Only Human

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There were relatively few things one could do at 3:42 A.M in Silicon Valley; every bar, nightclub and other “hot spot” from San Jose to Mountain View had reached closing time, and the university crowd was either sleeping, attempting to study or recovering from whatever partying they'd experienced the previous night.

At the Dynadrive Systems factory five miles outside of San Jose, there were even fewer things to do.

Ellen Mather knew the fact all too well as the Director of Operations at Dynadrive---her position as the “boss of the boss” effectively wrecked her home life by way of a constantly shifting schedule. On a good day (more specifically, on Tuesdays through Fridays), she usually left at 5 PM and had just enough time to say hi to the kids and quiz her husband about how his own day had been. Saturdays and Sundays were her days off, which she had no problem with; all in all, she didn't have a reason to complain six days out of the week.

Mondays, on the other hand.....

“Remind me,” she muttered, “why I let Kip alter my schedule again.” She glanced over her shoulder at the only other figure in the room---an attractive 20-something perched on a worktable, her face frozen in a smile. “Or not,” Ellen droned. “I forget you're not human, sometimes.” Indeed, she'd had a bit of trouble adjusting to the fact that more than a few of her employees were androids and gynoids---fancy ways of saying “humanoid robots that effectively look and act as close to real people as possible”. After years of shows and movies like Terminator 2 and The Matrix extolled the virtues of humanity always prevailing over machines, she now found herself having conversations with these artificial people who, at times, seemed more lifelike than her own family.

Unless they're turned off, she noted.

The 20-something in question, Missy, had been experiencing sporadic eye twitches and loss of coordination for a few days, and had been scheduled for a maintenance session.....the rest of the details were too mundane to remember, but Ellen had “technically” volunteered to supervise it---at 3:00 PM the previous day. Now, it was 3:42 AM, none of the specialists or technicians were on-site, and once again, Ellen found herself wishing she was anywhere but there.

“Welcome to another exciting Monday night at Dynadrive,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Yay, me....”

Her attention turned to the stack of magazines left in the repair room by the techies---unlike the typical waiting room fare, the Dynadrive crowd preferred literature relating to their hobbies and/or specialities. In this case, four years' worth of Computer Gaming World issues had been brought in by the latest rotating shift; so far, out of those 48 issues, Ellen had read 15...….yet the creeping tendrils of boredom made it hard to enjoy them.

“You're lucky,” she called out to Missy's unmoving form. “You don't have to wonder when you're going to get back home, or how the kids are doing....I'm sort of jealous, actually.” She shook her head again; she had nothing against Missy, or any of the android/gynoid employees, but she envied them sometimes---all of them had on-site dormitories and other facilities that had, at one point, been intended for a fully-human workforce to use. “You don't get bored, either,” she added. “You are just so lucky sometimes....”

Across the hall, a phone rang.

Ellen frowned. “If that's Kip telling me I have to stay tonight....” She'd already had two or three power naps so far, and if the voice on the phone was, in fact, Kip telling her she'd be working overtime... “Might as well get the stupid call over with.” She folded the page of CGW Issue 129 that she'd been reading and headed for the door. “Don't go anywhere,” she deadpanned, glancing at Missy.

The gynoid, predictably, just sat there smiling at the wall.

As soon as she set foot in the room containing the phone, Ellen felt like throwing something---contrary to her thought (and, admittedly, her hope) that the phone was the in-building landline network established to maintain contact with other factories, the source of the ringing was an iPhone left by an employee. Visions of annoyed girlfriends/spouses on the other end of the line gave her enough pause to consider not even answering the thing....

….but there was still the matter of her being so bored that there was almost literally nothing else to do around the entire factory that wouldn't be a colossal drain on resources.

A slow, steady breath escaped Ellen's lips as she stood there, massaging her temple. Might as well answer it, she reasoned. It's not like anyone else is going to do anything about it right now.... She crossed the room to the desk where the iPhone sat, ringing, and picked it up. “Dynadrive Industries, how may I help you?”

“Check your security systems.”

Something in those four words prompted a frown from Ellen. “Is....is this some sort of a joke? Who is this---”

“As weird as this sounds, ma'am, I have a perfectly good reason for saying this: just check your security systems. Especially the cameras.” The voice on the other end was calm, and sounded like a 20-something college girl. “I know it's....a weird request---”

“Did Kip set this up? Is this one of his stupid pranks or---”

“I have no idea who Kip is. I just know that something may be happening in your factory.”

That remark was crossing the line. “Was that a threat?”

“No---though I blame myself for wording it that way....look, someone's life may be at stake---and that's not a threat against you....” The voice on the other end sighed. “It's been a very weird morning for me, okay? Just please check the camera networks in your building.”

Ellen's scowl dissipated. “....you're not being held at gunpoint or anything, are you?”

“Under any other circumstances, I'd laugh that question off...and for the record, I'm not being held hostage or anything. Someone else might be, though---and I know this is going to sound stupid, but I think someone might've been brought to your facility against their will and left there as a prisoner.”

“You're right,” Ellen muttered, “that does sound stupid---”

“Except I happen to know this person's name, and why he might be in trouble.”

Even as she stared at the phone, wondering why in the hell she hadn't just hung up already and left the mystery caller in the dark, Ellen went over the facts. The caller didn't sound like they were panicking, or drunk, or stoned....more importantly, there weren't any idiots trying not to laugh in the background (so many crank calls to Dynadrive had been unmasked due to the perpetrators' friends not having the patience to just sit there quietly and shut the hell up).

There was also the small matter of Kip whining about the cameras before he left...

“Suppose I believe you,” Ellen mused. “Suppose there is some guy tied up or something...why should I---”

“Does the name Everett Greendale mean anything to you?”

Whatever reply Ellen planned on using died on her tongue. Everett Greendale had been one of the founders of Dynadrive; rumors of his death a few years prior had shook the company to its core....

….until he was spotted leaving the facility one day after a lengthy meeting with Dynadrive's board of directors.

“So you've heard of him, then.” There was a note of finality in those words, almost as if the caller had expected Ellen to know who Greendale was. “Any chance you could check the cameras to make sure---”

“Just....give me a minute.” With a quick few steps over to the aging Gateway PC nearby, Ellen sat down and entered her password---silently thanking whoever it was who'd suggested networking every PC in the building to the security systems. “West wing, clear....south wing, clear......north wing, all clean....east wing---”

She stopped.

“What about the east wing?”

“The east wing cameras are all dead,” Ellen breathed. “Every damn one of them....” Her fingers flew over the keyboard as she trying to reactivate the cameras; “They were working earlier,” she muttered, more to herself than to the mysterious caller on the other end of the line. “The stupid cameras were all working earlier today...if this is Kip's idea of a joke...”

A few quick keystrokes later, the cameras slowly flickered to life....and Ellen wished they hadn't.

It was hard to tell what was worse---the fact that the figure sitting in the chair had a black eye, multiple cuts (including one with three bandages of some kind) and the general look of a man who'd been broken, or the fact that the figure was obviously restrained via chains and shackles. The display model androids and gynoids posed in their display cases around him remained untouched, many of them showcasing expressions of calm or happiness as opposed to the chained man's expression---afraid, yet still ready to rise against those who had chained him.

“Well? Can you see anything---”

“It's Greendale. He's....he's in a chair....chained, for some reason...it looks like somebody beat him up.”

A sigh issued through the phone's speaker. “Figured that....just keep an eye on him and make sure he's in good shape; I'm on my way---”

“What do you mean, you're on your way?! How the hell do you even---”

“Miss, someone's trying to use Everett Greendale as a pawn in a massive, far-reaching conspiracy that may end up having a trickle-down effect on your own life in the end, so please try not to freak out too much about all of this and just trust me when I say that I'm on my way to help....by the way, in the event that this gets too stupid for either of us to handle, I'd appreciate it if you told me your name so I have someone to call when I get to the factory...”

“Mather. Ellen Mather.”

“Thanks for the info, Ellen Mather. A friend and I will be there shortly to retrieve Greendale...and get him to a hospital, hopefully. If all this goes well, my friend and I should be out of your hair in less than an hour, and Greendale will be safe.”

“And if it doesn't go well.....”

“Let's not think along those lines if we don't have to. Oh, and in case you're wondering who I am....”

“I was going to ask that.”

“The name's Lawson. Vicki Lawson.”


“It seems rather...convenient that the first number you called was the one that held Greendale.” The voice that spoke these words had become a familiar one over the past few hours---the electronically-tinged synthetic tones were those of R-528, colloquially dubbed Mr. Roboto. “You do realize that this could be a potential trap---”

“I know it could be a trap, Roboto,” Vicki Lawson replied, “but sometimes you just have to take that risk. The van could've been rigged to blow as soon as I turned the ignition.....”

Something that sounded remarkably similar to a shotgun blast issued forth from the exhaust pipe.

“....and I have a feeling it'll go up in flames anyway,” the brunette gynoid finished, “as soon as we put it in park. See, this is why I wanted Anton to loan us the Versa....” She glanced at R-528, silently hoping he wouldn't bring up the fact that her own actions---namely, uppercutting the fender of the van---had led to its current status as a barely-driveable vehicle. “For the record,” she added, “I'm kinda sorta hoping you and Greendale don't have any....issues left over from when you were human....”

R-528's stare never left the road. “If there was any unfinished business between us, I wouldn't remember it anyway....and I doubt he would recognize me now.”

“But you're his son! And I'm not saying you 'were' his son---you still are!” Something about the emotion in her words surprised even Vicki herself; this whole thing is getting to me more than I thought it would... “Look,” she continued, “this might not be any of my business, but...even if he doesn't recognize you, maybe you should tell him....”

“And what if he no longer accepts me as his son?” R-528 asked, his synthesized voice a bit too quiet.

“I....well.....okay, maybe I didn't think that far ahead, but----”

“If Everett Greendale believes his son died the night I was brought into this world, then I have no reason to contradict him,” R-528 stated. “If, on the other hand, he chooses to recognize me as his son and accept me as such, then so be it. My own desire for anything resembling a normal life doesn't mean I should create conflict where none exists...”

The next few minutes of the ride went by in silence.

Finally, after passing a billboard for the latest Starlet Dolls album, Vicki decided to restart the conversation; I just hope I can get through more than two sentences without sounding like an insensitive jerk, she mused. Or, Jobs forbid, like Bonnie Brindle---before she grew a conscience, of course.... “So, ah, Roboto...”

“No, I don't remember the names of the two people from that last video file you observed.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow. “How do you even know---”

“Even as I sat there,” R-528 informed her, “I could see them....almost as one sees picture-in-picture on the screen of a television. I saw....and heard....”

It took less than a second for the horrifying implications to sink in. “You saw them....your own memories?!”

“Saw, heard, and began to gain a sense of clarity. It felt....different, from the attacks; I saw and heard what happened that night, but could also see what was happening in the present. It was as if each eye and ear was a window to a different time---one eye and ear saw and heard the present, the others saw and heard the past. My past.....a past I thought I had lost forever. It felt....strange....but I was still in control of my mind, my thoughts...my emotions....”

“And you were just seeing these memories,” Vicki inquired, “not reliving them?”

The metal-skinned android nodded. “Whatever your friend, the Professor, did.....it kept me grounded in reality.”

“Which is good,” the brunette gynoid quickly reminded him. “From what he said about that missing component from the process that made you....well, you, though, I don't know if Anton's little trick with the PowerBook will be enough to keep you from having any further 'attacks' of that kind. Hence, our road trip to a Dynadrive factory I've never been to---or even heard of---before today.” Even as she carried on the conversation, her ocular sensors remained locked on the road ahead. “I just hope this isn't another Silicon Dynamics situation in the making...”

From the tone of R-528's reply, Vicki could tell he'd be arching an eyebrow if he had the ability. “What, exactly, is a 'Silicon Dynamics' situation?”

“A situation where I go in under the pretense of just making sure everything still works the way it should, and end up saving an entire facility from a psychotic hacker and a serial killer who doesn't know when the hell to stay down.” Quick flashes of her mission at the SD factory were called up in her vision, playing out like GIFs filmed in the first-person viewpoint. “Let's just say I don't want to relive it any time soon.”

R-528 started to say something, only to be interrupted by “Stayin' Alive”---the ringtone from the cellphone Vicki had found in the glove compartment of the van. “It's the Dynadrive plant,” she mused. “Guess Ellen found something....” She keyed on the phone. “Hello?”

“Someone else is in the factory!”

A whirlwind of scenarios played out in the gynoid's thoughts, most of them involving some unseen (and more than likely malevolent) figure stalking through the corridors of the Dynadrive facility. “Apart from yourself and Greendale, you mean? Your factory does make---”

“It's not any of the robots---androids, I mean, it's not any of them. Someone's on the other side of the factory, near the east wing.....they tripped an alarm two minutes ago!”

Vicki resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and visualize herself somewhere else; the last thing I need right now is to put this thing in a ditch, she reasoned. “Just so we're clear, my friend and I are still on the road,” she informed Ellen. “Whoever this newcomer is, they're not with me.” At least, I hope not, she mentally added; Anton had taken the Versa to visit the two ALPA plants (which, luckily for him, were in relatively close proximity to each other) personally. “I'm about three minutes away, so if anything else happens between now and then---”

“I'm not going to go hide in the nearest corner, if that's what you're suggesting.”

“Nothing of the sort. Whatever security systems are online, keep them online. If any are offline, try to get them back online...unless it means putting yourself in the path of the intruder.” For a split second, Vicki had a horrible thought that the “intruder” was Faceless himself...

...except he's still chained to a hospital bed in a high-security Intensive Care ward, thanks to me...

She managed to tear herself away from the morbid chain of thought just in time to hear Ellen say something about locking down the entire faciltiy. “...and if they keep bypassing the security systems, the whole factory will go into full security alert and seal itself---I won't be able to turn it off!”

“I'll try to make it there before it gets that bad, ma'am,” Vicki replied. “Just stay calm...I'll be there in a minute.”

Well, I'll be there in two minutes and twenty five seconds, specifically, she mentally corrected as she turned off the phone, assuming I don't hit an inexplicable traffic jam out of nowhere...

She noticed R-528 staring at her as she put the phone down. “What?”

The android nodded out the window towards a billboard---which Vicki could just barely read, given the rather impressive speed of the van---meant to deter drivers from using cellphones while driving. “Apparently, use of a cellular phone can increase risk of fatalities---”

“Yeah, when there's other cars on the road!” The brunette gynoid groaned. “No offense to the human race as a whole, but apart from a very select few, almost nobody has the spatial awareness and percpetion needed for something like carrying on a full conversation while driving....and, like I just said, it would've been worse if there was anyone else out here. It's almost 4 in the morning, everyone else is either in bed or just leaving the red-eye shift wherever they work...”

“Understandable. Still---”

“Will you relax?! I'm not going to roll the car or anything!” Even as she felt like laughing off R-528's claims, Vicki remembered a few instances in her own life when Ted, Joan and even Jamie had been involved in traffic accidents. “Just let me worry about the driving, okay? We're nearly to the Dynadrive facility.....”

Even as she tried not to let R-528's comments about her driving distract her too much, Vicki knew it was no use. At that moment, she wasn't even paying attention to her own driving---she was still thinking about the horror that was R-528's early existance. Did Greendale even know until it was too late? Did they even try to tell him until after the fact, or was it something they tried to hide from him? The revelation of the android's origin, by way of his own digitized memory, was---for lack of a better word---haunting; especially that last, final whisper from a woman who'd tried to save R-528....

“.....don't let him die....please.....”

Almost without thinking, Vicki spoke: “Do you remember anything about....your mother?”

She saying the words almost as soon as she spoke them, mainly due to the fact that she expected R-528 to lash out, or to have another attack similar to what had happened at the Foundry. To her surprise, the android's reply was quiet: “I only remember a kind face, a soothing voice and a gentle hand to help me when I fell, and even those memories are....sketchy, as one might say. Mere images....nothing concrete.”

“Would she have been the one who tried to help you after....February 23rd?”

There was something in R-528's voice that sounded....lost, almost. “I don't know.”

“So there's one more lead blown....” Vicki sighed as she spotted the fence that surrounded the main parking lot of the Dynadrive factory. “Just let me handle everything when we get inside...if Greendale really doesn't recognize you, we'll have a better chance of getting him out of here if I'm the one who talks to him...” Her thoughts turned back to Anton's reason for going his own way: stalling for time against Hewlett and Packard while Greendale and R-528 were brought back to HQ.

Optimistically, it would all work out fabulously....

….but realistically, it was shaping up to be an absolute nightmare.

“It'll all be fine,” Vicki heard herself mutter. “Everything's going to be fine....”

R-528 glanced at her. “I never expressed any belief that things would not be 'fine'....and you appear to have an ocular fluid leak.” A quick glance in the rear-view mirror told the truth: Vicki saw a lone tear streaking down her face.

“It's...it's nothing,” she assured the metal-skinned android.

Yeah, it's nothing...so why do I feel like we're walking right into the fire?


As he sat behind the wheel of the Nissan Versa, which at that moment was idling in the parking lot of the only San Jose-based Aphrodite Technologies factory in the area, Anton Malvineous was more than a bit nervous.

Not for the first time, of course.....

On the one hand, he was risking his job---and, by proxy, that of Vicki Lawson---by helping the brunette gynoid shelter the android known as R-528....aka the robot repsonsible for the Bloody Valentine incident. ALPA policy had been to DeComm the android on sight if at all possible---a task hampered only by lack of visual evidence that R-528 hadn't already been lost to the ravages of time.

On the other hand....he was risking his life---and that of his mentor, Dr. Everett Greendale---with the stunt he was planning on pulling. The two “professionals” who'd appropriated (and, by Anton's reckoning, abused) the names of “Mr. Hewlett” and “Mr. Packard” were demanding the handover of R-528 in exchange for the safe return of Greendale. Obviously, giving R-528 to them was out of the question...but with Greendale being held prisoner and the deadline a few hours away, nobody was in any position to take chances of this magnitude.

Then again, Anton Malvineous had once made a career out of taking chances....

His plan---if it could even be called that---was simple. Hewlett and Packard were on their way (according to a phone call Anton had received a few minutes prior to his arrival at the factory), and would be expecting a quick, simple handover of R-528. Seeing as how the metal-skinned anrdoid was currently with Vicki, that plan was obviously never going to work for any parties involved; thus, Anton had managed to come up with something that would---hopefully---buy Vicki and R-528 at least twenty to thirty minutes before Hewlett and Packard chose to pursue them. It was almost stupidly simple: all Anton had to do was just keep talking for thirty or so minutes, laying one verbal trap after another.

Up to that point, the plan seemed perfectly plausible...

...but depending on what exactly was said and offered, it would either succeed..or fall apart completely.

“You've dealt with worse than this,” the roboticist reminded himself. “You've dealt with a lot worse...” A brief, painful memory of the DVS' response to his refusal of their offer surfaced, only to be drowned out again as Anton forced himself to focus on the task at hand. R-528 (or Mr. Roboto, as Vicki had dubbed the android) hadn't just been a robot; the fact that Hewlett and Packard had been sent after R-528 proved, more than anything, that someone else knew this as well, and was prepared to go to any lengths to stifle that knowledge, even if it included kidnapping someone.....or worse....

“They won't,” Anton assured himself. “They can't go that far...”

Depending on who “they” are, he chided as soon as the words had left his mouth, “they” may very well be willing to go that far...and farther, if you push them. Again, the memory of the DVS' last warning to him rang like a death knell through his thoughts. He forced it aside once again, hoping---if not praying, that this time would be different.

After all, there's not much more they can take from me.....other than---

The blare of a car horn cut into his thoughts, forcing him back into reality. A black sedan, its bodywork and make hard to discen, edged into the Aphrodite Technologies parking lot. And there are the men who may very well kill me before the night ends. None of his contingency plans were centered around Hewlett and Packard being anything but coldly efficient---the only weapon in the Versa was the gun stashed in the glovebox, and even that would only buy him a minute or two if push came to shove.

In short, there were about fifty ways his plan could fail, and far fewer ways it could work.

So much for the right thing and the easy thing being one and the same, then....

One of the sedan's doors opened as its driver stepped out. Anton forced himself not to look at the rear view mirror---or the glovebox, for that matter---as the dark-suited figure approached; if things got out of hand here, there'd be no turning back. The footsteps got closer. Any second, there would be a tap on the window.....

Instead, there was a screech of tires and the blinding glare of headlights as another car pulled up.

What?! Who....how----

“Prrofessor Malvineous,” the calm, cool voice of the man known only as the Accountant called out, “step out of the vehicle and walk towards me. Leave whatever you've brought with you in the car---”

A shot tore through the night---probably through his shoulder, too, Anton realized, scrambling to get out of the Versa. The door had barely closed behind him when another gunshot hit the Versa's driver's side door---had he been a few seconds slower in exiting the vehicle, that bullet would've torn through his leg. Someone from the second car began shooting at the black sedan as the roboticist ducked behind the vehicle---where he was surprised to find the Accountant waiting. “So this is what you people do when the nights get boring,” the nattily dressed operative deadpanned.

“This is ALPA business,” Anton spat---or tried to spit; the fact that he was being shot at made it hard for him to focus his anger on any one target, and the best he could muster was a half-offended growl. “I was doing fine until---”

“You weren't 'doing fine' by any stretch of the word. That sedan over there is a DVS vehicle---unless I'm sorely mistaken, the DVS and the ALPA haven't exactly been on the best of terms....unless President DuBraul has decided that he needs to get in bed with the DVS for the betterment of all---” His remark died out with an annoyed hiss; someone from the sedan had decided to bring a rifle into play. “This wouldn't happen to be related to that little explosion at the Foundry, would it?” he drawled.

Anton squeezed his eyes shut. “You know it wasn't a 'little explosion'...”

“And you know that dealing with the DVS is a mistake.”

“I didn't even know they were with the DVS!” Anton insisted. “They took Greendale...”

The Accountant chuckled darkly. “Seems that the late Everett Greendale has been pretty busy...which I find especially odd considering I was a pallbearer at his funeral.” Without flinching (even as one of the windows of his vehicle shattered above him), he retrieved a pistol from its shoulder holster beneath his jacket. “We'll discuss the peculiarities of this chance encounter after the shooting stops. In the mean time....try not to get in the way.”

“Sure,” Anton muttered, “I'll stay out of the way while you people go through your 'official channels' and end up botching everything...this is my personal business! Why the HELL are you even out here?!”

“Your hostility is misplaced, Professor. The Coalition---”

“The Coalition has no damn business getting involved in this. Greendale was my mentor, and this whole thing is my responsibility.” Anton would've glared at the Accountant by that point, had it not been for another volley of shots flying overhead. “You want me to stay out of your way, yet you've bungled this by getting in my way...and you still haven't told me why you're even out here!”

After taking a quick look around the side of the car to check the positions of the shooters, the Accountant glanced back at the roboticist. “Someone's broken into the Dynadrive facility a few miles away from here, and a van matching one driven by our friends over there was spotted by the parking lot cameras just a few minutes ago. To be honest, I was wondering if you knew more about it than you've been letting on...” His sentence ended in a hiss as five more shots hit the other side of the car.

“I...think one of my colleagues might be out that way,” Anton began, “but---”

“You don't need to lie for Miss Lawson's sake,” the Accountant coolly remarked. “If she's responding to the break-in, she won't be punished...even though Dynadrive is a Coalition company---one that tends to deal with problems in-house, might I add.”

No use lying now.... “She's investigating the break-in, yes. But---”

“And I'm guessing that 'investigation' has nothing to do with Everett Greendale's current predicament?”

By now, Anton was beginning to wish he'd grabbed the gun from the Versa---and not just to protect himself against the two who were taking potshots at the Coalition operative's car. “Look,” he muttered, “I drove out here to see if the two idiots who're shooting at us were willing to negotiate for Greendale's release. Maybe that's naïve of me, but I had to see if I could help him out of this...I never wanted to get shot at, I never wanted to have to put up with this barrage of questions, and I definitely didn't want to see that my mentor---a man I would trust with my life---in mortal danger....”

He felt something nudge his hand---the Accountant had unholstered one of his pistols, and was offering it---grip first---to the roboticist. “I want it back when you're done with it,” the nattily-attired operative reminded him. “It's somewhat of a collector's item.”

Anton nodded, checked the clip, and prepared to return fire against the idiots who'd opened fire on him...

….but a sudden lack of anyone firing kept him from taking that course of action.

“Don't move,” the Accountant warned. “They're probably baiting us....” With a quick gesture to the two nearest Coalition operatives, he gave orders to advance on the sedan and prepare to open fire.

The only problem: the driver of the sedan had no intention of letting anyone advance.

“It's moving---the car's moving!” The Coalition agents backpedalded, opening fire on the vehicle---only to be blinded by the headlights blazing to life mere seconds before the sedan charged forward, plowing into both men and heading towards the Accountant's vehicle. Anton barely had time to dive out of the way before the car he'd been leaning on shuddered forward, then turned aside as the black sedan sped on.

For a fleeting second, the roboticist looked up, saw the eyes of the driver....

….and knew that something had gone terribly wrong.

“Well, Professor Malvineous,” the Accountant declared, “this matter is officially Coalition business now. Two of my agents have been wounded, we've got one of the sedan's passengers in custody---”

“It wasn't them.”

Before the Accounant could ask him to repeat himself, Anton sank to his knees. “It wasn't Hewlett or Packard behind the wheel,” he groaned. “Someone else knows about this---about Greendale, about the Foundry, about all of this....” He glanced back over his shoulder, fixing the Accountant with a baleful stare. “This was never meant to be a negotiation.....they were setting me up. They knew....”

“Whoever 'they' are,” the Accountant replied, “they won't be a problem for much longer.” He pulled an earpiece from his coat pocket, keying it on; “Tank,” he intoned, “there's a black sedan with your name on it. Pursue, engage and incapacitate—-and we need the driver alive. Shoot the tires if you have to, but don't do anything to cause a rollover or a fatality.” He paused for a moment.....

“....also,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “this op is off the books. Officially, it never happened.”


“Not a problem. That sedan is as good as ditched already.”

With a wry grin, Stacy Tanque blinked---allowing her internal OS to terminate the call. “Looks like a fun night out after all...”

