---it burst forth in a shower of foam and gas, almost immediately cancelling out the GAD’s cannon and extinguishing anything that had been burning up to that point…even the ignitor that had, just a few seconds ago, lit the napalm on fire before it hit the wall. Much to V.I.C.I.’s delight (and, more than likely, the chagrin of the Maestro), everything was going exactly as the brunette gynoid had planned---confirmed by an emotionless declaration of “WEAPONS SYSTEMS…OFFLINE” from the stricken GAD. So far, so good…if I can get this next bit to work, it’ll be even---

“VICKI, WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW!”

Alicia’s pained yell instantly killed all thoughts of Phase 2 for Vicki’s plan. That napalm round must’ve done a lot more damage than I realized, she noted, otherwise…

She forced herself to avoid further hypothesizing on that line, focusing instead on the climb up the ventilation shaft that would get her as far away from the GAD as possible. The task was far easier than she’d expected, given the severity of the damage done by the fire-supression systems to the flame cannons; had the ‘bot been fully operational, she might not have even made it halfway up the shaft.

Don’t let hindsight blind you to the here and now, Lawson…Alicia’s wounded up there; she needs your help!

By the time she reached Alicia---who’d already torn off part of her uniform around the damaged area to start repairing it---the electronic shouts of the GAD had ceased being a major concern. “How’s the leg?”

“Still attached,” the blonde gynoid bitterly replied, “for now. Coolant line’s shot, my knee’s out of whack and I can’t feel four of my toes---who the hell arms a security ‘bot with a napalm cannon anyways?!” She removed a mini-screwdriver from her utility belt and began attacking the damaged area of her leg. “Stupid piece of crap GAD…I hope you drowned that thing in foam, Vicki, otherwise---”

“I wasn’t able to drown it,” Vicki confessed, “but I did slow it down…think you can make it to the next floor?”

Alicia gave a grim smile. “If it means we can hit Hannsen where it hurts,” she replied, “then yes.”

Vicki nodded her approval, moving to help Alicia to her feet (good thing these vents are so spacious…) and lead her towards the nearest ladder. “There’s a repair bay on the next floor, if I remember correctly,” she noted, “so I might be able to help you fix your leg when we get there.”

“Good. The sooner I get my knee sorted out, the sooner I can kick Hannsen’s ass.”


The climb to the repair bay was arduous, obscenely long (at least for Alicia) and enough to make Vicki want to tear out her hair. The two couldn’t simply run through the vents like Sonic the Hedgehog, on account of Alicia’s damaged knee---that, and the vent shafts were laid out about support lattices that had been rigged to collapse under the “right” amount of pressure.

Thus, what should’ve been a five-minute jaunt turned into a forty-five minute marathon of agony.

Alicia wasn’t in the most talkative mood when she emerged from the vent---though it had more to do with her choosing to divert system resources to keeping coolant and other vital fluids away from her damaged limb than anything else. By the time she got to the repair bay and shucked off her skintight pants (revealing a preference for silk undies in the process), however, the blonde gynoid had decided to tell Vicki as much as she wanted to know---starting with her decision to go pantsless. “You’ll have to remove the whole skin-sheath from my leg,” she admitted. “This backup body was designed to be modular---under ‘ideal’ circumstances, I would’ve been able to just take off this leg and tack on a new one, but…”

“I get it,” Vicki replied quietly, nimbly extracting a damaged servomotor from Alicia’s knee. “So…that bit about you originally being part of a ‘family’ back in the 80s….what was that about?”

“Not wasting any time, are you?” Alicia smirked. “Well…that was my original assignment, before…” A tear streaked down her face; “You get the idea,” she muttered. “They got shipped off to Brazil, or wherever, and I lost the only opportunity I had to have something even remotely resembling a normal life. Hell, before I even had a body, I was just a consciousness on a tricked-out Apple //gs….well, before I had a body like this, I should say…”

“What was the House like back then?” Vicki inquired, touching the last release point for the skin-sheath.

A shudder ran through Alicia’s body as the brunette gynoid gently removed the skin from her affected leg; “You have no idea how good that feels,” she purred. “It’s like taking off silk stockings, but…better…” She allowed a sigh to escape her lips as Vicki gave her a quizzical, arched-eyebrow look. “Right, right, back to our game of 20 Questions….back in the 80s, the House was….smaller. A lot smaller. Maybe 50, 60 agents, tops---and most of them weren’t even androids. The House got its name because a lot of the chapterhouses were run by ‘Charlies’---just a voice coming from a monitor or speaker box, sort of like the voice from ‘Charlie’s Angels’, hence the name…anyways, things were different then. We were just trying not to attract the wrong kind of attention and get shipped off overseas to go wipe out ‘those Commie bastards’ or anything like that---all we wanted to do was live.”

“Understandable,” Vicki agreed. “And Celeste?”

Another sigh. “She’d gone through a lot…she’d tried to have a daughter---and before you say anything, let me clarify that by saying that Celeste and a certain someone joined forces to build a daughter. I only saw her once….she was beautiful, like something from a dream…but the ALPA had to take her into custody when they went to Castle Walls---”

“Castle Walls?”

“A codename,” Alicia explained, “for whatever building they were using as their fortress at the time. Back then it was an actual castle, so it fit…and seeing as how there was a humongous uproar after the whole Bloody Valentine thing, they needed a fortress. The House virtually disappeared---Celeste didn’t think anyone would by the whole ‘by androids, for androids’ bit, especially after….well, you’ll learn about what really happened on that day eventually---and when you do, I just hope it doesn’t change your opinion on everything that’s happened so far.”

Okay, I did not expect that… “It won’t.”

“For your sake,” Alicia quietly replied, “I hope you’re right.”

Vicki’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re saying this like---”

“Like I was there?” Alicia finished. “I was…” Tears streamed from her eyes again, but this time, she made no effort to stop them. “…and I wish every night of my life that I wasn’t. I…I knew the human who died in that incident….” She blinked away the tears. “Can we not talk about it now?”

“Fair enough,” Vicki agreed. “But I need to know more about you, the House…about everything.”

Alicia managed a smirk. “Some things can’t be unlearned,” she quietly stated. “You sure you really want to know everything I can tell you?”

“Yes.”

V.I.C.I.’s monotone voice prompted a quiet laugh from Alicia. “Since you put it that way…” The smile faded from her face as she laid back and let the brunette gynoid repair her leg. “The Bloody Valentine incident was definitely the worst thing that happened during the 1980s….but it wasn’t the last of the cavalcade of horrors that we had to deal with. You remember Damien Falken, right?”

“I’ve been trying to forget about him, but yes.”

“Well…back in the 80s, he and a few of his friends decided to perform some experiments in the vein of what Elaine Dyson has been doing in modern years---transferring a human consciousness to an artificial body…but these guys back in the good old 1980s didn’t exactly have all of the resources Dr. Dyson has now. The test subject they used was chosen by Dr. Everett Greendale, and the guy did not want to take part in the whole thing, by all accounts…but he didn’t exactly have a choice when they strapped him in and….” She paused.

“Did what?”

“Basically….they screwed up. The equipment was…crude, to put it mildly, and the whole procedude was a bit rushed…so what was supposed to be a quick and painless procedure was exactly the opposite: slow and very painful. The poor bastard had to be locked up in the scrap room so they wouldn’t hear his screams at night…”

It took every ounce of her nerves for V.I.C.I. to steady her hand---and her voice. “What happened to him?”

“Nobody knows. Supposedly, Greendale ordered the whole program shut down, but Falken and his cronies chose not to…and the subject of the experiment allegedly escaped. The factory was eventually taken by the ALPA, and they never found a trace of the test subject…Falken had already gone Section 8 by then, and his buddies were either turning state’s evidence or French-kissing their Glocks. The trail’s been cold for almost a decade and a half---” The sentence ended abruptly, as Alicia sharply drew in a breath.

“Sorry!” Vicki apologized. “I was just…this thing’s completely bent inward, right next to the---”

“I know,” Alicia hissed, “it’s my leg, I know how it works. Just…try to be a little bit more careful, okay?”

“I will. So…how exactly did you---First You, Steak Sauce, Alicia 1, or whatever---”

“She wasn’t the first me. Technically speaking, she was the twentieth. I go through a new cycle of backups with each decade, but that particular body---the one you first saw me in, back in your dorm---had been active since 1989. It hadn’t let me down before that little bust-up with Miss ‘Boom-Boom’ Delacroix…then again, I hadn’t really been cruising the streets looking for fights every Saturday night, contrary to the encouragement of a certain Reginald Kenneth Dwight….or as you know him, Elton John.”

Vicki rolled her eyes.

“I can see my digression is boring you,” Alicia teased. “I’m guessing you want to know about…the City?”

“I was going to ask about that,” Vicki admitted, heading to the wall and removing a shrink-wrapped gynoid leg from a storage cabinet. “Think you’re compatable with parts from this?” she asked Alicia.

“Depends on who made it,” Alicia replied, craning her neck. “I can’t see a maker’s mark from here…”

After tearing off the shrink-rap, Vicki scanned the limb. “It’s from an Aphrodite Technologies gynoid---which is weird, because last time I checked, OSE is a security firm.” She frowned; “What the hell is OSE doing with companion gynoid limbs in their lockers?” she inquired.

“Ah, not to piss all over your investigation here,” Alicia reiterated, “but I thought this was about my leg---”

“It is,” Vicki assured her, “but this…can wait. I’ll sort it out after I fix your leg, and after we bring Hannsen to the nearest ALPA building and have him brought up on charges. Now, then…any idea how I’m supposed to get this leg open?” She brought the leg over to the other end of the repair slab, letting Alicia examine it. “There’s a thin line running down the inseam of the leg,” the blonde gynoid observed, “so just run your finger down that line and the synthflesh should open. If that doesn’t work, then lightly cut it using a scalpel or anything else you can get.”

The leg seam easily parted after Vicki gently applied a set of foreceps (the repair bay apparently didn’t have a scalpel on hand), thus allowing her to get at the internal mechanics of the limb. “You never told me if your parts were compatable with Aphrodite tech,” she reminded Alicia. “I sort of have to know that before I take your leg apart and start putting parts from this in it…”

“House backup bodies are designed to be universally compatable,” Alicia sighed. “If it was made in the last 20 years, it’ll work with me.”

