Mr. Roboto

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“YEAH, BABY!”

The scene inside of the Cupertino apartment could've easily been mistaken for the opening of the fourth Austin Powers movie....which, somewhat appropriately, was the intention of the man yelling the words. “Allow myself to be the first to welcome each and every one of you shagadellic guys and gals to the Swingin' Sixties September Sillicon Valley bash,” the bespectacled, puffy-shirt-clad Austin Powers impersonator declared, his artificial “bad teeth” looking surprisingly less fake than expected. “As many of you know....”

One guest in particular was only half-paying attention to the celebration. Clad in the pink jacket, skirt and hat ensemble made famous by the marionette character of Lady Penelope in the classic Thunderbirds series, she looked to be a shoe-in for the part if anyone decided to retry porting the show to the big screen.

Not that it mattered to her at the moment....

With a quiet “excuse me,” the Penelope look-alike slipped away from the group and made her way up the stairs; as soon as she reached the second floor, she turned and headed down a hallway, towards a bedroom she knew wouldn't be visited by anyone else during the party (the event's host had wisely chosen to hold the event during the daytime). After a quick look around to ensure that she was, in fact, alone, the woman---who could've been anywhere from her early-mid 30s to her late 40s---let a black cord fall from her jacket and knealt down to plug it into a wall outlet; “That's the last time I visit one of these little events before getting a proper charge,” she murmured, closing her eyes and waiting---

“I wouldn't, if I were you.”

The blonde's eyes snapped open in shock; a brunette girl, dressed in what looked like a red and white version of Emma Peel's famous outfit from The Avengers, was standing in the doorway of the bedroom, her hands planted on her hips. “You really should've picked a better room to charge in...”

“I'll have you know that I need my iPhone fully charged for an important phone call---”

“I didn't mean the phone,” the brunette clarified. “I meant you.” She smiled apologetically; “You don't have to worry, ma'am,” she added. “If it helps, I'm on your side.”

At this, the blonde sighed. “I was hoping to attend this little get-together incognito,” she admitted. “I take it your superiors gave you the full brief....Agent---”

“Lawson. Vicki Lawson. Now, then....”

Downstairs, something hit the wall and shattered, followed by the ersatz Austin “Danger” Powers yelling for the perpetrator to “stop being such a drag”. The blonde shook her head in annoyance. “Parker said he'd lost them in Mountain View....and I'm not even at 55% yet!”

“You can charge in the car,” Vicki assured her, moving to help unplug her cord from the wall. “Or you can just use this.” She handed the blonde a juice box-sized device; “It's a jump pack,” she explained. “It'll give you enough of a boost to get out of here without feling any ill effects---” She winced, reflexively, as a door was kicked in on the floor below. “Of course, we can just wait until we get outside to go into detail about it,” she suggested. “Good idea,” the blonde agreed, following Vicki out of the bedroom---and ducking back in seconds later as small-arms fire tore through the corridor.

“What I wouldn't give for a rope ladder through the skylight right now,” she moaned.

“I've got a better idea,” Vicki called out. “I just hope you're not afraid of heights....”

“You're not thinking of jumping, are you?!”

“It's the only way out of here that doesn't involve running out of a charge downstairs.” Vicki grabbed the blonde's wrist and half-pulled her into the bathroom, closing the door behind them. “The window in here leads down to the street,” she explained, grabbing the doorknob with one hand as her other gestured towards the window in question. “If we go out through there, we can get to your car in seconds.”

It took the blonde a few seconds to make up her mind. “...if it's the only way, then I'm all for it.”

“Good---we can go as soon as I finish this.”

“And what, pray tell, is this, exactly?” the blonde asked---only to stare, dumbstruck, as the doorknob melted in Vicki's grip. “A bit of extra security,” the brunette gynoid admitted with a sly grin. “The door's reinforced, so they can't just shoot their way in---” Her hand had barely left the ruined doorknob when a thunderous kick from the other side of the door nearly knocked her over. “And I think that's our signal to leave,” she finished, crossing the bathroom in record time to throw the window open. “You want to go first, or should I?”

“Well, I'm wearing a skirt---”

“Fair enough---I'll go first.” Vicki winked again and stepped out of the window, perched precariously on the narrow bit of roof below. “Street level's clear,” she called back. “We can jump together!”

The blonde sighed. “And I thought today was going to be boring...”

As soon as she stepped out of the window, she felt her fellow gynoid's hand in her own. “On the count of three,” Vicki instructed, “we jump. One---”

Behind them, the bathroom door buckled under an explosive impact.

“TWOTHREE!” The two gynoids leapt from the roof outside the bathroom....

….and landed without any ill consequence on the street below.

“Mrs. Peters,” Vicki declared with a triumphant smile, “I believe your car is waiting. Props for actually having a chauffeur named Parker, by the way...it really helps to sell the look.”

“My employees are quite fond of the coincidence as well,” Sierra Peters replied with a chuckle. “You've earned the thanks of M.I.L.L. Industries today, Miss Lawson---if those thugs up there had succeeded in doing whatever it was they were sent here to do---” Her statement was cut off by the sound of the bathroom door above them splintering; “I thought you said it was reinforced!” she gasped. “It was,” Vicki frowned. “They must've used a breaching charge to get through....damn!”

Any further frustrated remarks from the brunette gynoid were preemptively cut off by the arrival of a stunningly pink Corvette, which looked more like a concept car than any road-legal vehicle Vicki could think of. “You even have your own Fab-1?!” she gasped. “It was a gift,” Sierra began, only to cringe as gunfire from above raked the street a few feet away. “Tell me later,” Vicki advised. “Right now, have Parker drive in the opposite direction of your planned escape route---I have a feeling that your 'admirers' up there have already staked it out. As soon as you can lose them in the back alleys, turn off wherever it's convenient...” She pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of her jumpsuit. “...and get to this address as soon as possible.”

“I'll do my best...but what about---”

“Me?” Vicki finished, grinning. “I'll be doing my job...

She winked, her eyes glowing blue. “...and keeping the baddies off your tail.”

Sierra was a bit taken a back at the brunette gynoid's sudden change to her monotone voice, but she nodded assent. “PARKER,” she called out, “we're going to be deviating from the plan a bit....”

A minute or so later, the Fab-1 replica sped off, with Sierra secured in the passenger seat. Ten seconds later, a trio of Subaru WRX Imprezas---all painted jet black, with windows darkened by a clearly illegal tint---rounded the corner and sped off after the pink Corvette.

The last Impreza had just cleared the street when another vehicle sped off after it...

…..except the “vehicle” was, in actuality, a 20-something female clad in red and white leather, her myogel-powered legs pedalling a titanium-framed bike at speeds unattainable even by a seasoned Tour de France rider. The few (and confused) eyewitnesses who actually saw her leave the area where the “Swinging Sixties” party had taken place swore that the girl was riding a motorcycle---her legs didn't seem to be moving at all, and the thing was going too damn fast to be anything but a heavily-modified Yamaha or some other “crotch rocket” bike.

Not that it mattered, in the end, of course...seeing as how all of them ended up signing non-disclosure forms brought in to keep them from divulging the behind-the-scenes work on a film that wasn't even being made.

Vicki had no idea of any of this as she sped after the Imprezas---her thoughts were solely focused on stopping the cars from reaching Sierra Peters. Taking out the first of the Imprezas was no problem---it took her almost no time at all to ride up alongside the vehicle and flick out a foot towards one of the tires. Had she been human, the move would've torn her foot off and more than likely ended with her in traction.

The joys of myogel musculature and a titanium endoframe, she mused, watching as the Impreza's shredded (and dented) tire forced its drivers to steer the thing into a driveway, swearing all the while. One down...

Something flashed by her, and the air was thick with the smell of ozone for a few seconds. Did someone just shoot lightning at me?! A scant few seconds later, the question was answered: a white-hot bolt of something tore through the air mere inches away from her face. Okay, so it's not exactly lightning, Vicki admitted, but it's close enough to give me the heebies. The blast had been a concentrated laser burst---not unlike the magnetic accelerator gun from the movie Jamie had once claimed to be his favorite 90s action film ever, Demolition Man.

Wait a minute...didn't I see that exact same gun at Aaberg's compound---

Another blast hit the road a few inches to the right of the bike's front tire, brutally cutting off Vicki's thought process---and giving her less than ten seconds to correct her steering in time to avoid being hit by a Toyota Supra barrelling towards her. That was too close....and I think a little payback is in order.

Thanks to a burst of myogel-enhanced speed, Vicki cleared the gap between herself and the mag-rifle gunner's car in seconds---and what she did next was something that her attackers clearly hadn't expected: In the time it took the gunner inside the Impreza to resight the weapon and target the now-riderless bike, V.I.C.I. had leapt from the bike to the roof of the Impreza, punched through the added sun roof panel and dropped in before the gunner could even get a shot off. “Didn't your mother ever tell you not to point dangerous things at people?” she inquired, grabbing the G11-based rifle from the shocked gunner and closing her hand around the barrel, which collapsed in on itself with a satisfying crunch.

All the gunner could say was “What the f---” before he got a face-full of Detaining Grip.

In all the chaos, the driver of the Impreza had managed to not crash the car---a feat made more impressive by the presence of V.I.C.I.'s palm---currently sizzling with electricity as she mentally ramped up her DG signal---a few inches away from his face. “Pull over and get out of the car,” she ordered. “Now.” Her eyes glowed blue as she spoke that last word...

….which was probably the deciding factor in the driver's decision to do as he'd been told.

Further up the road, the last of the Imprezas had met up with another jet-black car---a Mercedes SLR Cabrio, with armor plating added to the bodywork in addition to the illegal window tints---at an empty park. Seconds after the vehicles parked, the occupants of the Impreza threw open the doors with a burst of swearing, hitting the car and throwing empty Big Gulp cups. “This was supposed to be an easy job!” one of them shouted, his face nearly beet red. “'Show up at the party, make a little noise, grab the bird and scarper'---that's what the boss said!” His thick Cockney accent added a semi-comic tinge to the words, but the severely pissed-off look on his face eliminated any potential humor. “Nobody said anything about some damned Emma Peel wannabe bustin' in and---”

“The job ain't over yet,” another voice reminded him. “We've still got four hours to catch up to 'Missus Peters' and drag her to the airport....” The speaker emerged from the Impreza, his 6'0” frame and heavy Welsh accent lending an air of menace to his words. “Ever since Aaberg went Radio Rental, it's been absolute hell tryin' to land a decent paying job 'round these parts---and I'm not givin' up just 'cos someone decided to play hero.”

“Easy for you to say,” the shorter Brit growled. “You don't have loan sharks breathin' down your neck...”

The Welshman glared at him. “My financial situation,” he intoned, “is none of your sodding business---”

His threat was interrupted by the arrival of the second Impreza. “About bloody time!” the shorter Brit snapped, stomping over to the car. “What the hell took you two plonkers so long?!” he demanded. “We've been---”

As soon as the windows of the Impreza rolled down, the tirade died on his lips. “What....the hell?!”

Both of the Impreza's occupants were unconscious, buckled into their seats as if their attacker hadn't wanted them to fall forward when the car stopped moving. Even stranger than this, the “lightning gun” they'd been given lay on the floor of the front passenger seat, its barrel mangled beyond recognition.

“What's wrong?” the Welshman called out. “What the hell's happened?!”

“They're....knocked out. Someone knocked both of 'em out....and the gun's broken!”

“Rubbish!” The Welshman shook his head as he approached the Impreza, muttering to himself. “They're just drunk, probably....” The highly-improbably theory vanished from his thoughts as he saw the two men inside the vehicle, looking as if they'd been Tazered. “How....who the hell could've done this?!”

“You want the long answer, or the short answer?”

Both Brits outside the Impreza looked up, stunned, to see the “Emma Peel wannabe” perched on the roof of the car, smirking at them. “Seeing as how you two clearly have a schedule to keep, I'll just give you the short explanation as to who could've done this....”

Her smirk turned to a genuine smile---accompanied by her eyes glowing an eerie blue. “I did.”

Before either of the two could do anything, the brunette stepped down off of the roof of the car, descending it as if she was walking down a staircase. “They're alive, if you're wondering,” she added. “I only stunned them into unconsciousness...even though neither of them had any problem using lethal force against me.” She nodded to the broken gun on the floor of the car. “As for the two of you, seeing as how you haven't tried to attack me---”

A shout from the Welshman, followed by an overhand haymaker, cut off her words.

In the blink of an eye, the haymaker was intercepted---followed by a quick twist and a barely-audible crack.

“That was for trying to jump me while I was about to give you two the chance to surrender,” the brunette admonished. “I'm willing to let you get to a hospital to get that looked at...”

She allowed her words to trail off as one of the Cabrio's doors opened. “...and I guess we can forget about a peaceful resolution to this,” she finished, sighing as a figure emerged from the Mercedes. “Well, you two will probably want to get to the nearest emergency room---”

“You ain't even hit me!” the Welshman's colleague sneered. “Why the hell---”

His words ended in a startled gasp as the girl's free hand closed around his face, seconds before a pulse of DG energy sent him to the ground in a heap. “As I was saying...you two should probably get to a hospital,” she continued, “even though I've been pretty lenient with both of you.” She let go of the Welshman's wrist, wincing a bit as his arm dropped to hang uselessly by his side. “Your friend will regain consciousness in about 30 minutes,” she informed him, “so if you can drive...” Again, she let the words trail off as the Welshman managed to haul his unconscious colleague into the Impreza, slamming the driver's side door with his good arm and managing to steer the thing without hitting any trees.

Vicki rolled her eyes as the car drove away. “Right...now for the fun part....”


“....and you're sure she sent them towards this particular rendezvous point? Okay, okay, I just----I just wanted a positive notice. You don't have to---YOU DON'T HAVE TO YELL! I---hello? Hello?!” The phone call ended with a sigh from James Lucas Lassiter, better known by his ALPA Field Agent call sign of Talon. “At least they didn't threaten to cut off my fingertips if I screwed up,” he muttered, waving away a memory of his twin brother making that exact threat when the two had been swapping lives back in Detroit.

“Why would anyone want to cut off your fingertips?” a perky, female voice asked. Talon couldn't help but grin; he'd been assigned a “trainee” Agent for this particular op, though HQ had conveniently neglected to tell him that said agent was A.) a gynoid fresh off the assembly line and B.) a dead-ringer for Sara Jean Underwood.

Ignoring the fact that his mission partner's skirt was two inches shorter than ALPA regulations usually allowed (the two were working plainclothes, namely to throw off the pursuers of “the asset”---aka Sierra Peters), Talon sighed. “The only person who threatened to cut off my fingers was a psychopath trying to blackmail me on a regular basis,” he explained, “and he was working with someone who was even more of a psychopath than he was.” And he just so happened to be my brother, he mentally added, tacking on a “note to self” that would remind him to get his name changed before the end of the year. “Anyways, it's not important---I still have all my fingertips, and---”

“OOH, the car's driving up!” The rookie agent---Grace, Talon chided himself, her name's Grace---squealed in delight as the pink Corvette pulled up, its passenger stepping out of the car somewhat shakily. “Is everything okay, Mrs. Peters?” Talon immediately asked, helping her to the sidewalk. “You didn't take any damage---”

“Other than that 'jump box' being a bit too overpowered for my liking,” Sierra replied, “I'm fine....a bit dizzy, but otherwise fine.” She cleared the gap between the Fab-1 reproduction and the sidewalk with no problems. “I suppose you've taken all the precautions to make sure I wasn't followed from the, ah, 'pickup point'?” Talon nodded. “We were expecting Agent Lawson to arrive shortly after you did,” he admitted, “but---” His cellphone beeped furiously, as if he'd just received twenty texts in the span of a few seconds. “I need to take this,” he apologized, extracting the phone from its holder on his belt. “Agent Lee here, what's the---” A sound like a roaring explosion nearly made him drop the phone; it took a few seconds for him to realize that it was someone screaming at him. “No, she's here---Mrs. Peters is here, and----” More screaming, peppered with profanities for good measure---not exactly a good sign. “Look, the only car that pulled up was the Fab 1 replica, and---will you quit yelling at me?! I'm just trying to---”

Even the usually sunny Grace couldn't help but wince as Talon held the phone at arm's length; clearly, whoever was on the other end was in no mood to hear what he was “just trying to do”. As Sierra and her driver looked on---one confused, the other nonplussed---the gynoid Agent led them towards the safehouse just as Talon started yelling into the phone to counter whoever was yelling at him.

When Talon finally did drop the phone, Grace nearly froze.....


“WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT 'JUST BLEW UP'?! A MERCEDES CABRIO DOES NOT 'JUST BLOW UP' UNDER ITS OWN POWER!” Field Agent Eric Reuben Reaves, call sign Reaver, was trying to conduct fifteen calls at once from the backseat of an armored Humvee (his usual car was in the shop getting a full refit of the electric systems after the attempted breach of ALPA HQ the previous month), and few (if any) of them were going well.

Even worse, his partner---Jen Larssen, call sign Hummingbird---was only running on half a charge.

AND she was driving the Humvee.

“Ben,” she murmured, “can we pleeeease pull ov---pull ov----pull----” She jerked the steering wheel to the left, narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. “CAN WE PLEASE PULL OVER SO I CAN CHARGE?!” she finally yelled, smacking the phones out of Reaver's hands. “I......I.....” She sank back into her seat, staring at the ceiling of the Humvee. “I can't go on like this, Ben---”

“Fair enough,” Reaver replied. “Scoot over and plug into the dashboard charger---I'll drive.” He turned off all five of the phones he'd been talking on and guided Jen's hands as she steered towards the side of the road; the armored Humvee slid to a stop just in time for him to exit the rear passenger seat and climb into the driver's seat, just as Jen was pulling her uniform top up just enough to get at her ventral charging port. “I'll switch off all non-essential electrics before we start moving again,” Reaver began, but Jen's hand on his shoulder cut off his statement. “Leave them all on,” she whispered. “I have a feeling we'll need to get to Vicki as fast as possible....”

From a few blocks away, the rather unique sound of something with the approximate length and weight of a Mercedes Cabrio hitting a wall caught the Field Agents' attention.

“Sometimes,” Reaver muttered, “I hate it when you're right...” He pulled on his seatbelt. “LET'S ROLL!”

Seven minutes later (it would've been five, had Reaver not been stuck behind a road-hogging stationwagon full of geriatric Rat Pack impersonators who'd apparently become lost on the way to the airport), the Humvee pulled up at the last known location of Field Agent Vicki Lawson....and found a sobering sight: the Mercedes Cabrio effectively pancaked against a wall, smoldering as a humanoid---and obviously robotic---figure inside burned. “We blew it,” Jen muttered. “We--”

“Showed up just in time to make me glad that I never thought you wouldn't show up at all.”

Reaver nearly swore again at the sound of Vicki's voice, but ended up going for a groan that turned into a laugh. Jen, on the other hand, was a bit more pissed off; “If that's not you in the car,” she began, only for Vicki to interrupt with a chuckle of her own. “Apparently, Mrs. Peters' pursuers had help of their own,” she explained.

“They had steel with 'em?” Reaver inquired, somewhat surprised.

“Looks like it. Made in...Eastern Bloc, or a Russian border country, judging from the writing near the serial number at the base of his spine. Whoever these guys are, they're not small-time; no offense to DuBraul, but I think his 'source' might've botched the intel on this one---” A fireball from the Cabrio cut her off.

After surveying the damage for a few minutes, Reaver shook his head. “We'll go over the intel later---”

“That's probably a better idea than you know,” Vicki admitted, frantically glancing at her watch. “If I don't get back to campus in twenty minutes...” She gave Jen and Reaver an apologetic look before disappearing in a red-white blur. “Ever since the breach at HQ,” Reaver mused, “she's been....squirrely, for lack of a better term; she's always freaking out about being late for stuff---”

“Late for counseling,” Jen corrected. “Remember how she was afraid of 'not being herself'?”

All Reaver could say to that was “Oh”.


“....and five....four.....three....two---” Greg Cashman grinned as the front door of his modest apartment flew open. “Congratulations, Miss Lawson, you've officially broken the on-foot land speed record for the fifth time this week.” He barely had to look over his shoulder to see the brunette, red-and-white (casually-clothed, this time, as opposed to her field-op uniform) girl sitting on the couch, not looking out of breath despite the fact that she'd taken every back-alley and “hidden shortcut” between Cupertino and SJSU, on foot, in eighteen minutes and three seconds.

“You know me,” Vicki Lawson replied, “always trying to be punctual...”

“There's a difference between 'being punctual' and 'getting exposed as a gynoid',” a female voice from two rooms over called out. “Tell her, Greg....”

Greg, who looked sort of like a Good Will Hunting-era Ben Affleck mixed in ever-so-slightly with an E.R.-era George Clooney, sighed. “Just because I ran back to the house after you left your purse at the mall that ONE TIME, I have to be the one to give her the lecture?” He half-fell into a recliner, blowing out a mock-agitated breath; “Being an android husband from Stepford looked so much cooler in the brochure,” he moaned.

“Being an android husband from Stepford didn't look like anything in the brochure,” the female voice (now just one room away) called out, “because there is no brochure.” The speaker of that sentence emerged in the living room a minute later, instantly bringing to mind images of Jennifer Garner and Jennifer Aniston in Vicki's memory. “I'm guessing Stepford is nothing like the first movie, then,” she mused, “or the book....and I hope it's not like the remake---”

Greg and the woman---Brianna---both got a good chuckle at that. “I never get tired of hearing that one,” Greg beamed. “Vicki...you have to understand something: the remake was bad because it was meant to be that bad. If it was anything like how Stepford REALLY is---”

“We'd all be in trouble,” Brianna finished. “Human, gynoid, android....everyone connected to it would be in a world of....well, you get the idea. Even the first movie was made to throw people off; the higher-ups wanted to create an image of Stepford as this impossibly idealistic---well, darkly-idealistic---paradise for certain kinds of people, because the real thing is....well, a lot different.” She grinned. “Anyways, enough about life in the least boring town in the Midwest...”

“I know, I know,” Vicki droned. “Time to hear about how my days have been going..”...luckily for me, ever since the attack on ALPA HQ, things have been going pretty smoothly.


Outside the apartment, an outdated Buick---occupied by two men---idled by the curb.

“So this is the girl who foiled the attack....she doesn't look that dangerous, does she, Mr. Packard?”

“Looks can be deceiving, Mr. Hewlett...and you neglected to mention that she also incapacitated Rengold.”

“I did indeed, Mr. Packard---even though Rengold still lives. Shall we inform our employer?”

“Not quite yet....I believe he only wants to be informed when we accomplish our objective, Mr. Hewlett.”

“And what of the residents of the domicile, Mr. Packard?”

“They're from Stepford, Mr. Hewlett...not worth our time.”

“Point well taken, Mr. Packard. Shall we be on our way, then?”

“We shall, Mr. Hewlett.”

Without another word between its occupants, the Buick slowly rolled away.


“....and it turns out my new roommate is Amber Lynch,” Vicki continued. “Oberon gave me the news right after the whole breach at HQ ended!”

“And who's Amber Lynch?” Brianna asked politely.

“Well....back in the 90s, after I finished high school,” Vicki explained, “I asked Ted if I could look for work around San Jose---y'know, to sort of find my place in the world, and all that, soul-search.....and I got a job as a caretaker for a blind girl living in the area. She kind of hated my guts, at first---but it turned out she didn't hate me so much as she hated people feeling sorry for her just because she was blind. I even found out that she was making paintings after she went blind---and she was pretty good at it! Well, they were abstract paintings, but they were good...and now, she's going to be my roommate!”

Greg nodded his approval. “So the ALPA arranged for her to move to SJSU, then?”

Vicki's smile faded. “If they arranged this,” she muttered, retrieving a newspaper from the end-table next to the sofa and tossing it to Greg, “then I may need to have a talk with DuBraul and Oberon...” Greg and Brianna both winced as they beheld the pictures on the front page: a Wisconsin university library, with smashed windows and various symbols painted on its walls---including a massive “315 HAS COME HOME” on the library doors, all under the headline “WHO IS 315?” “That happened the night before the ALPA HQ was breached,” the brunette gynoid murmured.

“Doesn't exactly scream 'peaceful protest' to me,” Greg mused, handing the paper to Brianna. “Looks more like someone from a fraternity---or even a sorority---snapped...” He stopped, noticing a look from his significant other that couldn't be called anything other than “dread” mixed with “you know that's not it”---both looks Vicki had seen plenty of times around her own house (with the “dread” look being given by Ted during football season)...but neither Greg nor Brianna seemed willing to elaborate, and the topic was changed yet again---this time, to Vicki's ALPA work. “They haven't demoted me to desk jockey,” she admitted, “and to be honest, I'm glad they chose not to, but....the missions I get sent on.....” She hesitated.

“You feel like you're on a leash most of the time?” Brianna prompted.

The brunette gynoid nodded, her expression mixing sadness, annoyance and the smallest possible hint of anger. “I have to fill out two forms before and after every mission in San Jose, and any op outside of the city limits, I get five forms before I even leave and five more waiting for me when I get back...and they always ask questions.”

A hint of something---possibly disappointment, possibly fear---glimmered in her eyes. “They keep asking me how I feel when I came back....how much I enjoyed each aspect of what I did. It's.....it's like---”

“Like we can't trust you anymore?”

Greg and Brianna nearly fell out of their seats; Vicki, on the other hand, felt an urge to shrink back into her chair and erase the words she'd just said...namely, because she was staring at the white-clad, blond-haired figure of Oberon standing within the door of the apartment. She'd half expected him to be glaring at her, or giving her a disappointed look....but once again, for reasons known only to himself, the ALPA chairman was smiling warmly. “To be quite honest, Agent Lawson, the vast majority of the ALPA still trusts you---the forms and questionaires you have to fill out are merely psychological evaluations, to make sure that you are, in your own words, still you.”

The fear Vicki felt at Oberon's arrival almost literally melted away at that statement. “That...makes sense,” she admitted. “After what happened with Hannsen, I mean...”

“As someone greater than myself once said, 'the past is past for a reason',” Oberon stated. “As for the here and now, I understand you did a rather impressive job escorting Sierra Peters to the safehouse earlier today, despite the, ah, lack of protocol involving the forms....” He retrieved an envelope from his coat pocket.