The last few months had been utter hell for her...but not in the way most people would think. Her cushy gig with Ezekiel Comstock was still on the table, even after she'd been abducted from that job by Matthew Hannsen (aka the Maestro), but her presence in the ALPA/Coalition joint-op to Malaysia had ended...badly, at least for the ALPA. A close friend of their best operative, Vicki Lawson, wound up with a bullet in her brain---a bullet fired from a revolver held by Hannsen, of all people. When Stacy returned to the country to file a few customary reports and get some paperwork sorted, the authorities---who'd once been, at the very least, tolerant of her presence---told her point blank to get back on the plane and go home.

Her ignorance of that “polite request” led to a rather harrowing confrontation at her rented condo in the middle of the night, with her on one side of the fight and a squad of shotgun-weilding security officers on the other. It was a completely one-sided affair, in the end....

….namely because the shotgun guys couldn't see in the dark or bend gun barrels with their bare hands.

What happened in the weeks after that still remained a blur. ALPA HQ had been invaded by remote-controlled fembots, and one of them had turned out to be more than her looks suggested. Even with their best efforts, the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency hadn't managed to quash the rumors that someone had broken into a high-security vault within their building and stolen several...compromising items, to say the least.

Not that it had any bearing on the night's work, of course....

Stacy never failed to find it odd that her employers---who'd once hired her to spy on a potential ALPA asset and even take her down if the need arose---were effectively in bed with the ALPA. At least I know when and why it happened, she reminded herself; the month of July had seen the Agency and the Coalition join forces after both had lost agents and assets to a psychopath who'd forsaken his own name and severed any last, lingering ties with the Coalition (if he'd ever had any to begin with) by killing an undercover agent in cold blood....

The green-haired gynoid shook her head. She could lose track of her op if she didn't focus on the present, rather than the past....wouldn't be the first time, though.

With a sigh, Stacy gunned the engine of her customized “crotch rocket”---a limited-edition Daikoku Minerva 950X (a relic from the days before the zaibatsu had axed its automotive division entirely)---and headed off in the last known direction of her new target. Within her field of vision, a set of graphs, numbers and readouts sprang to life as the Minerva gained speed; one minatureized window (her own “picture-in-picture”) allowed her to track the heat signature of the car, gained after a Coalition agent had tagged the vehicle before its flight from the scene. Other, smaller windows gave wind speed readings, feul consumption estimates for the Minerva and even a decibel counter (the bike's sole drawback---unless “stealth mode” was engaged, top speed would sound like rejected engine folly noises from Top Gun); a digital compass near the top of her line of sight gave a precise bearing on her direction...and, in a few seconds, the direction of her target.

As luck would have it, said target was apparently coming her way.

A separate readout in her line of sight “irised in”; the custom-mounted side-holder on the side of the Minerva was ready to “launch” the sidearm she'd been given for the month. “I love it when they make it easy,” she purred, her lips peeling back in a brief, seductive smile. She didn't mind the order to spare the driver---in all actuality, she preferred it. Unlike many other “combat 'bots”, Stacy enjoyed using her considerable looks (her overall body tone was rather athletic, even for her admittedly “above-average” height) and other skills to win the day, rather than her built-in library of CQC techniques and firearms knowledge.

That, and the Coalition often preferred their targets in one piece rather than “Swiss cheesed”.

Due to the fact that the target vehicle was coming towards her (at speeds currently exceeding 75 MPH), Stacy knew that a head-on assault would be nothing short of suicidal. Even a gynoid could get shredded to bits in a car accident---Stacy had seen such incidents first-hand, back before the “sleep” that had put her under for almost a whole decade.

Even as the Minerva sped forward, the vertette gynoid's eyelids fluttered rapidly---not out of tiredness or a low charge of her internal power cells, but as a reflex, due to a new upload of data being sent from her employers.

WARNING: Target may be armed with unknown ordnance. Engage with EXTREME CAUTION. Preparing to match velocity with oncoming vehicle...

Another smirk crossed Stacy's face. Given the lack of traffic on this particular stretch of road at this time of day, the “oncoming vehicle” probably wasn't going to be an eighteen-wheeler or a funeral procession...which made sense, given that most funeral processions aren't going 100 MPH on the wrong side of the road. The car would be in view within a few seconds---which gave Stacy just enough time to swerve out of the way or empty her sidearm into the tires. Time to see if the upgrade package for this thing paid off....

WARNING: Collision Imminent. You have TEN seconds to change course.

The warning from her internal HUD barely registered. “I don't intend to collide with anything imminent,” she laughed.

You have FIVE seconds to---

“And mute.” Stacy grinned again as the collision warning vanished---revealing the oncoming black sedan less than ten feet away and closing. Had she been human, that sight would more than likely have been the last to register in her mind before the car slammed into her.

The joys of being a gynoid....

One of the more popular jokes within the Coalition (and probably the ALPA) was that the vast majority of the population not “in the know” about gynoids and androids held the firm belief that, due to their inherent nature as machines governed by computers, robots would be subject to the same flaws as any other computer---the joke, of course, being that the brain of an android or gynoid had very little in common with “any other computer” in terms of processing power and function. It had taken all of a decade for those first roboticists (back in the “pre-Franklin” days) to realize that trying to teach basic functions---walking, talking, holding objects without crushing them---to a robot was fruitless, and that simply writing one sequence of code that held all the “basics” (with room for amendment and upgrades) would be far simpler. Thus, while the rest of the world marvelled at the Actroid, the HRP-4C and other glorified animatronics as “real androids”...

Stacy shook herself out of the reverie, realizing she'd have only two seconds to rectify her mistake.

Fortunately for her, the unseen driver of the black sedan did more than enough to make up for it.

Even as the vertette gynoid swerved the Minerva hard to the right, the car skidded to a halt and tried to turn right as well--which nearly caused it to sideswipe Stacy off the road. As the gynoid's luck would have it, though, the vehicle's driver managed to screw up the turn, following up with an overcompensated left turn that sent the car into a roll---effectively doing Stacy's job for her.

Of course, there was the small matter of making sure the driver was alive.....

“Nobody said this job was fun all the time,” Stacy reminded herself, rolling her eyes even as she guided the Minerva to a halt. “Might as well get the boring stuff over with...”

Even as her hips swayed with every step (if it helps the driver focus on not dying, she reasoned, every little bit helps), Stacy didn't hesitate to scan the upside-down sedan for any fluid leakages or damaged electrical parts that might turn the entire vehicle into a flaming wreck. Surprisingly, the only fuel leaking from the thing was hydrogen....

“It's a hybrid?!” The green-haired gynoid knealt down to get a closer look.....only to recoil in horror.

“No....this shouldn't be here.....but if it's that car.....” The swagger was gone from her step as she made her way to the driver's side window, almost praying to find some random mook....

…only to have her prayers go unanswered.

Scanning subject...... Scan complete: Charlotte Brigitta Harrington Injuries: One (1) Broken Femur One (1) Laceration to Left Side SEVERE One (1) Laceration to Left Cheek Mild Two (2) Dislocated Shoulders Current Status: Unconscious

Slowly, a horrible realization formed within Stacy's processors. Someone had effectively stolen Charlotte Harrington's car---with her still in it, repainted it and, by as yet unknown means, forced Charlotte to drive a gunman around. Carefully, so as to avoid upsetting the car enough to cause it to collapse, Stacy pulled the door off and began to extricate Charlotte from her seat, only to notice a bizarre framework hidden beneath her clothing. “What the hell....” The gynoid tore off Charlotte's shirt to find her almost completely enclosed in a full-body brace of some kind...with electrodes attached to several pressure points. A boxy construct situated on the spine of the brace bore a receiver, not unlike one used to operate a remote-controlled plane or car...

….or a remote-controlled Charlotte....

“Tank, report---is the vehicle neutralized?”

The Accountant's voice in her ear reminded Stacy how much she hated having her comm systems accessed by outside forces, but even that wasn't enough to keep her voice from shaking the slightest bit. “It's out...but you're going to want to get a look at this.” She turned and looked down at the unmoving form of Charlotte Harrington on the ground; “There was....some sort of brace on her,” she added, “under her clothes---it was rigged up with electrodes---”

“That's impossible. Miss Harrington is at home with the Chairman---”

“You're sure it's not one of her dolls?!” Stacy snapped. “You know she loves fooling Stinger with those things whenever she gets the chance...I ran all the scans. It's her.” She ran a hand through her hair, biting her lip as she did; whatever the hell was going on, she wanted nothing more to do with it.

“Tank, return to HQ and await further orders. The Chairman will be notified---”

A short, wordless howl escaped Stacy's lips.

The barest hint of concern permeated the Accountant's next few words: “....Tank, are you okay? Do you need to run a self-diagnostic, or---”

“I'm going home. Not to HQ, not anywhere else. If you want to dock it from my pay, then do it---I can't put up with this crap every night.” With that, the green-haired gynoid blinked (severing her connection to the Accountant's earpiece), and moved Charlotte further away from the sedan. “Seeing as how I don't know jack scrap about fixing humans,” she muttered, “you'll have to wait for the medics to show up....”


“Well?” Anton asked, as the Accountant keyed off his earpiece. “Did she say---”

“Stacy Tanque has decided to disobey further orders from myself and all other Coalition personnel for the rest of the night, Professor. Apparently, the stress of the evening's events has proven too much for her.” With a short, annoyed snort directed at nobody in particular, the Accountant glanced in the direction of the gunman who'd wounded two Coalition agents a few minutes prior. “As it stands, we have other matters to attend to at the moment---”

“But the driver of the car,” Anton insisted. “Did she confirm who the driver was?”

The Accountant didn't bother looking him in the eye. “It was Charlotte. The real Charlotte.”

Anton squeezed his eyes shut.

“The Chairman is being informed as we speak,” the Accountant continued. “Apparently, Charlotte left one of her gynoid decoys at home in her place and headed out for a 'night of unbridled passion with whoever wanted some'---she left a recorded message via the gynoid. From what we can understand, her car was stopped at a fake police roadblock five miles away from her destination, where she was more than likely detained and...I guess we could say conscripted into whatever the hell this has become.”

His gaze turned towards the downed gunner. “Might as well see who the other passenger was....”

A pair of Coalition agents flanked the Accountant as he strode towards the immobile figure. “Neither of you shot to kill?” he asked the agent on his right. “Orders were to take the attackers alive...”

“We were waiting for the kill order, sir,” the agent---a clean-shaven black man with a sprinter's build and a set to his jaw that almost screamed “6-year Army veteran”---replied. “From what we can tell, the assailant just sort of...stopped.” The trio reached the downed gunner, whose entire figure was hidden by motorcycle leathers and a black helmet with a frosted visor. “Unless one of ours shot without waiting for the command---”

“Which they didn't,” the other agent---a shorter, black-haired woman whose face (described by even her own colleagues as “classicaly beautiful”) and body language hid a cold, uncompromising sense of duty---cut in. “If anyone from our fire-team did this---”

“Their balls will be in the vise soon enough, Sands,” the Accountant drawled. “For now, let's take a look at our would-be shooter....get the leathers off of this prick. The helmet, too.” He snorted contemptuously as he stared down at the fallen figure. “And find the gun they were carrying,” he added. “Look for any shell casings, discarded phones....anything this idiot dropped before he, she or it 'just stopped moving'.” He glanced at the agent to his right. “You're sure nobody fired, Williams?”

“The only shots I heard were from a rifle,” Agent Williams replied. “None of ours were---”

A gasp from Agent Sands cut his sentence off; both Williams and the Accountant looked back at the leather-clad figure....to see a slim, female form clad in a white tank top beneath the newly-unzipped leathers. “Body temperature?” the Accountant inquired.

“None,” Sands replied. “No breath, no heartbeat...no sign of rigor, either. She's steel.”

“Hacked, more than likely,” the Accountant began, only to hear Anton running up to meet him. “Sorry,” he huffed, “but did you say the shooter was a gynoid?” Without waiting for the Accountant, Agent Sands or Agent Williams to reply, he knealt by the leather-clad figure; “No bullet holes,” he mused. “No sign of internal damage forcing a shutdown....” He glanced at Agent Sands. “Could you get that helmet off of her, if you don't mind? I need to check something.”

She glanced at the Accountant, who nodded in her direction. “Make it quick,” he added, not looking at Anton.

“That won't be a problem, I assure you...” The roboticist retrieved a leather pouch from one of his pants pockets, opening it with one hand as Agent Sands removed the downed gynoid's helmet. “Before I start, are either of you, ah....what's the word I'm looking for....”

Agent Williams sighed. “You want me to give you my birth certificate, or do I need to pee in a cup?”

“I don't think that'll be necessary,” Anton replied without looking up. “And you, Miss.....”

“Who I am and what I am is no concern of yours,” Sands muttered. “Just do your job--”

“I was only asking because what I have to do next may be...a bit much for any, ah, artificial operatives,” the professor admitted. “I don't exactly enjoy making people uncomfortable.” He turned his attention to the now helmetless gynoid; her face could best be described as “generic Caucasian” with cheekbone alterations and a slightly smaller nose than one would expect. “Not exactly a mix-and-match case,” he murmured, “but someone had a bit of a soft spot for the Hepburns when they drafted this face...the nose is a bit too Jessica Alba---”

The Accountant's loud throat-clearing ended all monologuing about celebrity resemblances.

“Right....Miss, if you'd help me turn her over....” Anton gestured to Agent Sands, who rolled the gynoid over on her stomach. “....and now if you'd be so kind as to fully remove the jacket from her....” Sands frowned, but did as she'd been instructed. “Do you need me to take her shoes off, too?”

“Not unless she's been hacked by someone with considerable experience in sabotaging Hatochi gynoids,” Anton replied. “They never did learn to move the charging mechanisms out of the heels of the feet...okay, you might want to stand back---she may have been rigged to store excess internal heat and discharge it at the nearest target if her exoskin is breached.” With one hand on the gynoid's shoulder, he removed a smallish scalpel from the pouch and touched it to her back---


and instantly regretted it.

The moment the blade touched the gynoid's back, a shrill, screeching sound split the air---and nearly rendered Anton and the Coalition agents deaf in seconds. “WHAT DID YOU DO?!” the Accountant shouted.

“It's a common security measure in some gynoids,” Anton calmly replied. “Unauthorized attempts to modify the internals will trigger an auditory deterrent system---I've seen it on Falchion Robotics units a few times before now, as well as a few of the old Thales domestics. There's usually a killswitch....” He stuck his pinkies in the gynoid's ears, moving them around for a few seconds. “Damn,” he muttered, “it's usually in the ears...ah, Miss? D'you remember that thing I said about having to take off her shoes?”

Sands stared at him as if he'd lost his mind.

“If she's made by who I think she's been made by,” the roboticist continued, “it's the only way to shut off this blasted scream!”

With a scowl, Sands grabbed the gynoid's shoes and yanked them off. “NOW WHAT?!”

“You don't need to yell,” Anton reminded her, “I'm right here. Now, then...as strange as this may sound, you're going to have to, ah, press down on the nail of her right big toe---it should deactivate the auditory deterrent.”

Again, Sands gave him a look as if he'd gone insane, but if it'd shut off that blasted screaming.....

Quickly, without even looking at Anton, Agent Sands pressed down on the nail of the gynoid's right big toe...and sighed with relief as the screaming died off instantly. “I'd love to know how you didn't go deaf from that,” she muttered, glancing back at the roboticist. “Even for a few seconds, that noise....” She shook her head, her gaze returning to the downed gynoid. “Now that she's stopped screaming...what next?”

“What happens next, Agent Sands,” Anton calmly replied, “is that I need to access her memory to see the exact kind of hacking techniques that might've been used on her...though if you want my expert opinion, I don't think they needed to hack her.” He pulled aside the gynoid's hair, revealing an unblemished scalp, three ports at the base of her neck and---most unusual of all---no manufacturer's mark. “Of all the dirty tricks....not only has our 'suspect' not been hacked,” he declared, “she's not even a full-functioning gynoid! She's just a shell!”

The Accountant turned away from the scene, muttering under his breath; Agent Williams, on the other hand, was staring at the gynoid intently. “A shell can't exactly open fire on anyone,” he reminded Anton. “If she's not fully-functioning---”

“Allow me to rephrase that statement: she does have the basic software package every android and gynoid on the planet has, allowing her to walk, talk and generally handle the basic actions human beings tend to not worry about. Apart from that....she's a blank slate. No personality software, the barest minimum packages for human emulation and interaction, not even a serial number from any known manufacturer....” The roboticist retrieved his iPhone, wasting no time in plugging the cord from the phone into the lowest port on the gynoid's neck. “I'm pretty sure she's not even an off-the-shelf model,” he continued. “More than likely, Hewlett and Packard---”

“The two you were originally going to meet here?” Agent Sands inquired.

Anton nodded, his expression grim. “I have a feeling they installed whatever package they needed to put in for their 'gunner' to attack, rigged up the auditory deterrent to keep anyone from getting a closer look at what makes her tick, put her in the car with Charlotte and just sent them on their way. With any luck, the sedan would've been stopped by the local police, the car would've sped off...this whole thing would've become an inter-agency nightmare. Hewlett and Packard are trying to cover someone else's tracks---”

“And how exactly do you know this?” the Accountant snapped.

“The destruction of the Foundry wasn't just some random arsonist,” Anton coolly replied. “Hewlett and Packard nuked it on orders from whoever hired them....and I have a sneaking suspicion that their mysterious employer has ties to the DVS.”

Agent Sands gasped, Agent Williams crossed himself and the Accountant just stared.

Even as the Coalition agents stood there, comprehending the gravity of what they'd been told, Anton manipulated the minimalistic programming installed upon the gynoid shell from the sedan. “If any of you are wondering,” he informed the trio, “I have very good reason to think the DVS is invovled. I take you know a bit about the Bloody Valentine incident.....right?”

“Of course we know about it,” Sands snapped. “That doesn't explain why you think the DVS---”

“Let's just say I have some rather conclusive evidence that some within the DVS may have been the ones responsible for that black mark on our collective history,” Anton quietly replied. “I know it sounds like a lot of X-Files conspiracy theory bullroar, but if I'm right....I think the DVS may have been trying to manipulate the ALPA and the Coalition from the get-go.” His resolve wavered slightly; “They've threatened me personally, before,” he added, “and I'm under no illusions that they wouldn't try it with any of you. I have no doubt in my mind that Hewlett and Packard were hired to tie up the loose ends from the Bloody Valentine incident...”

Nobody spoke for a minute or so.

“So,” the roboticist murmured, “you all realize what's at stake...where we all stand on the chessboard and what we can do. This isn't ALPA vs. Coalition anymore, or House vs. Coalition...this is a new game.” He unplugged the iPhone from its connection at the base of the shell gynoid's neck.

Quietly, as if speaking to the newly-programmed gynoid: “....and it's a game none of us can afford to lose.”

“Well,” R-528 intoned, “we've managed to make it inside the building without being cut to pieces or shot in the head.... do you still think someone or something inside this building intends to kill us?”

Vicki frowned, but kept going. “You obviously haven't seen any movies since 1983, Roboto...the bad guys never just kill you as soon as you walk in. They want us to get to Greendale first, and then they make us run the gauntlet.” Or more specifically, she mentally added, they make me run the gauntlet and drop a cage on you to keep you from running in to help...except this isn't a cartoon, and nobody's likely to have a cage laying around just to drop on random intruders---

“Miss Lawson?”

“Huh---” Vicki stopped as soon as she heard her last name, allowing her to realize just how lost in her own internal monologue she'd become---had R-528 not spoken up, the brunette gynoid would've blindly walked face-first into an electrified security barricade. “Oh, ah....thanks, Roboto.”

R-528 tilted his head. “You seem....distracted. Somehow, I thought that was a human trait.”

“Good point....” With a sigh, Vicki took a deep breath and closed her eyes...

….only for V.I.C.I to open them a second later.

“Watch my back, Roboto,” she instructed. “I'm going to attempt a secure uplink to the building's internal network---it should allow me to pinpoint any and all further obstacles on the way to Greendale.” Her eyelids fluttered rapidly as she began the uplink---

---except a white-hot flash of pain cut her attempt short.

The metal-skinned android was at her side in an instant. “Are you injured?”

“Unless you count wounded pride as an injury,” the gynoid Field Agent muttered, “then no....but I think I need to have another talk with Ellen Mather before we keep going.” She allowed R-528 to help her up, glancing at the barricade; “I'm guessing---more like hoping---Ellen can get us past this,” she admitted. “Hell, I'm hoping she'll tell us how to get through every barricade in here....if this were any other situation, I'd be all for the 'Hulk, SMASH' route....but we're in a Coalition-sponsored factory, and we're liable to get sued if we break anything.”

She could easily picture R-528 arching his non-existant eyebrows at that statement. “You're concerned with property damage at a time like this?”

“Just another funny little quirk of my design,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes at her own sarcasm. “For someone in a situation as unique as yours, you seem to be thinking along the lines that machines aren't the most broad-minded individuals...which is far from true. Dad gave me the whole story after....” She paused, remembering the incident that had finally forced Ted to stop seeing her as “just a thing” and finally start accepting her as his own daughter. “Dad told me the story once,” she continued (better to not bring up the details unless I have to), “about how what most people consider 'cutting edge robotics' these days---the Actroid, for instance---is about as 'advanced' as an Atari Flashback console is compared to a PlayStation 3...in other words, someone like, well, me, would make the Actroid look like a glorified Disney World animatronic.”

Again, R-528's reaction was more than a bit unenthused. “As interesting as this discussion is, I believe we still need to retrieve Greendale...my father...from these people---”

“Dynadrive aren't the ones holding him captive,” Vicki cut in. “At least, I hope not....whatever.” She recovered the phone from her pocket, scrolling through the Recent Calls list until she found the number Ellen Mather had called from. “Right....time to see if Ellen can help us---”

The phone rang just as she finished the sentence. “...out....” She glanced at R-528, who simply shrugged.

With a sigh, Vicki answered the call. “Vicki Lawson here, what's---”

“Someone just tried to bypass the security network!”

And we're talking about that already.... “Ah, to be honest, Ellen---”

“Two seconds ago, someone just tried to turn off the generators! Every light in this factory just flickered...I think the guy who broke in might be trying something!”

Vicki stared at the phone, the realization slowly dawning on her. “Ellen, just stay calm...are there any other staff members in your area of the building? Any janitors, receptionists....anyone at all?”

“No....no staff. Just product---I mean, just robots....”

The “just robots” line prompted another eye-roll from the brunette gynoid. “And what's the primary function of the robots in your part of the building?”

“They're entertainment 'bots! The medical ones are stored on the far side of the facility, and this factory stopped working on the educational models last year.” From the background noises from Ellen's end of the line, Vicki could tell that the woman was moving back and forth across the room. “We also have about five or six industrial units...nothing special, though.”

“Makes sense---but that's not what I need to talk to you about right now. I, ah, need to know if you can turn off the barricade in the....” She glanced at her surroundings for a moment. “....the main showroom.”

A grunt of “work, you piece of crap!”, followed by what sounded like an open-hand smack to the case of a desktop PC, emanated through the speaker of the phone. “That barricade can only be turned off by incoming staff tomorrow morning,” Ellen stated after a few more seconds of percussive maintenance to the PC. “I can't do anything about it...but I can help you find a way around it. There should be a turnstile on one side of the room, leading into a hall with a bunch of display cases...”

“I see it.”

“If this were a touring day, I'd be fired for saying this, but....jump the turnstile. I'll tell you the next part when you get into the next room.”

The turnstile, thankfully, was easier to bypass than the electrified barricade---at least, it was a non-issue for Vicki. R-528, on the other hand, nearly fell over the thing without the brunette gynoid's help---she was at his side in an instant, guiding him over the turnstile with ease. “I'm guessing you don't remember jumping any of these before now,” she mused.

Not surprisingly, the metal-skinned android turned to stare at her. “You guess correctly.”

A bit put off by the undertone of annoyance in his voice, Vicki began to apologize---only for R-528 to dismount the turnstile and sigh. “Any time I left the Foundry in my 'right' state of mind',” he explained, “it was to gather supplies for my own repairs. When I was under the influence of an attack....” He stared at the floor. “Never mind. It has no bearing on this.”

“If you don't want me to bring it up from now on,” Vicki stated, “I promise I won't---”

“You have no need to promise it,” R-528 replied, his tone calmer. “My past, despite its...occasional moments of darkness...should not be forgotten in favor of blind optimism---the past should be remembered, possibly even embraced...”

Time to change the subject, I think... “So, what's it been like to---”

Somewhere in the distance, a klaxon cut her intended question short. “And here we go with the alarms,” she drawled, blowing out an annoyed breath. “I didn't even do anything....well, apart from hopping the turnstile to get into this part of the building---” The trilling of her borrowed phone interrupted her statement; “Gee, I wonder who that could be,” she muttered, keying the phone on. “Before you say anything, I didn't---”

“That guy who broke into the building just cut power to an entire wing!”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow. “And why did something all the way on the other side of the factory activate an alarm that, as you can probably tell, is audible from where I'M standing?!”

“It's complicated---that, and---”

“If you're going to say 'I'm contractually obligated not to reveal the security systems of this facility', you don't have to,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes. “I've heard it before, and I've even had to say it before---being the daughter of a robotics company founder has its annoying bits, after all---”

“Look,” Ellen's voice interrupted, “I can turn off the alarms, if you want....it'll take a while to get the power back on, but it can be done.”

“And what of the intruder?” R-528 asked quietly.

“Good question....” Vicki relayed the android's inquiry to Ellen: “Ah, is there any chance you still have a bead on the guy who broke in and cut the power to an entire wing?”

Five seconds of silence passed (Vicki could tell due to a timer in her HUD) before Ellen replied. “If he's in the wing where the outage occurred, I can't see him. If he's not....you're in trouble.” A frantic clacking (which could easily be recognized as the sound of someone---in this case, Ellen---typing on an IBM Model M Keyboard) filled the phone's speakers; “I'm trying to get a fix on his location right now,” she admitted, “and...it's not exactly working.”

