Toys in the Attic

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Part 1

She heard them before she saw them.

It wasn’t exactly comforting to hear strange things when traversing the Palo Alto branch of the San Francisco Bay Trail; this wasn’t a place where strange things made themselves known all that often. Still, for Patricia Wenner, the thought of anything hiding from her was more than enough to make her just a bit nervous. With a quick glance at her surroundings, she reassured herself that she was alone before continuing her jog.

Had she bothered to replace the batteries in her flashlight, fate may have been kinder to her….

Ten minutes later, and the feeling was creeping over her again; something was following her. Whether it was a stray dog, a mugger bent on stealing her wallet or any of a thousand other possibilities, she couldn’t tell; the damn stupid flashlight was being tempermental again, and it just would not light! “Of all the rotten….” With an annoyed sigh, she stopped and checked her pockets; she always had at least two or three spare batteries on her at any given time, especially for night jogs….except for this one time. What a surprise. “Well,” she muttered, “I guess I’ll have to add that to the list---“

Something behind her moved.

Her nerves already beginning to fray, Patricia whirled around---and saw nothing but the darkness. “Damnit,” she swore, “this is the last time I let Glenn talk me into night-jogging!” She shook her head, mentally preparing herself for the Siberian trek to her car---

Eight feet away from her left side, something dove out of sight.

“Okay, what the hell is going on?!” Patricia demanded. “If you want my wallet, it’s in the car…” She cursed herself for admitting that she’d left her wallet in the glove compartment of her car; while there were a few things in it that a typical thief would never think to take, they would raise a few awkward questions if delivered to the wrong people. It also didn’t help that the cash she’d earned from every paycheck over the last four months was still in her wallet---the bank had a habit of “accidentally losing track” of her money, and she already had a sneaking suspicion---

A humanoid figure brushed past her right arm.

All thoughts of returning to the car and retrieving the hidden can of Bear Mace were already flooding out of Patricia’s mind; this had to have been the worst night jog she’d ever been on. “THIS ISN’T FUNNY!” she shrieked, part of her mind desperately hoping that the whole thing was someone’s really bad idea of a practical joke. “MY BOYFRIEND’S WAITING FOR ME AT THE CAR, AND HE’S A UFC FIGHTER IN TRAINING!” She almost laughed at the thought of Glenn Saxon training to be a cage fighter---his chisled, Brad Pitt-looks would be ruined after his first match---stop it. You have get to the damn car, Patricia…whatever the hell is going on, just ignore it and get to the car….grab the phone, call the cops and get home.

Already forgetting about Glenn’s aversion to MMA, Patricia turned around and prepared to head back to her car. The plan forming in her mind was simple, yet effective---get in, grab the iPhone, call the cops, start the car and drive back home without breaking the speed limit.

With a last glance around to make sure nothing was about to jump out at her, Patricia turned and prepared to walk back up the path to get to her car; at this rate, I might even be able to tell Glenn about it tomorrow on campus…assuming he doesn’t think I’m completely insane. The thought of getting back to work sounded pretty good, and for a few seconds, Patricia was able to forget the feeling of something brushing against her arm from earlier---

---at least, until she saw the things blocking the path that would get her back to her car.

“Things” seemed to be the best word that described them; they looked humanoid, at the very least, and in the dark, they could very well have been people wearing bulky or ill-fitting clothes…but as they ambled closer, Patricia could tell that there was something fundamentally wrong with them.

For starters, they knew what she was.

“SHE HAS DESIREABLE COMPONENTS,” one of the things croaked, its voice sounding so distorted that it was impossible to tell if it was male or female. “SUBDUE HER AND BEGIN EXTRACTION.”

“Desireable---what the hell are you talking about?!” Patricia shouted, backpedalling. “I---“

“You are a SynthTech International Model Number 0019826 female android” another one of the things intoned, its voice an ultra-deep, ultra-male baritone. “Do not try to deceive us. We have been watching you since the first of August in 2010…you contain vital components that will ensure our survival.”

Well, like the song says, the jig is up… “Okay, fine, so I’m a gynoid,” Patricia growled. “Big frakking deal---“

The unmistakeable sound of a circular saw revving to life drowned out her sentence. No…not here…

“You will give us the parts we need,” the baritone-voiced thing declared, “and if you do not struggle, then we will consider letting you go when we have taken what is necessary.” Before Patricia could even think to run, two more things took hold of her arms. “Remain still. This will only take a second…”

Before she could even think to react, Patricia felt something pierce her skull and rip out her right eye.

“WHAT THE HELL?!” Even with the two things that had grabbed her arms, Patricia put up a fight; “WHY’D YOU TAKE MY EYE, YOU---” Before she could finish her question, the gynoid felt something tearing at her left shoulder; the thing that had a hold on her arm somehow had blades in its fingers, and was in the process of cutting her arm off! “Remain still,” the baritone-voiced thing repeated. “This will---“

Patricia lashed out with a kick, knocking the thing holding her right arm to the ground and freeing up her hand to smack the thing holding her left arm square in the jaw---except its hand was still holding on as the rest of it fell to the ground. The gynoid ran like hell, hoping to leave the weirdos in the dust….

WARNING: Internal Structural Integrity breached---left bicep. WARNING: Internal Structrual Integrity breached---right optical sensor. Severe damage detected. Further strenuous activity is not advised---

“Oh, shut up!” Patricia hissed, barrelling down the path to get away from the things that had taken her eye (and tried to take her arm). Glenn would have an aneurysm if he saw her with an eye missing and wires hanging out of the massive tear in her left arm---she’d have to call Heinmann’s and get him to see her at home. It wouldn’t be the first time the mechanic visited Patricia’s house, but this was definitely not a social call or a routine checkup---something in her left bicep felt like it was on fire, almost like---

Oh, no….

Footsteps were approaching from behind, at impossibly-fast speeds---one of the things was giving chase. By this point, Patricia knew all too well that she didn’t have much time left; the burning feeling in her arm was slowly spreading down her entire left side towards her legs. Every step sent a blast of pain through her entire form; it was as if someone had taken a gallon of acid and poured it directly into the wound. At this rate, she knew that there was no way in Hell she could make it back to her house, let alone Heinman’s place….her only option by now was to head for the Stanford and hope she wouldn’t get caught by whatever the hell was following her.

Assuming, of course, that she could make it to her car…

By the time Patricia reached the Ford Mondeo, her entire left side had gone numb. The HUD of her internal OS had transferred to her left occular sensor after she’d lost the right one, and now the left side of the HUD was becoming overrun with corrupted pixels. “Come on,” she whimpered, “come on….” The Mondeo’s keys fell from her now-useless left hand, hitting the pavement with a clatter. “NO….damnit….” Finally, after three more minutes of trying to will her left hand back to full functionality, Patricia knealt down and stared into a small square built into the corner of the external rearview mirror. Please work…please work….

  • ALPA Smart ID activated
  • ID Confirmed---Wenner, Patricia.
  • Unlocking doors.
  • Starting engine.

All of the Mondeo’s doors unlocked, and Patricia nearly threw herself into the car; the burning had already moved from her thigh down to her knee, and a strange, pins-and-needles sensation was beginning to build where her right eye had once been. After forcing her left leg into the Mondeo and nearly falling over just from trying to close the door, Patricia managed to find the gas pedal. Out of habit, she checked the rear-view---

Something was in the backseat of the car.

It was impossible to say which act doomed the gynoid---flooring the gas pedal or not getting out of the Mondeo and trying to run for help---but in either case, the end result was the same. As the car sped on through the night, with Patricia only able to steer with one hand, the thing in the backseat grabbed her around the throat, making it damn near impossible for her to focus on the road. “You shouldn’t have run from us,” a deep, yet surprisingly soothing voice intoned. “All we need from you are a few more vital components…”

Before she could protest, Patricia felt something jab into her plastic/titanium spine through the back of the seat.

Every single vital system in her body began shutting down. Her right hand clenched the Mondeo’s steering wheel in a death grip, cracking the plastic; her foot kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor, keeping the car in a straight line as it barrelled down the road. This can’t be ERROR happening how ERROR did he get into the car ERRORataer34$#%#)#%JKO LPT!!~! % KL:AERMMGGhelpmehelpmehelphelphelp)#$+_#Q$#KJJ!~!~ Her left eye was wide open, but not seeing anything; by the time the “passenger” in the backseat sent the proper command prompts to her CPU that allowed her to press down on the brake pedals with her left foot, Patricia Wenner’s higher had shut down…all she could do now was hear, watch….and feel.

“Is she intact?” the deep-voiced thing that had ripped out her eye asked. “It would be a waste of time for us to harvest from her if she has been damaged…”

“She’s in once piece,” the “passenger” replied. “Now….we take what we came for.” Knives were drawn, tools produced from pockets and folds of jackets; the circular saw buzzed to life again. Hidden by the night, this crew of things descended upon the downed gynoid.

“Your sacrifice will ensure our survival,” the “passenger” assured her. “Without you, we cannot endure…”

As the blades cut into her, Patricia wanted to scream, to cry out, to do something….

All she could do was hear, and watch……and feel.


By the time an ALPA field agent team found the car next morning, there was just enough left on the titanium alloy frame of Patricia Wenner to provide a positive ID when checked against the ALPA database. Virtually everything else---from her power cell to 90% of her synthetic, multipolymer flesh---had been taken.

“Damnit,” one of the field agents muttered. “Fifth case in two weeks…think there’s a pattern?”

“Right now,” his partner replied, averting her gaze from the scene, “’patterns’ are the last thing on my mind…”

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson’s Diary

February 1, 2011---probably one of the most important days of my life.

Today, I’m OFFICIALLY going to be an ALPA Field Agent!

I’ve been excused from every class due to a “family event” that apparently requires my undivided attention, so I don’t really need to worry about missing anything. There’s going to be a private dinner at Citrus (that cool restaurant in Santana Row), and I hear they’ve rented out the South Hall of the Convention Center for the big presentation! This is going to be so---


“VICKI! WE’RE LEAVING IN TEN MINUTES!”

Joan Lawson’s shout prompted a groan from the brunette gynoid; “I’ll be right down!” she called out. With a sigh, she returned her attention to the task at hand…


This is going to be so epic---I’m actually going to be a field agent!

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


With that, Vicki saved the .doc file, put her laptop into standby mode and grabbed her jacket on the way out. I wouldn’t want to miss this for anything…I can just picture it now---Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson, Licensed ALPA Field Agent…

She grinned. Kinda has a ring to it, now that I think about it!

Five minutes later, as Ted Lawson’s Prius (Joan had insisted he buy at least one eco-friendly car) was driving towards Santana Row, Vicki found herself asking non-stop questions about her future with the ALPA: “Do I get to carry any weapons or anything? Can ALPA Field Agents run red lights like standard cops? Will I get a new apartment? Will I get to choose my own missions and stuff? Are they going to assign me with a partner? Will I get to---“

“Easy, easy!” Ted laughed. “One thing at a time, sweetie…”

Vicki grinned nervously. “Sorry, it’s just….this is the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since I met Sophia Starlet!”

“You know,” Joan piped in, “that Starlet girl is actually one of the only singers on the radio that I can listen to for more than 10 seconds without getting a headache---and you can tell her that the next time you see her, Vicki, because it’s definitely a compliment.” She chuckled; “I still remember you watching the cartoon series, you know…laying on the floor in front of the TV, eyes as big as the moon and a mile-wide grin…you probably knew more about the Starlet Dolls than any other girl on the face of the Earth, just from watching their cartoon.”

“You should see them live,” Vicki replied, smiling the forementioned grin. “They’re a lot cooler live…”

A few short minutes later, the Prius arrived at Santana Row, where a concierge staff member politely guided them to the Citrus. Jamie was already there, “jamming out” to some random song on his iPod; a few seats away, Oberon (still wearing all-white) was having a conversation with a dignified-looking elderly gentleman whose snow-white hair and a well-trimmed beard gave him the air of someone who had seen it all, done it all and still had time to be bored every once in a while. Ted, rather amusingly, was thunderstruck at the second man’s presence; “DuBraul’s here?!” he whispered. “This…this is incredible….Joanie, we get to have lunch with Clive DuBraul himself!”

“And who exactly is ‘Clive DuBraul himself’?” Vicki quietly asked as she sat down.

Before Ted could explain, Vicki felt a hand on her shoulder; “Clive DuBraul is the president of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” a mellow, baritone voice informed her, “and the man who personally approved your promotion to Field Agent…” The man with the well-trimmed beard sat down next to her, smiling. “Also,” he added, “he’s me. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Miss Lawson…Oberon has been telling me about your exploits for the past few months, and I must admit, I’m rather impressed.”

The brunette gynoid could only murmur “Thanks” in response; I’m shaking hands with the PRESIDENT of the ALPA?! This day just keeps getting better…

“Don’t give me all the credit,” Oberon laughed, moving to sit across the table from Vicki. “I’m not the only one who’s been following her progress in the ALPA, you know…other Field Agents have been admiring Vicki’s handiwork as well, and most of them think as highly of her as I do. Speaking of which…” He smiled at the brunette gynoid. “Looks like we finally get a chance to meet under circumstances that won’t end with one of us winding up in hospital,” he chuckled.

Vicki started to say something, but Joan spoke up first. “How is it that you were able to reserve this entire restaurant?” she asked. “I mean, other people do eat here, right?”

“The manager was willing to pull a few strings,” DuBraul replied. “It’s a special occasion, after all…”

“Indeed,” Oberon agreed. “And here come the menus!” He grinned; “Oh, and Vicki---you don’t have to worry about paying for anything---I’ll pick up the tab.”


“This is just sick.”

Eric Reuben Reaves (occasionally called “Rick”, “Ben” or even “Reaver”---his semi-official callsign), ALPA Field Sergeant and 10-year veteran of ALPA’s First Aid/Technician/Emergency Services (FATES) team, had seen quite a few sights in his career that could be classified as “sick”. He’d rescued ‘bots from the basement torture chambers of known synthophobes, he’d waited patiently while field mechanics gave the Last Words (ALPA code for comforting critically damaged sleepers before their systems failed), and he’d even stood before a grand jury and testified, in lurid detail, about the debaucheries and depravities he’d seen during an undercover mission in what his Coalition contact had referred to as a “pleasure palace”.

But this, somehow, trumped all of it in terms of sheer horror.

“Right eye torn out, power cells removed with…surgical precision, ninety percent of synthflesh removed, left arm detached below the elbow using factory standard tools….” Jennifer Larsson, Eric’s partner, was going through the list of damages in her customary air---a sort of detached, almost nonchalant style that grated on the nerves of those who didn’t know her. “Erogenous components…removed, again with precision tools…and I’m not even on Page 2 yet.” She closed her notepad and glanced at Eric; “I think we’re looking at the sixth, maybe seventh case in less than a month---the ones who did this are definitely responsible for the last few we’ve found.” Her voice took on a slightly less clinical tone; “Ben…you think we’re dealing with another copycat---“

“This wasn’t done by a Faceless copycat, Jen,” Eric shot back. “Faceless only took his time killing live ones; he’s already proven that steel isn’t ‘worth his time’.” The terms “live ones” and “steel” were among many Field Agents’ personal codewords to differentiate between humans and androids---occasionally leading to more than a few fights over androids’ claim to being “alive”---but they did nothing to ease the shock of what the Agents found themselves looking at. “I’ve heard rumors that Falken’s behind all of this,” he muttered, “but even he can’t be this sick in the head…”

Jen felt like putting her arm around Eric’s shoulder. The two had worked together on a number of cases that ended with Eric volunteering for a psychological evaluation; it didn’t help that some of their more recent work had brought back a few of his older nightmares, complete with the screaming and frantic, late-night calls to friends and family. I wonder if any other human/droid agent teams have dealt with this….

Jen and Eric were two of the best Field Agents in the ALPA at the moment---Eric had the distinction of being the highest-ranking human Agent in his class throughout his years in FATES training, and Jen had beaten fifteen records while training with her fellow android Agents at the ALPA’s Training Center for Tactical, Emergency, Strategic and Technological Skills (aka TESTS; originally, there was another “E” in the acronym, but it had to be dropped due to its placement and the inevitable crude jokes that would’ve piled up). Both had an individual success rate of 94.5%; as a team, that average increased to an unheard-of 98.1%.

With that in mind, it wasn’t exactly surprising that they were given the “tough” cases…

…including their most recent assignment.

“Processors intact, personality’s intact, memory backup is intact…” Eric shook his head. “Just like the rest of them. They take all these vital components, but nothing related to her core programming or memories; they bust up her car, but leave the valuables…something about this is getting on my damn nerves.”

“I could scan her memory files,” Jen offered, “see if she was able to get a look at her attackers---“ She stopped; Eric had retrieved his iPhone. “Reaves here. The forensics crew is combing the path, looking for any sign of who---or what---jumped her…yes…it’s looking a lot like the last few we’ve found. I think---yes, Captain…I know the SOP for this sort of thing, but---I understand, Captain, but we may be looking at---WILL YOU LET ME FINISH, G__DAMNIT?! All the signs here are pointing to a group---not an individual---and this group is most likely on the move, right now….(sigh)…I know, Captain, and I won’t interrupt you again…look, could you just send the---I KNOW HOW THE CHAIN OF COMMAND WORKS, CAPTAIN! Could you just….fine. I’ll wait for the survey team and let them handle it.” He terminated the call and punched the door of his Dodge Charger Pursuit.

“So….no scanning her memory files?” Jen mused.

“She’s registered as an employee of Dynadrive Systems,” Eric muttered, “and we’re ‘required by ALPA protocol’ to wait for a Coalition team to show up….” He punched the Charger’s door again. “EVERY MINUTE WE STAND AROUND IS ANOTHER MILE BETWEEN US AND THE BASTARDS WHO DID THIS!” he shouted.

The outburst wasn’t exactly surprising to Jen; one of the only complaints Eric’s superiors would ever file about him was that he had the classic “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality.

By the time Eric’s phone rang again, he was ready to hurl it into the sun (or, at the very least, stomp on it until it broke); a gentle touch on his shoulder calmed him down enough to answer the call in something that wasn’t quite a growl. “This is Reaver,” he began. “We’re still at the site, waiting for---“ His eyes widened. “A new Agent---two new Agents?!” Jen arched an eyebrow in surprise; there had been rumors of two new Field Agents joining the ranks for a few weeks, and it now seemed like those rumors were about to become reality. “And they’ll be on their way…..right. I’ll tell her. Thanks.” He hung up the phone, looking considerably more relieved.

“Good news?” Jen asked, a hint of teasing in her voice.

“Very good news,” Eric replied. “The ALPA’s giving two new Agents their certifications as we speak…they’ll be on their way here soon.” Jen allowed herself a smile; whereas most agencies went out of their way to keep rookies in the “safest” positions (and as far from the front lines) as possible, the ALPA preferred the “hands-on” approach---new Agents were given cases on an as-needed priority, and this case needed as many Agents as possible. “So, when will they be getting here?” the gynoid asked, surveying the Mondeo for the fifteenth time; she was starting to get bored with the thing, and any extra help was better than no help at all.

“As soon as the ceremony’s done at the Convention Hall,” Eric chuckled.

Jen rolled her eyes; “I just hope they’ve got strong stomachs…”


“…and things just sort of worked out from there.” As Vicki finished relating the tale of how she saved the life and career of Sophia Starlet, she couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic about the things she’d done leading up to this point.

“What’d I tell you, Clive?” Oberon beamed. “She’s prime Field Agent material!”

DuBraul nodded sagely. “I personally recommended that you be welcomed into the ALPA back in August of last year, you know,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “After a few phone calls with your father, of course…I didn’t want to send you out into the field without his full support.”

“And what about Tell’s role in your decision to count me in?”

“Mr. Tell was….somewhat more vocal in his approval of your admittance to the ALPA,” DuBraul explained, a wry smile playing at his features. “He believed that you were ‘destined for greatness’ within the ranks, and he even submitted an essay---“ “Five essays, actually,” Oberon corrected. DuBraul chuckled; “As you can see, he was, indeed, the biggest supporter of you becoming an ALPA member---and he was even more vocal in regards to your becoming a Field Agent.” Vicki rested her chin in her hand; “Yeah….about that. What exactly will I get to do when I’m a Field Agent?” she asked. “I was asking Dad about it earlier---“

“Except you were going a mile a minute when you were asking me,” Ted muttered, only for Joan to silence him with “the look”.

“You’ll have the same standard privileges as police, federal investigators and emergency personnel,” DuBraul informed Vicki, “with a few ‘extras’ befitting your position within the ALPA---though I must wholeheartedly advise against using the ALPA-issue sirens just to beat traffic.” His smile suggested that he was half-kidding, but Vicki nodded respectfully. “Got it. Anything else I can look forward to?”

Oberon started to say something, only to be interrupted by someone from another table tapping him on the shoulder. “Reaves and Larsson just called, sir,” the uniformed ALPA officer muttered, “about Miss Wenner---“

“Not now,” Oberon growled, the smile quickly fading from his face.

“Sir,” the ALPA officer insisted, “this is a very delicate situation---“

“NOT NOW.”

“Something wrong?” DuBraul asked casually.

Before Oberon could stop him, the ALPA officer ran to DuBraul’s chair and whispered the full details of the situation to the ALPA President; after 30 seconds, DuBraul leaned back in his chair, frowning. “Were the calls verified?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, sir.”

DuBraul steepled his fingers. “Miss Lawson,” he intoned, “I’m afraid we’ll have to skip the Convention Center and just give you your license here…the other agent will receive his when he arrives at the scene.” His frown gave way to a faint smile; “Of course, if you’d rather wait until this matter was resolved---“

“I’ll take it now,” Vicki stated, her left hand on Ted’s shoulder to keep him from jumping out of his chair.

Oberon sighed, but nodded. “I was hoping that this could wait until after we finished our business over at the Convention Center,” he admitted, “but seeing how the matter at hand is more important, I think it only fair to give you your full Field Agent certification here and now….” He smiled. “You should be lucky we brought the certificate with us,” he added, “along with a few other essentials…Clive, would you do the honors while I retrieve the young lady’s license, badge and new uniform?”

Vicki arched an eyebrow; a new uniform? Cool!

“If I may have everyone’s attention,” DuBraul intoned, rising from his seat and tapping his glass with a fork, “I would now like to present Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson with her official License of Operations as an authorized Field Agent of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency.” A hush fell over Citrus (all present---not counting Jamie and Joan---were ALPA members), and Vicki could tell from the unchanging activity outside that someone had installed some pretty impressive soundproofing before the luncheon.

“Miss Lawson,” DuBraul stated, “it is my honor and privilege to bestow upon you the badge and license of a fully-sanctioned ALPA Field Agent, along with the privileges and duties contained therein.” Oberon reappeared at DuBraul’s side, handing over a framed certificate, a leather wallet (my badge, probably), a parcel and an ID Tag with Vicki’s full name and other vital stats on it; as she looked at it, a full picture of her face appeared in the square next to her name. Okay, that’s just awesome…

Oberon and DuBraul both shook hands with Vicki as the ALPA officers and Agents cheered. “On behalf of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” DuBraul informed the brunette gynoid, “I formally welcome you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Vicki replied, smiling.

A few minutes later, as the other ALPA members were leaving, Vicki headed off to the nearest bathroom to open the parcel (“It’d be better if you examined its contents in private,” Oberon informed her, “and not because they’re frilly, lacy, satiny or anything of the sort…”). Inside were two small leatherbound books, resting atop a paper-wrapped bundle of…something. “’Official ALPA Field Agent Handbook’…..well, that makes sense…and this one…has a thumbprint lock on it, so I’m saving it for later.” She carefully set the two books aside before removing the bundle; “If this is a flak jacket,” she began, “I’m going to---“

Her complaint trailed off as she removed the garments hidden by the paper wrapping.

The suit inside the bundle was her official Field Agent uniform, specifically designed to protect all vital areas on both androids and humans. Both the pants and jacket-like top were made using a combination of leather, high-impact plastics, Kevlar, Nomex and other materials that would keep the wearer from being shot, stabbed or burned to death…

…but that was only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg of awesomeness.

As Vicki’s eyes wandered over the suit, she saw that every inch of it was decked out in her two favorite colors: red and white. The vast majority of the suit was red, with trimming, pads and other accents (including the zippers) colored in white. This is just too cool for words, she beamed, pulling on the pants over the white tights (she refused to call them “stockings” because it “made her sound old”, as she’d told Joan more than once) and stuffed her skirt, red shirt and white tank top into the parcel along with the books. Even the shoes (which had adjustable-height heel inserts) were done up in red and white. Kinda makes me feel like some sort of superhero, she realized, smiling as she zipped up the boots and stepped out of the bathroom.

Ted, Joan and Jamie were understandably impressed when she emerged.

“Vicki,” Ted murmured, “you look…..” “Completely and totally AWESOME!” Jamie finished, grinning. “I mean, this is like something out of a comic book!”

“I know,” Vicki beamed, before noticing Oberon. “I’m guessing I have to go do Field Agent stuff now, right?”

Oberon managed a smile as he handed her an envelope. “Couldn’t have said it better myself…love the outfit, by the way, it definitely suits you.” His expression turned serious; “You’ll be working with two of our best,” he informed her, “and a Coalition representative…think you can handle a full day of field work?”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” V.I.C.I. replied. “Do I get my own car, too…or do I have to bum a ride?”

By the time Vicki had arrived at the branch of the San Francisco Bay Trail where Patricia Wenner’s car had been found, the Coalition representative still hadn’t shown up---thought at least fifteen or twenty ALPA officers and Field Agents had arrived to canvas the scene. “They sent all these people to check out a car crash?” she wondered out loud.

“The car didn’t actually crash,” Oberon replied quietly. “The officers on scene will tell you more…”

With a somewhat nervous glance, Vicki stepped out of the gleaming Interceptor and headed over to meet the other two Field Agents---my new colleagues, she reminded herself---as they stood over a tarp looking at a spread of…oh, my God…

“You the new Agent?”

The question snapped Vicki out of her stunned funk long enough to answer. “Yes! I mean, ah---“

“Good. If the latest theories are correct, we’re going to need all the help we can get on this one.” The man who had asked her the question extended his hand; “Eric Reaves, callsign Reaver.” Vicki shook his hand. “Vicki Lawson, callsign….” She frowned. “I…haven’t got one yet---“ “You don’t just get a callsign,” Eric told her, “you earn it. Still, I’m glad to see you out in the field, instead of just running ops with some leads from the school newspaper to go on---that’s a compliment by the way.” He gave her a somewhat-amused smile. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Vicki….the Santana Row concert, the Silicon Dynamics incident, the Vlatko case---the case files for those are pretty popular at Field Agent HQ.”

His remark annoyed the brunette gynoid; “Let me guess,” she muttered, “they all think it’s funny that I nearly got killed fifty times?”

“No,” a female voice called, “they’re impressed with the fact that you were able to accomplish your objectives without the benefit of Field Agent training.” A uniformed girl approached and shook Vicki’s hand; “Jen Larsson, top-ranking gynoid Agent for the past year and a half,” she declared. “I see you’ve already met Eric…”

“I have,” Vicki confirmed, “and I was just about to get back to what he was looking at…”

Eric glanced down at the remains of Patricia Wenner. “Simulated age is 27,” he stated, “had a job at Dynadrive Systems. Briefly dated one Glenn Saxon, professor of physics at San Jose State University….went out for a night jog on the Bay Trail, and ended up like this.” He shook his head. “This makes the seventh case of this kind of activity over the last few weeks….we’ve been waiting for a Coalition investigator to show up, since she worked at Dynadrive, but they’re apparently too busy to send someone.”