“Ah, someone must not have been getting our reports for the last few days,” Greg countered, “because---”

Oberon held up a hand. “To be quite fair,” he stated, “we have been getting your reports....and the esteemed Clive DuBraul and myself have decided that filling out paperwork after every assignment is too similar to a punishment, rather than a rehabiliatory or counseling measure.” He withdrew another object---a silver-plated Zeppo---from his coat pocket; “As of this moment,” he continued, “you're no longer bound to any paperwork before or after your field ops, Agent Lawson.” Vicki watched, her confusion turning to astonishment, as the ALPA President lit the Zeppo with a flick of his fingers before setting fire to the envelope. “So....I'm off the hook?” she asked.

“Being 'on the hook' would imply that the upper echelons of the ALPA believed you were a merciless criminal whose sole intent was to put Matthew Hannsen in hospital,” Oberon replied. “To put it in layman's terms, you were only ever on the hook right after the Dawley mission....when you returned to San Jose, you were cleared of all potential charges. Hannsen himself would've never been able to put you behind bars; his own rap sheet is long enough to make James Ellroy vomit, and he'll never be allowed out of prison---possibly not even out of his cell---again for the forseeable future. Well, at least he won't be allowed out once he gets out of the hospital wing of the facility...but that's another story for another day.”

By this point, Vicki was hanging on Oberon's every word. “And what's the story for today?” she asked politely, resting her chin on her upturned hands. “Strictly speaking, this tale's for tomorrow,” the ALPA President admitted, retrieving another envelope from his jacket (no idea why he's wearing it in early September, the brunette gynoid mused, but if it's his choice...) and handed it over. “You know the Carmack Foundry outside of Cupertino, right?”

“Not really.”

“Well, it used to be ALPA property---'used to' meaning 'back in the 80s'. Seems that the neighbouring property owners are hearing screams on odd nights...sobbing, things being thrown, all that jazz. I'm not one to buy into the 'haunted steel mill' theory...but seeing as how the place did used to be a robotics factory---”

“You want me to make sure there aren't any former products running loose,” Vicki finished, rolling her eyes.

Oberon eased himself into a chair opposite Vicki, steepling his fingers as he sat down. “Something along those lines,” he admitted. “It seems the Coalition and certain...other parties...have interests in that property as well, and would have no problem strolling in to 'expunge' or 'contain' whatever they find inside. That's not even mentioning the current owners of the place demanding that someone 'get rid of the ghost'....even though I have a pretty good idea that it's nothing supernatural or paranormal...” He stopped. “Something wrong?”

“I have school tomorrow,” Vicki frowned. “And a ton of assignments to make up---”

“Which you will at the appropriate time---”

“Look,” the brunette gynoid cut in, rising from her chair, “I don't mind doing field ops all over Silicon Valley, but I kind of have a life, outside of my work! Classwork, taking notes, hanging out with friends---I'm not trying to say that all that stuff is more important than the ALPA, but---”

“Vicki,” Oberon's voice intoned, sounding a bit more...sonorous than usual, “none of us are asking you to give up your life for your work...we only ask that you help out whenever you can.”

“I....I know.....but it feels like my work is my life sometimes.....”

“That,” Oberon informed her, “is something that can easily be mended in time....and to be honest, tomorrow's op will only be an observation. Half an hour, or an hour at most, and then you can come back home!”

Vicki allowed herself a grin. “Well, if all I have to do is watch a building....how hard can it be?”

“'Just watch a building', they said. 'You'll be back in an hour', they said....this is the last time I let myself get talked into this....”

The blonde brushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, cursing her luck for having been picked to carry out the latest round of watching the Carmack Foundry. The place was an oddity in Silicon Valley---when most plants were performing “California alchemy”---turning sand and silicon into microchips, aka the “new gold” back in the day---the Carmack Foundry was one of the few (if not the only) steel foundry, smelting plant and ironworking facility in and around Cupertino. By the time it had finally closed down in 1984---a year after it was associated with the Bloody Valentine incident---the Carmack building had been turned into a robotics plant.

“Makes me glad I was built in Oregon,” the blonde mused, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a serial number inked on her forearm in a size just small enough to not be visible to the naked eye.

Even as she expressed her gratitude for not having been brought into existance in a building like the Carmack Foundry, Pria Bishop still hated a lot about her life. She'd been built in Oregon by a company that no longer even existed, with the intention of being a “paid companion”---a fancy term for sexbot. Had fate (and the ALPA) not intervened when they did, she would've spent her years giving geriatrics and frat boys lap dances and having to shove them off before they tried anything “funny” with her....but instead, the man in white and the man in grey had shown up, flashed badges to the club's owner and escorted Pria out to a waiting Rolls Royce that sped her off to....somewhere.

Specifically, somewhere for her to pick her own path in life.

The Turing Test. The Andrews Sentience Scale. The Light/Wiley Forms. Those three tests, and about five others, had been administered to her, under the pretense of determining her intelligence, sentience, potential negative temperments towards human beings and other factors. She'd never bothered to keep track of them all. By the time the tests were over, she got the news she wanted: sexbot no more---

Inside the Foundry, something---someone---let loose with a blood-curdling scream.

“Right on cue,” Pria muttered, shaking her head---and once again hating the fact that her hair was back in its original pixie-cut style. Pria was one of those gynoids who, depending on how they made themselves up and how they dressed, could look as young as 19 or as old as 28; it didn't help that she was often described as “cute”, which was effectively a death sentence for anyone trying to be a serious bounty hunter.

Ayla would be laughing if she could hear me now, the blonde gynoid mused, frowning---only to clap her hands over her ears as another scream rang out through the night....followed soon after by quiet sobbing. “Same as last time,” she murmured. “Whoever the hell is in there has some serious issues....” Even as she felt a pang of sympathy for whoever or whatever was sobbing in the Foundry, her gaze drifted to the holster on her belt, and the modified Ruger Mk III---with its attached silencer and ALPA-issue SCEMP conversion kit---housed within. She'd never had to draw the gun on a job like this before; still, Ayla's half-teasing remarks of “There's always a first time” seemed to swim to the forefront of her mind ever so briefly. “Crossed wires,” she hissed, feeling the urge to throw something at the Foundry. Something about this op was getting to her---getting to her on a personal level. It was almost like....something in there had suffered, long ago, and had no other way of communicating with the rest of the world than to just scream.

Somewhere in the innermost thought relays of her processors, Pria thanked her creator for not leaving her in such a state. Yes, she'd started out as a walking, talking love doll, but plenty of gynoids in that state actually enjoyed their lot in life....and even they had it better than the thing in the Carmack Foundry....whatever the hell it was.

The thought had just passed through Pria's relays when something in the Foundry fell with a horrifying clang, scaring the hell out of the blonde gynoid.

Right....tomorrow morning, I'm asking---no, I'm telling them to put someone else on this op!


Okay, something's up.....either Ted's hosting another bridge game, or something happened that nobody told me about.....

As she guided the bike she'd used that morning up the driveway, Vicki couldn't help but notice more than a few extra cars---many of them recognizable as belonging to ALPA officials---parked in the drive (and on the curb near the front yard). Oberon wasn't lying when he said I was never really “on the hook” after Dawley---and if he was, he's an expert at controlling his heart rate and breathing---so what's going on---

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Clive DuBraul's voice, emanating from somewhere off to the side of the front door, nearly startled the brunette gynoid enough to make her drop the bike. “Mr. DuBraul! I---”

“You were wondering why so many of the ALPA higher-ups were parked outside your house,” DuBraul mused, his smile uncomfortably thin. “Rest assured that it has nothing to do with the Dawley incident---”

Inside the house, someone slammed their hand on the dining room table.

“Before you get the wrong impression,” DuBraul called out, not bothering to physically try to stop Vicki from striding up the walk and throwing open the door, “they're talking about Leah Chambers.” Those last two words effectively froze Vicki where she stood; “Leah?” she half-gasped. “I....I thought she.....” A painful memory flashed through her bubble processors---a stray shot from Björn Aaberg's gun hitting Leah in the side, spilling vital fluids from one of her internal prosthetics.....

“Her doctors can't do much more to keep her alive in the state she's in right now,” the ALPA President informed her quietly. “If there's any chance of her living to see Christmas....she'll have to be transferred.”

Vicki looked at him as if she hadn't heard him correctly. “What.....what do you mean, transferred?”

DuBraul didn't get to elaborate on what he meant, mainly due to the fact that Ted Lawson, David Allen Tell, Anton Malvineous and William Brightstar were storming out of Ted's house, arguing with a fervor normally reserved for football fanatics. “---and for the last time, Will,” Ted snapped, “giving Leah to the House is NOT going to help keep her alive! They'll put her in a chemical coma, keep her around for a few months and then forget she's even THERE! And don't start about augmenting her the way you augmented Jake---”

“So you want to give her to that Dyson woman and let her 'institute' do the rest, then?!” Will countered. “We have no idea if their technique even WORKS!”

“'That Dyson woman' is a pioneer in the field of transferrence,” Anton insisted. “She's done a hell of a lot more for the science than....” He noticed Vicki watching the argument, almost transfixed, and seemed to catch himself. “Look, the whole thing is a lot farther along than it was back in the 80s,” he continued, after giving the brunette gynoid a wary glance. “Giving Leah to the Institute will be like giving her a second chance---”

“That, and it'll be a lot better than trying to fix what's already broken,” Tell added. “Her prosthetics—-”

“HER PROSTHETICS ARE BRIGHTSTAR-DESIGNED!” William shouted angrilly, nearly an inch away from Tell's face. “IF ANYONE SHOULD BE GIVING THAT GIRL A NEW LEASE ON LIFE....” He stopped when DuBraul himself stepped in. “William,” the ALPA President intoned, “it's over. We're letting the Dyson Institute take care of Leah Chambers, and that's the end of it.”

Will shot one last death glare at everyone before stomping off towards his car. “The House is a lot better now than it was when that bitch Celeste was there,” he growled. “She took my son---SHE RAN OFF WITH JAKE, DAMNIT! SHE'S JUST LIKE THE REST OF THOSE GOLD-DIGGING---”

“We'll do our best to get him back when the time comes,” DuBraul assured him. “For now....”

Vicki could tell that William Brightstar was biting back a number of scathing rejoinders as he stood by his customized Jaguar, but none of them were even whispered; with one last, almost unintelligable shout, he threw open the passenger-side door of the Jag and barked an order at the driver to floor it.

“Okay,” she finally asked after the Jag nearly jumped the curb at the corner, “what was that all about?”

Anton glanced in the direction of the retreating Jaguar, frowning. “That,” he replied quietly, “was Will Brightstar venting his spleen because we haven't done anything to rein in Celeste and get Jake away from her...despite the fact that the ALPA has far more pressing matters to deal with than a former Matriarch turned yandere.” He turned on his heel without another word and went back indoors, muttering all the while. Tell let out a low whistle at the yandere remark; “I sincerely hope he never calls Celeste that to her face,” he mused, “unless he has a strong desire to look like Lawrence Gowan after a five-round bout with Mike Tyson....”

The remark went unmentioned by the brunette gynoid. “Why was he so upset about Leah's transferrence?”

“Because he feels that Brightstar Industries is entitled to any and all repairs on her.” DuBraul's statement was accompanied by his hand resting on Vicki's shoulder. “It's a long, complicated story, Agent Lawson...one that's too important to tell outside.” He nodded towards the still-open door of Ted's house.

“We still need to call someone about Will,” Ted insisted, glancing around as if the head of Brightstar Industries was going to jump out of the bushes and throttle him at any moment. “If he tries anything---”

“He won't,” Tell assured him. “You and I both know him better than that.”

After a few seconds of silently fuming, Ted nodded. “Vicki, ah, you sure you want to stay here for the night, instead of going back to your dorm?” he asked, hoping to move the conversation away from what she'd heard before Will had left. “I mean, it's not like I don't want you around or anything---”

“Amber's still getting settled in,” Vicki reminded him. “If I go in there and knock anything over accidentally---”

“I know, I know....I just...” Ted sighed. “This is kind of a difficult time for a lot of people in the ALPA right now.”

“Including you?” The brunette gynoid's tone was quieter, half-alarmed and half-sympathetic. “You could've told me something, Dad....you know I hate being left out of the loop on stuff like this.”

Had she noticed the reactions of DuBraul, Tell and even Anton at that moment, Vicki might've realized that some elements of the ALPA HQ breach were still unsolved...but Ted said nothing to indicate his awareness of their shocked looks. “Sometimes, being out of the loop is the safest place to be,” he informed his gynoid daughter, giving his best reassuring smile. “Why don't you head inside?” His smile remained as Vicki headed up the walk...but as soon as the door closed, his expression was one of pure dread. “She doesn't know, does she?” he whispered to Tell. “About the List, and---”

“If she did, she would've mentioned it...and no, I won't tell her.” The field mechanic stared at the ground; “You know I hate this,” he muttered. “Lying to her face, telling her everything got sorted out after the breach...she'll figure it out eventually, or find out---and when she does---”

“When she does,” DuBraul interjected, “we'll come clean. If we told her now...it could break her.”

Ted was too busy remembering the memo about the breach to reply; the List, while vitally important to the ALPA, was far from the only significant item taken during the incident, and if Vicki knew or even suspected that any of them had been stolen....

I hope you'll forgive me, Vicki. When the time comes, please forgive me.....

With nothing more to say between them, Tell, Ted and DuBraul headed back inside.


“So this is the Carmack Foundry...a very intriguing place, wouldn't you say, Mr. Packard?”

“I would indeed, Mr. Hewlett...even without the presence of our target inside.”

The two men looked more like some old-fashioned comedy duo than what they actually were; one, a slim 5'6” figure in a double-breasted cream-colored jacket, with neatly-trimmed facial hair and equally-trimmed dark brown hair crowning his head---the other, 6'4”, best described as “stocky”, with his long, strawberry-blond hair held in a ponytail that contrasted sharply with his navy-blue blazer/dress pants combo, neatly-pressed dress shirt, black-rimmed glasses and patent leather boots. Neither man wore a firearm on their person, openly or concealed---as far as they were concerned, they didn't need guns.

“Should we attempt the breach tonight, Mr. Packard?” the shorter, slimmer man inquired.

“I wouldn't, Mr. Hewlett,” the taller man replied. “Too many 'ghost watchers' out right now...”

Mr. Hewlett nodded. “We can't afford collateral damage at this point,” he agreed. “Shall we turn in for the night, Mr. Packard?”

“Considering our other options, that sounds like a good idea, Mr. Hewlett.” With one last glance back at the foundry, the two returned to their Buick. “Tomorrow's going to be a busy day....”

“Indeed it will, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett mused with a wry grin. “Indeed it will.”


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

Well, tomorrow is my first day back at SJSU after the breach of ALPA HQ...and from what I understand, a lot of people have taken a lot of measures to make sure nothing “sets me off”, to quote them directly.

As much as I understand---and appreciate---their concern...I don't think I have anything to worry about.

The counseling teams from Stepford have been a great help so far. I've seen at least three different sets of them, always in pairs; Greg and Brianna have been helping me out for half a week, and I definitely feel like I owe them for it. As for my home life...no complaints, other than the fact that Will Brightstar now thinks that Celeste is responsible for dragging his son off to Florida and “trying to take him away from the family” or some other paranoid theory. I kind of want to help him, but....actually, forget it. The Brightstar family has enough of their own problems right now.

Speaking of which...when Mr. Brightstar was actually here, Anton Malvineous nearly said something, but...it might not even be anything important, but it feels like he stopped himself from saying something just because I was there.

The strangest part about that is that I don't think I want to know what he kept himself from saying.

Other than all of this circumstantial weirdness, everything's been pretty much normal for me. I've got a new roommate---Amber Lynch, the blind girl who had me as her caretaker at one point back in the 90s---and I don't think catching up on my coursework is going to be a problem. Even tomorrow's observation mission doesn't sound like something I'd have any problems with---it'll just be me staring at a building, waiting....

….which is infinitely easier when you don't have to worry about little things like food, rest and bathroom breaks.

So far, I haven't felt like I'm not myself---I haven't really felt that way since the breach, actually---and as long as I can stay that way, knowing that I am, in fact, still me, I don't think the rest of this year will be a problem.

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

Pria wanted to kick herself as soon as she stepped into the Carmack Foundry---assuming, of course, that the mysterious “screamer” didn't hack her legs off at the knees, or anything of that sort. “What I wouldn't give for a tank right now,” she muttered, glancing with open disdain at the Ruger in her belt holster. “I don't even know what's in here---”

Fifteen feet ahead of her, something moved.

The blonde gynoid drew the Ruger without hesitation, adopting the classic “police stance” with the handgun and preparing to open fire. “Whoever you are,” she called out, “I'm armed---”

“And you won't shoot.”

Something about the voice that responded to those words...scared Pria. It wasn't the hollow, metallic sound of each word, or the fact that it sounded a lot closer than the gynoid thought...

….it was that the speaker almost didn't care whether or not it---he lived or died.

“You think I won't empty the clip?” Pria shouted, a bit angrier than before. “You think---”

“That's right,” the voice replied. “I do think---for three whole years, that's all I did. I sat, and I thought...about what I'd done, about what I'd failed to do, about what I'd wanted to do.” There was a sadness to the words now, a sort of longing that Pria couldn't quite place. “You have no idea what it's been like for me---you've always been the way you are.”

Just as Pria lowered her gun, a pair of glowing eyes seemed to materialize out of the darkness three inches away from her. “I, on the other hand, was something else, once....”

In that instant---in the mere seconds between the remark about Pria “always being the way she was” and the eyes appearing near her---the blonde gynoid had somehow managed to drop her weapon, nearly tripping over her feet trying to get away from the eyes....

….but they didn't move closer.

“What do you think I am?” the voice asked, bitterness now tinging its tone. “A monster? A freak of science and nature?”

“I don't know what you are!” Pria gasped. “Just....just---”

“Just stay the hell away from you. That's what everyone says....and it's what I've been trying to do, for all these long years.” The eyes turned away. “I guess I haven't done a good enough job...though I don't blame any of you. All you know of me is the screaming....the pain....but you don't know why. You don't understand the screaming, or the pain...small wonder you think I'm a ghost.”

In the darkness before her, the blonde gynoid bounty hunter could tell someone was walking away. “I might as well be a ghost,” the voice added, “after the Hell I've been through...”

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU?!” Pria shouted. “WHO ARE YOU?!”

The footsteps stopped. “Ask Rykkard,” the voice replied, its tone almost mournful. “If there's enough of him left to ask, of course...better yet, just forget about me, Pria Bishop. Pretend I don't exist...keep living the life you have, instead of trying to tear up what's left of mine. Just go home...please.” With that, the unseen figure shuffled off, stopping one last time. “And tell them...tell whoever sent you here....there's nothing they need to see,” the voice whispered. “Tell them everything here is dead....because everything here is dead.”

Even in the darkness, Pria had no trouble finding the door and getting the hell out of the Carmack Foundry.


“You realize that we'll have to tell her eventually.....”

Oberon didn't reply to DuBraul's remark immediately, choosing instead to glance out the window of his office at the parking lot of ALPA HQ. “She doesn't even know about the List?” he finally inquired, after three minutes of staring out the window. “She has no clue, no inclination that anything was taken during the breach?”

“As far as she knows, the fembots were all 'just' Aaberg's fembots. She didn't know one of them was---”

“Thank you, DuBraul.” Oberon's voice was somewhat harsh. “I already figured that she didn't know who or what one of the fembots happened to be.” He finally looked away from the window, his expression grim. “And if she does find out who hid amongst the fembots during the breach, and who stole the List...it'll be a house of cards, Clive. We're on shaky ground already---she doesn't even know that the Crystal City files were taken, or the case files for the BTV incident....or the Keys.....or any of it.....”

He took two steps away from the window, as if to head for a chair...then turned and punched the wall.

“WE COULD'VE LOST EVERYTHING, CLIVE!” he shouted. “The breach, the fembots' attack---it was all a bloody stupid COVER! SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, was targeting us....someone knows, Clive! You think the increased activity at the Foundry is a coincidence?!”

DuBraul couldn't meet Oberon's stare. “We have to tell her---”

“IF WE TELL HER,” the ALPA Chairman snapped, “SHE'LL.....” He nearly collapsed at his desk. “....there's no telling what she'll do, Clive,” he muttered. “She may never trust us---she may not even trust the ALPA as a whole ever again....she might even lose trust in Ted, and if that happens...” He buried his head in his hands.

For a few minutes, the only sound in the room was Oberon weeping quietly.

Despite the fact that the white-clad Chairman was in the grips of remembering his own darkest days, DuBraul stepped over to him. “We won't lose her,” he assured his comrade in arms. “She's not like Celeste---”

“She'd damn well better not be.”

“She won't be. Celeste lost her trust in us because she refused to accept that we were trying to do the right thing....but Vicki is better than that. She forgave Ted for the Stylo tests....she isn't guided by her passions, like Celeste was. Yes, she has her faults—-we know that from the Dawley mission---but Victoria Ann-Smith---”

“No.” Oberon rose, shakily, from where he'd collapsed. “We forgave her for that, I know...but we can't keep defending it. Even after she forgives herself, we can never forget what happened in Dawley....she doesn't know just how damned close she came to reaching Red Ring status.” He stared back out the window, tears streaking down his face; “I nearly gave the kill order,” he whispered. “If Publius hadn't stepped in when he did, I....” He collapsed again. “I would've killed Vicki Lawson.”

“Except you didn't”, DuBraul reminded him. “She overcame that herself....and during the breach---”

“I know,” Oberon whispered, somewhat hoarsely, “I know.....but it haunts me, Clive. I still fear the day she ever snaps like that again...hell, I even wish that I'd be somewhere else if she ever snaps again.”

“Except you know that wouldn't happen. Even Ted wouldn't let it happen---”

“If he had to turn against us all to save Vicki, he would....and I don't want to let it go that far.”

For the second time, DuBraul helped Oberon to his feet. “It won't come to that, I think,” he assured him.

“I hope you're right, Clive,” the Chairman muttered. “I honestly hope to God that you're right.”

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ……….all systems activated. RAM: OK ROM: OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 99.8% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 98.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Monday, September 12, 2011

With a yawn that would've more than likely annoyed Jamie with its “cuteness”, Vicki rose from her bed (funny how quickly Ted accepted the idea of me having a bed instead of sleeping in the stupid cabinet after Joan suggested it, she recalled) and took in her surroundings, preparing for her return to SJSU. “Closet, still full; shoes, where I left them last night....” She paused, sniffing the air. “....and even though I don't have what Jamie would call 'the stank of a thousand-mile jog' on me, a shower couldn't hurt.”

Downstairs, Ted---who'd been up late into the night debating the Leah Chambers issue with Anton and Tell, had eventually conked out on the couch, and was still snoring ten minutes after Vicki had finished taking her morning shower. The minute the brunette gynoid called out “DAD!”, however, the head of Lawson Robotics fell off the couch.

“Ah, wah, what---GAAH!” He managed to avoid hitting the coffee table as he rolled off, coming to rest on the carpeted floor with only his dignity wounded. “What....what time is it, Vicki?!”

“Six thirty-two.” Vicki descended the staircase as if the last few weeks hadn't affected her at all. “Jamie already left, Mom called from work while I was in the shower, and speaking of work---” She couldn't help but giggle as Ted nearly fell over himself trying to get to the kitchen, screaming “I'M GOING TO BE LATE!” all the while. “Didn't Oberon give you the rest of the month off?” she called out. “After the councilors from Stepford showed up, I mean...I thought he said something about you 'needing all the rest you could get'?”

The mention of his month-long vacation snapped Ted out of his manic behavior. “Right, right....rest....”

“Actually, seeing as how I don't want to draw attention to myself running all over campus,” Vicki mused, “you could drop me off at SJSU before taking a three-hour siesta on the couch again....if it's not a problem---”

“It is,” Ted replied, once again moving around the room with seemingly reckless abandon.

Those two words were somewhat....surprising to the brunette gynoid. “Wait, what?!”

“I'm holding a teleconference call in a few minutes,” Ted clarified, “and I need to get everything set up---” He noticed the stunned look on Vicki's face; “It's not that I don't want to drive you to SJSU,” he assured her, “it's just that I need to get this call set up---it's really important for Lawson Robotics...” He crossed the room and kissed the brunette gynoid on the forehead. “You're still at the top of my priorities list, sweetheart.”

“Glad to hear it, Dad,” Vicki returned Ted's forehead kiss with a quick peck on the cheek. “At least I know it's not because you don't love me anymore...” She put on a mock-sad face. “....be...because if that was the case, I don't.....I don't think I could live with myself!” Ted didn't bother trying not to laugh as his gynoid daughter fake-swooned and gave the most intentionally-pathetic sobs since Jamie's last try at acting. “Okay, okay, enough with the comedy routine,” he chided, still grinning. “Don't you have class to get to?”

Whatever Vicki meant to say as a reply was cut off by a car horn from outside. “Yep---and I apparently have a ride after all.” She gave Ted a customary “goodbye hug”; “Good luck with the conference call...even though you should be using this time to just take a break.” With a cheerful wave, she headed out to meet the waiting Tellmobile.

Ted couldn't help but smile as Vicki left. “Joan was right,” he mused. “Vicki never was just a 'thing'...”


Within the bowels of the Carmack Foundry, nothing stirred....save for one figure. Heavy footsteps led this figure to the window outlooking the “parking lot” of the Foundry, in reality a dead lawn of sorts that had, the previous night, had been occupied by the car belonging to the robot girl who'd dropped her gun trying to get away from him.

At the moment, it was serving as the parking space for a battered Buick and its two occupants, both of whom were staring directly into the highest window of the Foundry....

….and as strange as it seemed, they were more than likely aware that something was staring back at them.

So be it.

The figure turned away from the window, dreading what would happen next. More would come, to get just a glimpse of the “screamer”...and more would venture into the Foundry to see what they could discover.

All they would find, in the end, would be fear, confusion and hopelessness.

None of them would ever realize that these things were what the “screamer” knew all too well.


To Vicki's surprise (and admitted delight), her first day back at SJSU was just like any other day...other than the news that Shawn Helmsley, the resident Hunter S. Thompson fanatic, had tried to kill himself after Sharon Wilson's kidnapping and eventual death. Fortunately, he'd recovering in the weeks after Sharon had been killed, but Vicki knew all too well that the psychological scars from such an event would last a while.