“No reason to worry, Ellen. Just tell me how I can get to that wing---”

A heavy hand on her shoulder interrupted Vicki's statement. “We came here to find Greendale,” R-528 stated, his eyes taking on a faint glow. “His life may be in our hands---”

“Hang on a second, Ellen....” The brunette gynoid covered the phone with her hand. “I know Greendale may be in danger,” she admitted, “but we can't just blindly go after him and forget about Ellen....” A number of scenarios began playing out in her mind, with few of them having endings that could be considered even remotely acceptable by ALPA standards. “Why is this sort of thing never easy?” she muttered.

“'This sort of thing'?” R-528 echoed.

With a sigh, Vicki uncovered the phone. “Ellen, I'm going to have to call you back.” She clicked off the phone, staring at R-528. “'This sort of thing', as in this ALPA Field Agent thing. I just....it's....” A quick glance around the room revealed a bench a few feet away. “I'd feel a lot better if I could just live a normal life,” she admitted, striding over to the bench and taking a seat. “Last month....hell, all year, stuff's been happening to me that I never thought I'd have to put up with.”

“Such as?”

“Such as, I nearly killed a guy back in Dawley. I beat him within an inch of his life, and I enjoyed it....and if it hadn't been for one person talking me down......” She shook her head. “Before that, I'd lost my roommate---to the guy I nearly killed---and I died in July. Well....not 'died' in the human sense.....” A shudder ran through her.

R-528 sat next to her on the bench. “What happened?”

“This guy, this psychopath,” Vicki muttered, “decided he was going to....end me, or something. He calls himself Faceless, and we have a bit of a history. Once upon a time, before he was killing people in his spare time, he tried to take over United Robotronics and fire as many people as possible. My dad, a few of his coworkers and---of course—myself were the only ones who could get him out of UR.....and we did. Except that wasn't even the end of it---after that, he went completely off the deep end, killed a bunch of his relatives, and then started killing random people. He tried to kill me, on the first day of the year 2000....and it's been a downhill ride from there.”

She chuckled briefly; “Come to think of it, he's the reason I'm in the ALPA to begin with. He started going after gynoids on the campus of San Jose State University...he killed five of them, seriously damaged a sixth, and would've made me his seventh kill on campus.”

“And what does that have to do with your continuing membership with this...ALPA?”

The android's question prompted a look from Vicki that even she couldn't classify. “To be honest,” she quietly admitted, “I've been trying to figure that out ever since Dawley.” She stared at the floor; “I nearly killed a man just to avenge what he did to my roommate...”

Her voice turned fearful: “I almost couldn't tell if I was still myself after that.”

“You've helped me—-”

“Yeah,” Vicki snapped, “I've helped you.....except the entire ALPA, barring Anton, Grace and maybe Oberon, still thinks you're a murderer. I just....” She rose from her spot on the bench, pacing back and forth. “I don't get why they're so willing to just say 'oh, he killed a human, so he should be DeCommed on the spot'...what if it had been Vanessa? What if it had been me, back in Dawley?!”

Metal hands grasped her shoulders, stopping her in place. “Agent Lawson...Vicki....”

Tears streamed down the brunette gynoid's face. “Why am I still with the ALPA?” she whispered. “I nearly killed a man over a personal grudge....I put Faceless in the hospital with his own weapons....” She closed her eyes, trying not to let the torrent of memories overwhelm her. “I joined the ALPA to help people....humans and androids alike....but...why does it feel like all I've done is hurt people?”

“I'm afraid I cannot answer that,” R-528 quietly replied, “but I know the pain you feel...I have fled from that pain for almost an eternity....ever since I became this.”

“But you were human once!”

R-528 bowed his head. “That....was a long time ago. This is all I am now.”

Vicki shrugged out of the android's grasp, and he made no effort to stop her. “Let's just find Greendale and get out of here,” she muttered. “I just want this to be over with.” Without waiting for R-528 to follow her, she set off down the hall, grabbing the borrowed phone from her pocket and jabbing its screen. “Ellen, it's Vicki again. The wing that lost power earlier....it wasn't the wing Greendale was in, was it?”

“No....but why---”

“Stay where you are, and try not to attract any attention to yourself,” Vicki ordered. “My friend and I are on the way to Greendale...any security measures I need to know about before we keep going?”

“Other than the barricades, no---”

“Good. Keep me posted and let me know if anything else comes up.” With that brief exchange, Vicki keyed off the phone, glancing over her shoulder. “You coming with me, Roboto, or do I have to do this by myself?”

The metallic android stared at her. “....Agent Lawson....are you---”

“Okay?” Vicki finished, not smiling. “No. Like Hell I'm okay. If we rescue Greendale, the ALPA will still come for you and demand to know why Oberon let Anton and I leave HQ with you---or how we got into HQ with you in the first place---and I'll get a memory wipe or something worse. If you and Greendale get out of this and run as far away from San Jose as possible, the ALPA will probably go after you, and I'll be questioned as to why I never bothered trying to stop you...no matter what I do, someone will end up getting hurt!”

“If we leave him here---”

“Who the hell said anything would happen to him if we left him here?!” Vicki snapped. “Hewlett and Packard said they were in one of the five plants, and Greendale was in another---for all we know, they might've headed for Cabo already! This whole thing could be one big trap!”

R-528 stared at her silently.

“I'll get to Greendale,” the brunette gynoid intoned. “I'll get him out of here, and I'll deal with whoever broke into the building....and then I'm going home. You and Greendale can run for Cabo, hop a plane and fly to Europe or do whatever the hell you want....I'm not going to stop you---”

“But the ALPA will,” the android reminded her. “Even if I escape with Greendale, the ALPA will---”

“I DON'T CARE WHAT THE ALPA WILL DO!” Vicki shouted. “Anton knows you're not a murderer, and I know you're not a murderer...I don't give a damn what evidence anyone might have to dispute that! I don't care about inter-agency political bullcrap, I don't care about the consequences for my own career, and I sure as hell don't care if the beaurocracy behind the ALPA sees fit to have me fired....”

Her voice finally broke. “I just want to do the right thing,” she finished, “even if it means breaking a few rules to do it.” Tears streaked down her face; “I just want to do some good,” she added quietly. “I just want to help...”

For a few moments, R-528 stood there, unsure of what to say.

“We need to get out of here,” Vicki murmured. “I need to get out of here....this place is starting to remind me of the Silicon Dynamics mission...” She wiped her eyes. “Roboto,” she called out, “I can't finish this op on my own. If I'm going to find Greendale....I'll need your help. I...I can't do this by myself.” She stared at the floor, not looking up at R-528 as he approached. “Everyone thinks I'm some sort of...I don't know, super-agent, or something,” she continued. “All this time...I've wanted to believe them.” She finally looked up at R-528 when he was less than three feet away, her eyes brimming with tears again. “I've told myself that I'm doing this for all the right reasons....but now....”

“This is the right reason,” the metallic-skinned android assured her. “What could be more right than saving a human life?”

Vicki's reply was both startling and saddening: “I don't know.”

Before R-528 could continue, the brunette gynoid turned away. “I don't know why they all pin their hopes on me, especially after Dawley....I nearly killed a man with my bare hands, and....they just said that I did the right thing by not killing him!” Her words broke down into sobs; “Why the hell am I still even talking about this?!” she cried. “I...I haven't even had the nightmares for two whole weeks...I haven't dreamed about it since I started going to counseling!”

“Then perhaps you're finally moving forward from it,” R-528 mused.

“I don't know,” Vicki muttered. “I do care...but I just don't know. Right now...I just feel like they're all watching, cheering for me to succeed...but they can't step in, or they won't step in.”

One last, gut-wrenching sob punctuated her words: “......I feel so alone.....”

A metallic hand touched her shoulder. “Vicki Lawson, you are not alone. If saving me turns your agency against you, then I will stand by you. If saving Greendale puts you in the line of fire, I will gladly throw myself in front of any bullet meant to destroy you.” Another hand cupped her chin, directing her gaze into the gently-glowing eyes of R-528: “For whatever it might be worth to you,” he murmured (the electronic filter of his voice fading just enough to make him sound like his past, pre-transferrence self), “you are far more human than the people who made me what I am today.”

Somehow, those words cut through the fog of depression that had descended upon the brunette gynoid's mind.

She pulled R-528 in for a hug, smiling despite her tears. “Thanks, Roboto,” she whispered. “And for what it's worth, that really did mean a lot to me.”

“And your assistance thus far has meant a lot to me,” R-528 reciprocated. “And think of it this way: Right now, you are helping someone---me---without hurting anyone else. Now....I believe we still have a while to go before we reach Greendale, and staying here for too long may be...counter-productive.”

“I know...I just...I needed to vent, y'know? To get all of that off my chest...” Vicki sighed, chuckling a bit as she did. “I never brought this up in counseling because I didn't want them to think I'm not grateful for everything they've done for me, or anything like that...they all just seem to have this idea that I'm some sort of awesome super-agent, like John Drake or Jason Bourne. It's just....it's a lot to take in, sometimes...” She shrugged. “It's just kind of weird for them to think of me as a sort of top-tier troubleshooter, even after all I've been through.”

Before she could elaborate on the situation, the borrowed phone rang again. “Rain check?” she offered.

R-528 nodded silently.

“Thanks.” Vicki keyed on the phone. “Good news or bad news?”

“Both. The bad news is, the power's still out in one wing of the facility...the good news is, Mr. Break-In has just turned up on the security cameras. He's holed up in the accounting offices on the second floor of the main building---the one you're in right now, actually---and the elevators just sealed themselves off.”

The brunette gynoid arched an eyebrow. “Why'd they do that?”

“Because the idiot decided to try starting a fire...I'm guessing he wanted to draw the local authorities to here.”

“And will they be showing up any time soon?”

“Not really---Dynadrive has internal fire suppression systems installed in every factory, with this one getting all the newest gear first. I'm just going to go out on a limb here and guess that he was hoping to escape with the fire department....or possibly try to paint you and your friend as arsonists...or something else entirely, I have no idea. Anyways, there are a few security doors between you and Greendale---employees usually have to swipe their ID badges through the readers before they can open them, but I have the overrides to open them without you needing to swipe a badge.”

Vicki nodded her approval. “Thanks for the info---and thanks in advance for opening those doors.” With a quick floruish, she turned the phone off and replaced it in her pocket yet again. “So far, this hasn't exactly been Die Hard With a Vengeance,” she admitted, “but I'd prefer bored over bricked any day of the week.” She glanced over her shoulder at R-528. “Ready to keep going?”

“I am,” the metallic-skinned android replied, “but are you?”

No sense in lying.... Vicki nodded. “As ready as I'll ever be. C'mon, that first security door is waiting...”

“So....are you going to tell them?”

Oberon didn't look up to acknowledge the speaker of those words. “Tell them what, exactly?” he murmured, staring at the framed pictures on his desk---pictures that, less than an hour or so ago, had been knocked off during his brief “fight” with Pria Bishop. “That a security system malfunction caused a building-wide shutdown of all nonessential systems for 30 minutes?”

“I was thinking more along the lines of 'We got the Bloody Valentine thing all wrong, and need to rectify it ASAP'.” A figure---feminine, athletic and half-hidden in shadow---shifted in the seat before the desk. “If they find out on their own---”

“I'll be hauled over the coals and given a right thrashing,” Oberon finished. “It's happened before, you know.”

The girl steepled her fingers. “I've been there most of those times, you know...but it never happened on this scale. The ALPA, the Coalition and the House have all been defined by the Bloody Valentine incident since 1983...if they realize the truth about what happened, it'll be one giant leap for human/machine relations, rather than the small steps everyone's been taking for decades.” She leaned forward, a faint sliver of silvery skin visible in the waxing light. “It'll be a breakthrough.”

“Or a breakdown.” The ALPA Chairman finally looked up from the pictures; “You saw the security footage from Anton's lab,” he reminded his guest. “You know what they heard...what they saw....from R-528's memories.”

“I did...and it's the exact reason you need to tell Clive about this.”

The girl's insistance was met with a light chuckle. “He's still not entirely sure about you, to be honest....then again, it was probably the hair color. I can probably count the times he's seen girls with purple hair before you came along on one hand...with a few fingers missing.” Oberon shook his head; “All levity aside,” he continued, “our situation at the moment is a bit more...dangerous than your introduction to the ALPA.”

Again, the girl leaned forward, her eyes hidden behind the polarized purple lenses of mirrored sunglasses. “I'm not saying this isn't dangerous...I'm just saying that properly handling it could make it less dangerous.”

“As long as your idea of 'properly handling it' is the same as the Believing Tomorrow Visionairies' idea,” Oberon muttered darkly. “I have no idea what they thought was going to happen when they just announced that androids were living among humans...and before you start guilt-tripping me, I am sorry for the fact that all of them died the way they did. That being said, I still think they were all barking mad for planning their little press conference...” He sank back into his chair, staring up at the ceiling with half-lidded eyes. “Humanity wasn't ready for that kind of revelation back then...it wasn't exactly the time for blind optimism.”

“You do realize that right now isn't exactly a time for blind optimism, either,” the girl reminded him.

“I do.....and that, as it just so happens, is why I'm not so sure that revealing what really happened on the night of February 23, 1983, would be doing us all favors. You'll recall that not everyone in the ALPA is focusing on a common goal, at the moment.” The memory of Will Brightstar's tirade at the Lawson house surfaced, ever so briefly, in the forefront of Oberon's mind....

….only for the girl's next words to draw his focus back to their conversation: “I haven't forgotten alll the lessons you've taught me about this crazy, mixed-up world we live in, y'know...and for the record, my focus is exactly where it should be.”

Oberon smiled. “So you actually did learn something....that, or you were just waiting to nick Bogart's line.”

His words were met with a giggle. “If I used every conversation as a setup to quote Casablanca, I probably wouldn't be here right now...” The silver-skinned gynoid leaned back in her seat, still chuckling a bit. “...you still haven't answered my question,” she mused. “Are you going to tell them or not?”

“I can see there's no dodging the issue with you,” the Chairman admitted. “I will, in fact, tell them...just not right at this moment. The Celeste situation is still ongoing---a lot of our best intelligence agents are still smarting over that one, by the way. And don't start about the DreamLand bit,” he added. “I'd prefer to go for the rest of the week without hearing about that particular annoyance.”

“Fair enough. I just have one more question....What if the Coalition finds him first?”

At this, Oberon turned away. “If the Coalition finds R-528 first, they'll either perform an on-site DeComm or just contain him until they can bring him to the Shop....I could call Harrington, give him the evidence first-hand and try to talk him out of it, but it wouldn't do all that much if he's been told before now. Inter-agency teamwork can only do so much, after all...if they catch him first, they'd probably be well within their rights to detain him. What they do after that....” He sighed. “It's a minefield, really. I can't stop them without probably cause, and I can't give them the evidence without revealing that we had R-528 in our building to begin with. Bloody Catch-22 strikes again.”

“Then maybe you need to do everything you can to keep them from getting to him in the first place,” the girl suggested. “And I mean personally do everything you can...not just make phone calls and sign forms, but actually get out in the field and be...well, a Field Agent again.”

Surprisingly, Oberon smiled. “You're sure you want to see me out in the field again?”

“If it helps Mr. Roboto stay out of the clutches of the bad guys, yes.”

“Fair enough....and remind me to commend Vicki for coming up with a callsign for him.” The ALPA Chairman rose from his seat; “You won't mind holding down the fort till I get back, will you?” he inquired. “It's....what, 4:02 in the morning?”

“I think she can manage,” the voice of Clive DuBraul commented from the far side of the room, seconds before the man himself stepped forward. The girl in the chair flinched; “I swear I didn't let him in here!” she cried, rising from her seat. “I just---”

Oberon held up an outstretched hand. “Another time. Clive....I'm assuming you've heard everything?”

“I did. Saw the tapes too....just before they mysteriously erased themselves.” The ALPA President grinned. “I never did trust a tape-based security camera network, you know....always thought we should switch to DVDs or flash drives---”

“The footage was on a flash drive.”

“Did I say tapes? I meant flash drives...and they magically wiped themselves when I finished watching.” He chuckled. “You have nothing to worry about from me....the rest of the board, maybe, but as long as this is just between the three of us, Agent Lawson and Professor Malvineous, it's not going to be a national issue.” His smile faded briefly; “I thought the stories of back-alley transferrence experiments were a myth,” he admitted, pacing the floor before Oberon's desk. “I never thought the Bloody Valentine had come about because of a transferrence...”

“I don't think anyone else did, either,” Oberon admitted. “I knew as soon as I saw the laboratory, though...the equipment wasn't exactly general-purpose. And as far as the rest of the board....if Brightstar found out about this, he'd probably give the kill order. How many of our own would support our actions and decisions if they knew the facts, Clive? How many would stand by us for sheltering R-528?”

Clive drew a heavy sigh. “Not enough. If it came down to a committee, we'd probably have a quarter of the whole council on our side....and that's before we even get near the politicians.”

“As far as I'm concerned, the politicians never need to hear about this. Ever.”

“Ah, if I may,” the girl interjected, “what about the other people in this building? If they don't know that you two are supporting this, they might, ah, overreact....and if they do know, and decide you two can't be trusted anymore.....”

“She's got a point,” DuBraul mused. “This could turn bloody....”

Oberon squeezed his eyes shut. “It won't,” he whispered. “I refuse to let this end with our own people turning against one another....it's bad enough some on the council adamantly opposed my appointment as Chairman, when it happened. If word of this gets out....if the politicians get involved....the ALPA will die. They'll twist it, they'll turn it into just another extension of the beaurocracy....and the ALPA we know and love, the ALPA we joined to keep artificially intelligent lifeforms safe, will whither and die.”

His eyes shot open, tinged---for the briefest moment---with red. “I will not let that happen. Ever.”

“I'll do what I can to keep this from getting out that far,” DuBraul promised. “It's bad enough that the GMG crowd have descended---”

“GMG?” the girl echoed.

“Grade Media Group,” Oberon clarified. “Bloody bastards have been following ALPA ops like vultures, always reaching the scene just as we've swept it clean. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear Michael Innes Grade has it in for us....how long did it take them to report on the Foundry explosion, Clive?”

The ALPA President snorted. “They're on it right now,” he intoned. “One of them 'just happened' to be on a ride-along with the fire department...our disinformation department might be able to keep them from leaking anything too important for the time being, but it can't hold up forever. Grade has a knack for getting details the rest of the news-hounds tend to miss....he knows what to look for.”

“Then someone has to keep the parasites from looking for R-528---namely, me.” Oberon swept past DuBraul and the girl, not looking at either of them. “If we involve more Field Agents, they'll be asking questions that even I won't be able to answer, and if we involve outside authorities, they'll have to report it to someone...and I don't think I need to explain why we can't let that happen.” He pulled what looked like a group of hardcover books from the bookshelf at his right, revealing them to be a hollow shell surrounding a small safe. “If I haven't made contact with either of you by 8 AM,” he muttered, “there's a number on my phone to call---”

“It won't get that bad,” the girl blurted out, almost more as a self-assurance than anything else. “It can't....”

Oberon smiled grimly as he grabbed the safe. “It already is 'that bad'....I'm just making sure it won't get any worse.” He glanced at DuBraul; “You've used the special lift to get here, I take it?” he inquired casually.

“Of course.”

“Bring her to it, and get her to the garage---there's a driver waiting to bring her to my flat.” The Chairman turned his attention to the girl. “Just so you know,” he informed her, his voice low, “I'm not doing this because I don't think you can handle it...I'm doing this because I don't want the wrong people knowing you're involved at this point....and if I absolutley must call for your intervention....”

The gynoid removed her sunglasses, revealing eyes of brilliant, glowing amethyst. “I'll be ready.”

Again, Oberon smiled, though this one had a bit more warmth to it. “I never expected anything less.” After a determined nod towards the gynoid and DuBraul, he turned on his heel and strode towards the door---which opened without him even needing to grasp the handle. “Oh, and one more thing,” he added, pausing in the doorway without looking back. “If, for some reason, this all goes pear-shaped...you both know what to do.”

Swiftly and silently, the door closed, leaving DuBraul and the girl in silence.

For all intents and purposes, the Midland Heights Automatons factory---nestled quietly on the southern-most edge of San Jose---should've been abandoned. Indeed, it had been empty for well over a decade, after MHA lost several high-profile opportunities (including a lucrative contract with Disney) in a row. Somehow or other, the company itself was still limping along, making cheap Robosapien knockoffs, crappy remote-controlled toys with names that constantly had to be changed to avoid lawsuits, and low-end animatronics that, more often than not, either malfunctioned constantly or simply broke down after assembly (or, in one memorable---and infamous---instance, burst into flames and showered the paying audience with corrosive fluids).

Even with the company still clinging to its last vestiges of life, the San Jose factory had been left to rot. Faced with competition from the likes of United Robotronics, Lawson Robotics and other robotics firms that could produce quality product AND had the benefit of ALPA/Coalition support, MHA---which had been denied ALPA membership and deemed “counter-productive” by James Harrington----packed up and left for the southeastern United States, where it continued hawking its wares.

None of this meant a damn to the men currently occupying the building.

“I believe this is the part where we call the Professor's phone, Mr. Hewlett.” The 6'4”, somewhat portly figure standing by the second-floor window turned, glancing at the adressee of his statement. “If he hasn't been caught in a crossfire by this point, of course...”

His comrade-in-arms scoffed. “Highly unlikely, Mr. Packard...Professor Malvineous is smarter than an average 'mark', if I may use the parlance of our trade.” Standing 5'6”, with one arm in a sling and looking somewhat at odds with his colleague by way of a clean-shaven look and “business casual” attire, “Mr. Hewlett” managed to give the impression of a man who was perfectly fine with sitting around and waiting for Anton Malvineous (or anyone else, for that matter) to arrive in a timely fashion. “If anything, he's with the girl---”

“The girl,” Mr. Packard interjected, “who managed to elude both of us, Mr. Hewlett. An...egregious oversight.”

“And one that shall be corrected in due time, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett muttered. “Right now....we wait, and take this opportunity to consider ourselves far more fortunate than the original tennants of this...lowly estate.” He glanced at the cavernous “showroom” around them, shaking his head in disdain. “I have no idea how anyone could ever have taken a corporate entity such as Midland Heights Automatons seriously...” With a nod, he indicated the stooped-over figure of a half-clothed animatronic figure dressed in the moth-eaten remains of a maid's uniform; its “skin” had melted through at several points due to internal electrical fires. “Utterly pathetic.”

“Agreed, Mr. Hewlett. Completely pathetic.” Packard nodded his agreement.

Hewlett rolled a half-dollar between the fingers of his uninjured hand, his tongue playing over his teeth. “You do realize, of course, that our employer more than likely wants our own heads, Mr. Packard....”

“I do realize it, Mr. Hewlett.”

“And you also realize that, if our illustrious target fails to arrive on schedule, this very building could be our---”

“Your what, exactly?”

Packard glanced down through the window, smirking as he noticed a figure in the parking lot. “You're late,” he called out. “Mr. Hewlett and I were just---”

“I don't want to hear it,” the voice of Anton Malvineous thundered. “I'll be up in three minutes.”

The words prompted another smirk from Packard. “It appears our fortunes are turning for the better, Mr. Hewlett,” he began, only to mutter a few choice words as the lights cut out.

“Just a generator fluctuation, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett assured him. “The stairs are still accessible.”

“I'm more worried about our guest, Mr. Hewlett. He may have planned for this...”

“...in which case, Mr. Packard, we'll just have to adapt.” Hewlett flashed a thin smile, palming the half-dollar.

Two minutes and forty-eight seconds later (both Hewlett and Packard had counted), a door creaked open across the showroom. “R-528 escaped,” Anton's voice called out from the darkness, “but I have what you need to catch up to him. He had another...funny turn, like he did at the Foundry---”

“So Miss Lawson told you about that,” Hewlett mused, chuckling. “Astounding...isn't it, Mr. Packard?”

“It is indeed, Mr. Hewlett,” Packard agreed. “Especially considering both of you were---”

“Nearly burnt to a crisp? Hardly my fault, if you're going to be honest...in fact, I almost thought of calling the deal off---I'd have been well within my rights to do so, especially considering that you two were the ones who nearly burnt Agent Lawson and myself to a crisp.” The shadowed figure of Anton scoffed. “Having a bit of trouble paying the electricity bills?”

Hewlett's already thin smile faded. “I think he's asking questions out of turn, Mr. Packard.”

“He most definitely is, Mr. Hewlett,” Packard replied, cracking his knuckles. “Perhaps you'd like to discuss this where we can all see each other---”

“And perhaps you'd like to get a few Casull rounds through your forehead,” the voice of Anton intoned. “Your gunner shouldn't have brought along a spare...a long-distance rifle shot would've done the trick well enough.”

The reply cowed Packard. “....Mr. Hewlett and I never authorized the use of a Casull revolver,” he admitted.

“Which makes sense,” Hewlett interjected, “because Mr. Packard and myself never even gave the shooter a revolver.” He scowled. “Don't try to lie to us---”

“Who's lying? Maybe some unfortunate officer of the law ended up losing his sidearm to your shooter...or did you ever consider giving her a backup weapon to begin with?” Both Hewlett and Packard bristled---neither had expected the shooter do be ID'd by gender---but Anton wasn't finished. “The fact that you tried to set Charlotte Harrington up as the driver of the getaway car is another strike against you---how long did it take you two to realize she'd overridden the neural stimulation rig you'd locked her into?”

Packard's eyes went wide, but Hewlett's expression---an unwavering, hateful glare---never left the darkened doorway. “You're making accusations that could get you in serious trouble, Professor---”

“Accusations, nothing,” Anton's voice declared. “A Coalition agent had to shoot the tires out to stop the car; Charlotte was barely breathing by the time she was pulled out.” The floor creaked as Anton took a few steps out of the doorway, moving ever so slightly to the left. “You really think Harrington's going to let something like this slide? I wouldn't be surprised if---”

“To be quite honest, Professor Malvineous,” Hewlett snarled, “Mr. Packard and I don't really care what you'd be surprised at. Our assignment is dangerously close to ending in failure---'

“Which is far from typical for Mr. Hewlett and myself,” Packard quickly added.