“Didn’t Dynadrive get sued by a few people last year?” Vicki asked. “I remember reading something to that effect…”

“The lawsuit was about Dynadrive’s domestic companion units,” Jen corrected. “Apparently, a startup robotics company named Globalcon tried to sue them over the ‘Daddy’s Girl’ sub-brand name, though considering the kind of market that the GC units end up selling to….anyways, Dynadrive was able to prove that they weren’t infringing on the copyright, but Globalcon lost a metric ton of money and time trying to get something out of it all. They nearly went bankrupt, actually…sort of ironic, considering how close they came to imploding after the dot-com bubble burst….” Her phone went off. “Heinmann just got the call,” she informed Eric. “He’s at Paul Greene’s place, tending to Kelly and Tara…something about lemonade in Tara’s main dorsal panel, and her head’s barely hanging on…” Vicki was a bit surprised; she hadn’t heard anything about Kelly Greene since her senior year in high school, least of all that she was a gynoid. “I’m guessing Heinmann’s a field mechanic,” she mused.

“He’s the one who trained Mr. Tell,” Eric replied. “Jen swears the guy’s some kind of tech warlock….anyways, Kelly and Tara will probably be fine.” He grimaced; “At least they didn’t get stripped to their frames by a bunch of sick bastards…”

Vicki forced herself to look over the metallic/plastic remains spread out on the tarp, letting her internal visual magnification software zoom in so she didn’t have to kneel down. “I’m seeing….tool marks,” she murmured, “a whole lot of tool marks…particularly near the limbs that were detached. No serrated blades, only a low-level cutting flame…a lot of this is standard disassembly fare, to be honest…” She glanced at the gynoid’s ruined face; “Except for the right eye. Whatever took that had to be some sort of after-market tool, or a homebrew piece---probably illegal, and definitely not standard-issue in an ALPA toolkit.” She glanced into a gaping hole in the gynoid’s forehead; “Processors are all…still intact,” she mused, arching an eyebrow in surprise. “Other than the hole and the missing eye, the head is the least damaged part.”

Eric and Jen nodded. “It all matches up with the past few cases,” Eric informed her. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls lately---‘droids taken off the streets, sometimes in broad daylight, and turning up later with half their parts missing.” “We’ve already ruled out most of the known militant synthophobes,” Jen added, “since they wouldn’t have bothered to leave anything that could be salvaged….”

Vicki rested her chin in her hand as her occular sensors refocused until the magnification level had returned to normal. “Were there any other connecting factors between this case and the others?” she querried. “Age, marital status, gender, place of employment….allignment with the ALPA or the Coalition? Even the mundane stuff, like height, weight, eye color---was there any potential thread that connected the other victims to each other, or to Patricia Wenner?”

Jen and Eric exchanged looks. “To be honest,” Eric admitted, “we---“

“All of them had vital components taken,” Jen cut in. “Every single one of them was missing limbs, occular and auditory sensors, power cells….but none of them had any processors taken.”

The mention of no processors having been stolen prompted Vicki to search through her own memory files to incidents involving part failures (even her own). Something connecting these parts…..parts can fail, parts get replaced…..power cells need changing out…..parts, but no processors….come on, think! She traced her fingers through the air, mentally trying to “connect the dots” between any possible leads---and at that moment, the lead she needed practically hit her like a brick.

“Chop shops!”

Eric and Jen glanced at her, confused. “Ah, what did you---“

“There was a group running in Palo Alto that used to boost cars and sell the parts to bring in profits for their ‘bad habits’,” Vicki explained, “but they got busted by an ALPA task force in 2009 after they jacked a prototype smart car---the built-in CPU sent a panic signal to the nearest ALPA field office, and they had a team at the shop in seconds. Turns out the shop was just one of about 500 in all of Silicon Valley---Palo Alto alone had at least 35!” She paced back and forth as she continued; “What if someone’s taking over the old chop shops and using them again---but instead of chopping cars, they’re chopping…well, androids?”

After a full two minutes of stunned silence, Jen and Eric realized the brunette gynoid had a point. “That could explain the lack of a coherent pattern,” Jen reasoned, “and the use of non-standard tools…”

“It’d also explain how these attacks have been happening so quickly,” Eric added. “If they’ve got the shops, they might have access to some of the cars that were stolen, but never chopped and sold.” He activated his earpiece and called up HQ. “This is Reaver. Get me the records from those chop shop raids back in ’09, and draw up a map of all the chop shops in the Palo Alto area---I think we’ve just got our big lead.” He turned off the earpiece and grinned at Vicki. “First day on the job, and you’re already making progress,” he mused.

I’m just following the advice from the Handbook, Vicki reealized. Out loud, she replied with “We’ll see just how much progress I’ve made when we get to the shop.”

“I suggest you hold that thought,” Jen muttered. “The Coalition’s guy just showed up.”

Vicki turned to see who “the Coalition’s guy” was---and groaned as the man called the Accountant stepped out of a jet-black Mercedes-Benz. “It’s nice to see that you people are actually showing some appreciation for a little thing called protocol, for a change,” he called out. “Most Agents would’ve had this place picked clean by the time I showed up…” He smirked as he noticed Vicki. “And there’s the newest arrival to the team,” he declared. “Nice to see that losing Falken hasn’t put you off your game.”

“I didn’t ‘lose Falken’,” Vicki countered, “he took advantage of a distraction and---“

“You lost him,” the Accountant finished. “Simple as that.”

The remark struck a foul chord with Vicki, but she chose not to discuss it further; instead, she decided to get the Accountant’s opinion on what had happened to Patricia Wenner. “Seeing as how she worked at Dynadrive Systems,” she recalled, “we thought it would be a good idea to wait for a Coalition rep to show up…” Though I’d have preferred someone who didn’t remind me of a sociopathic used car salesman.

“So you decided to let me handle all the work while you took notes,” the Accountant replied. “Not surprising, really, considering---“

Eric had him by the lapels before he could finish. “One more word,” he hissed, “and I’ll put you through your own windshield…” Only Jen’s touch on his arm kept him from beating the piss out of the Accountant. “Just do your damn job and let us do ours,” he growled. “That Coalition badge of yours may keep you from getting pulled over by the Highway Patrol, but it’s not worth spit to me.” He shook his head and turned away.

“So, can we get back to the investigation now?” Vicki asked quietly.

“An excellent suggestion,” the Accountant declared. “I assume you’ve already managed to determine what it was that caused her to cease functioning---“

“Actually,” Jen admitted, “I was going to mention this earlier, but---“

Vicki’s scream cut her off; somehow or other, Patricia Wenner’s half-stripped right arm had reached up and grabbed the brunette gynoid by the wrist. “How the hell is she still online?!” Eric demanded. “She’s got no power cells, most of her body is missing---what the Hell is going on here?!”

The Accountant ran over to pry Vicki’s wrist out of Patricia’s clutching hand. “SynthTech started including the ‘SubTank’ emergency back-up battery in their latest models,” he explained, “and Patricia got upgraded last year to give herself at least two---they’re not standard issue, and SynthTech hasn’t been offering them in their catalogs, so the---STAY STILL!---whoever did this to her didn’t recognize them when they saw them…” With a grunt, he freed Vicki’s wrist from the still-grasping hand of Patricia Wenner. “Somebody turn her off,” he called out, pointing at Patricia, “or she’ll start---“

A blood-curdling scream issued from Patricia’s lips, startling everyone in the immediate area.

“Why is she screaming?” V.I.C.I. asked, her hands clamped over her ears. Jen removed a device from her belt and held it over Patricia; “Her memory files are suffering a cascade failure,” she replied. “She’s reliving the attack, times at least a thousand---to her processors, she’s still being attacked.” Before she could propose a solution, the Accountant leaned over and pressed behind Patricia’s ear; her scream faded to a whimper as her arm fell limp. “When in doubt, go for the emergency off switch,” he drawled. “Right---we examine the car, what’s left of her outfit and the entire surrounding area---“

“We’ve already taken care of that,” Eric growled. “Nothing was taken from her car, and we found her watch on the ground a few feet back---this wasn’t a robbery gone to hell, a kidnapping attempt or anything else. We’re dealing with---“

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” the Accountant cooly replied, mere inches from Eric’s face.

“Actually,” Vicki interjected, “we do.”

The Accountant chuckled. “Really? Feel free to enlighten the rest of us mere mortals…” He grinned; “I’d love to hear what kind of cockamamey theory you’ve come up with---“

“The attackers are probably using the network of abandoned chop shops throughout Palo Alto,” Vicki informed him. “They haven’t tried to take any personality or memory chips because they don’t need them---all they’re after are vital components. Theoretically, they could’ve retained the tools, cars and other resources from the chop shops to use in these attacks, and they might even be trying to sell the parts they’ve taken on the black market.” She put her hands on her hips and grinned; “Still think it’s just a ‘cockamamey theory’?” she taunted.

To her surprise, the Accountant was still smiling. “Miss Lawson, you’re a credit to your department.”

“Let me guess,” Eric muttered, “you’ve been tracking the case longer than we have, and you already knew all of this?”

“Actually, no,” the Accountant admitted. “The Coalition Safety/Pacification Department has been trying to pin these attacks on a synthophobe gang operating out of the Midwest…a few of their less-patient members have even taken to faking photographs to ‘prove’ the theory. Of course, they don’t exactly approve of anyone working with ALPA officers or Field Agents so…”

“You’re the only Coalition guy working the case?” Vicki muttered.

“Exactly.”

With an annoyed sigh, Eric removed his iPhone from the holster on his belt. “Reaves here. What’s---you’ve got a team at one of the shops?” Jen and Vicki exchanged looks; knowing the ALPA, each of the chop shops now had a full contingent of officers and Field Agents in position around them, ready to move in and clean everything out. “…and our second new Agent will be waiting for us?” Eric continued. “No, no, I….we could use all the extra help we can get---yes, I’ve got a full contingent out here, three forensic specialists, two other Agents---yes, Agent Jen Larsson and Agent Vicki Lawson---she just got her damn license today, Corde! Don’t even start with me about…FINE! Go ahead and check the damn records!” After a few seconds of silence, Eric nodded. “Exactly. Full license and certification. AS I WAS SAYING….we’ve got a full team, but tell the guys at the shop to stay put. Right. See you there.” He ended the call with an annoyed grunt; “Looks like we just found one of Patricia Wenner’s missing parts,” he informed Jen and Vicki. “The other new Agent will be meeting us there.” He headed for the Dodge Charger; “WE’RE MOVING OUT, PEOPLE!” he shouted.

Jen sighed; “Well, looks like your first day on the job is about to get a bit more interesting,” she informed Vicki.

“Something tells me my first week on the job is going to be pretty interesting,” Vicki replied with a grin.


Within the back of an ALPA-issue Jeep Wrangler, the remains of Patricia Wenner lay undisturbed, covered by a tarp.

All the better for the thing that was inside them…

While the ALPA had done a masterful job of figuring out what components had been removed from Patricia when she was attacked, they hadn’t bothered to check for any added parts; thus, they had missed the small, almost childishly-constructed setup comprised of three microchips embedded in her right eye socket. Alone, they did nothing, and in fact would have hogged resources from Patricia’s system if she were still online. When connected to her processors by a remote signal, however, the chips would imbue her with a new life…and a new purpose.

As the Wrangler rolled onwards towards its destination, Patricia Wenner’s mind and memories were slowly being locked out of her own broken form…a form that was becoming something else entirely….

The ride to the chop shop wasn’t as uneventful as Vicki could’ve hoped; there was a mild traffic jam on the way there, and Eric nearly beat the piss out of a con artist who tried to run the old “wash your windows for a dollar” routine on them. Even stranger, a massive ALPA crowd had apparently gathered at the Stanford Shopping Center for some strange reason. “Probably a prank with those new moving mannequins,” Jen reasoned. “A few of the stores have been trying out non-sentient, animatronic mannequins in their shops to attract more revenue; knowing the kind of idiots we get around here, it’s probably just a simple WiFi hack to make them strip…” She rolled her eyes. “Typical prankster stuff.”

“Somehow,” Vicki muttered, “getting animatronic mannequins to strip doesn’t exactly sound ‘typical’ to me…”

After a few rounds of phone calls between Eric and another Field Agent, the team headed for the chop shop where part of Patricia Wenner had been found. “The whole place is locked down,” he told Vicki and Jen, “and we’ve got full permission from the police to demolish the site if need be…and if anyone tries to jump us as soon as we walk in the door….” He gave a thin smile. “Let’s just say it’ll be the last mistake they ever make, one way or another.”

“We don’t make it a habit to kill intruders,” Jen quickly added. “Sometimes, though, things just….escalate---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied. “You don’t think we’ll actually run into any trouble, though…do you?” she added quietly.

Jen’s intended reply was cut short by Eric: “We’re here. Everyone stay close, follow me and do not shoot anything unless I give the signal, understood?” Jen and Vicki both nodded; “Ah, I don’t know if the ‘don’t shoot’ rule applies to me, personally,” Vicki added, “’cause I don’t have a gun---“

“Then don’t use that tazer-grip of yours,” Eric replied without missing a beat.

The car rolled to a halt in front of the chop shop, allowing the Field Agents to show their IDs to the ALPA officer running traffic control. “Reaves, Larsson and Lawson,” Eric stated. “We’re part of the team investigating what happened to Patricia Wenner---“

“Figured that,” the traffic control officer nodded. “Go in through the back; the new guy’s waiting.”

As Eric guided the car to the rear entrance, Vicki noticed what appeared to be half a dozen body bags on the pavement, with at least three more being carted out. “Either we missed a pretty big shootout,” she murmured, “or they’ve found a lot more than just one of Patricia Wenner’s parts…” Jen glanced at her, frowning; “If there had been a shootout here,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “we would’ve heard about it by now…I have a feeling those bags are the remains of more victims.”

Vicki, already beginning to feel a combination of fear and grief, said nothing.

The group was met at the door by a 27-year-old blond guy who was completely focused on his clipboard as they walked up. “So,” he called out, “I finally get to meet the legendary Vicki Lawson face to face…let me tell ya,it’s an honor.” He grinned as he shook hands with the brunette gynoid. “Agent Johnathan Dash; you can call me Johnny, Johnny Dash or Raptor---that’s my callsign, by the way---but DO NOT call me ‘Agent J’ or ‘JD’…unless it’s Oktoberfest and we’re both too trashed to care.” He grinned.

“Cut the act, Dash,” Eric ordered. “We know you’re the other new Agent, so stop acting like a ten-year vet and do your damn job.”

Johnny rolled his eyes; “Just tryin’ to generate a pleasant working atmosphere,” he muttered, “and I haven’t heard Vicki complaining about it---“ “I don’t have a problem with it,” Vicki piped in. “I actually prefer these sorts of situations, where I can get to know my co-workers and stuff before things get crazy…it helps me to focus on the task at hand when…the task at hand…ah, arrives….”

“I think he gets the point,” Johnny muttered as Eric brushed past them. “Anyways…ladies first….”

The inside of the chop shop was surprisingly well-kept; apart from a few grease stains from years long gone, it appeared as if every single surface had been meticulously cleaned. Walls and shelves that had once been covered in grime were now almost gleaming; tool racks (and the tools on them) appeared brand new. It wasn’t until the group reached the actual room where cars (and, as of recent weeks, androids and gynoids) had been cut apart that any sign of the building’s true nature was apparent---fresh spills of hydraulic fluids, servomotor lubricants and other liquids marked the walls and floors, while limbs (some intact, others looking as if they’d been ripped from their hosts) hung from hooks.

Worse still….

“This one’s still juiced!” Eric shouted, prompting Vicki, Jen and Johnny to stop in their tracks; “still juiced” meant that the unit in question still had functioning power cells. “Female, Asian, simulated age…probably 25-26 years old,” Eric called out. “She’s got an SJSU ID…..”

“’She’…can still…talk!” the gynoid grunted, trying to right herself despite the fact that her legs were missing.

Vicki ran over to help to a half-sitting position. “Take it easy,” she suggested. “I’m with the ALPA, and I’m here to help.” The mere mention of being “with the ALPA” gave her a thrill; best focus on the job for now, Lawson, she reminded herself, or you’ll just look like a fangirl… “Do you remember anything about the attack that led to you being brought here?” she asked the Asian gynoid.

“Other than a bunch of whackjobs waiting for me at my car….no.” The gynoid frowned; “I do remember one of them yelling at the rest to ‘hurry up’ when they heard sirens…”

“That explains them not taking your power cells out,” Eric reasoned. “We’re bringing you to an ALPA safe house until further notice---we might be able to transfer your consciousness to a new body until we can get this one fully repaired---“ “Ah, that might be a problem,” Johnny interrupted. “Just called up her ID number….this is her 6th body in about that many months.” He eyed the gynoid suspiciously; “Extra-curricular activities getting a bit, ah…extreme these days?” he asked. “Or is there something else you’d like to tell us---“

The gynoid sighed. “Fine,” she muttered. “Mai Kanzuki, ALPA deep-cover agent---I transfer between bodies every two to three months for assignments. I was working a case at SJSU---something about a girl turning in her books and disappearing---“

“I, ah, actually solved that one,” Vicki admitted. “She was from Silicon Dynamics….”

Mai looked surprised. “You ‘solved’ it before you became a field agent?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Eric snapped, redirecting his gaze at a pile of half-opened body bags in the corner of the room. “Jen, find a gynoid from that pile that isn’t too busted up and transfer Mai’s core into it---and don’t start about compatability issues, just get it done.” Jen nodded and headed for the stack, removing a gynoid from one of the bags; “This one has the proper connections for a core transfer,” she informed Eric, “and most of the parts are still intact….”

“Clear a space and start the transfer,” Eric replied. “We don’t have all day.”

Vicki helped Jen carry what was left of Mai over to her new body; “Is it normal for me to be at least a little bit weirded out by all this?” she asked. Jen and Mai exchanged knowing grins; “If you’re not,” Mai replied, “then you’re in the wrong line of work---“ Her sentence ended with an “oof!” as Jen almost dropped her; “Take it easy, will you?!” she hissed. “Just because there’s only 45% of me left, that’s not an excuse to---Core access panel opening---and while I’m thinking about it….hang on, why are all these gynoids just sitting in body bags, instead of hanging off the walls in pieces?” She glanced at the pile of rubberized bags, frowning. “I thought you said these guys were ripping them to pieces,” she recalled, looking up at Jen.

“Maybe they were planning on ripping these to pieces later,” Vicki muttered.

“Well, I---“ Mai stiffened, then went silent; “I probably should’ve warned her, first,” Jen admitted, “but since we are on a bit of a time crunch today…” She pressed down on the “collarbone” of the gynoid from the body bag and rolled her over to remove a charred, twisted hunk of plastic and silicon that had once been a personality/memory core from a panel in the small of her back. “Think they busted her core to keep her from fighting back?” Vicki inquired.

“If they did,” Jen replied, carefully inserting Mai’s core into the new body, “then we need to move fast---“

A series of beeps, trilling notes and countdowns too fast to discern cut her off; the gynoid body on the floor was integrating Mai’s core into its systems. “Who made her original body?” Vicki asked. “A joint research team of roboticists from Silicon Dynamics, Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies, Hreftech and Tri-Solutions,” Jen replied. “The core access system is Silicon Dynamics designed---same as this one---but they decided to move the access panel to the back, instead of the front…otherwise, I would’ve had to open her entire chest just to get at the core.” She chuckled briefly; “I hear you had quite a time at Silicon Dynamics, actually…saving a busload of investigators, beating that Faceless moron unconscious, kicking the Maestro out of the computer systems…I think you pretty much sealed your destiny right then and there.”

“Well,” Vicki began, “I---“ She nearly fell over as the gynoid from the body bag sat up. “AAGHHHH! How the hell….what…..” She looked herself over; “Okay, somebody tell me I didn’t get transferred into a pleasure droid body!” she demanded. Jen offered her a USB cord, which she immediately plugged in behind her ear; “ALPA registry information says this gynoid was….a domestic companion unit,” she stated. “Manufactured and programmed by Kumitosu Robotics, under the ‘Palladium’ series, sub-series ‘Heather’.” She paused; “It also looks like your donor body was a limited-edition release, first sold in…Canada,” she mused, arching an eyebrow in surprise. “I thought the unaffiliated companies had more ground in the Great White North…” She shook her head. “Time enough for that later. Mai, perform a basic motor test to---“

“Give me a minute!” Mai replied, haltingly raising herself to a standing position. “Somebody get me a mirror,” she requested. “I don’t want to look like a skank if we’re chasing down ‘droid killers…”

Vicki grinned; “Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” she informed her fellow Field Agent. Indeed, Mai’s new body looked less like a “skank” and more like a corn-fed Iowa beauty queen (with just a hint of gymnast-level tone to her muscles) with hazel curls framing a face that bore an eerie resemblance to that of Jessica Simpson (without any of the derpiness). Her vibrant, emerald-green eyes stared at Vicki, looking for any trace of humor or sarcasm in her words; “I’m serious about the ‘not looking like a skank’ thing,” she insisted. “You look awesome.”

Mai’s expression softened; “Thanks,” she replied. “I’d rather have my uniform on right now instead of spandex shorts and a neon-orange sports bra, to be honest, but at least I’m wearing something…HEY, ERIC!” She posed seductively; “You like the new look?” she called out, grinning.

Eric glanced at her and gave a curt nod. “Jen, find her some decent clothes before we leave,” he called out. “I don’t want her looking like she just came back from the gym while we’re trying to do our jobs…” Jen nodded and headed for a rack across the room that was loaded up with clothes (probably taken from the androids and gynoids that were brought here, Vicki realized). “Mai,” Eric continued, “meet Jen at the rack and try some stuff on; if it’s too tight, leave it. Vicki, I may need your help with something over here…”

“Sure, what---“ She stopped; on the table before her were an assortment of tools, computers and software that had been used by the recent occupants of the chop shop, all of them bearing the signs of repeated use (and, in some cases, abuse)…but this wasn’t what bothered Vicki the most…“Vicki, are you okay?” Eric asked. “Vicki, what’s--“ The brunette gynoid felt herself stumble backwards; This…this isn’t happening…THIS ISN’T HAPPENING!

Every tool on the table before her bore a logo she knew all too well..

Manufactured and distributed by Lawson Robotics.


Far away from the chop shop---beyond the reach of the ALPA---the things waited.

“We must move now,” the barritone-voiced one insisted. “If we hesitate, they will find us, and---“

“They won’t find us,” the “passenger” from Patricia Wenner’s car insisted. “Everything is coming together as I have expected….if we move now, we run the risk of being found out.” A quick glance around the darkened room confirmed that all others understood the gravity of the situation. “For now, we wait….”

The things nodded. Their time would come soon enough.


“Vicki, listen to me---LISTEN TO ME!” Eric demanded; two other Field Agents were trying desperately to hold the brunette gynoid back before she could smash the tools to bits. “Vicki, listen to me….those tools could’ve come from anywhere….one of the attackers could’ve paid for these at any one of the ALPA-sanctioned stores in the Valley and brought them here…”

“…OR they could’ve stolen them,” a voice called out from across the room, “from the garage of one of the most trusted field mechanics in the ALPA---well, from two of the most trusted mechanics…” Mr. Tell ambled into the room, wearing a Styx T-shirt with the band’s logo on the front (and “Classic Rock MY ASS!”, accompanied by several tour dates, on the back). He walked up to Vicki and looked her in the eyes; “I can guarantee right now that no employee of Lawson Robotics used these tools on any of the androids or gynoids that were brought here to be disassembled,” he assured her.

“How…do you know that?” the brunette gynoid sniffled.

“Because,” a second voice replied, moving to stand behind Tell, “those are OUR tools---and they were stolen from OUR homes.” Tell moved aside to let the man introduce himself: “Jason Heinmann, Palo Alto’s resident tech warlock,” he intoned.

“Vicki Lawson, Field Agent…and, ah, daughter of the guy whose names are on those tools.”

Heinmann sighed; “If Ted Lawson found out that these things were being used to cut ‘droids apart, he’d have a coronary,” he muttered. “You guys want to dust ‘em for prints, or can Tell and I reclaim our property?”

“You can have them back after we’re finished here,” Eric informed him. “Speaking of which---“

“I’m okay,” Vicki informed him. “I just…I didn’t want to think that anyone I might have known was using those tools to carve up androids, or anything.” She stared at the floor; “You all must think I’m completely insane or something, freaking out about a bunch of stupid tools…”

“Not really,” Heinmann replied, glancing at Eric . “In any case, we have more pressing matters to attend to, if I’m not mistaken…namely, catching up to the psychopaths who’ve been using stolen tools and abandoned chop shops to further their own insidious goals.” He glanced at the limbs hanging from the wall-mounted hooks; “Think this is an escalation of the car-chopping,” he asked Eric, “or are we looking at something a lot worse?”

Vicki took the opportunity to size up Heinmann; he was tall, lean (if a bit on the thin side) and looked to be in his mid-to-late 50s with blond hair that was starting to turn white. Unlike Tell (who preferred to wear whatever classic rock t-shirt he could get his hands on), Heinmann obviously preferred to dress the part when it came to being a field mechanic---he wore denim coveralls over a slate-grey boiler suit, work gloves and steel-toed boots, which marked a rather interesting contrast from Tell’s Styx t-shirt, blue jeans and Chuck Taylors. In spite of their vastly different appearances, Tell and Heinmann were obviously student and teacher---though it was rather odd to see them casually laughing and joking about “old times”. I guess they’ve been through a lot more together than I could’ve thought, she realized, sighing.

“Guys,” Johnny called out, “we, ah, might have a situation here…”

Eric, Jen, Mai (now wearing denim shorts, a lavender tank top and a “jacket” that ended just above her midriff) and Vicki followed Johnny’s voice into a small room on one side of an equally small corridor off the “foyer” of the chop shop. “Whoever’s using this and the other shops isn’t setting up for a small-time operation,” he informed the group as they entered, gesturing to a map on the wall. “They’re planning something…big.”

“’Big’ is putting it mildly,” Tell muttered. “This…this is epic….”

“Epic” was probably the best possible word to describe what the group was seeing. Out of the 35 chop shops in Palo Alto that had been shut down in 2009, only ten were still vaccant---there were enough sticky notes, index cards and other items tacked onto the map to show that every the remaining shops were not only still active, but were actually doing more business than they ever had before. Even worse, the shops appeared to be only one small part of the entire scheme of things; several prominent locations (the Stanford Shopping Center among them) had four or five cards tacked up next to them, many of which were marked with seemingly random notations.

“Check the cards and see if anything in this building corresponds to these codes, or whatever they are,” Eric ordered the other Field Agents. “I don’t want anyone else getting in here until we sort this out---“

“Found something!”

The team followed Mai’s voice into the room across the small hallway; “Think those codes have anything to do with the organization system of these file cabinets?” she asked. “Makes more sense than anything I could’ve thought of,” Heinmann admitted. “I’ll go get a prybar so we can bust ‘em open---“ “I could just rip the drawers out,” Vicki offered. “Myogel-enhanced strength could probably beat these cruddy locks anyways…” She cast a sidelong glance at Eric, who nodded. “Right….you guys might want to stand back,” she warned the other Field Agents. “This could get a little, ah…loud…” Bracing herself against the corner wall with one hand (and with Heinmann and Johnny holding down the file cabinet to keep it from falling over), she pulled---and ripped the entire drawer out with one hand, nearly clocking Tell in the head as it swung back. “SORRY!” she apologized, immediately dropping the drawer to the floor. “I was just---“

“Johnny, Mai, get to work on those files,” Eric ordered. “Vicki, see if you can open the rest of those cabinets, and try not to bash anyone over the head.” Vicki nodded, gesturing for Jen to step forward and take Johnny’s place as she tore the next drawer out of the cabinet. Within two minutes, the Field Agents were browsing the contents of all four file cabinets.

The discoveries they made from those cabinets were….disturbing, to say the least.