Vicki scanned the leg again; “Manufactured…2008,” she stated.

“Then it’ll work. I don’t want to hear all that ‘are you positive’ stuff, either---I just want to get off this leg so I can walk.” Alicia gave Vicki her best Kubrick stare; “Look,” she added, her voice quieter (possibly even gentler), “I know this mission hasn’t exactly gone the way you expected it to, but the fact is, this isn’t the time for either of us to start getting weirded out by this sort of thing. Hannsen’s already separated us from the rest of the team, we don’t know if anyone else is locked up in here…and we can’t afford to lose sight of the mission.”

“I haven’t lost sight of anything,” Vicki countered. “It’s just….I feel overwhelmed sometimes.”

Alicia arched an eyebrow in surprise. “You feel overwhelmed? Vicki Lawson, the ALPA’s pride and joy---”

“Please don’t start with that,” Vicki implored. “Ever since I effectively came back from the dead, I thought that everything would be easier…but it hasn’t been easier. Everyone seems to look up to me and to expect so much…and that scares me.”

“Good,” Alicia replied simply.

Now, it was Vicki’s turn to arch an eyebrow. “’Good’?!”

“It’s good that you’re scared,” the blonde gynoid clarified. “Hell, we’re all scared---everyone from the pencil pushers at the bottom of the ladder to the higher-ups like Celeste, DuBraul and even Oberon…as a great man once said, you’d have to be crazy not to be scared.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the slab; “Fear is a powerful motivator,” she continued. “Fear of letting people down leads you to strive for higher standards, fear of failure leads you to try harder and do bettter. The minute you start getting complacent, you’ve got one foot in the grave.” She grinned as Vicki exrtracted more damaged parts from her leg. “It’s like Gowan said, ‘Beware the rotting wind of complacency, it loves to suck you in until you’re history’.”

The mention of Gowan finally brought a smile to Vicki’s face. “You sounded like Alicia 1 there…”

“Technically, I am Alicia 1…actually, just drop the number off of that, because every backup body I have active is just an extension of me as a whole…with a few minor modifications to make interacting with me less of a hassle. Still, like I was saying, complacency---not fear---is the true enemy. Getting comfortable just means letting your guard down, and giving your enemy, whoever or whatever they are, the chance to strike.”

Vicki nodded her agreement. “Speaking of enemies…I don’t want to pry, or anything---”

“Funny how most instances of that phrase are almost always followed by something that is, in fact, a prying question,” Alicia sighed. “Still, I’m not going to bite your head off or anything, so…pry away.”

“What did Hannsen mean when he mentioned your ‘shelf-life’?”

An almost-imperceptible shudder ran through Alicia’s form. “And here, I was hoping for an easy question,” she joked, though her voice sounded almost hollow. “The fact is, Vicki…having so many bodies out and about in the world tends to put a strain on a House agent’s mind…which is why Celeste got so pissed off when I went and activated one of mine without her permission back in December. Even worse, if too many of the bodies get damaged at once, it…well, it may break the agent’s core mind. If, for instance, Alicias one-through-four got taken out, it might leave me a complete blank slate---nothing to rebuild from, no memories or personality…and just thinking about that has left me with more than a few sleepless nights.”

“I can see why,” Vicki replied, deftly extracting the necessary mechanisms from the Aphrodite Technologies leg to insert into Alicia’s damaged limb. “I’m still trying to wrap my CPU around something else, though…namely, the whole thing of the ALPA taking Celeste’s ‘daughter’ into custody when they went to Castle Walls---”

“They had to,” Alicia stated. “Given the circumstances, and the potential backlash against A.I.s, they couldn’t afford to not have her in protective custody. Aside from that, she was on the bleeding edge---the highest of high technology at the time, almost ahead of her time, even…basically, they couldn’t afford to let her fall into the wrong hands. What I said about Iran-Contra, back in the elevator? Celeste’s daughter would’ve been made a walking weapon, if certain idiots had been allowed to do with her what they wanted…”

“I get it.”

Neither gynoid spoke for the next few minutes, as Vicki carefully worked her wonders (using the skills she’d picked up from Mr. Tell in the process) on Alicia’s injured leg. Eventually, however, she decided to “pry” again: “You said frequent activations of backup bodies would…strain your mind, right?”

“I know that tone,” Alicia drawled. “You’re going to ask me if there’s a workaround, aren’t you?”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Vicki coyly remarked. “I’m surprised you didn’t try to talk me out of my ‘trigger the fire supressant system’ plan earlier, especially since Hannsen rigged the whole thing with CS gas to choke us both out---”

“---except I knew that neither of us would be affected,” Alicia countered. “Gynoids, remember?”

Vicki grinned. “Y’know, I wouldn’t have minded having you for a sister, if it came to that,” she mused.

Alicia’s smile faded into a stunned gasp. “What…..did you just….”

“I’m serious,” the brunette gynoid continued. “If I had a say in it---HEY!” Alicia bolted upright, grabbing Vicki in a hug. “Ah, you’re welcome?” the confused gynoid muttered.

“Vicki,” Alicia sobbed, “you have no idea what that means to me. I…I’ve wanted someone to tell me that for so long…” She rested her head on Vicki’s shoulder and wept. “Even when my selves get together,” she whispered, “sometimes…I still feel alone…” She tried to say something else, but could only lapse back into a sob.

For her part, Vicki managed to not ruin the moment with another question; instead, she simply let Alicia hold her for as long as she needed to.

After a few minutes, the two broke the embrace. “So,” Vicki mused, “feel like, ah, trying that new leg out?”

Alicia chuckled. “You have to put the skin-sheath back on it,” she reminded the brunettte gynoid.

Gingerly, Vicki slid the skin-sheath back over the exposed armature, wiring and servomotors of Alicia’s leg as another shuddering breath emerged from the blonde gynoid’s lips. “That is something I wish I could feel more often,” Alicia murmured. “Anyways, we need to get moving---Hannsen’s probably figured out the big gaping hole in his ‘nuke them with the GAD’ plan, so…”

Somewhere outside the repair bay, a klaxon sounded.

“Okay, please tell me we didn’t trigger that just by getting a leg out of the storage cabinet!” Vicki muttered.

“We didn’t,” Alicia quietly replied. “Hannsen’s sent airborne security drones after us---”

MP5-caliber gunfire raked the windows of the repair bay, sending both gynoids to the floor. “I think Stacy’s going to have to wait in line behind me if she wants to kick Hannsen’s ass,” Alicia growled. “That son of a bitch didn’t just send security drones---he sent attack drones!”

“There’s a difference?!” Vicki hissed.

“Security drones aren’t authorized to use lethal force,” the blonde gynoid clarified. “Attack drones, on the other hand…if they see it, they shoot it---‘it’ in this case being us---” She dropped down again, just as another burst of gunfire shattered the windows of the repair bay. “If they paint either of us with their targeting lasers while we’re together,” Alicia continued, “we’re both screwed---one of us has to draw their fire, and the other one can make a run for it---”

“I’m not leaving you here!” Vicki snapped. “We need to regroup with the team, and---”

Alicia drew her in and planted a massive kiss on her---which sent a temporary EMP surge through the younger gynoid, briefly shuting down all of her locomotive systems. “Sorry, babe,” the blonde gynoid apologized, “but I’m not giving you the choice…” She stuffed a tool into Vicki’s frozen hand; “When they kill me,” she instructed, “scan my eyes with this. I’d explain the details, but those drones are circling around for another pass, and I’m not letting you get killed along with me.” Tears streamed down her face as she kissed Vicki’s forehead. “For the record,” she whispered, “I didn’t want it to end this way…but since that EMP I just sent into you will only keep you here for about…six more minutes, that doesn’t leave me with a whole hell of a lot of time…”

Outside, the whine of small engines filled the hallway.

“Gotta run, kiddo,” Alicia teased, toussling Vicki’s hair and kissing her forehead again. “Stay awesome…”

With that, she rose, her playful smile twisting into a cold glare at the oncoming drones. “Well, sister,” she mused, “time to raise the battleflag…” A short burst of gunfire tore into her shoulder as she stepped out of the repair bay---but the attack only prompted a grim smile from the blonde gynoid. “Is that the best you’ve got, you worthless flying turd?!” she called out, raking the drone with fire from her own sidearm. “COME ON! I’m not leaving here until one of us is scrap, do you hear me?! MY NAME IS ALICIA LEHANE, AND I AM NOT GOING ANYWHERE!” She pulled her second pistol from her belt, emptying the clips of both at the oncoming drones. She had just enough time to reload as the drones crashed…

…only to notice four more drones zooming around the corner up ahead…and three more behind her.

A smile crept across her face. “Time to dance…”

Within the repair bay, Vicki was frozen in a kneel, her expression one of pure, unadulterated shock. Alicia 5 had just thrown herself to the wolves to keep the drones busy, and for a few minutes, it seemed as if she actually stood a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving….

…except the brunette gynoid knew that Alicia had no intention of walking away from this fight.

Five minutes into the gun battle, drones bearing what appeared to be tear-gas launchers entered the fray, firing their payloads into the ceilings and floors of the hall in a calculated attempt to keep the blonde gynoid from destroying more of them. Even these were taken out with relative ease…but the next wave of aerial attack ‘bots bore flame cannons, not unlike those of the GAD. By themselves, these drones would’ve been trouble enough---but they were accompanied by even larger aerial robots, whose wingspans took up the entire width of the hallway.

She’s letting them kill her so I can escape, Vicki realized. She activated a signal blooker when she kissed me; they don’t even know I’m here! Every single thought running through her processors was tinged with panic; in her last, desperate gesture to keep Vicki alive, Alicia had forced the brunette gynoid to watch her die…

…which is exactly what she was doing at that moment.

Only three of the drones were still airborne, but they’d done what Hannsen programmed them to do. Alicia’s entire right arm was missing below the shoulder, and her left arm was missing large patches of synthetic flesh where the fire from the pyro-cannon drones (as Vicki’s HUD identified them) had burned through. The left side of her face was already beginning to tear, even as she turned in place to empty the last clip from her pistol into the oncoming drones. Two of them slammed into the walls and burst into flames, but the last managed to put a dozen rounds into the blonde gynoid’s left leg, sending her to the floor in a kneel….