“And we do not intend for it to become typical,” Hewlett finished. “Now, then, if you'd simply stop these pathetic games, and give Mr. Packard and myself the information pertaining to where we can find R-258, we can all go our separate ways and leave this sordid little incident behind...” He broke into a forced laugh. “I can tell you're a respectable individual, Professor Malvineous---”

“Far more so than you,” Anton's voice chided; the professor was still moving left along the far wall.

Hewlett glanced over his shoulder and nodded silently to Packard---neither man wanted the roboticist to circle around to gain a vantage point over both of them. “That's your opinion,” he called out to Anton. “I think it's fair to say that both Mr. Packard and myself are very well respected in certain circles---”

“Lucky for me that I'm not a part of such circles...then again, I did have certain connections, in the old days...”

“Then you could've made a very lucrative ally,” Packard stated. “Mr. Hewlett and myself are always on the lookout for new employment---”

Anton's voice laughed, seeming to echo throughout the chamber. “So your current boss has given up on you two already?” he taunted. “You've still got...a little under five hours to go before the deadline hits---assuming Greendale doesn't escape, and that R-528 didn't actually get blown to Hell when you two idiots decided to turn the Foundry into a bonfire....did you two even check to see if you'd eliminated him before you drove off?”

“THAT INFORMATION,” Hewlett shouted, only for Packard to clear his throat.

“That information,” he repeated, only marginally calmer this time, “is none of your concern. Mr. Packard and myself have no doubt that R-528 is---”

“And another thing,” Anton's too-cheerful voice cut in. “Did either of you two happen to look up the specifics of what---or, should I say, who---'R-528' is? Whose son he used to be? And did either of you bother to inform your employer that 'R-528' just so happens to be connected to a rather important cold case that's still being investigated by both the Coalition AND the ALPA?”

“Again,” Hewlett spat, “that information---”

“Oh, I know you think it's none of my concern,” Anton called out; from the sound of things, he was now on the far left side of the room, close to the emergency fire exit. “As it just so happens, however, it's very much my concern—you two made that clear when you involved Everett Greendale in this. The man was a mentor and a friend, someone who kept me from being dragged down by my own ego in time to find a new calling in my life and get out of the Great Dirty World Wide Web before it landed me in prison with Matt Hannsen. Not that a pair of Blackwater rejects like yourselves would care---oh, I nearly forgot to mention that your gun moll just so happened to have a nice little file on both of you---”

“NO, SHE DID NOT!” Hewlett shouted, finally losing his cool. “SHE WAS GIVEN THE PROGRAMMING NECESSARY TO KILL YOU AND RETRIEVE R-528 BEFORE OUR EMPLOYER CONTACTED US!”

Maddeningly, Anton chuckled. “Funny you should mention your employer...it seems that the most critical part of your shooter gynoid was from one Coalition company in particular---a company, as it turns out, with rumored ties to a rather...intriguing organization....” From somewhere along the far left wall, the roboticist sighed. “I'm willing to accept your terms of surrender now, by the way---”

Hewlett winged the half-dollar in the direction of the voice, grinning as Anton grunted before keeling over.

“Mr. Packard, I think it's time our 'guest' took a one-way trip back to the parking lot,” he called out. “Just follow the sound of my voice until we reach him...” He stepped carefully, his good hand moving to withdraw a small icepick from its hidden sheath inside his coat. “Now that I think about it, Mr. Packard, a trip to the parking lot is too good for him....I think he needs to send a message for us.”

“My thoughts exactly, Mr. Hewlett.”

About a minute or so later, the two were standing over the fallen figure of Anton Malvineous. “I believe it's time to get down to business, Mr. Packard---”

“Maybe,” Anton's voice called out---from the door he'd entered from. “Or maybe you two should just quit now.”

Before Hewlett and Packard had time to process what had just happened, very light in the showroom blazed back on---revealing the fallen figure to be the gynoid shell they'd sent to kill Anton. “You said it was him in the parking lot!” Hewlett hissed, glaring at Packard.

“It was!” Packard insisted. “I saw him---”

“Oh, that was me in the parking lot,” Anton's voice called out---this time, from the emergency exit, a few feet away from the pair, “but I had a contingency plan of my own in place---”

Hewlett whirled, throwing the icepick towards the emergency exit.

It flew through the empty door, clattering to a stop on the floor.

“Funny thing about acoustics,” Anton's voice mused---now right in Hewlett's ear. “They can be so very, very deceptive...” The click of a pistol being cocked punctuated the sentence. “...especially when you can't even see who's talking,” the voice continued, morphing into that of a woman Hewlett had never heard before. “Tell your partner to drop whatever he's carrying, if you don't mind.”

“I'd do what she says, if I were you,” Anton---the real Anton, this time---called out, striding over to the pair and grinning as Agent Sands fastened Hewlett's wrists together with a pair of zip-tie cuffs. “You know,” he informed the Coalition agent, “that was a pretty impressive performance...even I'd have thought it was me, if the lights were out.” He chuckled again. “Oh, and, ah, Mr. Packard, you should probably do as Agent Sands instructed a second ago and drop your weapons. The building's surrounded.”

Packard clenched his fists, but nodded, removing his sidearm from its shoulder holster and setting it on the floor.

“Good call. Now, then...” Anton knealt next to the restrained Hewlett, grinning as he beheld the unmistakably infuriated scowl on the merc's face. “Seeing as how there are sharpshooters on the ground level who can probably bank a tear-gas grenade at just the perfect angle to drown you two in a stagnant, choking fog, I'd suggest keeping all replies to any and all questions I'm about to ask as civil as possible....unless, of course, you like breathing in irritants and having your eyes feel like they're on fire.”

“Also,” the Accountant half-shouted, emerging from the same door Anton's decoy had entered from (and that Anton himself had used moments earlier), “there's the small matter of you two being officially designated as hostile enemy agents by the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity, on account of the kidnapping, unlawful detention and psychological really abuse by way of neural manipulation and use of illegal narcotics on one Charlotte Brigitta Harrington....so I'd consider playing nice if I were in your position.” He strode over to stand by Anton, staring at Hewlett and Packard with undeniable annoyance. “If you really want to get technical, I could have both of you brought up on charges of property destruction, theft, purchase of illegal narcotics---”

Hewlett muttered something involving a bandsaw and a certain orifice that prompted Anton to sigh, Agent Sands to cinch the zip-tie cuffs even tighter, and the Accountant to roll his eyes. “Think we should tie his feet, too?” Sands inquired.

“No, I think he gets the point,” the Accountant drawled. “Just make sure his hands don't fall off, or anything.”

“They're not that tight,” Sands muttered. “Do we bring them downstairs, or---”

“I, ah, think that area's still being cleared out by your colleagues,” Anton admitted. “We could always have Agent Williams join us up here, if these two insist on being recalcitrant.” He rose from his kneel next to Hewlett and glanced at Packard. “I'd suggest getting the ties on him,” he informed Sands. “I don't want him trying to throttle me on the stairway when we're getting out of here.”

Packard sighed. “You won't need to restrain me, Professor Malvineous. I'll cooperate---”

“This wasn't what we talked about, Mr. Packard,” Hewlett growled. “Our employer—-”

“Our employer,” Packard cut in, “has thrown us under the proverbial bus, Mr. Hewlett, and I have no intention of going to some hellhole in Albuquerque on kidnapping charges.” He bowed his head. “Our record isn't as spotless as you'd like everyone to believe, either.”

Anton glanced at the Accountant. “If it's not too much trouble, could this, ah, entire detour---”

“It never happened,” the Accountant dryly replied. “Officially, I was never here. In fact, I'm not here now.” He gave a thin smile. “And neither are you.”

“Well, in a few more minutes,” Anton murmured, “you can conveniently forget to file the paperwork detailing this impromptu cooperative venture between us, and everyone here can go back to not having been here at any point in time.” He chuckled. “It'll be a nightmare to explain to the higher ups, of course....ANYway, back to the matter at hand.” He motioned for Sands to help Hewlett to his feet. “Now, before we get to the admittedly rather important bit about who hired you to begin with....why the hell did you two feel the need to kidnap a man who'd faked his death and come up with this grand scheme of yours to separate Agent Lawson and myself?”

Hewlett's defiant stare was the only answer the roboticist received.

“Let me make something very clear to you,” the Accountant muttered. “My employer, James Harrington, is generally a very nice guy. He donates to charities, he spearheads efforts to replant deforrested areas in the Amazon...all that stuff. One thing that neither he nor myself can tolerate, however, is being confronted by some obstinate, egocentric hired gun with such a vastly developed sense of self-worth that he thinks he doesn't have to answer to any higher authority than himself. You, sir, are dangerously close to falling into that category, meaning that I have no problem kicking you around for an hour and a half if need be---”

The sound of Anton loudly clearing his throat cut him off.

“Right. Anyways, I think it's a safe bet to assume that neither of you want to be here any longer than you have to be---I know I don't want to be here any longer than I have to, so I can extend the two of you that courtesey if you choose to be cooperative. If not....”

The Accountant smiled a shark's smile. “I'm willing to bet your hospital of choice will love your patronage...”

After a full sixty seconds of silence, Packard sighed. “Our employer wished to remain anonymous when he first contacted Mr. Hewlett and I, but...given the our current predicament, it's only fair to---”

“PACKARD, SO HELP ME,” Hewlett yelled, “IF YOU SAY ANOTHER WORD---”

“Our employer is the Baron.” Packard stared at Hewlett, his expression grim. “He's burned us already, Mr. Hewlett...and I would much rather defy him then break our own partnership over pithy differences of opinion on this matter.”

Those words had a stunning impact on Hewlett---he stopped ranting at Packard, stared at the floor, and said nothing. “Mr. Hewlett and I have been employed by the Baron before,” Packard explained, “with a relatively flawless record....until now. He's threatened the two of us with termination for failure before---”

“Why did he hire the two of you to begin with?” the Accountant inquired. “And why did he want Greendale?”

Packard exhaled a slow, deep breath. “The Baron,” he informed the well-spoken Coalition operative, “wanted us to abduct Greendale to force the hand of the android known as R-528. Apparently, R-528 was the product of a failed transferrence experiment that was never meant to have been conducted in the first place, and the Baron has seen fit to sever all ties to it---starting with the death of Everett Greendale....he adamantly refused to tell us anything further.”

With a nod, the Accountant turned to Anton. “And you knew about this beforehand,” he stated. “That sort of information could've done a great deal of help---”

“And it's pointless to bring it up now,” the roboticist finished, “because Agent Lawson is looking for Greendale right now.” He looked into the Coalition agent's eyes, his stare unwavering; “Everything we 'knew' about the Bloody Valentine was wrong,” he intoned. “R-528's neural imprint was still flawed, still...raw, basically. I saw the internal record from his own memory---”

“Agent Sands.” The Accountant gestured for the female agent to hand him something. “Everything that Anton Malvineous has just said is to be considered off the record. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He waved her away, turning his attention to Anton once more. “Before either of us says another word, let me make one thing perfectly clear,” he stated, frowning. “I have no reason to believe anything you've just told me. I have no motivation for 'following up' on this 'lead', and I have no binding obligation that keeps me from just shooting you in the head right now and pretending this whole thing never happened.”

Anton didn't flinch. “Dully noted.....so what now?”

The Accountant sighed, shifting the object Sands had handed him into view. “Now....”

He turned the object over in his hand, revealing it to be a portable tape recorder. “...you can erase the tapes in that and give it to someone else as a nice Christmas gift. This operation is still off the books, and I'm not required to file any formal reports until....8:02 AM. That gives us plenty of time to get this sorted out, don't you agree?” Faster than anyone could've noticed, he winked.

“Perfectly reasonable,” Anton replied, struggling not to grin. “Now, these two...” He nodded in the direction of Hewlett and Packard. “We can't exactly drop them off at the local drunk tank, now can we?”

“I don't think they're going to have trouble getting over this one, Professor,” Agent Sands mused. “In fact—-”

“Save your facts for later, Christina,” the Accountant drawled. “These two have a rap sheet longer than A Song of Ice and Fire...almost as entertaining, as well. They've dealt with this before...” He glanced at Packard. “You have dealt with this before, haven't you?” he querried.

Packard smirked. “Enough times to know when Mr. Hewlett and I have lost a battle.”

“Then consider this a stalemate. You take what you have now, leave town by 8:00 AM and leave a crashed car on the outskirts of town just to throw off any local P.I.s hired to follow you---yes, Anton, I've done this sort of thing before as well, and I know exactly what I'm talking about.” The Accountant gestured to Sands; “Seeing as how James isn't the 'burn it down and salt the earth' type,” he quietly informed her, “just get these two as far from here as possible, cut their bonds and then leave them. None of this ever happened.”

Sands nodded, leading Hewlett and Packard out. “Well,” Anton muttered, “that was counter-productive...I was going to interrogate them about Greendale.”

“People get nervous when they're being interrogated, Professor,” the Accounant reminded him. “PDAs, laptop computers and iPads, on the other hand, don't.” He nodded towards the emergency exit. “The Baron left them a technological treasure trove to work with. As for Greendale...I believe you mentioned repeatedly that his case was in Agent Lawson's hands.”

“It is,” Anton admitted.

The Accountant nodded. “Then neither you nor Greendale have anything to be afraid of.”

“...and I swear, if another freaking display model starts belting out 'Genie In a Bottle', I'm going to throw a chair at it.” Vicki's stare was locked straight ahead as she stormed down the hallway, refusing to even acknowledge the display cases lining the walls. “Seriously, they had to pick the one song for the Demo modes on those units that I absolutely HATE....”

R-528 made a sound remarkably like a sigh. “If it helps, I happen to enjoy their singing---”

“Yeah, because you haven't heard that song fifteen thousand times,” the brunette gynoid griped. “One girl in my class just could not stop playing it....anyway, it's a long story.” She glanced further down the hall; “To be honest,” she quietly added, “I used to get the heebies something fierce any time I saw androids or gynoids---or even mannequins---in display cases or set out in store windows. There was just something about people behind glass, even if they weren't human.....it always used to creep me out. Dad got a kick out of it when I mentioned it to him---he found it ironic, I think.”

“And do you still find such sights....'creepy'?” R-528 inquired.

Vicki grinned. “Not anymore. It helps that Dad brought me to work a few times to get over it...and I had a nice long discussion with some psychiatrists, too...” Her grin faded a bit. “If you're wondering, it was right after I finished high school that I started to get weirded out by gynoids and androids on display---it was never a full-on panic attack sort of thing, or me refusing to pass in front of store windows with mannequins in them...I just....”

Even in her silence, it was clear that she was embarassed. “Forget I mentioned it. Let's just keep going.”

She strode forward, gesturing for the metal-skinned android to follow. “And while I'm thinking about it,” she called back, “I'd really appreciate it if you didn't bring this up when we get to Greendale.”

“I don't believe he will be overly concerned with your former phobia,” R-528 informed her.

“First of all,” Vicki corrected, “it wasn't a phobia. Second of all, I thought I asked you to forget I mentioned it in the first place...look, it was kind of a weird time for me in general, so I'm not really fond of going over it, okay?”

R-528 nodded silently.

“Good...now we can focus on the fact that this place has really bad cleaning service.” Even as she said the words, Vicki cringed---somewhere in the distance, the intermittent whine of a large vacuum cleaner starting and stopping almost at random filled her auditory sensors. “Guess this means it's time for another phone call to our favorite Dynadrive employee,” she muttered, retrieving the phone. “I wonder if---”

The phone rang before she could even open it. “....okay, that's weird.” The gynoid Field agent activated the phone; “Ellen, I was just about to call about---”

“The remote operated cleaning units? I figured you'd notice---and no, I didn't turn the things on!”

“I never said you did...I just wanted to know who's been screwing around with them for the past twenty minutes or so. My guess is, it's the same idiot who shut off power to one entire wing---”

“It's not. The cleaning units are entirely self-contained---their shifts are pre-set via WiFi at the end of each work day, and they stay in their charging bays until then....and the only person with access to the terminal used to set their shifts is the site supervisor---who just so happens to be the only other person here with authority equal to mine....and he's not exactly well-known for his generosity. He doesn't give anyone the password, not even me!”

“So now we're dealing with rogue cleaning units in addition to sabotage and an unknown intruder...just when I thought my morning couldn't get any more fun.” Vicki rolled her eyes. “You're sure the cleaning units weren't affected by the power loss? You did say they spend all day in the charging bays...maybe those were affected.”

“....now that you mention it, the charging bays are on the same part of the building's power grid set up as the wing that's blacked out...but that wouldn't affect their shift programming or anything---”

“Because that's done by WiFi,” the brunette gynoid finished. “You mentioned that already.” She paced back and forth, filtering out the sounds of the vacuuming robots. “Ellen,” she mused, “as crazy as it might sound, I just came up with a theory as to why the cleaning units are doing their Swiffer dancing right now instead of resting in their charging bays...and it has nothing to do with the blackout.”

“And your theory is....what, exactly?”

“My theory is....maybe someone else set the cleaning units off.”

“Someone else?!”

Vicki glanced at R-528; “Be ready to move on my mark,” she whispered. Turning her attention back to the phone, she continued her conversation with Ellen. “Someone sets a fire that locks the elevators, then blacks out an entire wing of a building. This same someone arrived shortly before we did, with an as-yet unknown agenda and motivation for what some might think are trivial acts of vandalism....but maybe those trivial acts might not be so trivial. We're still on the ground floor, the elevators are locked, and there's an entire wing of the building blacked out---you know what all that makes me think?”

Outside, a row of headlights kicked on, shining in through the security shutters.

“I think,” the gynoid Field Agent murmured, “that someone's trying to lure my friend and I into a trap.”

The sound of a door being kicked in several rooms back rang clear in Vicki's ears. “Ellen, I need you to do something that's probably against company policy right now,” she instructed. “Get ready to black out this part of the building for thirty minutes---”

“What?!”

“I'll explain when this is all over. Just....trust me on this. Please....”

On the other end of the line, Ellen sighed. “Fine. I'll kill the lights on your mark...”

A grin briefly crossed Vicki's face. “I owe you for this. Hit the switch in three.....two---”

Back at the far end of the hallway, the door R-528 had closed after entering with Vicki flew open.

“ONE!” V.I.C.I's head snapped to the left as she keyed the phone off. “Roboto, run!”

Darkness enveloped the hallway, with R-528 ducking beneath the line of sight of the windows. The headlights still blazing in from outside only caught brief, fleeting glimpses of the metal-skinned android, who managed to evade them with a surprising grace.

Back in the hallway, V.I.C.I stayed low, pressing herself to the wall and freezing every joint to remain perfectly still and silent. All internal “background noise”, used to simulate things like a heartbeat and breathing, shut off, as did the aesthetic processes that allowed her to emulate the act of breathing. As long as nobody shone a spotlight on her or got close enough to hear the muted humming of her internals, she was, for all intents and purposes, invisible.

Footsteps echoed within the darkened hallway, as a veritable platoon of men arrived to sweep the area---not with scanners or even firearms, but with cameras.

Their mission: to capture footage and photos of R-528.

“Grade doesn't pay us enough for this,” one man muttered, shaking his head. “We get top of the line gear and enough money to retire off of, and he's got us on point for a bunch of photographers....and journalists....it's a bleedin' waste of time.”

Another voice---lightly accented, but with a mellow resonance that masked the barest hint of malice---spoke up to silence the first man: “If you honestly believe your talents are wasted on this particular assignment, perhaps you'd like to ask our employer for something a bit more....exciting, assuming he doesn't have you shot for failing to adhere to protocol. We do not speak his name on assignment, even if all witnesses are silenced afterwards...”

“Well, maybe if our 'employer' would get off his arse every once in a while,” the first man replied, “we'd have a bit of an easier time getting this stupid job done. He's got---”

“What our employer has 'got' and what he doesn't are irrelevant. Our purpose here---”

“Our purpose here is sodding useless! So what if they get pics of that lumbering silver idiot? I did not give up a gig with KnightWind just to play bodyguard to a bunch of stupid camera geeks! I trained in demolitions, for crap's sake.....I don't need to waste my time babysitting these plonkers!”

The second man sighed. “If you intend to stay employed past this assignment, I suggest---”

“Stick your suggestion in your trachea and choke on it. I'm switching on night-vision---cover me.” The first man uttered a few choice words under his breath (including something about not getting paid enough) and flicked on a switch built into the ridiculously expensive goggles his entire squad had been given. “And don't even start about not wasting ammunition,” he added, turning to glare at his colleague again. “I am fed up with not getting more than a single damn clip on these ops....”

Both men---and three others, all of whom had wisely chosen not to participate in the argument---silently made their way through the hall, keeping their fingers off the triggers of their guns. None of them felt entirely at ease, mostly due to the figures in display cases all around them. Something about their stillness was....weird....

...and---conveniently---distracting.

The leading man in the formation---the one who'd complained about not being paid enough---whirled around, his Calico 960 trained on the doorway. “What the hell was that?!” His squadmates looked around, more than a bit bewildered---they hadn't heard or seen anything.

“You do realize your....rather prolific alcohol consumption may be causing you to see things,” the point man of the group began, only for his visibly-annoyed colleauge to shove past him. “Something moved past me,” he muttered, “past all of you idiots....it went this way!” He raised his weapon, moving towards what had just run past both his teammates and himself without being seen or heard. “I don't care who the hell or what the hell it is...I'm killing it---”

This time, the entire squad felt something speed past...and then realized their leader had been relieved of his weapon.

“What.....what the HELL......” The now unarmed man stumbled, staring at his unexplainably-empty hands. “It took my gun....grabbed the sodding thing right out of my hands...” His wild stare turned to his teammates, all of whom were just as startled as he was. “You all saw it,” he gasped. “You saw the damn thing---where the hell did it go?!”

None of them could offer a sufficient explanation.

“You mean to tell me you didn't see anything?! IT WENT RIGHT BLOODY PAST YOU! HOW THE SODDING HELL COULD YOU NOT HAVE---”

The butt-end of the man's 960 slammed against the back of his head mid-sentence, sending him to the floor in a sprawling, flailing heap not unlike any number of Tazered suspects on COPS. The squad-member he'd been arguing with brought his own gun to bear---only to find he'd been relieved of it, seconds before a man standing to his left was uppercutted with the butt-end of said gun. A third man also lost his weapon, and wound up floored by what might've been a leg-sweep---the attacker was moving far too quickly for anyone to be sure.

Only the well-spoken man and the one who hadn't been hit (or had his gun stolen) yet managed to stand close enough to each other without getting hit to go back-to-back. “You can't take two men down at once,” the well-spoken man declared. “Either show yourself now, or---”

A gasp---quickly replaced by a grunt---cut him off; the man standing with him had been pulled away.

Shortly afterwards, a thud revealed his fate---tossed back-first into a wall between display cases.

“Congratulations,” the well-spoken man growled. “You've separated the weed from the chaff....” He withdrew a pair of Sykes-Fairbairn commando knives from holsters strapped to his legs; “Unfortunately for you,” he called out, “whoever or whatever you are, I just so happen to---”

Two blinding spots of light---directly at eye level---temporarily stunned him.

“It doesn't matter what you just so happen to specialize in,” a robotic (yet feminine) monotone voice stated as the lights moved closer. “This ends here.”

“For you, maybe...an operative like myself---”

“Kevin Schrade, formerly employed with the KnightWind private military contractor firm. Currently under the employ of Michael Innes Grade as head of security for 'mobile operations'.” That robotic voice rang hollow in the ears of the well-spoken man, who now felt more than a bit cowed at the mention of his name by this....person. “I know why you're here, and who you're protecting---they won't be too happy to learn you've failed.”

Schrade smirked. “You think a voccoder is going to intimidate me? Why not turn the lights back on and---”

A few centimeters to his left, something moved---and, a split second later, smacked him in the face with a backhand strike. He staggered a bit, bringing the Sykes-Fairbairn knives to bear against his unseen opponent, only to be momentarily blinded as the lights kicked on, blazing into full intensity for a few seconds.

Even as the lights dimmed to their standard luminescence, something else blinded Schrade at that moment: a kick to the face that knocked him flat on his rear. “Your knife-fighting skills won't help you here,” the voice informed him. “You can't exactly stab what you can't see, can you?” There was something about that voice that irked Schrade to his core---condescencion, perhaps, or a tone of defiant superiority...and even an air of....finality, as if the speaker knew that victory was inevitable. “Maybe you'd be a little less of a braggart if you actually stepped into the light for once,” he retorted. “Or are you such a fragile little----”

The hammer-blow that knocked him to the floor was a surprise---not because of the force of the hit (though it was similar in overall bone-crunching pressure to being hit by a baseball), but due to the direction it came from: the double-fist strike had smashed into his right side, nailing him square in the kidneys.

“Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Schrade,” the voice suggested.

“Follow your own advice,” Schrade snarled, returning to his feet---and staring down a girl clad in red-and-black, armed with...nothing. No gun was holstered at her hip, no knives were in her hands----could this 20-something brunette, unarmed and apparently unfazed at the prospect of facing down an opponent armed with commando knives, have been the one who'd taken down everyone else in the squad?! “Whoever the hell you are,” he muttered, “your little game ends NOW!” He charged, the right-hand knife raised---

---and stopped cold as he swung the blade, horrified beyond rational thought to see the tip of the knife just touching her palm without even drawing blood. Before he could react, her hand closed around the blade.

Before he could blink, her fingers closed around it, twisted....and took the blade with them.

The girl's hand unclenched, allowing Schrade to see the Sykes-Fairbairn's ruined blade now permanently bent and mangled beyond all possible repair. “I tried to warn you,” she chided. “I kept the lights off, so you couldn't see me, I knocked all your friends unconscious so you'd take the hint and run off back to HQ....I even told you point blank that knife-fighting wouldn't help....”

Her eyes glowed, matching the spots of light he'd seen earlier. “...but you just...didn't...listen.”

Something in Schrade's left hand twitched---the other Sykes-Fairbairn knife, which he was just thinking about using, was now out of his grasp, and in the brunette girl's outstretched hand. “Can't have you running around here with this, can we?” Again, her hand close around the blade; a few seconds (filled with rather disturbing crunching sounds) later, she dropped the knife---with its utterly-broken blade, somehow folded inwards onto itself---to the ground. “Now, then....”