Still, she admitted, at least he's among friends...

Moving back into her old dorm was less of “moving back in” and more of making sure none of her belongings had been taken---and, of course, reintroducing herself to her old friend-turned-new roommate.

Her first knock on the door ended up being her only one; a somewhat annoyed voice called out “It's open!”, prompting the brunette gynoid to gently turn the doorknob and enter....to find “her half” of the room completely undisturbed. Everything---even her computer---was exactly where it had been when she'd last left the room, which was more than a bit surprising considering the traditional “dorm pranks” of moving stuff “one room to the left” or into the parking lot---not to mention mattress surfing. As for Sharon's half of the room.......

“If you're giving me the surprised look,” Amber Lynch mused, “you can quit now---I've told everyone else who's watched me paint that I don't need to see to make a good abstract. All I need is complete silence, and---”

“Amber,” Vicki murmured, “it's, ah....it's me. Vicki Lawson.”

Amber turned slightly, her sightless eyes never leaving the canvas. “Vicki....my old live-in?”

“Yeah.” Why am I crying, damnit?! I should be happy to have a new roommate, especially---

“Someone's getting a bit emotional,” Amber dryly observed. “That, or you glued yourself to the floor...and I have to admit, you sound a lot different than I remember---and not just older. To be honest...you sound a year or two younger than I expected...but maybe that's just the boredom talking....” She paused. “Don't tell me they moved my bed into the hall, or something---”

“No, no! It's....it's not that!” Vicki finally managed to step further into the room, forcing herself to smile. “I was just....I was remembering....never mind, it's nothing.” Amber sighed; “I can tell it's not 'nothing',” she informed her gynoid roommate, “but unlike those two girls who tried to barge in here earlier, I'm not the prying type, so I won't bug you about it if you don't want me to bug you about it.”

Vicki nodded. “I was just....remembering....well, I was......”

“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.

“....Vicki......Vicki....”

Amber's voice brought the brunette gynoid out of her morbid reverie. “One minute, you're telling me everything is okay, and the next you're screaming about someone called Sharon?! What's going on?”

“He killed her,” Vicki heard herself sob. “Shot her in the back of the head.....”

“So they weren't kidding when they said you 'lost' your old roommate,” Amber realized. “Look...I know this may be a tough subject for you to handle, but....if you need anything, I'm here for you.”

Something in those words prompted Vicki to look up from where she'd been crying into the floor.

“I don't know exactly what happened to Sharon, but from what everyone else has told me, she was a good person....and I know from our past experience that you, Vicki Lawson, are a good person. I could give some generic speech right now and try to go on with big words and stuff....but let me just cut through the crap and get to the point: You can get over this.” She chuckled a bit; “I'd do the whole 'hands on the shoulders' thing to show some extra support,” she added, “but I'd probably just grab the canvas and have to go wash my hands again....anyways, you helped me get over my own stupid problems back when you were helping me out in the 90s, and I have a feeling you can help yourself get over this.

“I....I don't know what to say---”

“You don't have to say anything. I've lost relatives before, and my family nearly lost me two years ago---it's a long story, a locked bathroom door, a senile grandmother and a portable heater on a busted shelf were involved---but crying over those things didn't get me as far as coming to terms with them did.”

Vicki stood, already forcing the memory of Sharon's murder out of her mind. “Thanks, Amber....I needed that.”

“Any time, Vicki. Now, ah, I had a copy of your schedule printed out in Braille, just to make sure we don't have any conflicting classes, and to make sure I can get a bead on where we'll each be during the course of the week. Also, if there's a sign on the door when you get back from class, I'll be either painting, sleeping or doing therapy---and I'll explain the therapy bit later. Right now...”

“Right now, I have to get to another class,” Vicki admitted. “Amber...I can't thank you enough---”

“You don't have to. Just get to class and do what you always do.”

Even through her tears, Vicki managed a smile. “I don't think that'll be a problem, Amber.” With one last glance at the canvas, with its abstract forms in a rather stunning array of colors, the brunette gynoid took a deep breath and headed back to class.

“Guess she just needed a shoulder to cry on,” Amber mused. “Metaphorically, in this case....”


The rest of the day was, predictably, boring---other than the Twitter Twins (who were considering an “upgrade” to the Skype Sisters, given their newfound obsession with Skype) bitching about Vicki's roommate refusing an interview with them for yet another wrongly-named version of the Spartan Daily. Catching up on missed classwork wasn't a problem, either---though Vicki did have to resist the temptation to blaze through the entire run of coursework in one sitting. Still, she admitted, it won't exactly be a problem for me to get it all done before the deadline....

As soon as her last class for the day was over, the brunette gynoid left campus once again, stopping by her dorm room (Amber wasn't in---her third-to-last class started right as Vicki's last class ended) to grab the locked duffel bag containing her ALPA-issue gear before meeting up with Tell for her field briefing.

Twenty minutes later, she was starting to wonder if she'd be less bored in an actual field.

“I know it's not exactly the Duel of the Fates here,” Tell admitted, “but you've got to understand, V---this sort of mission is the kind you need right now. Not that I don't think you could handle storming an enemy bunker or something like that---”

“Tell,” Vicki sighed, “there aren't any 'enemy bunkers' in Cupertino...and it's not the mission itself that gets on my nerves....” She turned her gaze to the Carmack Foundry, already beginning to feel like she'd been there for an hour and a half. “It's the prospect of sitting here, for ninety minutes and just staring at that one building, waiting for something to happen.” She scanned the building with her internal sensors, searching for anything from body heat to chemical compounds found in gunpowder. “What exactly am I looking for, again?”

Her reply went unanswered for a few seconds; the veteran field mechanic was purising a pamphlet about the foundry.

“TELL!”

A muffled thump---accompanied by less-muffled cursing---sounded from inside the Tellmobile. “I was checking out the background of the building,” he muttered, “via a pamphlet I stashed in the glove compartnemt from the last time I dropped by....and to answer your question, you're looking for suspicious activity.”

“Including the 'Cupertino Screamer'?” Vicki drawled, her frown saying just as much as her words had.

“Well...possibly. It's a distinct possibility that you may run into that particular....thing, whatever the hell might be---”

“Spare me the Mulder talk, Tell. Chances are that this so-called 'screamer' is just as fake as Keanu Reaves' British accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula....and probably just as pathetic.” Vicki rolled her eyes at the mention of Keanu's horrid accent; “And for the record,” she added, “it'd help if I was allowed more than one spare clip for the ES-9950. If something is in there....”

Yet again, Tell's reply wasn't what she was hoping for. “You know the rules, V. Probationary restrictions state that you can only get one spare clip....though just between you and me, I'd rather give you a Mossberg Cruzer before sending you in there.” He shivered. “I've heard the screams, and whatever or whoever that thing is, it's pissed. I have a feeling SCEMP rounds aren't going to do a damn thing to stop it. Slow it down, maybe, but---”

“I get it,” Vicki groaned. “And for the record, I don't even know if I'll have to go in there....”

“You might. And if the Screamer shows its ugly mug.....well, do what you gotta do. This is your op, V....not mine. All I can do is give advice that I hope gets you through it without getting scrapped.” He paused, out of something Vicki could only assume was hesitation. “Just...don't do anything too crazy in there, Vicki.”

The use of her full first name prompted a smile. “Not a problem, Tell.”

Even as she watched the Tellmobile driving away, Vicki knew (or at least hoped to the fullest extent of her ability) that there wouldn't be any need for Tell or anyone else to storm the Foundry and drag her away from the Screamer.

No, she reasoned, they'll only need to prod me awake after I go into standby from the boredom...

Ten minutes passed by without incident, then fifteen. By the twenty minute mark, Vicki was prepared to give up and go back to SJSU.....but, instead, she decided to take a more...pre-emptive stance. “I'm not waiting for whatever's in there to come out here.” Under other circumstances, she would've felt more than a bit embarassed at voicing her thoughts, but there was nobody here to embarass---unless she counted the Screamer, which she didn't.

Thirty minutes after Tell had driven off to leave Vicki to her building-watching, the brunette gynoid decided that she'd had enough of waiting. “Something's in there,” she reasoned---again, ignoring the whole “thinking out loud is usually embarassing” line of thought. “It's inside the Foundry, and it's watching me---”

Her sentence didn't even trail off before a piercing, blood-chilling scream tore through the evening air.

In that instant---literally, in the blink of an eye---Vicki Lawson squeezed her eyes shut....

…..and V.I.C.I. opened them.

“ES-9950's full. Spare clip's full. Just need to run a systems check....” The gynoid operative stared at the the Foundry without actually looking at it---her vision was focused on the reams of text scrolling through her OS' internal Heads-Up Display. As expected, all systems were fully operational and functioning well within acceptable operating parameters. “All systems green. Looks like it's time to---”

Another scream rent the air---followed by an equally-piercing gunshot.

“Someone's in there?!” V.I.C.I. groaned, her ES-9950 clearing its holster in record time. “Of course—-I get stuck at the front of the building, and they go in through the back.....” Assuming the Foundry's rear entrance is still functional, she mentally added. If not, then they either climbed in through a window—--

Her theorizing ended with yet another unmistakable sound---a human body being thrown into a wall.

V.I.C.I.'s myogel musculature kicked into overdrive as she sprinted across the yard of the Foundry, covering the distance in less than half a minute. She briefly considered connecting to the ALPA HQ secure line---and actually did, for about five seconds, only to hear the beginnings of a bulletin reagarding a meeting between the ALPA, a few of the surviving androids and gynoids from the “dating service plus” known as DreamLand and a “prospective new business partner”. Guess that's big news right now, she mused, jumping over the remains of what had once been a Jeep Cherokee and landing on the doorstep of the Foundry with enough room to take a step back.

Though ALPA protocol dictated that she “verbally inquire” as to the welfare of anyone inside a potential danger zone, V.I.C.I had her own “protocol” in mind...namely, kicking the door off its hinges and going in.

“ATTENTION, TRESPASSERS,” she called out, her robotic monotone adding a subtle, yet all-too effective air of authority to her words. “CEASE ALL HOSTILE ACTIONS AND LEAVE THIS BUILDING NOW. YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS TO COMPLY---” A volley of gunfire erupted from somewhere above, forcing her to duck behind a support pillar. “You now have ten seconds to comply,” she declared, “or risk facing arrest for assaulting an operative of the Artificial Lifeform---”

“SHUT UP, DAMNIT!” a feminine voice from above shouted. “YOU'RE BLOWING MY COVER!”

Blowing whose cover?! I thought I was the only Field Agent deployed here....what the hell is---

Another blast of gunfire---this time, from a shotgun (Ithaca Model 37, probably---guess ruining Aaberg's little gun show paid off in more ways than one...)---ended the mental line of inquiry. “Here's a great idea,” V.I.C.I called out. “You tell me who you are and---”

“I'M ALPA, DAMNIT! WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!”

The shouted reply brought a groan to V.I.C.I.'s lips. “I'm ALPA, too....and I was given this op today---”

“I got this assignment first, so back off!”

“I was only assigned to observe, which is what I was doing a few minutes ago until someone in here started shooting. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?”

“I only shot at you because I thought you were an enemy agent!”

And thus, we reach a new low in internal communications between Field Agents.... “For the record,” Vicki called out, switching back to her human voice, “I only have SCEMP rounds---just two clips---so I---”

“You would've disabled me with three shots, you idiot!”

So my would-be “fellow agent” is a gynoid.... “You have a numerical designation, or a name?”

“My name is Pria Bishop.”

Same last name as Ayla; she never mentioned any relatives to me..... “Right, I'm walking forward now, with my finger off the trigger of the ES-9950. I don't intend to instigate any hostile actions---”

“Save it. Just walk into the light so I can see who's pissing me off right now...”

As calmly as she could under the circumstances, Vicki strode towards the sole patch of light in the room (and it's right at the foot of the stairs....convenient) with her hands raised in the universal gesture of surrender and nonaggression. “Just so you know,” she called out, “I'm Field Agent---”

“Lawson?!” The voice from above seemed...surprised, to say the least. “Vicki Lawson?!”

“You've heard of me,” Vicki mused, grinning.

“Of course I've heard of you---you're the one who didn't keep the fembots out of ALPA HQ!” The speaker of those rather disdainful words descended the stairs---and for a moment, Vicki thought she was looking at a living cartoon character; the face of the female figure before her looked almost too animated to possibly be real. Her lips were set in a scowl that looked almost more like a pout; eyes that could've easily been right out of an anime, and a nose that, by all accounts, was perfectly proportioned---almost like something on a doll. And she's yelling at me. This day just keeps getting stranger and stranger..... “For your information,” she replied, trying to keep her voice as polite as possible without getting too “shouty”, as Ted often put it, “letting the fembots into the ALPA HQ was part of the plan. They were trapped in the lobby with me---”

“Does that include the one that breached the server room AND the high security vault?!”

Wait, what?! “Ah, nobody told me about a breach---”

Another shotgun blast from above the two gynoids drowned out the inquiry. “We'll talk about this later,” Vicki decided, not bothering to let Pria get a word in edgewise. “Right now, we need to investigate whatever fired that shot...”

...hopefully, without getting ourselves shot in the process.


“A bit louder than our usual methods, Mr. Packard, but it'll do for now.” Mr. Hewlett grinned as the utterly useless doorknob fell to the floor with a clang. “A pity the owners of the building didn't keep a regular schedule of maintenance on these....”

“A pity indeed, Mr. Hewlett---and a shame I forgot to bring my crowbar.” Mr. Packard nudged the door open, gesturing for his colleague to follow him inside. “I believe the fugitive awaits...”

Hewlett nodded. “Assuming he doesn't resort to his screaming act, Mr. Packard, I have a feeling---”

Whatever he had a feeling about was drowned out by a volley of shots hitting the wall next to his head. “We appear to be under attack, Mr. Packard,” he hissed. “Shall we return fire?”

“Not quite yet, Mr. Hewlett---I'm saving the rest of my ammunition for a special occasion.” With a slightly-annoyed glance at the stairwell, the two retreated into the room they'd just opened...mere seconds before Vicki and Pria reached the line-of-sight from the stairwell to the door. “...and for the record,” the brunette gynoid snapped, “I don't think the ALPA would appreciate you opening fire on them with a Ruger Mk III---they prefer non-lethal methods of threat-containment.”

“You can take your 'non-lethal methods' and shove 'em,” Pria replied. “I'm only wearing an ALPA badge 'cos they hired me for this job---”

“So you're an independent contractor?” Vicki mused, somewhat surprised.

Pria nodded proudly. “It's a lot better than saying 'bounty hunter',” she admitted, “but it's the same principal.”

“And you're working for whoever pays the most,” the brunette gynoid finished, frowning. “Does that include the Coalition?”

“Sometimes, yeah.....but it's still honest work, and I've never had to risk getting anyone killed.”

This, despite the Ruger.... “So you always pack a live piece on a job?”

Vicki's remark prompted a snort from Pria. “The Ruger? It's---”

“Don't say it's just for show---the legions of hired killers who've sworn by that gun probably said the same thing when they got picked up.” There was no sarcasm in the words, nor any trace of humor. “I get that you need a bit more protection than an ES-9950 in your line of work, but don't insult me by saying you've never had to fire that Ruger---even if it was just between someone's legs.”

The blonde gynoid gave a death glare, but said nothing.

“Let me guess,” Vicki mused. “You said they were 'warning shots', right?”

“Better a warning shot than one right to the goolies,” Pria muttered. “And for the record, I've only ever had to shoot to wound...namely when a fugitive's 'accomplices' start getting all gropey.”

No trailing off, her words aren't clipped as if she's trying to make an excuse out of it... “Fair enough.”

“You don't believe me, do you?”

“I believe you,” Vicki replied. “It's just that I have an aversion to 'shoot to wound' poilicies. I prefer not having to shoot at all, if I can help it....and before you start on me for being a pacifist, I have had to resort to, shall we say, aggressive conflict resolution tactics before.”

“So I've heard. You're the one who did Aaberg, right?”

“If by 'did', you mean 'brought to justice', then yes.” At least, I hope to Jobs that's what you meant..... “In any case, we're not here to discuss tactics and non-lethal vs. lethal---I was sent here to observe, and I'm assuming you're here to keep things from escalating past the point of stability.”

“I am....and you may want to edge back from the door a bit unless you want to get Swiss Cheesed.”

Vicki stepped back from the door, quietly berating herself for not having noticed her own progress up the stairs during the conversation with Pria. “Should we breach the door at the same time, or do you want to pick who goes first?” After all, you are packing a Ruger....

“We go in together, Lawson---I can call you Lawson, right?”

“I'd prefer Agent Lawson.”

“Not a problem, Agent Lawson.”

“Okay, then...on three. One....two----DOWN!”

In the microseconds between saying “on three”, Vicki's enhanced hearing had picked up the sound of the Ithaca Model 37 she'd heard earlier being pumped, followed soon after by the ever-so-subtle noise of a finger on the trigger....and the most damning of all, a short, quick intake of breath. Ten, maybe fifteen feet away from the door---have to do something.....

Thus, even as she yelled the word, V.I.C.I shoved Pria to the floor and took the brunt of the shotgun blast herself.

The blonde gynoid watched, shocked beyond even her own estimations, as the Field Agent staggered back a few steps---most androids or gynoids would've at least sustained massive damage to their synthetic skin in this situation, while the less fortunate usually lost internal components or just plain self-destructed depending on where the shot had hit.

Agent Lawson, apparently, was made of sturdier stuff than “most” androids or gynoids.

“Either your shot missed the mark, Mr. Packard,” a voice called out from inside the room, “or the girl is wearing protection---and not the type preferred by most girls of her age group.” Pria could almost sense the smirk behind those words, but had to bite her tongue---so far, the shooter hadn't seen her. “Shall we finish her off before continuing our hunt for the fugitive?”

“Indeed we shall, Mr. Hewlett,” a second voice replied, as a tall, barrel-chested man strode forward to look down at the brunette gynoid. “Headshot, this time?”

Before “Mr. Hewlett” could reply, Pria sprang from her crouched stance in the corner and smashed Packard in the face with a knife-edge chop. Her free hand closed around the shotgun barrel as the big man stumbled, and it took a bare minimum of force to pluck the weapon from his grip and aim it at Hewlett. “Whatever you're carrying,” she growled, “drop it. Now.” Five seconds into an already-tense silence, Pria pumped the Ithaca and fired into the floor between Hewlett's feet. “I SAID DROP ALL YOUR GEAR NOW,” she shouted.

“And what makes you think I would listen to a glorified sex doll like you---” Another shotgun blast tore through the air---“nicking” Hewlett's hand in the process.

“Drop your gear, now,” Pria repeated, aiming the Ithaca between her target's eyes, “or---”

“Pria, LOOK OUT!”

It took a millisecond for Pria to realize that Vicki had spoken---right before Packard grabbed her in a bearhug.

“Both of you are proving to be a considerable drain on our time and resources,” Hewlett intoned, “so I'm going to do this the slow way....” He kept his wounded hand pressed to his side, using his other hand to draw what looked like a multitool crossed with a balisong from a hip pocket. “I'm not going to bother being subtle this time,” he murmured, “seeing as how getting wounded on the job tends to...annoy me.”

Despite the numerous alarms blaring in her field of vision, V.I.C.I. glared up at Hewlett. “Don't.”

“A plea, or an order?” Packard mused, all while keeping Pria's arms behind her back. “What exactly do you think we should do in response to such belligerence, Mr. Hewlett?”

“I think we should scar them both, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett replied, his calmness barely hiding his utter rage.

“A very good plan indeed, Mr. Hewlett.” He hoisted the blonde gynoid up by the shoulders---

---only to nearly drop her as his knees gave out beneath him, thanks to a well-placed kick.

“I said don't,” V.I.C.I. repeated, “so if you even think about it again, I'll go for his hands.”

“Like you did with Hannsen?” Hewlett crooned, flipping the multitool open. “We've heard all about what you did to him....Miss Lawson.”

In any other circumstances, the mention of what had happened to Hannsen may have evoked any number of responses---a brief spasm of fear, a snarl, or even something as simple as an arched eyebrow. This time, the brunette gynoid didn't even flinch. “Hannsen killed innocent people in cold blood,” she stated, “including someone who had nothing to do with his plans. In any case, he's not my concern right now.”

“And we are?” Hewlett mock-gasped. “What exactly have we done to---”

“You shot me in the stomach---strike one. And you're threatening to torture an independent operative in plain view of an ALPA Field Agent---strike two.”

Hewlett shook his head. “We don't believe in three strikes, Miss Lawson. We believe in striking first----”

He stopped, noticing the gynoid's hand on the platform railing.

More importantly, he noticed the miniature ball lightning building up in her palm.

Before he could say anything, a jolt shot through him, sending him to the floor in a twitching, spasming heap.

“That's strike three,” V.I.C.I. half-whispered. “Now, then....”

“You really don't have any idea what's going to happen to you if you go through with this, do you, Miss Lawson?” Packard muttered, edging away from Pria. “We've been employed by powerful people to see this assignment through to the end...and your intervention is NOT going to keep us from getting this done.” He rose, shakily, to a standing position, his eyes gleaming with malicious intent. “This is the end for you---”

From the far end of the room he and Hewlett emerged from, a horrifying scream rent the air.

“I guess someone else doesn't care for you or your employers, either,” V.I.C.I. mused.

“No matter. I'll still have time to finish you---”

A light---blinding even from the far side of the room---shone onto Packard. “GET AWAY FROM HER!”

Packard turned, dumbfounded. “What---how the---”

“GET AWAY FROM HER NOW!” Footsteps---heavy, metallic and gaining speed---approached from the darkness. “I WON'T LET YOU HURT HER!”

Before Packard could even think to reply, something smashed into his stomach, sending him to the railing. “I haven't even done anything to her yet,” he groaned, only to catch a back-fist across the face. “I DIDN'T KILL HER!” the voice---not quite as metallic as the footsteps, but still noticably tinged with a synthetic edge---cried out. “I NEVER MEANT TO HURT HER---TO HURT ANYONE!”

In that instant, V.I.C.I realized what had happened: It's the Screamer---and he's a robot?!

“You'll be the one getting hurt,” Packard growled, turning to face his attacker, “if you don't---”

He stopped. Froze in his tracks, specifically.

“Mother of God.....”

The face that glared back at him was only vaguely human---or at least, constructed to look vaguely human. In place of actual eyes were two glowing lights---the same lights that had blinded Packard earlier. These same lights threw the rest of the being's visage into a harsh, almost horrific relief: sculpted, unmoving lips were set below a nose that looked to have been molded from molten steel. The general shape of the face was like something one might see on a sculpture of a Greek god, only cast in metal instead of stone.

“GET AWAY FROM HER,” the metallic figure ordered. “NOW---”

“LOOK OUT!”

Even as she shouted, V.I.C.I noticed the robot turn ever so slightly towards the “miraculously-recovered” Hewlett---and smash him in the face with a backhand strike. The operative stumbled backwards, lost his footing and fell over the railing---grabbing a bar at the last possible second to avoid a rather messy end below.

“This ends now,” Packard hissed, reaching towards his pants pocket---only to feel an iron grip close around his wrist and squeeze. Even V.I.C.I. flinched as she heard him yelp. “Why do you keep coming after me?!” the metallic figure wailed. “WHY CAN'T YOU LEAVE ME IN PEACE?!”

“We'll leave you in pieces if you don't lay off!” Hewlett yelled from below. “LET HIM GO---” His words trailed off into horrified silence as the robot (there was no doubt that they were dealing with a machine, rather than a human being in some sort of armored suit---that kind of stuff wasn't exactly how things were done on the West Coast) threw Packard against the wall, before turning and clomping towards the railing. “What are you going to do,” he taunted (or more accurately, whispered---his throat was a bit too dry for him to make an actual taunt), “step on my hands?!”

From above, the glowing blue eyes stared down, in silence.....

….then, slowly, the figure's right foot raised just enough to overshadow his own fingers gripping the edge of the platform.

“Don't,” V.I.C.I warned. “Self-defense is one thing---”

“THIS IS NONE OF YOUR CONCERN!” the figure declared. “STAY BACK---”

A muffled explosion from below ended the “conversation” before it began. “That was just the first Semtex charge,” Hewlett sneered. “Mr. Packard and myself have laid five more charges on the supporting struts of this stairwell---”

“And now you're going to kill yourselves along with us,” V.I.C.I finished, shaking her head. “You're---”

“Walking away uninjured, except for the regrettable maiming of my left hand.” Hewlett's smile reminded the gynoid of sharks; “We've prepared for every contingency, Miss Lawso----ooooAAAAHHHHHHH!!!” His smirking remark ended in a shriek of terror as the metallic figure grabbed both his hands, lifting him as easily as one would lift a pet terrier.

“If you let him go,” V.I.C.I. called out, “he might be able to disarm the Semtex---”

Her cries went unheard. “You did this to me...”

Hewlett---half-frightened, half-confused, could only blurt out “What?”

“YOU DID THIS TO ME!” The metallic-skinned figure lifted Hewlett by the shoulders, preparing to throw him over the edge of the platform. “ALL OF MY LIFE!”

“NO---”

Another explosion---slightly louder than the first---drowned out V.I.C.I.'s cry, followed soon after by a third; in seconds, a fourth rocked the entire stairway. The fifth and final explosion, to the brunette gynoid's horror, erupted less than three feet away from where she stood on the platform, giving her no time to prepare an escape plan or even to grab Pria. I have to get to the entrance of the room in front of me before---

The floor fell out from beneath her feet.

Seconds later, parts of it were smashing into her head.

WARNING: Critical Cranial Damage Detected. WARNING: Severe Left Forearm Damage Detected. WARNING: Severe Torso Damage Detected. WARNING: Severe Left $nk73 D4ma63 D3t3ct39 W4RN1N6-%#(%#()(*%)&)@------

VICI: PROCESSORS UNABLE TO HANDLE BACKLOG OF DAMAGE REPORTS

PANIC SIGNAL ACTIVATED. ALPA HQ NOTIFIED. INITIATING EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN. The last coherent thought to go through Vicki's mind before she blacked out was Good.


