Out of this World

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Startup sequence initiated. Date: Sunday, October 17, 2010 Time: 7:00 A.M. Pacific All systems opperating at 98.9% efficiency. Good morning, Vera.

The sunlight rose on a well-furnished bedroom of a house in Mountain View, illuminating the svelte form of a girl waking up from her beauty sleep. To the untrained eye, the girl was an ordinary human---a rather attractive, 19-year-old human---but the truth was slightly more…complicated.

"I hope the Colonel is willing to wait a few minutes for his breakfast," Vera murmured; her employer/owner, Colonel Jake Styles, had spent the previous night hanging out with some friends from the Air Force and NASA., and he'd allowed Vera to have an extra hour of sleep (or as he called it, "offline time") the next day. Still, Vera felt that it was her duty to have Col. Styles' breakfast ready at exactly 6:35 every morning, despite his preference for what he called a "casual dining schedule".

"It's time to wake up, Colonel!" Vera called as she knocked on the door to Styles' bedroom---he'd let himself in the night before. "I'll have breakfast ready in a few minutes!"

No response.

Vera frowned; "That's odd. He usually says something…." Indeed, Col. Styles had always responded to the polite wakeup calls every morning in a few ways---polite replies ("I'll be right down!"), unintelligable grunts, or throwing a pillow at the door. This time, however….nothing. No reply at all.

Something was wrong.

"Colonel?" Vera called. "Is everything okay?" Again, silence. "This is not normal," Vera muttered, not caring that she'd just stated the obvious. "Colonel!" she repeated, more forcefully. "Are you all right?"

Silence.

"This isn't good….." The gynoid frowned. "Even after nights out on the town, he always answers my wakeup calls….what's going on?!" With each passing second, her annoyance slowly turned to fear. "Colonel? Is everything okay in there?" No reply. Vera sighed; "Are you….is there a woman in there with you?" Again, nothing. "Colonel, this isn't funny!" the gynoid shouted. "Please wake up!"

No response.

The gynoid backed away from the door slowly, her fears now becoming more pronounced. "This…this can't be happening," she murmured. Her enhanced hearing wasn't picking up any sounds from behind the bedroom door---no breathing, no heartbeat….nothing. "He can't be….he just can't be!" Vera nervously ran a hand through her blonde, pixie-cut hair, not wanting to acknowledge the inevitable. "I heard him come in last night," she reminded herself. "He has to be okay….he can't be---" She shook her head, refusing to utter the dreaded word. "What do I do?"

Finally, after a full five minutes, Vera made up her mind.

"Colonel," she called out, "if you can hear me, back away from the door!" She tried the doorknob and didn't even care that it was locked, choosing instead to steel herself and shoulder-block the door off its hinges….

…which revealed the reason why Col. Styles hadn't answered her.

As Vera had feared, Colonel Jake Styles was, indeed, dead. Had it been something as simple as a stroke or a heart attack, however, the gynoid wouldn't have freaked out the way she did. Someone---or something---had poisoned the Colonel, but as far as she knew, Vera couldn't think of any poisons that turned a person's veins into a visible, bluish-black spiderweb beneath the skin. Worse, the skin around Styles' mouth, nose and eyes had become dry and cracked, as if he'd somehow suffered some bizarre form of extreme dehydration.

Trembling, Vera took a step into the room, careful not to knock over anything---and nearly screamed.

Her earlier thoughts of a woman being in the room were correct; Styles had been enjoying the company of a female. Unfortunately, all that was left of said company was, to put it simply, a half-melted corpse. Flesh, fat and liquified internal organs had pooled on the rug beneath the dead woman, forming a soupy mass; despite the impossibility of such a feat, it was as if the woman had been boiled alive (which would explain the fat falling off her bones so easily). The only thing even remotely capable of boiling someone was the bathtub, and even that was in the master bathroom, which could only be accessed by crossing the room; judging from the position of the corpse, there was no way that the woman died in the tub. As for the tub itself, there were at least fifteen different factory-installed safety measures to ensure that users were in no danger of being boiled alive, whether by accident or someone else's cruel intentions.

Stepping carefully to avoid disturbing the congealed fat and other bodily fluids on the floor, Vera crossed the room and knealt by the side of the Colonel's bed. "Who did this to you?" she whispered, wanting to caress his hand.

As soon as the question left Vera's lips, a portion of the headboard behind the bed lifted away to reveal a mini TV screen….a screen playing a recording made by the Colonel!

"Vera," the recording began, "if you're seeing this, then it means I'm dead. More specifically, it means that I've been killed in the line of duty." Vera stared at the mini-TV, not wanting to believe what she was seeing. "In any case, I need you to do three things for me. First, load up my van with everything in the basement lab marked with the NASA logo---and I mean everything. Secondly, once you've loaded the van, you must shred every other document in the house---even the back issues of TV Guide." (Vera had enjoyed reading old TV Guides whenever Styles was out of town on business.) "Thirdly…." The Styles on the mini-TV sighed. "Thirdly, I need you to drive the van a block down the road---after you've finished loading it up---and use the remote in the glove compartment to enter this combination: 62, 57, 93, 84, Tango Delta Bravo." The gynoid's eyes went wide; the combination she'd been told to enter was only to be used as a last resort, in case the Colonel's mission was irreparably compromised. As if he could sense Vera's unease, the image of Styles on the mini-TV sighed again. "I understand if you're a little bit freaked out by all this," he admitted, "but this contingency plan is the only thing that'll keep my research safe from whoever killed me. And before you ask, this message was set up to only display itself under very specific conditions…..and if those conditions have indeed been met, then you need to get as far away from Mountain View as possible."

Finally, Vera broke down. "But why?!" she wailed. "Who would want to kill you?!" Again, it was as if her words had somehow been heard by the recording. "You're probably wondering why anyone would want to kill me," Styles stated, his voice sounding calm even in recorded form. "To be honest, I can't exactly tell you. All I can say is this: Find Major Tom. He knows what to do." The recorded Styles grinned, a stark contrast to the all-too-real Styles' dead eyes and shocked expression. "I know you won't let me down," Styles' voice whispered through the mini-TV speakers, seconds before the screen went dark.

Vera spent the rest of the morning loading up the van, trying not to let her grief overcome her. It didn't help that Colonel Styles' smiling face seemed to be everywhere in the house; pictures of him shaking hands with former Presidents, receiving awards for his work with NASA and making appearances at charity events adorned most of the walls, along with commendations and old pilot licenses. All of these pieces of the Colonel's past made it that much more difficult for the gynoid to simply acknowledge his death, and that much harder for her to go on.

Finally, at exactly 8:58 A.M., Vera had loaded up the van and destroyed every non-NASA document she could find. Before she followed Colonel Styles' last order, however, she felt the need to say goodbye one more time.

"Colonel," she murmured, pushing the door open gently, "I know you can't hear me, but---" She stopped, shocked at what she saw as the door swung inwards.

The Colonel's corpse was being stolen.

Specifically, it was being dragged towards the window by two figures clad in what appeared to be Hazmat gear. Their speech was incomprehensible, and Vera noticed that despite the bulkiness of their attire, the two figures seemed to move with an eerie grace, almost as if they were used to wearing such outfits. Neither of the pair had noticed her enter the room, and she could've escaped scott-free…..

….except she stepped on the portruding arm of the half-melted dead chick right next to the door, snapping it at the wrist.

The two figures turned as one upon hearing the bone snap. Without a word, they dropped Styles' corpse and made their way across the room, again moving in that graceful, almost ballet-like way despite the fact that they were wearing Hazmat gear. Even worse, they were moving faster than any human Vera had ever known; one of them even managed to clear the bed (it was set up in the center of the room, with the TV cabinet facing it) in a single leap.

Before she could react, Vera felt one of the figures' hands close around her throat. The figure leaned in close, presumably to deliver some sort of threat, but the terrified gynoid couldn't understand it. "I…what?" she gasped, confused. "What are you saying?" The figure's face was mere inches from hers, but the sounds coming from behind the Hazmat mask were obviously not English---or any other form of human language, for that matter; Vera's onboard translation suite would have been able to decipher the figure's speech if it had been speaking any of the languages currently used on Earth, but according to the system, the language was completely new.

"But that doesn't make any sense," Vera thought out loud, only for the figure that had her by the throat to let loose with a very understandable roar….a roar that sounded almost…bubbly. In fact, it was as if the figure were speaking from a few feet underwater, or more accurately, a few feet under liquid mud.

Ignoring the feeling of complete hopelessness, Vera kicked the Hazmat-suited entity in the shin, causing it to drop her. Without another word, she ran---downstairs, through the front door and back to the parked van. Before she locked the doors, the frightened gynoid searched the glove compartment and found the remote, hitting each button in sequence. "Please work," she whispered, "please work…"

Two blocks behind her…..nothing happened.

"No!" Vera sobbed. The self-destruct sequence should've activated after she'd entered the sequence, but something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. With no other options left, she floored the gas pedal and headed as far away from Mountain View as possible. "I'm sorry, Colonel," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Just as she reached the end of the street, Colonel Styles' backyard erupted in a fireball.

Vera refused to look back at the carnage, choosing instead to enter the name "Major Tom" into the van's onboard search engine. "It's the least I can do for the Colonel," she reminded herself. "I have to tell him about those things, whatever they are…" She wiped the tears from her eyes as she thought of the Colonel's dead body and the smiling image of the Colonel on the TV built into the headboard. Somehow, things had gone so far out of control that Styles hadn't been able to contain it; hopefully, this Major Tom would be able to sort things out.

The van sped away from the remains of Styles' house, unaware that the Hazmat-suited figures had survived; both of them watched, unperturbed, as Vera drove away.

They knew they'd be seeing her again soon.

"How bad was it this time, Major?"

Mr. Tell's question would've jolted Major Tom out of his funk, had he actually been in a funk; in actuality, he'd been counting the ceiling tiles. "Bad enough to make me call you," Tom replied, turning to address Tell. "I hope Vicki doesn't mind me 'borrowing' you for the morning, even though your speciality is working with machines, not traumatized former astronauts."

Tell shook his head. "For you, Major, I'd face the legions of Hades. Now, this recurring nightmare of yours… what's it about?"

"Well," the Major began; before he could even utter a syllable, the door to the other room was flung open to reveal Maris, the ALPA agent who had helped with the creation of June Hamilton. "There's someone on the phone who wants to talk to you, Major," she murmured, "and judging from their voice, something terrible must have just happened." Mr. Tell was confused; "Ah, the only time people call asking for someone else is when they've got a relative in here," he began, but Major Tom interrupted him. "Who is it?" "She says she just left Col. Styles' house," Maris told him; the Major ran to the phone without letting her finish, nearly tackling her in the process.

"This is Major Tom, of the ALPA," he declared, as soon as the receiver was in his hand. "How did you---"

"He's dead! Col. Styles is dead!"

Tom felt as if the bottom of his stomach had just dropped out. No…..oh, God, no….. "What exactly is your relationship with Col. Styles, ma'am?"

"They tried to steal his body! And…and there was this woman on the floor, she was….she was melted! It was horrible! I….I don't know what to do…..the Colonel left a tape, he said to call you….he told me to use the Beta Combination,and the house…….." The girl's voice on the other end of the line broke into an agonized wail. "I... I'm scared! Somebody killed him, Major….somebody killed the Colonel, and I don't know who else to call! I……I don't want them to find me………."

When Major Tom finally spoke again, his voice was colder than usual. "Keep the line open. I'll meet you at your present location." He turned to address Mr. Tell. "Call Ted and tell him to call Vicki; we'll need her help on this one." Tell nodded; "Should I transfer the call to your cellphone?" "I already did," Major Tom replied.


Not another one. Not now……

As Major Tom drove out to meet the girl who had told him of Col. Styles' demise, his mind raced back to the recurring nightmares he'd been having over the past few weeks. Before the notification about Styles, he'd had the exact same nightmare three times; the morning after each nightmare, a former colleague from NASA would be found dead. At least this time, I can get there before the trash mags find out….

He took a moment to glance at a photo of himself with his old friends from NASA; out of the 17 in the picture, only 6 (counting Major Tom himself) were still alive. "All of them gone before their time," he muttered, "and now Styles…." A tear made its way down his face. "And it all started with you," he murmured, looking at the girl in the center of the photo (he'd taped it to the bottom of the rearview mirror). "The best thing that ever happened to me….the only one who ever dared challenge my record…..gone.." He didn't want to think of what would happen after his five remaining NASA colleagues were killed.

He forced himself to.

"I'm next," he began, before realizing how stupid that sounded. He was at the top of his class long before the ALPA came calling; they didn't call him the Impossible Astronaut for nothing. They think I'm already dead….

"The hell I am," he snarled, red-lining the Ferrari's engine and driving on towards his destiny.


Vicki Lawson was bored.

Given the nature of the lecture she'd been listining to for what felt like a week (it had only been 45 minutes, in reality), boredom was perfectly reasonable. But for her, it was a strange sensation. I could be completing my calculus work in my head right now, she reminded herself. So why am I just sitting here, feeling so bored---

"Miss Lawson?"

The sound of Vicki's name being called brought her back to reality----and instantly, she realized something was wrong. "Ah, why is the classroom empty?!" she asked out loud. "Probably because it's a Sunday," the voice of Glenn Saxon called out. "Class starts tomorrow, Vicki." The brunette gynoid nodded, realizing what had happened; she'd asked for (and received) permission to finish her assignments from the previous week, and she was using the empty classroom to do the work. "I must've gone into standby mode," she muttered, feeling stupid for having missed out on a good night's sleep in her own bed. "No wonder…no offense to the rest of the staff, but the Astronomy lectures are boring. I probably had that lecture on a loop, and I lost track of time…"

"If that is, indeed, the case," Glenn replied, "I suggest you fix that particular flaw in your…is it code or program? I can never tell the difference." Clad in dress slacks, dress shoes, a silk shirt and a blazer that matched the slacks, Glenn Saxon looked as handsome as any GQ model. It didn't hurt that most of the students (well, most of the female students, anyways) claimed that Glenn looked like Brad Pitt's long-lost twin brother, a fact which he intended to play up by dressing as Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglorious Basterds when Halloween rolled around. The most interesting aspect of Glenn Saxon's life, however, was the fact that he was one of only seven people (more accurately, one of six, seeing as how one of the group had been incapacitated) who knew that Vicki Lawson was a gynoid.

"It's a bit of both," Vicki admitted, gathering her books and heading out. "Good thing Sharon went back home for the weekend to help with the estate settlement…" Sharon Wilson, Vicki's roommate, had taken the red-eye flight back to the UK to provide some much-needed assistance regarding the settling of her late grandmother's affairs, leaving Vicki without a roommate for a few weeks. "I hope it all works out for her." "Ditto," Glenn agreed, "but for now, it seems to have worked out rather conveniently for you, seeing as how Sharon wasn't around to freak out about you not going back to the dorm room…"

Before Vicki could think of a witty retort, her phone rang. "Dad, probably," she told Glenn, grinning a bit.

Once she answered the phone, her grin disappeared. "What? Where….okay, right. I'm with Glenn right now.. Glenn Saxon, the physics professor. You've met him before….right. I'll meet up with him ASAP. Got it. Is there---"

The phone call ended before Vicki could finish her question.

"Something wrong?" Glenn asked. "Dad just called," Vicki replied, a tinge of sadness in her voice. "I need to meet up with Major Tom near the NASA Ames Research Center….." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "One of his old friends has been murdered."

"Shouldn't we call the cops, then?" Glenn asked, running to keep up with Vicki as she made her way to the parking lot. "It's too dangerous for the police," the brunette gynoid replied, "and to be honest, I don't know the whole story. All Dad told me was that Major Tom needs me to meet him by the ARC, and that I should get there as soon as possible. Where'd you park your car?"

"You're standing right next to it."

Sure enough, Vicki had stopped right next to a midnight blue Porsche Carerra GT that just so happened to be Glenn Saxon's car.

"What are we waiting for, then?" V.I.C.I. monotoned, grinning. "Let's go help the Impossible Astronaut."


By the time Vicki and Glenn arrived at the coordinates Ted had sent, Major Tom was already there….and he looked like an emotional wreck.

Vicki took in the scene without saying a word. A trim, blonde girl was standing next to Major Tom, weeping as if she'd just lost a friend; the Major himself looked as if he'd been crying. "Ten of the best," he muttered, "they were ten of the best, and now they’re gone…." Vicki approached the blonde girl tentatively, not wanting to cause a scene. "What's going on here?" she asked, quietly. "Col. Styles is dead," the girl replied sadly. "They killed him last night…"

Not much to go on, but it's a start. "Major?" Vicki gently asked. "Maybe you could elaborate on this…."

The Major wiped his eyes with his sleeve, regaining his composure in record time. "Col. Andrew Styles was one of several NASA/DARPA liasons who were involved with various robotics projects throughout the 80s and 90s," he told the brunette gynoid, "and he was killed last night. Vera---" he gestured to the blonde girl--- "saw two individuals trying to steal the Colonel's corpse." Vera nodded sadly. "They also killed the woman he was with," she added. "They boiled her alive, somehow….it wasn't pretty." As if Vera hadn't spoken, Major Tom continued; "Col. Styles is only the latest in a series of murders, all of which have one major thing in common---the victims were all former colleagues of mine from NASA."