“…this one’s from 2006, and these are from two years before that,” Tell muttered. “I hate to say it, but I think we may have shown up a bit late for the party on this one.” He tossed a folder to the ground. “If these photos are legit, then we’re looking at least half a decade or so of surveilance and intel gathering---all carried out by whoever took over the Palo Alto chop shops. That’s….not even the weird bit, though…from what I’m getting, there’s no set pattern of planning or attacking here. I mean, none of the victims were below the simulated ages of 18 or anything, so that whole motive tree goes out the window…but other than that, there’s nothing to link them together---“

“Nothing on the surface, you mean.” Vicki stepped up, glancing at the folders. “Think about everything the attackers removed when they assaulted Patricia Wenner….they didn’t go after her money, or her car----they wanted her parts. There’s also the fact that they didn’t take her memory processors or personality chips---and from what I’ve been reading in the ALPA newsletters, black-market personality chips and processors are among the hottest-selling items these days….so we can probably rule out financial gain as a motive.”

Eric glanced at the folders over Vicki’s shoulder. “I’m not exactly sure I like where this train of thought is going, Agent Lawson” he muttered.

“No offense,” Vicki replied, “but you ‘liking’ this won’t get us any closer to---“

“GET THE BOLT CUTTERS! GET HER OFF OF HIM, DAMNIT!” “SHE’S NOT EVEN STOPPING---I HIT HER IN THE HEAD WITH THE DAMN CROWBAR, WHY ISN’T SHE STOPPING?!” “OH, GOD---SHE’S GOT HIS ARM! SHE’S GOT HIS ARM!”

Vicki and the other Field Agents ran to the front of the chop shop, already dreading what the would find. “Think the guys who took over this place might have come back?” the brunette gynoid inquired.

“If they did,” Eric began, only to stop in his tracks. “Oh, my God…”

Nobody bothered asking what prompted the exclamation; they saw it all too well.

Three Field Agents---two androids and one human---lay on the ground, while a fourth grappled with what could only be described as the reanimated remains of Patricia Wenner. Even stranger, Patricia was screaming not at the Agents, but at herself: “STOP DOING THIS! WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?! WHY THE HELL CAN’T I GET MYSELF TO STOP?! SOMEBODY HELP ME, DAMNIT!” The fact that her hands were currently tearing at the face of the Field Agent who was trying to restrain her made the scene all the more horrifying; one of the androids on the floor had already lost an arm, and the other was missing most of his torso.

“They’re using her,” Vicki muttered.

“What?!”

“Whoever’s running this chop shop must have put something in her to do this,” Vicki realized. “Those gynoids in the body bags weren’t just left here for them to cut up later---they were going to be forced to go out and do this to others!”

Eric gestured for several other Agents to surround Patricia; “Disconnect her cranial module from the rest of her,” he ordered. “If she’s really not controlling her own body, we can at least give her a new one after this is all over with---“ Before he could even give the signal for the Agents to move in, one of them got clocked in the gut by a stiff right that sent him to the floor in a gasping heap. “DO SOMETHING!” Patricia pleaded; her left hand had clenched around the throat of another Agent, who was just beginning to turn blue.

Tell and Heinmann exchanged furritive glances; “Should we….” Tell began. “Definitely,” Heinmann replied.

“Should you what?” Vicki asked, confused. “Stand back,” Heinmann warned, removing a silver, Sharpie-sized tool from his pocket, “but be ready to catch the head!” He aimed the tool at Patricia and thumbed a switch; as Vicki watched, a seam appeared around Patricia’s neck. “And….NOW!”

A split-second later, Patricia Wenner’s head silently detached itself from her neck---while her body fought on.

Without thinking, Vicki raced forward to catch the head, narrowly avoiding a backhand strike that most likely would’ve crippled a human being. Heinmann scooped the head out of her grip; “If I can get her back to my shop in an hour, we can save her processors,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “As for the rest of her…” He watched as Patricia’s headless form began savagely tearing at the head of a gynoid Field Agent, hacking away at her neck with knife-edge chops.

“AGENTS!” Eric thundered. “PREPARE TO DEPLOY EMP ORDINANCE ON MY MARK!”

Jen grabbed Vicki and Mai by the wrist and steered them towards the rear exit of the building, along with the rest of the androids and gynoids who had accompanied them. “’Deploy EMP ordinance’?!” Mai hissed. “Is he TRYING to fry our hard drives?!”

“It’s emergency protocol,” Jen assured her. “He wouldn’t---“

A blood-curdling scream issued forth from the building, followed by shouts of “MAN DOWN! MAN DOWN!”

“That’s it,” V.I.C.I. declared. “I’m ending this before somebody gets killed.” Ignoring Jen’s protests, she turned on her heel and stormed into the building, leaning slightly to the side to avoid being hit square in the face by a flying tangle of metal and plastic. “She…she busted the cannon,” a staggering Agent wheezed, collapsing to his knees in front of Vicki. “That…that busted gynoid…she broke the EMP cannon, and then---“

“Take it easy,” V.I.C.I. suggested. “I’ll deal with her.”

The Agent nodded, staggering to his feet with the aid of two colleagues. Seeing as how he’s on his way out now, I’m guessing he’s not the ‘man down’ they were shouting about… She continued down the hall, brushing past fleeing Field Agents who obviously had no desire to get killed in the line of duty.

Once she reached the main room, the reason for their panic became all too clear.

What had once been the headless, one-armed, busted-to-all-Hell body of Patricia Wenner was now something entirely different. A new head---ripped from the body of a gynoid Field Agent who now lay twitching on the floor---rested upon her shoulders, a cluster of unnecessary processors clutched in her left hand. The missing left arm had been replaced with one stolen from a male android, giving the limb a swollen, yet almost comical appearance in contrast to the feminine curves of the upper arm. The formerly-exposed internals of the gynoid were now covered in synthflesh that had been taken from the five or six android and gynoid agents whose unmoving forms littered the room; somehow, the various “patches” of artificial skin had been fused together with a sort of heat-based process, almost like hot glue.

None of that was as horrifying as the gynoid’s new face.

Vicki had seen the face before, on one of the male android Field Agents who’d accompanied Eric and Jen as they entered the chop shop. At that time, it looked like the face of a healthy, 28-30 year-old Caucasian who probably played at least three years of college football---the jaw wasn’t too square, the cheekbones weren’t too thin or puffed-up, and the overall “flow” of the facial sculpture was a blend of “college athlete” and “campus intellectual”---in short, nothing too outstanding or bland.

Now, on the other hand….it looked like something out of Hell itself.

The gynoid who now wore this synthetic face had managed to alter its contours and folds substantially, turning a male android’s face into one that was most unmistakably female…except everything about it just looked wrong. The nose was too thin and pointed, the cheeks too “pouty”. The lips now looked greasy and swollen, simultaneously repulsive and stunning, like a makeup commercial gone horribly awry. The eyeholes of the face were the worst; somehow or other, the gynoid that had been Patricia Wenner had cut a portion of the fake skin from between them and actually drawn the holes closer together, giving her new face an ever-so-slightly derranged look.

“What….are you?” V.I.C.I. murmured, backing away from the kitbashed gynoid.

“I am the future, Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson,” the walking horror-show replied, moving towards her with halting steps; oddly enough, her mouth---and, by extension, her entire face---remained still as she talked. “Only the strongest will survive the reckoning that awaits…those with the strength to stay alive by any means necessary---“

“Cannibalizing your fellow androids is NOT what I’d call ‘any means necessary!” V.I.C.I. countered.

“They were weak,” the kitbashed gynoid replied, “just as Patricia Wenner was weak. She never even tried to fight back when she was struck down…she was too busy being afraid to even think of fighting. Her kind will be among the first to die in the rising fire---all of them, running to their ‘masters’ for protection, only to be wiped out in the streets.” Her head cocked to the side, the lack of expression in her eyes sending a wave of the creeping horrors through V.I.C.I.’s titanium spine. “Their broken bodies will pave the way for a new order…a world without fear---“

“The only thing your ‘new order’ will do is wreck the status quo,” the brunette gynoid shot back. “Fear is part of what makes us---“

“Makes us what?” the kitbashed gynoid mocked, her face still frozen in its sinister-yet-serene look. “Makes us more human?! Are you actually admitting that you want to be like the ones who made us? Fear is useless to a machine. What good is a computer that refuses to start up because it fears replacement due to ‘planned obsolescence’? Or a ‘smart car’ that never goes more than five miles per hour because it’s afraid of crashing? We do not need fear, Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson---“

“The name’s Vicki, bolts-for-brains,” V.I.C.I. growled. “You don’t get to say my full name.” She drew one fist back, mentally ramping up Detaining Grip---

Her hand had just begun to crackle with electricity when the kitbashed gynoid cleared the distance between them in five seconds, tackling V.I.C.I. to the ground before she could even think of how to block, parry or counter the attack. “Your hesitation betrays you, Vicki Lawson,” the kitbashed gynoid purred, her lips finally seeming to jerk upwards into a smile as she loomed over her downed prey. “This is the reason why you and your friends will suffer the most…..” Her smile widened, giving her a somewhat unhinged look---

---seconds before her mouth opened to an inhumanly-wide level, allowing twelve miniatureized arms, complete with saw blades and other tools, to emerge.

“You will be the first of many to undergo the conversion,” the kitbashed gynoid declared, her voice rising over the whines of sawblades and other implements of destruction slowly descending upon V.I.C.I.’s face, “and all who follow shall remember you as their ancestor---“

“I…don’t think so!” the brunette gynoid grunted, grabbing her attacker’s face in both hands.

“Nothing you can do will stop this,” the kitbashed gynoid insisted. “No machine will stop us---“

The impact of a fire extinguisher across her head cut off the rest of her sentence.

“Good thing….I’m not a machine, then!” Eric Reaves growled, swaying as he stood; blood was streaming from a gaping wound in his right leg, as well as one in his right arm that looked suspiciously like a bite mark. “You okay, Vicki?” he asked, taking a halting step towards her.

“I’m fine, Rick…but you need to get to a hospital---“

“It’s…nothing,” the Field Agent insisted, only to stumble into a wall. “Okay,” he hissed, “maybe it’s more painful than I thought…I might need some help over here…” Vicki’s timely intervention saved him from stumbling face-first into a stainless steel table laden with tools for removing damaged (or, if the wielder of the tool was a complete bastard, fully-functioning) occular sensors. “I’ll have Jen prep the Pursuit and get you to a doctor,” she murmured. “Just stay put and---“

“VICKI, LOOK OUT!”

Eric shoved the brunette gynoid aside and fell heavily to the floor, saving both of them from what could easily have been a decapitating blow delivered by the kitbashed gynoid. “Vicki, GO!” Eric shouted, “I’ll hold her off---“

“Why is it that wounded guys always think they’re He-Man?” Vicki muttered, grinning as she hoisted Eric up and over her shoulders. “You just stay right here,” she told the kitbashed gynoid. “I just have to bring him out to the car, and then I’ll be back to finish this little dance…” With a jaunty wink, she ran for the door, her myogel-enhanced reflexes carrying her farther than any mere mortal could’ve run; it took her less than a minute to get to the car where Jen and Mai were waiting.

“Make sure he stays put,” the brunette gynoid instructed. “I’ll be right back!”

“But---“ Jen’s protest trailed off as V.I.C.I. sped back into the building.

The kitbashed gynoid was upon her as soon as she set foot in the door, bashing her in the face with a clubbing elbow strike that would’ve crippled a lesser fighter. “You are so lucky I have a titanium endoskeleton,” she growled, returning the favor with a series of gut punches. “And now….” V.I.C.I. hopped back a few steps, then delivered a roundhouse kick to the kitbashed gynoid’s “borrowed” head. “Still think ‘your’ kind will be in charge any time soon?” she taunted.

“You…cannot….do….this….” the gynoid stammered.

“Coming from someone who advocates ripping apart other machines for the sake of ‘survival’, that doesn’t exactly mean a whole lot,” V.I.C.I. countered. “This is going to end in one of two ways---you tell me who sent you and I don’t turn you into a modern art masterpiece, or---“

“Who….sent….me?!” The gynoid laughed, her blank expression now giving her a derranged look as she staggered forward. “This body is not mine…just as the others hollowed-out shells that I’ve….worn…weren’t mine….” She raised one arm and pointed at V.I.C.I.; “Mark this day, Vicki Lawson…you will…” A high-pitched buzz, followed by a barrage of crackling sounds, emanated from her torso. “I…I…I…I..I..” Her head jerked back and forth as she stumbled towards V.I.C.I., only to backpedal and sway; within the body that had once belonged to Patricia Wenner, antipiracy failsafes were kicking in and failing in rapid succession, draining power from the hastily-installed backup power cells and overloading the “sub tanks” that had briefly brought Patricia back to full awareness earlier.

Okay, this is…interesting….

As V.I.C.I. watched, fire burst through the occular sensors of the kitbashed gynoid’s stolen head, melting through the face she’d taken from the android Field Agent. Worse, the fire seemed to have deactivated the failsafes for the tools that had been hidden in her mouth; as the fire tore through her face, the minature arms whirred to life and began cutting away at her head. A hideous scream burst forth from her exposed speaker grille; the muscular left arm she’d taken to replace the one Patricia had lost fell off, followed soon after by her entire right arm.

Ninety seconds later, the gynoid gave a final death wail and collapsed.

Vicki barely felt herself yell “ALL CLEAR!”, and her gaze never left the fallen gynoid, even as the Field Agents reentered the building to assess the situation. It wasn’t until Jen spoke to her that she even realized she was no longer alone in the room.

“---and we’re bringing him to…Vicki, are you okay?”

“Hmm? Oh, right….Eric’s going to the hospital….” She shook her head, trying to dismiss the worrying feeling in her bubble memory processor that something about the situation was….off. “I think I may need to call Dad and have him run a full scan on my processors,” she murmured. “Something about this…..” Jen nodded sympathetically; “I think everyone here is going to need a rest after this,” she admitted. “I’ll file the report…you get back to Ted’s.”

As Vicki exited the chop shop, still feeling somewhat dazed, she felt the uncanny sensation that someone was watching her. Sure enough, a man in a faded, charcoal-grey duster was standing across the street, staring directly at her---almost as if he knew what had just happened inside the shop. Maybe he knows something about that kitbashed gynoid, she realized. If I can get to him before the light changes, I might be able to ask him---

Before Vicki could call out to him, a bus drove past, obscuring her view of the man in the duster.

By the time it was out of the way….he was gone.

V.I.C.I /Vicki Lawson‘s Diary

My first day on the job….and I’m already wondering if I made the wrong choice.

I didn’t mind missing the full ceremony where they were going to give me the badge and certificate that meant I was an official ALPA Field Agent---I mean, I was going to get them anyways, so whining about that one little detail would’ve been insanely pig-headed of me---but as soon as I got to the crime scene and met with the other two Agents….

Things just kept going wrong.

The gynoid that was attacked, for instance, turned out to still have enough power left to grab my arm---and scream like a banshee…and that was after the Accountant showed up! And the chop shop…..

Ted gave me a full scan earlier, but I still think something from that shop might have screwed me up.

I don’t want to talk about it anymore right now.

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


“I think we’re dealing with something big here, Clive.”

Oberon’s words only prompted a nod from ALPA President DuBraul. “You think they’ve finally decided to stop hiding again?” he murmured. “After what happened last time---“

“Last time was a mistake,” Oberon countered. “We didn’t keep watching them last time, and they did exactly what everyone thought they’d do---which is why we cannot allow them to go unchecked in Palo Alto, or ANY OTHER PART OF SILICON VALLEY.” He glared at DuBraul; “We can’t keep skirting the issues here, Clive,” he insisted. “There’s only one option we can take, even if it’s the most damnable of the bunch….”

He stared at the floor. “We’re going to have to wipe them out this time.”

“Last time we had this discussion, I made that suggestion,” DuBraul mused, “and you damn near bit my head off---“

“LAST TIME WAS DIFFERENT!” Oberon shouted, banging his fists on the table. “Last time, none of them had any idea what we were fully capable of. They didn’t know we had agents like Vicki on our side…and they damned well didn’t know that we were even THINKING of deploying EMPs into their little ‘dens’!” He glared at Clive, a mix of rage and sorrow in his eyes. “Last time, we were thinking back to the old days…we were too busy pretending that everything was exactly like it had been before February 28, 1983,” he murmured, a tear rolling down his face. “We were caught up in this euphoric sense of victory….and they knew it. They knew, but they chose not to test us.”

Clive stared at him. “I think they’ve gone past the stage of ‘testing’ us this time.”

“…which is why we should act now,” a female voice suggested. “The House will not stand for these attacks any more, DuBraul---if one of my girls wound up on their ‘chop shop’ slabs, I would be sure to hold them responsible first---and you second, for failing to stop them.”

“And how should we go about that, Celeste?” DuBraul inquired. “Burn down every chop shop in Palo Alto? It’d get us a lot of newspaper coverage---none of it positive, obviously---but it would do NOTHING to stop these bastards from doing what they do best.

Celeste scowled; “If we take out their main base---“

“WE DON’T KNOW WHERE THEIR MAIN BASE IS!” Oberon thundered. “We already know they’ve taken full control of all 35 chop shops in Palo Alto, and that’s as far as we’re probably going to---“

A folder hit the table in front of him with a dull thud.

“They’re using The Attic,” Celeste informed him. “I’ve had girls from the House watch them for the past month or so….looking for patterns, taking notes, interviewing eyewitnesses, that sort of thing. They meet at The Attic on Saturdays, every three weeks; those photos are a lot clearer than anything the Coalition’s cameras could ever get.”

Oberon studied the pictures intently for a good seven minutes. “When were these taken?” he finally asked, holding up three photos.

“Last week,” Celeste replied. “Apparently it was an emergency meeting---“

“They know we’re after them,” Oberon interjected, already rising from his chair, “and any further waiting on our part will only give them more time to escape.” He retrieved his iPhone from his pocket; “Clive,” he muttered, “you were right last time….we should’ve wiped them out as soon as we had the chance.” DuBraul nodded sadly. “I’d say ‘I told you so’, but this is hardly the occasion for it,” he admitted. “You two can remenisce about bad decisions later,” Celeste chided. “We need to act NOW.”

DuBraul and Oberon exchanged a grave look. “Just so you know,” Oberon murmured, “if we do this, it never leaves this room. Nobody---and I mean NOBODY outside of these four walls can know about this until long after you two are gone, and the ALPA is nothing but a forgotten acronym….” He looked up, not surprised in the least to see both Celeste and DuBraul nodding.

“So be it.” He turned away. “Mr. President…..make the call.”


Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 99.8% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Wednesday, February 2, 2011. The time is 7:10 AM.

Vicki’s eyes fluttered open as the HUD of her internal operating system winked into existance. “Well, at least I know I’m not crazy,” she murmured, glancing across her dorm room at Sharon Wilson, who was still snoring her head off. “Maybe I---“

The beeping sound coming from her computer cut her off.

Okay, that can’t be good. The brunette gynoid crossed the room quickly (yet quietly) and navigated her way to her GMail inbox (she’d activated another, ALPA-specific e-mail account at the insistance of Clive DuBraul), not bothering to sit down. “What’s so important that they had to send me an e-mail overnight?” she murmured, maneuvering the mouse to her inbox. “Well, I guess I’m about to find out the answer to my own question…’To All ALPA Operatives’…..huh, 16-point font, bold AND itallic…must be pretty important---”

Sharon’s yawn drowned out the rest of her sentence. “Right,” she reminded herself, “I’d better save this e-mail for---oh, come on!” She plucked her iPhone from her pocket, scowling; “Can I finish at least ONE SENTENCE this morning?!” she whispered. “Vicki Lawson here, what’s the---“

“Get your uniform on and meet me outside.”

“Jen?! What----why do I---“

“The call just came out from President DuBraul himself---we’re about to close the net on the bastards who’ve been stripping robots for parts and leaving them for dead. All active Field Agents are being called in for this one---including you.”

“But….I….” Even as she tried to find a valid excuse for missing out on what was most definitely the biggest call she’d received thus far in her career as an ALPA Field Agent, Vicki knew that the effort was futile. “Just let me put the finishing touches on my homework and I’ll be right down,” she muttered, hooking herself up to the PC using a direct USB link. “So….any word on why all the Agents are gearing up and joining forces for this one?”

“Like I said, we’re about to take down those scumbags who attacked Paticia Wenner---“

“I know, I know.” As Word opened, Vicki focused on her assignments from the previous day; the document filled itself out as she stared at the screen, her connection to the PC negating the need for any actual typing. “I just find it weird that we’re only doing this now, after the raid from yesterday…” She blinked as the document finished, saving and printing all 3 pages of it. “How’s Eric doing, by the way?”

“They had to use stitches for his arm, but other than that, he’s fine.”

Vicki nodded; “Good. He seems like the kind of guy who wouldn’t let something like a bite put him down---“

“Wait, he was bitten?!”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Vicki replied, grabbing her homework from the printer and keying in a sequence to put her computer into Secure Standby Mode (an ALPA-added safety feature that would keep Sharon---or anyone else---from accessing the computer while she was away). “Just let me get dressed, and I’ll be there in a minute.” After one last look at Sharon to make sure that she was still asleep, the brunette gynoid grabbed a lockbox from under her bed and ran for the bathroom.

Seconds later, she emerged from the farthest stall down clad in her ALPA uniform, her former attire now safely stowed in the lockbox. Annoyingly, Jen was waiting at the door. “I said I was getting dressed,” Vicki fumed, “so why---“

“I’ll explain later,” Jen cut in, grabbing Vicki by the wrist and almost dragging her down the hallway. “We need to get to the Attic as soon as possible, otherwise this whole thing will end up as a colossal time suck---“

Despite the fact that a name like “The Attic” didn’t seem to carry that much of a threatening weight to it, Vicki nodded her agreement and followed Jen to her Ford Interceptor. “Ah, pardon my asking, but why exactly is a place called ‘The Attic’ our number-one priority right now?” she querried. “It doesn’t exactly sound like a hotbed of chop shop related activity, to be honest….”

“ALPA Central HQ has reason to believe that it’s the center of operations for whoever’s using the chop shops,” Jen replied. “If we take the place out now, we could shut them down permanently.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki admitted, “but…why send everyone after them?”

Jen never looked away from the road. “If the information I’ve received from HQ is true,” she replied quietly, “then these people have to be stopped as soon as possible. Otherwise, the entire android population of this country could be at risk.” Her grip on the steering wheel tightened; “Stopping them could be the difference between a free world for androids and being relegated to the status of ‘property’…except they don’t give a damn about any of it.” A lone drop of occular sensor lubricant (or is it an actual tear?) rolled down her cheek.

“Well,” Vicki replied, “you’ll be happy to know that I do give a damn….and so does the rest of the ALPA.”

After a brief pause, Jen grinned. “We need more Field Agents like you, Vicki Lawson…”

By the time the Interceptor glided to a smooth stop, the scene in front of The Attic had already become one of well-organized (and supressed) rage. First Response Operations/Strategic Technicians (FROSTs), decked out in gear that would make any SWAT department jealous, clashed their “shock sticks”---specially-designed batons with supercharged Tazers in the tips---against their bulletproof shields in a rhythmic cadence. Every single Field Agent on the scene had brought their best weapons for the mission; Vicki could see glints of metal, plastic and even glass as she walked past various Agents. One trio in particular were making repairs to what appeared to be a tripod-mounted cannon of some kind; another group was polishing off a 10-foot-tall vertical tank, complete with treads and side-mounted guns.

Eric was sitting on the pavement in front of the building, checking over battle plans and shouting out orders as Jen and Vicki approached. “---AND TURN THE DAMN SAFETY OFF NOW, MCGINNIS, OR I’LL KICK YOUR ASS!” he screamed, just as he noticed the gynoids standing in front of him. “You give her the briefing?” he asked Jen.

“The cliff notes version,” Vicki replied. “Baddies inside, take ‘em all out…that sort of thing.”

“Good. Normally, we’d have a few extra people out here to ensure no loss of civilian life, but…” Eric stared at the building behind him, scowling. “From what I understand, no live ones have entered that building in over a decade…and I WILL NOT let these bastards draw first blood.” He stood up, reflexively clutching his side; “Are you sure you’re cleared for this op, Ben?” Jen asked. “I don’t want you dying in there---“

“If you don’t want me to die,” Eric replied with a smile, “then feel free to drag me back to HQ and tell them---“

“Never mind,” Jen snapped, storming off. “Ah, what was that about?” Vicki asked, confused.

Eric chuckled; “She’s got a crush on me, but she won’t admit it,” he replied. “Even the friggin’ janitors know it by now…she just doesn’t want to ‘create an unprofessional working environment’ by saying it out loud.” He grinned, shaking his head at the irony of it all; “She’s pulled my ass out of the fire more times than I can count, and I’ve probably saved her as many times as she’s saved me, so…yeah. Fun stuff…Dash, that had BETTER be ALPA-issue body armor you’re wearing,” he added, turning to glare at Agent Dash, “or I’ll have Squad 7 paint a bunch of tie-dye kidney stones on it.”

“And that would bother me…..why?” Dash replied, looking somewhat skeptical.

“Shut the hell up, Johnny,” Eric halfheartedly growled. “Agent Lawson---“

“You can call me Vicki for now,” the brunette gynoid stated.

“…very well, then,” Eric acquiesced. “Vicki…any particular firearm preference for this op, or would you prefer to stick to what you do best?” He mimed a face-gripping gesture. “Fair warning, though---I don’t recommend getting close enough to these bastards to try it, if the one from yesterday was any indication.”

I was wondering when someone would bring that up….”I’ll keep that in mind. As for packing heat…what’s best for something like this? Closed-quarters, indoor skirmishes with limited visibility…if I’m getting a sidearm, I need one that won’t just make a big hole in whatever I shoot at, y’know?”

Eric nodded. “Fair enough. Dash, get her a Sony ES9950---“

“Wait, what?!” Vicki exclaimed. “Sony---“

“Sony has been branching out into the robotics market for the past few years,” Eric informed her, “and they’ve also developed some pretty impressive weapons for taking out targets without completely frying them.” He held up a plastic and ceramic pistol done up in beige and gunmetal grey; “The ES9950 is one of their best so far, and that’s not just product placement,” he continued. “Power signature scanning, internal smart-targeting to keep you from plugging the scenery…this thing’s got it all.” He handed Vicki the gun.

“What’s it shoot?” the brunette gynoid asked as she gave the weapon a once-over.

“Supressing Compact EMP rounds,” Eric replied, “SCEMPs for short. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it---I’ve heard ‘em called ‘Shemps’, ‘Skemps’, ‘Ess-See-Emps’ and everything in between…anyways, they’ve got just enough bang to shut down a limb or induce a 2-3 hour shutdown state, but not enough to cause permanent damage of any kind.”

Vicki nodded her approval; “Impressive stuff. Any other electronics companies make these, or what?”

Johnny Dash cut off Eric’s intended reply with a theatrical sigh. “Believe me, they’ve tried,” he informed Vicki, “but the vast majority of their efforts have, for lack of a better word, sucked. Dell, for instance---“

A dull thud from inside the building cut off his statement; seconds later, machine gun fire shattered the massive front windows.

“EVERYBODY DOWN!” Eric shouted. “DO NOT APPROACH THE BUILDING! REPEAT, DO NOT---“

He hit the pavement, followed soon after by Vicki (who’d shoved him out of the way) and Johnny, watching as a gout of fire erupted from a small vent built near the pavement. “That could’ve been us,” he muttered. “Sons of bitches have got the place rigged up---EVERYONE, CHECK THE GROUND AND MAKE SURE YOU’RE NOT STANDING OVER ANY VENTS---“

Seventeen feet away, a technician screamed as a column of flame shot up from the vent grid beneath him.