…and setting her up for a final shot through her central power cell.

NO! Even as her systems were slowly booting back up, Vicki felt like she couldn’t get out of the repair bay fast enough; why did you do this, Alicia?! WHY?! It didn’t matter that the drone responsible for killing Alicia fell out of the air shortly afterwards…all that mattered was that it had, indeed, killed Alicia.

No, no….”NO!” Vicki nearly fell onto her face as she felt the last residual effects of the micro-EMP burst fade from her. She ignored the twin streams of tears from her eyes, and paid no heed to the fire supression system kicking on to flood the hallway with chemicals; in a few short, stumbling steps, she managed to reach Alicia’s side, trying and failing to contain her grief. She tried to ask the blonde gynoid why she’d let herself be killed, or what she was thinking, but she’d somehow lost the ability to speak.

Her hearing, on the other hand, picked up Alicia’s last words perfectly: “Mother…..I’m sorry……”

Vicki’s HUD could’ve been switched off at that point, and it still would’ve been all too apparent that the blonde gynoid was, for lack of a better term, dead---a moment made all the more surreal by the musical (and far too happy) tone emanating from the tool in the gynoid Field Agent’s pocket. Remembering Alicia’s bizarre (at the time) instructions, Vicki decided to follow her friend’s final request, holding the tool over the House agent’s still-opened eyes and pressing the trigger-like button on the grip. Fifteen seconds later, the scan was complete.

A short while after that, Alicia’s body began to burst into flames.

The fire supression system cut out just as the House gynoid’s internal destruct mechanism reduced her body to a barely-recognizable mass of plastic, metal and silicon. A flood of thoughts raced through Vicki’s mind as Alicia 5’s form was obliterated, but only one was relevant now.

Find Hannsen….and make him pay.

With one final, brief look back at Alicia’s burning corpse (might as well call it what it is), Vicki went on her way.

Somewhere in the upper floors of the OSE offices, the Maestro watched the proceedings with a frown. Normally, the destruction of an opponent---especially an arrogant House gynoid with a sexual history that might’ve put Lemmy to shame---would be cause for celebration, but this…

…this felt hollow.

Yes, the House bitch was dead. Yes, her body had self-destructed to keep anyone else from getting their grubby little mitts on it…so why was this so anti-climactic? It wasn’t as if the Lawson girl had---

Ah. That was it.

The blonde had kept Lawson from interfering, instead of just letting her run. She wanted her to watch…

…and she wanted something else from her, as well.

“What were you hiding, Alicia Lehane?” the Maestro whispered. “And more importantly, who were you hiding it from?


Vicki stared at the scanner in her hand, waiting for her bubble memory processor to sort through the chaos she’d just experienced. Alicia was afraid of getting scrapped on this mission, she realized. That’s why she was pissed off on the beach, but calm when we got to the building…she must’ve gone through all five stages of grief in record time!

The flood of emotions, memories and theories could’ve easily overwhelmed a lesser gynoid, but Vicki fought against the tide of thoughts with unfeeling logic---the only thing that could keep her from collapsing to the floor in a sobbing heap. There are still four other Alicias out there, she recalled, and all of them are still functioning right now…I just need to figure out what this scanner was for, and why Alicia 5 wanted me to wait until after she was obliterated to use it… Even with the unanswered questions still at the forefront of her thoughts, Vicki knew that the mission was more important---and that she needed to reunite with the team before too long…

…which was reinforced by the sound of someone clicking off the safety on a pistol. “Hands up. NOW.”

“Or what?” the brunette gynoid querried, knowing her would-be shooter wasn’t expecting to hear her voice.

Sure enough, Stacy let out a half-groan, half-sigh. “Somehow, I thought the blonde was going to be the one asking that,” she mused, rounding the corner. “Speaking of which, where the hell is she? I know she jumped down to help you after that incident with the stairway getting nuked…”

Vicki stared into the verlette gynoid’s eyes. “Alicia’s dead,” she intoned.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘dead’?! I thought---”

“She got shot down by a bunch of aerial attack drones outside of a repair bay…and her body self-destructed after I used this to scan it.” She held up the tool Alicia had given her; “She…had something on her lips that paralyzed me when she kissed me,” she continued, “and then went out into the hall to start taking down the attack drones. I saw the whole thing…and I heard her last words before her body went up in flames. She’s gone, Stacy….and this is all that’s left of her.”

Stacy stared at the device in her hand, somewhat awed. “She gave you an optical retrieval/backup scanner?”

“I don’t know what the hell it was,” Vicki snapped, “all I know is that she told me to scan her eyes after---”

“Vicki,” Stacy murmured, placing her hands on the brunette gynoid’s shoulders, “this thing has a full backup of Alicia Lehane Mk V’s memory and personality on it---and I know because United Robotronics developed the first ORBS prototype around the same time they put me in stasis!”

Something about Stacy’s almost happy voice didn’t sit well with Vicki. “And you care…why?”

“I care,” Stacy replied, “because we can use this to save her full memory after we get the hell out of here…I’m guessing she told you about that whole ‘shelf-life’ thing---”

“WHY THE HELL DO YOU CARE?!” Vicki shouted. “You were at her throat when you showed up at HQ, then you bitched about not getting to do things ‘your way’---“ She stopped, noticing that Stacy was no longer looking at her. “If you’re going to answer me, then AT LEAST look me in the eyes when you say whatever it is you want to say!” she demanded. “Are you even listening to me, or----”

A sound that bore a striking resemblance to a sob cut her off.

And this is why I need to stop getting pissed off at her…”Ah, I’m…sorry if I, uh, hurt your feelings, or anything,” the brunette gynoid apologized, “but…I kind of need some answers about all this…”

Stacy nodded. “Alicia and I worked together briefly before I was put in stasis,” she explained. “I…learned a few things about her….personal things, things that she made me swear not to divulge. After the incident with Valerie last year, and having to work with that Leslie bitch, I…I got jaded; I thought every other android/gynoid operative on the planet was just self-serving, greedy, and blindly following orders---the exact opposite of Alicia, in other words…”

“So you’re saying you admired her?” Vicki cautiously ventured.

“Admired, respected…bonded with, even,” Stacy admitted. “And then there’s you---prood that not every human being on the planet treats androids like walking computers or glorified sex objects.”

Vicki nodded quickly; she still doesn’t realize I’m just like her, she noted. Might as well keep up the act.... “I learned a lot about how androids from my dad,” she explained. “If anyone should be credited for showing me how human they can be, it’s him.” Not a complete lie, but just enough of a twist on the truth to keep her from scanning me. “I want to stop Hannsen as much as you do, so…hang on, where’s the rest of the team?”

“I was wondering when you’d ask---COAST IS CLEAR, GUYS!”

The door to what appeared to be a storage closet opened, revealing the rest of Vicki’s squad---some of whom looked considerably pissed off. “The next time someone says ‘squeeze in’,” Johnny Dash grumbled, “DON’T take that to mean ‘knee the person next to you in the kidneys so they’ll double over and give you more wiggle room’!” He winced, putting a hand to his side; “It’ll be a miracle if I’m not pissing blood for weeks after this,” he added. “Seriously, you need to get your arms registered as lethal weapons….when you nailed me right in the side, I thought I was going to pass out!”

“I barely even tapped you,” Jen assured him.

“Actually, you hit him pretty hard,” Eric corrected. “And you stepped on my feet---”

“Don’t you start,” Jen warned. “And your feet were in my way! I was just trying to---”

Vicki cleared her throat loudly, cutting off all bickering within the group. “Before anyone says anything,” she announced, “I…have some bad news. Alicia 5 chose to attack a bunch of aerial drones, and…she got scrapped in the process. Her internal destruct mechanism triggered after I scanned her with this…” She held up the ORBS device. “She incapacitated me before she walked out into the hallway to fight the drones,” she added. “I…I couldn’t stop her.”

Silence filled the hallway.

“I…I know this is hard to take,” Vicki continued, “but I think Alicia would want us to keep going, and---”

The Tannoy squealed to life, drowning out the brunette gynoid’s sentimental statement in a burst of static. “If you lot are done faffing about and mourning over your latest broken toy,” the Maestro’s voice declared, sounding positively hateful in comparison to his earlier, more sarcastic tones, “I’ve decided to raise the stakes of this little game. You will now be on a time limit when you arrive on each floor of the building---just like the blue hedgehog, all of you have ten minutes to complete each floor. Whoever makes it out in that time lives to fight on the next floor; whoever doesn’t make it out dies in the manner of my choosing.”

“Doesn’t exactly sound like fun,” Vicki called out, hypothesizing that something had gone wrong on Hannsen’s end of the “game”. “I thought you were---”

“What you thought is irrelevant,” the Maestro spat. “You’ll either play the game by my rules, or I’ll kill all of you here and now. This is not a negotiation, or a ‘breather’, or any of that tired old shit---you either cooperate with me in the faintest hopes that you’ll make it out of this alive, or you ‘play your way’ and get mowed down before you even reach the lifts. Your call---”

“What about the hospital patient?”

Vicki’s question was met with an uneasy silence.

“I asked you a question, Hannesn,” the brunette gynoid stated. “What about---”

“YOU DO NOT CALL ME ‘HANNSEN’, YOU STUPID CUNT! YOU ADDRESS ME AS ‘MAESTRO’!” Every word out of the Tannoy screeched with distortion, as if Hannsen’s rage had somehow permeated the speaker’s very circuitry. “I have had enough of you plonks tromping around and ruining my plans,” the enraged criminal mastermind snarled, “so this is my one and only concession to each and every one of you: Clear the floors in ten minutes each, and you’ll be that much closer to finding me. Take your time and go the CSI way…and you all die slowly and painfully. No ‘but what if’s, no take-backs, no bargaining.”

All eyes in the room turned to Vicki, who was staring at the floor and trying her damndest to keep herself from screaming. The bluntness of Hannsen’s insult was like a bat across the eyes---had things been even the slightest bit different, she would’ve broken down crying…

…but two words from a newly-lost friend rang in her mind: “Stay awesome.”

Slowly, she looked up at the Tannoy. “So that’s your offer, then….Maestro?”

“It is.”

Vicki nodded. “Then we accept.”