"All of them?!" Vicki echoed, unable to believe it. Major Tom nodded. "It's a long, sad story, Vicki, and unless you want to miss that lecture tomorrow, I suggest you stop thinking about it and focus on getting Vera to a safe place---preferably Mr. Tell's workshop. Are we clear?" Vicki hesitated for a second, unsure of what to say.

"I said, are we clear?"

Something about the way Major Tom repeated the question snapped Vicki out of her reverie. "Crystal," she replied, trying not to show that the question had startled her. "Good," the Major replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a report to file." Vicki made no effort to stop him as he headed out.


Ten of the best.

Over the past few weeks, ten of my former colleagues have been found dead in various spots in and around Silicon Valley. Every single one of them was murdered.

Ten of the best, and now they're all dead.

There were sixteen of us, counting me…seventeen, if you count NG. She's gone now; she's been gone since ‘99. Only six are left. Aaronson, Halford, Michiko, Reubenstein, Jacobs and myself. Out of a graduating class of 25 people, only six are left. The nine that died before this year were all onboard a bus in Saratoga when it went off the road trying to avoid a deer. It rolled over three times and blew up. Nobody survived. Somehow, that never surprised me.

They called us the Miracle Squad, supposedly because it was a miracle that any of us managed to make it through the tests. I got the worst of it---if suddenly finding one's self the object of undivided attention in a room full of experts could ever be called "the worst of it". The Impossible Astronaut, they called me. Said I'd never make it into space, and that if I ever did, it would be an absolute miracle if I came back alive. I guess God must've been on my side every time I went up, because I always came back in one piece. Always brought my crew back alive, too. I swore to them that they'd always be safe with me around, and they were.

Until now.

Somewhere out there, someone or something is killing my friends. Something that doesn't know how big of a mistake it's making. And that someone or something is going to get a taste of the hard goodbye….from me.

Major Tom's Journal - Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vicki went through her Sunday routine wondering what the hell was going on. Not for the first time…

For one, Major Tom---usually, the pinnacle of stoicism in the ALPA---was now walking around like someone out of a film noir, brooding and muttering to himself. What was that phrase he said? "Ten of the best"? What does that even mean? She shelved the thought, filing it in her bubble memory processor for analysis later on when things were quieter. There was also the NASA connection…too many leads, and not enough answers…

The day went on uneventfully; after bringing Vera to Mr. Tell's workshop and getting told off by Major Tom, Vicki met up with Shawn Helmsley, Kirsten Sanderson and Valerie Summers for lunch, and the group’s discussion immediately turned to the lecture that they'd all be attending the next day The keynote speaker of the lecture was apparently from NASA, and that thought led Vicki to believe that it might be Major Tom; as the conversation went on, however, the brunette gynoid realized that the keynote speaker wasn't going to be the Major after all---unless he somehow got a sex change and had 90% of his body replaced with cutting-edge prosthetics before the end of the day.

"…and she might even be going up without a full spacesuit!" Valerie declared, astonished. Before she could continue, a loud belch cut her off; Shawn's roommate, "Dr. Gonzo Jr.", had arrived. "She won't go up without a spacesuit," he declared. "She'll get brain bubbles, strokes, aneurisms. She'll just wither up and die." Shawn nodded his agreement. "Doesn’t matter if she's 90% prosthetics or 99.99% prosthetics---the minute she goes up into that vaccum, she'll be stone dead. Kill the body and the head will die, it's that simple."

"And who is 'she', anyways?" Vicki asked, finally deciding to throw her hat into the conversational ring. "Leah Chambers," Gonzo Jr. replied. "She got smashed up real bad in a car accident seven years ago. Arms and legs amputated, ribs shattered inward, face was almost completely gone…..she looked like something out of Hostel." "Lucky for her," Valerie chimed in, "Harold Rengold donated $5,000,000,000 to the hospital where she was staying, and they were able to use the most cutting-edge prosthetics to put her back together! They rebuilt her face, gave her the best prosthetic limbs on the market, reinforced her broken bones with titanium braces and even put in an artificial heart--her real heart had been torn up by shrapnel from the cars during the accident. She's a literal Five Billion-Dollar Girl!"

Vicki smiled and nodded, although her thoughts were far less cheerful. She'd forgotten about the sordid tale of Leah Chambers ever since she first heard it from Ted during a trip to Japan in 2009; something about a girl who was effectively turned into a real-life version of Darth Vader (minus the costume and Force powers) always perturbed her. "How much of her body is still organic, then?" she asked. "Her entire torso and her head," Shawn replied, "although they did give her some experimental hearing aids to enhance her ears, and some sort of eye-camera-thingies, can't remember the name---" "Occular enhancement implants," Valerie stated; Shawn snapped his fingers and nodded. "That's the one, yeah." "So, she's…what, a cyborg?" Vicki asked. "Cyborgirl," Gonzo Jr. corrected. "At least that's what the major news outlets are calling her. 'A miracle of modern science,' or something like that." "It's not all fun and games for her, though," Kirsten added. "From what I read, she has to travel with a crew of at least 15 people to make sure that her prosthetics are running at 100% efficiency every day. If even one component fails…." She shuddered. "Makes me glad I don't run on batteries."

Once again, Vicki smiled, though she wanted to cry more than anything else. If only you knew, Kirsten…if only you knew….

After lunch, the group parted ways, and Vicki---still a bit sore at having missed out on sleeping in her own comfy bed the previous night---headed back to her dorm room for a midday siesta. I wonder if Leah Chambers knows anything about Major Tom’s colleagues, she mused. More importantly, does she know what “Ten of the best” means? I’d ask him myself, but something tells me he wouldn’t exactly appreciate my prying….

As Vicki lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, the sudden realization hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks: “Ten of the best….he was talking his colleagues---the ten murdered astronauts!”

Without another word, she ran out of the dorm room.


“So, am I…in trouble, or anything?”

Mr. Tell tried not to laugh; “Vera, not only are you not in trouble, you’re in the safest possible place in San Jose for someone in your situation. You’re not the one who killed Major Styles, so….” He sighed. “You’re going to be fine, Vera. Nothing can get in here without my permission.”

“You sure about that?”

The sound of a male voice coming from the doorway nearly gave Mr. Tell a coronary; he whirled around, pipe wrench in hand, ready to beat the living crap out of whoever had dared to intrude upon his domain---without activating any of the security alarms.

“Easy, Tell,” the Unmaker assured the ALPA mechanic as he stepped forward from the shadows, “I come in peace.” “And how can I be sure you aren’t hiding an Uzi in that coat of yours?” Tell coolly replied, still hefting the wrench as if he intended to bash the black-clad young man’s skull in. “The sniffers would’ve gone off,” the Unmaker replied, referring to the chemical “sniffer” sensors that could be used to detect anything from Semtex and C4 to highly-advanced microcircuitry. “I’m not carrying a piece, Tell. I’m here about the murdered space cowboys.”

Tell nearly dropped the wrench. “Murdered…..”

“It takes a sick kind of mind to kill someone the way all those rocket jockeys were killed,” the Unmaker went on, ignoring Tell. “It wasn’t Bradford or Vlatko, by the way; I’ve been keeping tabs on them since that incident at the ‘robot lab’. You want my advice? Step back and take a good look from every angle.” With that, the Unmaker tipped his hat (he’d added a black Stetson to his usual attire) and turned to leave.

“WAIT!” Tell shouted. A smile crept across the face of the Unmaker. “If you want to know how I beat your security systems,” he teased, “I’ll gladly send you a PDF file---“

“What do you know about the murdered astronauts?” Vera asked, surprising both Mr. Tell and the Unmaker, who turned to regard her with an arched eyebrow. “And you are….” he prompted. “She’s the last person who saw Col. Styles alive,” Tell repiled coldly, “and she’s under my protection.” “I wasn’t going to do anything to her,” the Unmaker shot back. “In any case, regarding your beautiful friend’s question, I happen to know that all ten of those dead space cadets were involved in the only NASA project thus far in history to be classified as a black-ops mission. That particular operation was crewed by sixteen people, and---“

“What was it called?” Tell cut in. “Who was in charge of it?!”

“I only know the basics,” the Unmaker replied. “Of course, I could dig further, if you really want to know the whole story---hell, I’ll even waive my usual operating fee---but most of the details have probably been buried for decades.”

“Do it,” Tell replied. “Expect a $10,000 check in the mail a week from now---and I will be keeping tabs on you.”

The Unmaker was genuinely surprised, but managed to keep his cool. “I’d say that old line about ‘I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship’,” he remarked, “but since you obviously want to keep any and all…future interactions between us on a level that’s strictly business, I’ll save the worn-out clichés for later.” He winked at Vera; “As for you, don’t worry your pretty little head off about those mean-old astronaut killers. I’ll have ‘em rounded up and tossed in the hoosgow before you can say ‘Adios Sabata’.” With a smirk, he tipped his hat again and walked out.

“Who was that man?” Vera asked quietly as the door closed.

“To be honest,” Tell replied, finally putting the wrench down, “I have absolutely no idea. All I can say is that I sincerely hope he’s on our side.”

“Oh, for the love of….”

Vicki leaned against a corner wall and muttered angrily to herself. After finally realizing what Major Tom’s “ten of the best” remark meant, she’d made it as far as the end of the hallway with every intent to run straight to Mr. Tell about her epiphany, only to be stopped cold in her tracks; a roving group of students was apparently camped out in the hall to her right (the way she needed to go to get to the stairs), having an impromptu meeting of some kind.

“And they’re all exchange students,” Vicki groaned. “Just what I needed…”

The students currently taking up space in the hall were all Japanese girls ranging from 19 to 23 years old; their hushed voices, quick glances at the other end of the hall and minmal hand gestures made it clear that they were discussing something they didn’t want anyone else to know about. “They’re lucky that nearly everyone else in this dorm is out watching movies right now,” Vicki muttered, “otherwise the campus PD would’ve broken up this little gathering in record time.” She sighed, already resigning herself to the option of “sit back, stay quiet and listen in on the conversation” when she heard footsteps moving in her direction; the girls were coming her way!

Without a sound, Vicki dashed for her dorm room, opening the door with ease (WHY didn’t I lock this thing when I left?!) and closing it as quietly as possible. From the peephole, she watched the group as they walked past; as the last of the girls cleared the peephole, a light thump issued outside the door. With the carefullness that only a gynoid could muster, Vicki managed to open the door just far enough to see a cellphone laying on the floor---“It must have fallen out of that last girl’s pocket when she walked by,” she realized.

Vicki grabbed the phone and headed after the girls to return it, but when she rounded the corner, they were nowhere to be found. “As soon as I clear up this business with Major Tom,” she declared, “I’m returning this phone to the girl who dropped it….if I can find her.”

“Find who?”

Despite her inhumanly-fast reflexes, Vicki didn’t see anyone behind her when she turned to address whoever it was that had spoken. “Who said that?” she demanded. “Answer me!”

“Ever heard a song called ‘Walking on Air’?” the voice continued. “It’s a particular favorite of mine…then again, I’ve been a fan of Gowan since before you were built, so there’s that.” The voice seemed to be coming from right next to her. “It’s a pretty catchy tune. ‘Moving under nightlight/I see you, dancing in the twilight/I’m near you…..I’m walking on air/beside you.’ Quite appropriate, considering our….unique relationship.” The voice was female…and somewhat teasing; who the hell am I dealing with here? Vicki pondered. And what’s with this “unique relationship” thing?! A playful laugh sounded next to her left ear.

“You don’t get it, do you?” the voice teased. “I’m surprised you haven’t found an upgrade that can see through the ultraviolet spectrum yet.” At the mention of upgrades, Vicki gasped---she knows what I am?!

Before the brunette gynoid could say or do anything to respond to this casual revelation of her true nature, the air next to her seemed to shimmer for a moment….and mere seconds later, a figure faded into existence. Despite a lingering feeling of panic, Vicki couldn’t help but feel a bit impressed; she does know how to make an entrance, she mused. Whoever she is.

The girl that now stood next to her looked as if her body measurements had been drawn up by classically-trained artists---nothing about her seemed too exaggerated or vulgar, yet she still managed to embody an image of what most men would refer to as “the ideal woman”---perfectly rounded hips, an abdomen that was just the right width and thickness, and breasts that didn’t look like overinflated volleyballs. Her shoulder-length, golden-blonde hair framed her face like a waterfall of molten light, making her crystal blue eyes look all the more stunning. A pale red dress clung seductively to her curves, accompanied by matching red high heels; her mouth was curled in a friendly-yet-teasing smile, her tongue playing at the edges of her lips as she noted Vicki’s distress.

In short, she looked like a modern-day goddess.

“Before you freak out and call anyone,” she instructed, “hear me out. I haven’t been following you for anything related to stalking, kidnapping and/or killing, so I suggest you get those thoughts out of your head.” At least she isn’t afraid to put things in perspective, Vicki mentally quipped. Out loud, she voiced her other concern: “Seeing as how you haven’t been following me for any of those reasons, I can’t help but think that you left out one other possible motive….spying.”

The blonde girl rolled her eyes; “Why do you think I’ve been using the stealth suit?” She pulled at her arm, and Vicki noticed a shimmering, almost transluscent material between her fingers. “So you’ve got bleeding-edge tech, and the only thing you could think of doing with it is follow me around campus?” the brunette gynoid cooly assumed. “Not so much ‘spying’ as ‘watching’…as in ‘watching your back’,” the blonde replied. “And before you ask, yes, I’m like you.” She reached behind her ears, pressed inwards, and pulled her face away to reveal an intricate lattice of servomotors, actuators, titanium and wiring. A pair of realistic, special effects-quality eyeballs looked upon Vicki’s shocked face emotionlessly, and the lip actuators that allowed for the precise formation of consonant and vowel sounds---as well as emotional responses---twitched in an animatronic approximation of a smile, their movements only slightly concealing the speaker grille housed behind them.

“If you were anyone else,” the blonde gynoid remarked casually, “I’d have to knock you out at this point…but you’d probably have fainted by now anyways.” “You’re probably right,” Vicki agreed, grinning. “I take it the ‘knock you out’ bit is just standard operating protocol with you…” The blonde gynoid nodded. “It took a whole month for me to get the necessary clearance just to talk to you, let alone show you this---“ She gestured at her “naked” face. “In any case,” she continued, reattatching her face, “the reason we’re having this conversation is, well…a bit complicated.” Vicki groaned; “I hate that phrase,” she replied. “It’s never ‘this mission is going to be really easy’, or ‘I’d like to remind you all that this equation is the simplest you’ll have to deal with this semester’ or anything like that….it’s always ‘complicated’, ‘complex’ and ‘it’s a long story’…..”

The blonde grinned. “You’re probably going to hate me for giving the ridiculously long explanation, then…” She sighed, and her expression turned serious. “Issues like this tend to get oversimplified by those who don’t fully understand the conflict---it’s always ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘right vs. wrong’, that sort of thing. To outsiders, it’s almost like some sort of glorified chess game.” “And you’re saying it’s more complicated than that?” Vicki querried. “Definitely. It’s not so much chess as it is Risk---it’s not just one side or the other…”

“You’re talking like there’s a war coming,” Vicki muttered, frowning as she considered the rammifications of that remark. “There isn’t a war coming, is there?”

“It’s not so much an actual, physical war as it is a chance for….let’s call them ‘various entities’…to prove their dominance in the world robotics market,” the blonde replied. “Certain groups---like the ALPA---are probably the closest thing to ‘good guys’ that this particular conflict has right now---“ “The closest thing?” Vicki echoed, incredulously. “You do know I’m a member, right?” “So am I,” the blonde replied confidently, “but as much as I hate to admit it, they haven’t always been the paragons of virtue when it comes to android rights…you’ll probably learn more about that particular part of their history later. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that some of these entities are trying to shift the balance in their favor, and if they can achieve that…….”

“It becomes less about dominating the world robotics market and more about just dominating the world,” Vicki finished. “You’re good,” the blonde mused, impressed. “As much as I’d like to continue this chat, though, you’ve probably got a schedule to keep, and as for me…well, let’s just say that you’re not the highest-profile person on my watch-list.” She handed Vicki a business card; “Meet me here if you want to know more---and don’t tell anyone about this place.” Vicki studied the card, noting the address and the acronym embossed on its surface in silver foil; “C.O.T.A.?” “City of the Angels,” the blonde replied, smiling again. “It’s off-campus, but it’s still a pretty good hangout. The fewer people know about it, the better…you’re one of the fortunate ones.” “Sounds like another Gowan song,” Vicki mused. “You catch on quick,” the blonde stated, chuckling.

With a playful wink, she stepped in front of Vicki and mimed the “call me” gesture before an electric shimmer washed over her; within seconds, she was completely invisible.

“I have got to get one of those,” Vicki muttered.


On the other end of the SJSU campus, things weren’t looking nearly as cheerful.

Everyone who saw Major Tom made sure to get out of his way---the leather jacket, leather gloves with lead shot in the knuckles and jet-black mirrored sunglasses were all menacing enough, but it was the almost hateful scowl he wore that guaranteed him a wide berth. Even though most of the people who stepped aside had no idea who he was, none of them wanted to risk pissing him off.