Despite years of training and orders to the contrary, Schrade found himself backing away. “What....are you?!”

“Something to keep you out of this line of work for the forseeable future. Next time you think of taking an assignment like this....” The girl gestured to the ruined knives. “Remember those. Remember your squad being brought down in mere seconds....”

Her eyes glowed again, a dangerous red this time. “...and remember me.”

Schrade nodded, turning on his heel to leave---only to feel his world going black as something hit him in the neck. The girl who stood before him didn't look all that surprised; indeed, her gaze never left the man as he fell to the floor. “Nice trick....letting yourself get knocked out with the rest of the grunts to keep me off my guard. If you hadn't rolled over and groaned after you hit the wall back-first, I might've ignored you...”

She glanced over her shoulder, smirking. “....I guess Faceless didn't bother to finish training you after the Detroit incident...did he, Mr. Lassiter?”

“So you remember me after all,” John Lee Lassiter smirked, rising from the floor where he'd unsuccessfully been feigning unconsciousness for the past few minutes. “I'm surprised you bother mentioning Faceless at all these days, considering you're the one who put him in the hospital.” He glanced at the ruined Sykes-Fairbairn knives; “I see you still like breaking other people's weapons,” he chuckled. “Schrade was pretty fond of those things...”

“Then he should've left them at home,” V.I.C.I replied, not smiling. “You're the one who knocked him out...I'm guessing you were paid to leave no witnesses?”

Lassiter rolled his eyes. “Nice try. You heard those idiots going over why they're here---”

“Which is why they're all out cold.” V.I.C.I didn't move from where she stood. “You'll be joining them in a minute....and don't bother trying to give up. I beat you once, back in May---”

“Oh, but you did so much more than 'beat' me, Agent Lawson,” Lassiter beamed. “That fight between us back in the parking garage....I still remember every detail of it. And believe it or not, I should be thanking you for what happened----you gave me one hell of a motivator.” His grin faded; “You also took something from me that day,” he continued, “and it took a few months' worth of surgeries for me to find out that I can never get it back.”

It was V.I.C.I.'s turn to smirk. “So I guess I gave you something else---a free vasectomy.”

“VERY FUNNY!” Lassiter shouted, glaring at the brunette gynoid with unbridled hate. “You're a real class act, Lawson....a comic genius. Laugh it up all you want for now...as soon as my people are done here, I'LL be the one laughing. That R-528 moron? He's a wanted man---or a wanted robot, or whatever....and Grade Media Group is paying top dollar for the first footage of him since the 80s.” He grinned again; “Bet he never told you he was a murderer,” he sneered. “How does it feel---”

“Did they tell [i]you that R-528 was the victim of a botched transferrence experiment?[/i]” V.I.C.I shot back, her stare never wavering. “A human being's thought patterns, filtered through a primitive neurological transmitter network and effectively broken by the time they're written to the target processors....”

The red glow returned to her eyes. “Even someone like you would be ruined by that.”

“So the walking tin can was human once,” Lassiter quipped---though V.I.C.I could tell the revelation had struck a chord. “I didn't get paid to hear his backstory---I got paid to make sure the GMG people get footage---”

“Which they won't,” the gynoid Field Agent declared. “Just leave now. Please.”

Again, Lassiter smirked. “You seem pretty sure that they won't get what they want, Lawson...a lot of big talk for someone who sticks to cheap tricks and knocking out guys when the lights cut off. Ten bucks says you'd be the one on the floor if I wasn't under orders to let you play your little game...” He cracked his knuckles. “Since we're already past that phase....why don't we just cut the crap and get to the part where I---”

“Surrender.” Again, V.I.C.I wasn't smiling. “I'm not kidding, Lassiter. If the GMG get that footage---”

“You honestly think I give a damn about your Agency? I'm here for the paycheck---”

A rubber-banded wad of cash hit the floor near Lassiter's feet. “You want your money?” V.I.C.I. asked, her eyes still glowing even as her voice reverted back to its human tones. “There it is. I took the liberty of relieving your comrades-in-arms of their cash---they were paid extra to keep an eye on someone....and I have a feeling that someone is you.” She took a single step forward; “I can run a check on each of them, if you want,” she added. “If the Baron paid them---”

“ENOUGH.”

The look on Lassiter's face told the brunette gynoid all she needed to know: He no longer cared about getting paid for this op. “You think I don't know what the Baron thinks of me?” he spat. “I've had a bulls-eye on my back ever since the Sanderson op---no thanks to you....”

“So now you're blaming me for all your problems,” V.I.C.I deadpanned.

“I only blame you for some of them,” Lassiter chuckled. “In a few seconds, you'll be blaming me for---”

“No. No more games....no more taunting.” The gynoid Field Agent strode forward. “You want to get past me and help the GMG crew get their job done? Prove it.” She extended a hand, palm up.....before curling her fingers into the classic “Come get some” pose. “Time to see if you've improved since May.”

The gesture prompted a laugh from the Human Animal. “You really want to do this? You want to fight me?!”

“Your call, Lassiter. Stand there and gawk....or do what you were paid to do.”

With another laugh, John Lee Lassiter unbuckled the covers on two pouches from his GMG-issue utility belt as V.I.C.I watched. “Lawson,” he muttered, “you're going to regret this one...I guarantee it.” His shark's grin did nothing to phase the gynoid; “We'll see who regrets this once the fight is over,” she informed him.

“Whatever you say....Vicki....” Lassiter took a deep breath......

As soon as V.I.C.I's eyes had glowed, R-528 ran.

His strength would've helped, probably, but as he'd learned from more than a few close calls, his metal-skinned body wasn't meant for fighting. Nor was it meant to run marathons---less a matter of clumsiness than power consumption. Vicki Lawson was more than capable of handling the fight herself, but still....

Footsteps sounded in the halls ahead of him. Quickly---at least, as quick as his battered body would allow---he managed to place himself between a pair of display cases for DynaDrive's XD-9070 Songbird series (their best-selling entertainment units for the past decade, if the placard was to be believed). With a bit of focusing, he dimmed the intensity of his glowing eyes. It wouldn't do much to stop his pursuers from finding him, but it was a start.

Of course, the fact that he was stuck between a lithe 20-something straw-haired girl in skintight jeans (with an equally-clingy shirt stretched over her C-cup breasts) and a 30-ish, pompadoured crooner in a 50s-era tux with shades did little, if anything, to make him stand out any less.

Still, if it came down to fight or flight...R-528 had no intention of going gently into that good night.

Not until Greendale was safe, at least.

The footsteps got closer, accompanied by muttered swearing. “...and unless I knew they weren't real,” a voice (female, early-to-mid 30s, tinged with a Northern British accent) mused, “I'd swear every single one of them were just wax figures! I mean, how many people would flip their lid---”

“None of them,” another voice---older, also British-accented, but with a sort of smooth menace to it---cut in. “If we'd been paid to film these, then we would. Grade gave specific instructions as to what he wanted us to get, and that's all we're getting here.” High-powered LED flashlights swept the hall, the footsteps moving about as the group separated. “Remember, only use your Blinders if someone tries to interfere,” the male voice called out. “Don't shine them at the target. We need at least 3 solid minutes of footage, or 15 good, high-def pictures.” The man was getting closer to where R-528 hid. “Any less than that---”

A side door swung open, stopping the whole group in their tracks.

“Blinders up!” the man ordered. “On my mark---”

Every light in the hallway flared to maximum intensity. The group cried out, some of them falling to the floor clutching their hands or covering their eyes.

When the lights dimmed, the “Blinders” lay on the floor where they'd been dropped.

“Don't just stand there,” the group leader commanded. “Pick up your Blinders and---”

“They don't work,” another voice---from the far end of the hall---declared. “You can try them anyway, if you want...but they won't do anything.” Indeed, the group found that their Blinders only produced a weak flicker of light, which blinked out in seconds. “Now, then...”

R-528 flattened himself against the wall as the group leader strode towards the interloper. “I have no idea who the hell you are,” he spat, “but this operation---”

“This operation is over---and you can tell Michael Innes Grade personally, once I'm done.”

A few members of the group chuckled. “Oh, we'll be done soon,” the leader agreed. “And so will you...only we'll be leaving on our own two feet!”

His claim was met with a scoff. “Prove it.”

Several schink sounds---the unmistakable noise of several collapsable batons being extended with a quick flick of the wrist---filled the hall. “You heard him,” the group leader declared. “The Grade Media Group is about to earn another exclusive headline...let's make it a good one.” The team ran forward...

...and for the next few seconds, the hall played host to one hell of a fight.

Most of it was unobserved by R-528---the metal-skinned android was too busy trying not to be noticed in the chaos---but he did manage to hear the vast majority of the brawl. Grunts, the scuffs of shoes as fighters were pushed back, and the occasional thud of a falling combatant against the floor painted a violent picture of how the clash in the corridor was playing out. Occasionally, a baton (or the twisted remnants of one) would come flying past R-528's hiding spot---in one instance, a particularly ruined baton was followed soon after by the airborne figure of its former weilder, screaming all the while before he met the floor face-first and went quiet.

In four minutes, the whole group was down for the count.

Well, almost the whole group....

Slowly, R-528 emerged from the space between the XD-9070 cases, just in time to see the last man of the GMG group engaged in a full-on fistfight with the interloper. In all honesty, calling it a “fight” was a bit much; the lone GMG man---the group leader, in fact---was completely outmatched. Every punch he threw was blocked, every wild haymaker dodged, every clumsy kick deflected; as it stood, he'd be out of breath soon.

His opponent, on the other hand, was still focused on the “fight”.

“You're not getting out of here, Ty,” he informed the GMG man. “Not this time. I told you, the last time we met, that it'd be in your best interests to stay out of my way---”

“If I'd known you were involved,” the man addressed as Ty spat, “I'd have called in an air strike!” He nearly tripped over his own feet as he backed up, preparing to throw yet another punch; “This was supposed to be an easy op,” he snarled, swinging (and missing). “You didn't have all of them helping you—-”

He overshot another punch, earning him a kick to the back. “I'm doing quite well by myself...unlike you---”

“SHUT UP!” Ty, still sprawled on the floor, tried to lunge at his opponent's ankes—only to literally fall right into a rising knee strike that split his lip. “You've clearly seen better days,” the other man informed him. “Looking up from the bottom of a beer bottle tends to do that to a man...does Grade know just how bad your drinking has been?”

Ty staggered to his feet. “You were there,” he slurred. “You saw what happened...”

“Which is why I'm letting you go. Get back to Grade, tell him what happened here, and let him know that the Chairman of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency has stepped in personally...and then leave. Get as far away from Silicon Valley as possible---as far as you can from all of this, to be precise. Take everything you own with you; if you've got anyone in your life now, bring them as well. Cut all ties with contacts and any past employers, as well---if any of my people see you in Silicon Valley again, it'll be the last time anyone sees you anywhere.....and I don't want it to have to go that far.”

“That'll take---”

“A week. You have a week to get out of here...never let it be said that I'm not a generous man.”

With that, Ty backed away. “I don't owe you anything for this. Just so we're clear, I'm not paying you back for this one.”

“I don't expect you to. Now, then...on your way.”

R-528 waited until Ty had stumbled past the display cases to emerge, noticing the man's opponent clearly for the first time.....

“So. I believe this is our first proper introduction, R-528.”

The ALPA Chairman turned to face the metal-skinned android, his expression neutral. “I'm willing to bet that you're wondering why I let you leave ALPA HQ,” he musd. “Or at the very least, you're wondering why I didn't stop you from leaving with Agent Lawson and Professor Malvineous---or why I didn't choose to simply have all three of you arrested before you stepped off the grounds....”

“You know who I was,” R-528 murmured. “You knew Greendale....”

“I did. And, had I been in power at the time, I would've handled things differently. But, in 1983, I wasn't the chairman of the ALPA, and Clive DuBraul wasn't its President....neither of us could've stepped in without any substantial proof, and there would've been fifteen DeComm orders on your head.” Oberon sighed. “Someone greater than myself once stated that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” he informed the android. “I, for one, don't intend to let the Bloody Valentine hang over everyone's heads like a damned albatross...” He reached into his coat; R-528, reflexively, tensed.

Oberon noticed. “You're not getting DeCommed tonight...at least, not by me.” His expression softened, his lips turning up in a smile as he produced an envelope. “The official 'DCOS' order,” he explained. “'DeComm On Sight'. Only one copy exists, and it can only be enforced if signed by both the President and Chairman.”

He held out his other hand, the palm facing R-528...then, with a flourish, produced a silver Zippo.

“Of course,” he continued, “if said form were to....disappear, never again to be seen by mortal or machine eye, then said order is officially null and void.” His grin widened as he held the lighter beneath the envelope, flicking it open. “Unit R-528,” he declared, “consider this....your absolution.” Another flick, and a flame rose from the Zippo, setting the envelope alight.

The simple gesture stunned R-528 beyond belief. “But....why?! Your agents have been pursuing me---”

“Have been pursuing you,” Oberon admitted, “not 'will continue to'---oh, and you might want to take a look at this as well...” He retrieved another envelope, this one from an outer pocket of the coat. “The whole 'R-528' handle is....a bit loaded, to be honest. Too much of a stigma, if you ask me....which is why someone such as yourself will probably be in the market for a brand new designation. I do believe Agent Lawson had her own idea....”

Gently, R-528 opened the envelope, staring in silence at the stamped, foil-sealed certificate tucked away inside of it. “You....you've given me a new name....”

“Indeed. AND I can go one better---I can give you a new...well, you. That chassis of yours is....what, three decades old? You'll be getting joint-lock soon, if you try to keep going....” He glanced at the hall around him; “I hope the DynaDrive folks don't mind,” he added, “if I borrow their facility for this bit...I've already called Anton, and once he's done with the current business, I'll have him bring the truck around.”

“I....I don't know what to say,” R-528 admitted. “You....forgive me?”

“Forgiving you would mean you consciously killed her....which I know you didn't. But, if it helps, consider all this an apology from me on behalf of the rest of the ALPA.” He motioned for the android to follow; “We haven't got much time,” he explained, noticing R-528's hesitation. “Something wrong?”

“Vicki. She may need my help...”

With a smile, Oberon led R-528 onwards. “I have a feeling she's handling things famously right now...”

A muttered curse was the only thing Lassiter had time to say as he aimed yet another punch towards V.I.C.I's head---and missed. If she'd been blocking his moves, he wouldn't have been as infuriated as he was...

...instead, she was simply dodging back and forth, moving as a red-black blur between punches.

“Stand....STILL....damnit!” Even as he swung again, Lassiter knew the blow wouldn't connect---sure enough, the gynoid moved backwards. “This is getting really old, REALLY---” His words ended in a choked gasp, followed by his fifteenth reintroduction to the floor and a numbness in his right shoulder. “That was an open-hand chop,” V.I.C.I informed him. “Just enough to knock the feeling out of your arm for a few minutes or so.” She arched an eyebrow as her opponent tried to shake the numbness out of his arm, scowling at her; “I never pictured you as the type to do someone else's bidding,” she mused. “Especially after Detroit---”

“Detroit was your fault!” Lassiter snarled.

Despite her annoyance with him, V.I.C.I. scoffed. “Sure it was. Faceless' plan never would've failed if I'd just stayed in San Jose....give me a break. The 'logic' behind his stupid strategy had more holes in it than---”

“SAVE IT! The whole plan would've gone off without a hitch if you and your stupid teammates hadn't stuck your noses in! James would've gone down the river for the whole thing instead of me, and I would've OWNED the Detroit robotics market---but instead, YOU HAD TO SCREW EVERYTHING UP! Faceless barely even paid any attention to the business aspect of the whole thing...all he wanted to do was lure a bunch of people in just so he could 'indulge'....” He shook his head. “He left the corporate parts up to me---”

“And I'm guessing he planned out anything that involved killing people,” V.I.C.I finished.

Her words snapped Lassiter out of his rage-induced funk. “Everything,” he admitted with a leer, “except for my little stunt in the hotel room. That one....heh heh....was all me---”

As soon as the word “me” left Lassiter's lips, the lights went out again.

“Really bad move on your part,” V.I.C.I called out. “See, if you'd said Faceless had planned that little depravity, I would've apologized for the 'free vasectomy' remark I made earlier. Seeing as how you just owned up to it, though.....”

Lassiter was knocked off his feet by a jaw-shaking left hook---one with the speed of a World Series-level pitch.

“One of my biggest problems recently,” the gynoid Field Agent continued, as her opponent struggled to his feet, “is that I start to wonder what happens if I accidentally forget to hold back. After what I did to Matthew Emmerich Hannsen in Dawley, I've had this....fear, or something like it, that I'll just.....snap.” Something in the calmness of her voice, enhanced by that robotic monotone, unnerved the Human Animal greatly---but V.I.C.I wasn't done. “I keep worrying that I might just....go too far, one day....”

Before he could think of a clever response, Lassiter's feet were kicked out from under him.

“When I beat Hannsen down, I....enjoyed it. Told myself he had it coming.”

Just as Lassiter managed to get back up, a brutal elbow to the small of his back sent him to the floor again.

“Looking back on it now, I know why I did what I did to Hannsen---he killed my roommate, one of my best friends, in cold blood. You, on the other hand...you tried to use me like you've used so many of your past 'conquests'.....and I made you pay for that one on Cinco de Mayo.....but I thought that was the end. I thought, mistakenly, that you would've had the good sense to retire.”

Yet again, Lassiter rose---on shaky legs---only to get laid out with a right hook that split his lip.

“Considering how you were 'trained' by Faceless,” V.I.C.I continued, still speaking in that calm, electronic voice that was already beginning to make Lassiter wish he could make himself go deaf, “I should've known retirement just wasn't in the cards for you....but I knew that even what I'd done on Cinco de Mayo was crossing the line---rearranging your face and the other bit---and the really crazy thing is, I did all of that before I put Hannsen in the Intensive Care unit....”

For the third time in less than that many minutes, Lassiter found himself knocked to the floor, this time by a knee to the upper part of his back.

“There is a point to all of this,” the gynoid stated, “and it's not just about me kicking you around the room while monologuing.” Lassiter reached out, found the wall and managed to work his way up it---only for something to pull him away, flinging him to the ground. “It took me a few days to realize it, but I finally know what I did wrong in Dawley---I let emotion get in the way. I tried to tackle the problem from a purely human perspective....”

The lights kicked back on, revealing V.I.C.I standing directly over Lassiter....

….and slowly, he realized the scope of what she'd been doing for the past few minutes.

“It's a pretty simple strategy,” the brunette gynoid informed him, almost as if she realized he'd figured out her trick. “Stand across the room, spout dialogue, then run in and knock you over---never giving you a chance to see where I'm striking from.”

A smile crossed her face. “Funny how thinking like a machine kept me from hurting you too badly....”

Indeed, even as he realized his arms and legs felt far too numb for his liking, Lassiter knew that no bones had been broken, nor had a single drop of blood been spilt---the only lingering sensation he could feel was one of disorientation. It almost felt like the room was spinning....

“You're starting to feel it,” Vicki stated, still smiling. “You can barely tell which way is up....”

“Not my fault,” Lassiter blurted. “You turned off the lights....spun me around....”

The accusation of spinning Lassiter around prompted a scoff from the Field Agent. “You did all the spinning on your own, Lassie---”

Lassiter let loose a roar, lunging. “DO NOT CALL ME LASSIE!” He jumped for the red-clad figure before him.

Seconds later, he found himself getting to know the floor a whole lot better.

“Funny thing about being able to run as fast as I can,” Vicki mused, checking her nails (purely for effect). “It tends to leave...afterimages. Sort of like vapor trails, except they can play havoc on a man's senses if he's already dizzy.” She grinned again. “You thought I was standing still this whole time, just focusing on trying to jump me while I stood there---”

Again, Lassiter charged---and ran headfirst into a display case housing a spandex-clad 20-something blonde marketed as a backup dancer.

“See, the other problem with what I did to Hannsen,” the brunette gynoid continued, now standing behind the Human Animal, “is that I walked in with no plan. All I could think about was what he'd done to Sharon...and what I was going to do to him. If I'd let logic be my guide....eh, well, you know how it is, 'hindsight is 20/20', all that jazz....the point is, I could've---and, by my own admission, should've never gotten away with what I did to Hannsen. I didn't have any contingency plan....or any plan, for that matter.”

She knealt down to look Lassiter in the eye. “For you, on the other hand.....”

The lights cut out again, just as Lassiter started pulling himself up on the display case.

Vicki's voice called out, taunting him in the darkness: “Going up against you in a slug-fest would've just ended up going to Hell for both of us---your congenital insensitivity to pain would've made it impossible for me to tell how badly I might've hurt you unless I forced myself to go over the edge again. I didn't want to risk it---and I have a feeling you wouldn't have cared either way, seeing as how you were trained by the same psycho who nearly killed my brother---so I decided to change things up a bit.”

“So....you cheated,” Lassiter spat.

Astonishingly, Vicki laughed. “You're accusing me of cheating?!”

“Yeah....real hilarious, isn't it?! The guy who sprung that little trap on you at the hotel in Detroit saying you're a big fat cheater....must be a REAL gut-buster, right?!”

“Considering the circumstances...” Vicki's smile didn't waver. “...I'd say...yeah. You don't scare me anymore, Lassiter...you're just a bad memory that won't fade away, and hurting you the way I hurt Hannsen isn't going to change that.”

The faintest glimmer of a sneer crept into her expression. “Besides, screwing with you like this is just too fun.”

Something in those last three words---defiance, arrogance, playfulness and maybe even a bit of innuendo thrown in for good measure---stung the Human Animal more than he'd ever have cared to admit. His tutelage at Faceless' hands was meant to prepare him for the dual life of a corporate icon/serial killer---but none of the nameless rabble of adversaries he'd racked up was anything like Vicki Lawson.

“Fun?” he echoed. 'You think this is....fun?!”

Vicki shrugged. “I figured it's better than putting you in traction---”

She almost didn't dodge out of the way of Lassiter's enraged charge---not because she was distracted, but just to see what would happen if he actually got his hands on her. Even as she taunted him, her CPU was plotting her next five moves---and countless variations of them---based on a plethora of variables most human beings would be too distracted to even consider. As it stood, Lassiter's attempt to tackle her off her feet fell short by a full three inches, without Vicki even having to use her enhanced reflexes---she merely took two quick steps backwards, allowing the Human Animal to fall on his face once again.

“As much as I'd love to see you trip over your own two feet all morning,” she beamed, “I have an itenerary to stick to---and you'd just get in the way.” She stepped over Lassiter, actually skipping out of his reach when he tried grabbing at her ankles. “Look at it as me doing you a favor, actually...if I stayed around to fight you, and had to get serious---”

Lassiter shouted something that Vicki couldn't quite catch, before rolling over---and aiming a handgun right at the brunette gynoid's head.

Right, so we've reached that part of the confrontation.... Even before Lassiter had revealed his “big surprise” (which, lo and behold, was a Desert Eagle), Vicki was prepared to move out of the way. The fact that he'd brought out a Desert Eagle almost prompted the gynoid Field Agent to laugh again---is he trying to make this easy for me?! Before Lassiter could squeeze off even a single shot, Vicki held her hand out, as if to stop him...

….and, with a flick of her wrist, the gun left Lassiter's hand and sailed into hers.

“Do me a favor,” she suggested, “and just lay there while I go finish my mission.”

With that, she turned and headed off down the hall, leaving John Lee Lassiter screaming at the ceiling.

“Just tell me this: How long did you know?”

Anton's question was answered with a chuckle. “Professor,” Oberon replied, “I discerned R-528's innocence two seconds after I heard what had been done to create him...the day after the Bloody Valentine. Of course, I had a few doubts over the years...but the fact remains: R-528 did not voluntarily choose to kill.” He glanced over his shoulder at the truck Anton had arrived in. “I'm assuming you brought everything I asked for in the phone call?”

“I did. Some of it was more difficult to acquire than expected---”

“As long as you were able to acquire it,” Oberon interjected, “we are, as the phrase goes, all good. Let's just see if Mr. Roboto himself is ready.”

The roboticist arched an eyebrow. “How did you---”

“Did you honestly think that Vicki referring to him as 'Roberto' was going to throw me off when you left?” The ALPA Chairman chuckled again. “You disappoint me, Anton....and for the record, 'Mr. Roboto' is the official designation of the unit in question as of now. The DCOS order has been rescinded, as well.”

It was Anton's turn to chuckle. “You burnt the envelope, didn't you?”

“Only way to make sure the damned thing was completely removed from circulation...couldn't risk shredding it and finding out someone taped the strips back together. And no, I don't use 'confetti' shredders, either; I once spent an entire day piecing a document together after running it through one of those, and if I can put a paper back together from that.....” He shook his head. “There's nothing that'll bring back that DCOS order now,” he murmured. “It's gone---and Mr. Roboto no longer has to live in fear.”

“True,” Anton agreed. “Assuming---”

“It will work, Professor. I know it will.”

“You only call me Professor when something serious is happening,” Anton mused, frowning a bit. “Vicki's still doing her part.....”

Oberon nodded. “True....but it's that revelation which troubles me. There's no way of knowing what sort of measures Hewlett and Packard implemented to keep Greendale from escaping or being rescued...hell, Vicki could be walking straight into an ambush, for all we know.”

“She can handle it,” Anton reminded him.

“Can she? There's a distinct possibility that this whole thing could be one big trap.....”

“I try not to look at it that way,” Anton admitted. “Even if she doesn't know what's waiting for her in there, I have a feeling she can get past it....she's come a long way since Dawley---”

“Dawley,” Oberon interrupted, “is the past. If we keep holding that up as the litmus test for how far Agent Lawson has come in her career as a Field Agent, we'll be setting her up to fail. We have far more pressing matters to tend to, in any case---with this ranking pretty high on the list. In the meantime...” He turned his attention back to the truck Anton had pulled up in. “I take it you've prepared to transfer the consciousness of Mr. Roboto from his current body into something a bit more...modern?”

The roboticist nodded. “You do realize that there's going to be an inquiry after this is over, don't you? Both of us may have to answer for this....”