Whatever reply the team expected to hear from the Maestro was never broadcast---the Tannoy box burst into flames and fell off of the wall to land at Kylie’s feet. “That guy needs a shrink,” she muttered, kicking the ruined box away from her. “Seriously….why the hell was he so pissed off at us this time?”

“He’s not pissed at all of you,” Vicki replied quietly, “he’s pissed off at Alicia.”

The group immediately began debating this point fiercely---a few of them even arguing about it with tenacity usually seen only in Kirk vs. Picard flame wars---only to be silenced by a loud SMACK from Vicki’s direction, as well as the massive hole in the wall right next to where she stood. “He wanted to run Alicia through the gauntlet until she couldn’t take it anymore,” the brunette gynoid stated, not even glancing at the wall she’d just punched, “to wear her out and force her to die on his terms…but she chosed to go out on hers instead---and she kept me out of the line of fire in the process. To a guy like the Maestro, that’s tantamount to throwing your hand in poker when you’re about to lose---he saw it as her taking the ‘easy’ way out.”

“And now he wants to take it out on all of us,” Stacy finished, shaking her head. “That stupid little---”

“Save the insults for later,” Vicki advised. “I have a feeling our ten-minute time limit to get off of this floor just started now!”

“How can you even---” Stacy’s complaint died on her lips as she noticed steam rising from the floor. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” she moaned. “He’s rigged the entire---how is that even possible---GAAH!” Her hand sizzled where she’d reflexively leaned against the wall. “DAMNIT, that….that hurt! What the hell is this guy what the hell is this guy what the hell is this---”

Vicki instantly rushed to the verlette gynoid’s side. “Stacy,” she instructed, “look at the floor again.”

“What do you---What do you---What do you---”

“Just trust me---look at the floor.”

Stacy glanced at the floor…and found that it was no longer scorching hot. “What….how?!”

“The Maestro didn’t superheat the floor,” Vicki informed her, “he’s using signals to mess with your perception of everything around you. Remember the Sasser worm from 2004? Think of this as being like that…but instead of hacking your laptop or your desktop, he’s hacking your brain.”

The verlette’s eyes went wide. “You’re joking….please tell me you’re joking…”

“I don’t think she is,” Jen murmured, raising her left hand in front of her face. “Vicki….you can see my hand right now, right? Because…I can’t. I…I can’t see….I….I can’t see…..” She shook her head. “We need to get out of here---need to get out of here---need to get---need to get---need to---need to---need to---”

If they had the expanded sensory capabilities I did, Vicki noted, they wouldn’t be affected…I’m not tripping out on some random signal because Hannsen’s virus isn’t affecting the building’s systems---or anything linked to them, which includes me! “Just stay focused, Jen,” she instructed her fellow Field Agent, “and follow me. Eric, Johnny, James and Kylie---stay close to Jen and Stacy to make sure they don’t malfunction and break down. I’ll take the lead, so that anything trying to get to all of us will have to deal with me first….”

“Vicki,” Eric whispered, “that’s a good plan, and all---it really is---but how the hell are you---”

“Not infected?” the brunette gynoid quietly replied. “Simple---I’m connected to the building. Hannsen’s virus won’t target me because he won’t risk hurting his own game….” An all-too-familiar rumbling cut her off. “We need to get moving,” she insisted, “otherwise the GAD---”

“The what?!”

“Ground Assault Drone---Hannsen sent one after Alicia and I when we got separated from the group---and it’s coming this way!” Without waiting for Eric to reply, Vicki headed in the opposite direction…just as the other Agents turned and noticed the massive figure of the Ground Assault Droid lumbering towards them, its flame cannons scorching the walls and floor. The decision to follow Vicki out of the hallway was pretty much unanimous by that point, with the human Field Agents taking point to keep the gynoids from stumbling or being burnt to a crisp by the GAD’s cannons. Every few seconds, one of the group would turn and fire at the GAD, which did little (if anything) to damage it.

James let loose a blind-fire shot as he ran, swearing under his breath with every step. “Where the hell does Hannsen get the resources to bring something like that into an office building?!” he hissed. “Seriously, this is like Die Hard meets Terminator II, directed by Michael Bay!”

“Less talking,” Kyle suggested, “and more running!”

“Great idea,” Johnny agreed, “except that thing is gaining on us….”

The heat from the flame cannons was turning the entire hallway into a sauna, making a “standard” chase feel like a run through a volcano. “This is insane,” Eric grunted. “Why the hell did Vicki run so far ahead of us, anyways?!”

“She probably didn’t want that thing catching up with her,” Kylie offered.

“Always a wonderful idea,” Johnny huffed. “You don’t want something catching up with you, so let it chase the rest of the team until it catches them…what a brilliant plan! Oh, wait, no---it’s not briliant, because WE’RE STILL BEING CHASED!” He nearly tripped over his own feet as he rounded a corner; “Seriously,” he growled, “Vicki had better have one hell of an idea lined up to keep this thing from grinding us to paste, or I may have to have a talk with her about the Art of War---”

“You’ve never even read the Art of War,” Kylie groaned.

“I have,” James quietly stated.

“NOBODY CARES ABOUT WHO’S READ THE G__DAMN ART OF WAR!” Eric shouted. “THIS IS AN ALPA MISSION, AND WE ARE HERE TO GET THE JOB DONE, SO STOP STALLING AND KEEP RUNNING!”

Despite the fact that nobody in the group wanted to hear Eric’s screaming at that point, all of them did, in fact, keep running---even though the GAD was still on their heels and blasting the walls with fire. Jen and Stacy, for their part, managed to keep up with their human teammates even as Hannsen’s trickery made the world around them warp and distort like something out of a bad acid trip. “Eric,” Jen murmured, “just….answer me one question, really quick…you’re not…a skeleton right now…are you? And the others aren’t walking tumors with tentacles growing out of their heads?”

“No, I’m not a skeleton,” Eric replied, trying to project a tone of comfort into his usually pissed-off voice, “and the others aren’t walking tumors. Everything’s peachy, Jen---apart from the stupid Ground Assault Drone chasing us with flame cannons.”

Jen’s reply was a quiet “Oh”, followed by a scream---and the sight of her pants leg briefly catching fire. Kylie managed to slap the flames out while still helping Jen along through the hallway, and the group kept running with no intention of slowing down…until a second GAD appeared in front of them. “Oh, COME ON!” Eric groaned. “This…this is just….THIS IS BULLSHIT! How the hell are we supposed to get through here if there’s one behind us, and one---”

“GET DOWN.”

The command from the GAD in front of the group surprised everyone---even the afflicted gynoids. “Did…did I just hear that thing correctly?” Stacy whispered.

“GET DOWN, NOW.” The command again, this time with a….feminine undertone?

All at once, Eric understood….and felt a smile cross his face. “You heard the thing,” he ordered. “Everyone, DUCK!” Human and gynoid alike dropped to the ground, as the GAD before them opened fire…

….obliterating the GAD behind them.

“Funny thing about these GADs,” a familiar monotone voice stated from the surviving drone, “they have a really nasty tendency to ‘accidentally’ wipe each other out in friendly-fire incidents…” A few seconds later, just as the GAD’s cannons lowered, Vicki Lawson stepped out from behind it. “So,” she beamed, “I’m hoping you’re not all still mad at me for having ‘run out on the group’, or anything…seeing as how I did just save your butts. Oh, and before I forget…” She held up a remote and pressed a button.

Jen and Stacy let out a gasp. “Okay,” Stacy declared, “I never want to go through that again. Ever.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Vicki teased. “I was able to find the frequency the Maestro was using to mess with your perceptual sensors---from there, all it took was isolating that one frequency, rerouting it to an off-site target and putting in a frequency of my own, earning myself a pretty cool new toy in the process.” She patted the cannon of the GAD and grinned. “And before anyone jumps on me about that ‘off-site target’,” she added, “it’s nothing major---though the folks in charge of the satellite-guided car project over in Dubai may be surprised to see their pet project pulling donuts on the test track…I made sure to find one that wasn’t being used in a populated area where anyone might be in danger of getting run over.”

Jen shook her head in disbelief. “You did all that in….four minutes?”

The brunette gynoid shrugged. “What can I say? I learned from the best. Now, then…I think we’ve got about six minutes left to get to the elevator and head up.”

“Ah, didn’t Han---the Maestro rig all of the elevators?” Johnny recalled.

“That was before he imposed the time limit,” Kylie reminded him. “Now, he actually wants us to get to the next floor---at least, I think he does.”

Vicki nodded her agreement. “I was able to scan the entire network of the building while I was rerouting the signal earlier, and there’s nothing controlling the elevators…at least, not anymore.” She gestured for the rest of the group to follow her; “There’s an elevator bank up ahead, so we won’t have to search the entire floor to find a way out,” she informed them. “I think---”

A hand on her shoulder cut off the sentence. “Ah, Vicki,” Eric quietly stated, “seeing as how Alicia was team leader before she…died, the decision-making process goes to the second-in-command….”

“A.K.A. you,” Vicki agreed. “I was only giving orders to, ah, minimize the stress on you…”

Eric gave her what countless individuals throughout time had referred to as “the look”.

“Jen told me about what happened when you were on monitoring duty at DragonTown,” the brunette gynoid continued, “and…I didn’t want Hannsen trying to screw with you again. If you would’ve cracked, the whole team may have suffered….”

After a few seconds of silence, Eric nodded. “Point taken, Lawson….but I’m still team leader now.”

“I never said I wanted to lead the team,” Vicki confessed. “I was just…motivating them.”

Again, Eric nodded, the faintest ghost of a smile visible on his face. “Damn good job, in my opinion….” With a sigh, he turned his attention to the rest of the group; “All right, listen up. Chain of command dictates that I am officially in charge of this team now---and I say we follow Vicki’s advice about that elevator bank up ahead. If anyone has a problem with that…keep it to yourselves. Before we move out, everyone run a quick gear check and make sure your weapons are still functioning. ARE WE CLEAR?”

A chorus of affirmatives rang out through the hall.

“They seem to be taking the shift in command well,” Vicki mused.

“Yeah, well…it’s a lot easier to deal with being a team leader when I don’t have a reason to shout at everything and everyone around me,” Eric admitted. “And as for Hannsen…he’ll answer for all the crap he’s put me---and everyone else here---through, as soon as we get to him.”