Smart decision, really…

By the time he reached his destination, the Major’s sinister expression and choice of attire all but solidified the fact that he looked like the Terminator---if the role had been given to a buff Zac Effron or Ted DiBiase Jr instead of the Governator. That resemblance wasn’t lost on the receptionist at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, a rather attractive 20-year-old girl with wavy reddish-orange hair. Before she could even ask the scowling Major how she could help him, he leaned forward and glared into her eyes. “I’m looking for this man,” he intoned, handing over a picture of an unshaven Caucasian male who looked like the long-lost brother of Lee Harvey Oswald. “Is he here?”

The receptionist, slightly off-put by the brusque manner of the Major, smiled nervously. “I’m afraid it’s against campus policy to disclose that information,” she politely began, only to yelp as the leather wrapped arms of the ex-NASA prodigy closed the distance between her and Major Tom, his grip tightening on the collar of her blouse. “Normally,” he hissed, “I’d have followed all of the official channels to handle this sort of thing, but today has been a really bad day for me, so just cut the crap and tell me where he is….”

Not surprisingly, a few people were looking up from their laptops, e-books and notes to see what all the fuss was about. Rather than calm them with a few choice words, Major Tom let go of the receptionist and snatched the photo away from her, holding it up for everyone to see.

“Now that I have everyone’s attention,” he bellowed, “I would appreciate it if you people could help me out with something. I’m looking for a spineless, brainless, gutless piece-of-crap scumbag who may have something to do with the deaths of ten individuals over the course of this month.” He ignored the whispers and muttering, choosing instead to continue his diatribe. “This individual is currently using the false name Linus L. Miller, also known as Luis Miller, also known as Luiz Millano, also known as Louis Millan, also known as Louie the Mile, also known as the guy whose ass is going to be dropkicked into a brick wall as soon as I get my hands on him.” His scowl had already morphed into a genuinely angry snarl, and there was no trace of sarcasm in his words. “I’ve been told he has an affinity for hanging around libraries and reading up on hazardous chemicals whenever he gets the chance,” he continued, not caring that people were calling the campus police, “and if anyone has seen this useless waste of humanity around this facility, I invite you to step forward and tell me when and where you last saw him.”

“Sir,” the terrified receptionist whispered, “you’re scaring the library patrons---“

“DAMN RIGHT I’M SCARING THEM!” Major Tom shouted. “THEY SHOULD BE SCARED---BECAUSE THEY’VE HAD A MURDERER IN THIS BUILDING WITH THEM, AND THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW HE WAS HERE!” He stood up on the desk, holding the photo aloft for everyone to see. “Ten people have died because of what this man has done,” he declared. “TEN PEOPLE. Ten decent, hard-working, honest people whose lives were cut short because THIS PIECE OF CRAP wanted a few extra digits in his bank account!” He ripped the sunglasses from his face, allowing all present to see the hatred blazing in his eyes. “This is not a joke,” he intoned. “This isn’t a publicity stunt, or a viral marketing campaign….this is me requesting your help in bringing this PATHETIC EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING to justice.” He lowered the photo. “And if anyone cares, I’ve already told the campus PD about him.”

After fifteen seconds of awkward silence, a girl raised her hand. “I….I think I’ve seen that guy,” she murmured, not daring to look the Major directly in the eye. “He…he was at Burger King just yesterday, in the drive-through lane….”

Immediately, Major Tom jumped down off the table and almost ran across the room. “Keep talking.”

“He…he was driving an old car….grey, four doors….he was really mean to the cashier,” the girl continued. “He was cussing her out and saying she didn’t deserve to have a job…” As the girl continued talking, the Major’s eyes scanned the crowd….stopping only when they saw a lanky, unshaven figure slowly making his way to the exit.

“That’s him…” he growled. “The rat bastard has been here the whole damn time!” He elbowed his way past the girl and several other students, gaining speed with every shove. “DON’T YOU DARE MOVE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” he shouted, breaking into a full run as his target kicked open the door and backed out of the library. “I SAID DON’T MOVE…why do they never listen?!” No longer caring that he had already caused a scene, the Major brutally shoved his way through the rest of the crowd and nearly knocked the library door off its hinges by shoulder-blocking it. “WHAT PART OF ‘DON’T MOVE’ DID YOU NOT GET, ASSCLOWN?!” he screamed at the retreating perp, already gaining ground.

The chase---if it could even be called that---didn’t last very long; Miller was pathetically out of shape, and in no condition to outrun his pursuer. After about ninety seconds of running, Linus was clotheslined into the ground by the Major, who stood over him with an almost-visible, Mack Bolan-esque aura of violent retribution coursing through his body. “The next time someone tells you to freeze,” he snarled, “you damn well better freeze.”

He hoisted the cowering Linus by his collar and slammed him against the nearest wall. “You were paid off to hand over information regarding ten people,” he intoned. “Who made the payment, and why?” Linus tried to spit in the Major’s face, but only managed to slobber onto his own shirt. “Wrong answer,” Tom sneered. “I’ll ask again---“ “I DON’T KNOW WHO THEY WERE!” Linus shouted. “I…I just got this e-mail, one day…told me I could make a lot of money by…collecting information---“ “Information that left ten innocent people dead,” the Major hissed. “Who sent the e-mails?” “I…I don’t know,” Linus whimpered. “They barely made any sense…it was like a bad translation, or something…like they were typed by someone who barely knew any English…”

Major Tom glared at the sniveling face of Linus Miller and contemplated kicking the crap out of him. “I really should beat you within an inch of your life right now,” he breathed, his nostrils flaring like an angry bull. “Those ten people were all good friends of mine….and they’re all dead now thanks to the information you handed over.” “I DIDN’T KILL ANYONE!” Linus shrieked, rivulets of snot running down his nose. “All…all I did…was run intel….I didn’t kill them…” “You facilitated their deaths,” Major Tom replied, his voice cold. “That makes you just as guilty as the ones who did kill them.” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Not to mention your ‘habit’ of stalking girls around campus…does that receptionist at the library know you’ve been spying on her every night for the past month?” Linus’ eyes went wide; “I…I don’t know what you---“

The lead shot-ladden knuckles of Major Tom’s glove smashed against Linus’ face, fracturing a cheekbone.

“You’ll get a broken jaw if you lie to me again,” the Major growled. “Seeing as how you obviously don’t want that, here’s how this is going to go: You’re going to tell me who paid you off, and then you’re going to tell me why all of the books on chemistry and hazardous material that you’ve been ‘borrowing’ haven’t been returned. And when you’re done with that, I’m hauling your worthless ass to the campus PD to---“

Something fell out of Linus’s pocket, hitting the ground with a flutter. “Pick it up,” Major Tom ordered. Linus hesitated---not a good idea, given his current situation. “PICK IT UP,” the Major repeated; Linus slowly reached down to grab the fallen envelope. “Give it to me,” Tom demanded. “NOW.” Linus handed over the envelope, cringing as the Major tore it open and examined the contents…..

Before he could even think to run, Linus was kicked---hard---in the ribs.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Major Tom shouted. “YOU WERE PLANNING ON HANDING ME OVER TO BE KILLED?!” He kicked Linus again, in the head this time. “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?!” Another kick, aimed at the fallen man’s kidneys. “The hell with the police,” the Major snarled, “AND THE HELL WITH THE ALPA!” He hoisted Linus up, preparing to slam him---head first---into the wall. “You’re sleeping in fire tonight,” he spat. “You hand over ten of my friends, and then you try to serve me up on a platter?! News flash, retard: NOBODY GETS THE DROP ON ME!” He reared back, prepared to cave Linus’s head in….

“Don’t!”

The Major didn’t even have to turn around to tell that the receptionist from the library was staring at him with a mixture of fear and pity. “Please,” she pleaded, “don’t…hurt him or anything….”

“You do know this idiot’s been spying on you, right?” he shot back. “Trying to watch you change every night and all that crap. On any other day, that would’ve earned him a ticket to the ER….” He kneed Linus in the ribs. “…but seeing as how ten of my friends are dead because of this jackwagon, I’m not exactly in the mood to pull punches.”

“I knew he was spying on me,” the receptionist admitted, “but the only reason I didn’t do anything about it was.. well, he…he said he had pictures…”

At that, Major Tom’s lips curled over his teeth; before the receptionist could stop him, he began raining down a series of body blows against the already-weakened ribs of his prey. “STOP!” the receptionist shrieked, but the Major refused. “You sick bastard,” he hissed between punches, “threatening her with blackmail….” By the time he finally stopped, Linus was unconscious, and his face looked like he’d been attacked with a cheese grater.

“He’s not dead,” the Major informed the receptionist after a two-minute cooldown. “I’ll drop him off at the hospital---even though it’s a hell of a lot more than he deserves. In the meantime…”

A few minutes later, Major Tom and the receptionist sat down to a meal of Whoppers, french fries and Dr. Peppers at Burger King, both of them trying not to mention what had happened at the library. All the while, the Major did his best not to stare at the girl; she doesn’t even know what kind of pictures Linus had taken of her, he mused. And those pictures just happened to be in that envelope he dropped…..

“I’ve never seen you on campus before,” the girl finally said after a few minutes of awkward silence. “Part of the job,” the Major replied. “Not being seen is considered an asset in my line of work….and before you ask what ‘my line of work’ is, I’m a private investigator.” The girl nodded; “That was my first guess,” she admitted. “I figured you were either that, or an FBI agent…except most FBI agents don’t dress like the Terminator.” The remark actually brought a grin to the Major’s face; “This is a one-time look for me,” he admitted. “While I’m on the subject….sorry about that little scene at the library. This past week has just been completely sucking…”

The conversation continued from there, though Major Tom was more concerned with what the girl didn’t know than with what she knew---namely, the fact that the “pictures” Linus had threatened to show would’ve revealed her existance as one of seven highly-experimental ReVerse gynoids on the San Jose State University campus to the rest of the student body. Fortunately for her, the pictures would never see the light of day, and the negatives from Linus’s camera (he was either too poor or too stupid to afford/use a digital camera) would end up “accidentally” being over-exposed, rendering them useless. Two birds, one stone.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to the library,” the girl told Major Tom after the impromptu dinner (which the Major had insisted on paying for) ended. “Thanks for the Whoppers!” “Thank you for not freaking out back at the library,” he replied. “Sorry about the whole ‘grabbing you by the collar’ thing…like I said, I’ve been in a crap mood lately.” “Just don’t do it again,” the girl remarked, grinning as she got up to leave. “You never did tell me your name,” Major Tom mused. The girl sighed; “I don’t know your name either..how about I tell you mine if you tell me yours?” “Fair enough,” the Major replied with a grin as he extended his hand. “Thomas Lane.” “Francesca Bowman,” the girl replied, shaking his hand. “Hopefully, the next time we meet will be under less…bizarre circumstances.” With that, the two parted company, both feeling a lot better than they had at the start of the hour.

Neither of them noticed the armored van parked across the street from the Burger King, nor did they notice the two humanoid figures in Hazmat suits seated in the driver’s and passenger’s seats.

Rather ironically, the figures in the van didn’t notice they were being watched as well…..

“I feel like an idiot,” Vicki muttered as Mr. Tell went over the schematics of a gynoid that was either in for repairs or going to be built later on during the week. “Major Tom went on and on about his colleagues being killed, and I never realized that his ‘ten of the best’ remark was even related to them….I feel so stupid!”

“To be honest, V,” Tell admitted, “it could’ve been worse….you could’ve asked him face to face.”

Vicki frowned; “And that would’ve been worse…how?” Tell sighed. “Major Tom….isn’t your typical rocketman,” he explained. “His team handled missions that NASA didn’t want the public to know about…the sort of things that could get people fired, deported or arrested.” “What, NASA black-ops?” Vicki asked, half-jokingly. Tell’s unsmiling silence said more than a thousand words could have. “You….you’re not serious, are you?” she asked, shocked. “I was just kidding with the black-ops comment….”

“Have you ever read his psych eval results?” Tell asked. “I have….to be quite honest, it’s a miracle that he’s even alive today. The shrinks have diagnosed him with everything under the sun…from passive-aggressive disorder to Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Hell, at one time, they considered giving him a Section 8 and shipping him back home!” He shook his head; “The only reason I’m even telling you this is because it has a lot to do with the dead astronauts that have been popping up lately. As you’ve already deduced, all ten of the murder victims were former colleagues of Major Tom….and all of them were with him during one particularly harrowing mission that ended with the death of one of his most trusted friends within that group…”

“Not to interrupt this harrowing tale,” Vicki cut in, “but I have another question---completely unrelated to the issue with the Major, by the way.” Tell rolled his eyes. “Ask away, oh noble traveller,” he intoned theatrically, bowing and making a big show of waving his hands with a flourish.

Vicki steeled herself and took a breath: “What do you know about a place called…the City of the Angels?”

Tell’s theatrical gestures and statements ceased. “You’re not talking about Los Angeles, are you?” he asked, his voice uncharacteristically shrewd. “I….heard about it,” Vicki admitted. “Someone in the hall outside my dorm room---“ “Told you about it personally,” Tell finished, now staring at her intently. “One doesn’t just hear about the City of the Angels, V….they choose you.” “So you know about it, then?” Vicki offered. “I don’t just know about it,” Tell replied. “The City of the Angels is one of those places that people tell stories about, and you never know if they’re true or not….when I first heard about it, I thought it was just a bunch of hipsters trying to recreate the glory days of places like CBGBs and Studio 54---a strange combo, I know, but it made sense at the time.” He sighed. “When I got the call that I was in….that was one hell of a night.” He smiled.

“…and this is the part where I ask ‘So can I go?’, and you get all mad and stop smiling and say ‘V, a lot of stuff happened in that place that you have no business dealing with’,” Vicki muttered. “Am I right so far?”

“Not even close,” Tell replied, smirking. “If you want to check this place out, then I say go for it. If you don’t want to check it out…go for it anyway. You might learn something.” He grinned again. “They get all sorts down at the City….poets, Goths, conspiracy theorists, Apple enthusiasts, budding musicians, and even a few genuine aristocrats of the Freak Kingdom. You’d fit right in.” “So they allow gynoids in there?” Vicki querried. “V,” Tell assured her, “they’d let you in if you were a toaster with a GameBoy taped on….but allow me to impart a word of wisdom: don’t tell anyone else about this place. I can only assume that someone directly told you about it, and now you’ve mentioned it to me…any further, and you run the risk of them finding out and deciding that you’re not worth inviting after all.”

Vicki groaned. “Don’t tell me the place is run by hipsters,” she muttered. “No,” Tell replied with a grin, “but a few of the patrons consider themselves as such, if I remember correctly. Just be sure to present the card at the door---they did give you a card, right?” Vicki nodded. “Good. One more thing---who was it that told you about the place?”

Vicki hesitated; “She was….interesting,” she began. “She said something about ‘our unique relationship’---and before you ask, it wasn’t Leslie. She was blonde, and she mentioned being a fan of Gowan….” She decided not to mention the stealth suit, not wanting Tell to start an inquiry.

“Makes sense,” Tell replied. “The City usually sends couriers to deliver the invites personally to those they think are, shall we say, interesting enough….but that’s enough about that.” Tell sighed and handed Vicki a folder. “Before you mentioned getting invited to the City of the Angels, we were discussing Major Tom…and I think it’s time we get back to that part of the conversation. That folder you’re holding right now contains information about the last mission Tom’s team went on together before they started dropping like flies….and before you start skimming through it, allow me to impart a Reader Discretion Advisory: It ain’t pretty. Some of the stuff in there has been known to reduce hardened military men to tears, and at least one meeting where those files were read had to be called off after three committee members couldn’t quit puking.”

“Guess it wouldn’t be polite for me to read this during lunch break,” Vicki joked as she opened the folder…

…only to stare in open-mouthed horror at the documents within.

Whereas most people would say that the most disturbing thing they’d ever experienced was a car crash, being in the middle of a bank robbery or watching their own house burn down,Vicki instantly realized that the pictures she was looking at depicted something far, far worse. Even the eyewitness reports were unnerving---most of the writing was unsteady, often written in run-on sentences and lacking proper punctuation, as if the writers felt some sort of need to write them as quickly as possible and get the images out of their minds. Even worse were the cold, clinical reports from the astronauts themselves…but it was the report filed by Major Tom that held the potential to be the most spine-chilling.

The pictures really didn’t help.

“What…..killed these people?” Vicki squeaked. “Under normal circumstances,” Tell replied, “you’d say I was yanking your chain if I gave you the answer to that question….with that in mind, I might as well tell you that the entities responsible for this destruction are not of this Earth.” Vicki continued reading the reports until she found a photo of the “entities”---and felt the sudden urge to scream as soon as she saw them. “It’s the sharpest, cleanest photo they could get,” Tell continued, “but even digital cameras couldn’t have captured a clear image of those things…..”