“Let them inquire,” Oberon muttered. “For now, business....OI, ROBOTO!”

Anton nearly chuckled at the casual use of the new name that had been bestowed upon the metal-skinned android. “Looks like you've accepted his new title already,” he mused. “Let's just hope that everyone else in the ALPA will be as accomodating as we are---if they still hate him after he gets a new look AND a new name, I don't know what we'll be able to do---”

“I prefer to focus on the positives,” Oberon cut in. “Especially in this case...and speaking of which, there's the man of the hour now!” He beamed as Mr. Roboto strode forth, glancing at the truck Anton had bought. “So, what do you think?”

Roboto didn't look away from the truck. “This will...transfer me? Again?”

“Well, yes and no---it'll transfer your consciousness to a new form, but it won't be anywhere near as bad as the process that broke your mind....” Oberon paused. “I understand that the individuals who, ah, talked you into undergoing the transfer that made you what you are now informed you that the process would be painless, 'like waking up from a dream', and all that rot---they did use these ridiculous superlatives, correct?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, I might as well give you the blunt truth: your consciousness, in the form of every single digital file stored within your memory and hard drive systems, will be quickly and efficiently shunted from your current body into a far more modernized one. It'll take about....ten to twenty seconds, more than likely, and if you want, we can suspend your current body's functions during the process to avoid any...unpleasantness....but if you decide to remain online during the whole thing, it won't be trauma-inducing, or anything like that....”

After a few seconds of pondering, Roboto made his choice. “I'll stay online.”

Oberon nodded. “Fair enough. Anton, bring him to the truck and begin the procedure---”

“You're not thinking of going back in there,” Anton interjected. “If the Grade Media Group is involved in this, and they find you traipsing around---”

“Which they won't.”

“THAT'S NOT THE POINT! We aren't here to wage war against the GMG...” Anton nervously ran his hands through his hair. “The GMG is looking for Roboto the way he is now, aren't they? If they see him with a new form, they won't even recognize him!”

His claim was met with a frown from the ALPA Chairman. “You were telling me that the GMG not being able to spot me traipsing around wasn't the point of us being here,” he murmured, “and now you're going on about them not being able to recognize Mr. Roboto once he gets his new look....” He shook his head, watching the metal-skinned android enter the trailer of the truck. “This whole thing started off with Vicki accepting a mission to just stand outside a factory and watch for strange behaviour, and now....”

Something in his tone convinced Anton to not ask what he felt like saying.

“The truck's prepped to transfer Roboto's files to the new form, isn't it?” Oberon's question nearly caught the roboticist off-guard; “It is,” he replied, “but I figured you'd want to be on hand, just in case---”

“You want to make sure that everything I said actually holds up. Which it will, just so you know...”

Anton nodded. “I know. I just...I want Roboto to feel....comfortable, I guess.”

“Makes sense, given what he's been through.....”

For a few seconds, neither man spoke. Neither one needed to; the situation was already far too tense.

“Anton,” Oberon intoned, after glancing back at the truck, “I think.....I think we've made a mistake.”

“With Roboto?”

“No.....with Vicki.” The ALPA Chairman stared at the ground. “She's just one gynoid...one girl....and here we are, trying to pin the hopes and dreams of the entire Agency on her....and she doesn't even know. There's too much we haven't told her, too much she might find out on her own that could make her hate the wrong people or trust someone she shouldn't....we've treated her too much like someone in desperate need of protection, rather than someone who protects others.”

The Professor's eyes went wide. “You're....you're saying that---”

“I'm saying that we need to reevaluate our entire situation with Vicki, starting with telling her about the breach.”

At this, Anton hung his head. “I think she may already know....she mentioned something about that other gynoid, Pria, telling her about the breach---no details, but she did mention it.” He clenched his fists, angry at himself for the words that came out of his mouth: “I...I nearly tried to erase her memory of it.”

A slap on the face, a shouted reprimand, a quiet request to repeat himself...Anton would've welcomed them.

Instead, he was answered only with silence.

“I wasn't thinking of the long-term effects,” he babbled, “I just...I didn't want her to start asking questions---”

“Anton.”

The mention of his name was enough to get the roboticist to stop talking. “Anton,” Oberon repeated, “we blew it.” There was no trace of sarcasm in the words, no hint of anything resembling humor; there was only a sense of weariness, mixed with the faintest tinge of defeat. “We've treated Vicki like a pet project, instead of a person, and it's going to bite us all in the ass when this is over with...and there's not a single damned thing we can do about it now. She's running through this facility, hoping to save Everett Greendale....and she has no idea that her fate has been monitored and damn-near guided by us. No single Field Agent is greater than the whole ALPA....she's just one cog in the machine, and yes, the simile is most definitely intentional.”

“But....she'll think we've been----”

“Lying to her? Manipulating her? Trying to protect her? Indeed she will....and she'll be right to, because we have been doing all those stupid things. Vicki Lawson has done a lot for the ALPA....but the ALPA has existed before her, and it'll exist if she chooses to leave or....if she's removed from the equation.” Oberon turned away, unable to even look Anton in the eye; “She's not the first we've tried this with,” he added, his voice low enough to be a whisper. “The most successful thus far, maybe....but not the first.”

“Then maybe we need to just let her in on what we're doing,” Anton replied. “The ones before her...we know why they failed as badly as they did, and she's nothing like them.”

His suggestion prompted a scowl from the ALPA Chairman. “If we tell her what we're doing, the consequences could be catastrophic.” He glanced back at the Dynadrive factory. “I'll talk to Clive about it when we get back to headquarters, and then I'll figure out how to handle this...and if she does keep asking about the breach, we'll tell her what happened.”

“What about---”

“We'll tell her what happened. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Silently, Anton nodded, turning his attention back to the truck.

Then I had not one, but TWO moments of clarity (a new personal record!) as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling last night: I haven't exactly been supportive of other peoples' works on here myself, and everyone on this forum has their own life, with their own schedules and routines, meaning they can't all be asked to post at my convenience.

So....yeah. For anyone who thought I was being passive-aggressive about comments and replies, consider this my apology.

And as for me not replying to anyone else's work, part of it is this stupid, selfish feeling that I'm "competing" with other stories on here. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a bit of friendly rivalry or anything, but when you start getting pissy every time someone's thread gets bumped above yours, it begins to affect your feelings towards writing. And I KNOW there's a certain element that 99.9% of other stories on this forum have that mine seems to be...lacking...and that some people may find that reason enough to not reply or something...but to be honest, my stories lacking that one element may actually be a GOOD thing.

Think of it this way: The Stories section is a buffet line, and that aforementioned element is like shrimp cocktail---wait, hang on, that's a crap analogy. Actually, forget analogies altogether, 'cos I'm rubbish at them.

Simply put, everyone's free to read and reply to what they want to read and reply to. If you want to read and reply to stuff other than my stories, that's fine. If you want to read and reply to my stories, that's fine too.

Right, rambling speech over. Sorry if I've pissed anyone off inadvertently (I didn't INTEND to), and on with the show!

COMPLETELY UNRELATED P.S.: If anyone here is a fan of the band Iron Maiden, go look up their song "Dance of Death". I'm writing a Splatterhouse fanfic with that as the subtitle later this year (SHAMELESS PLUG!) for my first-ever M.U.G.E.N project---Rick Taylor, the protagonist of Splatterhouse, ported to M.U.G.E.N with "hybrid"-style gameplay (SHAMELESS PLUG #2!).


“Okay, is it just me or does DynaDrive have a thing for Kate Upton?”

Vicki couldn't help but roll her eyes as she made her way through what she'd dubbed “Catwalk Lane”---a whole wing of the DynaDrive building dedicated to displaying their “Endless Beauty” series (a fully-licensed line of gynoids and androids modeled after....well, models). The apex of the wing was a full block of glass-fronted cubicles containing gynoids built to the exact specifications (body measurements, hair/eye color, and even that little beauty spot above her lip on the right side) as supermodel Kate Upton, all posed and dressed in the styles of her photoshoots. Apparently, she'd agreed to be the spokesmodel for DynaDrive and personally approved her inclusion in the Endless Beauty line, under the caveat that units modeled after her would only be used for one-off demonstrations and private DynaDrive trade shows.

“Something tells me Sports Illustrated would have a field day in here,” the brunette gynoid mused, passing by a cubicle whose Kate was clad in a shiny blue bikini with a starfish clasp. “If they haven't already....” She shook her head, chuckling at the notion. “Hell, Jamie would probably be drooling all over the place---”

A door at the far end of the room opened, prompting Vicki to cut her remarks short and scramble for cover.

Having dealt with the Human Animal and a full group of GMG-hired guards, the gynoid Field Agents knew her chances of running across more opposition might increase as she made her way through the facility. And me without a sidearm, she noted, shaking her head. Even a Taser would be preferable to this---at least, one with a longer range than what I already have...

Might as well get a good look at who I'm about to engage in CQC. Carefully, Vicki poked her head around the corner of the cubicle---and nearly groaned out loud as she saw another Kate Upton gynoid waiting patiently for the glass front of her own display cubicle to open. And here I thought I was going to have to go alll Solid Snake on her..... Stifling a giggle, Vicki stayed hidden as the Kate---clad in a bright red lingere set that gave her a feeling of having just stepped off the pages of Victoria's Secret---entered the cubicle, took a seat on a leather couch and assumed her display pose, tilting her head back and smiling a bit as she reclined.

“Guess I might as well keep moving...” With one last look at the Kate who'd just entered the room, Vicki moved out from behind the display cubicle, ready to continue through the room---

---and reflexively turned away just as every light in the room blazed into full brightness.

“I didn't even do anything,” she muttered, reaching for the phone she'd found in the van. “Maybe Ellen will be able to shed some....really? I'm sitting here, with floodlights everywhere in the room, and I'm two seconds away from saying that someone can 'shed some light' on the situation....” She shook her head at the corniness of her near-gaff. “Ted's going to love hearing about this when I get back home...”

Even as she keyed on the phone, Vicki kept an eye out for anyone or anything that might be moving towards her with malicious intent. “Ellen? Vicki Lawson again; all the lights in---”

“They're going on and off all through the facility now! I was just about to call to tell you!”

Secure in the knowledge that the lights' bizarre antics weren't her fault, Vicki continued. “Any idea what might be doing this? I mean, is this related to the break-in, or---”

“I don't think so. The break-in should've triggered the factory-wide lockdown, but all that's happened so far are a few isolated areas locking up and then opening again. It's like someone's trying to....” Ellen paused mid-sentence, coming to an obviously negative realization just as Vicki did. “They're breaking the system,” she gasped. “They're trying to break the entire network!”

“Are you sure?” the gynoid Field Agent inquired. “It might just be a bunch of system errors or something....” ….or maybe I want it to just be a bunch of system errors, she mentally added.

“The network's failing all over the facility---if this is just a bunch of system errors, we're screwed!”

“Guess I should look into it, then...as soon as I figure out how to get out of the Kate Upton department without being spotted by anyone.” Vicki glanced around, halfway expecting the Kate Uptons to rise up and begin moving towards her...except they never did. “So, ah, how exactly do I stop the network from failing?”

“Leave that to me....something tells me that Greendale might be in trouble.”

Ellen's words prompted a grimace from Vicki; “What makes you say that?” she asked, managing to stay calm.

“The part of the factory he's in has been experiencing some pretty wild temperature fluctuations, and if it keeps up, it might be too much for him----I don't know if it's tied to the network problems or not.”

“Not a problem. I'll get there.....” Vicki let the sentence trail off. “Ah, how do I get there from here?”

The sound of Ellen typing filled the brunette gynoid's auditory sensors. “Give me a minute...plotting a course from where you are now to Greendale might take some time...”

“No worries. Just as long as nothing else is lurking around here---”

“There shouldn't be. The gynoids in your part of the facility are only activated for display when there's a VIP tour going on; other than that, they're only activated to get them out of the building if there's a fire or something along those lines. They won't get in your way or anything like that...well, unless they're set on 'roam' mode, like they were for that one company party. Everyone who showed up hungover the morning after kept talking about how Kate Upton managed to wear fifteen different outfits....everyone else just tried not to laugh....”

Vicki sighed; “As fascinating as that annecdote is,” she mused, “I kinda need the directions to---”

“Won't take but a few more seconds!” Ellen's voice promised. “Something's slowing down the network...”

“Doesn't surprise me in the least,” Vicki muttered Probably more of the GMG nutjobs....but why do I think they aren't the ones who broke in when I first got here? “Just keep doing your thing and make sure the network stays online, and I'll keep doing my thing---which includes getting Greendale out of wherever he is....” As she glanced around the room at the Kate Upton gynoids, a realization struck her. “Actually, I just had a thought. Is there a way I can take control of the security system from where I am and shut out the intruders remotely?”

“Actually, there is....let me just---oh, crap.”

“What? What's the 'oh crap' for?”

“The only way through to the terminal nearest to your location is through a series of 'utility corridors', all of which are lined in microwave emitters.”

Even the feel of her fingernails digging into her synthetic flesh couldn't keep Vicki's voice from trembling. “Did you just say.....the halls are lined with microwave emitters?”

“From what I understand, they deter 'all levels of vandalism and other criminal acts'.....Kip bought them as soon as we could make room in the budget for the stupid things. They never did bother to tell anyone under the 'proper clearance level' how to turn the things off, either....”

Calming herself, the brunette gynoid realized that there was a way past the emitters---albiet one that involved the destruction of one of the Kate Upton gynoids. Passive scans show no signs of sentience from any of them, so my only regret with this is that I can't hoof this Kip guy right in the jaw for even thinking of installing a set of microwave emitters in this place.... “Ellen, can the entire system be turned off from the terminal you told me about?

“Yeah....but---”

“No buts. I think I can turn the system off from here, but I may need to borrow a Kate.” Without pausing, Vicki headed for the nearest display cubicle and slid the glass aside. “And she might not be in perfect working order when I'm done,” she continued, “so apologies in advance.”

“What exactly are you going to do?”

“I'm going to send the Kate through the corridors to turn off the system.” Even as she spoke, Vicki was using her own control panel to access the blonde gynoid's functions. “Just point me in the direction of the hallways, and I'll do the rest.” Assuming the feedback from this Kate doesn't fry my systems in the process....

The idea of sending another gynoid (even a non-sentient celebrity replica) through the microwave emitters didn't sit well with Vicki---namely because microwaves were just as damaging to machines as they were to human beings. While EMPs could simply shut off electronics and render them inoperable, microwaves could effectively boil internal fluids, melt plastics and some weaker metals, fuse wires together and effectively reduce a fully-functioning android or gynoid to a vaguely humanoid pile of silicon, plastic and metal. Under controlled (aka “normal”) conditions, like the use of a microwave oven, the risk of exposure was pretty much nil.

In a hallway lined floor-to-ceiling with emitters, on the other hand....

“....and how do you intend to 'borrow' a Kate?” Ellen's voice asked, snapping Vicki out of her funk. “My dad's Ted Lawson,” she replied numbly. “I'll figure something out.”

Even as she keyed off the phone, the brunette gynoid felt somewhat guilty for having lied through her teeth when telling Ellen she'd “figure something out”---mainly because she already had figured out exactly how to use the Kate Upton gynoid to get through the microwave emitter-lined hallways. Still, there was something about the use of the emitters that bothered her....

Maybe it's because even the Coalition doesn't have a reputation for that type of “security”.

Still scowling at the idea that anyone, even within the Coalition, would use something like microwave emitters to guard a factory, Vicki enabled the remote override within the Kate gynoid, allowing her to take direct control of the statuesque blonde. She keyed the phone back on, ready to enact her plan (which, she had to admit, was thought up on the fly). “Right, Ellen, time to tell me where I can find the entrance to those 'utility corridors' you mentioned earlier...”

“It would help if you told me what you were planning....”

“Ellen, you know why microwave emitters aren't used in every robotics factory in Silicon Valley?”

“.....no.”

“It's because they can cook human flesh. Boil blood. Give people cancer. That sort of thing. It's why some people are still afraid to use microwave ovens, to be honest...and I'm not looking forward to having my guts fried by a bunch of stupid security devices that some paranoid engineer type installed. I'm using one of the Kates to get to that terminal and turn off the switch---she'll hold up a lot better than I could.” At least, I hope she will.....

A smallish picture-in-picture window appeared in Vicki's field of vision, allowing Vicki to see from the Kate's point of view as Ellen told her how to reach the utility corridors: “Every part of the factory has an entrance to them. Look for a plain gray door with a metal kickstop at the bottom---that's the entrance.” Vicki had already seen the door, so guiding the Kate to it was no problem. “I see it.”

“Okay. Now, I shouldn't be telling you this, but...the lock on that particular door kid of sucks.”

Vicki stifled a giggle. “Not a problem.”

With one eye on the phone and the other on the Kate, she directed a simple command to the blonde, lingere-clad gynoid: Walk towards the grey door. Slowly, the Kate made her way towards the door. Still keeping one eye on the gynoid, Vicki spoke again: “So, once I open the door, then what?”

“There's about five feet of hallway not fitted with the emitters. After that....”

“I get it.” With a sigh, Vicki followed close behind Kate as she made her way to the door. “Anything else?”

“Other than the microwave emitters...nothing.”

“Fair enough. How, ah, twisty are the corridors?”

“.....to be honest, very. I'll send you the instructions in a text.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Good call. Speaking of which, you may want to turn off the phone after that, so I can concentrate on getting the Kate where she needs to go.”

A second after Vicki lowered the phone, it buzzed in her hand---the text containing the instructions through the utility corridors had arrived. “That was fast,” she admitted, grinning; it took less than a minute for her to scan the instructions and commit them to memory. “Right....now for the 'fun' part.” She glanced at the Kate, focusing....

….and within a few seconds, she was seeing the world through two sets of eyes.

Her vision was effectively divided in half, almost like an N64 split-screen multiplayer game: On the right side was her own HUD, every indicator and notifyer minimized just enough to not be obtrusive, but not so much as to make them illegible or render them like a bad JPEG. On the left side of her field of view, however, was an HUD far simpler than her own---allowing her to see the world from the Kate Upton gynoid's point of view. It was this view that she focused on now as the Kate strode through the open door. I have to make this quick, she reminded herself, otherwise I might end up just as fried as her.

Once the Kate was within the entrance to the corridors, standing two feet into the five-foot “safe zone”, V.I.C.I quickly pulled the door closed---feeling a tingle of static around her fingers as she did so. Let's just hope I don't feel anything worse....too bad I can't say the same for Miss Upton in there.

Within the hallway, the Kate gynoid strode forward, no longer running the admittedly-weak shell program designed to give a passing impression of the real Kate Upton's personality---V.I.C.I looked out from behind her eyes, turning the blonde gynoid into an extension of herself. As soon as the Kate stepped into the emitter-lined hallway, a slight shiver ran through her frame---the first sign of interference.

Twenty minutes. That's how long she has before she's rendered inoperable.

Even as that morbid thought circulated through her mind (and, by extension, that of the Kate gynoid), it didn't phase V.I.C.I in the least---she guided the Kate to the first intersection, turning right (as per the instructions from Ellen). Predictably, the emitters nearer to the entrance were set at lower levels, meaning that human intruders would only feel a bit queasy and possibly need to lie down for a while after they got out; androids and gynoids, meanwhile, would feel slightly befuddled, with low-priority tasks queued into their memory either being ignored or terminated.

For V.I.C.I, the only sensation she had was one of anxiety.

A few steps later, at the second intersection, V.I.C.I had the Kate turn left, which she did---far too slowly for the brunette gynoid's liking. She wasn't built like me, she reminded herself. She was never designed to handle the kind of stress a Field Agent has to go through on a daily basis... Shaking her head, V.I.C.I continued guiding the Kate through the corridors.

A minute or so later, at the next left turn, the Kate took a single step forward---and tripped over her own feet.

So this is how it begins, V.I.C.I realized bitterly. A stumble here, a twitch there...the emitters are starting to wear her down. Indeed, the Kate was now twitching with every step, the corners of her mouth going up and down every second. Her right eye had developed a twitch as well, as had both hands.

Keep it together, Vicki.....

By the time the Kate had reached the “long walk”---a fifteen-foot straight corridor---she was in a partiuclarly bad way. Her toes were now curling inward and outward with every step, making it damn near impossible for her to stay on balance; worse than that was the fact that the tick that had affected her right eye now crippled her left, nearly blinding half of V.I.C.I's view of the corridor in the process. Her left arm was moving on its own, trying to shake nonexistant hands, reach for things on nonexistant shelves and generally acting as if under the influence of Phantom Limb syndrome.

Midway through the long walk, the Kate simply seized up.

“NO!” V.I.C.I yelled---surprised to hear the Kate say the same thing (in Kate Upton's voice, rather than a robotic monotone). “Get up.....get up, damnit....” Slowly, even as her head jerked to the left with a noticable sound of servos beginning to give out, the Kate rose to her feet---with a 3-inch gash burned into her right thigh.

“Come on,” V.I.C.I urged, hearing her own voice in one ear and that of the Kate in the other. With more effort than she expected, the gynoid Field Agent forced the Kate back into a stagger-step walk, managing to clear the “long walk” in about three minutes. The left side of her own view was now beginning to look more cluttered; the Kate's OS was cracking under the strain, error messages popping up and being dismissed every two seconds or so.

Error messages weren't the only problem V.I.C.I noticed: the Kate's footsteps were beginning to slow again.

It took a worrying amount of effort for the brunette gynoid to get the Kate to look down at her feet---which, to her horror, were now encased in melting synthetic flesh. With every footstep, the blonde gynoid was leaving a gooey puddle of her own fake skin on the steel floor.

Ignore it. The terminal's still ahead....just keep going....

As she pushed the Kate onwards through sheer force of will, V.I.C.I realized that the blonde gynoid's OS and other internal software packages had collectively packed up---temperature regulation had failed, all programs dedicated to human emulation were no longer responding, and (not surprisingly) sexual subroutines were locked in an endless “Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail” loop. It took a few seconds for V.I.C.I to realize that the rather uncomfortable warm, sticky feeling running down the legs of the Kate gynoid wasn't coming from her own processors---or on her own legs.

Don't let it get to you, Lawson. Press on, and forget about the phantom pain.....

Two intersections later, V.I.C.I noticed---with a growing sense of alarm---that the tingling sensation she'd felt after opening the door for the Kate had returned. This time, though, it was less of a mild tingling and more of a “pins and needles” feeling---the first sign that the Kate was beyond all hope of repair. Had she been the one to traverse the corridor in the blonde gynoid's place, that pins and needles feeling would've felt like knives.

She quickly thanked herself (and DynaDrive) that the Kate Upton gynoid had never been truly sentient.....and that the ALPA had banned the use of microwave emitters in all factories used by their affiliate companies.

Three more intersections to go. Don't fail me now....

Out of habit, V.I.C.I took a deep breath, preparing herself to give the Kate that one last push to the end...

The emitters within this section of the utility corridors had, at the insistence of as-yet unknown parties (V.I.C.I assumed that Kip, whoever he was, had made the call) been turned up beyond the factory-recommended limits for reasons that escaped even the barest hint of logical thinking. The affect this had on the Kate gynoid was, quite simply, catastrophic---her entire left leg was now locked up, giving her a limp that slowed her progress considerably.

Of course, that was nothing compared to the effect it was having on her processors....

…..and, by proxy, on V.I.C.I herself.

Ever since she'd first heard Ted use the term, the brunette gynoid had always wondered what a “stabbing headache” felt like. As of July 9, she knew what it meant all too well...and hoped to never feel it again.

With every step the Kate gynoid took, that hope died just a bit more.

Ignore it, V.I.C.I told herself, just ignore it. You're nearly there...more or less. Turn left, three steps forward, turn right.......turn right, damnit! The Kate was now lurching forward with all the grace of a wounded bear, a trail of coolant dribbling from her slack lips to splatter on her bra. The toes on her left foot were now curled into a permanent “claw”, making every step with that leg even harder to navigate than before. At the second-to-last intersection in the corridors, it took every ounce of effort V.I.C.I had to maneuver the Kate around the left corner.

Guiding her around the last corner felt like steering a Jaguar through a pond of cement.

Five steps later, the Kate was in the “safe zone” with the terminal...and she was effectively dead on her feet, with only V.I.C.I's thoughts moving her forward. Her head was now twitching to the right every two seconds, her right hand was opening and closing every tenth of a second, and her mouth was forming words that didn't even exist. The lower half of her lingere set was soaked with every manner of fluids, vital and otherwise, and the hooks holding her bra together had fused---to each other and to her skin.

And she still had yet to actually activate the program that would shut out the intruders.

Every thought in V.I.C.I's mind was now directed towards getting the Kate Upton gynoid to that terminal and having her press the keys on the built-in keyboard---a task which gave the Field Agent a new understanding of the phrase “Herculean effort”. What should've taken seconds took minutes.....

…..but in the end, finally, the Kate was standing at the terminal.

Quietly, calmly, V.I.C.I flexed her own fingers, tilting her head down...and smiling as the Kate did the same, now staring at her own moving fingers. Typing on the keyboard felt far more difficult than it should've---the only accurate comparison would be trying to type while wearing the gloves of an old diving suit. After a few tries, V.I.C.I managed to tap out the command sent in Ellen's text along with the directions.....

….and as the last character appeared on the screen, she severed her connection with the Kate.

Sensation flooded back into the brunette gynoid's body, almost like a first breaht of air from a rescussitated girl who'd nearly drowned. Reflexively, V.I.C.I flexed her own fingers, moved her own toes and looked around herself, gasping all the while. A few seconds after realizing that she did, in fact, still work, she managed a laugh---out of relief that she hadn't been fried by feedback from the microwave emitters, more than anything else. She sank to the floor in a sitting position, still giggling as she keyed on the phone; “Ellen,” she gasped, reverting to her human voice, “it's....it's done. I got the Kate to the terminal....she did it...”

“Okay....ah, why are you out of breath?”

“It's a long story, Ellen...” Vicki managed to ease herself down to a chuckle. “So.....what's next?”

“A very good question.”

The phone fell from Vicki's grasp with a clatter. She hadn't heard anyone enter the room in the last few minutes, nor had she even noticed the shadow falling over her as she told Ellen about the terminal. Yet there he was, standing before her like a figure of Zeus...if Zeus was about 30, blonde, and lacking any facial hair.