Fifteen blocks away, David Alan Tell had fallen asleep behind the wheel of the TellMobile, the Mortal Kombat II Official Power Play Guide (borrowed from Anton Malvineous' extensive collection of 90s video-gaming books and magazines) draped over his face as a blindfold of sorts. The strains of Sheena Easton's “For Your Eyes Only” softly issued from the TellMobile's speakers, only slightly drowned out by Tell's snoring.

Just as the song ended, Tell's snoring was drowned out by a steady, trilling tone from his iPhone.

“....and it always ends right before I get the Oscar,” he muttered, pulling the MKII guide off of his face. “Either this is an emergency, or someone's made me a very unhappy man....”

His complaint ended in a wide-eyed, silent stare at the alert notices on his screen.

The top notice had caught his eye first, mainly because it was Vicki's personal panic signal. Apparently, she'd sustained heavy damage within the Foundry, and was in need of repairs---that, and her systems had gone into emergency shutdown mode, meaning she'd have to be removed from the building before any hostiles (whoever they might be) showed up to snag her themselves. Within seconds, Tell had made up his mind and was preparing to turn the TellMobile around, floor the gas pedal and burn rubber all the way back to the Foundry...

…...until he happened to see the second alert notice on the phone.

The breach of ALPA HQ was still a matter of intense discussion and internal debate. Even within the highest ranks of the agency, few had been given full disclosure as to what, exactly had occurred....or to what had been taken. All that was made known initially was the theft of The List....but slowly, more details came to light.

As of 10:52 PM, September 12, 2011, David Allen Tell had been told every single one of those details.

Under other circumstances, Tell would've headed to the Foundry to help Vicki. If the planets had alligned in any other formation than they had this time, he would've dropped everything and gone to repair the brunette gynoid without fail......but this time, there was no contest, no debate. As much as he hated to admit it, Vicki Lawson had to go on the back burner this time around.

The famed mechanic muttered under his breath as he tapped the second alert notice; “Damn you, Spock,” he swore, “you absolutely nailed it at the end of Wrath of Khan....”


Pria Bishop stared into the wreckage of the stairwell from above, still barely able to understand just what had happened---and how she'd avoided being pancaked on the floor like Vicki Lawson had apparently been.

The two mercenaries (she had no doubt in her mind that Hewlett and Packard were mercs by this point) had managed to land on a pile of insulation foam on the bottom floor, more than likely owing to an earlier visit to the foundry (which would also go a long way to explaining how they'd managed to lay the Semtex charges in such a manner to control the explosions' timing to their liking). Even with the injuries they'd sustained from the bizarre, metallic-faced figure, neither of them would be in any immediate danger.

As for the girl.....

Only quick thinking and an even faster shoulder-roll to the side had kept Pria from being immolated by the firey explosion that tore up the platform. Vicki hadn't even had time to think about doing a shoulder-roll, judging by her reaction to the fireball that shot up in front of her face.

If she'd been human, that would've been the end of her.

“She's damaged,” the blonde gynoid heard herself say---which didn't surprise her all that much. Nobody, not even a gynoid Field Agent working for the ALPA, could survive a fall like that without sustaining some kind of injury. A 30-foot fall on its own would've at least given her endoskeletal damage and more than likely screwed up a vital component or two. Throw in the Semtex, and one could easily add burns to the equation; factoring in the falling rubble, and lacerations/impalement was added to the mix. Long story short: Vicki Lawson was, by all odds, too damaged to escape.

Even as she stared down at the wreckage, Pria felt an odd sensation---or, more accurately (and frighteningly), a lack of sensation---at the end of her left arm. She raised her hand, just to make sure it was still on. It was.....but the skin wasn't.

“Damn.....” The blonde bounty-hunting gynoid cursed herself---she'd more than likely lost the synthetic flesh in the fireball that had consumed the stairway. She'd have to get the whole arm reskinned now---the synth-flesh for her make and model was stupid that way---but there was still the problem of getting the hell out of the Foundry....even if that meant leaving her fellow gynoid behind.

In the span of less than an hour, that prospect troubled Pria more than it had when she'd first met Vicki.

She knew, somehow, that she'd have to do something to get the brunette gynoid out of the foundry...if the fall hadn't scrapped her already. Even if they'd only known each other for ten minutes, Pria felt she owed her....

….and she had a feeling that, if the tables had been turned, Vicki wouldn't have hesitated to save her.

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. ERROR: Subsystems 55964-55972 not responding RAM: OK ROM: OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. WARNING: Multiple subsystems non-responsive. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is ERROR: Date and time calculat9353qjl5qj53%#3#$

Even as her wake-up cycle kicked on, Vicki was having trouble regaining her full awareness of what she'd been through. There were explosions, something fell.....I know I'm still in the Foundry. She shook her head gingerly---noting that she actually had room to move her head; guess that means I didn't lose anything, she reasoned. The only nagging problem was her inability to determine the date---blunt-force trauma had screwed up her time perception at least once before.

With an annoyed sigh, she gave herself a sharp hit on the side of her head with her right palm---her left arm, for reasons she was still sorting out, apparently didn't want to move on its own.

Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Tuesday, September 13, 2011 The time is 12:25 AM.

“And there goes my perfect attendance record,” she muttered. “If I ever had one to begin with.....”

It took a few minutes for her to ease herself up from the supine position she'd found herself in. Even though the light in the room was too poor for her to see exactly how bad the damage on her left arm and leg was, she couldn't move either of them---which set off red flags instantly. I didn't walk here, she realized, wherever “here” is.....there's no stairwell debris, no sign of Hewlett and Packard....and no trace of Pria. Even more interesting than these, however, was the fact that she was considerably higher-up off the ground than she'd been on the platform before its destruction. “I'm on the fourth, maybe fifth floor....”

“Seventh, actually.”

Vicki turned---slowly, so as to avoid wrenching her wounded arm and leg (she never could just view damage as “damage”) too much---to face the speaker of those words. “And you're the one who brought me here?” she inquired, her eyes auto-cycling through vision modes as she spoke.

“I am,” the electronically-tinged voice replied. “The other girl....I couldn't get to her in time.”

Heavy footsteps strode towards her; as the footsteps stopped by her makeshift bed, the speaker knealt, revealing the same metallic, humanoid face that she'd seen on the platform above----and on at least one other occasion. “You.....I saw you at The Attic!” Vicki gasped. “You called Rykkard your 'brother'.....”

….and you probably saved my life by not letting me fight him, she mentally added.

“I'm surprised you remember,” the figure replied, the words sounding surprisingly clear from behind unmoving metal lips. “I should be surprised that I remember, these days....the attacks have been even more frequent as of late, and more intense.” He rose, striding over to a makeshift chair in the corner. “You saw me locked in the grips of one such attack yesterday, on the platform,” he explained as he took a seat, “and for that, I apologize. My memories...flashes of the night....” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

“Something you want to talk about?” the brunette gynoid offered.

Her question was met with something remarkably like a human sigh. “You wouldn't understand.

“Try me.”

The glowing eyes turned, settled on her.... “This has been my burden for twenty-eight years, a nightmare I've been trapped in since that night...you might not like what you hear.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Vicki replied, “I just survived falling down a multi-story stairwell---it'll take at least an hour for anyone to get here, maybe longer, and I've got nothing better to do with my time.....”

After a full minute of silence, the figure nodded. “What do you know of February 23, 1983?”

The Bloody Valentine incident?! “Ah.....not much---”

“There's no need for you to lie, Miss Lawson. I already know of your nature by way of your damaged limbs.”

So much for the “feign ignorance” route.... “Well....my colleagues have a, ah, name for that night...they call it the Bloody Valentine incident.” She hated herself for mentioning the codename for the event; for all she knew, she was talking to the perpetrator himself!

If it offended the metal-skinned android, he didn't show it. “'Bloody Valentine'.....a fitting name. I only remember it as the night I died.....and the night I came back as this.” He gestured at himself, shaking his head. “I can barely recall anything of my life before it was ripped away from me, leaving this twisted, shallow parody of existance. I only remember a few things....chief among them, the final emotions I felt---”

“Wait, what?! You were human?!'

Vicki's startled question earned her another baleful stare. “Was human, once. I had a name, a loving family, all the things one could ever ask for...and it was all taken from me in the span of eight hours.” The android stared at the floor. “It was a 'great experiment', they told me. 'Transferrence of a consciousness to an artificial body', they said. 'The first step towards immortality'.....but this....this is no immortality.” His shoulders drooped ever so slightly; “They said it wouldn't hurt,” he continued, his synthetically-generated voice at a near whisper. “They said any pain would be....psychosomatic, like 'phantom limb syndrome'.”

When he looked up, staring right into Vicki's eyes, the brunette gynoid could've sworn she saw something like sadness in them. “They lied.”

“And who were 'they'?” the Field Agent managed to ask.

“Men. Women. Humans.....all of them deluded enough to believe the lies they spouted. I was naïve enough to believe them as well. Every time I see it, they become a sea of blurred, shouting faces....and I remember what I felt---”

“You mentioned transferrence,” Vicki interjected. “Porting a consciousness into a robot body....and this was in 1983?!” The ALPA had been monitoring such transferrence experiments for years, and the Coalition had been adamantly opposed to the idea since the early 90s. “Transferrences were said to have been impossible until about twelve years ago---how the hell did anyone manage to get one done in 1983, of all years?”

The metallic-skinned android gave another synthetic sigh. “They didn't. Not correctly, at least....”

He rose from the chair. “I can no longer remember who I was, what I looked like....even my old name. All I had as identification was this...” He pulled at the long-sleeved “shirt” of the overalls that covered his entire form, allowing Vicki to get a glimpse of a cloth nametag reading “R-528”. “They took my name, took my whole life, and left me with nothing but a number....and a broken mind,” he finished, his voice turning harsh. “They told me it would be painless.....but it hurt. It was the worst kind of pain....the worst kind of death.”

“So...you've been like this for almost three decades,” Vicki murmured.

“I have. And yet, my 'condition' has only recently caught the interest of others....”

Already, a scenario emerged in Vicki's mind. “Look....I know you don't have the necessary facilities to repair me---” She stopped. “Ah, how exactly did you survive the stairwell collapse, now that I'm thinking about it?”

R-528 rolled up a sleeve of his makeshift uniform, revealing a patchwork of metal: some of it was almost gleaming, brand-new, while other patches showed significant wear and tear. “My....unique state of being gives me certain advantages,” he muttered. “Living within the confines of a metalworking plant allows me to use those advantages. I've been repairing myself ever since 1983....though it hasn't always been easy.”

“Well, if I had a phone with me, I'd call someone to get us both out of here---”

The words had just left Vicki's mouth when she remembered her internal HUD sending a panic signal to ALPA HQ. They should've been here by now.... “You wouldn't happen to have a phone, would you?” she asked, her voice sounding far too quiet for her own liking. “I....I can call some people, they can bring me back to base, and they might even fix you---”

Something rectangular was tossed towards her. “....ah, what's this?”

“People hear about the Screamer,” R-528 replied, “they break into the foundry, just to catch a glimpse. In most cases, they see nothing, and they leave....but sometimes, they catch more than a glimpse. They run away, fearing what they can't possibly understand....and they drop things. I've never bothered trying to use them myself...I have no-one to call anymore. If anyone even remembers who I was....” He turned away. “I don't even remember what I looked like,” he added, sadness tinging the synthetic tones of his voice. “This face is a mask to me, one that I must live with......”

I'll ask about any disappearances in 1983 as soon as I get Anton on the line, Vicki mused. “I think I can help you figure out who you used to be,” she offered, “if you still want to know----”

“And your friends?” R-528 asked.

“They can help both of us,” Vicki assured him. “They can fix my damaged limbs, and probably give you a full-body upgrade.” And they can probably help get rid of whatever it is that's made you scream all these years...

R-528 stared at her. “They won't treat me like Frankenstein's monster? Chain me up, put me on display---”

“I can guarantee that you'll be treated with respect. The world of robotics has changed---” She stopped. “I just realized something,” she murmured. “That face, that voice...the sculpted Max Headroom hair....y'know who you remind me of?” A grin crossed her face. “Mr. Roboto. Hell, that album came out on February 23....”

Her words were met with silence.

“Right, sorry,” she apologiezd. “I was trying to---”

“Mister Roboto,” R-528 intoned. “That name.....fits me. It suits what I became.....what I am.”

Vicki managed a smile. “So.....you don't hate it?”

“Seeing as how my original name has been lost to the ages, I welcome a new one.”

“Right. New name for a new time.....I'll take that as good news.” Vicki's fingers flew over the smartphone's surface---whoever owned this thing didn't bother putting a password on it, she mused. “It shouldn't take me long to get in touch with my team, and get someone down here to hep us out....”

R-528 nodded.

“Okay, then---let me just see who I can get on the line....”


The events of the prior month---especially the breach of ALPA HQ and subsequent thefts---had decimated all but the highest priority of routines within the agency's ranks. None felt this more than Anton Malvineous; his laboratory had been commandeered to repair damaged agents and analyze the captured fembots from the breach, his new assistant Grace had been loaned out to various Field Agents as a “Field Analytic Assistant” (a term that Anton suspected had been invented by someone higher up on the totem pole than himself to justify Grace's running around in a bulletproof vest)....even his car was now officially “on loan” to other ALPA officials and Agents if they needed it.

Long story short: for the fifth time in as many days, Anton was stuck at HQ with absolutely nothing to do except wander around the building.

As it just so happened, the famed roboticist passed by one of the five security monitoring rooms just as a call came in from an iPhone that wasn't registered with the ALPA. Only one uniformed security officer currently occupied the room, and judging from his relaxed, yet non-moving pose---and the cord running from beneath the back of his shirt to a wall outlet---he wasn't going to be answering any calls any time soon.

With a shrug, Anton sat down in the chair next to the android, picked up a headset and keyed it on. “ALPA Headquarters, how may I---”

“Anton?!”

It was hard to tell who was more surprised: Anton, at the sound of the all-too familiar voice, or Vicki Lawson, hearing the man answering in place of the usual monitors. “Vicki---where the hell are you calling from?!”

“I'm at the Carmack Foundry. I thought everyone would've known---my memory logs show a panic signal being sent right after the stairwell platform collapsed....” The gynoid Field Agent's voice paused. “Is there some reason in partiuclar why nobody's responding to my signal, or can I just file this under the 'generic bad day' heading?”

“Most of the higher-ups are in meetings,” Anton replied. “From what I hear, even Tell's been called in.”

An annoyed sigh filled the roboticist's hearing. “Great. I've got a busted arm and a busted leg---”

“And how exactly did that---wait, I'm getting the signal log now.” Anton scrolled through the text of Vicki's emergency signal, his eyes going wide. “Ah, is this some sort of a joke? You were attacked by 'Hewlett' and 'Packard'---”

“I'm pretty sure those weren't their real names, Professor. In any case, there's someone else here you might want to meet.” Even though she was in Cupertino, Anton could almost sense that Vicki was grinning. “He's a lot older than me---well, technically speaking, he was 'born' before me, in 1983. It's a long, complicated story; all I can tell you is that he goes by the name R-528 these days---”

The room seemed to freeze. All ambient noise from the computers and terminals around Anton faded to silence, leaving only that letter and those three numbers hanging in the air.

“What....what did you just say?”

“I said, he's called R-528---I'm sure he prefers to be called Mr. Roboto, which I actually suggested, but that's beside the point. He's pretty old, and he might need some repairs himself---”

“Did he attack you?”

“No. He's the one who dragged me out of the wrecked stairwell and gave me the phone to call you...though he did go a bit weird on the staircase before Hewlett and Packard blew it. He's okay now, obviously....I told him the ALPA could help him out.”

“Sure, sure....of course....” The mention of R-528 nearly sent Anton reeling from the chair; she doesn't know, he realized. The name R-528 had been etched in the ALPA's history books ever since the Bloody Valentine incident, with the caption “First Robot to Kill a Human Being” right underneath it. The only problem? Nobody had seen R-528, and due to the instant (and relatively short) rivalry between the ALPA and Coalition after the events of that night, nobody had bothered to send an inter-agency memo requesting (or demanding) that all robotics companies retire the designation R-528. A compromies was reached, asking that all robots with that partiuclar designation be catalogued....but it never really got off the ground.

There had been plenty of false alarms before....but this one didn't feel right.

“....and he has a lot of stuff that you might want to hear---Anton, are you okay? ANTON?!”

Vicki's shout snapped Anton out of his funk. “Yes, yes.....things I might want to hear. Vicki, are you sure he hasn't displayed any....violent tendencies?”

Something in the brunette gynoid's voice took on a tone of disbelief. “Seriously? I just went over the whole thing of him remembering the last few minutes of whatever human life he had---”

Anton nearly knocked over the chair as he stood up. “Human......life?!” he choked.

“Yes. He told me he used to be human, someone tried to transfer his consciousness into a robot body---”

“Vicki, I'm leaving to get to the Foundry right now. Don't leave, and don't let....R-528 leave either.”

“He's not going anywhere without me, Professor---”

“Just don't leave, okay?! I'll....I'll be there as soon as possible.” Anton paused; “Have you called anyone else?” he asked quietly.

“ALPA HQ was the first number I called.”

“And how did you get the phone?”

“R-528 said people show up here to see 'the Screamer', they get a glimpse of him and then they run off like a bunch of----”

“So he didn't attack anyone? They just....dropped the phones?”

“No, he didn't attack them---there's a bit of scuffage on the case, but other than that it's fine....which is more than I can say about you, or at least your state of mind. Seriously, Professor, you sound like you're three seconds away from a panic attack----what's wrong?” It took a few seconds for Anton to realize that he'd nearly shouted the last three questions he'd asked. “I....it's nothing, Vicki. I was---”

“Lying through your teeth. That didn't sound like 'nothing', Anton----anything you feel like telling me?”

Three deep breaths later, Anton replied: “I'll explain it when I get there. Just stay safe until then.”

“Fair enough. See you when I see you, Professor Malvineous.”

A quick tap of the headset ended the call, followed by Anton sinking back into the chair and letting out a heavy sigh. Nothing about this was adding up; the ALPA had been trying to keep tabs on R-528 for years, even connecting him to the Spare Parts Society (before it even had that name) at one point. Yet, from what Vicki had just said, this R-528 only had sporadic violent episodes....

“Why do I get the feeling that this is about to go wrong in the worst possible way?” Anton muttered.

His thoughts on the subject were interrupted by a knock on the door. “PROFESSOR!” Grace shouted. “I'm ready for my appointment!” The roboticist didn't even bother trying not to groan as the blonde gynoid nearly jumped out of her already two-sizes-too-small shirt; even if one ignored her mirror-image resemblance to Sara Jean Underwood, Grace always seemed to be redefining the term “perky” in all its various meanings.

“Something just....I have another appointment to get to,” Anton replied as Grace strode in (he refused to use the phrase “came up” or any derivative thereof around her, due to a recently-patched software glitch that had forced her into a state of perpetual arousal at the mention of anything that might be a double entendre). “I need to get to Cupertino,” he continued, “and.....why are you carrying a towel?”

“I think my pelvic module needs another repair,” Grace admitted. “I was in a meeting earlier, and I, ah, got---”

Anton held his hands up, cutting off the discussion. “I'll tend to it as soon as we get back,” he informed the gynoid, taking her by the shoulders and turning her around. “Open your dorsal access port, Grace...I need to make a minor adjustment.” A circle of flesh on the blonde's back popped up, hinging out just enough for Anton to connect a cord to it. “I'm disabling your sexual systems for the drive to and from Cupertino,” he explained, “so you shouldn't have any....incidents in the car.”

“But I'm not supposed to disable those!” Grace complained. “They're a vital part of my---”

“That particular business venture won't be starting up until at least 2013,” Anton interjected, plugging the other end of the cord into his iPhone. “As it stands, you're going on more field ops than you were ever designed for---I don't need you doing a striptease in the middle of a mission.” He tapped the screen a few times.

“But---Ooh, I just felt something---Sexual systems disengaged---and....hey, what did you just---”

“I just did you a massive favor,” Anton replied. “Now, let's get to the parking garage and find my car; I need to get to Cupertino as fast as possible.” He led Grace to the door. “And before we leave, I might as well say it now: DO NOT touch ANYTHING in my car.”

Grace sighed. “Just because I look like a Playmate with a sex drive to match----”

“DON'T finish that sentence. Please. Just....promise me you won't mess with the car.”

The blonde gynoid pouted, but gave a quiet nod. “I was going to say that I'm not just a dumb blonde,” she added. “The only reason my pelvic module needs a repair is because one of the drivers isn't responding; I didn't try fixing it myself, and I didn't try altering any of my settings that could be altered.”

“Good calls on every account,” Anton admitted, grinning. “Now then, to find my car....”

“What about this guy?” Grace inquired, gesturing at the still-charging android security officer.

Anton sighed. “He's an older model; since his charge cycle probably won't be finished for another half-hour, he's not exactly going anywhere anytime soon.” He didn't bother mentioning that the officer was a refurbished Shun-Dai model---speficically, one plagued with power-source issues and recall notices. “I may need to schedule him for an upgrade later this week, actually,” he admitted. “He hasn't missed a day of work since he transferred here three years ago....but an ounce of prevention, and all that.”

“So...we're going out to Cupertino with no backup, no reinforcements....not even a gun?”

At this, Anton paused. “Most of the Field Agents are either in bed or pulling security shifts,” he mused, “but I may be able to find one or two.....” He shook his head. “On second thought, it's better if it's just us going to Cupertino.” Quietly, he added “If anything goes wrong, they'll only have to bury me.”

Before Grace could ask what he'd just said, the roboticist was out the door and heading to the elevators.


“So.....anything in particular you want to tell me before Anton gets here? And before you ask, I'm not just being chatty all of a sudden because you're helping me out---I'm genuinely curious as to how the brain patterns of a human being were transferred into a machine...especially using 1980s technology---OW!” Vicki winced, more out of habit than anything, as her currently-useless left foot hit a large chunk of metal.

“You'd be disappointed in any explanations I could offer,” R-528 replied. “All I remember are my last moments of life....most of which were drowned out by the pain.” Even as he helped Vicki across the long-dormant smelting room, the metal-skinned android was having no problem navigating the long-dead machinery. “My last true feeling---the last sensation I ever had as a living being---was a white-hot flash.....and then blackness, as if someone had 'pulled the plug' on me, so to speak....” He never broke his stride. “Then everything came back, with scanlines and interlays. I almost wanted the blackness, after that.”

Vicki kept her voice level. “And they told you it wouldn't hurt?”

“That's the last I remember before the pain. Every one of them said it would be...like waking up from a dream, to rise into a new, shining future.” Even with the proto-autotuning filtering most of the emotion out of his voice, it didn't take Vicki too long to detect equal measures of anger and sadness in every word he spoke.

And there's the small matter of Anton freaking out about me mentioning him.....

“So, ah, R-528---okay, we really need to start breaking the Mr. Roboto name in with you, because I'm getting tired of saying 'R-528' every time. ANYway....Roboto, is there anything you remember from before you were, ah, transferred? A name, a family---”

“I don't remember!” There was no sadness in R-528's voice this time—-just anger. “I....I can't.....”

Well, so much for that line of questioning. “Sorry,” the brunette gynoid apologized. “I just....I was hoping to help you recall something about who you used to be....I was---”

“You were trying to help me.”

“Pretty much...” Vicki was more than a bit perturbed at the sudden lack of emotion in the metallic-skinned android's voice. “That incident, on the stairwell---I'm sorry if this sounds like me prying into your day-to-day life....or existance, or whatever you want to call it---”

“What you saw on the stairwell platform was something all too common in my life,” R-528 replied quietly, “but I can't apoligize for it....because it's not something I chose to do. My mind....clouds sometimes, and the past overwrites the present---I relive that night, in all its horror, overwriting whatever is happening in reality. I've tried to understand it.....to form some connection between what I see and what's happening....but I can almost never remember any of the incidents---”

“So it's sort of like a blackout?” Vicki inquired. “You just snap out of it and realize you're missing more than a few minutes?”

R-528 nodded. “Replace 'minutes' with 'hours', and you've got it.”

One word in that sentence nearly caused Vicki's arm to fall away from R-528's shoulders. “Hours?!”

“I lost an entire day once,” R-528 continued. “I found myself outside an airport that time. Whatever I'd done, it caught the attention of the local authorities....it took me three more days to get back here, waiting until nightfall to move.” He paused, as if the next sentence had been something that shamed him profusely; “I....never found out what it was that I'd done that day,” he quietly added. “I....I don't know if anyone was hurt or not. I can only hope that I didn't hurt anybody----”

“Luckily for you,” a voice called out, “you didn't....at least, not that time.”

Under other circumstances, Vicki would've instantly called out to Anton Malvineous---but the sight of the famed roboticist staring not at her, but at R-528 (with a scowl that could've rivaled Dirty Harry, at that) and pointing a Glock 17 at the android considerably curbed her enthusiasm. “Ah, you did remember how I said this guy has some things to say that you might want to hear, right?” she inquired.

“I don't want to hear anything from him until he's been secured,” Anton replied, his tone grim.

“Anton,” Vicki muttered, “I have a busted leg, a busted arm and a VERY short patience for this---”

The hammer on the Glock was pulled back. “Get away from him, Vicki. I don't want to hit you by mistake---”

Before Anton could even think to squeeze the trigger, the Glock flew from his grip into Vicki's outstretched right hand. “Now you won't be hitting anyone,” she replied, her own voice cold. “And if you've got a backup gun on you, leave it. R-528 has some information---”

“SO DO I,” Anton shouted, abandoning all attempts at subtlty. “Vicki, 'R-528' is the robot responsible for the Bloody Valentine incident! He killed an innocent woman---”

“DON'T YOU DARE!”

Vicki felt herself fall as R-528 strode towards Anton; she managed to stay upright by grabbing the support of a smelting tank, even as the metallic-skinned android advanced on the roboticist. “Do NOT call me a murderer,” he intoned. “I never intended to kill anyone that night---none of you understood it then, and you refuse to understand it now!”

“What's to understand?!” Anton spat. “YOU SNAPPED HER NECK!”

“I had no control over my actions! My mind was consumed by pain----”

“You don't even know what pain is---”

“ENOUGH.”

Anton and R-528 stopped, turning to see V.I.C.I glaring at them. “Both of you, shut up and let me get a word in edgewise,” she ordered. “You'll each get to say your side of the story---Anton, you first.”