“Those things” was the best possible way to describe the beings depicted in the photo. There were three of them, and each one looked like nothing less than a vaguely humanoid mass of oozing, yellowed slime with vinelike tendons running through the grossly-assymmetrical limbs and gaping, dark hollows where the eyes and mouth of a human being would be. On the ground near the “feet” of the beings were corpses, many of which had cracked, discolored skin around the mouths, ears and eyes; one corpse was actually touching the “foot” of the nearest slime-thing, and it seemed to be eating away at the body like acid…..

“Major Tom lost a teammate to one of those things,” Tell quietly informed the gynoid. “It’s all there, in the last part of his report.”

Vicki turned back to the final page of Major Tom’s report, and instantly felt tears welling up in her artificial eyes; in contrast to the rest of the report, the final paragraph---a transcript of an interview between Major Tom and a superior officer---sounded like the writings of someone in the grip of a fever. “What did he mean when he said ‘they…they just started flowing together, like water, into the pit’?” she asked quietly.

“It means exactly what it says.”

Vicki and Tell both turned as one to see Major Tom---clad in his black leather jacket, black jeans and leather gloves---standing in the doorway. “Major,” Vicki began, her voice already cracking, “I…I didn’t…” “I didn’t know either, when I first got the call,” the Major replied, his voice calm. “I had no idea what the hell I was going to deal with.” He took off his sunglasses, revealing that he’d been crying silently all the while. “I didn’t know that I was about to go through the most nightmarish experience in my life….” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “And I definitely didn’t know that I was going to lose a partner…”

Before he could say another word, Vicki ran forward and hugged him, crying into his shoulder.

“Oooookay,” Tell muttered, “that is not what I expected…..”

Major Tom didn’t flinch from Vicki’s embrace; indeed, he gently wrapped his own arms around her, allowing himself to grieve for those who had suffered ever since that black day over a decade ago. Neither of them said a word; no words were needed. Both of them now shared the knowledge that had haunted the Impossible Astronaut for eleven years, and both of them were grieving for those who suffered then…and for those who were suffering now.

After a full two minutes, they broke their embrace; the Major had stopped crying, but Vicki was still quietly sobbing, feeling a mixture of dread, pity and awe towards Tom. “I…I never knew,” she muttered. “I…had no idea….(sniff)…how…how did you sleep?!”

“I didn’t,” the Major quietly admitted. “Not for the first few weeks. Every time I closed my eyes, all I heard was the screaming…her screaming…..” He shook his head. “It took a year and a half of therapy just for me to get over that one day….and then 9/11 happened, and I had a panic attack in the middle of an acceptance speech at the Kennedy Space Center. They had to sedate me just to get me off the stage, and even then the drugs barely did the trick…” He wiped the lenses of his sunglasses. “I thought they’d come back, “ he whispered. “I honestly thought those things had somehow gotten into the engines of all of those planes and steered them into buildings…..when they told me who was actually responsible, I couldn’t figure out whether to pass out, cry or kick someone in the head.”

Tell gently took the folder from Vicki and laid it on a table. “Now that you know why he’s been so freaked out over the past few days,” he explained, “I think---“

“I’ll need upgrades.”

V.I.C.I.’s sudden statement startled Tell. “You…what?!” he gasped. “If I’m going to go up against those things,” she began, before realizing she didn’t even know what they were. “Did NASA ever even come up with an official name for..whatever the hell those slime-thingies were?” she asked Major Tom. “They didn’t need to,” he replied. “The entities identified themselves as ‘ambassadors of the Rigelitan system’ before they attacked.”

Tell groaned; “You’re not encouraging her, are you?!” “She’s handled the fembots, she’s survived Faceless, and she didn’t bat an eyelash when L.E.S. came back,” Major Tom replied, “so yes, you’re damn right I’m encouraging her!” “Then it’s settled,” V.I.C.I. monotoned. “If I’m going to go up against these Rigelitans, I’ll need a few upgrades.” Tell sighed, resigning himself to the fact that he’d lost the argument before it even began. “Your inner framework is already able to withstand the kind of pressure they can exert by doing their living waterfall act,” he informed the gynoid, “but if it’s offensive capabilities you’re talking about…” He grinned and held up a box as long as V.I.C.I.’s arm. “The Neural Disruptor Grid,” he declared. “Doesn’t work worth a crap on human beings, but---“

“That won’t be enough,” Major Tom cut in, pulling a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket. “She’ll need the first three items on this list,” he informed Tell, “and probably Items 8, 9 and 11 as well.” “Are you…do you really think I can afford these?!” Tell thundered. “Considering the fact that you already have most of the parts necessary to make them,” the Major cooly shot back, “yes.” He looked into Tell’s eyes; “If you don’t give her these upgrades, the Rigelitans won’t hesitate to do to her what they did to my partner,” he intoned, “and I can guaran-damn-tee you that, should that actually happen, you breaking the bad news to Ted Lawson is going to be the least of our problems.”

After hesitating just long enough to give the impression that he was still on the fence about it, Tell replied: “In that case, what the hell are we standing around for?” He grinned. “Let’s get her over to the slab and make with the upgrades already---“ “Ah, hello?” Vicki interjected. “I still have a lecture to get to over at the Event Center tomorrow!”

“Then it’s a good thing your roommate’s out of town,” Tell replied, “’cuz this job is going to be an all-nighter…”

Elsewhere on the campus of San Jose State University, Francesca Bowman reflected on her encounter with the mysterious individual who had identified himself as Thomas Lane an hour or so earlier. Yes, their initial meeting at the library had been….unorthodox, to say the least, yet there was something about him that was just…..intriguing….

“This seat taken?”

A girl with shoulder-length blonde hair, a pale red dress and crystal blue eyes was eyeing the vaccant spot on the bench with a grin. “Ah, no,” Francesca replied. “I wasn’t waiting for anyone or anything, so…” “I get the picture,” the girl replied, grinning as she sat down. “It might just be my tendency to make random observations about strangers,” she mused, “but something tells me that you’re rather preoccupied at the moment.” Fran nodded; “I met this guy earlier…well, I didn’t so much ‘meet’ him as….” She blushed. “It’s complicated.”

“Does this ‘guy’ happen to be involved in that fraccas near the library earlier?” the blonde girl asked, a subtle undertone of playfullness in her voice. “Why?” Fran asked defensively. “Has anyone said anything about it?” The blonde girl chuckled. “Amazingly, no,” she replied. “Despite the fact that at least 35 people saw a guy ‘who looked like the Terminator’ show up, yell about someone and then chase some other guy out, nobody ever bothered calling the cops---and it gets even weirder than that, if you can believe it. The guy who got chased out has a bunch of outstanding warrants under at least 15 names….as far as the campus PD is concerned, the Terminator lookalike did them a favor by beating the mortal piss out of him.”

Fran shuddered; “The guy who got beat up….he’s not…y’know…” “He hasn’t died, if that’s what you’re asking,” the blonde girl replied. “He won’t be eating any solid food for a while, but he is still counted among the living. Anyways, you handled yourself well for someone in your position, and I’d like to present you with a small token of my esteem..” She handed Fran a business card with “C.O.T.A.” and an address embossed on the front in silver foil lettering. “What’s COTA?” Fran asked, more than a bit confused. “City of the Angels,” the blonde girl replied. “Isn’t that a nightclub, or something?” Fran mused, more to herself than to the blonde girl. “It’s definitely not just a standard-issue nightclub,” the blonde replied with a grin. “It’s a bit more….interesting than that. Speaking of interest, is it safe to assume that you’d like to actually see this place?”

After a minute’s thought, Fran nodded.

“I thought so,” the blonde beamed. “Just do me one favor---please don’t tell anyone else about it. A lot of people go looking for the City of the Angels---mostly frat boys looking to act incredibly stupid for the sake of making YouTube movies of themselves---but few have ever actually found the place…at least, few have found it that haven’t been invited.” With that, Fran thanked the blonde girl and headed back to her dorm. “A shame, really,” the blonde murmured, once Fran was out of earshot. “She’s one of the most incredible pieces of technology ever designed, and she doesn’t even know it….at least she’s in good hands.” With a contented sigh, the blonde prepared to activate her stealth suit once again---

---except she suddenly sensed someone standing three feet behind her.

“It’s either a mugger, a groper or a drunk,” she reminded herself, “although drunks occasionally devolve into muggers and/or gropers…no matter. Whoever you are,” she added, intending to goad her would-be pursuer into the open, “I’ve got a full can of bear Mace in my purse, and I won’t hesitate to empty the whole thing into your eyes if you try anything funny on me…..” She listened for the telltale footfalls of a would-be attacker running off (along with any swearing they might be uttering after being noticed by their target). “Either this guy has the patience of a saint,” she mused, “or he’s a freaking ninja….“

Shaking her head, she resigned herself to the fact that she was now jumping at shadows. “As soon as I get back to the City,” she assured herself, “I’m heading straight for the recharging booth…mainly because it’s the closest thing to a good night’s rest I’m going to get.“ She sighed and walked off, contemplating the two girls she’d just invited to the City of the Angels.

In retrospect, she should’ve been thinking about that feeling that someone had been standing behind her….

“Not that I don’t want this upgrade, or anything, but was there any way you could’ve arranged this so that I didn’t have to feel like I was watching my own autopsy take place?”

As the day faded into night, Mr. Tell and Major Tom had set about removing the cellular-plastic artificial skin from most of V.I.C.I’s torso and arms to install her newest upgrade. Despite the fact that she’d been opened up in this particular fashion on previous occasions, there was something odd about the sensation of laying on the slab and (quite literally) being stripped to the bone (or in her case, the titanium endo-skeleton) that she just couldn’t place.

“Believe me, V,” Tell replied, “if you were human, this would be a thousand times worse. At least you have the option of shutting off your pain receptors…and this is for a good cause, so…there’s that!” V.I.C.I. rolled her eyes and turned to view Major Tom working on her right arm. “So…what exactly are you guys giving me?” she asked. “The only weapons I know of that can do anything to hurt the Rigelitans,” Tom replied, not looking away from the task at hand. “Okay, shut down all motor functions for your right arm, please…this part of the process is going to require precision, and even the slightest twitch from you could irreparably screw up your whole arm…or even the entire right side of your body….” “…which is the last thing I want,” V.I.C.I. replied, sighing. “Give me a minute…”

She closed her eyes and focused. “Deactivating all motor functions for right arm….” she monotoned, as her entire body went stiff. “Please wait…..right arm has been deactivated.” Her eyes opened; “That better?” she asked, using her human voice once again. “Perfect,” the Major replied with a grin.

As the installation of her latest upgrade continued, V.I.C.I. couldn’t help but appreciate all the craftsmanship that had gone into her creation. Every time she moved her head, she could feel (and occasionally see) the myogel bundles and microservos moving in sync, creating that seamless, fluid motion that many thought could never be attained in robotics. It felt odd, though; despite the fact that she’d been upgraded, repaired and (on a few occasions) taken apart, it was never this extensive, and she was usually either shut down or on standby mode…now, however, she felt less like someone waking up during their own autopsy and more like someone who had somehow awakened in the middle of their own open-heart surgery.

“Would either of you two believe that this is probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever dealt with?” she murmured.

Tell chuckled. “You’re not alone, V,” he replied quietly, “although I’m surprised you hadn’t mentioned it before now. At least you’re not complaining….” “Since when have I ever complained about your work?” V.I.C.I. asked, confused. “I never said that you complained,” Tell rebuffed. “Some of my other, shall we say, clientelle have no concept of gratitude…in any case, be glad that your design---well, the design Ted went with for your upgrades ever since you turned eighteen---borrowed more than a few cues from personal computer design, namely in terms of things like ease of access and upgrading.” “Did you just compare me to a PC?” V.I.C.I. quipped, her voice equal measures irritated and teasing. “Trust me, V,” Tell replied, “it’s in the best possible way. Ever wonder how you were able to have a back-mounted control panel, despite the whole ‘myogel musculature’ thing that would normally have prevented such a design feature? Well, Ted was the one who came up with the whole idea of having all the myogel within the inner cavity bundled in such a way that they could seal off and not leak all over the place whenever you needed to access your panel. Granted, it took him quite a few tries to get it right, but---“

“Tell,” V.I.C.I. quietly interrupted, “I get it.” She rolled her eyes and grinned. “I especially like the whole idea of getting upgrades from that code Ted wrote; it sort of reminds me of something…”

A few minutes later, V.I.C.I. was staring at the ceiling, a bemused smile on her face. The room was almost completely silent, save for the quiet whirring of her internal mechanisms and the rhythmic guitar and steel drums of Joe Strummer’s “Sleepwalk” emanating from a CD player. “Y’know,” she murmured, “if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here to get upgrades that may mean the difference between beating a bunch of lifeforms that might not even be from this galaxy and not beating them….I could almost fall asleep right now.”

“I think Tom already beat you to it,” Mr. Tell replied, nodding towards a chair where the Major had conked out.

V.I.C.I. giggled; Tom’s sunglasses, which usually appeared almost impossible to jostle from his face, were now tilted at a jaunty angle, revealing his eyes (which, as expected, were closed at the moment). “He looks so goofy right now,” the brunette gynoid whispered, grinning. “Indeed he does,” Tell replied knowingly. “I’d draw on his face with a Sharpie, but I’m wondering if he’d be more pissed off if I gave him a goatee or a handlebar mustache….”

“Sleepwalk” ended a minute later, and the next song, the Grateful Dead’s “Foolish Heart”, kicked on. “Is this the music you play for all your late-night repairs?” V.I.C.I. asked, half-jokingly. “Only the ones that require my absolute focus,” Tell deadpanned, not missing a beat. “The slower the music, the less chance there is of you leaving here with loose wires and missing bolts. As hard as it may seem to believe, conversation helps too, even though most of my clients usually aren’t in that talkative of a mood.” He chuckled and took a seat in an office chair mounted with custom-made “ultra-glide” casters, which he then rolled over to a desk. “I’m one of the only people I know who actually has a job that they honestly, genuinely love,” he admitted, typing out a progress report on a vintage Apple IIc.

“I never knew you were an Apple fan,” V.I.C.I. mused. “You should see my house,” Tell replied, grinning. “I’ve got tons of Macs, iMacs and other Apple computers in the basement….those things are some of the most reliable machines I’ve ever used. Jobs and Woz really knew their way around a circuit board, V….two of the best damn computer guys in the Valley.” He smiled and shook his head. “Shame I couldn’t take Jobs up on his offer….”

“What offer?” V.I.C.I. asked, genuinely intrigued.

Tell smiled wistfully. “Back in ’97, when he became interim CEO, I actually met Steve Jobs. I was at an expo in San Bernadino, fixing someone’s Mac---their idiot girlfriend had decided to take a nine-iron to it because they had no idea how to properly debug the thing---and he was impressed with my work. Said I was like an open-heart surgeon for machines, except my bedside manner was even more professional.” “And he offered you a job at Apple?” V.I.C.I. inquired. “Part-time,” Tell replied, “but at the end of the day, a part-time job offer job offer from Steve Jobs was still a job offer from Steve Jobs.” He sighed sadly. “Unfortunately for me, I had a much bigger engagement---a Lawson Robotics-related engagement---and I had to decline as politely as I could without sounding like the world’s biggest whimp. Sometimes, when I get bored, I wonder how things would’ve been if I had taken Jobs up on his offer…”

V.I.C.I. smiled reassuringly. “You wouldn’t be here upgrading me, for starters,” she gently reminded Tell.

“That,” Tell admitted, “is a very good point. It’s also why I never dwell on ‘what if’ or ‘what could have been’, because dwelling in the past is a sure sign that your present isn’t going too well. Speaking of which…I don’t want to make an unfounded assumption---and pardon me in advance for this complete topic shift---but am I correct in thinking that you don’t miss the ‘walking, talking appliance’ phase of your existence?”

Silence.

“Ah, V?”

“Sorry,” she murmured, “it’s just….there’s a lot to process with that question. There are parts of it that I never want to have to relive---the Brindles constantly butting in, for starters, or all the times Miss Fernwald from Social Services kept ‘popping in’ to check up on me….not to mention those two guys from another company who tried to suck up to Ted just so they could steal me…..yeah, there were a lot of days I wish I didn’t have to go through, but there were also a lot of good times, like when I saved the life of Ted’s dad by jump-starting his pacemaker.” She smiled as a lone tear streaked down her face. “I guess you could say that I wouldn’t be the girl I am today if it weren’t for all those crazy misadventures, so…if I had the chance to go back and change anything, I probably wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t be fair…to me or to anyone else. Some people might say I wasn’t even technically ‘alive’ back then….but for me, at that time, nothing ever felt more real.”

Tell arched an eyebrow, impressed by the gynoid’s response. “That….was some deep stuff there, V.”

For the next few minutes, Tell continued his work in silence, until V.I.C.I. decided to ask him a question just as challenging as the one he’d put forth to her. “Seeing as how I’ve already admitted that I wouldn’t really change anything with my life, what about you? Is there anything you’d want to change, if you could?”

To her surprise, Tell almost froze mid-step, as the tool he was holding fell to the floor with a clang. “Tell?” V.I.C.I. repeated, quietly. “Are you….” Slowly, she became aware of a strange sound---sobbing. “Tell, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Forget I asked the question, if it’s that tough….Tell, please talk to me…” The sobbing continued. “God, I never should’ve asked that stupid question,” she muttered. “Tell---“

“My arm.”