“Amen to that,” V.I.C.I. deadpanned.

Let’s just hope we don’t lose anyone else before then…

Matthew Emmerich Hannsen was furious.

His interference signal, meant to incapacitate the remaining gynoids in the team, had been rerouted to Dubai, of all places. The secondary GAD, left in hiding for an ambush meant to wipe out the Field Agents, had been seized and turned against him by that stupid Lawson bitch. Even the ten-minute time limit imposed upon the group was proving to be completely inefficient.

Long story short: The Maestro was losing at his own game…

“NO.” The urge to smash his fist into the desk, or to throw something across the room, was overwhelming by this point…but he knew it would be useless. “They haven’t won. They haven’t beaten me…they won’t beat me.” Even as he said the words, the disconcerting feeling that maybe they had beaten him was slowly crawling up his spine, chewing away at his ego like a parasite…and there was nothing he could do to get rid of that thought. There was no balm, no soothing ointment, no potion or pill to erase that nagging, persistant little bastard of a theory---

Except…

Slowly, gingerly, Hannsen crossed the room. His limbs felt like lead; every step seemed to be slower than the last until he reached what he was looking for…and as soon as he pulled off the drop-cloth, he couldn’t help but smile. It had taken him considerable time, effort and money to have the thing smuggled out of DragonTown after he himself had escaped, but now, in this time of greatest need, it was here to do what it did best.

It was here to make beautiful music.

Hannsen pulled up a stool, staring at the ebony and ivory keys; it had been a while since he’d played last, and even longer still since he’d practiced. Fortunately for him, knowing how to play was one of those things that, once learned, was never un-learned---like riding a bicycle, or writing a DOS shell program. He stroked the keys gently, as if caressing a long-lost lover…which, in a way, was actually a pretty accurate comparison.

This very instrument, after all, had cemented his self-applied nickname…and elevated it.

He pushed a key, feeling a small, almost childish thrill as the brilliant, beautiful sound emanated from within the instrument. For a few seconds, he nearly thought he was going to cry---music like this always took him, in a spiritual sense, to a place inside himself where nothing else mattered, where sound became something more than itself…and even now, as those damned idiots from the ALPA were tromping around, making their way up, he felt that same place within calling him, inviting him…..

…and he wasn’t about to turn down such an invitation.

A few solemn seconds passed, as they always did when Hannsen sat down to play; he could never just start a song in moments like this. To fully appreciate the music, to enjoy it, there was always a clearing out of the mind…a sort of meditation.

After a full two minutes, Matthew Hannsen---the Maestro---began to play.

The song that took shape was Chopin’s “Raindrops”, a rather unusual tune given the circumstances…but with it came memories of that wonderful, ethereal place where music became something greater, where every note was pure unadulterated bliss…and with every note he played, Hannsen was all too happy to find himself drawn back to that place. Even with his eyes closed, the keys seemed to shine like stars, every note taking him further. Nothing mattered now---not the plan, not the Field Agents….not even Vicki Lawson.

For the next six minutes, the world became a song….

…and Matthew Hannson, the Maestro, was in paradise.


Even with her auditory sensors tuned to detect any further signals, transmissions or broadcasts from the OSE building, Vicki couldn’t help but think she was experiencing a glitch (or a hallucination)---who the hell is playing Chopin at a time like this?!

She brushed the thought aside as the elevator continued its ascent.


“….so, when are you going to tell them?”

The voice that spoke these words almost seemed like a coda to the joyous song that had just filled the room, even if the speaker wasn’t actually there. It took Hannsen a moment to realize that his exit from that place, that glorious world created by music, had somehow triggered a flashback so vivid, so vibrant, that he felt, for a moment, at least, that he’d actually stepped through a window back in time.

Specifically, back to what had been (at the time) the best night of his life.

“Tell them what?” There he was, Matthew Hannsen, age 20---looking for all the world like Steve Wozniak’s long-lost cousin. “That I’m dating a beautiful, sexy, intelligent girl who also just happens to be…”

“A robot?” Alicia Lehane laughed. “Well, you could leave that part out…or not.” She kissed him on the neck, earning an overly-exaggerated sigh from the younger Hannsen. “They’ll probably find out sooner or later anyways,” she added, “seeing as how all they do is spy on people for no reason. If you want my advice, you should tell Anton first---he looks like the one who’ll understand it better than the rest.”

Hannsen’s younger self scowled. “He’ll probably try to take you for himself, if I tell him…”

“He will not,” Alicia teased. “Ten bucks says he’ll be a perfect gentleman about it, and---”

From somewhere beyond the door to Hannsen’s room, a voice---terrible and resonant, even within the realm of memory---called out: “MATTHEW!”

Even as Alicia kissed his neck, the younger Hannsen went pale. “Dad…”

“WHO TH’HELL D’YA HAVE UP THERE NOW, YA GOBSHITE?! ANSWER ME!”

Alicia planted one last kiss on the young man’s neck. “Through the window again?”

“It’s too late. He’ll see you going out---”

The door crashed open, and the scene instantly turned dark---literally. Hannsen felt as if his own memory had turned into a film noir…which, considering who’d just entered the room, was more than appropriate. “I told ya not to bring anymore….friends…up here,” the swaying, leering figure growled. “How’mny times d’I have ta say it, boy?! Last week, y’brought them black kids in here…an’ now….” The drunken voice paused. “Izzat perfume?! Who the hell---”

“She’s a study partner. Helping me with my coursework---”

“COURSEWORK?! YOU QUIT YOUR JOB AT THE PLANT FOR THAT UNIVERSITY SHITE?!”

“IT’S NOT SHIT, YOU FAT BASTARD! IT’S AN EDUCATION, WHICH IS MORE THAN YOU EVER HAD---”

Hannsen flinched as the memory of his father striking him came back, in all its horrid detail. “You…are never leaving this room again, boy. Bars on the bloody windows, locks on the bloody doors---the only way you’re goin’ ANYWHERE from now on is the bus---from ‘ere, to the plant, and back ‘ere! No more ‘coursework---”

Alicia’s shout of “NO!” was nowhere near loud enough to drown out what happened next.

The old man had made a mistake, turning his back on his son….and even as he saw the moment replayed before him, Hannsen felt as if he was going to be sick. That backhand across the face had haunted him for years…and he wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if Alicia had been haunted by what she saw from her hiding place in the closet.

Not that it bothered him anymore, of course…

As visceral as the sound of that backhand across his cheek had been, the sound of the cricket bat smashing into his father’s skull was more visceral. The first blow brought memories of another song---Symphony No. 5, this time---and everything seemed to take on a sinister reddish tinge to it…starting with the blood on the bat as it rose and fell---or was driven---again and again. Hannsen saw his younger self screaming, remembering what he’d said…but the words were lost to the song. Everything in the room seemed to shift, to grow, casting long shadows over all…and making Hannsen’s younger slef look positively demonic.

Even stranger, his own voice---from three years after the incident---was speaking over the incident, just under the song: “…it started as self-defense, Your Honour, but after the first few seconds…I just couldn’t stop. My father had treated me like shit ever since Mum died, trying to get me to follow the family business by working in the same plant he’d worked in, the same plant Granddad had worked in…the same one Granddad had died in, as well….and I wanted nothing to do with it. I killed Jeremy Roland Hannsen, Your Honour, by breaking his skull with a cricket bat and forcing him down the stairs…and I would do it again.”

Another scene faded into view, of Hannsen’s mentor from the Great Dirty World Wide Web congratulating him for his latest creation. Right next to it, an image of Jeremy Hannsen tearing up his son’s thesis on artificial intelligence and calling it “so much shit roll”. Below that: his mother’s funeral, rain pouring down; above that, the first night he’d met Alicia Lehane…

…and in the center of all this….Alicia 5’s last words: “Mother…I’m sorry…”

The song built to a crescendo, the images swirling around him as another sound rose; for a few minutes, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it….until one final memory---one last voice---came to him: “In a month’s time, Hannsen, you will have the opportunity to break Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson’s morale with every resource the DVS can provide…if she is deemed to no longer be a threat to us by the end of September, you will join our illustrious ranks with all the honors and privileges befitting your status. Should you fail, however…”

In that instant, the sound he couldn’t quite place became all too clear: He’d been screaming the whole time.

Like water from a bathtub as the drain plug is pulled, the memories rushed away. The sounds, the songs, the voices and the images from the past---all of them dissolved before Hannsen’s eyes. Within a few short seconds, he realized he’d never moved an inch from his seat in front of the piano…the whole thing had been a bad trip down Memory Lane, ending with the promise of his greatest reward yet…and the unveiled threat of the ultimate punishment should he fail.

All because of a stupid song from Chopin….

Hannsen slammed the piano lid down over the keys, producing one last, jarring note from the instrument. He thought he might cry again…but now, there was no sorrow. There was no happiness, either, nor was their rage. There was only an unrelenting drive to succeed, to prove to the world that he was the Maestro, starting with the destruction of Vicki Lawson and her idiotic teammates. He’d watch them stumble, and he’d watch them die---all with a smile on his face. Even as he returned to the monitor bank on the other side of the room, however, he heard one last echoing call from his past: Alicia, standing outside his house mere minutes before the police showed up.

He could still hear the sob in her voice: “Was it worth it, Matt? Was it worth it?”

After all this time….he still couldn’t answer her.

The lift doors slid open with a quiet hiss, revealing…nothing.

“Why is it that whenever I expect the worst,” Johnny Dash complained, “nothing happens---and when I expect the best, I get nailed in the jewels with a football? Okay, that was just one time, but still…”

Vicki gestured for him to be quiet. “Jen, Stacy, scan for life signs…I’ve got a feeling---”

The Tannoy squealed to life, drowning out her words. “Unless you want me to drop this lift car and kill all of you within the next five seconds,” the Maestro’s voice declared, “listen close---one of the worthless sods who works here has been locked up in a room within the central courtyard on this floor. Your ten-minute time limit will be extended to fifteen minutes, giving you plenty of time to ‘save’ him…if you get him out of the room the right way, the timer stays where it is, and you have those extra minutes on your side to leave this floor. Get him out the wrong way, and the timer defaults to five minutes. Try to cheat, and the timer goes to five seconds.”

Before anyone could speak up, the Tannoy box imploded.