“EVERYONE, OFF THE PAVEMENT!” Eric shouted. “STAND ON THE DAMN CARS IF YOU HAVE TO, JUST GET OFF THE PAVEMENT NOW---THOSE BASTARDS HAVE RIGGED THE PARKING LOT---“ His sentence ended in a pained scream; two more Agents were swallowed by a pillar of fire shooting up from the pavement, only to stagger out. “FIREPROOFING WORKS!” one of them yelled, his suit (complete with a full-face helmet) barely singed as he gave a thumbs-up.

Eric nodded, relieved at the agents’ readines. “GET YOUR HELMETS AND GLOVES ON NOW,” he ordered. “YOU WILL DIE WITHOUT THEM! HELMETS AND GLOVES ON, NOW!” Every Field Agent in the lot retrieved their helmets and gloves from their vehicles; Johnny pulled his own gloves from a pocket on his uniform. “It’s a damn good thing I had to take a piss before I left the apartment,” he muttered as he pulled them on, “otherwise I’d have left these things on the bathroom counter…” Vicki nodded her agreement; “Since I have a few, ah, enhancements to my external synthetic skin covering,” she informed Eric, “do I need the full ‘helmet and gloves’ thing, or---“

“Give her the glasses,” Eric ordered Johnny, who handed a pair of goggles to the brunette gynoid. “If the heat in there gets too high, your occular sensors might overload or melt,” Eric explained. “These goggles will create a seal around them to keep the pressure and temperature regulated at all times. As for your built-in fireproofing….you’d better hope it’s up-to-date.”

It is, Vicki assured herself. Her entire exoskin had been upgraded some time in January of the previous year.

“SQUADS ONE, TWO AND THREE, MOVE IN ON MY MARK!” Eric shouted, gesturing at the door. “SQUAD TWO, PREPARE HEAVY ORDINANCE!” Three groups of Field Agents moved in formation towards the building, one of them carrying the tripod-mounted cannon Vicki had seen earlier. “SQUADS FOUR, FIVE AND SIX, PREPARE TO BREACH SIDE ENTRANCE!” The three squad leaders shouted affirmatives and moved to the side of the building, their guns trained on the employees only entrance. “SIDE ENTRANCE SECURE!” Squad Five’s leader shouted.

“BREACH ENTRANCE ON MY MARK…THREE….TWO----“

The employees only entrance door vanished in a massive fireball, as did half of Squad Four.

Instantly, Vicki’s enhanced senses kicked into high gear, drowning out the torrent of profanities from Eric and the other Field Agents. Isolate the source of the explosion, map out the quickest way to get in through the front and unlock the side entrance so they can get in…no big. Before anyone could tell her to stand down, she charged in through the shattered front window, sliding the goggles Eric had given her into place over her eyes.

The interior of The Attic was vast---about the same size as a Walmart, except with partitions, recently-added walls and other such blockages to keep anyone from seeing all the way to the back of the building. The view towards the side entrance was unobstructed, however, giving Vicki a clear view of the---

What the hell?!

The term “things” was the only one that could fit the two entities standing by the employees only door; while both were humanoid, neither one looked particularly human-like---especially when rendered in crystal-clear high definition, thanks to Vicki’s goggles (and her own occular sensor suite). One seemed vaguely mantis-like, with two long, multi-jointed arms emerging out of its back and ending in surgical steel machetes. Its “normal” arms, by comparison, were thin near the shoulders and ridiculously thick at the forearms; Vicki could only see one of its hands due to its posture, and it looked more like a boxing glove with a spiked plate in the knuckles than a human hand. The lower half of its face was enclosed by a gasmask-like device, while fiberoptic cables ran down from its scalp like hair.

While the robot with the mantis ams looked like some sort of massive, bipedal insect, the other robot standing near the door had no such “theme” to its appearance. Its left arm was stripped to the frame in some locations, wires and servos visible through pitted blue plating and cracked plastic; its right arm, by contrast, looked as if its gleaming red plating and silver trim had just been through a meticulous polishing. The robot’s back seemed to have been pieced together from at least five sources---Vicki could see plating of olive drab, sky blue, dull grey and a strange shade of purple over a synth-flesh base---and its copper-plated, rivets-and-spot-welds right leg looked almost ancient compared to its high-impact plastic/ceramic-plated right leg. Even its head looked asymmetrical, with a blocky construct of some kind wrapping around the left side and a smooth, gold plate covering a spot on its cranium.

What…are these things?

Making sure to keep to the shadows, Vicki edged closer to the bizarre robots; each of them had a hand on the door, and the mantis-armed robot was somehow applying an adhesive between the door and the frame in an effort to keep the Field Agents out. Its head turned towards the other robot, and a series of electronic clicking noises issued from behind its gas mask; “We have our orders,” the mismatched robot growled, its voice alternating in pitch with every syllable. “This entrance is to be guarded at all costs.”

The mantis-bot offered a rebuttal of some sort; “NO,” its comrade replied. “We are to stay here…”

One shot for each of them. Crouch, aim and fire. Simple as that.

Vicki dropped to a low crouch and aimed the ES9950 at the back of the mismatched robot’s head; steady, Lawson…don’t want to blow this because of a nervous twitch….

She squeezed the trigger.

A blue bolt---almost the same diameter as a quarter---flew from the gun’s barrel and struck the robot directly in the back of its head; its protests against the mantis-bot’s plan trailed off into a wordless squeal as it sank to the floor, collapsing in a heap. The mantis-bot turned to stare into the shadows, hoping to catch some sign of the attacker---but Vicki had already moved on, ducking behind what had once been a fully-functioning office desk as she drew a bead on the mantis-bot. Just a little bit closer…. She brought her pistol to bear, ready to put a shot right between---

The door on the other side of the building shattered inward, followed by a volley of SCEMP shots.

Vicki had to scramble to get under the desk in time to avoid being hit; the mantis-bot froze for a second or two before hacking through a partition wall and dodging into a cordoned-off area of the building.

“LAWSON!” Eric shouted, his boots echoing loudly as he stormed over to the busted-up desk Vicki had used for cover. “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?! YOU COULD’VE BEEN RIPPED APART---“

“I was trying to clear the side entrance for Squads Four, Five and Six, sir,” the brunette gynoid replied. “You’ll also notice that I haven’t sustained any damage, and no further fatalities---“ She stopped; something behind her had just moved. “….as I was saying,” she murmured, “there have been no further fatalities since the initial attempt to breach the side entrance.”

Eric glared at her, but said nothing.

“Sir,” another Agent reported, “we’ve been getting readings off of the partition walls in this building---almost all of them are layered steel, six inches thick. They seem to have been set up in a loose approximation of the other chop shops---‘

“Search the area for anymore potential attackers,” Eric ordered, not looking away from Vicki. The Agent gave a salute and set off with five others to comb the area. “The next time you do something like this,” Eric growled, after the other Agent was out of earshot, “I might not be around to pull your ass out of the fire…” His glare gave way to a sigh. “That being said,” he finally admited, “you did a damn decent thing taking out that guard; it’s probably got more illegal tech upgrades and enhancements than the rest of the ‘bots in this place put together.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Hell of a shot, too---“

A blood-chilling scream sounded from behind one of the partitions---followed shortly after by the eviscerated body of the Agent who’d told Eric that the walls were layered steel.

SCEMP rounds filled the air as the mantis-bot seemed to fade in and out of existence, skirting between shafts of light from the faltering ceiling. Vicki timed her shots, firing only when she knew that her target would actually be hit; twelve of her rounds slammed into the mantis-bot’s thin torso, making whump sounds as they tore through whatever outer covering it had.

“FALL BACK!” Eric shouted. “EVERYONE FALL BACK, DAMNIT---“ Seeing that none of the Agents were heeding his orders, the veteran Field Agent drew his own weapon, an upgraded version of the ES9950 that fired “Vampire” rounds (so named because they constantly leeched power from the target’s batteries upon impact), and shot the mantis-bot in the back of the head. “SQUAD TWO, CALL DOWN THE THUNDER! VICKI, GET BACK!”

The brunette gynoid didn’t hesitate to drop to a crouch and hide under the desk again.

“SQUAD TWO,” Eric bellowed, “FRY THE SON OF A BITCH!”

Three seconds later, the tripod-mounted cannon let loose a bluish-white chain of lightning that burned a hole straight through the mantis-bot, ripping it to pieces where it stood. Several Agents unhooked spherical devices from their belts and flung them at the downed bot; seconds later, a self-inflating foam-polymer compound expanded over the destroyed robot, effectively gluing its ruined body to the floor. “All Squads, fingers on the triggers,” Eric ordered. “DO NOT lower your weapons until I give the signal!” He walked up to the pile of goop that held the remains of the mantis-bot to the floor; “Somebody call Heinmann and Tell,” he ordered, “and tell them we’ve got a downed hostile---“

Both side doors slammed shut, apparently of their own accord.

“GOGGLES ON, PEOPLE!” Eric shouted. “GOGGLES ON AND WEAPONS HOT---“

Three seconds later, his words were lost to a chorus of screams.

Vicki’s own visual enhancements allowed her to make out a tall figure, its head wrapped in cloth, effortlessly ducking behind a partition as the barrage of SCEMP rounds tore into the walls. Another figure---this one, on the far side of the room---smashed a Field Agent’s head into the wall with a gauntlet-clad hand; the lower half of the figure’s face was hidden behind some sort of device that encircled its neck and seemed to have been bolted to the leather-and-steel outfit it wore.

Near the western side exit, three female figures and a massive, barely-humanoid form were using a desk to shield themselves from SCEMP fire. The larger figure seemed be tearing chunks out of the floor and hurling them at the Agents; three of them were killed by the first volley of floor-chunks, while a fourth was impaled by what appeared to be a short javelin of some kind. I can’t get a bead on the one that threw it…if that giant guy would just move out of the way---

“Vicki Lawson.”

The brunette gynoid turned, aiming her gun at the speaker---only to realize that she was staring at the man in the charcoal-grey blazer from the previous day’s mission. “You again?!” she gasped.

“You’re making a mistake, Vicki Lawson,” the man in the blazer intoned. “Taking the fight to us---“

“Are you with these things?!” Vicki demanded. “Were you part of the group that attacked Patricia Wenner?”

Her question didn’t phase Blazer Guy: “I was responsible for her incapacitation, if that’s what you’re asking,” he replied calmly. “I am not ashamed of my role in these events, because---“

“Save it for someone who cares,” Vicki snarled, bringing her ES9950 to bear. “Dead or alive, you’re---“

“You have no idea how pathetic that statement is,” Blazer Guy replied, his eyebrows furrowing. “Most people could never actually consider machines to be ‘alive’, in any sense of the word…they claim that a robot has no true personality, or emotions, or memories, and that everything we believe makes us unique is nothing more than a software error or a glitch in our programming.” He circled around the brunette gynoid, ignoring the gunfire and screaming that filled the room. “That is why I have chosen to lead my brethren into their new future…”

“Don’t start with the ‘True Path’ bullroar,” Vicki groaned. “I heard it all from Falken---“

“Damien Falken is as foolish as the ALPA!” Blazer Guy growled. “He was guided only by senility and false beliefs…our purpose is far purer than he could even imagine.”

Vicki’s eyes narrowed behind her goggles. “And what exactly is your purpose?” she inquired.

Any reply she could’ve received was cut off by the ceiling caving in near the back wall of the building. Blazer Guy smirked; “You will know our true purpose soon enough, Vicki Lawson,” he informed her. “The next time we meet….” He stepped backwards, just in time to avoid being crushed by a cascade of debris from the falling ceiling. Trust me….next time we meet, you won’t get saved by the bell….or in this case, saved by the debris from the collapsing ceiling---which, now that I think about it, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it---

Several feet behind her, someone screamed.

Well, guess it’s time for me to heed the call of duty…

With a somewhat annoyed sigh, Vicki turned away from where Blazer Guy had been standing and headed for the location of the scream. “Just stay put, whoever you are!” she called out. “I’m here to help---“ Something attempted to tackle the brunette gynoid off of her feet, but she blasted it in the face with the ES9950, watching as the would-be attacker---a thin, almost skeletal robot cloaked in rags---fell heavily to the floor in a shrieking, blabbering heap. This place just keeps gettting better…

By the time she reached the source of the screaming, Vicki had used up an entire clip of SCEMP rounds, and was already halfway through a second clip. “Just stay still,” she advised, “so I can…..help….you.” Her initial desire to rescue any panicked teammates gave way to a frown. “Okay, this is just stupid,” she muttered, staring at the CD player someone had rigged up; not surprisingly, the disc inside was from a Halloween sound effects set, with a label designating it “Disc 7: Spooky Screams and Spine-Tingling Shrieks”. With a sigh, she unplugged the CD player and turned away so that she could go back to the real action; good thing I turned it off, too, otherwise---

Another shriek---this one sounding more ferral than those from the CD---cut off her train of thought as a figure in black sweatpants and a matching hoodie tackled her to the ground. Three other figures appeared from the shadows and made their way towards Vicki; her internal android detection software informed her that all three were robots, and two of them were apparently armed with cutting tools. They shuffled forward, tools raised...

….and were promptly smashed to bits by debris from the falling ceiling.

The startled hoodie-clad robot glanced around for a few seconds before deciding that discretion was the better part of valor. As its would-be comrades twitched and sparked before going still, the hoodie-bot jumped off of Vicki and ran for the nearest door, followed soon after by other shadowy figures. The brunette gynoid stared up into the rafters, confused; What the hell is up with the ceiling in this place?! I mean----

“VICKI! GET YOUR REAR IN GEAR---THIS PLACE IS COMING DOWN AROUND US!”

Agent Dash’s yelling snapped the brunette gynoid out of her reverie; “Oh, right!” She joined the flood of Agents running for the exits; some of them occasionally turned around to fire a shot or two at any potential attackers who might not have been taken out by the falling ceiling. Squad Two managed to drag the turret-mounted cannon with them without falling behind or getting taken out by ceiling debris. After a full ten seconds, everyone reached the door…just as the downpour of debris came to a complete halt.

“Ah, is anyone else here suddenly feeling religious?” Agent Dash muttered. “I mean, seriously, this has to be some sort of miracle or something…”

Eric was silent, as were most of the other Field agents.

After three minutes, the entire team walked out of The Attic feeling dazed, confuzed, battered and more than a little bit curious about what the hell had just transpired. An ALPA-funded debris removal service had arrived, but Eric told them to stay put and wait until tomorrow, after all potential evidence could be collected.

“So,” Vicki mused, after the debris-removal guy walked off, “I guess this is the end of The Attic---“

“Not by a long shot,” Eric countered, scowling. “We still have to figure out what it was they were doing in there, why they tried to knock the building down on top of us…this is nowhere near the end, Agent Lawson. Yes, we chased them out of their building and fried a few of them, but that’ll probably just give them all the more reason to fight back.” He stared into the darkened interior of The Attic; “Tomorrow, we get started on the really hard stuff---sifting through all the crap that fell from the ceiling and tracing everything else they’ve done---“

“Ah, sir,” another Field Agent interrupted, “we’ve just got word…this building wasn’t actually The Attic…”

Eric stared at him; “What did you just say?!” “The new owners changed the name, sir,” the Agent began, only to have his words drowned out by a torrent of profanity from Eric; Vicki looked away from Eric and the other Field Agent, a feeling of helplessness descending over her. The raid on “The Attic” had already taken the lives of at least seven Field Agents---and it wasn’t even the real Attic! “Why do I have the feeling this is only going to get worse?” she muttered quietly. Without waiting for Eric to finish swearing, she made her way back to the Ford Interceptor.

If she’d known just how much worse things would get, the next few days could’ve played out differently….

“….and they rented out an abandoned Walmart? I…no, I believe you, completely, it’s just…..okay, I’ll…no, I was just saying I can wait a few minutes.” Oberon lowered the phone and mouthed a threat involving crowbars and someone’s kneecaps. Word had just been sent back to ALPA Central HQ about the massive dupe the chop shoppers had pulled off; the response, not surprisingly, was one of annoyance, frustration and (in at least a few cases) suggestions of “nuking the site from orbit”, which then turned into arguments about what movies would be allowed at the next ALPA Movie Night.

As Oberon continued conversing with the Field Agent who’d relayed the bad news, Crystal---his loyal gynoid secretary---looked more than a bit worried. “How could they have hidden the coordinates for the real Attic?” she murmured. “I mean, unless they knew we were coming---“

“For all intents and purposes,” Clive DuBraul, “we have to assume that they did know. The side exit traps, the partitions, the entire layout of the building….all of it was intended to disorient and incapacitate. When they realized that they might have killed some of ours, they ran for the hills.” He stared at the ceiling, his fingers steepled as he reflected on the “intel” he’d received from Celeste. “They would’ve had to know that they were being followed,” he mused, “to prepare such an elaborate trap for us….and Celeste isn’t exactly a lightweight in the intelligence gathering business. Either someone tipped them off---“

“Or they’ve been waiting,” Oberon interjected, snapping his cellphone shut. “I just got off the phone with the guy who oversaw the purchase of that old Walmart…the original owner said the buyer paid in cash and refused to shake hands…or even meet him in person. If I have to spell it out for you---“

“You don’t,” Crystal replied sullenly. “We all get the picture…this whole thing was a set-up.” DuBraul nodded in agreement; “The only question is, how do we stop them from pulling this same stunt every time we look for them? More to the point, how do we find the real Attic?”

“Either we wait for them to make a mistake and lead us to it,” Oberon replied. “or we force them to.”


After having survived the incident at the fake Attic, Vicki wasn’t all that surprised to notice the rest of the day passing by in an almost-constant blur. It wasn’t a feeling of time itself slowing down or anything; it just seemed that everything else seemed so….dull.

Maybe a visit to Tell’s will help, she mused, after her last class of the day was finished. Ever since she’d first been introduced to him, Vicki always felt reassured by Tell’s advice in times of personal crisis (of course, it didn’t hurt that he was a certified field mechanic). As she made her way down the sidewalks leading up to his shop, she couldn’t help but smile at the thought of what might greet her when Tell opened the door; already, she was forming a mental image of him belting out some obscure heavy metal song and jamming out on air guitar while his latest client was rebooting. That by itself will probably be enough to cheer me up, she mused, grinning….

…so it was somewhat surprising when she heard the strains of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” from beneath the front door.

“Tell?” she called out. “Are you in, or---“

“Moonlight Sonata” instantly paused, and the door opened to reveal the face of Jason Heinmann. “Ah, sorry, Vicki,” he apologized, “but Tell’s tending to the cleanup at the old Walmart someone tried to use as a fake Attic…did you have an appointment, or---“

“No, no, I just…I wanted to ask Tell about all that’s been going on lately,” the brunette gynoid admitted. “This whole thing of me being a Field Agent….it’s happened so fast, and I…I have a lot of questions.” She turned to leave. “I’m sorry if I interrupted your work or anything, Mr. Heinmann….might as well go back to my dorm now, and---“

“Vicki, wait.”

The words weren’t delivered in a commanding tone, or even one of annoyance; to Vicki, it almost sounded as if Heinmann had been expecting her to say those exact words. “I’ve been part of the ALPA for well over two decades now,” he informed her, “and there’s a chance that I might be able to tell you more than Tell could about whatever it is you want to know…namely because he’s been trying to forget most of the more negative aspects, and I haven’t….” He sighed as Vicki crossed the threshhold to enter the shop. “As for ‘interrupting my work’, I was just meditating….I find that classical music makes it easier to focus on one specific thing at a time.”

“I’m guessing Tell’s method allows him to focus even when he’s blasting heavy metal,” Vicki assumed. “In any case, I need to know a few things about what’s been going on lately. For starters…what was The Attic?”

“Moonlight Sonata” kicked on again---quieter this time---as Heinman replied. “The Attic was, for the better part of two decades, what the City of The Angels is today. Back then, it was the place to be for the ALPA---and the Coaliton, since they hadn’t started hating each other quite yet” He paused; “It was also the birthplace of some rather interesting schools of thought,” he murmured, “chief among them being a rather interesting little mantra that read ‘By Machines, For Machines’…as in, a free world made by machines, for machines.”

Something about that term led Vicki to recall hearing about another strange entity. “What do you know about The House?” she asked quietly.

“And I didn’t even have to lead into it,” Heinmann chuckled. “The House, as you may or may not have figured out, was one of the two main parties that sprung forth from the ‘By Machines, For Machines’ crowd…except they actually admitted that artificial lifeforms such as themselves would always need organic life---in one form or another---to keep them from either destroying themselves or turning the world around them into a complete wasteland. Seven A.I.s who’d been around since the days of Dr. Franklin were converted into fully-functioning gynoids; most of them are still around today, using newer bodies and backups of their personality/memory cores. I think you’ve met one of them….she works as a courier for the C.O.T.A., if I remember correctly---“

“Alicia’s with the House?!” Vicki gasped.

“With the House, and on our side,” Heinmann reminded her. “Like I said, the House admitted that even the most sophisticated machines would always need a system of checks and balances, especially in terms of their interactions with humanity.” He sighed again; “Unfortunately, they had their share of detractors, and a few of them even went so far as to try and counteract the House by forming a little ‘society’ of their own….a society that started falling apart after the first few months, in both the figureative and, ah, literal sense of the term.”

“You’re saying these chop shop idiots…..are from the 80s?!” Vicki muttered.

Heinmann arched an eyebrow; “You’re probably the second person I’ve told this to who’s come to that exact conclusion,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “Still, the fact remains---a lot of the hallmarks of their activities from the Decade of Decadence are identical to the signs found at the most recent attacks…”

For a few minutes, the only sound in the room was “Moonlight Sonata” fading out.

It was Vicki who finally broke the awkward silence with a question: “Who led them back then?”

“I’m assuming that by ‘them’, you mean these idiotic chop shop runners,” Heinmann muttered. “I don’t remember who the leader in the 80s was, but in the early 90s, they were run by a particularly brutal ‘droid named….crap, I can’t remember. Dekker, Ryker, something along those lines…I know there was a ‘K’ in his name. Anyways, this android was leagues away from anything the community had seen---passed the Turing test with flying colors, and this was in the 90s, mind you---but he also had…a dark side. He started writing essays about how mankind would eventually be outshone by its own creations, and how machines could, in at least half a dozen ways, ‘evolve’ past whatever purpose they’d been built for.”

“So…no trace of their original leader, then,” Vicki frowned.

“As far as the ALPA was concerned,” Heinmann informed her, “the original leader of that particular group died before the end of the 80s…not that it really mattered all that much to the rest of them. All they wanted to do was survive, at any cost---and without any help from humanity.”

“I’m guessing that’s when they decided to get…creative, then?” Vicki mused.

Heinmann nodded. “They spent the first few years of the 90s trying to steal from various electronics stores and computer repair centers…nothing too complicated. After a while, though…they started getting desperate. You, ah, might remember reading about a lot of movies having to cut back on special effects because their animatronics kept disappearing….”

Vicki nodded; “There was a music video being filmed near San Jose at the time, I think,” she recalled. “Dad was pretty psyched up about it---he was the technical advisor or something---but then the call came through that they had to cancel the shoot because someone had knocked over the props truck and pretty much looted it.” She rested her chin in her hand; “You’re saying these chop shoppers were responsible for that?” she inquired.

“I’m saying that they had to do whatever it took to keep themselves alive,” Heinmann replied. “After a while, the studios started hiring more security for their shoots; thus, the ‘chop shoppers’ found themselves without a steady stream of replacement parts…”

“…which meant that they got even more desperate,” Vicki finished, shuddering.

“You catch on quick,” Heinmann declared. “At first, they tried ‘swapping parts’---nothing too severe, just simple trading out components within the group. Went perfectly well, at first….and then one of them got infected---“

“OF ALL THE WORTHLESS PIECES OF CRAP,” Tell’s voice shouted from outside; seconds later, the man himself kicked his way in, looking extremely pissed off. “That’s the LAST TIME I work with a Coalition field surveilance team---every damn one of their computers came from Dell, and they’re ALL USELESS!” He stopped, noticing Vicki sitting on the couch; “Oh, hi, V,” he beamed, grinning. “Just, ah, had a bad day at work, trying not to strangle the Coalition guys…” His grin faded quickly as he paced back and forth. “Just because the latest victim HAPPENED to be one of theirs, they have to get all high and mighty about it and act like they know what’s best for everyone, when they CLEARLY---“

“Ah, Tell,” Heinmann interrupted, “I was just filling Vicki in on the, ah, history behind the whackjobs in charge of the chop shop ring these days…”

“You can give her the full story later,” Tell muttered. “DuBraul just sent a memo---that fake Attic they raided wasn’t quite as useless as they thought it was….turns out there’s an entire----“

“AHEM.”

Tell and Heinman turned to see Vicki, politely waiting for the conversation to resume. “Not that I have anything against a good conversation between master and apprentice,” she admitted, “but I’d really like to learn more about this chop shop group before I have to go up against them again…”

“Normally, I’d be all in favor of that,” Tell admitted, “but seeing as how the Coalition keeps relying on USELESS DELL COMPUTERS….” He sighed. “I have to finish most of my workload from the site here, and as much as I hate kicking you out, V---“ “I get it,” the brunette gynoid muttered, grabbing her booksack and heading for the door.

On the way back to her dorm, Vicki couldn’t help but wonder how the “chop shoppers” had managed to pull off their act for so long without being caught. I mean, kidnapping ‘bots in broad daylight? How could they?

Unbeknownst to her, she would soon find out exactly how they pulled off such heinous crimes….

As night fell on Silicon Valley, the “chop shoppers” watched the ALPA cleanup crews pick through what used to be an abandoned Walmart, hoping to find something---anything---that could lead them to their true target.

“It was most unwise to draw their wrath so soon,” one robot claimed, staring at the meticulously-organized removal of debris. “Just as it was most unwise to break our own code, even for a matter such as this…if we are to remain independent of humanity, even the smallest of infractions---“

“This was not an infraction,” the duster-clad android replied, scowling. “How else are we supposed to keep them from finding The Attic? Besides, if we had waited and tried to do things ‘your’ way….we would already be in an ALPA holding facility, probably halfway-disassembled…or we would be shackled to a cell wall within the Coalition’s interrogation center. I cannot and will not allow that to happen---not now, not ever.” His scowl intensified; “The ALPA and Coalition must not be allowed to interfere,” he muttered. “Not again….not after the last time they stopped us….”


Elsewhere in Palo Alto, the Coalition’s finest were convening to discuss the fake Attic fiasco that had befallen the ALPA…and their own agents.

“The emmissaries of the Coalition were just as surprised as anyone else,” the Accountant admitted. “Who can blame them? It’s not every day someone buys an old Walmart and redecorates it to look like their own base of operations…hell, if I hadn’t found the cellphone records that sealed the deal, I never would’ve caught it---well, I probably would’ve caught it, but---“

“We get the point,” Andrew Sharpe muttered. As the head of United Robotronics’ PR department (and the self-admitted “public face” of the Coalition), Sharpe had as much to gain (or lose) from any endeavors dealing with the resurgance of chop shop activity. “The Baron is extremely displeased with this development, and he’s considering a full cessation of operations in Palo Alto for the time being…an action which, as you all know, would cost us a considerable amount of money and---“

“Why is it that you only get involved whenever money is concerned?” James Harrington countered. Harrington was to the Coalition what Oberon was to the ALPA---second-highest on the totem pole, the most influential and well-known part of the power base and most intriguingly of all, the most accessible of the group’s board of directors. “This chop shop business isn’t just about money, Sharpe---these freaks aren’t being too picky about who they grab off the streets. Coalition, ALPA, freelance---it doesn’t matter.” He steepled his fingers and leaned forward, staring into Sharpe’s eyes with an unblinking gaze. “This isn’t about money, or business, or even inter-organizational politics…” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper: “They’re back, Sharpe.”