The suddenness of the remark stunned her. “Your….what?”

Tell wiped his eyes on his sleeve and stood up. “A few years ago, before I was assigned to be your field mechanic,” he explained, “I was taking on odd jobs on the side, just to get a little extra income. One of those jobs involved working at a plant that manufactured car parts. It was a no-frills job…I had the safest spot on the factory floor, making checklists, asking about personal welfare….boring crap. Nothing dangerous could’ve happened….” His eyes started welling up again. “My last day at the plant,” he continued, “the guy in charge of this huge pressing machine---I can’t even remember what the damn thing did---wasn’t there…called in with some stupid line about pink-eye. Manager calls me in and tells me to man that press---I was certified to work the machine, but I wasn’t wearing the proper attire…anyone working the press had to have short sleeves, but I’ve always been a long-sleeve guy, so…yeah. Anyway, three minutes before I have to clock out, my damn sleeve gets caught in the press…..before I know what's happening, there're guys shouting, screaming to turn the damn thing off….and then I hear this tearing….and I feel it…..”

As V.I.C.I. stared, horrified, Tell rolled up his left sleeve to reveal an arm that, while not as artificial looking as expected, was still noticable as an artificial limb. “That stupid press took my left arm, V,” he intoned. “The ALPA gave me this---“ he gestured to the prosthetic grafted to what was left of his original arm--- “and it hasn’t failed me since I got it, but….” He bit his lip. “Every time I do a repair job, I feel like I’m cheating. This arm…it’s better than my old arm. It never aches, never falls asleep, never gets those funny nerve twinges every once in a while….it’s like an unfair advantage. And, of course, I can’t mention it to my clients, otherwise they’ll start worrying that it’ll crap out in the middle of a repair, and then I lose customers, and---“

“Tell.”

V.I.C.I.’s voice snapped Tell out of his reverie. “That arm isn’t what defines you,” she replied. “You define you. The goofy jokes, your somewhat ecclectic musical tastes, your incomparable customer service….that arm is just a fraction of what makes you such a great mechanic. Even if you didn’t have that thing, you’d still be great; I’ve seen one-armed mechanics before, and they’re phenomenal.” She smiled. “Besides,” she added, “it looks cool.”

Tell sighed as he rolled down his sleeve. “Hearing that from you….is probably the second best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he admitted. “What’s the first?” V.I.C.I. asked. “Meeting you,” Tell replied, grinning.

In the corner, a loud snore escaped Major Tom’s lips.

“Does he know?” V.I.C.I. asked. “Not yet,” Tell muttered. “Hardcastle knows---hell, he even wanted me to join his squad as their personal wrench monkey, but I had to turn him down. It’s not one of those ‘don’t you dare pity me’ situations…it’s just that I couldn’t bear to leave your maintenance in the hands of someone who might not be as skilled as I am. Hell, most guys these days don’t even know how to fix a myogel set properly, let alone repair an RTG.….”

“In that case,” V.I.C.I. whispered, “I’m really glad you chose to stick with me.”

And so the upgrading process continued, well into the wee hours of the morning….

The next morning, Vicki, Mr. Tell and Major Tom went over their mission briefing one last time as they sat inside the Tellmobile---which was conveniently parked outside the Event Center. Predictably, Tell was using the occasion to showcase his rather unique brand of humor.

“…and if anything happens that isn’t covered in the dossier, then feel free to run away screaming like all of the other panicking civilians. That way, it’ll be easier for you to make a quick escape without being seen….not that it’ll make things easier to explain to the police,” he added, noticing the Major glaring at him. “Actually, I should probably recommend against any quick escapes, seeing as how it’ll just lead to people asking questions that you won’t be able to answer without putting a lot of people in danger---“

“Tell,” Vicki monotoned, catching his attention before slipping back to her human voice. “I get it.”

“Good,” the Major replied. “Leah Chambers will get here in twenty minutes, so I suggest you mingle with the crowd outside…make small-talk, catch up on old times with friends, whatever. Don’t give any indication as to the real reason for you being here.”

With that, Vicki nodded and exited the van, immediately looking for a few crowd members to “blend in” with.

Make small talk, he says….hmm, those two look interesting.

She approached a pair of individuals whose attire almost screamed “scientist”. Both men wore dress pants, nametags (reading “Tom L.” and “Al W.”, respectively) and lab coats, but only one of them---the bearded one holding a notebook of graph paper at the moment---had a dress shirt with a tie underneath; the other was wearing a white pullover, and judging from the expression on his mustachioed face, he really didn’t want to be there. “I’m telling you, Thomas,” he hissed, his German accent bordering on the comedic, “ze design is perfect ze vay it is! A robot designed for de-forestation vork vould have to have blades on its hands!” “Al,” the other man sighed, “normally I’d be agreeing with you, but….” He stopped as Vicki approached. “Something I can help you with, miss?” he asked politely.

“I couldn’t help but overhear the two of you talking about robots,” she replied, “and seeing as how I have a sort of vested interest in robotics….” She shifted her weight, acting nervous. “Sorry,” she blurted, “I should’ve introduced myself first. Vicki Lawson, daughter of---“

“Ted Lawson,” Tom replied, a smile growing on his face, “the founder of Lawson Robotics!” He shook her hand. “I’ve heard a lot about your father, Miss Lawson…quite the innovator in the field, if I do say so myself. I’m Tom, and my somewhat grumpy friend over here is Al---“ “I prefer Albert,” the mustachioed one muttered, sounding annoyed. “Cool,” Vicki replied, grinning. “I have a friend named Tom…he’s actually working off-campus right now, but maybe you’ll get to meet him after the lecture.” “I look forward to it,” Tom declared, grinning. “But as for the topic at hand…my colleague and I have been working on a project that’s going to revolutionize the world of commercial robotics---specialized humanoid robots designed for work in fields too dangerous for human beings. This one, for instance---“ he pointed to a sketch of a figure that looked like its hard hat was actually part of its head--- “would be ideal for construction, and this one would be perfect for use in arctic research; these specialize in waste incineration, demolition and power management, respectively…”

“…and I take it this one is the forest-dwelling robot,” Vicki mused, pointing to a drawing of a robot with large, almost Clock Tower-esque garden shears in place of its hands. “Yes,” Al butted in, “and ze design is qvite perfect ze vay it is! Only a schmuck vould try to change zis design!” “Al,” Tom muttered, frowning, “we’ve been over this. Scissors for hands would just get in the way of it handling other materials---“

“Why not put them on its head?”

Al and Tom looked at Vicki, with surprised expressions. “That,” Tom murmured, “just might work….”

“VHAT?!” Al thundered. “A PAIR OF SCISSORS ON ITS HEAD?! Are you INSANE?! How in ze blue hell is it going to deploy zem in ze middle of a forest---”

“You could always use magnets,” Vicki offered.

Tom nodded, pulled out an eraseable ink pen and rubbed out the scissor-hands, replacing them with hands that looked like armored gloves. “Neodymium electromagnets could work,” he murmured thoughtfully, “with a recall switch…..yes, that’s perfect!” He beamed. “Miss Lawson, I think you’ve just helped me make history!”

“Ze scissorhands vere better,” Al muttered, rolling his eyes.

“Glad I could help,” Vicki replied, ignoring Al. “Maybe we could continue this discussion after the lecture?” “I’d be delighted,” Tom replied. “Here’s my card---“ “Our card, Thomas,” Al cut in. “Our card. Ve didn’t start our own Silicon Valley business for notting, did ve?” He chuckled and grinned the most insincere grin Vicki had seen since Brandon Brindle had tried to claim fire insurance after nearly burning down his house while smoking in bed. “Don’t mind him,” Tom assured her. “He’s just a bit sore that his last project didn’t even get past the testing phase….”

“But my NEXT von vill be ze envy of ze vorld!” Al declared. “And all shall TREMBLE at ze mention of ze name, Dr. Albert Wil---AAAGH!” Tom was yanking him away by the sleeve. “We should probably go make sure nobody stole our seats,” he called out to Vicki, while Albert was muttering about “useless schmucks”.

“Talk to you later!” Vicki called out, prompting Tom to smile and wave. “Those two were….interesting,” she mused, studying the business card she’d been handed. “’Light Robotics Inc.’….I should ask Ted about those guys…”

“Great idea. While you’re at it, how’s about asking him to get a better chain for your dorm room door?”

Vicki turned to see the girl she’d encountered in the dorm hallway a day earlier. “My….what?” she blurted, her smile fading. “Hey, don’t look at me like that,” the girl replied. “I was just passing by to check on you, and it looked like someone had gone all ‘It Takes a Thief’ on your room. Busted door chain, beds flipped over, stuff on the floor…the works. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t notice it last night…then again, something tells me that you had more…pressing duties to worry about at the time…” She smiled her flirtatious smile.

“What the hell are you trying to say?” Vicki asked, already getting annoyed.

The blonde girl’s expression turned serious. “I’m saying that if you had been in your dorm room last night,” she whispered, “you probably would’ve been killed or kidnapped. That chain they broke? The one that was meant to keep people from breaking in? It was dissolved. As in ‘squirted with acid’.” She stared into Vicki’s eyes; “Whoever broke into your dorm room wasn’t trying to steal anything or intimidate you, Vicki…they wanted you dead. More importantly, they wanted one of your allies dead.” She looked around, as if she thought she might be overheard. “Just between you and me, I think the idiots who kicked in your door were after your friend from NASA---“

“Major Tom?!” Vicki squeaked, terrified.

The blonde girl arched an eyebrow. “So you do know him….interesting. In any case, I suggest you forget the lecture and go find him, wherever he is; he’ll need your protection right now, and---“

“Vicki Lawson?”

A campus security officer had approached the pair during their conversation. “Yes?” Vicki replied. “It seems that Miss Chambers has arrived ahead of schedule,” the officer informed her, “and she’s requested your presence in the dressing room before the lecture begins.” As the blonde girl stared, surprised, Vicki shrugged apologetically and followed the security officer to Leah Chambers’ dressing room, wondering if the enigmatic blonde would be willing to accept an explanation the next time they met.

Hopefully, I can make it up to her after this is all over with….

As soon as the door to the dressing room opened, Vicki felt an almost irrepressible urge to gasp.

Despite the mass media descriptions labelling her the “Five-Billion Dollar Girl” and “a living, breathing miracle of modern medical science”, Leah Chambers looked, more than anything, like a miserable doll in a Plexiglass cage. Her arms, legs and face all looked as if they’d been crafted from porcelain, with the seams on her limbs serving as an all-too obvious visual reminder of her “new lease on life”. Her pale blonde wig---the wreck had damaged her follicles too severely to allow for any possible new hair growth---was currently done up in a shoulder-length cut that framed her face nicely…though Vicki doubted that Leah’s rebuilding had made any effort to preserve her pre-accident appearance. Nothing about her was too narrow, too wide or too anything, but that was the problem---it looked as if someone had selected a photo of her from before the crash and told the surgeons to give her that look…for the rest of her life.

Don’t stare…..she’s still human. Well, 10% of her is….stop it. She wanted you here. Don’t make her regret that choice….

“You, ah, wanted to talk to me?” the brunette gynoid asked polietly.

Leah looked up, her pale blue eyes (Tentrex CSphere 9950s, Vicki corrected) focusing on the new arrival standing by the door. “So,” she murmured, her voice sounding surprisingly normal, “you’re Vicki Lawson.” She managed a small smile that didn’t look anywhere near as off-putting as Vicki had expected. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” “And I’ve, ah,” Vicki stammered, “been hearing a lot…about…..” She shook her head. “Sorry, but this whole thing is….” She cleared her throat, staring at the ceiling. “I, ah…” “If you’re going to comment on, well….” Leah gestured at her limbs. “I suggest you get it out of your system now---“

“How are you even still alive?!” Vicki gasped. “How do you---I mean….oh, God, this is….” Her sudden burst of inability to articulate her feelings wasn’t just an act--- ever since she’d first heard about the CyborGirl, Vicki had wondered why Leah Chambers hadn’t lost her faith in humanity, God, the indefatigable nature of the soul or anything else. “You are….wow,” the brunette gynoid concluded. “I mean, you…..wow.”

“Feel better?” Leah asked.

“Yeah,” Vicki replied. “I mean…I’ve read about you in the papers and stuff, and heard about you on TV, and my Dad told me some stuff, but…..you look so calm! It’s like this is..” “Difficult?” Leah offered. “A day-to-day challenge? It is, believe me….though from what I understand, you don’t exactly lead an easy life yourself. Tell me…has anyone ever asked why you always pay a visit to one off-campus building in particular?” There was no malice in her voice, nor did she deliver the question with a smirk; her expression was one of genuine curiosity. “I guess you’ve already figured out that I’m what you’d call ‘a girl unlike other girls’, then,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes. “It was less of a ‘figured it out’ thing as it was ‘informed for security reasons’ thing,” Leah admitted. “The NASA higher-ups got wind that there was an RTG on campus, and I managed to contact your field mechanic for the details….apparently, it turns out that a RadioThermionic Generator won’t interfere with my prosthesis’ functions at all.” She grinned. “Now, as for the reason you’re here….”

The conversation got serious, as Vicki told Leah all she could about the ten dead astronauts, the sales of top secret NASA information to outside forces by Linus Miller, and the mysterious (and apparently protoplasmic) beings known only as the Rigelitans. “The news of your impending NASA gig had probably attracted their’ attention,” the brunette gynoid explained, “but rather than go after you directly, they decided to finish what they started back in the 90s and slaughter the ‘welcoming committee’ that they first encountered all those years ago.” “That….sort of makes sense,” Leah replied, “but who’s this Linus Miller guy?” “That’s the weird thing,” Vicki admitted. “He’s never been on the books at NASA, and---“ Without warning, a revelation hit her. “Either you’re having a ‘eureka’ moment,” Leah remarked, “or your ‘change battery’ light just came on---“

“I need to borrow your phone,” Vicki exclaimed. Leah arched an eyebrow in mild surprise, but said nothing as she handed over her cellphone. “Just…don’t break it or anything,” she murmured, “please?”

“You have nothing to worry about,” V.I.C.I. monotoned. “I’d never harm something this important.”

Ignoring Leah’s second arched-eyebrow look, the gynoid pulled up her shirt and gave the verbal command for her control panel to open, standing perfectly still so that the panel wouldn’t get twisted around. Seconds later, she unspooled a USB cable from the panel and hooked it up to the phone. “How exactly does that panel of yours work?” Leah asked. “I mean, it’s not like a human torso has the ability to house something like that without compromising skeletal/muscular integrity….” “The components are grouped in modular pods built into my back,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Each pod is spaced to allow minimum interruption of movement and/or endoskeletal integrity.” Leah noticed that the “panel” was, indeed, set up much like a modular computer system, with the components grouped close enough together that they did in fact appear to be one solid panel.

“That’s….impressive,” she admitted, nodding her approval of such an interesting design.

“If you think that’s good, wait until you see my next trick,” V.I.C.I. deadpanned, grinning slyly. With the phone now hooked up to her internal bubble memory processors, she began going through her own indexed search history over the past few days, filtering out anything that didn’t include the name “Linus Miller”. After just five seconds of scanning her records, V.I.C.I. found three articles that she’d accessed earlier that morning (Tell had allowed her to use his computer after the all-night upgrade was done). “It turns out ‘Linus Miller’ is a known associate of one Victor Vega,” she informed Leah, who was genuinely stunned by the news.

“Victor Vega?! As in, that Spanish ‘entrepeneur’ who tried to buy his way into my NASA assignment?!” Her formerly calm expression began showing traces of anger. “I knew that sleazebag wasn’t going to give up,” she fumed. “Ever since Harold Rengold upstaged him by paying for the surgery that rebuilt me---“ “Wait,” V.I.C.I. interjected, reverting to her human voice. “You’re saying this Victor Vega character was a business rival of Harold Rengold?” “Not just ‘a’ rival,” Leah replied, “the rival. Any time Harold donated a substantial sum to charity, Victor would donate $20,000 more. Whenever Harold gave away $2,000,000 worth of computers to a school in Africa, Victor would personally deliver $5,000,000 worth of computers to a school in Brazil. As far as I know, my surgery was the beginning of the end for Victor’s one-upsmanship; the only way he could’ve done something similar was to stage an accident….which he actually tried to do, except Warren and Grace DeFalco didn’t survive the drunk-driving hit-and-run that he ‘arranged’.”

V.I.C.I. hid her shock at the revelation; Victor Vega is the one who got Kim DeFalco’s parents killed…and she always thought it was just an accident….. “I’ll be sure to inform the ALPA about this Victor Vega as soon as possible,” she replied out loud, using her monotone voice to keep the emotion out of her words. “How did you find out about it?”

“Despite the fact that his son was a complete lunatic,” Leah explained, “Harold Rengold was one hell of a decent human being. He usually stopped by to personally tell me about how things were going with him, which was usually great news---after my operation, Rengold Cybernetics was actually on the verge of getting back into the good graces of the international robotics market…”

A few minutes later, V.I.C.I. transmitted her findings (and the tidbit about Victor Vega’s role in the deaths of Kim DeFalco’s parents) to the ALPA online submissions site before relinquishing Leah’s phone to its owner.