“Well,” James muttered, “looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

It didn’t take long for the group to reach the central courtyard---and it took even less time to see what the “right way/wrong way” comments meant. The centerpiece of the courtyard was a massive pillar, connected by catwalks (all of which were suspended from overhead by wires) to the next three floors, that held offices and other such rooms; as per the Maestro’s “rules”, each of the catwalk bridges had already been cut. The ground level office, normally accessed by way of one of the four doors, had been rigged with thumbprint locks and keypads so that only the “right” person could open the door.

Even worse, the poor soul inside the room was panicking.

A quick glance at a wall clock was all it took for Vicki to realize just how perilous the situation was. “We need to get an eyeball in there,” she informed Eric. “Those locks weren’t fitted to keep anyone in, they’re meant to keep us out…and I have a feeling that if we try to force our way in…’

“The guy inside is going to get the worst of it,” Eric finished, scowling. “RIGHT---who has the OmnEye?”

Stacy nodded in Eric’s direction. “Got it from whatshername before we left.”

“Good. Think you can angle it into there from down here---”

“It won’t work,” Vicki objected. “If she was on one of the higher floors, she could get the OmnEye through a window and trigger it that way…from down here, it’ll just break the window or ricochet off of something and hit one of us. Either way, it’ll be a waste of the OmnEye, and the Maestro will notice.”

Eric frowned. “So you’re saying…”

“Let Stacy jump up to a higher point, and she can take care of it from there. It’ll work.”

Before anyone could voice their opinions (or protests), Stacy decided to end the argument for them. “Girl’s got a point,” she muttered, shoving her way past Eric (and Vicki), “and we don’t have a lot of time---how high do I need to go for this stupid thing to work, anyways?”

“Second…maybe third sub-floor,” Vicki suggested.

“Works for me.” The verlette gynoid grinned. “WISH ME LUCK!”

The complaint died on Eric’s lips as he watched Stacy jump from the floor all the way up to the third sub-floor.

From her perch above the courtyard, the gynoid shouted “NOW WHAT?!”

“How many windows can you see from up there?” Vicki called up.

“FOUR, MAYBE FIVE----THREE OF THEM ARE OPEN!”

“Aim for the closest one,” the brunette gynoid suggested, “and make sure it hits a wall---no, Eric, I’m not trying to take over as team leader, I’m just giving her some advice.” She glanced back up towards Stacy; “Angle the shot to go straight through the closest open window,” she suggested. “Don’t hit the window pane itself, and don’t try to bounce the shot off of something.”

“I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!”

Vicki blew out a frustrated sigh. “I was just trying to help…”

Once Stacy confirmed that she was in position to fire the OmnEye into the room, Eric signaled for the others to prepare the monitor. “I really hope that thing works,” he muttered, “otherwise, we’re knee-deep in the---”

“Please don’t finish that sentence,” Johnny winced. “I don’t know about you, Reaves, but…I feel like I just got hit with Montezuma’s Revenge---again…” He nearly doubled over in pain; “I said it,” he groaned, “I told you that fountain on the last floor was bogus, but you said it was fine, that it wouldn’t be a problem…ohhh, man, I need to find a bathroom!”

“Now that you mention it,” Eric admitted, looking a few shades paler, “I…I think I…blrgh---” Only the timely act of clamping his hand over his mouth kept him from adding a few more spots to the already-spackled floor tiles.

Vicki glanced at Kylie and James, already dreading the worst. “Neither of you drank from the fountains, right?”

“I only drink from this,” James replied, holding up a hip flask. “Tamper-proof, and 100% not contaminated.”

Kylie sighed. “I can go for a full day without having to drink anything,” she confessed, “so I didn’t really need to drink from the fountains before we got here---” The sound of Eric violently wretching into a nearby trashcan rudely cut into her sentence. “Ah, never mind.”

“Hannsen probably rigged the fountains before he came up with the time limit,” Vicki surmised. “Jen, try to get Johnny to a bathroom---quickly---while we deal with things here. Stacy’s already set up the OmnEye shot, so that won’t be a problem…we’ve still got eleven or so minutes before the Maestro decides to do something really stupid…” She paused to run a brief check on the building’s blueprints. “There are…five bathrooms in and around this area,” she added, “and three of those will take less than two minutes to reach….”

“Not a problem,” Jen assured the brunette gynoid. “Let’s go, Johnny---and try to hold it until we get there…”

Once Jen and Johnny were out of sight, Vicki, James and Kylie surveyed the scene. “Once the OmnEye has been deployed,” Vicki advised, “use the monitor and run the full sweep of the layout---check for anything that might’ve been put in there by Hannsen to throw us off…or kill us. After that, we figure out how to breach the room and extract whoever’s in it without endangering them---or ourselves. After that…we get to the elevator and…” She stopped.

“And what?” Kylie prompted.

“Not ‘we’,” Vicki corrected. “I. I get to the elevator, and I stop Hannsen.”

“I think you’re forgetting the whole concept of ‘there’s no I in Team’, Vicki,” James reminded her. “If you go up there alone, Hannsen will do everything in his power to destroy you---and let’s not forget the whole matter of him having abducted one of his ex-captives from Greece---”

“Exactly,” V.I.C.I. replied. “If you or Kylie go up there…you might freeze at the moment of truth, when the time comes to fire that one shot. No offense…but both of you are only human. He knows he can mess with you, and he’ll use that to his advantage. Until Alicia went out into that hallway to fight those drones, this whole thing has been….almost casual, but ever since then, the Maestro doesn’t care about just making us look stupid---he wants us dead.” She glanced over at Eric, allowing both James and Kylie to see that whatever was making him sick was a lot worse than a simple stomach irritant.

“He…he poisoned the fountains?!” Kylie gasped.

James turned away, too disgusted to reply.

“I’ll bet Johnny’s ‘problem’ isn’t as benign as any of us thought, either,” Vicki murmured. “Once we breach that room and rescue whoever’s in it, I’ll head up to the top of the building---directly to the top---and face Hannsen myself.” She turned away; “The rest of you,” she added, “be ready to call for a cleanup crew.” After a five second pause, she spoke again: “This building will need to be examined, cleared of all traps and sanitized before anyone can work here again.”

James and Kylie nodded grimly.

“Good…STACY!”

“YEAH?!”

“Get ready to fire the OmnEye!”

“I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU IDIOTS TO SAY THAT!” On her perch overlooking the central room, the verlette gynoid dropped to a crouch, aiming…

“FIRE!”

A squeeze of the trigger loosed the OmnEye round from the specially-built barrel modification on Stacy’s pistol, sending it flying through the barely-opened window. A dull thud signalled that it had, indeed, hit the wall---and a slightly-louder noise signalled that the hundreds of microcameras housed in the OmnEye’s casing had been deployed without issue, and were embedding themselves around the room to give a perfect view of what it looked like inside. “Right,” Vicki stated, “our guy’s right in the center of the room---good call on his part, by the way---and….oh, scrap. Hannsen’s put remote-trigger canisters in each corner.” She focused in on each canister; “I can’t tell what kind they are from here,” she admitted. “They could be liquid nitrogen, propane…”

“Or shells hiding EMP charges,” James grimly suggested.

“Ten bucks says Alicia had something on her utility belt that would’ve helped with this,” Kylie huffed.

After a few seconds’ pause, Vicki made up her mind---and started running for the elevators. “What the---Vicki, where are you going?!” James demanded. “We have to get that guy out of that room, or else---”

“Or else, nothing,” V.I.C.I. replied. “This was never meant to be a rescue situation---it was designed as a trap, to keep you occupied until the fifteen minutes ran out and Hannsen had an excuse to kill all of you at once. The man in that room can’t be rescued until after someone takes care of Hannsen…which I’m about to do.” The door opened before the brunette gynoid even reached the elevator. “Hold the line down here and make sure the man in that room doesn’t do anything stupid,” she ordered. “If everything goes well, I won’t be up there too long.”

Whatever James intended to say in reply cut off by the elevator doors closing.

We’ve played the game your way long enough, Hannsen…now, you play it my way.


Hannsen stared at the monitor, finally allowing himself to smile again. “So you figured it out….clever girl.”

The ALPA had known about Alicia’s past with Hannsen when they’d sent her on the mission---he had no doubt in his mind that, had she not chosen to follow the advice of a certain Bon Jovi song when fighting the aerial drones, she would’ve been the one chosen to “talk him down from the ledge”. Considering the fact that she’d done just that (or something similar to it) when she (or one of her other bodies) had gone out with him….

…it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The Lawson girl, on the other hand, was proving to be even more of a troublemaker than expected. Anyone else in her position would’ve stupidly tried to come up with a convoluted plan to save the unfortunate twonk from his prison in the courtyard below…but Lawson knew. She’d figured the whole thing out while “borrowing” the GADs, most likely.

All the more reason to stomp her flat when she arrived, then.

“Let the endgame begin, Agent Lawson…”


V.I.C.I.’s SCEMP was the first thing to emerge from the elevator when the doors opened---followed soon after by the gynoid herself. Every sensor was in overdrive, looking for and detecting objects (however innoculous they may have looked) that might’ve hidden traps. At any other point in time, this sort of attention to detail would’ve been written off as paranoia.

As of now, it was still paranoia…but somewhat more justifiable.

Even though nothing in the room had been rigged, V.I.C.I. still made her way forward with her gun drawn, and the occasional 360-degree scan. The memory of July, 9 still rang fresh in her mind, and she had no desire---

“So. We meet again, Vicki.”

Hannsen wasn’t smiling as he stepped forward from the shadows at the far end of the room. “Normally, this would be the part where I lay the bullshit on as thick as possible,” he tonelessly admitted, “telling you what a clever job you’ve done making it this far, saying how ‘impressed’ I am that you figured out my little trick in the courtyard…except I’m not impressed. Right now, more than anything….I’m angry.” His stare never wavered as he paced; “I’m angry because you let Alicia Lehane die…instead of her letting you die.”

“Why do you care? She was an agent of the House---”

“She never told you, did she?” Hannsen continued, as if V.I.C.I. hadn’t spoken. “She never told you about how she met me, back in the 90s….how we dated….how she saw me kill my own father with a cricket bat?” A twisted smile crossed his face. “She never even told you about who she used to be….”