After a deep breath and a few steps away from R-528, Anton nodded. “It was my last official night with the ALPA,” he explained. “A call came in about a possible abuse case---the only certainty was that there was some kind of domestic disturbance. I was with the team that rode out to the house, and.....we got the door open just in time to see him---” He threw a contemptuous glare at R-528. “---snap a woman's neck!”

“You're sure it was that android?”

“He has the same stupid clothes! Even the voice.....” Anton shook his head. “We'd all heard screaming as we got to the door.....but it wasn't the woman screaming at him. It was him, screaming at....we didn't know what. I never could understand it....all I knew was that I'd just seen a robot....take the life of a human being, with no explanation. It went against everything I knew about robotics, everything I believed in....it just didn't make any sense, Vicki! Nobody in the ALPA or the Coalition knew what the hell was supposed to happen next....there was no precedent, no 'textbook case' to follow.....”

The brunette gynoid managed a nod. “Perfectly understandable...but seeing as how we're trying to avoid any further outbursts---from anyone---it's time R-528 tells his side of the story.” She shifted her weight; “And please let him finish before you start yelling again,” she added quietly. “I think it's only fair.”

His scowl never faded, but Anton nodded silently.

“As I told Miss Lawson,” R-528 explained, “I didn't 'start out' in this form....as a matter of fact, before I became this.....I was human.”

“She mentioned that on the phone,” Anton replied. “What does that have to do with---”

“Let me ask you something,” R-528 cut in. “If you began life fully-formed---fully-grown, as you are now---but with the intellect of a newborn.....would you be in complete control of your actions and thoughts? Would you be able to do what you do for a living without making a single mistake, or conduct yourself in a logical manner without succumbing to emotional outbursts?”

That question stunned Anton into silence.

“That's the closest comparison I can make to what happened to me that night,” the metal-skinned android continued. “My thoughts, my feelings....after the transference was completed, my mind felt....my mind was broken. Everything I had known, every memory I'd had from what used to be my life....gone. Nothing of the lessons I'd learned about right and wrong, no sense of time or place....no identity.....all of it had been stolen from me. All I could think about was 'home'---that word, over and over again, echoing in my mind....”

Vicki eased herself into a sitting position as the android continued.

“If I'd been able to feel, at the time, I would've felt joy when the first house I found actually opened its doors to me. Somehow, they knew---they had heard of the transference tests, and had sent people to find the place and stop the experiment. The woman....I still can't remember her name, but the woman who let me in had treated me with what I later knew to be kindness. She and her friends had no fear of me---not even the crude, twisted parody of a face my 'benefactors' had originally intended for me to wear gave them pause---and I might've thought that the healing of my shattered mind was beginning....”

“Except the ALPA showed up to take you into custody,” Vicki interjected.

R-528 bowed his head. “I don't remember anything after they knocked on the door. I don't remember going into a rage, or breaking the furniture---I don't even remember snapping the neck of the woman who might've saved my life had it not been for that twist of fate. I only knew about these things after the fact...the next day.”

His stare settled on Anton. “Do you understand now?” he querried, his voice barely above a whisper. “Do you realize that what happened that night was never my intention?”

Whereas his scowl had made Vicki more than a bit worried, she was positively shocked to see the Professor on the verge of tears. “I....I was the one who knocked on the door,” he choked. “I....I never...” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “You could've told us. You could've turned yourself over---”

“To people who wanted me destroyed,” R-528 finished. “I heard the discussions about 'how to deal with' me.”

“Right, so you've both said what needs to be said,” Vicki interrupted before the conversation could turn hostile, “so let's just---” She stopped as R-528 approached Anton. “When I found out what had happened,” the android stated, “it took....days....for the impact to hit me. By the time my mental state could even remotely be considered normaol....I hated myself. I hated what I had been turned into, what I'd done....”

His gaze lowered to the floor. “For the first three months after that night, I wanted to die.”

“And after the first three months?” Vicki quietly asked.

“Every day after those three months....I wanted to live. I wanted to feel again, to fully heal my mind. This place, the Foundry, became my home---the facilities were still functioning then, allowing me to at least attempt to make repairs on myself. In time, when the simplest things like walking without falling over became easy again, I began searching for ways to make myself more....acceptible.”

“Hence the new face,” Vicki mused.

“I still don't understand it,” Anton muttered. “Transferrence experiments weren't even possible back in 1983, let alone legal. There were rumors....” He sighed. “Do you at least remember anyone specific from that night---anyone associated with the expeirment?”

“I remember....names. Strange names----Emerald Hare. Iron Tiger. Brazen Bull---”

Anton let out another choking sound, as if the very mention of the names was poison. “Those names were on the list Oberon gave me,” Vicki gasped. “The list that came with Hannsen's manifesto....Anton, what are---”

“The DVS.”

Those three letters brought an almost disturbing change to R-528's posture---his fists clenched, his head turned slowly to stare at Anton. “What did you say?”

“Those names,” Anton whispered, “all of them.....they're all members of the DVS.” He glanced at the android, his eyes brimming with tears; “Forgive me,” he muttered, “for ever assuming you were a cold-blooded killer...I had no idea those bastards were involved with this. Vicki---”

“Water under the bridge, professor---now, about my leg---”

“We'll fix it when we get back to HQ. Grace is waiting in the Versa---”

“Hang on a minute,” Vicki cut in. “I've heard of the DVS a bit before....nobody's ever exactly told me what they are, though. I'd appreciate an explanation---”

“I'LL EXPLAIN ON THE DRIVE BACK!” Anton shouted.

For a few seconds, both R-528 and Vicki stared at Anton as if he'd lost his mind.

“The DVS,” he explained, “were....are....the most dangerous of the groups thought to have emerged after the Bloody Valentine incident---if they ever succeed in their aims, all robotics manufacturers would be forced by law to hand over all sentient and sapient robots to them. A lot of higher-ups in the ALPA and Coalition believed for years that the DVS was around far longer than anyone suspected, though....some believe that Franklin's little stunt with the 'weather control machine' and his fembot army was at the behest of the DVS, to try and gain back lost money and resources he owed them.” His voice nearly broke; “They came after me, after I left the Great Dirty World Wide Web,” he continued, “and 'asked' me to assist them....” He fell to his knees. “They wanted me to rewrite the Stylo virus! They threatened....”

His voice turned to a whimper. “....they did more than threaten.....”

R-528 walked to Anton's side, extending a hand. “It seems the DVS have wounded both of us,” he intoned, helping the roboticist to his feet. “All this time, I thought those names, those three little letters, were damaged memories in code form....now, I know their intent.”

“And I'm betting Hewlett and Packard were sent here on their behalf to 'collect' Mr. Roboto,” Vicki mused. “I mean, they were sent to collect R-5....oh, screw it! We need to get him out of here—-and we need to get me back to HQ for repairs! I have a feeling Mr. H and Mr. P aren't exactly going to let us off scott free if they're still here....”

The words had just left her mouth when a horrible thought came to her. “....but if they're still here, they'd have had time to do something by now,” she realized, “unless---Professor, we need to leave now!”

Somewhere above them, something exploded.

“They must've rigged this entire wing of the building while I was out,” V.I.C.I groaned, her monotone barely managing to hide her disgust. “I guess they thought they lost Roboto here in the blast and chose to cut their losses instead of just going back home empty-handed---” The far wall of the room blew inwards, sending shrapnel flying. “PROFESSOR!”

Anton ducked behind a smelting tank, managing to unsheath his iPhone from its belt holster. “GRACE,” he shouted, “BRING THE CAR AROUND!”

“But you're inside the foundry!”

Another explosion rocked the room. “Anton,” V.I.C.I warned, “we need to go. NOW.”

“Grace,” Anton thundered, “y'know those switches in the car I told you not to mess with?”

“Yeah, but---”

“Including that red one marked 'turbo'?!”

“Professor---”

“LINE THE VERSA UP WITH THE DOOR ON THE EASTERN WALL AND PRESS THE TURBO!” Anton shouted, nearly straining his voice so that the gynoid could hear him over the explosion of a smelting tank less than twenty feet away. “DO IT!”

“Whatever you say, sir....”

With his phone back in its belt-holster, Anton joined R-528 in helping Vicki to her feet. “You fitted a turbo to a prototype Nissan?” she murmured. “A prototype Nissan given to you on a trial basis---”

“They let me keep it after I developed an A.I. GPS,” Anton replied, grinning impishly. “Call it a perk of the job.”

“But Car and Driver hasn't even tested the Versa yet---” Vicki's complaint was cut off by the blaring of a car horn, the screeching of breaks and a section of the wall a few feet away buckling, revealing a door (currently splintering into about a thousand pieces) that had just been driven through by the Versa. A blonde gynoid (who looked a hell of a lot like Sara Jean Underwood's long-lost twin sister, if she ever had one) was seated behind the wheel, looking as if she'd just been on every ride at King's Dominion in under an hour; “That was...whoa,” she beamed.

“Thank me later.” Anton managed to open the left rear passenger door with one hand, ushering R-528 and Vicki into the car. “We're going to need to break a few speed limits to get out of this one, Grace...”

The blonde gynoid nodded. “Buckle up, then.....seriously. I don't want you guys flying all over the car---”

“GRACE....”

Another fireball tore up what was left of the far wall. “You don't need to tell me twice,” Grace stammered, shifting the car into gear and flooring the brake pedal. “HANG ON!” The Versa shot backwards, right through the shattered door/wall. “HANG ON AGAIN!”

“Why do we need to---GAAAH!” Vicki nearly toppled out of her seat as Grace executed a picture-perfect handbrake turn, narrowly avoiding a shower of molten steel belched out of the hole in the Foundry wall by a blast that would've made Michael Bay weep with joy. “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! I NEARLY BASHED MY HEAD AGAINST THE BACK OF THE SEAT!”

“That,” Grace replied, “was just the beginning...” She winked at Anton.

“Oh, no,” Vicki groaned. “Oh, Jobs, no.....”

“What's she going to do?” R-528 asked.

“Ever heard of a show called Top Gear?”

“No--”

“Then you're lucky,” Vicki sulked, knowing exactly what was about to happen next. “Grace, I know we need to get out of here quickly, but for the love of all that's holy and pure in this world, do not say---”

“POOOOWWEEEEEER!” Grace shouted, with Anton gleefully joining in as the gas pedal was stomped.

As the Carmack Foundry was reduced to a smouldering ruin, a silver streak---occupied by four passengers (one confused, two laughing and one screaming for the damn car to slow down)---tore off into the night.


“Sir?”

For what had to be the fiftieth time in less than a year, Celine had drawn the metaphorical short straw when it came to giving the Baron bad news. She'd already made fifteen phone calls to outside allies regarding the failure of Hewlett and Packard in their assignment to capture R-528...

….and now she was giving the news straight to the one who'd hired them.

“I thought I made it clear to never interrupt me whilst the Brandenberg Concerto was playing,” the Baron's sonorous voice intoned from the darkness behind his desk. “This particular piece has the soothing tones one needs to contemplate matters of....grave importance---”

“The Carmack Foundry has fallen, sir. R-528 is gone.”

Bach's Brandenberg Concerto continued playing. “And what of our operatives?”

“Hewlett and Packard said they had no choice but to take the building down, sir. They claimed---”

“I care not for what they 'claim', Celine. I wish to know only that they are, indeed, alive....so that I may teach them the folly of their ways.” A series of loud, crackling, popping noises followed the sentence---every time the Baron cracked his knuckles, Celine pictured the Grim Reaper himself preparing to swoop down on those who'd royally screwed themselves over after giving their word that they'd succeed. “Telll them they have only 48 hours to rectify their....mistake.....or the next bounty I will collect shall be on their heads.” Celine nodded. “Also, sir....Lassiter's finally out of surgery. His face has healed up remarkably, but....”

“I take it his desire to continue the family lineage shall go unfulfilled?”

“Ah, yes, sir. The, ah, damage to his....I mean, the impact of a knife to his....sir, they couldn't---”

“Take the day off, Celine. I shall only call upon you in the event of an extreme emergency.” With a wave of a gloved hand, the Baron dismissed the crimson-haired gynoid. “Sadler will be on standby if you need anything, as well....”

Yet again, Celine nodded. “Thank you, sir.” She turned on her heel, striding away from the Baron's office at a brisk-enough pace to keep her mind off of everything she'd just gone over. The House knew already---her loyalty to the group came before all, even to her own self-preservation---but even as she headed for the lift that would take her to the underground car park, she knew something was destined to go horribly wrong...

…...and whether it was instinct or just a lucky guess, she knew that the Baron wouldn't be too far from it.

Oberon stared out the window of his office, waiting.

The meeting regarding the ALPA's latest business proposal had bored him to tears within twenty minutes; even with the responsibilities beholden to Chairmen of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency, it took an impressive level of mental fortitude to not fall asleep in some of the conferences. Luckily, the important bits had already been explained; the rest would come later, preferably after his upcoming (and hastily scheduled) appointment.

So, once again, the Chairman found himself at the window, watching, waiting....and thinking.

Within his mind, one web of questions, possible answers and potential consequences continued to swirl, grow and crystalize: his own decision to not tell Vicki Lawson about the break-in and theft during the breach. It had happened right under the ALPA's nose---when and if Vicki found out, her confidence in her colleagues' security (and, by proxy, her own) would be shaken, if not destroyed outright. The “loot”---everything that had been taken during the breach---was irreplacable, and could easily bring the Agency to its knees if leaked to the wrong people; even someone as initially well-meaning as that Assange fellow could potentially destroy, in seconds, what had taken decades to create and nurture.

And, of course, there was the matter of who had stolen the items....

From the parking lot several stories below, the sounds of screeching tires and the sound of “I Can Dream About You” issuing from car speakers ended Oberon's reverie before he could become too lost in his own musings. A semi-annoyed frown creased his brow; the silver Versa had been given as a gift to one particular ALPA-connected individual.....

…..but it was one passenger exiting from the back of the Versa who caught the Chairman's attention.

“So,” he murmured, “one story ends.....another begins.....”


“...and FOR THE RECORD,” Vicki fumed, “just because some of the cops around here are on cordial terms with the ALPA, that doesn't mean we need to turn every freaking drive to and from a field op into freaking Days of Thunder! My head nearly went through the window on my side of the car!”

Anton's chuckling did little to soothe the gynoid's temper. “Vicki,” he chided, “there's a little technique called 'evasive driving' that you might want to look into one day—-Grace used every trick in the book to keep anyone from following us back here. Isn't that right, Grace m'dear?” He grinned as the blonde gynoid rolled down the driver's side window, laughing; “That was AWESOME!” she beamed. “I'm actually glad you turned off my sexual systems before we left---”

“I don't want to hear it,” Vicki snapped, startling Grace and earning a frown from Anton. “Look,” she stated, her tone apologetic, “I just....we need to figure out how we can help R-528 and get the dirt on the DVS before they send more of their heavies after us---AND I need to get my left leg and arm fixed.”

The roboticist nodded. “The limb repairs won't be a problem.” he assured the brunette gynoid, “but as for the enigmatic R-528....” He cupped his chin in one hand, leaning on the Versa with the other. “I may need to open his cranial module to find any possible access ports---”

“He was made in the 80s, Anton! They didn't exactly have USB slots and SD cards back then!”

“Ever heard of things called 'ISA Cards'? Parallel ports?” Anton strode to the back of the car, thumbing a button on the keyfob; “Just because he's from the 80s,” he continued as the trunk opened, “that doesn't mean we can't thumb through his memories and find out who did this to him.” He leaned in, grabbing a leather satchel. “Once we get back to my lab---well, my on-site lab---I might be able to whip up a remedy for what's been ailing him all these years.”

“As long as it doesn't involve running every light between here and Cupertino,” Vicki mused, “I'm all for it.”

Grace helped Vicki cross the doorstep into the building, with Anton following close behind---grabbing a hooded jacket off of the nearest coathook. “Put it on and pull up the hood,” he instructed, handing the jacket over to R-528. “Also, you might want to wear these---” He grabbed a pair of mirrored sunglasses from a sign-in counter, handing them off to the android. “---to hide those rather noticable eyes.”

“You seem to have changed your mind about me rather quickly,” the metal-skinned robot mused.

“Getting all the facts helps,” the roboticist admitted. “Also...I didn't realize you used to be...”

“Like you?”

“Exactly.” Neither his step nor his speech faltered, even though the notion of a transferrence experiment going so horribly wrong galled him to his core. “Even these days, transferrences are conducted under the strictest regulations and under highly-controlled circumstances---Leah Chambers' transferrence will be attended by the ALPA President himself. None of that back-alley bullroar that, ah, led to....” He shook his head; “If you don't want me to bring it up,” he muttered, “I won't---”

R-528 didn't hesitate. “Refusing to mention it would be just as bad as pretending it never happened.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki called out. “Along with the whole thing of my leg still looking like it got put through a combine harvester. How far's your on-site lab from here, Professor?”

“Two floors up. And for the record, you could've gone without blaring the radio when we parked----”

“You're bringing that up now?!”

Despite his annoyance, Anton managed a grin. “You seem to have forgotten the point of entering the building without being noticed, Padawan. Blaring the Streets of Fire soundtrack runs counter to the whole idea of stealth....”

“This from the guy who put a turbo on a prototype Versa,” Vicki deadpanned.

Had the meeting involving the latest prospective business venture of the ALPA not been called the night before, the halls would've been bustling with activity---Field Agents, officials and personal assistants alike, all trying to get where they needed to go as fast as possible. Now, the only other signs of life in the corridors were the occasional androids and gynoids who'd decided to just plug in and charge right in the halls---a practice frowned upon in normal circumstances. “They're not watching us,” R-528 mused. “Their eyes....they're staring, but they see nothing.”

“I never really thought of it that way,” Grace mused. “They kind of look....creepy....”

“And you think you look like a Michaelangelo sculpture when you're charging?” Vicki teased.

Anton gave both gynoids a warning look. “Grace, for the record, you look positively out of it when you plug in for the night---and before you even mention it, I will conduct your pelvic module examination whenever I get the chance.” He changed the subject before Vicki could even think to voice her complaint; “The elevators are clear, so we shouldn't have any problems getting to the lab.”

“Great,” Vicki muttered. “So who gets priority when we get there?”

“Your leg and arm, first, then Mr. Roboto....and then Grace's pelvic module.”

Vicki grinned at R-528. “Guess your new name is catching on....” He attention turned to Anton. “....though I can't help but wonder how you're going to fix my leg and arm---I mean, usually Tell or Dad handles my repairs, and Dad....y'know....has all my spare parts for these sorts of things---”

“Which he's graciously loaned to me in the event that you might need to be repaired on the fly. I like having contingency plans in case things go terribly, horribly wrong....” Anton gave another impish smile. “Call it intuition, or mild paranoia....I just like preparing for any potential worst-case scenarios. That, and Ted would have me thrown into the Grand Canyon if I let you go back to SJSU with this sort of damage.”

As Anton had predicted, the elevator was, in fact, clear---giving Vicki and company the luxury of not having to hide R-528's presence by standing around him and trying to make him look as inconspicuous as possible. The ride to the lab was short---barely even 15 seconds---and with Grace's help, the brunette gynoid had no trouble getting out of the lift car. “Right, I'm hoping this is the part where you tell us the lab's just a few short steps away,” she mused.

“Hang on a minute,” Anton muttered. “I have to remember....go straight, hang a left, keep going until you reach the three-way intersection....”

“Anton....”

“I'm kidding! It's the third door to the right. Follow me, if you would...” Anton nearly skipped down the hall, chuckling uncontrollably. “Sometimes,” Vicki murmured to Grace, “he has the weirdest sense of humor....am I right?” The blonde gynoid shrugged.

A few seconds later, the two gynoids---and R-528, who found Anton's sense of humor only mildly confusing, at best---entered the lab, where Vicki managed to ease herself onto a table. “I don't know if my myogel lines are leaking,” she admitted, “but I can tell the internal framework is---”

“Jammed, actually. Your new frame was picked out after July 9 to be almost impervious to this sort of damage; if anything did break in your limbs, it should be a simple matter of extracting the broken bits and replacing them in short order.” Anton opened the satchel he'd retrieved from the Versa's trunk; “As for our metallic friend over there,” he continued, gesturing at R-528, “I'll need to examine his cranial module up close before I can determine how to open it and access his memory files.”

“You mean 'if' you can access his memory files,” Vicki corrected. “No offense to him, but his internal memory might be so utterly borked that we can't even find what's causing him to flip out.”

The roboticist tut-tuted. “Oh, ye of little faith....” He grabbed a pair of magnifier goggles from a rack mounted on the side of the table where Vicki had reclined; “As much as I'd love to prove you wrong right now,” he admitted, “your left arm and leg won't be doing a whole lot until I repair them...just as I suspected! Elbow joint's jammed, the shoulder joint's closed up around the myogel line and the wrist crumple zone---”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the brunette gynoid protested. “My new frame has crumple zones?!”

“Your new frame which was personally hand-picked by me,” Anton beamed. “It was designed especially for myogel-frameworks, with shielding zones that close around the myogel lines instead of bending or fracturing inwards and puncturing them. All I need to do is unjam your elbow and wrist, replace the shielding around your shoulder joint and then tend to your leg---shouldn't take more than 20 minutes. I'll need to replace the skin on both limbs, though...I'm assuming it tore because of the combined stress exerted by the fall, the explosions and your abrupt landing afterwards.”

Vicki allowed a sigh to escape her lips. “As long as I'm back on campus before 8:00 AM, I'm okay with it.”

“That shouldn't be a problem---your new exoskin has seam lines at the shoulders and hips. Not noticable during day to day activity, obviously, but noticable to one with a trained eye and a scalpel such as the one I'm holding right now---and yes, Grace, I'll get to you before your night shift starts!” The blonde gynoid mouthed “I didn't even say anything” as Vicki tried to fight back a laugh.

Well, this is probably going to be a really interesting Tuesday.....


“....and they left. That's all I know---that, and the fact that the building went up in flames before they got out of it. I don't know if the mercs got out or not, but I wasn't exactly keeping track of them....now, can we discuss the whole matter of my payment?”

Pria's question earned her a frown from Oberon. “I saw them arrive back here myself---Anton, Grace, Vicki and 'the other one'---if you muse know,” he informed her, “so your testimony has no problems there. What I'm concerned with is the fact that two mercenaries, who could've easily killed my operatives, escaped without you so much as getting a simple line-of-sight check on them.” He steepled his fingers; “Also, there's the small matter of me sending you to observe the Foundry...and you going to the job site armed with a Ruger---”

“Personal protection,” Pria snapped. “Not that it did me a hell of a lot of good.”

The ALPA Chairman didn't falter. “ALPA regulations clearly state that you must carry a non-lethal means of self-defense at all times,” he stated, gesturing at a Tazer on the desk before him. “As for your claims of self protection, you hardly needed to bring the thing in here with you.....”

Something in his expression shifted imperceptibly. “....unless you didn't simply come in here for a debrief.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You said it yourself,” Oberon continued, “the one called Packard had you in a bearhug...he kept one of your arms immobilized behind your back---easily giving him enough time to....say....stick something on you. Small, indiscreet, about the size of a thumbtack---or maybe that's just me being paranoid again.” Even as he talked, his eyes never left Pria---and, he noted, hers never left him. “Maybe all he did was try to keep you from going anywhere,” he mused. “You can have the gun back, by the way.”

The blonde gynoid bounty hunter picked up her weapon. “I thought you didn't trust me with this...”

“Eh, well, I've had a few close calls before....close enough to make me blink, even.”

Yet again, his eyes never left Pria---hers, on the other hand, were looking over the gun while the Chairman spoke....right up until he said the word “blink”. At that instant, her expression blanked, her arms falling to her sides with the Ruger still clutched in her grip.

“And there it is,” Oberon whispered. “Paranoia saves the day again.”

He rose from the desk, circling around it and moving to the back of Pria's chair. “Right where I said it'd be,” he muttered. “Base of the neck.....bastard must've palmed it when he grabbed her. What better way to find their prize than by sending a Trojan horse in....” He shook his head sadly. “Pria, Pria, Pria....I'm sorry for what's about to happen, I really am.” He kissed the top of the frozen gynoid's head. “You won't react until the second trigger....meaning you're not hearing any of this, or even seeing anything.....”

As Pria sat, unmoving, Oberon backpedaled until he reached the door. “....just give it a tick...”

Faster than any human being could've noticed, a shudder ran through the gynoid's body---and right after it finished, Pria's arm lifted, her hand squeezing the trigger of the Ruger. The bullet hit the window behind Oberon's desk, splintering it....but not breaking the glass.

“Perspex,” the white-clad chairman called out from the other side of the room. “Not what you'd expected, is it?”

“You will hand over R-528,” Pria intoned, “or I will---”

“Exactly who am I handing him over to?!” Oberon shouted, slapping a section of the wall with his palm---and grinning as the lights cut out. “You, or the ones pulling your strings right now?!” He ducked under the gynoid's line of sight, even as her weapon was aimed at the bookshelf on the other side of the room.

Slowly, Pria turned. “You will hand over R-528---”

“The hell I will!” Oberon shouted, diving behind his desk. “The only reason you're in here is because it's the safest room in the building at the moment---you can't get out, your friends can't get in---” A bullet hit the floor right between his legs.

“Neither can yours,” Pria calmly stated. “Where is R-528?”

“Safe and sound, love,” Oberon grinned. “Which is more than I can say for you.”

Before the gynoid could raise her weapon, a section of the desk smashed into her stomach. “Another reason this is the safest room in the building at this exact moment,” Oberon declared, “is that I control everything in it---well, everything except you, at the moment.” He slapped the underside of the desk, and the lights blazed on once again, temporarily blinding Pria. “Did you really think I'd let you in here with a loaded Ruger if I didn't have some method of keeping you from shooting me?”

“If your death is all that stands between successfully retrieving R-528 and failure----”

“WRONG ANSWER!” The white-clad Chairman slid over the desk, grabbing the Tazer in the process. “Still, I'm more than willing to give you a free shot....” He turned, pocketing the stun gun as he raised his hands above his head. “Go ahead......pull the trigger. End my life.”

Pria's finger squeezed the Ruger's trigger....

…..only to be met with a resounding, empty click.

“I've always been told I could've been a great illusionist,” Oberon chuckled, removing the bullets that had once occupied the Ruger's clip from his pocket. “You were so busy staring at me, you never bothered to check my hands....I emptied the entire clip before you could---”

A shot rang out, sending him to the floor clutching his shoulder.