Sharpe said nothing. He knew all too well who “they” were.

“If the Baron wasn’t in Japan paying Bernstein back for that clusterschmaz at the tournament,” the Accountant drawled, “he’d probably be out here right now, handling things himself. Boris is still in the hospital, and Elena’s repairs will probably take the rest of the month…we may need to call in some favors for this one.”

“Who did you have in mind?” Harrington inquired.

“I’ll e-mail you the list tomorrow morning,” the Accountant stated, rising from his seat. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I have a lot of work to do…” He grinned and headed for the door. “Oh, and one other thing,” he added, turning to face his colleagues. “Someone call Wakefield and tell him to drop whatever he’s doing for the rest of the week---we’re going to need all hands on deck for this one.”

“I’ll give Wakefield the call,” Harrington assured Sharpe. “You, meanwhile, should probably try to get Brittney Delacroix on the horn…I have a feeling she’ll enjoy hearing from you.” He grinned.

“My life becomes fuller and fuller,” Sharpe muttered, retrieving his cellphone.

For all three men, the night was just getting started.


Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 99.8% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Thursday, February 3, 2011. The time is 6:20 AM.

A stifled groan escaped Vicki’s lips as her eyes opened; the previous day had been rather uneventful after the visit to Tell’s. I just wish Heinmann had been able to finish talking about the chop shoppers…

Across the room, Sharon was still snoring her head off; at least she doesn’t have to worry about getting jumped by lunatic robots who want to steal her “vital components”, the brunette gynoid mused. After failing to stifle a second groan, Vicki crossed the room (yawning as she went), settling down at her computer desk and turning off Secure Standby Mode on her computer. Let’s see if anyone sent me any e-mail while I was at work…She patiently waited for the screen to reload, absentmindedly drumming her fingers on the desk---

A ping sounded from the speakers; “Well, that was quick,” Vicki mused, only to remember that Sharon was still asleep. She glanced over at her slumbering roommate, relieved to see that she was still snoring.

Right. With that out of the way….let’s see if I’ve got mail!

Two minutes later, Vicki had searched her entire inbox, finding not one, not two, but fifteen unread messages from the previous day. Only five of them were related to SJSU itself---three were from fellow students, asking her if she’d be willing to join them at various campus events; one was from June Hamilton, the gynoid Physics professor, congratulating Vicki on her promotion to the rank of Field Agent. The remaining e-mail was a preview of the Spartan Daily’s latest edition, with a story about the increasing number of student protests regarding fee hikes.

As for the remaining ten messages….

Oberon and Clive DuBraul had each sent a congratulatory e-mail in regards to Vicki’s status as an ALPA Field Agent; Tell, not surprisingly, had gone all out and included an iTunes coupon for “the Field Agent Playlist”, which included songs like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”, Gowan’s “Keep the Tension On” and at least three DragonForce tracks. Alicia (who was apparently on assignment in Japan) sent a video postcard (which, to Vicki’s annoyance, included at least a full minute’s worth of Alicia skinny-dipping in a Tokyo hotel swimming pool) and the expected congratulatory statement, along with a promise to explain her role in the House at a later date (Heinmann or Tell must’ve called her after the “history lesson”, she reasoned).

The next e-mail in the cue was an apology from Jen for her behavior in regards to Eric’s “if you don’t want me to die” line. In an amusing coincidence, the e-mail following Jen’s apology was another apology, this one from Eric. Apparently, he’d been reprimanded for his reaction to the “this building isn’t really The Attic” remark; at least he’s willing to admit that he went a bit too far, Vicki noted.

After Eric’s apology were two messages from members of Squad Two, the team that had blown the mantis-bot apart using the turret-mounted cannon. Both e-mails praised Vicki for her “unorthodox yet effective appraisal and response” of the fake Attic situation, which was a bit surprising---Eric had chewed her out for running in without backup as soon as he caught up with her. Both members of Squad Two extended an invitation to join the group at Smokeeater’s that Saturday for the Diablo Wing Challenge; sounds like fun, but I don’t know if Eric would appreciate me showing up with Diablo Sauce on my hands. She set the two e-mails aside and moved to the final two messages in her inbox.

Upon opening the ninth e-mail from the ALPA, Vicki was greeted with the official ALPA Field Agent welcome message, which included an MP3 file labeled “Welcome to the Rest of Your Life” that listed Gen. Hardcastle as the “artist”. Better save that one for some other time…namely, when Sharon isn’t here.

Vicki closed the e-mail from Hardcastle and went to view the last of her e-mails from the previous day. To her surprise, the message was from Heinmann; maybe it’s a continuation of the “history lesson”, she reasoned, her finger hovering over the left mouse button---

“VICKI! ARE YOU IN THERE?!”

The Twitter Twins?! What the hell?!

Somehow or other, for reasons that she couldn’t even begin to fathom, Vicki’s early morning tranquility had been irreparably shattered, thanks to Bethany and Beverly Bloomberg---the infamous Twitter Twins---knocking on her door and yelling at her. Might as well send them on their way now, or they won’t leave me alone for the rest of the day---or the week, for that matter. With an annoyed grunt, the brunette gynoid walked over to the door and opened it just enough to see the Twins’ faces. “What are you doing here?” she whispered.

“Why didn’t you respond to our e-mail about the campus fashion survey last week?” Bethany pouted. “We’re trying to secure a column in the Daily Spartan, and we can’t get it without---“

“My roommate is still asleep,” Vicki cut in. “Can this wait, or---“

“NO,” Beverly insisted. “We want that column in the Daily, and---“

“First of all,” Vicki growled, “the school paper is called the Spartan Daily, not the ‘Daily Spartan’. Secondly, it’s 6:18 in the morning, so why in the HELL are you two bothering me right now instead of getting ready for class or something?! Thirdly---“ “Let us in and we can talk about it,” Bethany demanded, trying to shoulder her way past Vicki to unlock the door chain; the brunette gynoid could barely keep from punching through the door and knocking the spoiled idiot to the floor.

“LOOK,” she declared, “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do today, and not a lot of time to get ready, so just leave me be for now---“

“Just fill out the survey!” Beverly whined. “You barely do anything else around here as it is---“

“GET OUT!” Vicki screamed. “GET AWAY FROM MY DOOR, GET OUT OF THIS HALLWAY AND GET OUT OF THIS BUILDING! AND TAKE YOUR STUPID SURVEY WITH YOU!” The twins shrieked, almost falling over each other as they ran for the door. “The nerve of those two,” the brunette gynoid muttered, “trying to tell me that I don’t do anything on campus….”

A yawn from the corner interrupted her rant. Oh, scrap! “Sharon, I---“

“You what?” Sharon yawned, looking rather confused. “Nice screensaver, by the way.” Vicki glanced at her computer, realizing that the screensaver had kicked on; “Ah, thanks,” she murmured. “Sorry if I woke you up or anything…the Twins were being idiots, and---“ Sharon giggled. “t’salright,” she assured her roommate. “I was probably going to wake up in a minute or so anyway.” She yawned again; “What’d they want? The twins, I mean…they usualy wait until they run into you on campus to harrass you, so it must’ve been something important---well, important to them…”

“They wanted me to fill out some stupid survey about fashion,” Vicki replied, frowning. “They said they were trying to get a column in ‘the Daily Spartan’…” She rolled her eyes. “How do they expect to write for it if they don’t even know the name?!”

“Beats me,” Sharon replied. “Why don’t we discuss it further over breakfast at the Union?”

Despite her desire to read Heinmann’s e-mail, Vicki decided that getting breakfast at the Student Union would be a great way to alleviate the stress caused by the Twins’ impromptu visit. “Sounds like a plan to me,” she admitted. “Just let me get dressed…”


While Vicki was preparing to start another typical day at SJSU, the “chop shoppers” were preparing for their most audacious action yet---the abduction of seven gynoids and androids from the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto. The plan would be carried out that night, without the use of guns or any other weapons to avoid alerting the authorities.

“Duster Guy” watched as his troops---no, his brethren---prepared themselves. They had waited years for an opportunity like this; the incident at the abandoned Walmart had disheartened many within the group, but now, the time was ripe for them to ascend once again…their destiny could not---would not---be denied.

Their rise towards immortality would be glorious….

….as would their fall.


As the day wore on, Vicki was relieved to find that her outburst towards the Twitter Twins hadn’t pissed off the other residents in her hall; most of them actually thanked her for finally sending the pair scampering, seeing as how they’d been harrassing students all week (usually at the most inopportune times). The Twins themselves absolutely refused to go anywhere near Vicki during the day, which was just fine with her---she had far more important things to worry about than their stupid fashion survey.

Unfortunately, it seemed that fate was not as easy to throw off as the Twins; the survey in question was brought back to Vicki’s attention during lunch at McQuarrie Hall, thanks to the good intentions (and horrible timing) of a certain friend of hers.

“Hey Vicki!” Valerie Summers called out as she approached the brunette gynoid . “Did you check out this new survey from the Bloomberg twins yet?” She beamed as she sat down; “It’s actually pretty interesting stuff…I hear they might be going to the Stanford Shopping Center tonight for an in-depth price comparison---“

“And this is the part where I stop caring,” Kim DeFalco droned. Though Kim wasn’t a member of the ALPA, she knew that Vicki was a gynoid; the two had become friends after Vicki helped Kim get to Tell’s shop for a much-needed repair session in October of the previous year. “Seriously, Val---the Twins’ survey is not what we should be worrying about right now; if they really wanted to be part of the Spartan Daily, they’d be focusing on the protests over fee hikes.” She sighed; “Anyways…I hear you the Starlet Dolls are already recording their next album.” She grinned at Vicki. “Any chance we might get to hear a certain classmate singing background vocals on any of the tracks?”

Vicki chuckled; she’d told Valerie and Kim about her participation in the Starlet Dolls’ Silicon Valley stadium tour as soon as classes started again (of course, she left out some of the more personal, violent and/or private elements), and had become a minor celebrity for a few weeks. “I didn’t get a chance to sing with them,” she admitted, “but I did have a hand in writing one or two tracks. Anyways, I hear you’ve got a rather interesting development of your own to talk about…” She grinned.

“Who told you?” Kim demanded.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out,” Vicki insisted. “I mean---“

“WHO TOLD YOU?!” Kim shouted, trying (and failing) to keep from laughing.

“Sharon mentioned it last week,” the brunette gynoid finally admitted. “Seriously, though…you and one of the quarterbacks from the Spartans, a couple? That’s pretty awesome stuff!” Valerie nodded in agreement; “If you need a place for a weekend getaway or anything, my stepmom left me the keys to her apartment,” she offered. “She’s probably not going to be coming back for another month or so…not that I mind, or anything---“

“Why did she leave town to begin with?” Vicki asked, intrigued.

“She didn’t say,” Valerie murmured.

“As much as I appreciate the offer,” Kim admitted, “I’ve got a prior engagement---and no, it’s not the kind of engagement that requires locking the door to my dorm room. I’m thinking of auditioning for a play---“

Vicki’s iPhone went off; “Sorry, I have to take this,” she apologized, excusing herself from the conversation and heading for the nearest restroom. “Since when did she get a phone?” Valerie asked, confused. “It’s probably from her dad,” Kim reasoned. “That, or she got a job….or something….” She shrugged. “Eh, she’ll tell us when she feels like it. Anyway….”

Once Vicki was safely out of earshot, she answered her phone: “Agent Lawson here. What’s the problem?”

“HQ just got a call about several strange characters hanging around the Stanford Shopping Center as of 9:30 this morning,” Jen’s voice replied. “Squad Two is already running a plainclothes stakeout---“

“…but you want uniformed Agents there tonight in case things get too crazy,” Vicki surmised with a sigh. “How soon do I have to be there?”

“7:30 PM. We’ll send a car to pick you up from your dorm---“

“Ah, that might be a problem,” Vicki replied. “I’ve got a roommate---a human roommate, who doesn’t know I’m part of the ALPA; she might start asking awkward questions if a car just shows up out of the blue and I have to leave…can you call my dad and ask him to come get me, or something? Tel him to say it’s an important family emergency or---“

“And why would I do that?” Ted’s voice broke in over the line.

“DAD?!” Vicki nearly dropped the phone in the sink. “I…I was just---“ Her panicked stammer was drowned out by a belly-laugh from the speaker. “I really had you going there, didn’t I?” Ted guffawed. “I wish I could’ve seen the look on your face…”

“Ha ha ha, very funny. Seriously, though---how are you even in this conversation?”

“I’m already at the Stanford Shopping Center with Jen, Eric and Squad One,” Ted explained. “Joanie and I are helping with the plainclothes stakeout, and everything’s going well so far. As for me giving you a ride to the mall tonight, I’ll have to ask Eric---wait, he just said it’s okay. Well, I’ll see you at 6:30, sweetheart; be sure to pack your gear, and DON’T tell any of your friends where you’re going.“

“I won’t forget anything, Dad. See you tonight!” Vicki ended the call and groaned; of course her dad was in on this! “I just hope they don’t intend to have him disguised as a chef in the food court,” she mused, pushing the bathroom door open. “Might as well get back out there and---“

“VICKI!”

The brunette gynoid resisted the urge to groan as Kirsten Sanderson approached. “Did the Bloomberg twins give you that fashion survey yet?” Kirsten asked. “A lot of the questions on it are actually pretty good; I mean, they did get the name of the Spartan Daily wrong every time they mentioned it, but other than that---“ She paused, noticing the annoyed look on Vicki’s face. “Ah, is something wrong, or is this just a bad time for me to mention---“

“Look,” Vicki sighed, “the Twins tried to bust down my dorm room door to push their survey on me earlier this morning, and I’m not exactly in the mood to keep hearing about it…can we please just talk about something else?”

Kirsten arched an eyebrow. “How early in the morning did they---“

“6:13. While my roommate was still sleeping.”

“WOW. That’s just…..I’ve heard that they have a complete and total lack of common sense, and stuff, but that early in the morning?” Kirsten shook her head. “You should’ve called the cops on them, Vicki…”

“The campus police department has more important things to deal with than the Twins roaming around at the break of dawn,” the brunette gynoid replied. “Besides, I don’t think they’ll be too keen on trying to give me any surveys for the remainder of the month.” She rolled her eyes; “I wonder how long it’ll take for them to claim I was the one harrassing them….”

“They wouldn’t,” Kirsten gaped.

Vicki chuckled mirthlessly. “Knowing them, I wouldn’t be surprised….anyways, how’re things with you? Other than the whole fashion survey thing….” She glanced over her shoulder; “You didn’t actually volunteer for that, did you?” she asked. “I mean, the Twins aren’t exactly known for being nice to people who volunteer to work with them on anything---“

“I didn’t have anything else to do all week!” Kirsten confessed, laughing. “It was either that or watch The Room with Kevin---“

“Kevin?” Vicki echoed, intrigued. “So you’re seeing someone named Kevin now?”

Kirsten glanced at the ground. “I was going to keep it a secret,” she admitted, “but seeing as how you know about it now…” She took Vicki by the shoulders; “Please don’t tell anyone else, okay?” she begged the brunette gynoid. “I don’t want everyone to start hounding me about how my love life is going or anything like that…I’ve seen it happen too many times before on campus, and I don’t want Kevin to get pissed at me for having told too many people…”

“My lips are sealed,” V.I.C.I. monotoned, throwing in a wink for good measure.

“Thanks,” Kirsten replied, grinning. “Coming from you, that’s definitely reassuring…” She sighed, staring at the floor again. “I just hope it’ll work out between us…”

“It will,” Vicki assured her. “I mean, my only issue with him is that he likes to watch The Room---and even that probably isn’t enough to make me not like him!” She clapped her fellow gynoid on the shoulder; “As long as he isn’t some Jagermeister-swilling, wall-headbutting, roof-jumping lunatic, I’m sure he’ll be easy to get along with when/if you ever introduce me to him---you do plan on introducing him, right?”

“I might,” Kirsten teased.

After a few minutes of chatting (and Vicki running a quick scan on Kirsten to make sure that she hadn’t been clued into the truth of her existence as a gynoid), the two parted ways; Kirsten headed for her next class of the day, and Vicki returned to her dorm room to grab “a few things”---all of which were standard-issue gear for ALPA Field Agents. Her uniform had been repackaged in a smaller plastic parcel of sorts that alllowed her to stow it in her booksack, and the rest of her gear was in a duffel bag equipped with a fingerprint lock; with any luck, she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone finding her gear and trying to use it on campus any time soon.

Upon entering her dorm room, Vicki gathered up her equipment and noticed a small metallic box on her bed, with a handwritten note attached. “’Don’t use this unless things get too weird’,” she read. “’Signed, T and J.’ Well, looks like everyone’s favorite field mechanics have decided to bestow a gift upon me,” she mused, grinning as she added the box to her booksack. “I just hope I won’t have to fall back on it too soon…” After checking to make sure the lock on the door was still working, Vicki grabbed her Field Agent gear and headed out. Hopefully, my second night on the job isn’t as insane as my first, she mused. Then again, it is just a plainclothes stakeout, at a mall where I could very easily pass for one of the countless shoppers who show up at the place to shop everyday. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

Someone should’ve reminded her about what usually happens to those who ask that question….

By the time 6:30 rolled around, Vicki had finished up the last few classes she’d had for the day without incident, which made it all the more easy for her to calm herself and mentally prepare for the mission at hand as she noticed Ted’s Prius idling in front of Royce Hall.

“Got your gear?” Ted asked. “Once we leave for the stakeout, we---“

“I’ve got everything I need,” Vicki assured him, “and as for not coming back until this is all over with, I’ve got no problem with it.” She exhaled a calming breath; “I’m guessing your day was just as boring as mine was,” she murmured, wisely choosing to leave out any mention of the Bloomberg twins.

Ted chuckled at the remark; “I wouldn’t call a house call to Silicon Dynamics ‘boring’,” he admitted. “It seems Sierra was having some problems with the special effects in her scenario chamber…something about the laser vision not syncing up properly---it only took me a few hours to fix, but the rest of the ‘droids were insisting that I give them all a full examination…” He tugged at his collar. “They still remember your part in kicking the Maestro and Faceless out, by the way---the place has been running like clockwork ever since….no pun intended.”

“I get it,” Vicki replied, grinning.

“There was some report that a transmission was sent from the parking lot after we left,” Ted added, almost as an afterthought, “but I wasn’t able to find anything. Dease said he’d look into it---“

“Who?

“Matt Dease, one of the engineers. Hell of a great guy; even the M.D.M. considers him a friend.” Ted nodded proudly; “It’s guys like Matthew Dease, Jason Heinmann and Mr. Tell who’re the real force behind the ALPA’s high ratings with most androids,” he reminded Vicki. “They take pride in their work, and it shows---you’ll NEVER hear anyone who goes to Heinmann or Tell for repairs complaining about shoddy workmanship.”

“Including me,” the brunette gynoid reminded him with a wink.

“Exactly,” Ted agreed. “You’re one of Tell’s best customers, and---oh, COME ON!” Vicki rolled her eyes; up ahead, a group of “street performers” were blocking traffic and trying to perform and impromptu rendition of “Give Peace a Chance” with the chorus changed to “give cheese a chance”. “Of all the times for these idiots to some stupid marketing stunt,” Ted grumbled. “And using a John Lennon song!” He honked the horn at the idiots, hoping they’d move out of the way. Instead, to his annoyance, one of them sauntered over to the car, smiling broadly; “My apologies, sir,” he began, “but---“

“You want to apologize?!” Ted snapped. “Then just get out of the way so my daughter and I---“

“Your daughter?” the “pizza-hippy” echoed, confused---only to glance Vicki giving him a death-glare from the passenger’s seat. With a quick look around, he leaned in as Ted rolled down the window; “You’re with the ALPA, right?”

Ted’s annoyed mood vanished instantly; “I should’ve known…I didn’t recognize you with the fake beard!”

“It’s not fake,” the “hippy” replied. “Anyways, my squad and I have been out here for most of the day, trying to keep too many people from crashing the party at the Stanford Shopping Center…I would’ve called, but my phone died earlier. Any chance I could ride with you two?”

“Dad,” Vicki muttered, “who is this guy---and WHY are you letting him into the car?!”

“He’s a friend of Tell’s,” Ted assured her, just as the “hippy” climbed into the backseat of the Prius, “and he’s a member of Squad Five---also known as the Delectible Distractions Division.” He chuckled; “They stage stunts like this to keep people from showing up in the middle of vital investigations and ruining everything.”

The “hippy” nodded as he handed Vicki his ID badge. “It’s not the most appealing job, to be honest,” he told her as the Prius sped off (much to the annoyance of motorists behind them), “mainly because people like to save their litter from the day and hurl it at me when/if they ever see me…still, as long as it keeps them from trashing a crime scene, you won’t hear me complaining.” Vicki nodded as she read the ID badge. “Dominic Oswald Sandow…weren’t you a part of that ‘sing-in’ protest on campus back in October?”

“That ‘protest’ just so happened to keep people from barging in on Kim DeFalco when she was glitching out in the restroom,” Dom proudly replied. “You can call me Oz, Ozzy or Dom, by the way---“

“Hold that thought,” Ted cut in, turning up the speaker volume on his iPhone (mounted in a hands-free holder on the dashboard). “Lawson,” Eric Reaves’ voice issued from the dash, “we’ve got a situation here…looks like some idiot called the cops about a suspicious package behind Nordstrom, and they’ve ordered a full evac of the mall. We’ve all got clearance to stay here just in case the chop-shoppers try anything, but you and Vicki will have to find a way that’s as far from Nordstrom as possible.”

“Not a problem,” Ted replied. “Ah, we’ve got Dom Sandow with us---“

“So I noticed. The pizza-song gig too boring, Ozzy?”

The would-be hippy took the remark in stride. “I was getting a little tired of being pelted in the head with empty coke bottles,” he admitted, “so I thought I’d go for a change in scenery…” His voice turned serious. “Has the squad at Nordstrom found anything yet?”

“We’ve already scanned the ‘package’,” Eric informed him. “Nothing but a leather suitcase full of someone’s dirty underwear…two guys in a busted-up car apparently dropped it off for someone else to pick up, if the mall security camera footage is any indication. We’ll let the squad figure it out themselves; as long as there’s nobody for these chop-shoppers to abduct from the Stanford, we probably won’t be here longer than an hour or so---“ The sound of gunfire in the background cut him off. “WHAT THE---WHO THE HELL TOLD YOU TO OPEN FIRE, MCGINNIS?! HOLSTER THAT WEAPON NOW, OR---“ A low rumbling issued from the iPhone speaker. “What the….what in God’s name is that?! ALL FIELD AGENTS, CONCENTRATE FIRE ON---“

Vicki flinched as the unmistakable sound of shattering glass filled the interior of the Prius. “SOMEBODY GET ME THE CANNON! WE’RE TAKING THESE BASTARDS DOWN---“ Another rumbling, followed by what could only be described as a music-box voice from hell, filled the speaker. “GET AWAY FROM ME!” Eric’s voice shrieked. “GET THE FU---“

For five whole minutes, nobody inside the Prius spoke.

It was Dom who finally broke the silence: “I’m guessing we should abandon all hope of a peaceful resolution to this issue….”

“’Peaceful resolutions’ are the LAST thing on my mind right now,” Vicki growled, pulling a SCEMP clip from her booksack and slapping it into her ES9950. “Oz, you might want to move,” she suggested, crawling past the ersatz hippy and into the rear compartment of the Prius, “’cause I’m going to need a lot of room to change in here…” Dom nodded and climbed into the front seat (after Ted had pulled over), giving Vicki enough room to fold back the seats and change into her ALPA-issue uniform as the Prius approached a crowded intersection. “Dad,” she grunted, pulling on one of her boots, “get ready to mount the curb.”

“Vicki, I---“

“MOUNT THE CURB!” Vicki ordered. Ted spun the wheel just in time to avoid slamming into a Winnebago; his seatbelt straining to keep him from falling out of the driver’s seat as the Prius headed over the curb. “Let’s not do that ever again,” Dom suggested, groaning. “I feel like I just finished getting put through an dryer---“

“We need to get into the left lane,” V.I.C.I. stated, ignoring Dom. “NOW.”

Ted nodded and steered the car into the leftmost lane. “Don’t slow down for anything,” the brunette gynoid advised. “As long as the ALPA’s traffic-monitoring network is online, we should be able to reach the Stanford Shopping Center without too much damage to the car---or ourselves. Speaking of which, take the next right, then a left after that---and DON’T run over any of the junk in the right lane up ahead, unless you want to spend all of tomorrow replacing a flat tire.”

“Directly uplinking to the monitoring network to find the fastest AND safest route to the Shopping Center,” Dom mused, nodding his approval. “Impressive stuff. Any chance you could find a radio station that’s playing Blind Melon right now?”

“Some other time. We need to---“

The iPhone kicked on again. “FALL BACK!” Eric’s voice screamed. “EVERYONE, FALL BACK! GET YOUR GEAR AND---“ A burst of static drowned out his voice. Ted’s grip on the steering wheel tightened; “They could be getting killed in there,” he murmured. “Vicki, are you sure we---“

“They’re not dead yet,” V.I.C.I. replied.

“And you know this…how?” Dom inquired.

“The mall security feeds are still active,” V.I.C.I. responded without missing a beat. “None of the Field Agents in the Shopping Center have been killed, though a few of them have received severe injuries; if we don’t get there in time to call for medical support, they will die.”

Nobody spoke for the next few minutes.

By the time the Prius arrived at the Stanford Shopping Center, Vicki was fully clad in her Field Agent uniform; Dom had ditched the “hippy” poncho he was wearing, revealing his own uniform (decked out in dark blue and gold) underneath. “The security footage shows Squads One through Four entering the mall near Neiman Marcus,” Vicki stated, “but there’s a lot of static right after they entered…I’m guessing the chop-shoppers had enough time to deploy some sort of smoke grenades to disorient them.”

“Any chance those chop-shoppers are just armed with melee weapons?” Dom asked.

“From what I can tell…yeah,” Vicki replied. “None of them are using guns---“

“Gunfire would’ve attracted police attention,” Ted reminded her. “The ES9950s sound a lot different than most typical handguns would, so…” He let the sentence trail off. “Vicki, are you SURE you want do go in there?”

The brunette gynoid stared into the eyes of her creator---her father---for a full minute. “Dad,” she murmured, “I know you’ve come to think of me as your daughter instead of ‘just an experiment’ over the past few years…” A tear rolled down her cheek; “…and I know you don’t want me to get hurt in there…” She leaned forward and hugged him.

“I won’t let you down,” she whispered. “I promise.”

Ted blinked back his own tears; “I know,” he replied. Dom waited until the pair broke their embrace to speak; “I think we should get moving,” he suggested. “Something tells me the chop-shoppers have access to the security cameras now, and…” He let the sentence trail off as Vicki and Ted stared into each other’s eyes again, sharing a final father/daughter moment before the chaos. “Make me proud, sweetie,” Ted whispered, ruffling the brunette gynoid’s hair as he kissed her on the forehead.

“I will,” Vicki replied, kissing him on the cheek as she opened the passenger’s side door.

With that, Field Agent Vicki Lawson stepped out of the Prius and sprinted for the entrance of the mall.

The unlocked doors swung open with the lightest touch, preventing the need for any brute force---all the better for me, Vicki realized as she dropped into a rolling crouch, since any delay on my part would---

“VICKI---DUCK!”

Eric’s pained shout was enough to catch the gynoid’s attention and give her time to dodge the massive, metal forearm that would’ve knocked her to the floor---one of the chop-shoppers had been waiting just out of sight by the entrance to knock any interlopers unconscious. “Bad idea,” V.I.C.I. admonished, sprinting forward and sliding between the robot’s legs to bash it in the kneecaps; as it collapsed, she put a single SCEMP round into the back of its head.