“Enough talk, Hannsen. Where’s the patient you took from the hospital?”

To V.I.C.I.’s surprise, the mention of his name did little---if anything, to enrage Hannsen. “Oh, she’s…around, just waiting for her cue---”

“WHERE?”

With a smirk, Hannsen retreated back into the shadows, only to emerge seconds later pushing what appeared to be a cage on wheels. “What happens next is your call. Either you do this right and she walks, or you do it wrong and she dies.” He grabbed the revolver sitting atop the cage, fully loading the gun as he spoke; “Any sudden moves from you,” he continued, “and she gets a round between the eyes. Are we clear?!”

“No. Put the gun down, now, and---”

“NO?! You…” Hannsen nearly dropped the gun. “I threaten to kill this pathetic sod, and you say ‘no’….”

“Like you said earlier…no bargaining. Let her go now---”

V.I.C.I. moved her head a centimeter to the left, as a bullet whizzed past. “Five more shots,” Hannsen gasped, “and five more reasons for you to shut up and LISTEN…”

Even as her fists clenched at her side, the brunette gynoid nodded.

“This…this whole thing was never about me trying to gain access to the customer database, or the master unlock code,” Hannsen admitted, circling the cage and twirling the revolver on his finger. “All of that….that was just me flying the signal flag, trying to get your attention. Damn good job of it, too….you all came running to the rescue, just as I expected…except you fixed Alicia first.”

His smirk faded as he stared into V.I.C.I.’s eyes. “She wasn’t supposed to be here with the rest of you.”

“Your EMP mine incapacitated her---”

“TO KEEP HER OUT OF THE WAY!” Hannsen bellowed. “I….I was going to take her with me, after this was all over with…get her to see things my way, maybe have her join me at my new job…but you, and your stupid ALPA, dragged her back out, patched her up…” He shook his head. “Look at me,” he scoffed, “acting like I still give two shits about her…truth is, I stopped caring five years into my sentence. I did have a few plans for getting her to join my cause by force, and maybe even taking away that pesky little personality of hers…all a bunch of worthless flights of fancy, to be honest. Even dating her in the 90s was more of a chore than anything, especially when it came to the Web…but enough about that. You didn’t come all this way to hear me prattle on about my sordid past, or about how I wanted Alicia as my own, for whatever reasons…I do believe you’re here to ‘stop me’….correct?”

”Correct.”

“Except you’re NOT going to stop me,” Hannsen corrected, “and you’re NOT going to rescue anyone, either---”

“DROP THE GUN,” V.I.C.I. ordered, raising her ES-9950 just as Hannsen pointed the revolver into the cage, his finger hovering over the trigger. “Drop it now, and back away from the cage with both hands above your head. You have 25 seconds to comply---”

“Don’t you want to see what’s inside the cage first?” Hannsen taunted.

“Drop the gun,” V.I.C.I. repeated.

Hannsen gave a chuckle. “Let’s just take a peak, shall we?!” He whipped the dropcloth off of the cage…

…and V.I.C.I. immediately felt like screaming.

“You never told your roommate what you are, did you?” Hannsen inquired. “Never bothered to drop a few hints every now and then? Well…it’s not going to matter in a couple of seconds…” He gestured towards Sharon Wilson’s bound form inside the cage; “I had to, ah, physically restrain her a few times,” he remarked, “hence the bruising on the arms, legs…torso….face….pretty much everywhere. Other than that, she’s been perfectly fine, untouched and unsoiled by my hands---or any other part of my anatomy---”

“LET HER GO.” Even to her own ears, V.I.C.I.’s words had an angry, screeching edge to them.

“I think not,” Hannsen replied, no longer smiling. “I think that you need to be taught a lesson.” He grabbed a bottle from a nearby shelf, unscrewing the cap with his free hand and tossing it aside before pouring its contents onto Sharon. “Wakey wakey….”

Sharon merely shivered, trying her best to stay warm (a thin t-shirt and boxers were all she had on).

After a few more seconds taunting, Hannsen savagely kicked the cage. “WAKE UP!” Sharon jolted awake instantly, a frightened bleat emanating from her lips as she realized where she was. “What….I…I don’t---”

“Say hi to your old friend Vicki, Sharon!” Hannsen insisted, spinning the cage around.

For a brief moment, the two roommates’ stares said more than any words could’ve conveyed---V.I.C.I.’s eyes held equal measures of sadness, anger and regret, while Sharon’s were full of confusion, pain…and fear.

“Anything you two would like to say to each other?!” Hannsen cackled as Sharon’s cage fell apart.

Vicki stepped forward. “Sharon,” she quietly intoned, “I---”

Hannsen pressed the revolver to the back of Sharon’s skull. “Vicki---”

A shot rang out, followed by silence.

Seconds later, Sharon Wilson slumped to the floor, dead.

Hannsen stared at Sharon’s corpse with a disgusted sneer. “Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.” He looked up, saw Vicki staring---slack-jawed and wide-eyed----and chuckled. “And you’re even worse. Where’s your pithy comebacks now? All that false bravado, that swagger….that fleeting sense of invincibility?!” He laughed, gesturing with the gun towards Sharon’s corpse; “IT’S ALL RIGHT THERE!” he shotued, squeezing the trigger again---and putting another bullet in the dead girl’s back.

On the other side of the room, Vicki stood like a statue.

“This…this wasn’t how it was supposed to go,” Hannsen muttered, already bored with the whole thing. “You were supposed to run, and we were going to fight….” He turned away. “Absolutely bloody pathetic, every damn one of you….” He turned on his heel, retreating into the darkness.

Every step towards Sharon’s corpse felt weightless, every minute stretching and twisting to an hour. The room seemed to have grown infinitely larger….except it hadn’t, because all too soon, Vicki found herself kneeling by the body of her fallen friend. She’d expected to draw the confrontation with Hannsen out, to stall him and form a plan…except she hadn’t expected to see Sharon in the cage. Nor had she expected Hannsen to kill her in cold blood.

Almost as if on cue, the Tannoy in the room rang out with the opening notes of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

A thought in the back of her mind formed, theorizing that the song was meant to be Hannsen’s “fight music” for the inevitable confrontation with Vicki. Instead, it served as a cold, heartless parody of a requiem---almost mocking Sharon’s death---and, possibly, the senseless destruction of Alicia 5.

For a few, brief seconds, Vicki expected to “snap out of it”, finding herself back in the courtyard…

…but no such respite came.

James Hetfield’s vocals filled the room as the refrain “For whom the bell tolls…time marches on” echoed. For Vicki, the song didn’t matter; the only remotely important thing was the body on the floor in front of her, of a friend who had been killed because of Matthew Hannsen’s insanity.

The brunette gynoid reached down, cradling her fallen roommate’s corpse in her arms….

….and for the next five minutes, Vicki Lawson could only scream.

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

“We blew it, Clive.”

Oberon’s words did little to snap the ALPA President out of his funk. “You’re just realizing this?” he intoned, not smiling. “We’d blown it ever since Hannsen escaped from DragonTown…we pegged his plans completely the wrong way---”

“It wasn’t just Hannsen’s plans,” Oberon spat. “It’s Celeste….she lied to us! She lied to me---she never told me Alicia had a history with Hannsen! She never…” He stopped, saw the look on DuBraul’s face. “No,” he muttered. “She….told you?!”

“Only what I already knew,” Clive admitted. “Alicia filled in the rest herself, years ago…told me how Hannsen smiled when his father hit him, how he was smiling when he beat the old man with the bat…and through the entire trial. I would’ve told you after the RoboNexus convention last year, but…you were otherwise occupied, if I remember correctly.” He stared out the window; “I’m surprised Celeste didn’t tell you herself, really,” he added. “She never stopped loving you---”

“How unfortunate for her, then,” Oberon intoned, “that the same cannot be said for me.”

Clive glanced over his shoulder, already hating himself for getting caught up in the old argument. “Not this again, please….every time this happens---”

“IT SHOULDN’T BE ‘EVERY TIME’!” Oberon thundered, slamming his fist on the desk. “She…oh, sod it. Get Crystal on the phone, tell her to patch me through to the Sisters---I’m petitioning that Celeste be removed from power and replaced as Matriarch, effective immediately. And don’t you dare try to talk me out of it, Clive---I will not stand by and let her misguided sentimentality cost us any more lives.”

After a few minutes of awkward silence, DuBraul finally spoke: “You know why she’s doing this.”

“What?!”

“This isn’t ‘misguided sentimentality’, Oberon….you know why she never told you about Alicia. She never forgave you for taking---”

Oberon’s fist hit the desk again, splintering a portion of it. “THIS IS NOT ABOUT HER DAUGHTER!”

“The daughter you took from her,” DuBraul countered. “The daughter you promised to save…and where is she now? Still in the Archives, with the others?! When’s the last time any of them---”

Four knocks at the door interrupted the discussion before it could turn truly violent; “Ah, sir?” Crystal inquired, gingerly poking her head into the room. “I just got a call back from the Sisters…they haven’t seen Celeste for the last few days. Something about her leaving for…Florida?”

A low, growling moan filled the room, building quickly to an enraged howl.

Seconds later, an LCD monitor narrowly missed Crystal’s head and shattered against the doorframe.

DuBraul rose from his seat without a word, quietly guiding the gynoid secretary out of the room. “It’s best to leave him to his thoughts when he gets like this,” he advised her. “Otherwise…you may end up with a few extra wires in your head…”

“I know, sir,” Crystal agreed. “Believe me, I know…”

The door closed behind them, leaving the ALPA Chairman by himself….

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Oberon didn’t even bother to look up. “I’d tell you to leave, Tawny,” he grumbled, “but you’ll probably ignore me…seems everybody else does. Also, I want my spare keycard back.”

“It’s still where you left it,” Tawny replied with a smile, emerging from one of the darker corners of the room. “I didn’t need it to get in here…and I can tell you right now that the situation with Celeste isn’t as bleak as you may think.”

“Not as bleak as I think, eh?” Oberon scoffed. “She’s only gone and run off to Florida…”

Tawny sighed, pulling a flask of herbal tea from the hip pocket of her pants and offering it to Oberon. “This isn’t about Jake, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she informed him. “Alicia was one of the first brought into the House from outside…one of the only ones to start out beyond its walls, and be made a part of the family by somewhat…extraordinary circumstances. She’s not like the rest of us---but at the same time, she’s become a symbol of everything the House stands for.”