“Seeing as how Victor Vega is probably the one who roused the Rigelitans from their slumber,” she stated, “it’s probably not that far of a stretch to assume that he might try to somehow lead them here to attack while you’re giving the lecture.” “But you said they were only going after the astronauts who first encountered them,” Leah replied, confused. “Why would he---“ “Six of those astronauts are going to be here for the lecture, Leah,” Vicki informed her. “In Vega’s mind, it’d be a perfect ‘two birds, one stone’ type of plan---as soon as the astronauts are all dead, the Rigelitans rush the stage and take you out. Quick, nasty and painful.”

“Except that’s not how it’s going to go,” Leah firmly declared. “You’re built to handle those things, right?” “As a matter of fact,” Vicki replied with a grin, “I just got an upgrade last night that was designed specifically with Rigelitan-thrashing in mind.” Indeed, her field of vision currently had six new icons minimized at the lowermost threshhold of sight---the .exe files that would start the programs for her new upgrades.

“Well, then, what are we waiting for?” Leah asked, returning Vicki’s grin. “That lecture isn’t going to start itself!”

From her hidden vantage point within the Event Center, Vicki watched as Leah Chambers’ audience waited patiently for her to arrive…though some were a bit preoccupied.

Jacobs and Michiko, the sole female survivors from Major Tom’s team, looked equal measures sad and anxious, as if the roof were about to collapse on their heads and there was nothing they could to do stop its progress or save themselves. Aaronson, at one time the “Babe Ruth of trajectory calculations”, hadn’t changed that much since the last time the group had convened, save for a five extra pounds and an ill-advised mustache. Halford, the “Han Solo of the Ames Research Center”, had ironically (and unintentionally) adopted a haggard appearance similar to that of Han’s actor Harrison Ford, looking like he’d be more comfortable on a ranch or serving as a spokesman for AARP. Finally, Ruebenstein was the only member of the group who hadn’t changed a bit, still looking like a lean Brooklyn native who hungered for a life in the outer reaches of the cosmos. Vera---clad in her Sunday best and trying not to draw too much attention to herself---sat next to him, her expression somber. The only member of the group not present---or, to be more accurate, the only member of the group who was conspicuous by his absence---was Major Tom himself.

Vicki sighed as she watched Leah Chambers take the stage. “I’ve got to hand it to her,” she remarked, “if it wasn’t for the seams on her arms and legs, I could almost swear she was a normal person.” Indeed, Leah’s gait was remarkable not because of halting steps or the time it took her to get onto the stage, but for the fact that she could keep pace with the two campus police officers escorting her to the podium while looking otherwise compeltely normal.

“Let’s just hope the Rigelitans either don’t remember that she’s not 100% organic…or, even better, that they’ve forgotten about her entirely.” The sound of Mr. Tell’s voice in her ear snapped Vicki out of any reverie she might have been having….and reminded her why she didn’t exactly like his plan to begin with. “Tell…I know Leah agreed to basically play the role of bait in this scenario,” she murmured, “but I really don’t like this idea. If those Rigelitan things show up, and I can’t handle them---“ “You’ll be able to handle them, V,” Tell replied, exuding confidence with every word. “That all-night upgrade session wasn’t just an opportunity for the two of us to have a heart-to-heart, ya know.”

“I know,” Vicki muttered, rolling her eyes..…and nearly missing something one one of the security monitors.

“Tell, did you just see what I think I just saw?” she asked quietly. “And what did you think you---hang on, I’m picking up some weird movement near the back of the Center…” The sound of rapid typing filed Vicki’s ears for a minute or two….

“I really hope this doesn’t mean what I think it means,” the brunette gynoid muttered. “Otherwise…”

After another few seconds of typing, Tell’s voice finally sounded in her ear once again: “V, just a quick check… are you running the programs for those upgrades the Major and I installed last night?” “I haven’t stopped running them since the install,” Vicki replied. “Why?”

“I think you’re gonna need ‘em in about fifty seconds….”

Trying (and failing) to surpress a whisper of “Oh, no…”, Vicki returned her attention to the monitors---and felt an overwhelming urge to pull the nearest fire alarm. Two hazmat-suited figures were currently working at the locked doors leading into the area of the Event Center where Leah was giving her lecture…and they weren’t exactly going about it quietly. “They’re….spraying acid on the locks?!” Vicki gasped. “Looks like it,” Tell’s voice replied, “and unless I’m sadly mistaken, they aren’t exactly carrying sprayers…” “…which means that they’re generating the acid themselves!” Vicki groaned.

Three seconds later, the door locks melted away, allowing the Rigelitans passage into the Event Center…..

….and, as expected, the masses of students reacted in a way that was completely understandable.

Sheer, unadulterated panic.

On stage, Leah was trying to run damage control. “Everyone, just, ah, remain calm….the situation is still under control….” Few people, if any, heeded her words; most were snapping pictures with their iPhones or running for the exits, screaming their damn fool heads off.

From her hiding place backstage (Tell did mention I’d be close to the action…), Vicki groaned out loud. “This is why I would’ve preferred my ‘tape the speech the day before and then lure them in’ idea,” she muttered, shaking her head angrilly and trying not to let herself say “well, it could be worse” or “at least nobody’s getting hurt”---seeing as how most instances of those remarks were inevitably followed by things getting worse and/or someone getting hurt.

In the crowd, Major Tom’s teammates crowded around Vera, determined to protect her (and themselves) by fighting to the death if need be. Even in the face of almost-certain doom, the five astronauts were already preparing for whatever tricks the hazmat-suited weirdos might throw at them.

None of them noticed the group entering the room against the flow of fleeing students.

“This….isn’t good,” V.I.C.I, remarked, frowning as the Rigelitans advanced on the astronauts.

“Of course it isn’t!” Leah had finally decided to abandon her attempts at getting the students to exit in an orderly fashion and ducked backstage. “This is turning into an absolute nightmare….I can’t fight those things by myself---I don’t even know if I can take them on at all, to be honest, and if I can….” She stared at the floor, her anger giving way to sadness. “I don’t want to push myself past my limits. We have to do something, otherwise….”

V.I.C.I. didn’t answer right away. Instead, she honed in on the newcomers---the ones who had entered during the onrush of students trying to flee. Instantly, she recognized the bearded face of Tom L. alongside the mysterious blonde girl she had first encountered outside her dorm room. More allies? she wondered, her gaze turning to the Rigelitans. One of them shouted something in a language that no sane person could’ve possibly thought was English.

“What are they saying?” Leah whispered.

“My translation software can’t tell,” V.I.C.I. replied. “It only works on human languages…and since they’re obviously not human, it can’t understand them.”

Ideas raced through her bubble memory processor; hopefully, our new ‘friends’ can help….somehow…..

“Vicki?”

Vicki turned---and couldn’t surpress a gasp: Leah had gone stiff, with every part of her body except her face completely unable to move even an inch. “They’ve….done something to me…” she whispered, terrified. “I….I can’t move…..” A lone tear streaked down her face; “This….this is like…a nightmare…..” She turned her eyes to V.I.C.I., the pleading tone in her voice taking on a more fearful edge. “Why…why doesn’t anyone notice?!”

The brunette gynoid almost mentioned the fact that most of the audience had fled, but something in the back of her mind kept her from repeating that fact. “Never mind them,” she whispered. “Just tell me how to fix your prosthetics so that I can---“

“Allow us to offer up a better solution.”

Vicki turned to notice the blonde girl and Tom L. accompanied by several armed EDF officers.

The blonde girl looked up with a smirk. “Did you think you were the only ones who knew about these two ‘out-of-towners’?” she asked. “The EDF have been tracking them for quite some time….and when they got wind of Ms. Chambers’ plan…”

“…they enlisted our help to catch these things before they hurt anyone,” Tom L. finished, smiling confidently.

“That’s great and all,” Vicki admitted, “but they’ve done something to Leah---OW!” A sharp backhand nailed the gynoid across the face, sending her to the floor---Leah Chambers had just hit her. “I’m sorry!” she cried, more tears streaming down her face. “I…I can’t control my own limbs!” Before Vicki could respond, Leah’s arms reached down and grabbed her by the neck, lifting her upwards in a two-handed choke. “I…I can’t stop myself…” Leah sobbed. “Do something!”

Vicki frantically looked around, hoping someone would have an idea….

“Stay still,” Tom L. called, pulling a device that looked like a calculator from his pocket. “If I can figure out what frequency they’re using to manipulate her prosthetics, I can isolate it and cancel it out---“

“Then….hurry up…and….find…it!” Vicki croaked, fighting to keep Leah’s hands from crushing her throat.

Tom L. punched buttons on the device, staring intently at the screen. “Almost got it…THERE! Now to alter the sine wave trajectory of---“ “Don’t change the sine wave!” the blonde girl shouted. “You could cause a signal backfire and fry her brain!” “I suppose you have a better plan, then?” Tom L. challenged. The blonde girl stood toe to toe with him; “As a matter of fact---“

“GUYS!” Vicki screamed.

After a brief moment of pondering his options, Tom L. pulled another device from his pocket. “It’s a prototype I’ve been working on,” he called out to Vicki, “and it should be able to help you free yourself!”

He tossed the device towards Vicki, hoping she could catch it…

….and he wasn’t disappointed.

Seconds later, a paralyzing wave of green energy shot through Leah’s limbs, causing her to sink to the floor in a sobbing, gasping heap. “What the hell was that?!” Vicki snapped. “An energy disruptor,” Tom L. replied calmly. “It merely created a feedback loop within her prosthetics, thus forcing them into standby mode. I was thinking of somehow creating an energy net with it….”

“Another time, Doc,” the blonde girl replied, gesturing to the EDF officers. “Any chance you guys could get her to a safe place?” she asked. “The medical van is parked outside,” one officer began, but the blonde cut him off. “Not good enough. Get something in here that can block out whatever signal they were using on her, and bring her to this address---“ she handed the officer a card. “If I’m not there in fifteen minutes, call the number on the card.” The officer nodded and motioned for Leah to be carried out. “As for you, Doc,” the blonde told Tom L., “thanks for the assist.”

“Not a problem,” he replied. “Miss Lawson, I would be honored if you could attend my lecture in a few weeks; it’s a dissertation on why the ‘robot apocalypse’ theory is flawed on at least seven fundamental levels….”

“I’ll be there,” Vicki replied, smiling as Tom L. shook her hand. Once the bearded roboticist accompanied the EDF officers out, the brunette gynoid sighed, turning to regard the blonde girl with a wary eye. “You knew, didn’t you? About our plan?”

“Let’s just say you’re not the only one with connections, ‘Miss Lawson’,” the blonde replied with a smile. “At least nobody else had to get hurt…..” She stared at the now-empty rows of seats, shaking her head. “Looks like the hazmat weirdos escaped during the fracas….so much for my plans for a quiet afternoon.” She smiled again; “Feel like helping me take down a couple of extraterrestrial fugitives for the sake of protecting San Jose State University?”

“Do you really have to ask?” V.I.C.I. monotoned, grinning.

Five minutes later, Vicki and the blonde girl were racing towards the Ames Research Center in a rented Ford Mondeo---one hoping that whatever had happened to Leah wouldn’t be permanent, the other coming up with several plans, back-up plans and contingencies to fall back on in case the back-up plans failed.

“You never told me your name,” Vicki remarked as the blonde guided the Mondeo through traffic. “And you’re bringing this up now…why?” the blonde gynoid replied. Vicki blushed; “I was just thinking…if we’re going to work together on this, it’d be better if we knew each other’s names. Seeing as how you already know mine, what with the whole ‘following me around campus’ thing, I was sort of thinking that it’d be a bit unfair if I didn’t know your name…..”

The blonde smiled. “I’m Alicia,” she replied, offering her hand; one handshake later, Vicki now felt the sense of apprehension fade away as the Mondeo continued on its present course. “I’m guessing you’re not just a courier for the City of the Angels, then,” she ventured after a few seconds of silence, “because I can’t imagine them including ‘save the known world’ on your ‘to-do’ list..” Alicia laughed; “Working for the City is my usual job,” she admitted, “but I occasionally take on….chores for other interesting groups or individuals. It helps to have ALPA credentials---you do remember our discussion at the dorm, where I said I was a member, right?” Vicki nodded; “That stealth suit of yours wasn’t exactly easy to forget,” she mused.

“Speaking of things not easy to forget,” Alicia added thoughtfully, “the look on your face when I asked ‘Find who?’ was….priceless…”

Vicki glanced over at Alicia, prepared to make her own witty comment---and was shocked to see the blonde gynoid giving her a seductive smile. Is she hitting on me?! “I, ah…...that’s really, a, um, flattering remark, but, ah…..” She instantly felt her face go red; being hit on by L.E.S. was one thing, but finding herself the object of a total stranger’s affections?

“Funny how one facial expression can take someone’s breath away,” Alicia remarked with a laugh.

“YOU WERE HITTING ON ME!” Vicki shouted. “We’re driving to a NASA research center, I’m worried about Leah after that whole alien mind-meld thing, AND YOU’RE FREAKING HITTING ON ME! She stared at the ceiling of the Mondeo, exasperated. “This has got to be…..I mean…..how in the hell……” She glared at Alicia again. “Why were you hitting on me?!”

Alicia rolled her eyes. “So you’re not going to bother asking me why I was hitting on you?”

“WHAT?!”

Again, the laugh. “You’re too easy, Vicki. While I was, indeed, attempting to flirt with you, I didn’t exactly expect you to do something like invite me to your dorm room for dinner and a movie.” Her laugh subsided into a chuckle; “It’s so rare to find someone like myself---a beautiful, intelligent girl who just so happens to enjoy playing both sides of the field….if it helps, I would’ve asked your father for permission before making any formal offers.” Vicki said nothing in response to Alicia’s latest remark---she was too busy trying not to picture the blonde gynoid standing outside her dorm room in anything less than a blouse, jeans and shoes.

After a long pause, Vicki finaly decided to re-enter the conversation. “Before we get to the research center, can we agree not to make any…suggestive remarks about each other’s love lives?”

“Fair enough,” Alicia replied with a grin. “I still have to ask, though….have you ever actually been on a date?”

Vicki stared at the ceiling of the Mondeo again as a sigh escaped her lips. “My romantic history has been, shall we say, complicated,” she admitted. “The first date I went on was back in high school…we were both seniors, and one thing led to another….the night ended with my would-be boyfriend being given amnesiacs while Ted collected me in a Hefty bag so nobody would see my gaping, smoking chest wound.”

“Ouch,” Alicia remarked. “Any other romantic entanglements?”

“Well, there was this one summer,” Vicki began, only to scream as a massive van slammed into the passenger side of the Mondeo.

“It’s the hazmat weirdos,” Alicia hissed. “I thought they were at the research center already!” Vicki argued, only to scream again as the van smashed into the Mondeo a second time. “They probably waited for us to leave, and then they took off,” the blonde gynoid replied. “Clever little bastards…” The van lurched towards the Mondeo again, but Alicia was ready for the attack this time---she slammed the brakes and allowed the car to fall behind the van, causing it to slam into a roadside barrier with a massive, ear-splitting skrieeeeeench.

As soon as the van hit the barricade, the Mondeo swerved around it and continued on towards the research center. “That won’t stop them,” Alicia admitted, noticing Vicki’s awed expression, “but it’ll definitely slow them down---“

“LOOK OUT!” Vicki screamed, prompting Alicia to slam on the brakes again.

Another van had pulled up ahead of them and parked in the middle of the road, with Linus Miller standing on the roof; to Vicki’s horror, Miller was armed with a machine gun that, upon closer inspection (via her built-in optical enhancers) turned out to be a souped-up M-60. “You don’t happen to have some sort of Kevlar/Nomex bi-weave in your synthflesh, do you?” she asked Alicia. “Do I look like Batman?” the blonde replied, frowning. “In any case, Miller isn’t the real problem---“ She sucked a breath in between her teeth as the Mondeo narrowly avoided colliding with the van. “The real problem is the Rigelitans---Miller’s just a go-between for them and whoever the hell contacted them.”

“Contacted them?” Vicki echoed, confused. “You’re acting like they’re some sort of interstellar hitmen!”

Alicia’s frown didn’t waver. “You’ve read the Starman’s report, right?” she asked. Vicki nodded, assuming that the “Starman” was Major Tom. “Those Rigelitans he encountered back in the 90s weren’t just on a sightseeing tour,” Alicia continued. “NASA spent five years translating an encoded disk found onboard one of their landing craft---turns out, they were sent to this planet to bring humanity’s space race to an end.”

“Sent by who?” Vicki heard herself ask.

“That’s the weird part,” Alicia admitted. “The translation of the disk got really sketchy near the end…this one message in particular kept repeating itself. It kept mentioning ‘Silence’…..”