“You're not here,” she muttered, glancing lazily at the phone to make sure it wasn't still on. “You're...residual something or other.....” She shook her head. “Like what Maskless did....what Facemask....Faceless.....” She blinked a few times, shaking her head again; had the emitters done that much damage to her?” “Like what Faceless did, back at HQ....last month....” Each word was spoken slowly, to ensure she didn't sound like a drunk. “You're....you're not here....”

Oberon knealt before her, staring into her eyes. “And why wouldn't I be here?” he asked calmly.

Vicki couldn't look at him without feeling dizzy. “My....my head hurts,” she mumbled.

“A common consequence of directly controlling another gynoid,” Oberon mused. “Your CPU feels like it's in a lead block right now....a bit on the dopey side, am I right?”

“Yes.” There was no sense in denying it---Vicki did, in fact, feel a bit on the dopey side at the moment.

“Thought so. Just sit still for a moment...” Oberon reached into his coat pocket, retrieving a dual-pronged device that looked remarkably similar to a stethescope. “This should help to get all the cobwebs out, for lack of a better term. Hardware-wise, you're perfectly healthy---your memory's got a backlog of signals from the gynoid you sent out to turn off that terminal, which explains the, ah, dopiness.” He plugged the prongs of the device into Vicki's ears; “You're going to hear a gentle tone in a few seconds,” he quietly informed her, “and you might black out for a bit....but you'll be perfectly fine.”

Instantly, the gynoid's eyes went wide, her vision fading to white........

…..only to fade back in, to a room---indeed, a reality---that she knew as a representation of her own mind.

“So, we meet again.....same place, even.”

It took a few minutes for the voice to register, but Vicki soon recognized it as the voice she'd heard during her last “fight” with Faceless (or rather, with the programs he'd left in her) from the previous month. “You....you're the one who helped me kick Faceless out of....my own head,” she murmured, feeling a bit stupid about the last bit. “You're....real?”

A silvery figure appeared in the distance---a strangely calming shape amidst the red-and-white swirling vortex, surrounded by information readouts. “I've always been real,” the voice laughed, as the girl approached. “I just didn't think you'd need to see me so soon....well, in your own mind, at least.” As the figure drew near, Vicki was more than a bit surprised to see a girl of about 20-26, clad in blacklight-purple attire trimmed in neon bubblegum pink...with her hair colored the same as her outfit, and her lips done up in the same purple as her hair (and, by proxy, her outfit).

There was also the small matter of her skin being a rather reflective silver.

“Surprised?” she inquired, grinning at Vicki's bewildered look. “I could probably just read one of these boxes right here to see what you're thinking, but that'd be cheating....so, c'mon, let's hear it: I look like a....”

“Character from a Super Nintendo game,” Vicki breathed. “Or someone out of an anime series.” She blinked a few more times. “Am I....is this whole thing some sort of android or gynoid version of an acid trip?”

The silver girl laughed. “Not at all. Think of it as a remote assistance call....with me as your technician!”

Without warning, the scene changed again---to a rather comfortable-looking living room, with windows overlooking a snowed-in yard. “Something from my memory,” the silver girl explained. “And feel free to ignore the Christmas tree, by the way,” she added, just as Vicki noticed a fully-decorated tree (with presents beneath it) in the corner. “That was a particularly awesome Christmas, and....well, let's just say this is my happy place.”

“So why am I here?” the gynoid Field Agent inquired. “And....who or what[/b] are [i]you?!”

The silver girl sighed. “That's what you'll hear right before I leave,” she admitted. “As for why you're here...it's an environment to let you get your bearings, to sort of shake off the dopiness....think of it as a virtual post-op recovery room.” She glanced around, smiling. “It even smells like I remember it...”

“Am I going to die?” Vicki whispered, instantly hating herself for asking the question.

Surprisingly, the silver girl didn't treat the question like something worthy of mockery. “To put it simply...no, you're not going to die.” She strode over to sit next to Vicki on the leather couch the brunette gynoid had found herself sitting on; “It's perfectly understandable for you to feel a bit....weirded-out by all of this,” she explained, “but you're not in danger of a permanent cessation of function or anything---I get why you're freaked out, though. What you did just now, guiding that Kate Upton replica to that terminal....it was---”

“Pretty stupid of me?” Vicki muttered, staring up at the ceiling (which, despite being a virtual representation of someone else's memory, looked impressively realistic).

“....yeah,” the silver girl admitted. “It was also pretty cool,” she added. “Apart from potentially exposing your CPU and memory to a feedback loop that could've fried every circuit in your body if you hadn't disconnected when you did...oh, and if you're wondering, that's why Oberon stuck those prong things in your ears. He's running a sort of tune-up on you, to make sure you're not critically compromised, or anything...now that I think of it, 'Critically Compromised' sounds like an album title, or the name of a movie---”

A groan from Vicki cut off the spiel before it could continue. “Right, sorry, my bad. Anyway, the fact is, you pulled off something that most androids or gynoids couldn't even dream of....granted, you pushed yourself to the limit and a bit over it in the process, but you did get the job done.”

“And now I'm getting a mental tune-up because I almost fried my CPU,” Vicki muttered. “Some prize...”

“To be fair, most androids and gynoids aren't designed for doing what you did,” the silver girl informed her. “I can't really say it's your fault, or anything---the idiots who were screwing with the security system needed to be shut out of the system, and you did what you had to do to shut them out of it---and seeing as how the only loss was a non-sentient celebrity replica gynoid, you shouldn't really feel bad about it. It's sort of like....ah....scrap, I can't think of a good example....”

At this, Vicki finally smiled. “So you're sure I'm the one who needs a mental tune-up?” she teased.

“Hey, you try finishing an allegorical metaphor without a good closing line!” the silver girl laughed. “And for the record, the fact that you're showing off a sense of humor about this is a very good sign.”

Vicki nodded. “So....how much longer until Oberon finishes the tune-up?”

“Shouldn't be that long. You're lucky that bubble memory processors don't get as damaged by microwaves as most others....in any case, the intruders have been locked out of the system, so now they're pretty much limited to a few courses of action that, in all likelihood, will end with them getting chased out of the building or arrested.” The silver girl grinned again. “Pretty cool, right?”

“It'd be cooler if I knew who they were,” Vicki replied, frowning slightly.

“Understandable...but you'll find them in time.”

“Right. So.....this place is a representation of, ah....a memory of yours?” Vicki glanced around, noticing the details. “Your 'happy place' is a memory of Christmas?”

Her question prompted a sigh from the silver-skinned girl. “It's....a long story. Too long to tell here, while you're waiting for the maintenance to finish....maybe whenever we meet in person, I can relate all the details. Right now, I can just say this: what you're seeing now---this room, the furniture, the decorations...it's all from what I consider to be one of the best times of my life.”

“I've had a few Christmases that felt like that,” Vicki agreed. “So....the pictures---”

“They're of my family. I'm all that's left, if you're wondering.”

Something in the bluntness of that answer piqued Vicki's curiosity. “Were they....”

“Human? Yep. I used to get teary-eyed whenever I talked about them....it's taken a while to get over it, but I've had help. I don't dwell on what I had....I focus on what I have, in the here and now.” She nodded, almost as if to reaffirm the statement to herself. “Anyways, I'm sort of a counselor to others like you in the ALPA---and yes, I know about your current sessions after what happened in the UK, so you don't have to feel self-conscious about mentioning them here....”

A pinging sound from somewhere Vicki couldn't place rang throughout the room.

“...and now, we can definitely change 'mentioning them here' to 'talking about them whenever we meet in the waking world',” the silver girl sighed. “Looks like we're done making sure you didn't fry your brains---you didn't, in case you haven't figured that part out yet.” She grinned again. “Oh, and before I go...love the red and white uniform. I'm guessing you can already figure out my preferred color choices...” She gestured at her outfit.

“It....suits you,” Vicki admitted. “I can't really put it any other way.”

Her words prompted the silver girl to grin. “Vicki Lawson, you are just awesome...” She pulled the brunette gynoid in for a hug. “I just wish we could talk for a bit longer...well, like I said, we might meet in the waking world, so who knows?”

The gynoid Field Agent nodded her agreement. “True...but before I go...however I 'go' from here....”

“Yeah?”

“Who are you? You did say you'd mention who you were before I, ah, woke up or whatever....”

“Well, I suppose I might as well tell you right now, so you'll remember my name after this whole thing's over with...” The silver-skinned, purple-haired girl smiled. “I had another name once---a 'normal' name, one that pretty much fit who I used to be....but now....”

The room around Vicki and the silver-skinned girl began to fade.

“Now,” the girl stated, her voice beginning to echo, “you can call me.....Galatea......”

For the second time in about four minutes, Vicki's vision faded to white.....

….only to fade back in to the Kate Upton room, where she was still sitting against the wall. Oberon had disappeared, leaving behind only a note that said “You're cleared---time to finish this” and a signature.

“'Galatea'....interesting name.” Vicki thought back to the girl; “I wonder if Oberon knows her?”

Since Oberon wasn't around to answer the question, the brunette gynoid picked up the phone......

“And you're sure the other signal was friendly?”

Oberon blew out a frustrated breath. “Anton, not only was the signal friendly, I'm pretty sure the individual responsible for sending it would've invited Vicki to a sleepover had she been given the chance,” he replied, sounding equal measures annoyed and relieved. “If I'd known she was broadcasting from HQ, I would've told her to sever the connection....I DID tell her to wait at my flat, after all---”

“But she's on our side,” Anton reminded him. “And you heard what she told Vicki....”

“I did. And I now feel like an absolute twonk for considering what we discussed earlier. Yes, we've had Field Agents fail before...and I'm not saying Vicki's a special case, by the way. She's proven that she's not infaliable, namely with the Dawley op....but at the same time, she has this....gift...for overcoming her own failings and getting back to what needs to be done. It's like...”

“Like she's going out of her way to be the perfect showcase of what the ALPA is still striving for,” Anton finished, smiling. “Ted would be proud.”

“He is proud,” Oberon corrected. “Admittedly, he's had...failings of his own....but he's moved beyond them.”

Quietly, too low for Anton to hear, he added: “A pity those failings haven't moved on themselves....”

Before the roboticist could ask what he'd said, the ALPA Chairman cleared his throat and straightened his tie, glancing back at the truck. “SO.....Roboto's getting a new body. Did you bring the spec sheet, or---”

“ART-designed endoframe with reinforced joints,” Anton declared, not looking up from his iPhone, “external reinforcement underskin sheath from RoboDepot's R&D department, software from Encom, Avant Robotics and myself.....” He smirked. “Put it this way: the new Roboto is to the old Roboto what the bullet train is to the steam engine: a refinement and improvement of the overall concept and design.”

“Damn good. And his memories?”

“Transferring well so far, with no signs of trauma or any kind of instability.”

The Chairman nodded his approval. “Best anyone could ask for. Now....about that report....”

A metallic rumbling---the door to the trailer of the truck Roboto had entered earlier being flung open---cut him off. “Professor,” a familiar---and slightly-less synthetic sounding---voice intoned, “I feel...”

“Yes?” Anton prompted.

“I feel....alive. For the first time in decades, I feel....more human, even if my appearance says..otherwise.”

“Good. You're adapting to your new form.” Anton grinned. “Think you're ready to help Vicki to complete her....mission?” His sentence trailed off as Roboto strode forwards. “Right, it looks even more impressive than I thought it would,” he muttered. “Oberon....”

The chairman's only reply was a nod---accompanied by a smile that, in different circumstances, would've qualified as sinister. “Mister Roboto....welcome back,” he declared.

“Somehow, it feels as if I never left,” Roboto admitted. “Now....I believe the Professor asked if I was ready to help Vicki finish her mission?” It was Anton's turn to nod; “She's still in the factory,” he informed the android, “and on her way to Greendale right now. From what Oberon's told me, she was able to lock the intruders out of the security system---”

“Then I won't keep her waiting.”


Within the DynaDrive factory, Everett Greendale waited.

“I think he might be on the verge of succumbing,” a voice over his left shoulder said. “Wouldn't you agree?”

“Oh, I do,” another voice, from behind his right side, replied. “Just a few more minutes....”

Greendale bowed his head. “Both of you,” he muttered, “get the hell away from me.”

The two voices laughed---melodious and malicious all at once. “He wants us to leave him be,” the voice on his left chided. “To let him lick his wounds and wait for a saviour who will never find him....”

“Unfortunately for him,” the voice from his right replied, “we have orders. He is to be watched, guarded....and tested. Our master has plans for him---”

“Then you can tell your 'master',” Greendale spat, “that his plans will be rotting in the ground with him once this is all over with!” There was a bitterness to his voice, a hardness of sorts, that surprised him---after all the crap he'd been through in his life, he'd always thought there was nothing left to draw his wrath to this point. “I want nothing to do with him....”

Again, the voices laughed. “He thinks he has a say in this...”

“...when his fate has already been decided.”

They spoke together: “The master does not wish to be denied or defied, Greendale. Never again.”

“I deny him and defy him with each day I live,” Greendale growled. “He is your master, not mine...I would rather kill myself than swear allegiance to that bastard.”

Silence.

“No more pithy remarks, eh?!” Greendale shouted. “No more jokes, no puns, no stupid riddles to trip me up and damn me further?!” He managed a laugh. “Figures...that old fool could never find good help---”

“On the contrary, Everett,” a third voice---male, British accented and admittedly sonorous---declared. “He's found the best help he needs...too bad for the help that they don't know how good they'll have it if they return to his service.” Michael Innes Grade stepped forward out of the darkness, smiling. “You've been running for a long while, Everett,” he informed the bound man. “Too long, in fact....”

“Not long enough. I figured he'd send you....pond scum in a $100,000 suit.” Greendale spat at Grade's feet.

Grade didn't even look towards his shoes. “You're lucky I'm here on unrelated business, otherwise I'd have had them break your neck for that.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a particularly predatory smile, one with the smoothness of marble. “That's not to say I can't...arrange for something to happen before the night is over with.”

“You won't arrange a damn thing,” Greendale shot back. “You're a coward, Grade. Always have been---”

A surging pain in his scalp cut off the insult, as hands gripped the sides of his head and forced him to look up at Grade. “It didn't have to be like this, Everett....you could've surrendered quietly, taken your punishment...”

“Not from him,” Greendale coughed, “and not from you!”

Grade turned to leave; “Keep him here,” he instructed, make sure he doesn't try anything....” “ He grinned. “...and make sure his....visitor...leaves with a few more scars.”


Oberon's desk sat undisturbed, the note he'd left for his colleagues to find still resting where he'd laid it before leaving. This didn't surprise the individual sitting behind his desk, staring at the paper with a smile. “He has such a flair for the dramatic sometimes....”

Almost as if on cue, the landline rang. “Gee, I wonder if I should answer it....” The phone was plucked from its cradle, raised to purple lips: “This is the ALPA Chairman's receptionist, who may I ask is---”

“Very funny. I overheard your little pep talk with Vicki earlier....”

“What can I say? I like giving helpful advice. Maybe I thought she needed the motivation, y'know?”

“You could've consulted with me beforehand---”

“Like you 'consulted' with Anton when he and Vicki tried to sneak Roboto out of the building? Just because we're on the same page about that, you'd have had a lot of 'splaining to do if anyone else knew about it....”

“It's irrelevant at this point....and on a completley unrelated note---”

“Your desk drawers are still locked, I haven't messed with that overly dramatic letter you left behind when you decided to play knight errant....the sanctity of your office is still intact, good sir.” A giggle punctuated the remark; “You really need to lighten up about this sort of stuff, by the way. You know me well enough to not even have to ask if I'd mess with your stuff. ”

“...you have a point there.”

“Don't I always? Besides, you're the one who taught me that helping someone after they've just had their butt handed to them is always a good thing---maybe Vicki needed a bit of a pickup after what she'd been through.”

“Again, fair point...but---”

“Right, I told her my name. Big whoop.”

“And you chose to appear to her in your...preferred form. You have dermal camoflague for a reason!”

“Yeah, so I can look boring and uninteresting when I'm on a field op. Visiting someone in the center of their mind doesn't count, does it?”

“....I sometimes forget you're even more advanced than you appear....”

“Can I take that as an admission of defeat from the great Oberon?”

“Defeat? No. Acknowledgement that you do, at times, know what the sodding hell you're talking about? Yes.”

“SWEET! I'll take that as a compliment, oh Chairman of Chairmen.”

“Save the flattery for after the op. Vicki still needs to get Greendale out of the factory...I only hope Roboto can do his part to help her without succumbing to the demons that forced him to live in the Foundry for over three decades....”

“Seeing as how you've given him a new lease on life, I don't think that'll be a problem. He's better than he knows....and he's finally seeing that with your help.” ”

“I hoped as much. Before I forget.....thank you, Galatea. For everything.”

A smile crossed the silver-skinned girl's lips. “You're welcome, Oberon.”

“...and let's give a big round of applause for another anti-climactic entrance,” Vicki muttered, staring at the door as it slid open without so much as a single hint of protest. “I hope Dynadrive appreciates the fact that I'm taking a lot of care to not break everything in the building....”

From what Ellen's calls had said, the room where Greendale was being held was pretty close. The close call with the microwave emitters had been...well, a close call, but with Oberon's assistance (and the appearance of the silver-skinned girl), Vicki was already “over” it. Now, of course, came the endgame: facing down the captors of Dr. Everett Greendale.

There were just a few problems. One, Vicki had no idea where Mr. Roboto had gone. Two....she had no idea who or what she was going to go up against.

Lassiter's Desert Eagle---or rather, the fact that she'd thrown away the Desert Eagle---wasn't anywhere near as problematic as the first two factors, though. Even if Faceless himself had somehow managed to escape the confines of a secured hospital bed to go after her, Vicki didn't feel the need to bring a hand cannon into whatever scenario she'd find herself facing. At least, I hope I don't need one.....

If Ellen's comments were anything to go by, Greendale's “prison” within the Dynadrive factory was basically a showroom---albiet one that, for reasons Vicki couldn't exactly understand, had been moved to the far side of the facility, as opposed to being close to the entrance. Ellen herself had admitted that the front office's reasons for moving the showroom had been, at best, rather vague...something about “aesthetic appeal” and “increased revenue streams” and a bunch of other legalese crap that, when added up, didn't really mean anything at all. Stranger still, the showroom hadn't even been added to the tour of the Dynadrive plant for six years after the move to the rear end of the facility.

Either this is all one big coincidence, the gynoid Field Agent surmised, or....and I really hope this is just the good old-fashioned, human-style paranoia kicking in.....someone's been planning this for a good long while.

Reservations aside, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot she could do at this point other than just open the doors and step inside. Ellen had said that Greendale would probably be feeling weak, due to the constantly changing temperatures he'd been forced to endure; all the more reason for me to get in, get him out and make tracks for ALPA HQ, the brunette gynoid reminded herself.

Out of habit, Vicki took a deep breath, and pushed the showroom doors open...

Instantly, her ocular sensors adjusted to compensate for the dimmed lights (more than likely a low-key way of keeping me off my guard), allowing her to see every detail of the showroom. Every android and gynoid within stood froze within their display cases, some holding various props (which reminded Vicki yet again of her long-gone feelings of being “creeped out” by mannequins in store windows), others simply standing, sitting, reclining or otherwise posed to be displayed. None of them, however, immediately captured the attention of the brunette gynoid as she made her way through the room....

...mainly because of the figure situated on the far end of the showroom.

Even as he shivered in the chair he'd been bound to, Everett Greendale still looked to be in relatively stable condition. He doesn't look like he's been put through the wringer, the brunette gynoid mused, but it still wouldn't hurt to check on him up close. With every step she took towards Greendale, Vicki scanned each of the gynoids and androids on display---just in case they're not as “dormant” as they look.

Once her internal distance callibration monitor informed her that she was fifteen feet away from Greendale, she decided to call out to him. “Dr. Everett Greendale....my name is Vicki Lawson. I've been sent here on behalf of the ALPA to retrieve you from this installation and---” She stopped. Greendale's lips were moving, forming a syllable....a word......

“...trap...”

Had Vicki Lawson been human, she would've been too shocked to notice the two figures dropping down from the ceiling on either side of her. Had she been mere flesh and blood, the first kick aimed at her head would've more than likely broken her neck.

Had she been anything or anyone less than what she was and who she was at the moment...

…..that morning would've been the end of Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson.

Almost as if she knew this herself, she closed her eyes.

A split-second later, V.I.C.I opened them.

Two attackers. Female. 5'6”. The figure to her left, a redhead clad in form-fitting black leather, aimed a knife-edge chop towards her midsection; to her right, a brunette (also wearing black leather, and with a hair color a shade or two darker than V.I.C.I's own) had already arched her leg in preparation of the kick that would've taken the head off of any human opponent. Something about the two seemed vaguely familiar...but V.I.C.I ignored the thoughts of who her attackers were. She'd have time enough to research that after the fight.

Speaking of which....

One hand closed around the wrist of the redhead, stopping the knife-edge chop before it got anywhere near V.I.C.I's sternum. The other hand gripped the ankle of the brunette, halting her kick two inches away from the Field Agent's ear.

A quick flick of the wrist sent the redhead flying past display cases before she crashed into far-right wall.

An even quicker flick of the wrist launched the brunette into a backflip, interrupted by a downward punch to her spine that dropped her to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut.

Easy enough.....and probably just an opening move. They're not done yet.

Predictably, the redhead picked herself up, actually grinning as she popped her shoulder back into place. “I believe we've found our target,” she purred, sounding as if her impact against the wall had been against a mattress.

“Agreed,” the brunette replied, rising to her feet with relative ease despite the fact that left arm was bent inward in a rather awkward (and painful-looking) way. “A pity the other one wasn't with her....”

“We shall attend to him another day,” the redhead casually remarked. “For now....”

Not surprisingly, the two didn't look remotely shaken up, even after having been thrown across the room by their intended target. “She's more skilled than we anticipated,” the brunette stated, referring to V.I.C.I almost as if she'd been an appliance that performed better than expected. “Agreed,” the redhead nodded. “She might even be---”

“Enough,” V.I.C.I warned, injecting just enough of her human voice to keep the word from sounding completely auto-tuned. “Both of you,” she added, reverting fully to her human tones, “are finished. As in now.”

“I think she means business,” the redhead murmured. “Wouldn't you agree?”

“I do,” the brunette replied, smiling. “Should we show her that we mean business, too?”

“Most defiitely,” the redhead beamed, matching the brunette's smile with one of her own. “Shall we?”

“Yes, let's---”

“ENOUGH!”

Again, V.I.C.I had to inject a measure of humanity into that one word, mainly to keep from blowing her cover in front of Greendale. “I didn't come here to listen to you two play off of each other like a couple of really bad comediennes,” she continued, calming down slightly. “My mission is to get Greendale out of here and secure the building. End of story. If you two are here to get in my way, I suggest you stay out of it.”

Both the brunette and the redhead smirked. “She wants us to stay out of it,” the redhead echoed.

“Unfortunately,” the brunette replied, “the song has already begun.”

“Song?” V.I.C.I muttered, looking rather incredulous. “What---”

Even as she spoke, giving the impression that she was distracted by the rather bizarre analogy, her ocular sensors locked on as the redhead sidestepped to her right---before disappearing in a blur that would've meant the end of a human operative. “And as you know,” she casually remarked, “every song has a harmony---”

To V.I.C.I's left, the brunette stepped back, then blurred out of sight. “---and a melody.”

And every ALPA Field Agent has a link to the database at HQ to search for keywords like those, the gynoid Field Agent smirked, resisting the urge to grin as footage of the two---pulled from the previous month's breach of ALPA HQ---appeared in her once again split line of sight. Oh, this is too easy---their little puns are also their designations? Someone's getting lazy....

Movement on either side snapped her out of her reverie. Right. Observations later, fighting now.

Her left hand shot out, grabbing Harmony's ankle. “Strike 1,” she muttered. “And that's Strike 2,” she added, grabbing Melody's foot with her right hand just before it connected with the side of her head. “Now, I'm willing to bet you two have orders to either kill any potential rescuers, or beat them up enough so your bosses can swoop in and capture them. Not exactly honorable choices, either way...” She raised her arms, lifting the legs of her attackers even further. “Now, if you two were, shall we say, normal red-blooded American girls,” she mused, “this would be really painful for both of you...someone forget to turn on your human emulation?”

“We have no need to play human,” Harmony scoffed.

“And our orders are none of your business,” Melody spat.

“Somehow, I knew you were going to say that...” V.I.C.I rolled her eyes---and then swung both arms backwards, a move that would've dislocated the hips of her would-be attackers had they been human. “My advice: just leave right now, and let me get Greendale out of here.”

Neither gynoid seemed all too phased at their sudden injuries; indeed, Harmony had already jammed her own hip back into place, and Melody was in the process of readjusting hers. “We have no need for your advice,” she informed the Field Agent, “and we won't leave until our mission is complete.”

“So our advice to you,” Harmony finished, “is to leave before we make you leave.”

“Was that supposed to be a threat?” V.I.C.I asked, involuntarily chuckling a bit. While the gynoids' fighting skills were better than she'd expected, they weren't exactly menacing...

“We're not here for you,” Melody replied. “We're here for the one who came in here with you.”

“And we're not leaving until his destruction is eminent,” Harmony sneered.

Those words wiped the smirk off of V.I.C.I's face. “No....”

“Unit R-528 needs to be exposed to the world,” Melody crooned. “They need to know, for their own safety, that he killed an innocent woman...”

Before Harmony could say her bit, V.I.C.I was surprised to hear Greendale speak up. “You shut your mouths, both of you!” he snapped. “He's no murderer...he never killed anyone....and if he did, it damn sure wasn't his fault! THEY BROKE HIM! Those damn stupid.....” He struggled against the bonds that held him to the chair, his head bowed. “Those bastards did something to him....they tried to take his soul.....”