“Speaking of ‘for’…or four, in this case,” Oberon interjected, “the others are….”

“Stable, but in shock. They all felt it.”

“And did they hear the last words Alicia 5 spoke?”

Tawny stared at the floor. “They did.”

Oberon steepled his fingers, staring at the splintered wood on his desk. “Have the Sisters made up their minds about who will lead the House in Celeste’s absence?”

“They’re convening with Anton about it tomorrow night. He’s got a few interesting suggestions…”

“Indeed. I just hope the Sisters will follow his advice---or mine, for that matter…” The white-clad chairman rose from his seat. “Was she as impulsive as she is now, when she first arrived?” he asked. “Or was it one of those…acquired aspects of her personality?”

The dirty-blonde gynoid grinned. “Alicia’s always been a bit of a spitfire, to be honest---”

“I wasn’t talking about Alicia.”

Tawny’s grin faded slightly; “You mean…”

“I think we should turn in for the night,” Oberon declared. “It’s late…I’m tired, you probably need a charge, and God knows everyone else in the office could use a rest….and now that I think of it, I’ll have a sip of that tea now.” He accepted the flask from Tawny, tugging the cap out and taking a pull from it.

“Feel better?”

“In terms of physical health, leagues,” Oberon replied. “Mentally…I’m still a bit perturbed by the whole Celeste situation, but she always has been one to react in rather odd ways in times of a crisis---and this is a crisis, after all---so….I’m more cautious than full-on worried. She’s seen worse, dealt with worse, survived worse…and I know in my heart of hearts that she’ll make it through this relatively unscathed.” He shook his head sadly; “I’m afraid I can’t say the same for her spot as Matriarch,” he admitted. “Lying to the ALPA was, and is---”

“A necessary vice,” Tawny assured him. “Necessary…and dangerous.”

“And a blade to rival that of Damocles,” Oberon added. “It may come to destroy her, in the end.”

To the chairman’s surprise, Tawny nodded her agreement…and made a rather surprising confession. “This whole thing with Hannsen wouldn’t have ended differently if she had told you about it beforehand, you know. If Celeste had told you that Alicia was gathering intel---”

“Wait.” Oberon glanced up from the papers on his desk. “She was spying on him?”

“Collecting info on the Great Dirty World Wide Web, to be honest. Celeste had been hoping that Alicia would be able to convince Anton to leave the group and get back into robotics…but when Alicia met Hannsen, she focused her efforts on turning him to their cause instead. Needless to say…it didn’t work. Hannsen was the king of master manipulators, and every time Alicia tried to appeal to him, he turned that around and tried to get her to join him. Hell, he even got his father to fall off the wagon again a month before he killed him!”

Oberon didn’t care that his eyes had gone wide, or that he was almost slack-jawed at the news. “And Alicia had proof of this? Actual, concrete proof?”

“She saw him switch out the Cokes for rum’n’Cokes,” Tawny replied. “Even took pictures---”

“He didn’t want us to put him in prison,” Oberon muttered. “He always said being brought to justice was his only crime…why the bloody hell would he have let Alicia take those pictures?! It just---no.” A look that could best be described as trepidation mixed with sheer anguish crossed the chairman’s face. “Oh, dear God, no…please tell me that what I was just thinking is a nutter’s excuse for a conspiracy theory, please tell me he can’t have planned so far ahead…”

Tawny arched an eyebrow, looking more than a bit confused. “What are you talking about? What and why can’t he have planned so far ahead---”

“OSE was never the target,” Oberon hissed. “This whole thing, all of it…Vegas, Miami, Greece….all a bloody distraction. Plans on top of plans interlaced with other plans layered over more plans…bastard’s only gone and made a bloody web, just to keep everyone behind him!” He bolted out of the chair, not even stopping to straighten it out as he headed for the door. “Get Harrington on the phone, if you can,” he instructed Tawny, “and tell him to meet me at this address…” He handed her a business card; “Don’t give him the specifics,” he added, “just tell him to meet me there to discuss this in private…and try to get this information to Celeste, no matter what part of the bloody country she’s run off to.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Tawny promised. “Just…promise me---”

“I will not let anyone else be killed senselessly,” Oberon intoned, grabbing a pair of duffel bags from a closet near the entrance of the room. “Sharon Wilson was only killed because Hannsen was losing track of his own plan…and now I have a horrible feeling that he’s back on track.” He pulled a coat on as he spoke, motioning for Tawny to follow him to the lobby; “Once you’ve contacted Harrington and Celeste,” he instructed the gynoid, “call as many ALPA and Coalition companies as possible and tell them to raise alert status to Level Seven.”

Even as she nodded, Tawny couldn’t help but think that this was more than a bit extreme. “You never really explained why you want to take the ALPA and Coalition up to such a high level of alert status,” she mused, “or why Hannsen’s plan---”

“If I’m right,” Oberon replied quietly, “then Hannsen’s plans are far worse than any of us could’ve expected.”

In spite of herself, Tawny had to ask: “How much worse?”

“Does the phrase ‘seven red rings’ mean anything to you?”

That answer froze dirty-blonde gynoid in her tracks. “You….you actually think….he wants that?!”

“I do….and I hope to God that I’m wrong.”

ALPA Field Agent Briefing Center - Singapore - August 24, 2011, 05:05 AM

“…and that guy we saved from the courtyard was a visiting tech consultant from Aphrodite Technologies, so that explains why Vicki and Alicia found the spare leg from one of their units in the repair bay,” James finished, staring up at the ceiling. “The techie was in town to show off some of AT’s latest products, and he stopped by OSE because a friend of his worked there…and we all know what happened next.” Johnny nodded sagely. “What I don’t get,” he mused, “even after all of the explanations we’ve been given from HQ and about fifty other sources, is why the hell Vicki’s roommate got dragged into all of this. She wasn’t a gynoid, she wasn’t related to anyone in any ALPA, Coalition or unaffiliated company…why the hell was she brought to Greece in the first place, let alone dragged out here?” He blew out a frustrated breath and halfway fell backwards onto the recliner; “This…this is just too sick,” he muttered, “even for a guy like Hannsen. He didn’t even give Vicki a chance to save her---”

“She wasn’t supposed to get a chance to save her,” Jen sulked. “Just like Eric was puking blood by the time the paramedics got to him---whatever was in that water fountain was meant to kill him.” “And me,” Johnny added, his voice grim. “Stuff was coming out of me that had no business---”

“We get the picture,” Kylie groaned.

James glanced across the room, already wishing he wasn’t there. “How long was she crying last night?”

“Three whole hours,” Jen quietly replied. “The first few people who tried to get her out of the room had to be sent to a hospital---they claim they tripped on the way out and busted their collarbones against an ashtray.”

“At least Stacy volunteered to guard the door after that,” Kylie murmured. “The manager wasn’t too thrilled…”

“You think anyone expects to see armed guards at a funeral home?” James shot back. “It’s bad enough that the ALPA wasn’t able to get Sharon’s body sent back home for a proper funeral…if her family doesn’t show up to claim her, we’re looking at a forced decision to cremate---and that’ll just piss off everyone involved.” He turned his glance back to the window; “Think those long-distance phonecalls to Anton and Ted will help Vicki get over this?” he asked Kylie. “They helped her back from the brink after Faceless….”

“This is different,” Kylie muttered, sounding more tired than anyone else in the room. “Sharon was her friend, her roommate…and she wasn’t even tangled up in this whole thing until Hannsen took her from SJSU and dragged her to Greece!” For the next few minutes, nobody spoke.

Vicki emerged from the room where Sharon Wilson lay, prepared for either a burial or a cremation, half an hour after her teammates’ discussion had ended. Her hair was unkempt, her expression almost blank, and her posture indicated that she hadn’t slept (or charged her backup power cells) at all the previous night. Under any other circumstances, she would’ve looked beaten….but her eyes told a different story.

Within her eyes…her teammates could see one thing: resolve.

“Vicki,” James began, “if you want to stay here and wait for Sharon’s family---”

“No. No more waiting, and no more guessing. Hannsen crossed the line this time.” The brunette gynoid strode over to the exit door, refusing to look back. “We did our jobs here…and now we need to move on.”

“But Sharon---”

“She’s dead,” V.I.C.I. stated. “Nothing can change that now. I spent all last night grieving for her…”

One tear streaked down her face, hitting the floor with a splash.

“…and now,” she whispered, “Hannsen is going to wish he’d saved that bullet for himself.”


August 24, 2011.

Last night…we were played like fools.

Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, also known as the Maestro, has been playing every single side against each other by way of a startlingly immense campaign of misinformation and deceit, reaching from the lowest-level guards at the penitentiary known only as DragonTown to the highest-ranking officials of that elusive cabal known only as the DVS. What started out as a “straightforward” mission in Singapore has left one innocent college girl dead, one House operative under protective custody (for all four of her selves still functioning), and one supremely pissed-off ALPA Chairman.

Tonight…we stop playing Hannsen’s game….and get him to start playing ours.

Many of you have been asked to leak information that, even a few months ago, would’ve been too valuable to let slip. I admit that this plan is…strange, compared to our usual method of operation, but given Hannsen’s strategies as of late, I see no other alternative. Similarly, many of you will note that I have also asked you to put forth a vote of no confidence in Celeste, current Matriarch of the House; given the developments regarding Alicia Lehane Series 4 Mk V, and her prior history with Hannsen having been unreported, I must reemphasize that, again, I see no other alternative. The ALPA has always sustained a cordial working relationship with the House, and I cannot---and will not---let a single individual’s misguided sentimentality destroy that relationship.

We must all, every one of us, be on the same page from this point forth…

…and for anyone thinking that I’m a fool for wanting the above, let me make something clear: This is no longer a “want” situation, it is a need situation. We need to work together now, more than ever before.

The old saying “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…it tolls for thee” is more true now than ever.

We need not ask for whom the bell tolls…because thanks to Matthew Hannsen, it tolls for all of us.

I, for one, have no intention of heeding that bell.

Hopefully, all of you will stand with me as it tolls.

Oberon, Chairman Emeritus of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency


To Be Continued in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Things Fall Apart” coming later this May to Fembot Central!


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