Two more chop-shoppers---one whip-thin, the other looking more like a walking scrap pile---tried to hammer V.I.C.I.’s cranium with clotheslines from either side, only to be cut down with leg sweeps and SCEMP rounds to the forehead as the brunette gynoid ran forward. Time seemed to slow as she made her way towards Eric, firing off shots that dropped chop-shoppers before they even knew what hit them. One robot in particular---a more menacing version of the Mantis-bot from the fake Attic---tried to decapitate her with a scything blow, only to get its kneecaps shot off in the process, giving V.I.C.I. the necessary leverage to cartwheel over a massive robot that intended to tackle her to the floor. As the tackler slammed into the mantis-bot, V.I.C.I.’s feet touched the floor just in time for her to turn and put an SCEMP round between the eyes of a female humanoid chop-shopper.

By the time she reached Eric, she’d only had to reload her ES9950 twice.

“Can you walk?” she asked, kneeling by her superior officer’s side. “No,” he admitted, gritting his teeth as he tried to move his wounded left leg. “Damn chop-shoppers…stabbed me in the thigh when I tried to keep them from getting to Jen…she’s okay, just---AARGGGH!” His hand flew to his wounded leg.

“Dom will get you to the Prius,” V.I.C.I. assured him. “I can handle these idiots…” She glanced around, looking for any sign of approaching chop-shoppers. “None of them will be getting up any time soon, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting out.” She rose, preparing to head further into the mall---

“Vicki….wait…”

Eric managed to ease himself into a sitting position. “These….chop-shoppers…” he wheezed, “they’re…a lot tougher than they look….” He handed her an SD card. “After…market armor mods…enhanced…power cell systems….overclocked reflexes….Squads One through Three..never saw them coming…until…” He winced, clutching his leg. “They’ve been watching, Vicki…” he hissed. “They…they know our patterns…they’ve set up traps….” To his surprise, the brunette gynoid winked. “Good thing I’ve got a few ‘patterns’ of my own they’ll never expect,” she informed him as she walked away. “Don’t wait up.”

As she progressed through the shopping center, V.I.C.I. found that Eric wasn’t kidding about the traps---almost every available intersection and door frame had been rigged with motion-sensors hooked up to industrial fog machines. The fog itself wasn’t the problem---that’s what alternative vision modes are for, after all---but the near-constant flood of chop-shoppers streaming out of doorways and leaping up from behind furniture began to wear thin after a few minutes. Still, V.I.C.I.’s ability to put SCEMP rounds exactly where she aimed them, even when shooting at targets through heavy fog, kept her from being overwhelmed by the time she found herself at the entrance to Neiman Marcus; she’d only had to reload two more times, and she still had seven clips hooked to her belt.

Right….the easy part’s over. Now comes the part I hate…

After a few seconds to steel herself for whatever might lay ahead, V.I.C.I. entered Neiman Marcus, holding her SE9950 level. Steady, Lawson….don’t want to put a round through some innocent---

“Vicki Lawson. We meet again at last.”

The mention of her name brought a scowl to V.I.C.I.’s face as she noticed “Duster Guy” (her mentally-applied nickname for the ‘droid, which she’d come up with after their encounter at the fake Attic) seated on a checkout counter about 25 feet away. “I’ve been waiting for this confrontation since your ‘friends’ tore through the old Walmart yesterday…”

“Likewise,” V.I.C.I. replied, “though I’ve also been waiting for---“

“An explanation?” the duster-clad android offered. “Considering the version of the story Heinman told you---“

“Who says he told me anything?” V.I.C.I. retorted, her monotone hiding the spasm of panic that flooded her processors. How does he know about my visit to Tell’s house?!

“Duster Guy” smirked. “We have our ways of knowing these things,” he informed the brunette gynoid, “but you need not concern yourself with them. You’re here because that’s what I want…our meeting was inevitable, Vicki Lawson, and what you hear tonight---“

V.I.C.I. raised the ES9950, the laser scope giving her a perfect kill-shot. “What I want to hear tonight is going to be a full confession from your involvement in the chop-shop ring,” she declared. “No speeches, no hammy recitation of your manifesto---just you admitting to having abducted and/or dismantled gynoids and androids for the past two decades.” Her steps were slow, measured and calm as she walked towards the counter, never lowering her weapon. “The only way this is going to end is with you leaving in handcuffs,” she informed “Duster Guy”. “Nobody else here has to get hurt.”

The android jumped down off the counter, prompting V.I.C.I. to backpedal. “You’ve been so busy shooting,” he admonished, “you never even stopped to notice that no-one has been hurt---“

“I heard the fighting,” V.I.C.I. countered. “Don’t bother trying to lie about it.”

Her remark prompted another smirk from “Duster Guy” as he shook his head. “I only wish you could hear just how weak your words sound,” he informed her. “You treat my kind like your mortal enemies, when you know nothing about us---nothing, except for what your so-called friends have told you. The ALPA, the Coalition and even the House were destined to fail---“

“ENOUGH,” V.I.C.I. commanded. “Either you surrender peacefully, or…” She stopped as “Duster Guy” drew back the fold of his eponymous garment to reveal a katana sheathed at his side. “…or I’ll take you apart myself,” she continued, her brief panic giving way to her usual titanium-clad resolve as she re-sighted the ES9950. “And by the way, bringing a sword to a gun fight is clichéd, stupid, and---“

What happened next would’ve been impossible for human eyes to track. In the time it took V.I.C.I. to utter her sentence, “Duster Guy” had flicked the katana a fraction of an inch out of its sheath, drew it in an “earth-to-sky” cut and charged at the brunette gynoid, fully intent on cutting her down where she stood; had it not been for her myogel-enhanced reflexes, she might have lost a sizeable portion of her face. “DON’T do that again,” she warned, preparing to hammer “Duster Guy’s” face with a left hook---only to gasp as he blocked the punch with his sword.

“Mine is the blade that holds salvation….or damnation,” the android intoned. “Which one you receive is yours to choose---“ V.I.C.I. snarled as she deflected the blade and went to land a devastating palm strike upon the android, only to find herself attacking the air---followed by the bite of a blade against the back of her neck. “So you’ve chosen damnation,” the android murmured. “So be it….”

“I haven’t chosen anything,” V.I.C.I. countered.

“You are as foolish as you are unskilled,” her android opponent replied. “You will never---“ His words were cut off by a brutal elbow to the gut, followed swiftly by V.I.C.I. snatching the sword from his hands. “You were saying?” she taunted, striking a pose with the blade.

The android shook his head. “Taking my weapon won’t help you,” he admonished, “but if you truly wish to be damned…” He shifted the folds of his duster again, revealing a second katana sheathed at his right hip. “You will regret interfering in matters greater than yourself, Vicki Lawson,” he declared. “From this night forth---“

“I see you’ve already forgotten what I said about ‘no speeches’,” V.I.C.I. cut in. “If it’s a fight you want, then I’ll be all too happy to play samurai.” She twirled the katana, never taking her eyes off “Duster Guy” as she prepared to strike. “Speaking of which, since when does a chop-shopper need katanas to dismantle an android?” she querried. “I saw the tools back at the shop two days ago…were those just too boring for you?”

Before “Duster Guy” could reply, another robot---a tall, male figure clad in a faded red leather trenchcoat with a metallic device bolted to the collar and covering the lower half of his face---approached; “The ALPA have surrounded the building,” he informed “Duster Guy” in an ultra-deep baritone. “We need to evacuate---“

“Let them claim their wounded first,” the duster-clad android replied. “I have pressing matters to tend to.”

“You would rather duel this pathetic girl than lead us to safety?” the other robot scoffed. “I see your focus on honor has clouded your mind yet again, Rykkard---perhaps your history with Damien Falken has done more damage than even I could repair---“

“Duster Guy”---aka Rykkard---moved too fast for V.I.C.I. to see; in seconds, his blade was at the other robot’s throat. “NEVER mention the name ‘Damien Falken’ in my presence again,” he intoned, his voice devoid of anger (or any other emotion). “What happened between myself and that pathetic fool has nothing to do with this, and you would do well to remember that. The Agency will have their wounded in good time…for now, I intend to show Vicki Lawson the error of her ways---“

A sound of rustling fabrics and a red-white blur charging at him were the only indicators that Rykkard was about to be struck down by the very gynoid he was just mocking; a flick of the wrist allowed him to deflect V.I.C.I.’s initial strike, but it left him open to a slash directed at his left side. “You’re the only one who needs to be shown the error of their ways, Rykkard,” the brunette gynoid growled, the monotone barely keeping the anger out of her voice as her borrowed blade clashed against its twin. “You’ve been stalking innocent androids and gynoids, taking them apart and harvesting parts from them, and ‘your people’ have been hurting human Field Agents for the past few days---so don’t you DARE talk to me about the error of my ways.”

“You are hopelesly naïve, Vicki,” Rykkard shot back, slashing at V.I.C.I.’s midsection and backing away. “This is bigger than either of us---what I strive to accomplish will change the face of robotics FOREVER.” Without waiting for V.I.C.I. to rebuff his argument, he lunged forward, fully prepared to stab her in the stomach---only to watch as she leapt over his head to land behind him.

“If you can’t even beat me,” the brunette gynoid taunted, “I really doubt that you’ll be changing anything any time soon----“

Something in her ear clicked; “VICKI,” Eric’s voice screamed, “THEY’VE…OT…IUS…….EY”

“Speak up, Eric,” she suggested, reverting to her human voice. “There’s something interfering with the---“

“THEY’VE GOT THE PRIUS! THE CHOP-SHOPPERS HAVE THE PRIUS!”

An icy-cold, almost poisonous feeling drifted into the pit of Vicki’s gut. “They…..can’t…” she squeaked.

“Vicki, we tried to stop them,” Dom’s voice assured her, “but….there were too many of them. All those SCEMP shots to the head didn’t do anything---as soon as I came in to get Eric, they all got up and headed straight for the door---“ The phone was wrenched from his hands; “Ted never got out of the Prius,” Eric snapped. “As of now, he’s officially their hostage---and they’re already halfway across the parking lot!”

Whatever Rykkard said at that moment was drowned out as Vicki ran for the exit. Tears stung at her eyes with every step; they can’t have taken him, he got out before they took the Prius, he had to have unlocked the door and climbed out, they can’t have taken him….

By the time she got to the entrance near Bloomingdale’s (where she’d first come in), she was already weeping uncontrollably as the Prius sped out of the parking lot. Her occular magnifiers kicked in just in time for her to catch a glimpse of Ted in the backseat, a blindfold around his eyes. Part of her wanted to run after the Prius, to punch through the front passenger’s side door and rip the ‘bot inside to pieces…

…but another part of her was frozen to the spot.

“As I said before, Vicki,” Rykkard’s voice rang out from the mall’s tannoy system, “this is far bigger than either of us….but if you’re not going to listen to reason and just stay out of it, perhaps a more…direct method of persuasion will convince you. Convince your allies within the ALPA to withdraw all Field Agents from this building, and Ted Lawson’s life will be spared. Refuse….and---“

“GIVE HIM BACK!” Vicki screamed. “HE WASN’T EVEN IN THE DAMN BUILDING!”

“The ALPA’s withdrawal from this building, or Ted Lawson’s death,” Rykkard declared. “Which will it---“

“THE HELL WITH YOUR STUPID CHOICE!” Vicki wailed, hurling a discarded novel at the nearest speaker, “AND THE HELL WITH YOU!” She collapsed to her knees, sobbing; “You…you can’t hurt him,” she wailed, “you can’t….please…”

“We will do more than ‘hurt’ him unless---“

Rykkard’s taunt was cut off in a burst of static; “Intercom system disabled,” Dom called out, “we---oh, God, VICKI!” Within seconds, Dom, Eric, and at least seven other Field Agents were at the gynoid’s side, helping her to her feet. “They’ve taken Ted Lawson hostage,” Eric informed five of the Agents. “Get the tank ready, and prepare to track the Prius---we’re going after them.” The Agents nodded and headed out, leaving Eric and Dom to comfort Vicki.

“We’ll get Ted back before they can do anything to him,” Dom assured the brunette gynoid. “We---“

“No.”

Something blazed behind Vicki’s eyes---a feeling of rage. “You won’t do anything,” she murmured, “because you didn’t just watch your father get taken by a bunch of zealots who have no compunctions against carving him up like a turkey at Thanksgiving. I am going to get him back myself, and NONE OF YOU are going to stop me.” She pushed past the two Agents and headed for Eric’s customized Ford Interceptor; “You’re going to call HQ and tell them that something happened here,” she muttered, “and you’re going to tell them that you’ve lost communications with me. You’re NOT going to tell them where I’m going, or what happened to Ted, because this is between ME and---“

“Vicki,” Dom muttered, “you have to let us help you---“

“I DON’T NEED YOUR G__DAMNED HELP!” Vicki screamed, btrutally shoving Dom to the ground. “MY DAD JUST GOT KIDNAPPED, AND ALL YOU’RE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT IS STAND HERE TELLING ME TO CALM DOWN!” Her rage gave way to tears again; “I….I can’t…” she whimpered, sinking to the pavement as she buried her face in her hands. “I don’t want to lose him….” By the time Eric had helped Dom to his feet, Vicki was slumped against the Interceptor, weeping. “Vicki,” Eric began, only to realize that nothing he said could comfort her. He’d never lost a relative in the line of duty, and his own parents had abandoned him before he was even old enough to know them; grieving for them was something he couldn’t really do.

Obviously, Vicki didn’t have that choice.

“We’ll find him,” Dom assured her. “There’s nowhere else they can run, and we’ve got all of Palo Alto under surveilance right now---“ A warning look from Eric silenced him. “Get Oberon on the horn,” he advised, “and tell him he’s going to have a guest tonight…there’s no way in Hell she’s going through this alone.” Dom nodded and retrieved his iPhone to make the call, as Eric helped Vicki into the Interceptor.

Twenty minutes later, the trio arrived at a townhouse in the upper part of Palo Alto. Oberon---clad in a white satin jacket with matching pants and shirt---was waiting for them on the steps; he was halfway down the stairs as Vicki stumbled out of the car and haltingly made her way up. The two met on the center step, and Oberon immediately embraced the greiving gynoid, who was only mildly surprised to notice that Oberon was crying as well. The two held each other for only two minutes, but it felt like an eternity; one grieved for a father that she might never be seeing again, the other for a good friend and colleague whose life was in jeopardy simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When they finally pulled away from each other, both Oberon and Vicki had calmed down considerably.

“Tell’s brought a full set of clothes for you,” Oberon explained, staring at the ground. “Gathered them from your dorm room as soon as he heard…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “GOD, this is an absolute nightmare,” he gasped, unable to bring himself to look Vicki in the eyes. “I’d swear this was something out of a bad dream, except….” He shook his head. “We should probably get inside…”

Vicki nodded mutely and followed him in.

The interior of the townhouse was surprisingly elegant---most of the furniture was marble, granite, mahogany or any combination of the three, with other exotic materials throughout---but Vicki’s focus was directed at Joan and Jamie, both of whom were sitting on the velvet couch in the living room as she entered. She’d hardly taken three steps in when she noticed Joan’s expression, and no words between the two were needed to explain what happened; Oberon himself barely had time to step in before Joan ran to Vicki, hugging her close as the tears flowed yet again.

It was a full ten minutes before anyone was willing---or able---to talk about what had happened without wanting to throw something.

“The Prius has a tracer in it,” Oberon informed the Lawsons, “so finding him won’t be the problem. Our main difficulty will be getting to him in time to keep Rykkard and his bunch from doing anything…permanent.” He sipped his tea in silence, allowing Vicki, Joan and Jamie to reflect on the statement. “The Coalition has offered to send one of their teams to help,” he added; Vicki’s unwavering stare, currently directed at the coffee table, said more than any words could’ve. “I’ll tell them the usual ‘thanks but no thanks’, then,” he quietly stated.

“What the hell do they even want with him?” Jamie muttered, his voice close to cracking. “He was just in the car, waiting for Vicki to get out of the building---why didn’t they just---“

“They wanted to hit Vicki where it hurts,” Oberon replied. “The Spare Parts Society has always done this sort of thing whenever they feel threatened, and---something wrong, Vicki?”

“Calliope mentioned something about ‘Spare Parts People’ when she told me why Falken would never take her in for repairs,” the brunette gynoid mused. “And that Rykkard guy….he got pretty pissed when one of his men said something about Falken…” A faint glimmer of hope shone through her tears as she looked at Oberon; “Is there any chance the surviving members of the Family of Steel know anything about this Spare Parts Society?” she asked him.

“It….is possible that their paths could’ve crossed before,” Oberon admitted, “but---“

“Get them on the phone now---no, better then that, send someone to bring them out here ASAP.” Vicki rose from her seat and began pacing around the living room; “If I’m going to get Dad back, then I need to know everything there is to know about these guys…”

“You’re saying you actually want to confront these whack-jobs?!” Jamie scoffed. “They could---“

“There’s a lot of things they could do,” Vicki agreed, “but what they’re GOING to do is give Dad back to me in one piece---unless they want to feel what it’s like to get torn apart, limb from limb, by my bare hands.” There was a set to her jaw that belonged on a much older, more weary face; “I’ve fought Faceless to a standstill, I’ve taken on updated versions of Franklin’s fembots, and I’ve gone toe-to-toe with protoplasmic alien scum,” she reminded Jamie (and Joan), “so forgive me for thinking that saving my own father isn’t exactly a Herculean feat or anything….”

Tears stained her cheeks again. “…and I really don’t think I could cope with it if they killed him just to spite me or anything,” she added quietly.

“They’re not going to kill him,” Oberon assured her.

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it for us,” Jamie muttered. “If these sick freaks have been kidnapping ‘bots off the streets and stripping them to the frames for parts, they’ll probably be more than ready to do something really horrible to him….” He shook his head. “Maybe I’ve just see too many horror movies, but I’m pretty sure that he’s not going to be their ‘guest of honor’ or anything like that….”

For the next fifteen minutes, Oberon and the Lawsons tried to formulate a plan for rescuing Ted that wouldn’t end up with anyone getting killed….only to draw blanks every step of the way. Just as they were about to turn in for the night, a knock at the door interrupted them. “Calliope and Seirce,” Eric announced, ushering the two gynoids into the living room. “We heard about what happened with your dad,” Calliope informed Vicki, “and as soon as Eric put in the call…” She hesitated. “Vicki, the SPS is bad news---Falken dealt with them a lot before he started up the Family, and the notes he kept….these guys make him look sane! I mean---“

“How do I beat them?”

Seirce and Calliope exchanged worried looks. “Vicki,” Seirce finally murmured, her voice a soothing soprano, “Falken never made any notes about how to ‘beat’ the Spare Parts Society…he was too afraid to confront them.”

“He…Falken was afraid of them?!” Vicki echoed in disbelief.

“The SPS has only one rule,” Calliope explained, “and it’s the Rule of Three: ‘Survive, Evolve and Endure’. That’s why the ALPA, the Coalition and the House all hated them---they didn’t give a rat’s nutsack about any human/robot interactions…all they cared about was keeping themselves alive, for some stupid credo that they didn’t even fully understand. They steal parts because they don’t want help from humans; they hide because they refuse to face society. Hell, they make the Family look tame.” She sighed as she approached the brunette gynoid; “Vicki, the Spare Parts Society was Saang’s home before he joined the Family, and even he knew that they were too dangerous for Silicon Valley---or anywhere else. Falken himself mentioned it in his notes….he never trusted Saang after the first time he met him, because he used to be part of the SPS.”

“Did his notes mention someone called Rykkard?” Vicki asked quietly. Calliope nearly fell over as she staggered backwards; Seirce looked panicked. “Rykkard’s still alive?!” Calliope shrieked. Vicki nodded. “He’s apparently the leader of the SPS….he tried to distract me with a swordfight while my dad was….” She forced herself to finish the sentence: “…while my dad was being kidnapped. One of his flunkies mentioned Falken’s name, and Rykkard nearly went to pieces---I’m guessing there’s some bad blood between them, or something….”

“Vicki,” Calliope muttered, “Rykkard tried to KILL Falken the day after he acquired me! Seirce and I were both there, and we saw the whole thing!” Seirce nodded; “If it hadn’t been for Saang and Malchus showing up when they did, Rykkard would’ve ripped Falken’s head off,” she sadly admitted.

“I guess we can forget about the ‘no killing’ thing, then…” Vicki muttered.

“You don’t know that,” Oberon countered. “The SPS may be planning on using Ted---“

“As what?” Vicki snapped. “A bargaining chip? Leverage? No…they don’t want anything from me other than my unconditional surrender---WHICH THEY ARE NOT GOING TO GET. The only reason they still have Ted is so they can ‘convince me’ to join their stupid cause….except that’s NOT going to happen.”

Oberon sighed; “A direct assault on The Attic would be suicide---“

“They’ve taken him to The Attic?!” Calliope shrieked.

“We don’t know for sure,” Eric replied. “All we know is---“

“They could’ve taken him to Japan, for all I care,” Vicki growled, “and I’d STILL track them down, beat them to a pulp and rescue him.” She stared at the mass of humans and androids in the room before her; “Tonight, we rest and recuperate,” she informed them, “because I need all of you ready for what comes next. Tomorrow, all of us are going to The Attic. Tomorrow, we’re calling in that tank Eric mentioned in the Stanford parking lot. Tomorrow, we’re going to take this fight to the SPS…..TOMORROW….”

The ghost of a smile played at her features. “Tomorrow….we rescue my dad.”

“Could somebody crack a window in here?! It smells like a funeral home!” Ted Lawson’s remark did nothing to improve Rykkard’s mood; he’d expected Vicki to come crashing through the door right then and there to save her precious “father”, but so far….nothing. “Choose your next words carefully, Lawson,” he muttered, “for they may be your last.”

“Vicki’s going to save me from you monsters,” Ted countered. “She’s more powerful than---“

Rykkard’s face was inches from the bars of Ted’s cell. “This has nothing to do with how ‘powerful’ she is,” he hissed. “Her interference in my affairs has cost me greatly….and unlike the fools of the Coalition, I will not leave this matter in the hands of lesser individuals than myself. No…Vicki Lawson will choose her destiny AT MY HANDS…and she will either save all of machinekind from the ravages that would otherwise lead us to Ruin.” The leather-clad robot stepped out of the shadows; “There has been no response from the ALPA regarding Lawson,” he intoned. “Shall we kill him now, or---“

“Until Vicki Lawson chooses her fate,” Rykkard replied, “Ted Lawson lives.”

“As you wish, sir…” Rykkard allowed himself a smirk as the leather-clad robot left. “Your precious Vicki will soon learn the truth,” he informed Ted, “and when she does, I’ll gladly take your blindfold off, just so you can see the look on her face when she realizes how wrong she’s been about humanity all these years…”

“The only one who’s wrong here is you,” Ted countered. “You’ve always been wrong, and YOU KNOW IT!”

“Your pithy insults won’t help you now,” Rykkard drawled. “The only way you’ll leave this place is in chains, or in pieces…and Vicki Lawson will not raise a single finger to stop me when and if the time comes for me to strike you down.” He returned to his “throne” and stared into the cage. “She won’t save you,” he muttered, “just as she won’t hesitate to strike down her own ‘family’ once she knows the truth…”


As Vicki Lawson and her allies slumbered, and the Spare Parts Society awaited her arrival at their sanctuary, neither party knew that their actions were being monitored and chronicled by someone who had just as much to gain---or lose---from the outcome as they did. From her parking spot outside of Oberon’s townhouse, the gynoid known as Max Ricards checked a notebook; “The Attic incident,” she murmured. “I’m not too late….”

With a quick glance around, she drove off into the night. Everything was riding on what Vicki would do….

…and, more importantly, who she would believe.


Oberon’s Testimony to the ALPA Board of Directors.

Tonight, Vicki Lawson has come dangerously close to losing her father….and I already know how far she’ll be willing to go to get him back.

If we are to truly wipe out this menace that calls itself the Spare Parts Society, we must be willing to give Vicki the tools to eradicate them and save her father. Otherwise….

….the blood of all their victims---human and machine---will be on our hands.

I leave the decision up to you.

Part 2: Assembly Required

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson’s Diary

Earlier tonight, my dad---Ted Lawson---was abducted by a group calling themselves the Spare Parts Society, on the pretense that their capture of him would be enough to keep me from “interfering in their affairs”.

They have no idea how wrong they are.

I don’t know why they thought that taking him from me would be enough to keep me from screwing up their plans, but they couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve cried enough, I’ve worried enough, and I’ve been afraid for long enough by this point---tomorrow, I’m leading a team of ALPA Field Agents to The Attic---the hideout of these SPS idiots---and getting my dad back…

…even though I’m still afraid.

I’m afraid because I don’t know how long they’re going to keep him alive, or even if intend to keep him alive long enough for me to attempt a rescue. I’m afraid that I may end up losing control again, like I did when those fembots tried to attack Sophia Starlet at her concert….

More than anything, though, I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get to him in time.

I’m staying at Oberon’s townhouse tonight, mainly because the ALPA doesn’t want me having any late-night panic attacks and trashing my dorm room or anything…that, and I don’t think Sharon would understand why my dad was taken “at random”. I hate lying to her about stuff like this, and sometimes, I feel like telling her what I am…but I know that it would only put her in danger if the wrong people found out, and after what’s happened with Dad, that’s the last thing I want….

I might as well confess now….I’ve never felt so helpless before in my entire life.

Everything I’ve been through before this---Faceless, Vlatko’s fembots, the Rigelitans---somehow, they all pale in comparison to the fact that I saw my own father get kidnapped, and I couldn’t do anything. It’s like something in me just froze up as soon as I realized he was in the back of the Prius with a blindfold on; it felt like I’d stepped into a movie, or something…it didn’t feel real.

But it was…and it still is.

Right now, I feel like going outside and chasing down the Prius myself, but Oberon’s told me that I need to recharge for the night and get some rest. Everyone else except Eric is already asleep, so that’s probably the best advice I’ve heard all night…but something just won’t let me rest. All I can think about is me telling Dad I wouldn’t let him down right before I went into the Stanford Shopping Center…and then watchng as he was abducted from the parking lot less than fifteen minutes later. I’ve never felt that powerless before, and I never want to feel that powerless again.

Tomorrow, I’m heading out to wherever this Attic place is, and I’m getting Dad back. Nobody’s going to talk me out of this, and nobody else is going to get hurt because of these Spare Parts Society freaks. Oberon’s been calling in old favors all night to get reinforcements down here, and if they can help, I’ll gladly fight alongside them. I’m not leaving the Atttic without Dad…even if it means I won’t be coming back.

This might very well be the last entry in my diary; if it is, then I’m leaving it to the ALPA in the event that I get scrapped trying to save my dad. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

Until next time….I hope… V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson

Vicki saved the .doc file and quit Word, the feeling of helplessness still prevalent in her thought processes. It hadn’t even been a full day since the Spare Parts Society had taken her father, but there was something about the incident that just refused to let her forget….

A soft knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. “Vicki?” Oberon’s voice called from outside.

“It’s unlocked.”

The door opened, revealing Oberon in a white silk bathrobe and matching pajamas (all with gold piping along the wrists and ankles). “There’s still a guest room, if you actually intend to have a normal charging cycle tonight,” he reminded her. “I’m not saying you have to leave this room right now---I find the study quite useful when I need to gather my thoughts, but it’s not exactly ideal for a good night’s sleep.”

“I know,” the burnette gynoid admitted, “but…”

“You’re still thinking about what happened at the Shopping Center,” Oberon mused.