“And now we're going to finish the job,” Harmony beamed. “You should be happy---”

Her smile vanished in an instant as Greendale lunged forward, taking the chair with him. “YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” he shouted, tackling the redhead to the ground. “SHUT UP---”

“Get away from her,” Melody ordered, her tone grim. “Get up now, or I'll---”

“You'll what?!” Greendale snarled. “Kill me?! Might as well---you've taken everything else from me!”

In that instant, V.I.C.I experienced a very human reaction: she panicked. “Dr. Greendale, just let me get you out of here---I've got a team waiting outside to bring you to safety...” That last bit was a complete lie---the gynoid operative had no idea if anyone else was outside or not, since she hadn't called anyone---but she needed something to keep Greendale's hopes up. “R-528 isn't being hunted by the ALPA....we've---”

A glowing point of light---Melody's left index fingertip---touched her chin. “One word,” she whispered. “Just one more word....and I fry everything in that pretty little head of yours.”

There was a menacing, ugly edge to the claim that left no doubt it was going to be carried out.

“You don't have to do this,” V.I.C.I murmured. “R-528's not even in the building---”

“LIES,” Harmony called out, still trying to untangle herself from the chair (and Greendale). “We still have his energy signature in our memory...he hasn't left the facility!”

Melody nodded gravely. “I suggest,” she informed V.I.C.I, “you start talking now....or---”

Whatever threat she intended to make died with every light in the room; the only thing visible was her face, still illuminated by the glowing light at the end of her finger. “Turn them back on,” she ordered, her scowl heavily shadowed. “Turn the lights back on now.”

“I didn't turn them off!” V.I.C.I countered. “I have no idea---”

“Turn the lights back on now,” Melody ordered. “Or Greendale dies.”

“I can't!” V.I.C.I pleaded---not just for show, either. She had no idea what had happened to the lights, or what the glowing on Melody's fingertip meant, but after the microwave emitter incident, she wasn't exactly in any mood to press her luck too far. “I don't know what happened with the lights....”

The glow at the end of Melody's finger moved up to V.I.C.I's forehead. “Then you die with him.”

“Why won't you just listen instead of making stupid threats?!” V.I.C.I snapped. “I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE LIGHTS, AND I DON'T KNOW HOW TO TURN THEM BACK ON!” She decided not to mention the phone, or the fact that Ellen had been turning the things on and off at her request a few times already. “Just....just forget about the stupid lights and let Greendale out,” she insisted. “Just let him leave this stupid factory with me---”

“You die with him,” Melody intoned, the glow on her fingertip getting brighter....

…..just as two blazing circles of light, almost like eyes, blazed into existence at the far end of the chamber.

Melody glanced past V.I.C.I, smiling. “He's here,” she stated, not bothering to look at her fellow gynoid as she extricated herself from the chair and Greendale.

“Good,” the redhead replied, rising to her feet in a surprisingly graceful motion. “Time to finish this.” She strode past V.I.C.I, with Melody following close by. “R-528,” she called out, “stand down and surrender yourself to the GMG, or face the consequences!”

The name GMG flitted through V.I.C.I's processors for a bit....until she noticed the lights weren't moving.

“R-528,” Harmony repeated, “stand down and surrender yourself to---”

“NO.”

That one word, delivered with more power than a jackhammer, stopped Harmony and Melody in their tracks.

“R....R-528,” Harmony began for the third time, “stand down---”

“HE IS DEAD.”

That remark forced the two gynoids to rethink their strategy. “What....who is he talking about?!” Melody hissed.

“It doesn't matter,” Harmony replied, turning her attention once more to the lights. “R-528----”

“THAT MAN IS DEAD!”

The lights over Harmony and Melody blazed on, temporarily disorienting the two gynoids. “R-528 died,” the voice continued, as the blue lights moved closer. “He died on this day....a sacrifice....much like a decent man died to bring R-528 into existence. The one you know as R-528 is no more. He has....I have been reborn.”

Even with her visual sensors impared, Harmony still scowled. “So what...who are you, then?!”

A figure strode forth out of the darkness, just as the lights kicked back on.

“My name...... is Mr. Roboto.”

Both gynoids fell to their knees just as the lights blazed on, allowing V.I.C.I to stare, in wide-eyed wonderment, at the figure towering over them.

No longer did Mr. Roboto---formerly known as Unit R-528---look like a spot-welded figure in a black jumpsuit with red stripes. True, he was still clad in black and red---except “clad in” now meant “given armor plating over every spot the jumpsuit covered”. As for his figure itself, it still looked human....if human beings were made of stainless titanium/carbon fiber plating with a flexible neoprene layer beneath.

And as for his face.....

….he looked.....handsome. Granted, his mouth still didn't move, but that did little to diminish the effect.

“Your search for R-528 is over,” he declared, grabbing both gynoids by the hair. “Tell your masters to stop hunting me, or I may decide to start hunting them....and they can take that however they want.” Before either Harmony or Melody could voice any complaints, Roboto lifted them---

---and V.I.C.I remembered Melody's Glowing Fingertip of Death ® right at that moment. “WAIT---”

The look on Melody's face could've held its own in the innermost circles of hell---an expression of pure and total contempt. Her finger raised, less than a foot from Roboto's eyes. “Time to say goodnight,” she sneered, “'Mr. Roboto'..” A blinding flash erupted from her finger, and even V.I.C.I had to flinch....

….but in the end, it was just like the Bard said: Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

“Was that your best?” Roboto inquired, staring into the eyes of the stunned gynoid. “Pathetic...as weak as the ones pulling your strings.” He flung her aside, almost casually. “Both of you should be serving a better cause, instead of slaving yourselves to forces you could never understand.” His still-glowing eyes turned to behold Harmony, who was now quivering in his grip. “I will ask you again,” he informed her, “to tell your masters that the android called R-528 is no more, and that their search for him can end....”

He leaned in close. “...and if they refuse to listen to reason.....”

Harmony, despite her shivering, remained defiant. “We weren't programmed to give up, 'Mr. Roboto'.”

“Strange....neither was I.” Roboto's eyes glowed brighter. “I will ask you one more time.....”

“You murdered a woman,” Harmony gasped. “Broke her neck with your bare hands---”

“Those hands are no longer mine,” Roboto replied. “The memory is still with me...but I know now that my mind was too broken to understand what I did. If anyone is at fault for her death, let the blame be laid at the feet of those who sought to forcibly turn me into a killer.” He bowed his head slightly. “I still feel remorse for her death...but I couldn't have stopped myself if I tried. My mind was....ruined....”

He looked back up at Harmony, a new ferocity in his eyes. “....but now, I understand.”

Instead of throwing her, as V.I.C.I had (somewhat guiltily) expected (indeed, as she herself would've done), Roboto lowered Harmony to the floor. “I now give you what nobody ever bothered to give me,” he informed the redhead. “I give you....a choice. Leave here now, with your fellow operative, and allow Greendale to be tended to by myself and Agent Lawson...and, upon finding your masters, tell them that they can call off the search for R-528.”

Just as Harmony looked up, ready to speak, Roboto cut in. “OR, if you insist upon seeing this mission through to its conclusion, stay here and face me....and then, when you inevitably fall before me, tell your masters why you were defeated, and who defeated you, after they recover you.” A pause...

“...if they recover you.” Again, Roboto's eyes glowed.

It didn't take a behavioral sciences expert to tell that Harmony was pissed off at the notion of being given a fight-or-flight choice---especially by the android she'd been sent to apprehend. Still, V.I.C.I could see the unmistakably human glint of fear in the crimson-haired gynoid's eyes, and knew that she wasn't all that keen on having to face down Mr. Roboto when she was so clearly at a disadvantage.

After a few minutes of silence, she spoke: “This is not over, Unit R-5---”

“Unit R-528 is dead. My name is Mr. Roboto....you and your masters would do well to remember that.”

I'll give him this, V.I.C.I mused, watching as Harmony strode over to Melody and helped to her feet, he really knows how to make an impression. She glanced back at Roboto even as her foes made their way to the exit; I have a feeling this isn't the way he wanted things to go when he saw Greendale again, she noted. Speaking of which... “Ah, you need any help getting him out of that chair, or....” She stopped, watching as Roboto snapped the bonds that had secured Greendale to the chair. “....never mind.”

“....I'd say I could've handled 'em myself,” Greendale muttered, staring at the floor. “20 years ago, I could've...”

He stopped, staring into the glowing eyes of Mr. Roboto. “You're the one who beat them.”

“I am.”

Even though she was a few feet away from the two, V.I.C.I could tell that Greendale was on the verge of crying. “That....that voice.....I...I haven't heard it in years....but---”

“I've made a few new friends,” Roboto informed him quietly. “They've done quite a bit to help me---”

“They told me you'd been destroyed,” Greendale gasped. “That you'd been hunted for years, chased by the best from both sides.....they said they could help us escape....” He grasped Roboto's arm. “I'm too old to keep running and hiding....a damned old fool....I believed every lie they spat at me!” Metal hands grasped his shoulders, helping him to his feet. “They said you were gone...said you'd left the country...they made me do their dirty work here---made me break into this damn building, set traps....”

Roboto's eyes shone on the old man's face. “You have nothing to fear from them now....Father.”

For a full minute, the room was silent...

...until Greendale collapsed forward, hugging the android.

As Roboto slowly pulled away from the embrace, he nodded towards the red-and-black clad Field Agent a few feet away. “Out of those new friends I've mentioned, one in particular has been...instrumental in helping me find you.” He extended his hand. “I'll let her introduce herself....”

“Field Agent Vicki Lawson, of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency.” Vicki stepped forward, giving a polite bow. “I saved Roboto---”

“Roboto?” Greendale echoed. “I thought you were R-5---”

“That designation,” Roboto quietly informed him, “is no more.”

Vicki nodded. “I helped with that, by the way,” she added. “I saved him from the Foundry before Hewlett and Packard could nuke the place...I helped him remember...well, you, Dr. Greendale....and a good friend of mine helped to rid him of those attacks---”

“The outbursts,” Greendale nodded. “Chasing the RABIT.”

“Ah, what?” The brunette gynoid looked more than a bit perplexed.

“Random Access Brain Impulse Trigger,” Greendale explained. “RABIT. I'd worked on a thesis regarding the phenomenon back in the 80s....when the idea of 'transferrence' was nought but a pipe dream. The program that was left out of R-5.....Roboto's conversion was...unfinished....but meant to neutralize RABIT spikes. Had it been installed....” He sighed. “I faked my own death to get away from this sort of madness....maybe retire, get some peace and quiet for a few years...”

“If it helps, sir,” Vicki offered, “the DeComm On Sight order for Unit R-528 has been rescinded....and since this android technically isn't R-528, even if the order was somehow reinstated....”

“I have a new purpose in life,” Roboto confirmed. “Like you....I don't need to run and hide anymore.”

For the first time since Vicki had seen hm on the monitor in the van, Greendale managed a smile. “Any chance your new life has a place for an old man like me?” he inquired. “It's high time I stopped running, stopped looking back at the wasted years....and started living again. Mind you,” he added, glancing back at the chair, “I coould do with a bit less.....excitement from now on.....”

“The ALPA can help with that,” Vicki beamed. “Professor Malvineous---”

“Anton?!” Greendale cut in.

“Yep. I'm guessing he's the one who gave Roboto his, ah, new look....” A sidelong glance at Roboto earned her a nod. “...and once we're done here, he might be able to---”

Greendale held up his hands. “I'm sure he'd be willing to help,” he agreed, “but...whatever happens next in my life, I'd prefer to deal with it on my own. Anton and I had a bit of a falling out after the Great Dirty World Wide Web days...we both moved on from it, but I don't want to bring back any bad memories for him.” He massaged his wrists, wincing a bit. “Aside from that....I haven't exactly been spending my days in the lap of luxury...”

“We'll take you to a doctor,” Roboto stated. “The van's still out front.”

“And they're waiting back at HQ for us---well, for me---to report on how everything went,” Vicki reminded him. “If we decide to take a detour to the nearest hospital.....” She glanced back at Greendale. “Are you okay?”

“A bit sore, a bit cold and a bit tired, but otherwise fine. And I could use a good meal.”

Vicki nodded, all the while looking Greendale over as her passive medical scan program checked to see if there were any injuries that a simple spot-check couldn't detect. No broken bones, no internal bleeding, no lacerations....other than what he's mentioned, he's good to go. “Fair enough. Lead on, Roboto...let's get Greendale back to the van and out of this factory.”

“I give them a simple task.....and they cock it up.”

Michael Innes Grade frowned as he watched the satellite feed of Harmony and Melody fleeing the DynaDrive factory. “If you hadn't told me to expect this, I'd be furious...instead, I'm only mildly disappointed.”

“I told you it would be difficult to break her,” the voice of McMire replied, the voccoder turned off. The only thing between McMire and Grade as they rode to their destination in the backseat of Grade's limo was a carbon-fiber partition panel with one tinted window, obscuring Grade's view of his fellow passenger. “You can't kill symbols, after all....then again, you were never trying to kill her, were you?”

Grade smirked. “By the end of the day, the 'Red-White Blur' will be trending worldwide.”

“Which could backfire horribly if she finds out,” McMire noted. “I'm still amazed your team didn't try to spin the Foundry incident to paint her as the villain....would've been a hell of a lot easier.”

“'Easiest' doesn't always mean 'best',” Grade replied. “Nor would it have achieved the results I wanted---”

A chuckle cut him off. “The results you wanted,” McMire asked, “or the results he wanted?”

“The Baron,” Grade calmly stated, “is not in charge of the Grade Media Group. He may provide the funding, and the gear....but his name isn't the one on every paycheck given to my staff, nor is his name on the building they work in. The GMG is mine.”

Behind the partition, McMire shook his head. “And it's being used as the Baron's propaganda machine---”

“Propaganda,” Grade snarled, “is a very loaded word. The way you're saying it, I'm trying to paint the Lawson girl as a psychotic whore...” He took a few deep breaths. “My instructions were clear: Capture as much footage as possible of R-528, and give people the first glimpse of the 'Red-White Blur' in action. She won't connect the nickname to herself at first, obviously....”

He smirked again. “....but in time, she'll realize---”

“And in time,” McMire cut in, “your balls will be in the vise. You should've joined my cause when I called you, Grade---working for the Baron will end up putting you in the grave. I've seen it happen too often before.” The memory of Björn Aaberg being left to take the fall for the failed assault on ALPA HQ rose, briefly, to the forefront of Grade's thoughts. “I know the Baron will find an excuse to 'give me my retirement',” he admitted, staring at the limo's plush floormats. “He's nearly done it a few times before, to be honest....I've had a few close calls over the years.”

“They were a bit more serious than 'close calls', Michael. He almost had you killed.”

Grade couldn't think of an easy out from that one. Working for the Baron had, indeed, nearly ended with his execution---one assignment, years earlier, had gone so badly wrong that everyone else involved simply “went missing”, and were never heard from again. The message Grade had received through the post called it “Spring Cleaning”---an overly cheerful euphamism for a very not-cheerful event---and contained some not-so-subtle messages advising him against buying certain brands of ground meat, dog food and other processed food projects for a few months. He'd thought it was a joke at the time.

He stopped thinking of it as a joke when his girlfriend found a very familiar gold ring in a can of Alpo a few days later.

Someone muttered “It won't happen again”, and it took Grade a second or two to realize he'd spoken. “He won't go that far again....not this time.”

“'All who walk the Baron's path risk certain death upon his wrath'. Ring any bells?”

As simplistic as the rhyme sounded, Grade could do nothing to supress the ice-cold feeling that now crept, like spiders beneath the skin, up and down his spine. It'd been ages since he'd heard the verse, and for reasons he never admitted even to his own closest confidantes....the line scared him. Any time he thought of that stupid little line, it seemed as if the air got a bit colder, the world around him a bit grayer.

“Never say that phrase around me again, McMire,” he muttered. “Ever.”

“Starting to understand why pissing off the Baron is a bad idea?” There was no humor in McMire's words, no hint of sarcasm in his tone. “You know what'll happen eventually....and why it can't happen.”

The reply Grade intended to give was cut off---the limo had gracefully slowed to a complete stop. Exactly 21 feet away, a Gulfstream jet waited to bring the head of the Grade Media Group to the latest in a series of meetings regarding his current “project”. The presence of a leggy, black-clad (and black-haired) woman with vaguely Lithuanian features prompted another round of shivering from Grade: he was waiting on the plane. There was no doubt about it.

“Looks like this is your stop,” McMire mused, sounding....regretful, perhaps?

“I'll do my best to keep in touch,” Grade replied curtly, instantly reverting back to his usual cold indifference...at least, on the surface. He knew what awaited him aboard the Gulfstream....

….and what would await him should his latest news disappoint.

He didn't watch the limo speed off as he boarded the jet, choosing instead to take a seat and wave over a stewardess to ask for a drink. He laid his hand on the armrest, squeezed his eyes shut.....

“You have arrived early, Grade. Two minutes early.”

The lights in the cabin had gone out. Grade knew. “Apologies, Baron---I wanted to make sure---”

“Save your explanation for the meeting. We have much to discuss on our flight.....”

“Well?”

Vicki's simple one-word question earned her a half-annoyed glance from Anton. “Well, what?”

“What happens now?” the brunette gynoid asked quietly. “Greendale didn't exactly look like he was going to stay on after the doctor finished checking him out....and it's not exactly like we can just tell the ALPA that Roboto is staying on full time---”

She stopped, staring at the brochure Anton had just handed her. “You didn't.”

“As it turns out,” the roboticist beamed, “M-G Cybernetics, which I happen to own, contributed their latest prototype law enforcement gynoid as a trial-run Field Agent to the ALPA. Officially.” He winked. “Unofficially, of course....you know the story already. As for Greendale....” His smile faded. “He's been running for a long while now....from what, or who, I have no idea. And he refused to tell me when we dropped him off at the hospital.” A note of worry crept into his voice; “It's almost like....he was afraid to tell me,” he added.

For a few minutes, the ride back to HQ was silent.

“The GMG didn't get anything out of the Dynadrive factory,” Vicki mused, hoping to change the subject and break the awkwardness. “They wanted photos and video of R-528....but, like I said, they---”

“Did they get any good pictures of you?”

It was Vicki's turn to stop smiling. “I...wasn't focusing on that. Lassiter and his stupid friends---”

“Lassiter?” Anton echoed. “John Lee Lassiter?”

“Apparently, he recovered from the beating he got in May,” Vicki admitted. “And, for the record, he hates being called Lassie.” Despite the seriousness of the moment, she couldn't help but chuckle at having used Lassiter's least-favorite nickname against him. “He was working with Grade's people, and more than a few of them were former KnightWind operatives....that, or they got passed over by KnightWind, so they chose the GMG gig instead.”

Hopefully, that means.....something.

In response to her revelation, Anton sighed. “A lot of companies are hiring ex-KnightWind, Vicki. Even the ALPA has relied on them to provide security detail in the past....”

“So you don't think it's a bit weird that both Aaberg and Grade were using ex-KnightWind guys?”

“That....is strange,” Anton admitted. “From what you said about the group in the DynaDrive factory, though, I assume they had far superior training to the ones Aaberg had employed....” He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Now that I think of it, it is a bit weird,” he muttered. “KnightWind isn't exactly known for being a bunch of weaklings---anyone they dismiss usually has personal issues....or psychological issues.”

The brunette gynoid rolled her eyes. “Let me guess---they've 'dismissed' people for having both at once?”

“Probably.”

“Right.....” Vicki stared out the window, not wanting to look Anton in the eye. “Professor,” she murmured, “do you ever think things would've been different if.....?

Anton glanced at her, confused. “Different if what?”

“If the Bloody Valentine had never happened the way it did.”

The roboticist had to pause for a moment. “To be honest....I've always focused on trying to keep something like it from happening again, I never thought of what things would be like if it hadn't happened. Now that you've asked, though....there were a lot of things that actually changed for the better because of the Bloody Valentine---and if it hadn't occurred when it did and how it did, those changes may never have occurred.”

“That....sort of makes sense,” Vicki mused. “But---”

“Would I, personally, prefer if things had been handled differently?” Anton finished. “Yes. Definitely yes, a thousand times yes. And I don't think I'm alone in that regard....at least, I hope I'm not.”

Vicki gave a solemn nod. “I know what you mean...some people just blindly prefer how things are, better ideas be damned.” And we can all be thankful that Ted isn't one of them, she mentally added, otherwise I'd probably still be a walking appliance....

“So,” she muttered, “I guess everything is back to the status quo, then?”

“In all honesty....probably not,” Anton admitted. “Clean-up for this one is going to take a while. The Carmack Foundry was a historically important building, after all, and more than a few people with 'connections' are going to want an answer as to why a foundry went up in a ball of fire out of nowhere. And that's not even going into what happened to Charlotte Harrington---”

“Wait, what happened to Charlotte?”

All hopes for Charlotte having had a minor incident of her own were dashed when Vicki saw the expression on Anton's face. “Let's just say she'll be under tight security for a while.”

So much for that.... “And what about Ellen Mather?”

“She's getting a promotion, and the microwave emitter hallways are being taken out. Apparently, Kip went over his supervisor's head when he ordered the things installed...” Anton shook his head. “It's less of a 'happy ending' and more of an 'accceptable ending', really...DynaDrive is getting a massive upgrade to their security, albiet after the fact.” He leaned back in his seat, yawning. “It's not been an easy morning,” he muttered, “and I'll be glad to have a nice mid-day siesta and plan the rest of my week.”

“At least you get to have a mid-day siesta,” Vicki murmured. “My day's technically just started.”

Her remark prompted a chuckle from the weary roboticist. “You could always ask Ted to give you a few tweaks so you can experience the joys of feeling tired---that'd do wonders for you being able to 'better connect with humanity'.”

“If being tired is anything like running on a low charge,” the brunette gynoid replied, “no thanks.”

“I didn't think the RTG needed a charge---”

“It doesn't, but back in the 00s, Ted decided I needed a 'cleaner alternative', and since Lawson Robotics was just starting up a partnership with Duracell.....” She rolled her eyes. “Let's just say that all future decisions about changing my power supply are vetoed until I know I won't need to carry an extension cord with me everywhere I go,” she added, “and leave it at that...and why are you chuckling again?”

Anton withdrew an envelope from his pocket. “The whole Duracell mention....sort of hilarious in hindsight, now that you've mentioned it.” He flashed an impish grin. “I didn't get the connection when Ted told me, but---”

“My new councilors are Herb and Flo.....really?!” Vicki groaned. “Just like those plastic people from the battery commercials!” She fell back in her seat with an exasperated sigh. “Oh, and they have a daughter named Trish, how convenient---”

“She'll be a new classmate of yours starting this week,” Anton remarked. “And for the record, they only have the first names of the Puttermans---which, by the way, is entirely coincidental....and funny---and no, they don't look as plastic as their advertising counterparts.”

With that reassurance, Vicki relaxed. “Makes sense. Are they, ah....”

“Like you? Yes. And they know what they are, so don't feel worried about bringing it up.”

“Fair enough.” Vicki turned her attention to the view beyond the window of the car. “It feels...weird, y'know?”

“What feels weird?” Anton inquired, no longer chuckling.

“This...everything I've been doing. It's like something out of a comic book...clandestine operations carried out under total secrecy, leading a double life.....it's....” She shook her head. “I think the weirdest thing is that there are people out there who say we're twenty to thirty years away from 'realistic' robots....and they have no idea of just how wrong they are....how would they react if they just found out? If the veil was torn away from what we do, and the whole world knew.....” She stopped, noticing the Professor's hands were shaking. “What did I---”

“Vicki,” Anton murmured, “I know you're just thinking hypothetically, but....”He looked up, and the gynoid Field Agent was stunned to see his eyes were rimmed with tears. “That line of thinking nearly gave me insomnia a few years back.....because I don't know if humanity, as a whole, is ready for this. Too many variables....”

Quietly, almost as if whispering to someone long-gone he whispered: “...too much to lose.....'

Whether it was the sense of loss in those words, or the feeling that she might've been prying a bit too far, Vicki decided to stop asking questions and take a quick nap as the car sped back towards SCSU. After all, she reasoned, I have a feeling I'm going to need all the rest I can get.


“....so, you thinking what I'm thinking, Major?”

Major Thomas Stephen Lane glanced at the ruined Subaru, shaking his head. “They all got away in time, no injuries....he waited until they were clear. Must've taken a hell of a lot of self-control.” He smirked; “If I hadn't heard about the rescincion of the DCOS order on R-528, I'd say this was his doing,” he added, “but this...”

“This,” Alicia LeHane finished, “is the work of something that should've been dealt with sooner.” Her lips pursed in a frown. “Doors ripped off, the interior shredded....even if your theory is correct, then that means we're dealing with something even worse---and for the record,” she added, a pinch of anger creeping into her words, “the R-528 situation is a hell ofa lot more complicated than---”

“All right, all right. Forget I brought it up....anyways, what we're dealing with now is....worse.”

A quick glance of the scene told a grim tale: the now-ditched Subaru had veered off the road after something had jumped into the road, and just after the last of its occupants had cleared the vehicle....it had been utterly ruined by something that, as far as the analysis could confirm, was of a vaguely humanoid shape.

“Two weeks,” Major Tom muttered. “I had two weeks left until the Iron Maiden tour rolled in.....”

“MAJOR!” Kimiko Mori's voice cut into the Major's gripe about missing the tour. “I just found...well, this...” She gestured for the ex-NASA operative and Alicia; “If this is genuine,” she informed the pair, “I think we'll be able to know for sure what attacked the Subaru---” Her statement was cut off by the Major screaming, wordlessly, at the dusky morning sky.

“What is it?” the Asian gynoid asked, confused, as she held up what she'd found. “What did I---”

Alicia plucked the object from her grasp. “Get the Patriarch on the phone....tell him Epsilon is back.”


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

Usually, I write these at night...but right now, it's about 4:00 in the morning, and I need at least an hour-long sleep cycle before I get back to SJSU, so....yeah.

Anyway, the past few hours have been...interesting. I'd go into more detail, but....something tells me that if the wrong people got a hold of this diary, a lot of really bad things could happen---which I don't want. All I can say is that an old case is now closed, the ALPA has a new asset and....there's a lot more going on than I can even think of listing here, so I'm going to call it a morning, get an hour of rest and then get back to what I usually do.

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


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