Something about that word sent a chill down Vicki’s titanium spine…but she chose to ignore the feeling and ask about Alicia’s connection with Tom L. instead. “You two seemed to get along pretty well…have you---“ “Met him before?” Alicia offered. “Loads of times. He’s a great guy, I’ll admit…and those ‘humanoid robot workers’ he keeps drawing are pretty cute….but he’s already got someone in his life. I heard she’s already a few months due….she may be having twins, even.” “So…he doesn’t know that you’re not human?” Vicki asked. “If he knew the truth about me---or about you, for that matter---he’d probably start remodeling his robot designs, and when his ‘affordable robot laborers’ finally end up being introduced to the world at large, every construction site in the world is going to have chicks with plastic bodies and built-in hard hats pulling shifts that no man could ever hope to work.” She rolled her eyes again. “His heart’s in the right place, yeah, but his work is going well as it is….”

A few minutes later, Vicki and Alicia arrived at the NASA Ames Research Center. “Seeing as how Leah’s plan didn’t exactly work out,” Vicki admitted, “I’m guessing you’ve come up with an idea we can use to keep those ‘hazmat weirdos’, as you call them, from wreaking havoc….” “As a matter of fact,” Alicia replied with a smile, “I do.” She held up a pair of keycards; “These’ll get us into the building,” she informed the brunette gynoid. “Once we’re inside…I’ll come up with something that won’t end with either of us getting hauled off to Hangar 18 and taken apart.” Almost as an afterthought, she added: “We will have to wait for the weirdos to show up, though….otherwise this plan will just end up being a big, fat waste of time.”

“No offense,” Vicki murmured, “but I think the Rigelitans have plans of their own…..”

Alicia followed the direction of Vicki’s trembling finger and nearly swore; the door of the Ames Research Center was already wide open, with a pair of guards bound and gagged on the ground nearby. “How in the HELL could they have reached this place before we did?!” she hissed. “Either they had a third van---“

“Or somebody was helping them in a very unconventional way,” V.I.C.I. interjected.

“What kind of ‘unconventional’ way?” Alicia asked.

“I’m detecting an unusual energy discharge in this area,” the brunette gynoid replied. “Almost like some sort of blast radius…except not destructive enough to cause any significant damage to the structural integrity of the building.” She looked up and down the nearby walls in a decidedly robotic fashion, her head turning slowly and coming to a stop as she scanned the structure for further traces of the anomalous energy output. “The radius of the energy output is precisely….twelve feet in diameter,” she concluded, “which means that the point of origin would be…”

“Right where we’re standing,” Alicia muttered, shocked. “Are you saying they…..teleported?”

“Considering their extraterrestrial origins, I wouldn’t doubt it,” V.I.C.I. replied, staring through the opened door. “I’m picking up several drag trails---they didn’t arrive here by themselves.” She blinked, and Alicia heard the audible switching of lenses within V.I.C.I.’s occular sensors. “Infrared scans show faint signs of body heat…at least six different sources.” “The five NASA representatives,” Alicia gasped. “But who’s the sixth?” “The scans only show the residual temperature created when a person was dragged across the floor. I can’t tell who was being dragged.” “Sounds like your occular sensors need an upgrade,” Alicia mused. “And by the way….loving the robot voice.” She grinned a cheeky grin. “It makes me feel all nice and tingly inside…”

“Can we please not talk about feeling ‘tingly’ right now?” V.I.C.I. monotoned. “I’m trying to focus here.”

Alicia rolled her eyes.

“Thermal vision scans show….eeeuuurgh.” Even her monotone couldn’t disguise V.I.C.I.’s disguist with the discovery she’d just made. “The Rigelitans have been leaving…traces all over the floor. They must have been using this building for their operations for weeks now.” “Those ‘traces’ look more like somebody from a sperm bank dropped a shipment in there,” Alicia replied, wrinkling her nose. “Except I don’t think that sperm banks would except donations in that particular shade of….greenish-orange….and what the hell are you doing now?”

V.I.C.I. had lifted her shirt; “I’m going to try and clean up the mess,” she replied, opening her back panel and unspooling a cord. “Try to access the research center’s central OS from that terminal.” Alicia nodded, heading to a nearby wall-mounted access terminal and effortlessly cracking her way through the system. “Found it,” she called out a few seconds later.

“Good,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Now just stand back and watch.”

Without another word, V.I.C.I. plugged the end of the cord that wasn’t already in her panel into the access terminal and closed her eyes. Four seconds later, the sprinkler system kicked on inside the building.

“At least we won’t have to step in that crud when we go in,” she deadpanned, grinning.

Alicia rolled her eyes again. “I sincerely hope they didn’t notice that little party trick of yours,” she warned the brunette gynoid, “otherwise my whole ‘sneak in, rescue the hostages and sneak back out’ plan is completely ruined.” “The Rigelitans probably have the entire security system tapped,” V.I.C.I. replied calmly, “so they probably knew we arrived as soon as we drove up.”

“And here I thought you hated things that were complicated,” Alicia drawled.

Deep within the confines of the NASA Ames Research center, the Rigelitans’ plan was finally beginning to take shape….and it wasn’t looking good for their captives.

“What do they want with us?” Michiko whispered. “They’ve already killed most of the team….why do they need the five of us?” “I don’t know,” Halford admitted quietly, “but I’m not going down without a fight---and neither should any of you!” “Why do you insist on fighting these things?” Tom L. asked. “If we could somehow appeal to their logic---“ “Logic my ass!” Halford shot back. “They’ve killed the rest of the team, they deserve to---“

“What they ‘deserve’ is none of your concern, Mr. Halford….you should worry more about what you deserve.”

A figure clad in a business suit strode into the edges of visibility at the far end of the room; most of his upper body was obscured by shadows. “I didn’t go through all this trouble just to have my efforts derailed by a bunch of former space cowboys,” he intoned, “and I most definitely don’t want to deal with any of you idiots face to face….” “So you paid the slimers to finish what they started,” Halford snarled. “And you’re probably the one who gave that turd Miller the money to sell us down the river! The Major was right….this whole thing was a set-up….”

“I wouldn’t be making unfounded accusations if I were you,” the man in the business suit admonished. “Of course, you’re absolutely right about my paying Miller to…hand you over, as it were, but---“

An alarm claxon blared above him.

“It appears we have intruders,” he droned, sighing. “Not exactly an unexpected development, but still…” He motioned for two of the hazmat-suited Rigelitans to man the doors. “Kill anyone who tries to get in without proper clearance,” he instructed them, “and don’t let these idiots out of your sight.” With that, he left.

Halford glared at the Rigelitans, almost daring them to try something…


“Any sign of the gunge-layers?” Alicia asked. “My sensors indicate that the Rigelitans have followed the path we are currently using within the past fifteen to twenty minutes,” V.I.C.I. replied. “And for the record,” she added, “I suggest that you not call them ‘gunge-layers’ when we confront them.”

“Good idea,” Alicia replied, grinning.

After another seven minutes of walking (which included climbing at least two staircases), the two gynoids found themselves on a catwalk overlooking the Rigelitans’ main area of operations. “Try not to cause too much damage,” V.I.C.I. quietly suggested. “Remember---they have hostages.” “Not a problem,” Alicia cooly replied. “Are any of your new upgrades centered around taking out multiple attackers at once?” “Spoilers,” V.I.C.I. replied, grinning slyly. Alicia grinned back; “You are just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

With the agility of a gymnast, Alicia climbed over the railing of the catwalk and shimmied her way over to what appeared to be a closed dumpster. “Be careful,” V.I.C.I. cautioned. “We don’t know what that is---“ “What’s there to know?” Alicia flippantly replied. “It looks like a dumpster, and---“ A whiff of something horrible entered her olifactory sensors. “Bleeurgh! That…oh, my God, what is that smell?!” “A mixture of sulfuric acid, decomposing organic matter, and…unknown chemicals,” V.I.C.I. replied. “My guess is, it’s either their toilet, their bathtub….or both.” Alicia looked disgusted at the mere thought of the Rigelitans mixing their bathwater (or whatever the hell was in that container) with their bodily waste. “I’ll try not to tip it over, then,” she grimaced, carefully lowering herself down onto the container. “You coming or what?” she whispered to the brunette gynoid.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” V.I.C.I. whispered back. “I need to figure out a proper trajectory…”

“Proper trajectory?” Alicia repeated, confused….

…until the meaning of the other gynoid’s statement hit her. “Vicki, WAIT!”

By the time Alicia had figured out what she’d planned, V.I.C.I. had already enacted her strategy---get off to a running start, leap off of the catwalk and perform a parallel bars-style routine to cross the room without even setting one foot on the floor.

Naturally, her plan worked perfectly.

“And I didn’t even break a sweat,” V.I.C.I. bragged as Alicia tip-toed over to meet her. “That…was actually pretty impressive,” the blonde gynoid admitted. “A bit risky, but still impressive. Now, all we need to do is get the hostages out of here---“

On the other side of the room, a door opened.

“No time,” V.I.C.I. muttered. “I’ll hold off the Rigelitans….you get the hostages out.”

“You’re not fighting them alone!” Alicia protested.

“I have the upgrades to fight them. You don’t.”

“But they could kill you!”

“I know.”

Alicia tried to find another rebuttal to V.I.C.I.’s plan, but nothing she came up with worked.

“Just…don’t die on me, okay?” she finally requested.

“I’ll do my best to keep from getting scrapped,” V.I.C.I. replied with a reassuring smile.

With that, Alicia ran over to the bound astronauts and began untying them. “I told you I had powerful friends,” Tom L. remarked to the others. “Don’t rub it in,” Halford muttered, though he was smiling---clearly, getting rescued by a girl was better than the alternative.

“Get them to the exit and take one of the Rigelitans’ vans,” V.I.C.I. instructed (using her human voice to avoid tipping off Tom L.) after the last of the hostages had been freed. “I’m going to stay here and shut down whatever it is they’re working on.” “How do you know they’re working on anything?” Aaronson asked, confused. “Something tells me that they didn’t go through the trouble of kidnapping all of you just for funsies,” she replied. “In any case, you should probably get as far away from this place as humanly possible, and alert the authorities---this place has been under…let’s say ‘foreign control’ for a good long while now, and other research stations might be in danger as well.”

“Just one question,” Halford asked. “Who exactly are you?”

V.I.C.I. didn’t hesitate to answer him: “I’m a friend of Major Tom.”

The five NASA operatives nodded and, with Tom L. accompanying them, followed Alicia to the exit. “Now that they’re out of the way,” the brunette gynoid mused, “it’s high time I take the Rigelitans’ operation down brick by brick…”

With the hostages out of the way, V.I.C.I. immediately began working at the nearest computer terminal, which wasn’t that hard to do---the Rigelitans had apparently been boosting PCs from Fry’s Electronics ever since their arrival. “They didn’t even bother to set up any passwords,” the gynoid remarked, only to realize that the lack of security led to one probable---and very dangerous---conclusion. “They wanted me to get here, she realized. “They knew I was coming….”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

V.I.C.I. whirled around to see a pinstripe-suited figure standing on the other side of the room, his face and shoulders hidden in shadow; two hazmat-suited Rigelitans were flanking him. “So this is the famous Vicki Lawson,” the man remarked. “A rather remarkable piece of work, if I do say so myself….a pity Ted Lawson didn’t stay with United Robotronics and give something like you to the masses…” He chuckled again. “It’s a shame the…current generation can’t be as interesting as you.”

“If you know so much about me,” V.I.C.I. replied, the monotone keeping the anger out of her voice, “then you know that I’m not just going to walk away and let you get away with whatever you’re planning…”

The man laughed, reminding V.I.C.I. of Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor in the live-action Masters of the Universe movie. “Vicki, Vicki, Vicki,” he admonished, “did you really think I wanted you to ‘just walk away’? No…..I’ve been watching you for quite some time, and I must admit….you’ve impressed me.” He paced the floor, the shadows around his head and shoulders not retreating an inch. “That being said, I can’t really just let you bring this operation down without some form of repercussions….” Even though she couldn’t see his eyes, the brunette gynoid could tell that the man was staring at her.

“How about….you fight to keep my plan from coming to fruition.”

“I don’t fight cowards,” V.I.C.I. shot back, earning her another rumbling laugh from the sharp-dressed man. “I didn’t say you’d be fighting me,” he replied. “I was thinking more of….you fighting my friends….” He gestured to the two Rigelitans, who stepped forward just as he stepped back. “Don’t let their attire fool you…they’re very….graceful…when they have to be.”

V.I.C.I. opened her mouth to make a snarky comment, only to notice the hazmat suits of the Rigelitans ripping at the seams. “What are they doing?” she pondered out loud.

“Just…getting comfortable.”

Within seconds, the hazmat suits had been completely shredded, revealing the Rigelitans’ true forms….

…and V.I.C.I. realized that those blurry pictures from Major Tom’s report really didn’t do them justice.

The two entities standing before her were nine feet tall, looking for all the world like sentient primordial ooze with faces. Unlike the photo she’d seen from the report, their bodies no longer had a yellow-orangish tint to them; they now looked more like reddish-grey mud, or concrete mixed with lava. The greenish tendrils that ran through their limbs had taken on a bluish-black tint, and even their eyes had changed from greenish pinpricks to baseball-sized, coppery orbs.

“Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t exactly agree with them,” the man in the pinstripe suit explained. “They’ve been dying a slow death ever since they arrived….that container over there, with the rotting smell? It’s where they vent the toxins that have been building up in their systems. Sadly, it’s nowhere near efficient enough…”

“Then why bring them here at all?” V.I.C.I. asked, anger creeping into her monotone.

“You’d be surprised how many people thought that sending man into space was a bad idea,” the well-dressed man continued, as if the gynoid hadn’t spoken. “And they’ve had their reasons for it---some sensible, some… not so much….but you don’t care about that, do you? The only thing you’re concerned with right now is that my plans---which, by the way, you know nothing about---don’t come to pass. A bit childish, really….”

“ENOUGH.” V.I.C.I. glared at the man, ignoring the two hulking Rigelitans. “If you’re going to order them to attack me, then just do it. I have better things to do with my time than listen to you monologuing.”

The man in the pinstripe suit chuckled. “As you wish…”

The Rigelitans advanced towards V.I.C.I., prepared to tear her limb from limb…..


“…and make sure they’re brought somewhere safe. If those things catch up with them…..just get these people as far away from here as possible, okay?” The ALPA officer nodded and signaled for the former hostages to be transported back to SJSU. “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”

Alicia pondered for a minute; “My friend is still in there…she may need some help.”

“We’ll get a fireteam in here as soon as possible,” the ALPA officer began, but the blonde gynoid waved him off. “The last thing anyone wants is for a bunch of armored, gun-toting guys to go tromping in and shooting up a NASA research center,” she casually informed the officer. “I suggest calling in one or two of your best guys and telling them to bring riot shields…I have a feeling things are going to get a bit messy in there in a couple of minutes.” The officer nodded, trying to appear unperturbed at the ease with which the blonde had assumed control of the situation.

As the ALPA man led the hostages to an armored transport, Alicia looked back towards the Ames Research Center with a pang of regret; as much as she would’ve loved to help Vicki fight the Rigelitans, she still had a job to do---

From somewhere inside the building, a girl’s voice screamed.

“Vicki?!” Alicia gasped.


Indeed, the brunette gynoid had screamed---but not for the reasons Alicia had automatically assumed.

After the pinstripe-suited man had left the scene, V.I.C.I. lured the Rigelitans outside to a massive transmitter dish---the same dish, in fact, that they had intended to use for reasons the gynoid hadn’t yet discerned. With a shout of “Catch me if you can,” V.I.C.I. had lured her pursuers to the dish and climbed it, assuming that they wouldn’t be able to follow her without taking their sweet time trying to carefully navigate the support lattices.

She assumed wrong.

The Rigelitans didn’t even bother trying to maintain their already-failing humanoid forms, choosing instead to literally ooze up the support structure like slugs on steroids. Worse, their “gunge” seemed to be eating away at the metal---slowly, at first, but increasing in speed with every second. “If they keep moving like that,” the gynoid realized, “they’ll melt the entire support lattice…”

Thus, she let loose with one of the upgrades Mr. Tell had issued: a Sonic Resonator.

Originally intended as a cannon---complete with shoulder supports, a trigger and “cassette” ammo---the Sonic Resonator was heavily modified for use with V.I.C.I.’s android frame. Instead of using the original setup, the V.I.C.I.-inclusive Resonator worked much on the same principles as shattering a wineglass with one’s voice, with a major twist---the sound waves produced operated on such a frequency that humans (and, indeed, any Earth-borne life) wouldn’t be harmed….but the protoplasmic Rigelitans would feel as if they’d fallen into a vat of Ginsu knives, thus severely weakening them---and, as it turned out, negating the acidic effects of their “gunge trails”.

“Two birds, one stone,” V.I.C.I. remarked, grinning.

Annoyingly, the scream’s effectiveness had worn off rather rapidly, and the Rigelitans shook off the lingering aftereffects (though V.I.C.I. noticed their coloration had changed again---they were now primarily grey, with ever-blackening tendrils running through them and concrete-colored eye parts) as they continued climbing towards the gynoid. Thankfully, the negation of the “acid gunge” was permanent---the support areas that had been dissolving mere seconds earlier were now solidifying again, and in no danger of breaking…unless the Rigelitans decided to physically shake the support lattices and bring the whole damn thing crashing down.