“Carbon-fiber backup gun,” Pria calmly intoned, standing over him. “Never leave home without it.”

Even as a blossoming red stain spread on his formerly unblemished coat, Oberon chuckled. “What part of 'most secure room in this building' have you not yet been able to comprehend?” he inquired. “For one, the frequency that's taken over your mind is being monitored, traced and pinpointed as we speak, which gives your temporary controllers about ten minutes to pack up and leave their little hidey-hole.” He worked his arms out of the sleeves of the coat; “Secondly,” he continued, “I already knew about the backup gun, and even though I didn't get to tamper with it....let's just say I prepared accordingly. Thirdly---”

The blonde gynoid barely had time to blink before the coat whirled away from its owner's shoulders, coming to rest over her head like a sheet ghost costume.

“Thirdly,” Oberon echoed, circling around Pria, “appearances can be very deceptive, even from a distance as close as....point blank.” He glanced at his right shoulder, still stained with “blood”, as he peeled a now-empty miniature plastic bag from it. “The coat had Kevlar biweave reinforced joints---enough to stop the bullet from penetrating, but also enough to burst the blood pack. Your handlers didn't want you aiming to kill me---”

He let the sentence trail off as Pria tore through the coat.

“---so I'll give them the same courtesey,” the ALPA chairman intoned, “and take great care to not kill you.” He aimed the Tazer at the back of Pria's neck, where the externally-applied override chip had been applied.

“If this fails,” he whispered, “I'm sorry.....”

He squeezed the trigger, sending the Tazer's prongs straight at the blonde gynoid's neck---where they hit and embedded themselves on either side of the override chip. Instantly, Pria stiffened, dropping both the useless Ruger and the backup weapon; as Oberon watched, her stunned expression lapsed into an almost-generic smile. “Hello! My name is Pria---Pria---Pria---Model number eight fifty---eight fifty-eight fifty-eight fifty...” Her head cocked to the right with each repetition, while her arms moved stiffly at the elbows.

“Eight-fifty eight---error detected. Running system scan....” For a moment, she remained motionless and silent, before lapsing into an almost casual pose---hands on hips, a bemused frown crossing her face. “Ah, sorry about that,” she apologized---staring at the wall (Oberon had moved to her left side, staying low to avoid her line of sight), “I seem to have developed a fault in my hard-hard-haaarrrrdddddd---” Her face contorted in a confused sneer. “---ware. D-d-d-d-d-don't worry, it's nothing major. My systems are probably fine---they're ss-se-sel-sel-self-repairable---EEEP!” Her expression changed again, this time to one of complete surprise.

Oberon backed towards the door, continuing to stay low and out of the malfunctioning gynoid's visual range.

“Please allow this unit one.....moment.....” Yet again, Pria froze in place. “....one moment.....programming abnormality detected.” Her head cocked to the left, her mouth slightly agape. “Beginning internal virus scan.....” Just as suddenly as it had frozen, her body relaxed; “I hope I'm not getting s-s-s-sick,” she mused, frowning slightly. “I would-I am Pria Bishop Model Number---virus scan complete. A malicious program has been detected.” The strange tableau of seeing the blonde gynoid going from a humanlike tone and pose to standing ramrod stiff and speaking in a monotone was nothing new to the ALPA Chairman; the ALPA dealt with similar cases on an almost daily basis.

The sound of rizzing servos caught his attention. “Full system restart required,” Pria intoned, frozen where she stood once more. “Initializing...I'm ssss-sorry,” she continued, her pose reverting to something more lifelike yet again, “but I think I neeeeed tooooooooooo laaaaaaaaaaaay dooooooooowwnnnnnnn.” Her eyes went dark, and her head bowed.

“And that's the end of that,” Oberon beamed. “Now, then, to---”

A sound like a blender on the fritz cut him off; the corners of Pria's mouth twitched---one up, one down---as her eyelids spasmed between half-asleep and strung out on caffeine. Her fingers grabbed at nothing; her arms moved as if she was either dancing, fighting or reaching for items on store shelves, all to the sounds of servos straining past their limits. Her upper body turned right, left and right again, bending forwards and backwards all the while. Her lips began moving at a speed approaching that of a weed whacker's blades, spitting out words and sentences in at least twelve different languages---all cylcing through pitches, tempos and accents like a bad “Learn to Speak” tape series. Worse than all of this, however, was the plume of steadily-darkening smoke emerging from the back of her neck. Oberon gave a wordless howl when he managed to get behind Pria without being clocked in the head---the external override chip had burnt itself into her skin after the Tazer had done its part, and was now melting.

“BASTARDS!” Without another word, he kneed the gynoid in the back, holding her down to keep her flailing from getting in the way. “I knew they were prigs, but this....” He managed to get a hold of the stil-melting chip between his thumb and forefinger, reflexively yelping as the thing touched his bare skin; in seconds, he tossed the chip into the bin next to his desk, where it managed to set fire to a few bits of junk mail.

The change in Pria's behavior was instant: her haywire movements began to slow, like a clockwork doll winding down, until she went completely still, despite the last whining notes of protest from her internal servos.

“And DuBraul wanted her to meet with him,” Oberon muttered. He rose, staring at the unmoving gynoid with a mixture of pity and contempt. “Well,” he declared, “they've got my attention now----or should I say they've gotten it again.” Hewlett and Packard had already put themselves in the firing line by nuking the Foundry; rigging Pria up to be a Trojan horse was a step over the line.

With one look back at Pria, Oberon crossed to the door of his office. This was going to be a long Tuesday.

“...and move your arm out, towards me.”

Vicki groand, but held her arm as far away from her side as possible. “Good enough?”

“Definitely. Now move it back---”

“ANTON! I think we've established the fact that my arm works!” The brunette gynoid brought her arm back down, glaring at the roboticist. “Are you going to have me fold origami with it, or are we done with all of the ambulatory tests?!”

To her annoyance (and admitted relief), Anton laughed it off. “We're done with the tests, Vicki...though I was also trying to test your patience, as well as your movement....”

Something about the mention of tests prompted Vicki to consider all she'd been through over the past year and a half. “Anton,” she mused, “I.....this might sound really stupid, coming from me, but.....you've been working in the robotics industry for a good long while, right?”

The roboticist stopped humming, but kept searching through a drawer full of ratchets. “Indeed I have.”

“So.....why do you think the ALPA is a necessary thing?”

This time, Anton nearly dropped the socket wrench to the floor. “That's.....why do you ask?”

“I ask because...well, because every android and gynoid I've met seems to be pretty damned good at keeping up the appearances of 'normal human life'. Except for the Spare Parts Society and the Family of Steel, I mean; apart from those two groups, it's like all androids and gynoids have it easy. All they need to do is go to their monthly maintenance appointments, keep themselves from glitching out in public, and all that jazz---why is it that artificial lifeforms even need an agency to protect them, anyway?” Her question prompted a sigh from Anton. “First of all, those androids and gynoids that seem to be doing such a good job at fitting in with humanity? They have help. Husbands, wives, brothers and sisters---others who can keep them from malfunctioning, or breaking down, at the worst possible times. Those who don't have help come to the ALPA---or they find others like them. You saw a few of those last December, before the Family of Steel nearly ruined their lives...which leads us right into your question of why the ALPA is necessary.” He sat beside the table where Vicki still reclined and stared into her eyes; “We're necessary,” he continued, “because if it wasn't for the ALPA, humanity would show androids and gynoids its worst side.”

Across the room, R-528 watched the conversation intently, until Anton motioned for him to stand closer. “I have a feeling this concerns you too, even though you were a human being once....” When the metal-skinned android was standing near the table, the roboticist picked up where he'd left off: “If it wasn't for the ALPA, all sentient and sapient machines would be treated as property, rather than people---and quite a few of them are being treated as such right now, despite our best efforts. There's no one party or entity to blame for that---it's not the Coaliton's fault, or the DVS' fault, or even our own---some people just refuse to accept that machines can and should have rights and freedoms. Asimov tried to set a groundwork for it with the Three Laws, but that was for his own fictional work---we found out the hard way that trying to use just three rules to govern real thinking, feeling machines was a lot more...difficult. It hasn't been easy for the ALPA to get to the point where it is now, and it hasn't exactly been glamorous, either; people have been killed trying to defend what we stand for.”

“So there are actually people who would lay down their lives to protect....us?” R-528 inquired. “People who would die to save machines?”

“Indeed there are,” Anton replied. “Oberon, for one---he's seen and been through things that would've driven others to the bottle....or to the grave.....but he's never given up on his convictions. Lawson's Eleven---their namesake included---would gladly lay down their lives....” He paused. “Well, ten of them would, including Ted himself. As for the lone dissenter....”

The memory of William Brightstar's outburst at Ted's house quickly rose to the forefront of Vicki's mind, and faded just as fast.

“The fact of the matter is, the ALPA is necessary because if we weren't around, androids and gynoids would be exploited. It'd be like RoboCop, where OCP treated RoboCop as 'product' instead of a person---except on a massive scale. Gynoids marketed as companion models would be stripped of even the slightest bit of initiative and free will, programmed to smile and tell their masters how good they looked or how nice they were even if their 'masters' happened to be utter pricks....long story short, corporate thinking would turn androids and gynoids into nothing more than very pretty-looking toys. And that's not even getting into what would happen if the military decided they wanted their own armies of RoboCops and Terminators.....” He shook his head. “To be quite honest,” he admitted, “Iran-Contra gave us a small preview of what would happen without the ALPA's intervention: a few so-called patriots went over the heads of the Chairman and President of the ALPA, stole a shipment of androids and gynoids, wiped their programming and decided to send them out to countries that needed a few extra hands to fight their wars for them....”

“Alicia mentioned that in Singapore,” Vicki murmured. “I....I didn't think---”

“That our own government would allow it?” Anton dryly remarked. “These days, the ALPA is barely a blip on their radar---and we're trying very hard to keep it that way. Only five people on Capitol Hill know the ALPA exists, and of those five, three have the power to either keep us going or shut us down for good. To put it in the simplest possible terms, Vicki, the ALPA is why you have the life you have now, instead of some hell of an existance as a greeter slaved to a failing network at a Walmart in some podunk town.”

Vicki laid back on the table and squeezed her eyes shut. “I remember when Ted didn't seem to mind having me dedicated to that sort of life...and I remember exactly when he changed his mind. These days, it's hard to think of a time when he just saw me as 'product'....”

“Then you can understand why the ALPA is a necessity in this day and age,” Anton replied. “Those who work with us understand that a machine with feelings and thoughts of its own---not just pre-programmed scripts and routines that fool everyone into believing it's a person---should be given the same rights as any human being on the planet.....and then there are the people who don't give a damn about what we stand for. The Drake Bradfords, the Victor Vegas.....”

“And Faceless,” Vicki quietly added.

Anton nodded grimly. “In the case of Bradford and Vega, they see androids and gynoids as tools to achieve their own means. As for Faceless.....he doesn't care about anyone or anything other than his own sick, twisted goals----and I don't think we need to go into those right now.”

Silence filled the room.

“Now, then, back to our discussion...the ALPA---and, to a lesser extent, the Coalition---are effectively the best lines of defense against those who would choose to exploit artificial lifeforms for their own gain. To be fair, not everyone who prefers androids and gynoids with low sentience is automatically relegated to 'bad guy' status, but...to be honest, it's rarely if ever clear-cut. It's not just a matter of black and white, 'good vs. evil' or anything like that---at least, between the Coalition and the ALPA. Sometimes, they do something that's so obviously reprehensible that we have to react......”

“I get it.”

“Figured you would. That being said, they've often been our most supportive allies when we needed help with, shall we say, outside interference.” Anton shook his head; “Trying to look at the big picture is rarely easy in this sort of circumstance,” he admitted. “In some situations, someone like you could easily be labeled the villain...”

Again, the room went silent---the memories of the Dawley op still ran deep.

“So I'm guessing you're saying that the ALPA exists because people would go absolutely nuts if they found out robots were living amongst them,” Vicki finally speculated, after about 30 seconds of silence. “Sort of like why Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith were part of the Men in Black in....well, Men in Black, right? Or am I completely off-base?”

The analogy prompted a grin from Anton. “You're not wrong,” he admitted. “I've heard it put a dozen different ways over as many years, but you're not wrong. There's about.....maybe less than a fiftieth of the population of this country that knows androids exist---and only a slightly larger number of the global population that knows it as well. And as I'm sure you're aware, not all androids have a life like yours...some of them are, in fact, seen merely as 'product'----”

“I know,” Vicki hissed, “it's just.....”

“You don't want to think too much into it because it carries reminders of man's inhumanity to man,” Anton finished. “What we're fighting to protect and defend is far from perfect---everyone in the ALPA has come to accept that over the years......but that doesn't mean we have to stop fighting for it.”

Whatever response Vicki had to that claim was cut off by R-528: “Your words are quite profound....it's a shame I never met one such as yourself in the weeks after my former life was taken from me.” He bowed his head. “I still don't know where exactly I fit into this.....a human mind, left broken in a metal shell.....my heart and soul, locked in a cold steel frame. It seems that I barely even qualify as artificial or a lifeform...I feel more like a man trapped between worlds.”

Anton retrieved the satchel again; “As luck would have it,” he declared, “I may be able to help you get past that feeling. Depending on what protocols were used during the transference procedure, it may take a while...ah, speaking of which....”

“You need to get inside my head,” R-528 muttered. “Something I, myself, have had trouble with....”

“Well, you've been trying to get in your own head in the philosophical sense,” Anton admitted. “I intend to take the term literally. Hopefully, it won't hurt.” He retrieved a screwdriver-like tool. “Now, then....how exactly do we open up your cranial module?”

R-528 bowed his head, as if lost in thought, then reached up to the edge of his sculpted hairline with two fingers, slowly pushing upwards. The custom molded, Max Headroom style hairpiece lifted, allowing Anton and Vicki to get a perfect look at seam lines, screws and a large, polished patch in the direct center of his head. “Well, this should be easier than I thought,” Anton mused. “Just try to stay still, and I should be able to open up your cranial casing without damaging your internal components....”

It was almost transfixing, watching the specially-designed tools extracting the screws and bolts connecting the back of R-528's head to the rest of his cranial module. “You might want to take a look at this, Grace,” Vicki murmured. “It's.....pretty impressive, to be honest.”

“My entire lower body's deactivated right now,” Grace called back. “Still waiting on the pelvic module exam!”

Her annoyed tone didn't even phase Anton. “All things in time, Grace....right now, I've got my hands full.” As Vicki watched, awed beyond even her own belief, the roboticist's hands never once wavered as he removed the screws. “You can't rush something like this. Vicki, if you would...hand me the allen wrench.” The brunette gynoid retrieved the hexagonal L-shaped tool from Anton's satchel; “I don't think Ted ever had to use one of those to fix me,” she admitted. “At least, not in recent memory....”

“Your construction was a bit more advanced,” Anton replied with a smile. “ No offense to our esteemed guest, of course...”

“None taken.”

“Excellent.....and we are done!” Anton set the tools down before laying his hands on the sides of the android's head. “Ah, Vicki, do me a favor and retrieve the splitter cable in the third-left pocket of my bag, if you'd be so kind....”

As soon as the cable had been handed to him, Anton retrieved a MacBook and plugged one end of the cable into it. “As for the other end...” He gestured for Vicki to come closer. “Now this,” he whispered, “is what I like to call a thing of beauty. Intricate, almost elegant---even for something from the 80s---and, quite simply, a lot more complex than it was ever meant to be.” He glanced at the brunette gynoid; “So many people equate the word 'robot' with an inelegant, lumbering thing,” he muttered, “yet if they saw what went into the making of one....”

“I think we were about to find the port this connects to,” Vicki reminded him, holding up the other end of the cable.

“Yes, yes....I hadn't forgotten. I was just.....” The look on Anton's face was almost dreamlike---which was a bit surprising to Vicki, considering the fact that he'd been prepared to shoot R-528 in the head less than half an hour ago. “This is almost on par with what Dr. Franklin did---even above what he did! The design....it's almost Jobsian in its simplicity and complexity---”

“'Jobsian'?”

Anton chuckled. “I believe the technical definition would be 'made by or inspired by the techical sensibilities of Steven P. Jobs....but enough about that.” He moved a cluster of wires aside, finding what appeared to be an old-fashioned PS/2 mouse port. “And we plug this in here.....and turn on the MacBook....”

“How do you even know if R-528's file system is compatible with the MacBook?”

“I don't.” With yet another wry smile, Anton nodded as the MacBook's screen lit up; “And...now we do,” he added, a mischevious twinkle in his eye. “Looks like my Jobsian remark wasn't just a pithy comment after all; whoever was in charge of the internals for this project was clearly a fan of the Apple II, at the very least.” He turned his attention to the screen. “And it appears our metallic friend's file system was designed and coded just for this project....I haven't seen these file extensions in decades.” His eyebrows arched. “R-528, can you hear me?”

“I can.”

“Interesting.....is there any unusual activity within your field of vision, or any strange thought patterns?”

“No.”

Vicki leaned on the workbench, her chin resting atop her hands. “Care to tell me what you're trying to do, Professor?”

“I think I may know why R-528 can't remember anything from his past life,” Anton quietly replied. “Human memories are....almost unquantifiable. Some people can remember their entire lives, with what's known as eidetic memory. Others---myself included---forget what they did two weeks ago, or last month, but can dredge up an old commercial jingle on the spot, in addition to retaining years of technical knowledge.” He sighed; “The science of trying to transfer brain patterns to an artificial being is....sketchy, at best,” he contiued. “From what R-528 has told us, the particularly primitive transfer he underwent was painful, as well---and this is more than likely the reason.” He gestured at the MacBook's screen. “Trying to convert memories into individual files is the least-successful transferrence type ever devised, and was even banned for that reason.”

“So....how long is it going to take for us to sort through all this?”

Yet again, Anton grinned. “Not long at all.”

He maneuvered his way through the Finder on the MacBook, calling up a German-made program. “One of my last holdovers from the Great Dirty WorldWide Web days,” he admitted, “coded specifically to work with the file types used for these primitive memory transfers. We just find the video and audio files with matching titles and timestamps, pair them up and, ah, just push 'play'.”

“I still don't get how that works,” Vicki frowned. “It sounds sort of.....impossible.”

“By all explanations, it should've been,” Anton replied, his smile fading a bit. “Apparently, some people were hellbent on proving that wrong.” He glanced at the file list from R-528's internal hard drive. “These two look promising.....from 7:25 PM on February 23.” He dragged the files into the program, squinting at the titles of each; “Video....there....and audio....there......and....play....” He took a step back, gesturing for Vicki to move closer.....

“.....you're sure it won't hurt?” The voice was that of R-528, but without the electronic distortion. “I don't...to feel any pain...through this....” Vicki was more than a bit purturbed to realize that the “video” was from R-528's point of view---at least, from his viewpoint as a human being.

“It'll be like waking up from a dream,” a female voice replied, followed by a figure leaning into the “shot”.

“But...will I be able to feel? To be....like this?”

Another figure entered the “shot”. “We don't have time for this,” a male voice complained “Th....on will be arriving tomorrow---he wants to see product, not just another damned slideshow! We either give him a demo or we get our funding cut---”

A burst of static filled the video player for a moment. “....ndale is furious,” the female voice was saying. “If he gets back here---”

“...what....where is he? Wh......my father?” R-528's voice spoke again---sounding drugged, this time.

“You said he was under sedation!” the male voice from earlier shouted. “You said he was---”

“There's no time,” a second male voice declared---a voice, Vicki realized, that sounded eerily similar to the one she'd heard after her incapacitation of Matthew Hannsen in Dawley. “We must begin now.” The first male voice started to voice a complaint, but the video faded to black.

Anton cleared his throat. “I....I think we should go with these next....” He loaded another video/audio file pair.

Instantly, Vicki clasped her hands over her ears---the sound emanating from the MacBook's speakers was nothing short of agonizing. Even worse were the horrified cries from the voices first heard in the last video. “I TOLD YOU THE CALLIBRATION WAS OFF!” the first male voice shouted. “SHUT IT DOWN NOW!”

“We can't! If we terminate the process now, we could lose the subject---”

“SHUT IT DOWN NOW---good GOD, he's---GET THE RESTRAINTS! GET HIM BACK IN THE CHAIR!”

The noise that had forced Vicki to cover her ears subsided a bit, only to be replaced by a voice that was just barely recognizable as that of R-528---albiet with heavy electronic distortion. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?! WHAT.....AM....I?!”

“GET THE RESTRAINING BOLT! FOR CHRIST'S SAKES, SOMEBODY---”

“WHAT AM I?! WHAT AM I?!”

“Turn it off---TURN IT OFF NOW! PLEASE---”

Silence flooded the room again, and it took a few seconds for the gynoid Field Agent to realize the last scream had been her own. “I....I'm sorry,” she whispered, “but....” She stopped, noticing that even Grace looked horrified....and that Anton had buried his face in his hands. “Professor,” she murmured. “I...I don't think we should look at the rest of these...”

“I do.”

R-528's voice was calm, despite the fact that he'd just heard his “rebirth” played out over the MacBook. “I need to know what else happened to me that night....to know how badly I was broken---”

“No.....” Anton's sob startled Vicki. “No one....nobody should ever.....” He nearly knocked the MacBook off the table. “His own son.....they didn't even tell him.....” He stared at the MacBook. “R-528, I....how did you not go insane after all these years?! That kind of trauma....most would've been reduced to gibbering wrecks after an hour---”

He felt his hand guided back to the MacBook's mouse. “Maybe we should look at one more,” Vicki suggested.

The video she'd loaded was from two days after the incident---looking noticably more digitized than the first few. A flashing “STANDBY” prompt in the upper corner of the screen indicated that R-528 was in a rest cycle of some kind, but still recording....

“....you're sure it'll stabilize him?” The voice that spoke these words was male---not one of the speakers from the previous videos, but still somewhat familiar. “You're risking a lot, doing this...”

“They all think he killed that woman in cold blood,” the female voice from the first video replied. “They think he attacked everyone back at the lab out of rage...they don't get it. The transfer was flawed---more than that, I think it was sabotaged. Someone wanted him to snap, to lash out at them....this was supposed to be the last step in the process. You want to know where I found it?”

Silence.

“I found this in a locked cabinet, in the bathroom.” The words were angry now, almost accusing. “Whoever took this disk out of the lab wanted R-528 to attack...they might've even wanted him to kill. Greendale's run off to Oregon, and the rest are refusing to talk to anyone...I'm the only one who knows about this. If you're going to save him, you have to run this on him.”

“You're positive this will keep him from attacking anyone again?” the male voice inquired. “Yes....but at a cost. He won't remember who he was before the transference---the conflicts....” The audio faded into static for a few seconds, before resuming. “...should help him regulate without any further issues.”

The male voice sighed. “I can't keep him here. If they find him---”

“They haven't even found me...just run this program on him, and he'll be as close to normal as possible.”

After a few seconds of silence, the male voice spoke: “You've done a great thing, giving this to me. If anyone else had found him before I could---”

“Why do you think I sought you out?! I know I can trust you, C....” The video faded to static, but the audio lingered for a moment longer. “....they.....to know......one has....o tell them.....” Vicki struggled not to turn away, even as something that sounded like a quiet, guilt-wracked sob issued through the MacBook's speakers for a few seconds more....

….followed by one last, haunting whisper: “...don't let him die.....”

The video player faded to black, leaving the room silent once again.

“That woman,” Anton breathed. “I...I met her, once....I recognize her voice, but if I could've seen her face, I'd know.....” He stopped. “And the man she was talking to---the voice sounded very familiar, but again, without a face to go by, I don't know who it might be.....in any case, we know that someone from that research group was able to recognize the stupidity of....”

A small, quiet sound caught his attention; to his shock, Vicki was sobbing onto the workbench.

“Vicki....what's.....why are you crying?!” Anton tried to think of something to tell her that wouldn't come across as condescending. “We know why R-528 forgot his old life---”

“That....that woman,” the brunette gynoid wept. “She....she's dead...”

R-528 turned to glance over his shoulder. “How do you know this?”

“Ted....Dad told me...” The brunette gynoid wiped her eyes. “She was with....I don't remember all the details, butI know she was on some United Robotronics chartered plane.....it went down over the Atlantic.....they never found any survivors.....I had a dream about her the night before she died. Dad brought her in to install my REM program that week....and my first dream.....was her death.......” She buried her face in her hands again, weeping quietly. “I never told him,” she whispered. “I....I didn't know what he'd say...”

Anton sighed. “1992....a dark year for the ALPA as a whole...when United Robotronics was taken by William J. Rengold III, before he abandoned that name. Still, that doesn't explain---”

“She could've told us more,” Vicki muttered. “If she'd survived, she could've helped us...”

“Well, we can't do anything for her now,” Anton replied. “We already know that, in his human life, R-528 was the son of someone, possibly a roboticist, named Greendale...” He stopped. “I wonder if....” Without another word, he headed for a shelf on the far side of the room. “Vicki, reattach the back of R-528's head if you don't mind---we may need to be heading out soon.”

The brunette gynoid wiped away her tears. “Heading out where?”

Grace, on the other hand, nearly threw something. “You said you'd examine my pelvic module---”

“In due time,” Anton promised. “I just need to make sure.....HERE!” He returned to the workbench, jabbing a finger at one name on one particularly earmarked page in the phonebook he'd retrieved and giving Vicki a triumphant grin. “Everett Greendale---one of my numerous mentors in the field of robotics, and a damned decent human being to boot. I lost touch with him back in '87---about four years after, ah....well, after R-528 became what he is now.” He glanced at the metallic-skinned android; “You wouldn't happen to remember anything about having a relative with the name Everett Greendale, I suppose?” he inquired.

To his surprise---and shock---R-528's eyes were glowing blue. “Father.....”

Vicki's eyes widened. “So....you do remember?”

“Only....bits,” R-528 admitted. “A voice, offering comforting words...a hand, helping me up after a fall.....not too much concrete evidence of a connection between us, but....” He remained still as the brunette gynoid replaced the backplate of his cranial module. “If he still lives...if he remembers....could he help?”