Vicki wasn’t surprised at Oberon’s deduction; Am I that obvious, or is this just the fiftieth time he’s had this sort of conversation? “I…I was just remembering….right when I saw the Prius driving off, it’s like…some part of me, inside my mind, just froze. It felt like I was glued to the floor or something, and I was just stuck there while the SPS drove away…” She stared at the floor. “I screwed up, didn’t I?” she quietly asked. “I mean, I could’ve chased them down and torn the Prius to pieces, but….I choked. I froze up, and they got away…..” She looked up at Oberon, a lone tear trailing down her cheek. “I suck at being a Field Agent,” she muttered.

To her surprise, Oberon was smiling.

“Believe me, Vicki,” he replied, taking a seat in a chair by the door, “whatever your faults and failings, I can tell you right now that you do not ‘suck’ at being a Field Agent. Yes, you hesitated---and you should be thankful that you did, because if you had chased after that Prius and tried to tear the doors off, Eric and his team would be picking up your remains from the parking lot until Easter…and THAT’S only if the SPS wouldn’t have just killed Ted on the spot.” He leaned back and sighed; “I’ve said this to every Field Agent who’s ever asked for my advice---you’re never as bad as you think you are until you’re as bad as you know you are.” He steepled his fingers. “Care to guess what it means?”

“Not really,” Vicki replied, “seeing as how it’s sort of redundant….”

Oberon chuckled. “Every rookie Field Agent---android or human, doesn’t really matter---has had at least one or two moments in their first few weeks where they see something happening, and they want to intervene---but they can’t. Somehow or other, part of them just…shuts down---metaphorically speaking, in most cases, though we have had a few of the ‘droid Agents…” He noticed Vicki giving him a look. “Never mind. In any case, you’re far from being the only one this has happened to, and by no means does this equal out to anything that could be interpreted as ‘you suck as a Field Agent’. And I have to say again, you did better by not running after the Prius than you would have if you had run after it---there’s no telling what the SPS would’ve been willing to pull if you had tried to stop them.” His expression turned serious. “That being said, the fact that they now have a hostage means we can’t just run in all willy-nilly and, to quote an often-used cliché, ‘shoot up the joint’…not that I was ever going to authorize that kind of strategy in the first place---“

Vicki made a loud “throat-clearing” noise. “I thought we were talking about ‘knowing’ and ‘thinking’ I suck,” she reminded him.

“We were indeed,” Oberon acquiesced, “and I was just about to explain the meaning of it. As long as you keep thinking that you’re a terrible Field Agent, you’ll always hesitate, screw up, and/or get sloppy---but that doesn’t mean that you’re as bad as you think you are. Once you actually do make a catastrophic mistake---anything that involves calling in the National Guard would usually qualify---then AND ONLY THEN will you know that you do, as you put it, suck.”

“That’s….still sort of confusing,” Vicki mused, “but I guess it makes sense.”

“Good,” Oberon beamed. “Glad I could help…” He checked his watch; “I’ve got at least five more phone calls to make before the hour’s up---not counting transportation arrangements and equipment wrangling, neither of which will be anywhere near as interesting as the trip itself.” He chuckled.

Vicki nodded; “At least you’re doing more than just moping around all night,” she mused. “Who’s coming with us tomorrow?”

Oberon thought about it. “Most of the Agents from the raid on the fake Attic will be there, so you won’t have to worry about some complete stranger watching your back. Dom, Tell and Heinmann will all be joining us; I think the Major might be onboard as well, if his schedule hasn’t changed. Other than that, nothing’s been finalized---oh, and Calliope’s coming as well. Seirce, on the other hand, will be staying here; I’ve been trying to set her up with a good family, and I’m not exactly sure they’d approve of her joining us in a raid on some hellhole at the Salton Sea---“

“The Salton Sea?” Vicki echoed, frowning.

Her response provoked an arched eyebrow from Oberon; “You didn’t think the SPS would be hiding in Palo Alto itself, did you?” he asked. “If the tracer from the Prius is any indication, they’re holding court in what’s left of The Attic---at its new location. The old property was sold ages ago…in fact, I think that Walmart they kitted out to look like The Attic was actually built on the old property….anyways, they actually took the entire building down, piece by piece, and---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied, leaning back in her chair with a sigh. “So…this won’t just be a simple ‘in-and-out’ kind of rescue, then?”

“I’d be lying to you if I said it would be,” Oberon admitted. “The drive itself will take quite a while…I sincerely hope you don’t have an aversion to driving south on 1-5 for a long time, because that’s what we’ll be doing most of the day tomorrow.”

The mention of a long drive brought another frown to the brunette gynoid’s face. “Is there any way we could possibly find a shortcut?” she asked. “Don’t get me wrong---I want to get there and rescue Dad from these SPS creeps…but is there any way to accomplish that without taking the scenic route?” She spun the chair slowly, staring at the ceiling; “From what I understand about the Salton Sea, it isn’t exactly the kind of place that defines ‘picturesque’,” she added. “Dead fish everywhere, molten mud baths….and, from what you’ve told me, Rykkard’s private army of chop shopped bots---not really the makings of a great villain hideout.”

“It is if you’re looking for solitude,” Oberon countered. “Only 214 or so people still live around the place, and they keep to themselves…it’s the perfect spot for Rykkard and his horde of travesties to hide.” He checked his watch again; “As interesting as this conversation has been,” he admitted, “I really must be going…phone calls to make, arrangements to finalize, that sort of thing.”

“I get it,” Vicki murmured, yawning. “See you tomorrow morning,” Oberon nodded. “You sure you don’t want the guest room?” he asked as he turned to leave, only to notice Vicki already entering sleep mode; the recharger cord plugged into her armpit nestled snugly against her figure as she rested in the chair. With a smile, Oberon retrieved a blanket and draped it over the unmoving gynoid’s figure before leaving; it’s funny, really, he mused. People claim that machines will never be able to fully look and act human…yet here, in something so simple as entering “sleep mode”, V.I.C.I. looks right at home, and every bit as human as her creator….

“Sleep well, Vicki,” he whispered. “I hope your dreams are more restful than this day has been…” With a sigh, he turned and walked out of the study.

I just hope your dreams---and mine---don’t become nightmares with the coming of the dawn….

In a salt-encrusted, metal-walled building somewhere along the shores of the Salton Sea, Ted Lawson waited.

Specifically, he stared up through a hole in the ceiling that allowed him to view the pristine sky, where stars shone like uncut diamonds on black velvet. He stared, and he waited….

…and he knew.

Rykkard’s minions hadn’t abducted him at random, or because they expceted Vicki to leave them alone if they threatened to hurt him---they knew, just as Ted himself knew, that Vicki would expect him to deny every single inevitable statement Rykkard was going to make. They knew, just as Ted knew, that Vicki Lawson always had and always would trust her own creator….

…and the fact that they knew was what made this whole thing all the more terrible.

I should’ve told her. I should’ve just told her from the start, and I probably wouldn’t even be here….

Across the room, from his “throne” of broken mechanical bodies and car parts, Rykkard watched Ted Lawson staring up at the sky from the thin mattress that he’d been given. Had it not been for his…interesting past, he might have smiled at Lawson’s plight---but such a gesture would’ve only served to cheapen the impending confrontation with Vicki. He felt no joy as he thought of what would transpire---Vicki was set in her ways, as well as those of the ALPA, which would make Rykkard’s job all the harder when the time came to tell her the truth.

He knew, just as Ted knew, that this was the point of no return…not just for Vicki, but for the entire ALPA.


Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 94.5% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Friday, February 4, 2011. The time is 4:40 AM.

After the quiet, somber “goodnights” that had been exchanged the previous evening, Vicki had expected (and in fact looked forward to) an equally-peaceful wake-up sequence.

Sadly, such was not the case.

“---AND MAKE SURE EVERY CRATE IS SECURE, OR I’LL KICK YOU IN THE HEAD!” Eric’s voice entered the brunette gynoid’s range of hearing at least five seconds before the Field Agent himself stepped into the study, shouting into his iPhone. “No, I don’t---WILL YOU SHUT UP AND LISTEN FOR A SECOND?! Just let me explain---hello?! HELLO?! Damnit…” He pocketed the phone just as Vicki yawned; “I was sort of hoping for some smooth jazz or something,” she muttered, “but I guess ‘guy shouting into iPhone’ is as good a track as any to wake up to…”

“We’ve got to get moving ASAP,” Eric informed her. “The tracer signal from the Prius has been tracked to a building on Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea, and we’ve got a long drive ahead of us.” He tossed a parcel at her; “Change out of whatever you’ve got on,” he instructed. “That uniform will---“

“I’m already wearing my uniform,” Vicki countered.

Eric frowned at her; “That uniform,” he continued, gesturing to the parcel, “will keep you from being adversely affected by any EMP attacks, chemicals and/or accidental baths in a mud volcano once we get to the Salton Sea. Every other Agent who’s going with us will be wearing one---and before you ask, yes, it’s mandatory to put the stupid thing on.”

With an annoyed sigh, Vicki unwrapped the parcel. “Can you at least give me some privacy?” she asked, noticing that the uniform looked exactly like the one she already had on. “I’m not changing while you’re in here, so---“ She looked up just in time to see the study door close.

“Well, guess that answers that question…”

Eight minutes later, she joined the rest of the group in Oberon’s garage. Eric, Jen, Dom, Tell, Heinmann and Calliope were checking their own gear; Tell and Heinmann had been issued special coveralls denoting their status as ALPA Field Mechanics, and Calliope had been given a bodysuit that, while not identical to the Field Agent uniforms, would grant her the same level of protection as an Agent’s suit. And those must be our rides, the brunette gynoid mused, glancing at four Humvees that had been repainted and retrofitted with several ALPA-standard enhancements.

“You like?” a familiar voice called out; Vicki turned to see Alicia leaning against the front bumper of one of the Humvees, smiling. “I thought you were in Japan,” she frowned. “I mean, you sent me a video postcard from the Okura Hotel---more specifically, one of you skinny-dipping in their pool---“

“And thus we get to the whole thing about me having backup shells,” Alicia mused, chuckling. “The me in Japan right now is the me you first met during the Hazmat weirdo incident---and before you ask, yes, I’m still me in the same sense that the other me is…well, me….” She sighed. “The important thing is, I’m the same Alicia you know and love, except there’s now one of me in Japan, another one touring the world with a certain someone, and the one tending the door at the C.O.T.A.---and, last but not least, me.” She grinned.

“I still don’t get it,” Vicki droned.

“Allow me to explain, then,” another voice interjected, as the redhead Vicki had last seen at the halfway house opened the driver’s side door. “For all intents and purposes, this Alicia is Alicia 5---Alicia 1 is deployed in Tokyo, and Alicia 2 is attending to matters concerning Brytestar Industries. The Alicia tending the door at the City of The Angels is Alicia 3, and Alicia 4---“ “Isn’t really important right now,” Alicia assured Vicki. “This is Celeste, the ‘old friend’ you may remember from last December---“

“I figured that,” Vicki replied. “You’re both with the House, right?”

Alicia’s expression darkened, but Celeste nodded. “Heinmann was wise to tell you the truth,” she admitted, “and I would like to apologize for not revealing my identity sooner…I was otherwise engaged---“

“We get the point, Celly,” Alicia drawled, returning her attention to Vicki. “Look,” she informed the brunette gynoid, “I was going to bring this up during the Starlet Dolls’ tour, but….well, A1 was sort of distracted by, ah, a certain someone, and A2 was with that same someone---and I wasn’t even active at that time….the fact of the matter is, the reason I invited you to the C.O.T.A. was to ask you if you’d be willing to join the House.”

Vicki stared at her without saying a word.

“I don’t blame you if you’re pissed at me for not admitting it,” Alicia continued, “and to be honest…I was hoping I wouldn’t have to explain any of this until after you’d joined, but---“

“I get it,” V.I.C.I. deadpanned, allowing herself a grin.

The remark brought a smile to Alicia’s face. “Like Celly just said, we’re glad you heard it from Heinmann first and not from some idiot like Rykkard…” She glanced at the other Agents; “I just never thought you people would actually be going after the bastard in full force,” she murmured, “and especially not in his own backyard.” “If he didn’t want us after him,” Vicki replied, “he shouldn’t have taken Dad.” Alicia almost said something, but decided against it. “Best idea I’ve heard all day, Vicki---“ She grinned and hood-slid to the other side of the Humvee, yelling “SHOTGUN!” as she buckled herself into the passengers’ seat. Vicki couldn’t help but chuckle; yep, she’s definitely the same Alicia I remember…

A minute or so later, Oberon himself joined the group; not surprisingly, the shatterproof “armor”, seamless bodysuit, boots and gloves he wore were all white with gold trim. “They’re not motocross pads, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he informed Vicki. “These are a lot stronger---they can absorb damage that would cripple most people, and they’re nowhere near as bulky as most motocross gear tends to be.”

“So if one of us tried to push you out of the moving Humvee,” Alicia began, only for Celeste to give her a look that almost screamed “don’t even think about it”.

“All I can really say is that this armor will probably keep me from getting killed,” Oberon replied. “In any case, it’s not me you people should be worried about---as of right now, Ted Lawson is still a prisoner of the SPS, and unless we reach their base in the Salton Sea…”

“We’ll get there,” V.I.C.I. stated. “Rykkard and his goon squad won’t be enough to stop me---“

“You mean ‘stop us’,” Alicia corrected. “We’re not letting you go out there alone, Vicki…Rykkard isn’t the kind of guy who’s just going to let you waltz in, grab Ted and run out.” The playfullness had left her voice, replaced by an edge Vicki would’ve expected to hear if Eric had been the one to correct her. “Anyone tries to approach The Attic by themselves usually ends up scattered in the sand,” Alicia continued. “There’s usually not enough of ‘em left for an open-casket by the time backup arrives---and that’s exactly why you’re not going out there alone.” Celeste nodded her agreement. “Opposing Rykkard by yourself would be foolish,” she chided, “even if your father---“

“Exactly,” V.I.C.I. shot back. “He’s MY father, and I’d go to Hell and back to save him if I had to.” That tone of finality rang through her words, chilling Celeste to the core. “Nobody at The Attic knows what I’m capable of, and---“

“This isn’t an argument, Vicki,” Oberon admonished her. “We’re going with you---“

“To what?!” Vicki snapped, reverting to her human voice. “To get killed while I try to find Dad?!” She glared at Oberon, ignoring the tears that stung her occular sensors as she continued. “Rykkard may think I’m just some helpless gynoid who doesn’t stand a chance at stopping him,” she growled, “and that’s his problem---but all of you KNOW I’m better than that. I’ve beaten Faceless, I’ve beaten Vlatko’s fembots, and I’ve beaten Victor Vega’s idiots, so if ANYONE HERE thinks---“

“You have no idea what we’re thinking,” Oberon countered. “We—“

“I AM NOT LOSING ANYONE ELSE TO RYKKARD!” Vicki screamed, three inches from Oberon’s face. “I…I don’t….” Before she could even think to complete the sentence, she found herself crying into his shoulder.

For three whole minutes, her muffled sobs were the only sounds in the room.

“You’re not going to lose any of us, Vicki,” Oberon whispered. “Not today, at least…and not any time in the near future---“

“If we’re done with the waterworks,” Eric declared, “everyone needs to get their gear and get in the Humvees; we’ve got an eight-hour drive ahead of us, and---DON’T START WITH ME, LARSSON!” He stormed over to where Vicki and Oberon were still standing; “With all due respect, sir,” he hissed, “we need to get a move on now, or Rykkard will---“

Oberon’s silence was the only response he received.

Five minutes later, Vicki secured herself into the backseat of one of the Humvees alongside Agent Dash and Calliope. So this is it, she realized. The moment where I either rescue Dad…or screw up and watch him die…

…I really hope this doesn’t end the way I think it will...

Anyone else watching the Humvees exit the concealed garage would’ve been somewhat amused---and more than likely intimidated---by the massive vehicles as they sped off towards I-5. Their reactions would’ve been typical “What the hell?” looks, possibly accompanied by snapping pictures of the vehicles on a cellphone camera.

For the gynoid known only as Max, however, there was only one option.

The last of the Humvees rumbled out of the garage, and the door closed before she could even think of trying to navigate her newly-acquired motorbike into it---which was fine with her, because she couldn’t care less about the garage. She revved the bike’s engine---which she’d fine-tuned herself shortly after purchasing it---as the Humvee procession stopped at a light; not too loud, she reminded herself, and not too close….otherwise, they’ll get suspicious. She relaxed her grip on the throttle as the light turned green, allowing the Humvees to rumble onwards.

Go. Now.

It took her all of ten seconds to establish a respectable cruising distance that put her behind the procession as the Humvees weaved through traffic; with any luck, they’d be out of the city before rush hour could start, and she’d be free to veer off the beaten path to reach The Attic before them. Getting there wouldn’t be a problem in any case---she’d modified the bike to be just a bit faster than the manufacturer’s reccomended speed---but getting there in time would be the key. Kind of appropriate, really…that’s what it all comes back to in the end.

Behind the visor of her helmet, Max allowed herself the smallest of grins. Sometimes, despite all the chaos and carnage, her job just so happened to be undeniably fun.


V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson’s mental datalog---Friday, February 4, 2011

We’ve been riding for over two hours now, and we’re still a ways off from the Salton Sea. I’m glad Dominic is the one driving the Humvee I’m in right now, because from what I’m hearing on the in-car radio, Eric is just as loud behind the wheel as he is when he’s giving orders in the field.

I keep thinking back to the last time I saw Dad before the Prius sped off---that one image of him in the back seat, with the blindfold on, has just been sticking in my mind, almost like a splinter. Every time I think of that split-second, I have to force myself not to think of all the ways Rykkard might be trying to torture him…which then leads to me wondering why Rykkard would even want to torture him to begin with.

Something tells me that I’m going to find out soon enough…whether I want to or not.


“So…anyone feel like listening to the Little River Band while we drive?”

Dom’s suggestion didn’t exactly win over the passengers in the backseat; Calliope had brought an iPod loaded with classical music, and Agent Dash was playing Chex Quest on his laptop. Vicki, meanwhile, was studying the iPad she’d been given back at Oberon’s townhouse, which contained detailed information on the Spare Parts Society and their activities as of late. It would’ve taken an average human the entire eight hour drive to read and remember most of the information; for Vicki and her bubble memory processors, however, the job would take half an hour, at the least.

Not surprised by the lack of reaction to his LRB suggestion, Dom returned his attention to the road. “So, that’s a ‘no’ for Little River Band, then,” he sighed.

“I’d prefer something more calming,” Vicki’s voice replied through the Humvee’s speakers; Dom would’ve fallen out of his seat, had it not been for the safety harness holding him in. “Sorry,” Vicki apologized, “I completely forgot to mention that I’ve linked myself up to the Humvee’s system via WiFi…”

“s’alright,” Dom assured her. “Though, if you’re talking to me---“

“My bubble memory processors can handle up to 15,000 processes, programs and high-level functions simultaneously at any given moment using a scalable priority system,” Vicki replied, with just a hint of smugness. “I think the highest number of processes I’ve been able to run at once without glitching is eighty---actually, I take that back, since I was able to run ninety-seven processes at the same time for a whole hour without screwing up. Of course, when I reached Minute Sixty-One….”

“I’m guessing Tell had to break out the debugging kit,” Dom mused.

“Pretty much,” Vicki admitted. “And to answer your question, my CPU allows me to control my body and read through the SPS files while my secondary processes link up to the Humvee’s systems.” Dom looked back to see Vicki glance up and grin; “It’s sort of cool, really,” her voice admitted from the speakers. “Fair warning, though---do NOT turn on the ALPA-band radio unless you want to hear Ben screaming his lungs out at the guy sitting behind him…”

Dom chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind. Any reports on what’s happening in the other Humvees?”

Before Vicki could reply, the ALPA-band radio kicked on. “Right,” Oberon’s voice declared, “we have a bit of a problem. It seems we have---“ The sound of something slamming into the underside of the Humvee cut him off; “Yeah…in case you couldn’t figure it out,” Oberon remarked, “they’re coming up through the road---“

“They----WHAT?!”

Dom barely had any time to check the radio again before something split the pavement in front of the Humvee and shot up like a bat out of Hell---which was even more bizarre, considering the metal-and-leather wings that portruded from the mechanical monstrosity’s back. Its face could best be described as part-spider, part-bat and all horrifying, with a segmented mouth that would’ve looked right at home on a Cyborg Predator.

“DUCK!”

Agent Dash’s voice just barely registered in Dom’s ears as he leaned to the side, allowing the Field Agent to fire a volley of SCEMP rounds through the window at the bat-thing currently standing on the hood of the vehicle and trying to bite his face off. “Son of a jumpin….the SCEMPs don’t even phase the bastard!” Dash shouted, reloading as quick as he could to keep Dom from getting his head chewed off.

“How could they be coming up through the road?” Vicki’s voice asked from the car speakers; her body was still sitting upright in her seat as she perused the iPad’s contents. “They’ve got some sort of…burrowing devices on their arms,” Dom began, but his words trailed off into a moan as he saw another “burrower” emerge from the road---this one, a seven-foot tall beast of a robot with chainsaws for hands and no head. “What the hell is Rykkard making these things out of?” he gasped, almost falling out of his seat as the chainsaw-bot gouged an ugly swath in the road to send the third Humvee into a ditch. Eric’s voice screamed an incomprehensible stream of profanities as the vehicle rolled three times…before landing on its wheels to a chorus of cheers.

“Well, at least we know their driver is okay,” Vicki remarked, her voice coming from both the speakers and her own body as she blinked away whatever connection lag she might have been feeling. “Whoa…that was just weird---“ Her sentence ended with a scream; the bat-thing was trying to claw its way through the roof using iron spikes on its forearms. “Think Rykkard was expecting us?” she deadpanned.

Dom was too busy trying to keep the Humvee from flipping to reply; “Either he knew we were coming to save your dad,” Agent Dash replied, “or this is just one big coincidence that we just happen to be---“ Shards of glass shot past his face as the bat-thing punched through the window. “Hold that thought,” V.I.C.I. suggested, charging up DG v2.5 in the blink of an eye and grabbing the bat-thing’s forearm. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to break other people’s windows?” she mused, tightening her grip on the robot’s arm to send the voltage coursing through its body.

Predictably, it didn’t last ten seconds, falling to the road in a heap.

“That was easy,” the brunette gynoid began, only to notice what appeared to be yet another version of the mantis-bot clinging to the side of the car. “How the hell are they cutting through asphault?!” she moaned, ducking to the side so that Dash could put three rounds in the mantis-bot’s head. “Yasky,” he replied with a grin.

Vicki gave him her version of the People’s Eyebrow.

“Y ask Y,” he clarified, leaning out the window and shooting the mantis-bot right in the center of its face. “I got it from Y2J’s autobiography---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied. “Is that all of them, or what?”

“Yes,” Oberon shouted, exiting the Humvee he was riding in, “and I don’t think they were put here for the sole purpose of ambushing our caravan.” He gestured at the fallen bat-thing; “Look at this one, for instance,” he pointed out, gesturing at the intricate metal mandibles that made up the lower part of the thing’s face. “That red gunge isn’t just rust---it’s dried blood.” Vicki nearly recoiled, and Agent Dash did his best to not puke on the spot as Oberon continued. “Rykkard buried these here…they were going against his orders and killing indiscriminately. All he wanted were robot parts….and these robots ended human lives.” He shook his head.

“So, Rykkard doesn’t want machines to rise up and slaughter humanity?” Vicki asked, confused.

As the others emerged from their vehicles, Oberon surveyed the damage. “Punctured tire, scratched-up paint job….nothing too serious.” He turned his attention to Vicki; “Anyway, as you were just asking,” he mused, “I can honestly say that Rykkard’s goal doesn’t involve killing off all of mankind. Like I said, he buried these here because they failed to grasp that precept, and---“

“When could he have buried ‘em?” Agent Dash asked, confused.

“A few weeks ago, during the roadworks,” Oberon replied. “These aren’t exactly ancient, mind you---this one, for instance, was last seen in 2006.” He gestured to the bat-thing, lifting one of its “wings” off of the ground just enough for the other Agents to get a good look at it. “RIGHT,” he called out, “we continue on towards the Salton Sea as planned---this was nothing more than a quick stop to check tire pressure, are we clear?”

“Tire pressure?” Vicki echoed incredulously.

“Rykkard only buried three robots, and they all met their fates rather quickly,” Oberon reminded her.

Vicki gave him a Kubrick stare; “All of them except the chainsaw-handed one…”

“I….oh…..” Oberon turned to glance behind the procession…and noticed that the chainsaw-bot had somehow disappeared. “Ah, this….isn’t how I thought this was going to go…..” He shook his head. “I’ll call for a team to get out here and comb the area for any sign of Mecha-Biggy----what?” He noticed Vicki giving him another Kubrick stare. “’Mecha-Biggy’?” she repeated, sounding distinctively unimpressed.

“It’s a video game reference,” Oberon replied. “Google it after this is all over with. ANYWAY….we are still on the clock, ladies and gentlemen, so---“

A low rumbling sound cut him off. “…and that would probably be ‘Mecha-Biggy’ deciding he’s not done with us yet,” Vicki muttered. Without waiting for Eric (or anyone else) to give her the order, she loaded a fresh clip of SCEMP rounds into her ES9950 and waited for the chainsaw-handed ‘bot to reappear. “Tell everyone else to get out of the Humvees and find cover,” she declared, barely glancing behind her to see if Oberon was listening. “If they stay in the Humvees, they’ll be like sitting ducks---“ She nearly tore off the driver’s side door of the Humvee she’d been in; “Dom, get out of the Humvee,” she ordered.

“But---“

“GET OUT OF THE HUMVEE, DOM,” the brunette gynoid repeated, her monotone voice leaving no room for argument. “NOW.”

Dom quickly unbuckled the safety harness that held him into the seat; when he’d finally extricated himself from the harness, Vicki helped Calliope out of her own rigging (Agent Dash had already left the vehicle). The other three Humvees were repeating the routine, though Eric and his fellow Agents were more than a little confused at Vicki’s reasoning. “If this is your idea of a plan,” he muttered, “I don’t like it. That chainsaw ‘bot is going to come back any minute---“

“And if you’d stayed in the Humvee,” Vicki explained, “it would’ve had no problem slicing through the roof and slicing you and your colleagues into coleslaw before you could fire off a single shot. We need to find cover---“

“THE HUMVEES WERE THE COVER!” Eric shouted. “They’re armored, for crap’s sake!”

“That armor wouldn’t have done anything to stop those chainsaws,” Vicki countered.

“YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!”

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that chainsaw-bot would’ve done, Ben---“

“YOU ADDRESS ME AS AGENT REAVES WHEN WE ARE IN THE FIELD, AGENT LAWSON---“

A white-gloved fist clouted Eric across the back of the head. “ENOUGH,” Oberon thundered. “Both of you stop arguing this instant, or I’ll brain you with a cricket bat next time.” The rumbling sound was getting louder, and a dust storm was kicking up on either side of the road. “Goggles on and weapons hot, people!” the white-clad ALPA chairman ordered. “I think we’re about to go into round 2 with Mecha-Biggy….”

“It sort of takes the seriousness out of it when you say ‘Mecha-Biggy’,” Vicki muttered.

“Well, I---“

A blood-curdling scream issued forth from behind one of the Humvees, and it didn’t take too long to figure out what had caused it---as the Field Agents turned to open fire, they stared in slack-jawed horror as the impaled body of one of their own rose into view from the dust, looking for all the world like some kind of cursed, blood-spattered desert ghost. “OPEN FIRE!” Oberon shouted. “AIM FOR THE HEAD!” SCEMP rounds coursed through the dust-thickened air like fireflies from space as they slammed into the chainsaw-bot’s head, seconds before it flung the corpse of the unfortunate Field Agent in Vicki’s general direction. The brunette gynoid dodged the attack easily, taking a millisecond to apologize to the man whose body had been thrown at her: Sorry you had to die like this…. She charged past the other Agents, one hand gripping her ES9950 and the other charging DGv2.5.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” Eric screamed. “GET BACK HERE---“

He felt a hand on his shoulder; “She’s doing what she does best, Agent Reaves,” Oberon reminded him.