“Right…” V.I.C.I. monotoned. “Time for my next trick…”

As the Rigelitans oozed their way towards her, V.I.C.I. dropped to her knees and grabbed the support beam in front of her, focusing the thermal energy generated by her RTG. As the extraterrestrial attackers continued their ascent, the heat radiating from V.I.C.I.’s rapidly-warming hands snaked down the beam towards them, slowly but surely cooking their already traumatized flesh. One Rigelitan evidently couldn’t handle the heat; with a blood-curdling scream, its body surface literally peeled off of the tower, sending it falling to its apparent death below with a sickening splat….right in front of three other Rigelitans.

“One down, four to go.”

The Rigelitan who hadn’t fallen to its death was now standing level with V.I.C.I., bellowing gutteral threats in an unknown tongue….and completely missing the fact that the gynoid still had her hands on the beam at her feet.

“I think you need to chill out,” she remarked, grinning as her hands changed color from red to blue….

….and watching as the consequential temperature shift travelled towards the Rigelitan, freezing it to the beam in record time.

Under normal circumstances, V.I.C.I.’s thermal “powers” would’ve been far too weak to do any damage to the Rigelitans; thankfully, Mr. Tell’s help (and Major Tom’s guidance) ensured that the gynoid would be able to hold her own against the aliens without needing any massive firepower. With two of the protoplasmic beings now incapacitated, it looked like smooth sailing---

Something wet, warm and thoroughly disgusting slammed into V.I.C.I.’s head from behind her.

“Ow….” She got to her feet, realizing what had happened as she stood: While she was trying to get rid of the two Rigelitans in her line of sight, another had been creeping up the support structure. “I really should’ve expected this,” she reminded herself, dodging the Rigelitan’s left arm---which had morphed into a hideous tentacle of sorts. With every dodge, bob-and-weave and half-hearted block, the gynoid slowly found herself losing her balance---she was on the 50th level of what had to be a 220-foot tall lattice, and the Rigelitans on the ground below were already climbing up to meet her; if she fell or got knocked down to a lower level, she would be easily surrounded and destroyed within minutes…..

“Time to fight dirty,” she muttered, her monotone rendering the words as an emotionless drone.

As the Rigelitans advanced on her, V.I.C.I. closed her eyes to focus her thermal energy once again…..

…except this time, it took a more….physical form.

A terrified shriek split the air---the Rigelitan that had been attacking V.I.C.I. was nearly tripping over its own grubby little protuberances trying to get away from the plumes of flame spitting out of her fingertips from beneath her nails. Some of the fire managed to “get stuck” on the beams, creating a hostile environment for the pyrophobic Rigelitan---a fact that V.I.C.I. was all too ready to use to her advantage. “What’s the matter?” she asked in her best taunting monotone. “Afraid of a little fire?”

Something moved behind her---and instantly got a face full of finger-flames; another Rigelitan had tried to jump her while she was taunting its comrade. “Bad idea,” she admonished, wagging her finger---seconds before she had to jump out of the way of another Rigelitan tentacle whip.

With three of the protoplasmic bastards now surrounding her on the support lattice, V.I.C.I. was weaving an intricate web of fire around her---spinning in circles, striking martial arts poses and generally trying to set as much of the support structure ablaze---all to keep the Rigelitans from getting near enough to dissolve her skin with their acidic touch. Hopefully, I don’t end up melting the lattices around me…because I don’t want Ted to foot the bill for the repairs on this thing….

A Rigelitan tentacle whipped past her feet, nearly tripping her in the process.

The fire-weaving tactic was working so far, but with a price: The Rigelitans were now blind, in agonizing pain and pissed off beyond all rational thought, meaning that their already-clumsy attacks were now swinging wildly over the lattice of the transmitter dish. Worse, the acidic output of their bodies seemed to be ramping up, but in a strange way---the acid was no longer harming the support structure….it was eating away at the Rigelitans even as their bodies were producing it.

Did….did I do this?!

V.I.C.I. fell back, no longer attacking the aliens directly. “What have I done?” she murmured, staring at the flailing forms of her enemies with a growing feeling of guilt. “What have I done to them?” she repeated, in her human voice.

“Exactly what I expected you to do.”

The gynoid turned to see a helicopter hovering just out of reach of the support structure---with the well-dressed man sitting inside. “It’s rather difficult finding good help these days,” he remarked, his face still hidden within the shadows of the copter’s interior, “but you’re proving remarkably adept at doing what I could never have done on my own…ridding me of these pestering parasites.” He chuckled darkly. “I knew their plan was going to fail from the start---“

“YOU TOLD THEM TO KILL THOSE ASTRONAUTS, DIDN’T YOU?!” Vicki screamed, tears streaming down her face.

“How perceptive of you,” the pinstripe-suited man drawled. “Of course, I had a bit of help… Señor Vega made a substantial contribution to my efforts, in case you haven’t figured that part out already---“

The rest of his sentence was cut off in a surprised gasp---V.I.C.I. had leapt off of the lattices at the copter.

“YOU MURDERING SWINE!” she shouted, grabbing for his neck. “I’LL---“

A paralyzing bolt of energy shot through her, freezing her in mid-gesture.

“Impudent child,” the pinstripe-suited man hissed. “Perhaps I was too hasty judging you…..you’re much too unpredictable for my tastes. Still,” he addded, thoughtfully, “you may be of some use to me eventually…if you survive the fall, that is….”

“What….fall?” Vicki asked, her lips barely able to move. She could barely make out a hint of gold where the sharp-dressed man’s eyes probably were as he leaned forward. “This one.”

Without another word, he threw her out of the helicopter.

“Enjoy the flight, ‘Miss Lawson’!” he sneered, watching as the gynoid fell to what was most likely going to be her death. “AND TELL DEAR OLD DAD THAT THE BARON SENDS HIS REGARDS!” With a barking laugh, he ordered the pilot of the helicopter to get as far away from the Ames Research Center as possible before the Feds arrived. “Be seeing you…..Vicki,” he murmured, his sinister grin masked by the darkness of the cabin.

All the while, Vicki plummeted towards the ground, frozen by whatever the well-dressed man (the Baron?) had used to paralyze her. Thoughts raced through her bubble memory processor; is this how it ends? Will my secret be revealed to the rest of the world after they find me broken at the base of the transmitter? A tear made its way down her face as the wind rushed past her; even with her enhanced titanium frame, there was almost no way in Hell she would survive impact with the ground at this speed. Every single component inside her would be smashed beyond repair; Ted would be lucky if he could recover even part of her for Mr. Tell to rebuild----

Without warning, a sudden onrush of white overtook her---and then everything went black.

Wake-up cycle initiated.

Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated.

Running full system scan……………………….

Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency.

Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Sunday, October 24, 2010.

“Huh….what?!”

Vicki bolted upright in her bed---wait, this isn’t my bed! What the hell---

“Ah. I see you’re awake.”

Slowly, the details began to come back to her: the pinstripe-suited man, the Rigelitans on fire, jumping at a helicopter, being thrown from that same helicopter after getting hit with a paralyzing…something….”Where am I?” she finally asked, unsure if she was even talking to anyone.

“You’re in safe hands,” a voice replied---the same voice, in fact, that she’d heard after the Bradford incident.

This time, there was someone attached to it.

A white-clad, platinum-blond man entered Vicki’s field of vision, smiling politely. “As much as I enjoy chatting with you,” he admitted, “it’s a bit of a pain constantly meeting you like this….near-death experiences aren’t exactly my preferred way of meeting new people, you see.” He sighed, adjusting his mirrored sunglasses; “I take it you’re feeling better after your…accident?”

“Accident?” Vicki repeated groggily. “What---“

“According to the, ah, official reports,” the white-clad man continued, “you fell over the balcony of your dorm building at San Jose State University after another student shoved you. A few broken bones, a ruptured spleen…nothing too major.” He smiled. “A lot less brutal than the truth, if you ask me….what exactly were you thinking when you jumped at the Baron’s helicopter?”

“I…” The gynoid faltered. “I wanted to…..”

“You wanted to throttle him,” the white-clad man declared. “Not surprisingly, since nearly everyone who’s met him has had that same reaction. Still, you should’ve known better---“

“Wait a minute,” Vicki interrupted. “My wake-up cycle said that today is October 24….I’ve been out for a whole week?!” The white-clad man sighed. “You should be glad they kept you here that long,” he informed the gynoid. “It’s not exactly a big deal when someone falls off a balcony, survives and has to spend a week in hospital convalescing….if you’d returned sooner, people would’ve been suspicious.” His smile returned, and Vicki was relieved to see that it held no trace of mocking or sarcasm. “At the very least, the fact that you managed to incapacitate five Rigelitans is rather impressive….”

He leaned forward, whispering conspiratiorially: “…but next time, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

With a sigh, Vicki laid back on the pillow of the hospital bed; “So…what happened after I, ah, tripped and fell over the railing?” she asked. “I’ve probably got a ton of coursework to make up….that, and my friends are probably worried sick…”

“Of course they’re worried!” the man in white replied. “They wouldn’t be waiting outside if they weren’t…”

Vicki’s eyes widened at the mention of her friends waiting outside; seconds later, Kirsten Sanderson, Shawn Helmsley, Valerie Summers and Kim DeFalco all burst through the door. Valerie looked as if she’d been crying for the entire week since Vicki’s hospitalization, while Shawn was more worried about the “weirdos in hazmat gear”. Vicki answered their questions as truthfully as she could without giving too much away; after a few minutes, she decided to ask a few questions of her own….beginning with the most important one:

“What happened to Leah?”

Kim, Kirsten and Shawn exchanged worried glances. “Well,” Shawn began tentatively, “the thing is, Vicki, she, ah…..” He rubbed the back of his head nervously. “How can I put this without sounding like an insensitive idiot….”

“She died.”

The man in white stood up, no longer smiling. “She….what?” Vicki gasped.

“Technically speaking, she died,” the man in white repeated. “Her heart stopped on the way to the hospital, and they actually performed Last Rites…..fortunately, she revived a few seconds later. It turns out that some foreign signal had been interfering with her prosthetics---and, in what I can only call a complete and total freak occurance, that same signal managed to scramble the electrical impulses sent to her remaining organs from her brain. Somehow or other, after those…’weirdos in hazmat gear’, as Mr. Helmsley called them, fled the scene, the signal simply vanished from existance, and she recovered. She’s recuperating rather nicely, at the moment.”

Vicki nodded, relieved to hear that Leah had managed to cheat death once again. But something else was bothering her….”There was this blonde girl,” she stated. “I kinda sorta bumped into her outside my dorm before the whole incident with the hazmat weirdos….is she okay?”

The man in white pondered the question for a moment. “She wouldn’t happen to be the one who sent this, would she?” he asked, handing over an envelope to the brunette gynoid. Vicki eagerly opened it to find a “Get Well Soon” card…with a photo of a bikini-clad Alicia sunning herself on the beaches of Malibu inside. Written on the card was a messsage that Alicia had probably laughed while composing: “Hope this card finds you in high spirits, surrounded by friends…and sipping a mojito while you break in your new swimsuit. Love, Alicia”.

“Yeah, that’s definitely from her,” she replied, handing the card back.

“Hate to break up this conversation,” the white-clad man declared, “but I must be off. Things to do, people to see…..” He smiled one last time at Vicki. “I sincerely hope that we can meet each other again in a situation that doesn’t involve you being sent to hospital,” he quipped, waving as he walked out.

“Thanks!” Vicki called out as he left.

“Who exactly was that guy?” Valerie asked as the door closed.

“To be honest,” Vicki replied, “I have no idea…..”


Outside the hospital, the man in white met up with another interesting man….the Man in Grey.

“She’ll survive, in case you’re wondering. She’s a lot sturdier than you give her credit for. And she took down those Rigelitans without any help…”

“Good. If Epsilon is as strong as the rumors say, she’ll need every trick at her disposal to survive.”

The man in white looked back at the hospital. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out any time soon….otherwise, Vicki Lawson---and everyone in this city---will find themselves at the mercy of a true psychopath….”


“Once again, my attempt to join forces with a ‘superior ally’ has failed…..why am I not surprised?”

Back behind his desk at the international headquarters of United Robotronics, the Baron reflected upon his latest loss. “To her credit, the little brat was able to do more damage than a trained commando squad,” he admitted, smiling at the memory of Vicki‘s attempt to strangle him. “Of course, that little outburst of hers nearly ruined everything….”

His faithful secretary, Celine, frowned. “She nearly died because of you,” she muttered, “and---“

“Celine,” the Baron declared a bit too loudly, “see if the Maestro is still up to his usual chicanery….I could use a good laugh right about now.”

Celine glared at the Baron, but did her best not to show it as she nodded and left the room.

“I should really work on her emotional stabilizer,” the Baron mused. “Those mood flashes of hers are still fun to watch…but entertainment is a bit lower on my priorities than having a secretary who doesn’t try to slip cyanide into my coffee every chance she gets.” With another sigh, the Baron reached for the speakerphone and dialed Victor Vega’s phone number; hopefully, the Spanish billionaire would have some actual good news for a change…...


Vicki continued to get visitors as the day wore on; even Leah Chambers showed up to see how the gynoid was doing, looking none the worse for wear despite her most recent brush with death. “You tend to sort of get used to it after a while,” she explained. “Speaking of which…how’re you doing? I heard about what happened at the research center…”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Vicki replied, “though I now have a mild phobia of helicopters…”

“Did someone say ‘mild phobia of helicopters?’” Mr. Tell peeked into the room, grinning. “Nothing a minor CPU scan can’t fix,” he assured the gynoid. Vicki wasn’t impressed; “How can I be sure you won’t give me an even worse phobia?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t want to lose my fear of helicopters only to gain a fear of…oh, I don’t know, Justin Bieber.” “Is there even an actual term for having a fear of Justin Bieber?” Leah asked, confused. “Sure there is,” Tell replied. “It’s called having good taste, though it’s less about fearing him and more about wanting to obliterate his record label…..”

At around 9:00 that evening, Vicki began typing her journal entry for the day (and, indeed, for the entire week) when a knock at the door interrupted her. “It’s unlocked,” she called out, arching an eyebrow as Alicia entered the room. “I heard about what happened back at the research center,” the blonde gynoid stated, “and I have to say….I’m impressed.”

“So I gathered,” Vicki replied. “I got your card, by the way….it was…interesting.”

Alicia grinned her sultry grin. “Thanks. I figured you could use a little cheering up after what happened.” Her grin faded; “Is it true, though? That whole thing about you killing the Rigelitans?”

Vicki stared at the ceiling. “I didn’t mean to kill them….”

“Except they were going to kill you and the last six astronauts,” Alicia reminded her. “You followed the best possible course of action available, and you saved countless lives. That definitely counts for something in my book.” She grinned again. “Plus, it’ll make a great story to tell at the C.O.T.A. when you arrive---some of the clientelle would love to hear the truth about what happened.” She gave Vicki a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Trust me…you did the right thing. Anyone else in your situation would’ve done the same.”

Vicki sighed. “I’m pretty sure anyone in my shoes would’ve done the same thing….”

…but that still doesn’t make me feel any less guilty about it.


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

It’s amazing, what missing an entire week can do…..

Ever since I fell off that transmitter dish at the Ames Research Center, I’ve been recovering in an ALPA-owned hospital (apparently, they bought the place so they can make sure androids that don’t know they’re androids don’t get operated on by mistake). Shawn, Kim, Valerie and Kirsten have been helping out with all of my coursework, and from what I understand, the research center wasn’t that damaged during that…whatever it was that happened last week.

But I still feel guilty about how I survived.

Anyways….

I met a few interesting people before my little tumble off the transmitter; Leah Chambers, for one. She’s the closest thing to a cyborg I’ve seen---and she had another little brush with death after her lecture got trashed… thankfully, she survived. There’s also another girl, Alicia….she’s one of the most…interesting people I’ve met since I started attending SJSU. She’s a gynoid working for some club (I think) called the City of the Angels, and she’s….well….as she put it, she enjoys “playing both sides of the fence”. Oh, and she was hitting on me during our ride to the research center. I almost freaked out about it, but since she’s apparently not obsessed with me (like L.E.S. was/is), I won’t go yelling about it to Tell or the Major unless she shows up in my room in the middle of the night wearing just her Reeboks.

Speaking of the Major….actually, I shouldn’t talk about what happened with him. He’s back in therapy with the other five members of his team…except he’s essentially the therapist, since he’s gotten over the loss of his partner. Hopefully, they can all move on and forget about those hazmat weirdos (I’m not supposed to talk about them in detail right now, since the EDF is still going over what happened at the research center).

Seeing as how I’m going back to class tomorrow, I guess this is all for now!

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


With the mysterious Baron finally revealing his presence, Vicki Lawson now knows that her life at SJSU is going to be a bumpy ride…

…and that ride is about to get even crazier!

With Thanksgiving Break on the way, Vicki and her friends find themselves in the inner circle of Sophia Starlet, a rising star in the pop music world. Sophia and Vicki hit it off immediately, but little does Vicki know that Sophia is hiding a rather dangerous secret….a secret that Victor Vega intends to expose with the help of ReVerse Robotics and their latest creation, a fiesty little number that just might bring some “boom-boom-POW” to SJSU!

Don't miss Showstopper, the next installment of The V.I.C.I. Diaries, coming to Fembot Central in June 2012!


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