“That depends on who else gets to him before we do.” Anton frowned, thinking over the possibilities. “If our friends from the Foundry are looking for him as well, we're working on borrowed time already---and before you mention it again, Grace, I'll get to your pelvic module examination in good time!” He set the phone book down. “If we leave now, we may be able to find him before those idiots from the Foundry get to him---”

“Assuming he's not dead already.”

At that remark, Anton glanced over his shoulder at Vicki. “And what drove you to that particularly morbid conclusion?” he inquired, still frowning.

“I heard Dad mention someone named Greendale having died in a car crash in 2006,” the brunette gynoid replied calmly, “and I ended up going to the guy's funeral. The name on the obituary was E. Greendale---it was closed casket, but everyone there knew him from his work in robotics. My memory logs for that day are still in the backups at home, if you want me to check---”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Whatever it was that Vicki heard in Anton's voice, it wasn't anything approaching grief. “You don't seem too broken up over it....”

“Because I got a phone call from Greendale two days after his 'funeral'---more than likely, they buried an empty casket!” The roboticist managed to refrain from grinning too much as he closed the phone book. “The guy did have his detractors---one could even say he had enemies---during the 80s; he always talked about 'living off the grid'...to be honest, I'm surprised he actually went through with it.”

“And how do you know---”

“That he did go through with it?” Anton replied. “Well, for starters, he made a collect call...rather odd in this age of FaceBook, Twitter, smart phones and instant messaging, isn't it? And he sent at least fifteen letters---actual, honest to God pen-and-paper letters---for a month or so after that, each one from a different address and using a different name...but always including this.” He fished around in his pocket until he pulled out a necklace of some kind---a simple black cord with a cast-pewter emblem on the end. “He always wore one of these, back in the old days,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “Saw it on the cover of some long-forgotten science fiction novel, and decided to make it his personal emblem---he even wrote to the author of the book, telling her how much that symbol meant to him! Dunno if she ever replied....”

Vicki glanced at the pendant, arching her eyebrows as her internal WiFi searched for images of anything even remotely similar. As far as she could tell, the thing looked to be a cross between a Gaelic knot and some sort of stylized image of a rabbit's foot. “And he made these pendants himself?”

“Oh, yes. Always had a talent for casting things from pewter---he made D&D miniatures in his spare time.”

“Did he, now....” Vicki frowned---not out of incredulity towards Anton's statement, but at the inability of her WiFi search for more information on the emblem. “How many others in your social circle knew about that particular symbol, Professor?”

Anton chuckled. “Nearly everyone...but they didn't exactly get its meaning.”

“Which was?”

“Greendale had....a sort of weird handicap. He had some genetic defect, undiagnosed until he was about three, that caused his left foot to, ah...well, the most accurate term I can use to describe it is 'shrivel'. I actually got to see it once---Everett had been on the cider a bit---and it was...” He shook his head. “Picture an old, very old, tree branch, turned and twisted and knotted to the point that it looks like it might wither and die any minute now.”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes, but nodded. “I'm picturing it.”

“Now imagine a human foot in similar condition----and I can see by that look on your face that it's not too hard to picture. That's exactly what Everett's foot looked like, and it's also why I don't buy the idea of him dying in a car crash---he was never medically cleared to drive!” Anton finally allowed a triumphant smirk to cross his features. “Putting too much pressure on his crippled foot would've led to blinding pain!”

“Which leads to a hole in that theory,” Vicki countered, “when you realize his right foot was perfectly fine---”

“Except he only ever drove British-made cars,” Anton replied, “which had the steering wheel and pedals on the right side of the dashboard as opposed to the left! AND you're conveniently forgetting that it takes more than one foot to work more than one pedal----try getting to the gas pedal and the brake pedal with the same foot next time you have to drive, and---”

“I get it!” Vicki groaned. “So....if your line of thought is correct, Greendale....faked his own death?”

“Precisely,” Anton beamed, only for R-528 to interject with a noise that sounded remarkably similar to someone clearing their throat. “How does this get us any closer to discovering who I once was?”

“To be honest, it'll get us a lot closer,” Anton replied. “Greendale was involved with the project that made you what you are today, and if he knows either of the two we saw in that last video clip, then we may very well be able to pinpoint which of them might've had motive and ability to sabotage the project...” He paused, wringing his hands; “I know it won't be....exactly what you might want,” he admitted, “because all we can do is find out who's responsible for your current state of existance---we can't, ah, change you back into a human being.”

R-528 didn't seem perturbed by the news. “I gave up on being human again a long time ago---”

“Except the technology nowadays is a LOT more advanced than it was in the 80s,” Vicki countered, looking at Anton as if he could reverse the procedure himself. “Who says we can't---”

“Vicki,” the roboticist breathed, “the transferrence used to create R-528 was an incomplete process, using outdated technology, and if those video logs are correct, someone deliberately removed or excluded the final step of the process to ensure R-528's condition would be less than ideal for even attempting a recovery. And beyond that, recovering the memories of a transferred human consciousness isn't as easy as restoring the memory of an android or gynoid from backups---human memories aren't exactly compatable with computers or file systems. Even modern technology has had difficulties with transferrences; trying to reverse that process is just asking for trouble.” He glanced at the MacBook; “Aside from that,” he added sadly, “it's highly possible that R-528's human body was either destroyed, put in a chemically-induced coma or just lost. A hypothetical restoration wouldn't work if you tried to imprint his memories on someone else's brain---it's not like copying files from a thumb drive to your main hard drive.”

The brunette gynoid stared at the floor. “So what exactly do we need Greendale for?” she muttered.

“To finish the process that will fully integrate R-528's human memories with his machine nature. Once that's been done, he won't have to worry about having flashbacks anymore. And to track down who was responsible for the original project's sabotage.” Anton's lips curled into a half-smirk. “That a good enough reason to find him?”

“Good enough for me.” Vicki motioned for R-528 to stand; “If we're going to get going on this,” she advised, “I think we should leave....well, now. I might as well call Amber, tell her I'll be late and all that---” Anton's throat-clearing cut off any further plans about telling Amber why she'd be late. “Can I at least call her before we reach Greendale?”

“Possibly. It depends on what happens between now and when we meet up with him...among other things.”

With a sigh, Vicki headed for the door. “Why do I get the feeling that whatever happens between here and Greendale's is going to be utterly catastrophic?”

“It won't be as bad as you think,” Anton assured her.

His words did little to comfort the gynoid Field Agent. “Somehow,” she muttered, “I have a feeling this is going to turn into yet another one of those escalating situations I keep finding myself in....”

As was always the case when the Baron chose to take his tea in the wake of receiving bad news, Celine had a choice to make: interrupt his contemplative moment and risk earning his wrath now, or withold the even worse news she'd just received and face a probable DeComm on the spot. This time, the news in question was a “good news/bad news” situation, though (in Celine's mind at least), the bad news far outweighed the good....

….and in her own personal opinion, the “good” news---

“If you intend to loiter outside my quarters for long, Celine, I can only hope you brought sufficient entertainment to amuse yourself.”

The Baron's sonorous voice annoyed his secretary to the point that she wanted to just storm off, but such actions were immature---and not only were they frowned upon, especially in those who personally assisted the Baron, but anyone who made the impossibly bad decision to throw a tantrum in his presence usually ended up either fired or....going missing, for lack of a better term. Biting her lip, Celine pushed the door open. “I was just waiting until you'd finished your tea, sir,” she admitted. “I---”

“You have news of our efforts to recover R-528,” the Baron intoned. It wasn't a question; none who found themselves before that shadowed figure were called to him because they might know something.

“The horse has fallen.” With those four words, Celine knew that abandoning her day off to give the Baron the news had been a tremendously bad idea---even with her loyalty to the House as a priority, she felt that giving herself the role of “bearer of bad news” was an acceptable solution to prevent others from disseminating false information and potentially derailing ops. I should've just stayed home---

A clink issued forth from the silence. “You are sure?”

“The control signal over our asset failed about thirty minutes ago, sir.”

Whatever her expectations for the Baron's response, the only one Celine actually received was a low, quiet exhalation of breath that sounded like the last vestiges of air leaving a corpse. Did the Baron just....sigh?! “Ah, sir.....I know you gave me the rest of the day off---”

“And I am now giving you the rest of the week off. I understand why you wished to tell me this news yourself, Celine, a trait which I admire in my personal assistants....but there are others who wish to shoulder the burden you carry.” There was no hint of malice or sarcasm in the words, but Celine knew that she'd overplayed her hand by showing up when she'd been given a day's paid leave. Her realization dissipated as soon as the Baron spoke again: “You will also be given a week's worth of vacation time later in the year, to be spent at your leisure---”

“Why?!”

One of these days, Celine mused, I'm going to have to run a debug routine on myself to see why I keep saying the stupidest possible thing every time the Baron decides to do this weird reward thing.....

Her thoughts trailed off as her focus returned to her employer; the Baron was leaning forward, giving the horrified gynoid just the faintest glimpse of his face through that almost tangible darkness that was never too far away. “I choose to reward you, Celine, because your honesty is a refreshing change from the norm. Any sycophantic fool could kiss my feet and sacrifice their children if they hoped it would gain a promotion---and so many have....but someone who holds no secrets from me in their employment is....a considerable asset.”

That one word---”considerable”---was all it took for Celine to finally get it. He knew.

“Sir,” she began, “I---”

From the stand next to the Baron's chair, an antique phone rang.

If Celine had felt like it---or even thought of it---she would've breathed a sigh of relief. The face of the Baron retreated into the shadows around his end of the room, retrieving the phone. “Yes?” A pause..... “You are sure he is prepared to return to active duty----he left the hospital of his own accord?”

The next few words nearly prompted Celine to run, screaming, from the room: “He is in the building now?”

“In the building, and ready to get back to doing what I do best.” The gynoid secretary flinched as the door behind her flew open, revealing the black-clad figure of the Human Animal. “I told those hacks at your clinic that I didn't need any anesthetics, but they tried doping me up anyways....hope you don't mind going without a few 'doctors' for a good long while.”

“On the contrary,” the Baron replied, “I was considering giving them an early severance package myself.”

Celine forced herself to not look the Human Animal in the eye, mainly due to her hatred of such a flagrantly tasteless display of gallows humor. Only her loyalty to her mission and to the House kept her from trying to strike down the Animal where he stood---even if she'd somehow succeeded in that regard, the Baron would be far more likely to order his best operatives to let her leave the building so they could hunt her than he'd be to just end her existance himself. The House had always reported that the Baron had an unbridled cruel streak in him.....

….and Celine had, on multiple occasions, seen that cruelty first hand.

It took all of her effort for the gynoid secretary to focus on what the Human Animal was saying“...so I figured I'd join your little underlings on their mission and make Lawson pay for what she did to me. The girls who were there for my facial reconstruction did a damn good job, if I do say so myself....but the other loss I suffered that day---”

“I was informed of that loss by my associate,” the Baron intoned, gesturing at Celine.

The Human Animal stared at Celine from behind his mask. “So you told him? Damn....I figured Faceless---”

“William J. Rengold the Third is no longer in my employ.” The shift in tone from cordial to menacing was as sudden as it was startling. Again, Celine had been used to the Baron going from one extreme to the other in conversation, but never with such...intensity. “Ever since his own incapacitation at the Lawson girl's hands---”

“WHAT?!” The Human Animal looked as if he'd been kicked in the stomach. “She....beat him?!”

“With his own weapons,” the Baron intoned, “after he chose to kill Coalition operatives in some misguided attempt to start an inter-agency war. The Coalition and ALPA agreed to commit him to hospital only because they intend to take him to court after he fully recovers....and as for his status with me, I refuse to aid any man who continuously shows flagrant disregard for our methods, rules and regulations.”

Celine edged closer to the door, hoping the “discussion” wouldn't escalate to the status of full-blown argument.

“And what the hell did you do to Faceless after he got beaten---for that matter, how did that Lawson bitch---”

“The details of her victory over William are....sketchy, at best,” the Baron replied, his tone indicating that he knew full well how “the Lawson girl” had beaten the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. “As for William's current state, he was relocated to a medical facility...beyond our current jurisdiction. All requests that he be handed over to any outside authority are being ignored until the staff can be assured that his life is in no immediate danger; as for my own personal opinions on the matter---”

“Save it. I heard about your flunkies trying to nuke the Foundry, and I sincerely hope you didn't pay them what they asked for....a rush job like that is grounds for termination in my line of work.” The Human Animal glanced back at Celine. “Speaking of which....think you'd be willing to---”

A gutteral, rumbling sound emanated from the Baron; somehow, Celine realized, he's managed to make the simple action of clearing his throat sound creepy as all Hell.....

“Celine's employment as my personal assistant will continue,” the Baron informed the Animal. “As for your own employment....I have no reason to believe that you would be willing to continue where William left off. Despite his....flaws, not the least among them being his adamant refusal to avoid killing those employed personally by myself, he did manage to expose a glaring weakness---”

“So you'd rather have him back than the chick who breached their building, then?”

Had Celine been able to glimpse the Baron's eyes at that moment, she might've turned on her heel and fled the building at that moment---but as it stood, she simply edged closer to the door, waiting for the inevitable....

Thirty seconds of silence passed before the Baron spoke again: “And what do you know of the breach?”

“I know that someone really wants to sell whatever it was that got taken. If you people had any incentive---”

Every light in the room went out.

Her hands trembling as she felt her way towards the door, Celine tried not to think of what would happen to the Animal in the next few minutes. The memories of Stavros' corpse being removed from Victor Vega's residence were still fresh in her mind---she'd driven the Baron to and from the casa, and had seen the look of abject horror frozen on the dead man's face as his body was carted off. Whatever happened to the Human Animal, she hoped it would be quick....

….instead, she heard the Baron's voice---speaking to the Animal, rather than to her---less than five feet away.

“Take great care, John Lee Lassiter, that your tongue does not dig your grave for you....or that your words do not sentence you before any court on the planet.” The words came out as a growl, intelligible only because Celine was standing so close. “Your next witicism may well be your last.....”

“Not....a problem,” the Animal gasped; from what Celine could tell, he was either being strangled....

…..or drowned?!

The lights flooded back on, illuminating the entire room---minus the Baron. The Human Animal was on his knees, his mask pushed up to allow him to cough; “Remind me to never piss him off again,” he choked. “Even if it's on my turf....” He waved away Celine's attempt to help him up. “Son of a bitch knows it wouldn't hurt,” he sneered, “all he wanted to do was scare the piss out of me...”

Even as the Animal strode out the door, loudly declaring that nothing was going to keep him from finishing his latest assignment, Celine knew that he was more than likely just as shaken by the Baron's display as she'd been. She also felt a pang of sympathy for Vicki Lawson---she'd never met the girl face to face, or been on hand to witness her triumphs at the Attic, the Silicon Dynamics plant, or the factory where she'd defeated Faceless....but knowing that the Baron was willing to divert so many resources and even kill those who failed him in his quest to destroy “the Lawson girl” was almost too much for the gynoid secretary to bear.

Still, the House had their orders: Observation, not intervention.

For the fifth or sixth time in a week or so, Celine's thoughts turned to the exiled former Matriarch of the House, and what she might be doing...before eliminating said thoughts entirely. Celeste had gone overboard with the latest object of her affection, and as far as the House was concerned, she was another rogue element. It was a harsh way of dealing with such behavior...then again, the Baron's intended treatment of Vicki was far worse.

Celine made her way out of the room, actually allowing herself to look forward to her impending vacation...

“Y'know, I never figured you for a wrench monkey, to be honest. I'd have thought the Chairman of the ALPA had more important things to do with his time....”

Tell's observation prompted a brief smirk from Oberon. “Let's just say I've been known to tinker,” he replied, “and leave it at that...in any case, I took the liberty of prepping our, ah, subject, before you arrived...hope you didn't intend on opening her up yourself.” He gestured to the worktable before him, where Pria Bishop lay on her back looking, for all the world, like something out of a crossover between C.S.I and Popular Mechanics. “I also decided to scrub up before starting,” the Chairman continued. “Didn't want to get sweat on anything...”

Pria's entire front segment---her chest, for lack of a better term---had been removed, exposing her metallic “ribs” and the intricate layers of internal components beneath them. Her face was frozen in a look halfway between shocked and ecstatic; Tell had to roll her over to see where the controller chip had been placed on her neck. “I'll be honest, Boss,” he mused, “I was expecting worse. I mean, the chip was on her neck---”

“So why did I bother opening her up all the way?” Oberon finished. “Simple: I thought they might've used more than the chip. You do recall that Vega was using his 'dolls' as drug mules....”

“I do, and I want to punch him in the face every time someone brings it up.” Tell leaned in to get a better look at the bounty hunter gynoid's internals. “I'll say this for her,” he mused, “she's been pretty well-repaired; I'm thinking a few of these are self-fixes, to be honest. It'd make a lot of sense, too---she's probably seen more than her fair share of action in the field....” His eyes widened. “...ah, you're seeing the areas where she removed bullets from herself, right?”

Oberon didn't bother looking. “She's a bounty hunter, Dave...getting shot at comes with the territory.”

Even as he grabbed a toolkit, Tell shook his head in amazement. “Bounty hunter or not, it takes a hell of a lot of internal fortitude to get shot at---even moreso to get hit and keep going. I mean...she had one lodged near her power core---” He pointed out the dent where the bullet had once been. “---that could've scrapped her!”

“You seem to have forgotten the legions of our own android and gynoid agents who've been shot in the line of duty,” Oberon remarked. “You've repaired most of them yourself, as well....” He stared down at Pria's unmoving form. “Clive wanted to talk to her instead of letting me handle it,” he muttered. “If she'd have reached him first...if she'd have attacked him...” He turned away. “We're damn lucky that chip didn't force her into Clive's office instead of waiting until Pria heard the keyphrases...not even the Coalition would've been daft enough to have her kill off someone that important.”

“It'd kind of defeat the point of the Coalition,” Tell reminded him. “They've always stood for subservience over free will---they wouldn't just have a gynoid show up and kill the highest-ranking member of the ALPA. It'd be a domino effect---”

“Which has nothing to do with our current project,” Oberon finished, gesturing at the table. “Pria needs repairs, we're the only ones on hand to provide them.....everyone else is over at DreamLand for the new owners.” He glared at the toolbox, as if focusing his anger at this development and redirecting it towards something entirely unrelated could actually ease his mind about it. “If Claudia were still around...” He sighed. “Let's just get this bit over with so I can stop thinking of all the ways I hate what DreamLand is about to become.” Tell stared at him for a bit. “You're acting like DreamLand is being turned into a strip mall or something....all that's happening is that it's getting a new sponsor---”

“Did you forget the part where I asked us to forget about it so we can fix Pria?!”

Oberon and Tell stared at each other for a minute---one angry, the other calm----until the white-clad Chairman bowed his head. “As soon as this week is over,” he muttered, “I'm taking a leave of absence and going on a vacation....preferably somewhere with white sand and palm trees. I need a break from this place....”

“Everybody needs a break once in a while,” Tell admitted. “Hell, I could use one....”

His remark managed to bring forth a chuckle from Oberon. “Are you trying to guilt-trip me into bringing you with me?”

“Possibly....that, or I'm in the mood for some white sand and palm trees myself.”

“You're forgetting that sand and your left arm don't exactly agree,” Oberon mused. “In fact, if I'm remembering it correctly, the last time you went anywhere near sand---” He dodged a halfheartedly-thrown Kleenex box, his chuckle escalating into a full-blown laugh. “Okay, okay, point taken...and for the record, I wouldn't mind bringing anyone from here on vacation with me....and that includes you, Dave. Sometimes I think we all need a break from this place....”

The field mechanic nodded solemnly. “Anton would probably try to haul his entire collection of video gaming literature with him, though....remember Galveston?”

“How could you not remember? And he actually dragged four different consoles up the stairs to the hotel room....it was an absolute nightmare trying to get everything packed and ready to go for the Moody Gardens conference.” Oberon shook his head, smiling at the memory. “Still, it made things interesting...I'd rather have someone addicted to 90s video gaming than boozing around and throwing back Jagermeisters---”

The door to the repair lab hissed open, prompting the ALPA Chairman to lazily glance over his shoulder. “I was wondering when you'd show up,” he called out, ignoring Tell's confused look. “Bring it in.” A girl who looked to be in her early 20s, with pale blonde hair and a manner about her that almost screamed “demure”, walked in behind an auto-rolling cart. “It just arrived ten minutes ago, sir,” she explained. “I thought I'd bring it up here in case you needed it...”

“And I do need it at this moment,” Oberon replied. “Many thanks, Lorelei.” He nodded in her direction and smiled. “I believe you've been introduced to Mr. David Allen Tell before?” He gestured to Tell, who did what he called the “lightbulb turning” wave made popular at so many beauty pageants.

Lorelei returned the wave, giving a brief smile. “Working on something big?”

“Weeeelllll,” Tell drawled, “we're actually---” He stopped as Oberon strode forward. “To be quite honest, we're working to restore the consciousness of Pria Bishop---an independent contractor/bounty hunter personally hired by me for a field operation....and in case you can't tell already, she's a gynoid.” He gestured to the workbench; “Someone thought it'd be interesting to attach an external override chip to the back of her neck,” he continued. “I know for a fact that she didn't have the chip on her the last time she was here, nor did she have it when I sent her to the Carmack Foundry....” He glanced at Lorelei. “Any ideas on how it may have got on her before she reached the Foundry?”

Tell stared at the two, frowning. “With all due respect, sir, she---” He stopped, noticing the blonde girl blinking rapidly. Too rapidly, in fact, for a human being. Her voice went flat: “Accessing security logs...please wait.”

Oberon gave Tell yet another sly grin. “Never let it be said that I don't prepare for every eventuality.”

“I was wondering where I'd seen her before,” the mechanic admitted. “I actually thought she was hooked up to the security kiosk in the front of the building....sort of like the torso-only models from Silicon Dynamics that serve as receptionists. Never thought I'd see her up and about---” His words were cut off by something in Lorelei's head giving a distinctly Windows-esque ping. “Security logs found.” She blinked a few more times, then turned her attention to Oberon. “I think I found something you might want to see, sir.”

“Then by all means, show us.” Oberon a cable from his coat pocket; “There's an HP Pavilion over there that'll accept this input,” he explained. “Hook up to it, open the file and then pause so we can take one last look at Pria before we join you.”

“Yes, sir.” Lorelei made her way to the other side of the room, cable in hand.

Even as he watched the blonde gynoid walk away, Tell was frowning slightly. “I'm not exactly liking where this train of thought is going,” he murmured. “If Pria didn't get the chip from the mercs at any point in time between her last visit here and her stakeout of the Foundry, how the hell did she get it?”

“She didn't get the chip from the 'mercs',” Oberon replied, his voice grim. “More than likely, she was given the chip by someone else after her last job, and was given instructions to install it on herself before she paid me a visit earlier. And I think I know exactly who gave her the chip to begin with...” He nearly mentioned asking Anton for help, only to remember that the roboticist was already working on something....a rather significant something, at that. “The best we can hope for is that we can get the chip out of Pria and restore her to full working order before---”

“Sir?” Lorelei called out. “We have a problem.”

Tell's lips drew back over his teeth, inhaling a hissing breath. “Of all the four word combinations in the English language,” he muttered, “there's one I absolutely cannot stand....and it's 'we have a problem'---the universal signal for 'you're about to get royally'---”

“For once, Dave, I have to ask you as politely as possible to shut up,” Oberon quietly replied. “Feel free to call me for an IOU arm punch later on.....” He turned his attention to Lorelei, striding towards the gynoid. “I'm guessing the security logs from earlier have been tampered with?” he inquired.

“No, sir, those logs are fine....it's just that I'm getting an alert from the sensors downstairs.”

Oberon exchanged a concerned glance with Tell; “I think the 'mercs' are back to examine their handiwork,” he intoned. “Shall we investigate?”

“You mean, shall you investigate?” Tell corrected. “I'm knee-deep in a repair job here, and unless you want to see a bunch of expensive equipment get used to beat a pair of idiots over the head, there's no way I'm going down there armed with just a wrench, a screwdriver and....this.” He held up a device with a three-pronged, multi-jointed claw at one end and a trigger grip at the other. “Seriously, I can't even remember what this thing is for---”

“It's a power-cell removal tool. You had to use it last week....and it says what it is on the handgrip.”

At this, Tell examined the trigger grip of the device. “Well, look at that. It does say what it is---HEY!” He ran to catch up with Oberon; “Ah, I admire the fact that you're going to confront this problem head-on,” he admitted, “but a fix like this---” He waved at the table where Pria's motionless form rested. “---needs TWO sets of hands!”

“Which you already have,” Oberon beamed, nodding at Lorelei. “She's been training to be a field mechanic...aced every test so far, and she'll more than likely pass the full course at the end of the month.”

“Fair enough,” Tell acquiesced. “We still have no idea what the hell is happening downstairs---”

“I'll handle it, whatever it is.” The ALPA Chairman turned on his heel and headed for the door. “You two should more than likely be able to finish Pria's repairs yourselves...just be sure to extract the chip from where it melted into her neck.” With that, Oberon headed out into the corridor, closing the door just as Tell tried to voice one last complaint.

He'll hate me for this if he ever figures it out....but then again, he'd hate what's downstairs even more.

Lorelei's message about “trouble downstairs” hadn't been wrong—-someone had disabled the security sensors at the front door. Seeing as how that someone was leaving the building, as opposed to entering it, however...

I've bought you twenty, maybe thirty minutes to get R-528 out of here, Anton....don't fail me now.

“So, let me get this straight: I've just disabled every security sensor on the first five floors of the building for half an hour, and you're telling me we're not going to get in trouble for this?!”

Vicki's question prompted a grin from Anton. “We won't get in trouble because we won't be caught,” he replied, ushering the brunette gynoid through the stairwell door. “If anyone does notice it, they'll attribute it to lasting damage from the breach last month and just do their best to get around it. Worst case scenario, they'll trace it back to here and file an inquiry, which we'll both answer to by saying that a system request during a routine maintenance scenario caused some sort of system overflow.”

“I am so glad you're on my side,” Vicki muttered.

“As am I,” R-528 intoned, following close behind the gynoid and the roboticist. “If this Greendale truly was...is my father....can he undo the damage that was done to my mind?”

Anton was about to answer, but a gesture from Vicki nearly knocked him over. “What's wrong? I---”

He stopped. Held his breath.

Standing at the foot of the stairs, looking up at the trio with an arched eyebrow, was the ALPA Chairman himself. “Am I interrupting something?” he asked.

“We were just on our way out,” Vicki replied, a bit too quickly for even her own tastes. “Going on a parts run; Grace's pelvic module blew.....something, I don't even remember what it was. Which part got blown out this time, Anton?” She elbowed the roboticist in the gut, almost doubling him over. “Repressurized seals,” he coughed.

“Repressurized seals,” Vicki echoed, nodding. “Nothing major....just a parts run.”

Oberon nodded. “Perfectly understandable....oh, bit of a weird thing happened earlier, Anton. Apparently, the first five floors of the building are no longer recording any security data. Audio/Visual, power source scans, chemical sniffers....all offline.” He glanced over his shoulder; “You, ah, wouldn't know anything about that, would you?” he asked.

“No,” Anton managed, “I've been helping Grace....removing her pelvic module, prepping her for repairs---”

“Duly noted. The thing is,” Oberon continued, “I can turn the things back on, but...the klaxons are going to be going off at random for the next....twenty or thirty minutes. Trying to get a repair job done in that kind of an environment would probably be...impossible, by my own reckoning.” He glanced at his watch. “If you've got that kind of time to kill, maybe I could....give you a call, maybe, when the alarms are turned off?” The look on his face was dangerously close to being a smirk. “Just to make sure you don't get driven round the bend by the klaxons, or anything....”

It happened almost too fast for Vicki to notice, but in the split second her gaze shifted from Anton to Oberon, she could've sworn that the ALPA Chairman had winked. He knows?!

“I...think that's a wonderful idea,” Anton finally stammered, realizing he wasn't about to get thrown out of the building. “I do have a lot of errands I need to run this morning.....Vicki, myself and, ah.....”

“Roberto,” Vicki hissed.

“Vicki, myself and Roberto will be out until you get the security system sorted out.” Anton smiled weakly....

….and Oberon either didn't notice or didn't care. “Sounds reasonable. Just make sure your phone's on when I call---I hate getting my messages sent to voicemail.” With a nod (and another maybe-smile), he set off down the hall.

“.....did we just dodge a bullet,” Vicki finally murmured, “or what?!”

“I'd call that less 'dodging the bullet' and more of a divine intervention,” Anton replied quietly. “Oberon isn't stupid---he'd only let us out if he knew what we were doing....and if that was the case, he would've asked 'Roberto' to identify himself clearly.” He paused; “Speaking of which,” he added, frowning slightly, “did you have to go with 'Roberto' as a cover name for him?” He gestured to R-528.

Vicki groaned. “You're bringing this up now?!”

“If I may,” R-528 suggested, “is there a chance we could resume this....debate...once we leave the faciltiy?”

The roboticist nodded. “We'll talk about it in the car, assuming someone else doesn't catch up with us...” He paused again. “Now that I think about it, the halls usually aren't this empty, even at this early in the morning; I distinctly remember at least a few of the secretarial gynoids making their rounds on the red-eye shifts while everyone else was either at home or sleeping on their desks...” He glanced at Vicki. “He's letting us go,” he muttered. “Either he knows about R-528, or something else has happened to catch his attention---”

“Actually, I've been meaning to ask about that,” Vicki admitted, letting Anton take the lead as they made their way down the stairs. “Pria mentioned something about a 'breach' here at HQ, in the server room---”

From where she stood, it was impossible for the brunette gynoid to notice the roboticist trip over his own foot at the mention of the breach; nevertheless, her quick thinking (and myogel-assisted reflexes) kept him from getting introduced face-first to the floor. “Anton, are you okay?” she asked, helping him to his feet. “I mean---”

“What else did she say?” Anton sputtered.

“Who....what are you---”

“Pria, whoever she is---what else did she say about it?!” The words carried an ugly edge that Vicki had only heard in Anton's voice whenver he'd confronted Zebediah Blunderwitz. “She...she said someone broke into the server room and the high security vault. We didn't talk that much about it, mainly because we were getting shot at....and why are you searching your pocket for your car keys when you gave them to me when we left the lab?”

Anton's hand clenched into a fist, right around the EAD (Emergency Access Device) he'd been carrying since 2006. “I was....checking for spare change,” he lied. 'I've lost a lot of it in the washing machine---HEY!”

“Spare change doesn't come on a keyring,” Vicki replied, fishing the tool out of Anton's pocket. “If you were going to use this on Mr. Roboto, you could've just said so....he hasn't had any flare-ups since we left the Foundry, so I don't think we have anything to worry about.” She grinned. “Just leave it with me; if he gets weird again---no offense.”

R-528 nodded. “None taken.”

“Thanks. Anyways, if he weirds out again, I'll pacify him or whatever, and if we have to put him in standby to get him to Greendale, we will.” She checked all adjoining corridors in the intersection. “All clear!” With a grin, she headed off in the direction of the next staircase....oblivious to Anton wiping tears from his eyes.

“That tool,” R-528 intoned. “You weren't going to use it on me, were you?”

“No,” Anton sobbed. “I....I was going to use it on her.”

The metal-skinned android stared, unblinking. “Why?”

“Because she doesn't need to know about that break-in,” Anton snapped. “Not yet.”

“And why doesn't she?”

The voice that spoke those words prompted an unexpected reaction from the roboticist: a frightened bleat, almost as if someone who'd died before his eyes had just spoken. “You know she'll find out eventually,” the voice continued; Anton didn't dare look up to see the purple-and-pink clad figure at the far end of the right-hand hallway staring at him. “If you keep lying to her about it---”

“THIS ISN'T ABOUT LYING TO HER!” Anton shouted. “THIS IS ABOUT PROTECTING HER!”

“Like I was 'protected'? I thought you were better than this, Anton...”

“This is different!” Anton insisted. “She doesn't know yet....Ted hasn't told her!”

A sigh---feminine, with only slight electronic undertones---emanated from the far end of the hall. “There's a lot Ted hasn't mentioned. Leaving one Vanessa with the Lanes, and the other......well, she'll find out for herself eventually, considering you people insist on protecting her. If I weren't such a non-interventionist, I'd tell her myself...though you already know me better than that. I saved her life last month, Anton---I helped her get over Faceless' last transmission. Or did you already forget all about that?”

“Why are you so interested in her?” R-528 inquired, stepping forward to get a better look at the figure. “Why is her welfare so important to you?”

The girl at the end of the hall took a few steps forward...allowing both Anton and R-528 to see a flash of silver at the end of a purple-and-pink jacket sleeve. “Because I know what it feels like to be lied to under the guise of 'being protected'....and I know how much it can hurt.” She approached the pair, staring into R-528's eyes; “And I have a feeling you know that feeling as well,” she added. “We have something in common....Mr. Roboto....”

Her words were cut off by another choked sob from Anton. “.....and before you start crying again, you can rest assured that I'm not trying to guilt trip you.” She sighed, helping the roboticist up. “I just don't want either of you to be the ones to dig Vicki into a hole she can't get herself out of...she's been through enough already.”

“ANTON! ROBOTO! ARE YOU TWO COMING OR WHAT?!” Vicki's shout from downstairs prompted Anton to dry his eyes. “Don't hate me for this,” he pleaded. “Please...”

“Dad wouldn't have wanted me to hate anyone,” the silver-skinned gynoid replied, “and for the record, I never hated you. Even during your emo phase.” She grinned. “Just do what you do best.”

Despite his tears, Anton managed a smile. “You know I will.”

R-528 stared at the two with something resembling awe. “Miss,” he intoned, “I must ask....who are you?”

The gynoid smiled. “I'm a friend. Simple as that.”

“ANTON! I'm NOT waiting here all night----what are you two DOING?!” The sounds of stomping feet from the stairway leading down caught Anton's attention; “We've got about 27 minutes to get out of here before Oberon reactivates the security equipment,” she called out, glaring at the roboticist. “We need to---why are you standing in the middle of an empty hallway?!” Both R-528 and Anton glanced at Vicki, then back to where the silver-skinned gynoid had been standing. “Ah, we were....going over our plans for the next few hours,” Anton began, and---”

“We can go over the plans in the car,” Vicki reminded him. “And the car's still in the PARKING LOT, so....”

“Right, right.” Anton shook his head, falling into step behind the brunette gynoid.

R-528's shoulders heaved in a remarkably human-like fashion. “My life becomes stranger and stranger....”

It would appear our efforts have failed, Mr. Packard.” Hewlett winced as he applied another layer of gauze to his wounded hand. “The destruction of the Foundry did little to slow our targets; the override chip was unable to give Miss Bishop the means to kill Oberon...”

“Things are not looking good for us, Mr. Hewlett.” Packard agreed. “We may need....assistance with this...”

Neither of the two were looking forward to failing the Baron again, even if they had other potential employers on hold. “I suggest we await our incoming asset, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett suggested, “and hope that our outlook will be considerably brighter than it's been thus far....”

“A wise suggestion, Mr. Hewlett. A very wise suggestion...”


“So how far away does this Greendale guy live, anyways?”

To Vicki's chagrin, the question was answered with a chuckle. “It's less a question of where he lives right now,” Anton admitted, “and more a question of where we can meet him safely. The man has enemies, after all; it's not like he's going to invite us to his house or anything.” The roboticist frowned a bit; “To be honest, it's been a while since he last contacted me,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “The last letter was....in 2008, I think; the info in it may be a tad bit out of date by now.”

“Which means he might not even be there by the time we show up,” Vicki groaned. “So much for those plans you and Roboto were going over in the hallway...”

The roboticist glanced over his shoulder with an annoyed look, but kept his cool. “For the record, Vicki, I still have a list of all of our prior meeting points....if he's still using any of them in the immediate area, we can probably reach him in a matter of...minutes. Hopefully. He's got my cellphone number, as well, so he can---”

“Call your cellphone from a pay phone?”

“Stranger things have happened,” Anton replied. “At the very least, it's better than just driving around all morning hoping for a miracle of some kind....”

“You seem to be putting a lot of stock in a plan that, for all it's worth, basically centers on luck,” Vicki muttered, glancing out at the scenery as the Versa sped down the highway. “Also, on a completely unrelated note...is there ANY chance we can be back to SJSU before classes start for the day? I'm kind of hoping that I can at least make my first class for the day.....”

Anton managed a chuckle. “Good to know your priorities haven't suffered in light of recent events.”

“Laugh if you want, but a good attendance record is something I happen to take personal pride in.” Vicki turned her gaze towards the Versa's window; “There's also the small matter of not letting anyone realize I have a second life working for an agency that nmost of my friends don't even know exists,” she added. “Because that would, y'know, completely and utterly RUIN everything we've been working on so far.” She blew a stray lock of hair out of her face. “I don't want my friends asking questions about me that Dad can't answer...”

“Which is perfectly understandable,” Anton assured her. “That doesn't mean you have to let paranoia overtake logic in these situations. Even if you're off campus for a day or two---”

“Like I was before the first time Bradford's fembots showed up?”

“Exactly,” the roboticist beamed. “Even when you have to spend a while off-campus, you'll always have perfectly logical reasons for your time away.....and speaking of logical reasons for things,” he added, his smile fading, “I'd love to hear one for why that van is---”

Vicki didn't even wait for him to finish---she grabbed the wheel and jerked it to the right....

…swerving the Versa out of the path of an oncoming unmarked van that would've rear-ended it. “Something tells me the driver of that thing isn't just looking for a quick insurance fraud case,” she reasoned. “Are you okay, Professor?”

“A little miffed that you decided to act without letting me finish, but otherwise fine.” Anton checked the windows and mirrors; “If you want to drive,” he added, “feel free---”

“Actually,” V.I.C.I replied, “I have a better idea.” Her seatbelt was off before Anton could ask what that idea was; his shouts fell on deaf ears as the brunette gynoid walked towards the van---which was now turning around and preparing to run her down. Her pace didn't waver, nor did her stare flinch; she kept walking---and picking up sped, just as the van did the same. Anton's shout of “VICKI!” did nothing to slow her down...even if it looked like she was about to get herself scrapped, she did, in fact, have a plan. Granted, it was a plan that required her to get up close and personal with the speeding van, but it was still a plan.

If it failed, she'd either have just enough time to jump out of the way and possibly chase the van down before it could ram the Versa again, or get her legs sheared off at the knees if she didn't move at exactly the right moment.

If it worked, on the other hand.....

Her lips curled in a grin. If Jamie were here, she mused, he'd probably be cheering me on right now....

She stopped walking, standing in the middle of the road as the van revved its engines. Had she been closer to it than she was at that moment (gynoid and vehicle were separated by about 40 feet of pavement---V.I.C.I had no time to work out feet-to-miles calculations), her “brilliant maneuver” would've ended with her as a pile of parts on the road.

Fortunately for her, she was just far enough away for it to work.

Hopefully.

From the Versa, it was hard to tell which had moved first---the van, or V.I.C.I.---but Anton could see that the gynoid Field Agent wasn't playing to fake out the vehicle. “She's going to do it,” he murmured. “She's actually about to do this....”

“Do what?”

The voice of “Mr. Roboto” (Anton had difficulty accepting the android as anyone other than R-528, even after hearing all the info on the Bloody Valentine case from his side of the event) did little to jolt the roboticist out of his reverie. “Unless I'm sorely mistaken,” he replied quietly, “Vicki Lawson is about to---”

A squeal of brakes did what R-528's inquiry couldn't; reflectively, Anton flinched, expecting to hear and see the worst.

Instead......

It was hard to say what made less sense and/or what was more insane to behold: the unmarked van shredding its tires trying to speed away---backwards---from the gynoid, or V.I.C.I catching up to the van and knocking it off of all four wheels with an uppercut that would've floored Mike Tyson. The van came out worse for wear, going up on its back wheels (more specifically, its back rims), rising up like a polar bear before falling backwards and crashing down onto its roof.

“Anton,” V.I.C.I called out, “you're going to want to take a look at this....”

The Versa rolled up a minute or two later, with Anton parking the vehicle on the side of the road. “At what?”

“That,” the brunette gynoid replied, gesturing towards the driver's seat of the van. “Plastech gynoids, both with modified remote override units applied.” Indeed, both the driver's side and passenger's side seats had been occupied by Plastech Playmates gynoids, with each wearing a studded collar around her neck. “This van wasn't trying to kill us---it was trying to distract us.”

“Except we're still close enough to San Jose for someone to notice,” Anton countered. “We could easily call the cops, or get a tow truck out here---”

“This early in the morning?” Vicki was back to her human voice, with an equally human frown to match. “Even if someone did get out here to investigate, there's no way of knowing if they're ALPA-affiliated until they show up....and right now, it's probably not worth the risk.” She grimaced as she got a closer look of the Plastech gynoids. “Judging from the looks on their faces,” she informed Anton, I have a feeling they didn't even realize they were driving.....” She made another face; “....and judging from the stains on their seats,” she added, not bothering to hide the disgust in her voice, “those collars did a bit more than slave them to a remote control unit...”

R-528 stared silently at the overturned van for a moment as Anton worked to get the gynoids extricated from their seatbelts. “I'll check the back end of the van,” Vicki offered. “They might've been carrying---”

“They were here for me.”

The brunette gynoid glanced at R-528, looking more than a bit confused. “Ah, what do you---”

“Both of those...gynoids....were here to capture me,” the metal-skinned android repeated. “The two men, from the Foundry---they must have sent the gynoids to divert the truck from the road and take me with them. Either that, or it's an extremely bizarre coincidence....”

“I stopped believing in coincidences in 1990,” Anton informed him. “To be honest, the way that van was coming at us....I don't think they wanted us to just wreck---I think they wanted a crash with survivors. More specifically, they wanted one survivor....” He glanced over his shoulder at the wrecked van. “Something about this just doesn't sit well with me---”

“ANTON!”

Vicki's shout drew a low, quiet hiss from the roboticist. “Let me guess,” he muttered, “they left something for us in the back of the van—-”

“Not just something,” the gynoid Field Agent replied. “You might want to see this...”

R-528 and Anton made their way to the back of the van. “I'm really hoping this is important,” the professor began, “because---”

His words died on his lips as he saw, for the first time in half a decade, the face of Everett Greendale.

To be fair, it was just an image on a TV screen, but it didn't take a forensic specialist to understand that the pic was a live feed---and that Greendale had clearly seen better days. He had a fresh shiner over his right eye, a bit of blood oozing out of a cut on his lower lip, and three butterfly bandages over another cut on his forehead; his expression was somewhere between fear and defiance, as if he'd been caught unawares and dragged off, but had no intention of just giving up and spilling his guts to his captors.

“Take a good look at this face, Miss Lawson,” the voice of “Mr. Hewlett” declared from wherever Greendale was being held captive. “An innocent man is going to die unless you give Mr. Packard and myself what---or more importantly, who we want....”

“Specifically,” the voice of “Mr. Packard” added, “Mr. Hewlett and I want the android designated R-528.”

“So much for your plan of 'just drive until we find some place where I used to meet him',” Vicki muttered. “I'm tracing the feed---” Her sentence ended in a pained scream as she clasped her hands over her ears.

On the TV screen, Greendale squeezed his eyes shut; Hewlett and Packard, meanwhile, chose to laugh. “Mr. Hewlett and I don't want you making things too easy,” Packard chided. “Indeed,” Hewlett agreed. “It would be a great detriment and disappointment to Mr. Packard and myself if you just 'found' us and retrieved the asset without a fight...”

The signal that had sent Vicki to the ground in a screaming heap cut off.

“....but it would also be too easy for Mr. Hewlett and I to overwhelm your senses,” Packard admitted.

“Which is why we're going to give you a chance to set right what once went wrong and bring R-528 to Mr. Packard and myself,” Hewlett finished. “You'll find that there are 5 robotics facilities within a 50-mile radius of your current position....”

“....two of which are Coalition-sponsored,” Packard stated, “while two more are ALPA-sanctioned; the odd one out, as you may expect, is unaffiliated. You have until 8 AM to Mr. Hewlett and I, as well as our prisoner---we are in one of the five plants....and our prisoner is in another.”

Hewlett chuckled. “Just because Mr. Packard and I aren't actually with our prisoner, that doesn't mean your task will be any easier. It's not going to be a situation where anything you attempt to do will result in the death of our prisoner---that would make things too easy for us, and too difficult for you.” The camera pulled back from Greendale just enough to show that he was actually resting in a chair---well, chained to the chair, as much as he was resting in it, but it was better than if he'd been strung up over a smelting vat by his ankles. “If you want ot see him alive,” Hewlett continued, “then follow the instructions Mr. Packard and I have left for you.”

“Of course,” Packard mused, “you could ignore Mr. Hewlett and myself and simply run in 'Rambo style'....but that would be.....unwise.....”

Fifteen laser dots shined down on Greendale.

Vicki could just barely hear Anton utter a half-choked “No” before Hewlett's voice spoke up again. “Don't keep us waiting, Miss Lawson....Mr. Packard and I hate waiting.” The picture on the TV began to fade....but not before Greendale looked up, staring right into the camera....

….and spoke: “Remember, Anton....remember how to play the game.”

A second later, the TV blacked out, a sizzling sound emanating from somewhere inside of it.

“So.....what do we do now?” Vicki waited a full minute and a half before asking that question. “Five factories, two different targets---and a time limit. All that's missing is a bunch of power-ups spawning in the middle of the road and a digitized soundtrack, and we'd have a sequel to Goldeneye.....and I'm guessing you're already trying to figure out how this is going to end without anyone getting killed,” she finished. “How much does Greendale mean to you---”

“He saved my life.”

Well, that explains a lot...... “How exactly---”

“After the DVS...extracted their payback against me for refusing their offer,” Anton quietly replied, “Greendale basically gave me everything I needed to start over. He helped me set up a new company with Dr. Guy, and until he decided to go off the grid, he kept in touch with me via letters---even when I was in the GDW3.”

“That makes sense. But how---”

“How did they know he was involved with R-528?” Anton finished. “There's no way of knowing if they do know, to be honest...and before you start asking how I know it was the genuine article instead of a double or some other contrived thing, I just know.” His voice sounded angry now, almost bitter---whether at himself for not having seen this coming, or at Hewlett and Packard for having kidnapped Greendale, it was difficult to say. “I knew the man for well over two decades of my life---I damn sure know that was him in that chair!”

The brunette gynoid nodded slowly. “I never said it wasn't him, Anton,” she clarified. “I'm just....trying to figure out what we do next.....”

Even as she spoke the words, the realization hit her. “I need to borrow your phone.”

“I'm hoping you have a reasonable estimation of a plan,” Anton muttered. “And I'm also hoping---”

“I won't break the phone,” Vicki promised. “Gynoid's honor.” She grinned. “Right, lift me.” She turned on her heel, presenting her back to the roboticist and R-528; with a sigh, Anton moved two bits of the brunete gynoid's Field Agent uniform aside to reveal the back zipper. “You do realize that Hewlett and Packard will more than likely be able to trace your efforts to trace them, right?” he inquired, unzipping the uniform top and pulling up the undershirt beneath it. “They'll be able to use that same signal on you that they've already used...”

Vicki rolled her eyes at the statement. “I'm not going to try to trace them,” she informed the professor. “You've got a USB cord for your phone, right?”

“It's an iPhone, Vicki---”

“Never mind, I have the cable myself. Left-hand hip pocket.” Anton shook his head, but extracted the cable from the aforementioned pocket. “Thanks,” Vicki beamed. “Now, then...control panel, open.” Her dorsal panel whirred open, its highest edge hidden slightly by the undershirt.

R-528 leaned in close. “Intriguing....you can access your own internal workings with a single command.”

“What can I say,” V.I.C.I deadpanned, “it's a perk.” Her eyes glowed slightly as she plugged the iPhone's cord into her own back panel. “I'm going to need your help for this one, Anton...key in the names of the five robotics factories, plants and associated facilities within the fifty-mile radius that Hewlett and Packard mentioned.”

“Let me guess,” Anton remarked, “you're going to check their security records to see if anyone broke in this morning?”

“No,” the brunette gynoid replied. “I'm going to call them.”

Anton stared at the back of V.I.C.I.'s head. “You're going to call them?”

“Two of the five plants are supposed to be abandoned. If anyone answers from either of those two, we know that something's up...and we can swing by them quickly just to make sure. As for the other three, you can ask if there's been any unauthorized access to the facilities, their computer networks or anything else of the sort---and if a Coalition rep answers, just tell them you're on official ALPA business, investigating a lead that needs to be followed up on.”

“When you put it that way,” Anton mused, “it sounds a lot more official than what I would've said....”

The gynoid Field Agent glanced over her shoulder, giving the roboticist a wry grin. “I did mention that I had a plan, remember? Just be sure that you identify yourself properly and we should be in the clear...the last thing I want is for the Coalition to accuse us of deliberately wasting their time.”

“Hopefully,” Anton muttered, “wasting their time will be the least of our concerns.....”

Everett Greendale waited.

There wasn't much else he could do at the moment, what with his wrists chained and his legs shackled to a chair that was already beginning to get uncomfortable. There was also the small matter of him not wanting to be caught in the trap of “what could I have done” or “how could I have changed this”---he didn't want Anton to find him as a gibbering, sobbing wretch....

….which, considering Anton's own descent into that sort of life almost two decades prior, was more than a bit ironic.

He thought of going on a monologue, explaining his predicament to the unmoving figures stationed around the room at various points...but again, he knew the risks of such an act. Ranting to an audience of display models in a long-forgotten showroom for “advanced humanoid robots”---the term used before “android” and “gynoid” became the official terms to refer to them by gender---would get him nowhere, other than into a state of depression.

Thus, all he could do was wait.

Anton would have questions, of course---questions about why his mentor had faked his death, or what his connection to R-528 was. The perpetually grinning gynoids who'd dragged him to this place and chained him to the chair had never mentioned that name; the two men who addressed him via a TV monitor never spoke of it....

….but he knew.

R-528 was in danger. He'd been in danger ever since the night he'd been....created? Born? Even today, it was hard for Everett to properly define what had happened that night...at least, in terms of R-528's existance.

For everyone else, it was easy to say: mass chaos.

As soon as he heard the news, Everett knew that something had gone wrong. He'd been told that there were “a few bugs”, at first, and that the “test subject”---his own son---was experiencing “symptoms”, but that it could be fixed over the course of a week or so. None of those responsible had bothered to accept responsibility for what had transpired....

….well, one had, but she was no longer among the living.

And now, the entire saga was being dragged out into the light, one more time. Everett hated the fact that his own role this time was effectively that of the bait on the end of the hook. He'd managed to do some good after the original incident---he'd made calls, cashed in favors and used up every “I.O.U.” he'd had stashed since the mid-70s to get the incident off the headlines, out of the papers and away from the public's eyes. It hadn't stopped the Agency and the Coalition from going to war with each other, but it had kept R-528 safe for the rest of the decade....

….and now he was back in the spotlight.

Greendale lifted his eyes towards the ceiling---or more accurately, towards the heavens. Living off the grid had precluded him from being part of organized religion for well over a decade or so, but as he sat there, chained like a prisoner as he waited for rescuers who might never arrive, he prayed.

Not for himself---he knew he was damned either way.

He prayed for R-528, for Anton.....and for whoever else was dragged into this.

The way he saw it, they'd need all the help they could get.


From the Desk of the ALPA Chairman

Ladies and gentlemen.....we've failed.

Again.

Specifically, I've failed---I've failed to keep you all “in the loop” regarding what actually happened on the night of February 23, 1983. For the past two decades, all of you have been told that a human being was killed in cold blood by a robot.

The truth is a bit more....complicated.

By the time you find this message---if you find it---this situation will hopefully have been resolved. Ideally, this whole thing will be finished before noon today, and I'll be able to get back to my desk and burn this damned note to cinders. Even if I don't, I have a feeling all of us would be better off if we scrubbed every mention of the Bloody Valentine from our records. I know that such an idea is alien to most of you---many of you even joined the ALPA for the sole purpose of preventing another Bloody Valentine incident.

Unfortunately, that incident was never ours to prevent to begin with.

Last month's breach of our secure vaults had as much to do with my own egregious oversight as it did with the perpetrator of that incident gaining access to our facility by means best left undocumented. This time, however, the blame for our failure can be laid squarely at my own feet.

I can only pray that this doesn't end in tears for all of us....

Oberon, Chairman of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency


To be continued in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: Only Human Coming to Fembot Central this Easter!


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