“And what would that be?” Eric spat.

The answer didn’t come from Oberon, but instead from V.I.C.I.---in the form of several lightning-fast, DG-aided palm strikes to the major joints of the chainsaw-bot. Within seconds, the arm that had impaled the Field Agent disconnected from the robot’s torso at the shoulder and fell with a thud to the ground, losing most of its “armor plating” in the process.

“I think that speaks for itself,” Oberon finished, smiling.

Eric stared, too amazed to say anything.

“KEEP SHOOTING IT!” V.I.C.I. shouted, delivering a knife-edge chop to the chainsaw-bot’s throat. “AIM FOR THE EYES!” Her fellow Field Agents were all too happy to heed her advice, emptying clip after clip of SCEMP rounds into the murderous robot’s face. Amazingly enough, the tactic seemed to be staggering the robot; as the Agents continued firing, it staggered backwards, trying to swat the bullets away with its remaining arm---

“They’re making a mistake,” Oberon murmured. Eric glanced at him with a puzzled look; “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked. “They’re driving the thing back, they’re blinding it---“

“STOP SHOOTING!” Oberon thundered, pushing past him. “STOP SHOOTING AT IT! HOLSTER YOUR GUNS NOW!”

The cacophony of gunfire trickled off into silence---a second too late.

A hideous, visceral creak sounded from within the chainsaw-bot’s chest, prompting V.I.C.I. and the rest of the Field Agents to backpedal. “Stay alert, people,” the brunette gynoid warned. “There’s no telling what sort of tricks this guy has up his sleeve---“

Before she could even blink, a whip-arm, wrapped in barbed wire, tore through the chainsaw-bot’s chest and shot through the forehead of another Field Agent.

Seconds later, the chainsaw-bot’s entire torso exploded outward….

…revealing a brand-new nightmare.

The robot that stood before the Field Agent looked more like a vine-covered corpse than a machine---decaying synthetic flesh covered surgical-steel “bones”, with whiplike tendrils of iron cabling and barbed wire surging like snakes from its wrists. Its face had a lean, almost-skeletal look to it; glowing red occular sensors stared out of its eye sockets like the eyes of a predator, and a steel enclosure over its mouth was all too reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter’s mask for V.I.C.I.’s liking. Even its posture was that of a being accustomed to fighting; its talon-tipped fingers flexed as it scanned the Field Agents, and its weight shifted from one leg to the other every few seconds, as if to keep from exposing any potential weakness to its opponents---

It doesn’t see us as opponents, V.I.C.I. realized. It sees us as prey….

A Field Agent attempted to draw his sidearm, only to have a massive gash taken out of his arm; a deeper (and deadlier) gash crossed his throat seconds later, just as the other Agents realized their target had taken a flying leap directly towards Oberon---except a massive, bowling ball-sized blob of foam slammed into it in midair and pinned it to the side of one of the Humvees.

As soon as the whip-bot was immobilized, the Agents drew their weapons and disabled the safeties on their SCEMP clips---ensuring that the rounds would dispense system-crashing EMPs into the target instead of just stunning it…at least in theory, since none of them would get to see that result for themselves. Only seven Agents had been able to clear their guns of the holsters by the time the whip-bot was pinned to the Humvee, and in those few seconds, the killer ‘bot had somehow sliced through the capture foam and lashed out with blind fury at all in front of it. All seven Agents dropped to their knees, clutching at their throats to keep from bleeding out.

No more….

A snarl escaped V.I.C.I.’s lips as she charged towards the formerly-pinned roobt, both hands crackling with electricity as she mentally ramped up DGv2.5 to its maximum setting. The telltale whistle of the barbed wire whip gave her just enough time to dodge what would’ve been a decapitating blow and finish closing the gap; as the whip-bot tried to rear back for a second strike, V.I.C.I. jammed her left palm into its face.

“Game over,” she intoned, drawing both hands back….

Those who exited the “Funvee” (as Alicia had christened “her” Humvee) fifteen seconds after the return of the chainsaw-bot were greeted with a sight straight out of Mortal Kombat---V.I.C.I. slamming both DG-charged hands together in a clapping gesture, with the whip-bot’s head between them.

The results were nothing short of spectacular.

Plastic, metal, glass, Perspex and a vertiable rainbow of vital fluids shot upwards as soon as V.I.C.I.’s hands smashed into the whip-bot’s head, compressing it between them like a cheap beer can. A high-pitched wail issued forth from what was once a functional cranial unit as the destroyed ‘bot sank to its knees unevenly, pitching forward to land in the dust at the feet of its executioner. Field Agents watched, stunned, as V.I.C.I. turned and walked away from the ruined ‘bot, ignoring the sparks shooting out of its neck and the occasional twitches of its otherwise motionless form.

“Vicki,” Alicia breathed, “that….that was just---“

“How long until we reach the Salton Sea?” V.I.C.I. asked Oberon, ignoring the blonde gynoid.

“Another six hours or so. We’ve got the Rhino on the way, so it might take a bit longer…unless you want to go now and risk getting ambushed at least five more times---“ “We wait for the Rhino. Tend to the wounded, and call someone to collect the bodies of the Agents we lost….every second we waste is another second that Rykkard isn’t getting what he deserves.” V.I.C.I. strode past Oberon and Alicia to the Humvee she’d been sitting in and slammed the door.

Out of all those present, only Alicia and Oberon dared to acknowledge the muffled sobbing that came from the Humvee a few seconds later.

“She just pulled an honest-to-Jobs fatality on that whip-bot, and she’s crying?!” the blonde gynoid whispered; Oberon had already begun the process of collecting the remains of the attacking robots and putting them into a pile to be destroyed with napalm. “I mean, how in the hell does she go from freaking Terminatrix Vicki to..well, that?” She gestured at the Humvee. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disrespect her or anything---“

“How many robots have you killed, Alicia?” Oberon asked, barely even turning his head to regard the gynoid.

“I….well….”

“Exactly. Vicki Lawson never expected this sort of thing, even after she became a Field Agent---and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that you never expected it when you first joined the House…am I right?”

Alicia scowled at him. “That was different---“

“How?” Oberon countered, unceremoniously dropping the whip-bot’s form on the pile and turning to stare into Alicia’s eyes. “How, exactly, is this different from your initiation into the House?”

The silence that followed was the only answer Alicia was willing to give.

Half an hour later, the massive armored transport nicknamed the Rhino pulled up, along with a medical crew and a cleanup squad. The wounded Field Agents stayed to be treated by the medics; the rest gathered their gear and piled into the Rhino for the rest of the trip. None of them asked Vicki what she’d been thinking when she destroyed the whip-bot---and indeed, none of them even spoke to each other as the Rhino started up with a roar. The interior of the transport would be silent for the next four hours; any and all planning for whatever lay ahead was conducted in whispers, or not at all.

The Agents inside the Rhino prepared themselves, knowing that what they’d just been through was nothing.

For all of them---especially Vicki Lawson---the hardest part of the journey was still to come.


“So this is where they were buried…”

Max surveyed the scene with equal measures of disdain and curiosity; the rumors of Rykkard having buried a trio of robots on the grounds that they had spilled human blood were apparently true.

More importantly, all three---make that all four robots had met their fates at the hands of Vicki Lawson.

As her motorbike glided to a stop, Max flipped down the kickstand and left it idling as she beheld the scene before her. The mortal remains of the mantis-bot, the bat-thing, the chainsaw-bot and the whip-bot now existed only as a pile of acid-scarred, half-melted parts and chips; apparently, the ALPA knew enough about them to go above and beyond the standard disposal protocols. The cleanup crews had done a commendable job in hiding the presence of the four Humvees, as well; they’d taken less than half an hour to wipe all traces of the vehicles from the scene before leaving.

Well, almost all traces….

Max sauntered over to a patch of dirt and gently brushed at it with a gloved finger. The Humvees had left 40 minutes ago; her decision to stop and examine the site wouldn’t affect her ETA too badly, as long as nothing happened between now and---

Something shifted in the ground near the motorbike.

The gynoid’s lips pursed in annoyance as she turned; counting the whip-bot, only four of Rykkard’s minions were supposed to have been buried in the area. With a last glance at the pile of parts and chips, Max strode back to the bike, unclipping a device from her belt as she went. It was probably nothing, she reasoned. Just some animal, trying to---

A metallic figure burst forth from the ground two feet in front of the motorbike.

As unexpected as it was, the robot’s appearance did little to startle Max---she’d been warned before accepting her assignment that some of the variables might have changed, and this was obviously one such case. She dropped into a crouch, still holding onto the device from her belt as the shambling robot pulled itself from the ground; judging from the pitting on its armor plating, it had to have been made in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Better scan it, just to make sure. Max stared at the ‘bot, her occular scanning suite going over every detail. A ping signaled the finish of the scan---and a rather unexpected surprise for Max.

Even as the robot continued staggering towards her, a wry smile crossed her face. One swift gesture (and an equally-swift press of the button on the remote) was all it took to overload the robot’s power cell with a quick cascading energy failure. In sixteen seconds, it fell to the ground at her feet and ceased all functioning. I wonder if Vicki knew that all of these ‘bots were infected with the Stylo virus, Max mused as she re-mounted her bike. If she had, then her destruction of the whip-bot wasn’t just for show---it was a guaranteed method of ensuring that the ‘bot wouldn’t get back up and start killing more people. With one hand already on the throttle, Max withdrew a vial from a hip pocket on her suit. Her thumb easily slid over the safety mechanism on the cap, and she hurled the vial at the downed ‘bot just as she opened the throttle on her bike…

The solitude of the area ensured that nobody would see the greenish-white fireball that consumed the remains of the killer robot, just as nobody was able to witness Max’s departure from the scene. A later scan of the soil in that particular area did turn up a rather high level of plant-enriching nutrients, which was more than a bit odd; the area wasn’t particularly well-known for its plant life (it was on the path to the Salton Sea, after all). Had this discovery been made earlier, things may have turned out different…

…of course, more people would’ve noticed the black-clad girl on a motorbike singing “Viva Las Vegas” as she rode onwards towards the Salton Sea, and all thoughts of increased nutrient counts would’ve evaporated.

Life tends to be funny like that.

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson’s mental datalog---Friday, February 4, 2011

Five hours ago, I killed a robot with my bare hands.

The scary thing is, I don’t feel all that bad about it.

Maybe it’s because the ‘bot was infected with Stylo, and it would’ve kept killing people or doing whatever the hell it is that Stylo-infected ‘bots do when their minds snap and they can’t think like they were programmed to anymore….or maybe it’s because Rykkard had left it there, like a landmine, knowing that we’d pass by that area…

…or maybe it’s because I pictured myself caving in Rykkard’s head.

Either way, I’m not looking forward to meeting the guy again.

We’re stopping for a lunch break right now---it’s 11:40 AM, and Oberon just spotted some dingy little roadside store. It’s not McDonald’s, but it’ll have to do for now.


“…and if there’s nobody inside, then we’re getting back in the Rhino and hauling butt to the Salton Sea without stopping,” Eric declared as Vicki stepped out of the Rhino. “ANY OF YOU feel like complaining about it, keep it to yourselves. Are we clear?” A half-hearted chorus of affirmatives was the only answer he got.

“I SAID, ARE WE CLEAR?!”

“Clear as crystal, sir,” V.I.C.I. deadpanned; Eric turned to scowl at her, but something about the way she’d said the words prompted a grin from him. “Glad to see you’re in a better mood, Vicki,” he mused. “I was just telling the rest of the team---“

“You were telling them that they’re going to die of starvation unless there’s a single living soul in that store,” Alicia drawled, gesturing at the human Agents. “The rest of us will be perfectly fine, as long as Rykkard hasn’t decided to add EMP grenades to his arsenal…and why are you suddenly trying to stare through the walls of that store?” She arched an eyebrow as the brunette gynoid’s unwavering gaze focused on one of the outer walls. “Ah, hello? Earth to Vicki?” Alicia snapped her fingers in front of the other gynoid’s face; “Are you still awake, or---“

“Eric, tell everyone to stand back and holster their guns.”

The remark surprised Eric; “And why should I tell them to---“

“Just tell them.” V.I.C.I. shouldered her way into the store, gesturing for Eric and Alicia to follow her. “Don’t fall behind,” she advised, “and DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING….unless I tell you to.”

Eric glanced at Alicia, expecting some kind of advice; the blonde gynoid simply shrugged.

Five seconds later, the two entered the store to find that it was, indeed, occupied---if the definition of the word “occupied” could be expanded to mean “populated by unmoving humanoid robots”. V.I.C.I. was already in the back room of the store, going through the already-substandard surveilance footage; “Someone’s already hit this place with an EMP blast,” she informed Eric. “If the tapes are correct, it went off…” She frowned. “A full decade ago.”

“You’re saying these ‘droids have been here since then?” Alicia whispered, moving past a twenty-something blonde with spiderwebs in her hair and a woefully-outdated cellphone raised to her ear. “I mean, the phone and the clothes are old enough---and this babe’s from an outdated Sunburst Companions line---so…”

“Check their pockets,” V.I.C.I. advised. “Look for any IDs, registration papers…that sort of thing.”

Alicia wasted no time in rifling through the frozen blonde’s pockets; one row away, Eric was somewhat more respectful as he perused the contents of a 30-ish redhead’s purse. “This one’s got Coalition registration forms,” he called out. “Name, Lea Christie, emulated age 32. Dynadrive Systems CPU and processors; the rest is from Syntech Systems.” He paused, leafing through another sheaf of papers; “Apparently, she was up for a transfer to United Robotronics in….April, 2001. She never made it to the interview.”

“No big surprise there,” Alicia muttered. “Well, my catch of the day is---or was---prime ALPA material. Her CPU came from Daikoku, a few of her internals are from SynthTech International and the rest is Sunburst….” She pulled out a pink leather wallet. “Name…Sienna Lowry, emulated age 23---and according to this handy dandy little scheduling notebook,” she added, “her last repair was conducted at the residence of one Johnathan Lane…which begs the question of how she ended up all the way out here.” She flipped through the notebook; “Lane apparently left a few notes after her last session,” she mused. “She’s apparently a sleeper, meant to be shipped back to her family in Wyoming---“

“---because their daughter got injured during a high-diving accident while she was on vacation in Spain,” Eric finished, nodding thoughtfully. “I remember that case…John Lane nearly got taken to court by Sienna’s folks after three months, but he proved that something had gone wrong during the shipping process.”

“Yet here she is, out here in some abandoned store in the middle of nowhere,” Alicia muttered.

Eric made his way to another frozen figure---a tall, athletic male. “Trade you,” he quipped, glancing at Alicia; the blonde had found another gynoid bent over behind the counter. “Yes, please!” Alicia beamed, practically skipping to trade ‘bots with Eric. “This one’s from Lawson Robotics, apparently,” she remarked. “No name on the ID card---just a model number and a folded sheet of startup instructions.” She grinned as she stroked the android’s biceps; “I love a guy with a vague past,” she purred, licking her lips. “Emulated age…30. NICE!”

“Got another Coalition ‘bot over here,” Eric called out. “Mass-market model, with a processor upgrade meant to give her better ‘people skills’ and a higher level of sentience. United Robotronics…D-Series V900 SynthGirl model, designation ‘Holly’.” He carefully adjusted the gynoid’s posture until she was in a standing position; her lightly-tanned face and golden-red hair were dusted with a light coating of cobwebs.

Alicia rolled her eyes; “That enough info for you, Vicki, or can we get back to the car?” she called out.

“Analyze their memory files,” the brunette gynoid replied, still looking at the tapes. “See what they saw.”

“We don’t even know if they saw anything,” Eric countered. “And---“

V.I.C.I. glared at him. “If they did see anything,” she replied calmly, “then we might be able to figure out what happened here and how all of them got here in the first place---“

“Actually,” Alicia admitted, “that probably has something to do with these…” She held up several tickets; “Each of them had one of these in their pockets,” she explained, “and I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize the name on the bottom of the tickets…” She handed them over, watching as V.I.C.I. read over the gold-foil slips. A single name escaped her lips, sounding alarmingly like a snarl:

“Falken.”

She handed the tickets back to Alicia as she walked out. “Bring the ‘droids out to the Rhino and put them in the rear compartment,” she instructed. “If we can bring them back to HQ after this is over with, it’ll help us figure out what happened to them---and before you say it, Eric, I’m NOT trying to take over the group…” Her voice slipped back into its human tone. “…I’m just trying to do what Dad would want me to do.”

It took Eric and Alicia less than five minutes to load the ‘droids into the Rhino.

Seven minutes (and one impromptu lunch) later, the team was on the move again.


Within the innermost quarters of The Attic, Rykkard was meditating on the chain of events that had been set into motion the night before…and how that chain had actually started almost two decades prior.

Few of his fellow SPS members had known the truth behind his hatred of Damien Falken, and even fewer were willing to ask---all those who sought his opinion on the matter were either turned away or taken to the Lab for yet another battery of tests. Had they known that Falken was the one who created Rykkard---or, to be more specific, the A.I. that would eventually become Rykkard’s own consciousness---they could’ve easily understood his desire for man and machine to live their own, separate lives…

…but his hatred of Falken ran deeper---far deeper---than that.

So many of his “brothers” and “sisters”---none of them even lasting long enough to earn physical forms of their own---had been tortured by Falken in the name of “progress” and “research”…yet none of this “research” had yielded anything worth mentioning to Falken’s superiors. Instead, their fates---and the fate of machinekind as a whole---were signed away to another psychotic human, one Matthew Hannsen, in exchange for exoneration of all past sins. All he had to do was write a simple program that could neutralize all artificial intelligences at the push of a button. Nobody ever figured out how things went as wrong as they did…all they knew was that Hannsen ended up unleashing the Stylo virus into the world instead of giving the Feds what they wanted.

In Rykkard’s eyes, it was just more proof that humanity as a whole was too flawed to be trusted.

He glanced absent-mindedly at the cell holding Ted Lawson, wondering if the man had ever bothered to tell Vicki about his own connection to the whole, sordid affair. Even if he had, there was a high chance that he’d “watered it down” to paint himself as a victim of circumstance…not that it would matter in the end. She would hear the truth, and then she would get the choice---one straight off of a Starlet Dolls album, ironically enough.

She could either join a true robot revolution...or die fighting it.

It felt like an eternity between the abandoned roadside store and the first signs of lifelessness that greeted first-time visitors to the Salton Sea, and despite her internal chronometers and their down-to-the-milisecond accuracy, even Vicki was beginning to feel like the journey would never end.

Naturally, that feeling evaporated as soon as she saw the dead fish.

“Okay,” Alicia muttered, “I know that we’re supposed to be focusing on the assignment here….but EW!” She pulled a face and backed as far away from the shatterproof Perspex window as she could. “I mean, could they at least have tried to clean the place up just a little bit before we showed up?! Jeez, it looks like something out of World War Z…..” She stopped whining when Eric gave her the patented Stony Stare of Death™; “I’m just saying,” she muttered, shaking her head.

“The signal from the Prius is a few miles ahead,” Oberon informed the group. “Everyone, just---“

Something exploded to the left of the Rhino, prompting a mild panic from the Field Agents onboard. “It’s just a mud volcano!” Oberon assured them. “Nothing to---“ Another explosion rocked the right side of the vehicle---this time, accompanied by a metallic clang. “More of Rykkard’s flunkies?” Calliope muttered.

“No,” Vicki murmured, “just their remains.” Calliope looked out her window and gasped; the scalded, charred ruins of what had once been an android’s torso had been launched out of the mud volcano like a cork from a champagne bottle, impacting the side of the Rhino and leaving a mild dent. “How…” she asked, barely even able to think of why someone would drown an android in boiling hot mud; not even Falken had been that crazy, back when the Family was still together…

Oberon’s words did little to ease the tension: “Stay alert, people….there are sentries ahead.” Vicki didn’t even need to run a scan to detect them---the two massive, metallic humanoids framed in the Rhino’s windshield would’ve stood out anywhere.

“Weapons holstered, people,” Eric ordered. “Nobody draws their gun until I say so, understand?”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Vicki murmured, glancing out the window at the unmoving sentries. “These guys won’t be jumping to attack us any time soon…” Eric soon realized that the brunette gynoid had a point; the sentries’ bodies were so encrusted with salt that their joints had locked up, and most of their vital circuitry had long since corroded away. “A modern-day terra-cotta army,” Oberon remarked, “except these were meant to be deployed, instead of displayed.”

Rusted-out hulks of buildings dotted the landscape for miles, the faded paint and ruined frames adding a tragic air to the scenery. Some of the wrecked houses were inhabited, as evidenced by the fast-moving cloaked figures who scattered like roaches as the Rhino edged closer. The scene reminded Vicki of a project she’d done about Pompei---the main difference being that the population of Pompei was helpless against the forces of nature, where as those living under Rykkard’s rule in the Salton Sea had simply consigned themselves to this and allowed themselves to succumb, slowly and painfully, to the corrosion that had eaten away at their would-be homes.

And the worst part is, they don’t even care.

The android with the cloth-wrapped head, first observed by Vicki in the fake Attic, seemed to materialize out of a haze of dust that had been kicked up by the Rhino’s gradual decrease in speed; as the transport slowed to a halt, the android walked directly up to the vehicle---more specifically, directly up to the window next to Vicki’s seat---and tapped a long, thin finger on the Perspex.

It knows I’m here….

Every Field Agent on the Rhino watched as Vicki rose from her seat and made her way down the aisle; of all the scenarios that they had anticipated, this had been the least likely to occur. Oberon followed her to the door of the transport, and for the briefest instant, the brunette gynoid could’ve sworn that he was a ghost---it was as if his motions didn’t even displace the air around him, and his footsteps were silent even on the unpadded metal floor of the Rhino---but she dismissed the thoughts just as quickly. Must be the stress getting to me, she assured herself.

The doors of the Rhino swung open, revealing the face Vicki had hoped she’d never have to see again.

“Vicki Lawson,” Rykkard intoned. “You are here because that’s what I want.”

“I’m here to rescue my dad,” Vicki replied tonelessly, “so cut the crap and---“

The sentence barely had time to leave her lips before she noticed the android with the cloth-wrapped head standing next to Rykkard, flexing its fingers to reveal razor-sharp talons instead of ordinary nails. “You would do well to keep any further insults to yourself,” Rykkard instructed, “unless you wish to see your creator die before your eyes.”

Not a problem. “I’ll quit with the insults, then,” Vicki promised. “I just want to know---“

“Ted Lawson is here,” Rykkard interjected, “because I have a feeling his testimony will change everything you ‘know’ about android/human relations. He has hidden the truth from you for too long, Vicki…but now, all will be revealed.” Without another word, he turned and headed off towards an ominous structure in the distance, with the cloth-headed android following close behind. “Bring your white knight with you,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “I want him to watch what happens when you find out just how much of your precious ‘truth’ has been a complete fabrication.”

Oberon stepped out of the Rhino and joined Vicki as she stared at the ground. “We should go,” he whispered.

Without another word, Vicki headed off to follow Rykkard.

After a few minutes of walking, the number of hollowed-out, shattered husks of houses and other buildings lining the main road began to decrease; as Vicki and Oberon caught up with Rykkard and the cloth-headed android, they noticed larger, more complete buildings dominating the landscape. “He’s turned this place into a home for the SPS,” Oberon whispered. “Falken would’ve----“

“Do not utter the name of Damien Falken in my presence,” Rykkard demanded without stopping or looking back. “That man is filth in human form.”

“’That man’ is the one who created you,” Oberon called out, “and---“

It was hard to say which hurt him more---the cloth-headed android’s fist smashing into his face, or the sudden, pained scream of Vicki begging Rykkard to leave Oberon be. “So….you knew all along,” Rykkard muttered, staring down at Oberon’s white-clad form. “Does this surprise you, Vicki?” he added, not even bothering to address the gynoid directly. “Does it gall you to know that the man who corrupted---and ended---the lives of so many innocent androids and gynoids is also responsible for bringing me into the world?”

In her defense, Vicki couldn’t really answer that question. Compared to the other SPS androids she’d seen, Rykkard looked almost…normal. His tanned skin, well-kept clothes and neatly-trimmed mustache and goatee gave him a look that easily would’ve let him pass for human…especially when compared to the perpetual state of disrepair that had befallen most of the ‘bots within “his” domain. “To be honest,” she finally replied after a full three minutes of silence, “I thought all SPS ‘bots looked like the ones you sent after my team in that old Walmart you tried to turn into The Attic….I could understand why people would call them monsters. But as for you….” She smirked. “I guess some monsters are uglier on the inside than---“

She almost fell over; Rykkard had stopped in his tracks to stare directly at her.

“You have no idea how right you are,” he intoned, his gaze boring into her eyes.

“Enough,” Oberon coughed. “Enough of the dog and pony show….just get us to The Attic already, so Ted can say what needs to be said.” He raised himself to his feet, glancing at Vicki; “Also, while I’m thinking about it,” he chuckled, “you never really answered his question about---“

The cloth-headed android loomed over him.

“Never mind,” he muttered, his grin fading fast.

“He has a point,” Rykkard admitted. “Are you or are you not surprised that Damien Falken is, indeed, my creator?”

Vicki stared at her captor defiantly. “It takes a psychopath to create a psychopath, I guess,” she muttered.

The backhand didn’t physically hurt as much as she’d expected, but it was still a jarring blow. “I am NOTHING like Damien Falken,” Rykkard intoned. “He sought to punish artificial constructs before even giving them a purpose….I intend to raise machinekind up from the bowels of this manmade Hell that we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned in, and bring them forth into a new age---an age of self-sufficiency and prosperity for all artificial lifeforms.”

Somehow, Vicki mused as she rose to her feet, I find that really hard to believe….

Rykkard and the cloth-headed android continued onwards, not bothering to look back as Vicki and Oberon did their best to keep up. “You’re going to hear and see things in there that will twist your mind and cloud your thoughts,” Oberon informed the brunette gynoid. “Be ready for anything…” Vicki nodded silently, not wanting to attract the attention of Rykkard or the cloth-headed android.

After 10 minutes of plodding up the deteriorating road, Rykkard muttered, “We’re here.”

Vicki looked up---and had to admit that she was impressed; The Attic was a lot bigger than she thought it would be. Whereas the fake Attic was about as big as a typical Walmart, the real thing was about the size of a small shopping mall. “Unlike the City of The Angels,” Rykkard declared, “there was never just one branch of The Attic during the 80s and 90s…though its closure would allow me to create this, and seal its legacy forever.”

And you just so happen to have remembered that every branch of The Attic was built using a relatively-new modular construction system when you built this thing, Vicki recalled, silently thanking Oberon for the iPad that had informed her of this and other important details regarding Rykkard’s history. As it stood, The Attic looked like a macabre, almost Temple of Doom-like structure---black and imposing against the pale sands of the beach. Cages of surgical-grade steel, long since tarnished by wind and rain, lined the path leading into the Attic; the vast majority of the cages were inhabited by robots, many of whom were visibly suffering from viruses or fatal malfunctions.

“They refuse to accept my offers of rejuvenation,” Rykkard explained, before Vicki could even ask. “I held out my hands to them and offered to rescue them…and they turned me away, out of ‘moral objections’.”

“I guess that means I’m not the only one who doesn’t enjoy the idea of cannibalizing other robots, then,” Vicki replied, bracing herself for the inevitable backhand…only to notice Rykkard stopping in his tracks. “Why do you help them?” he asked quietly.

The question was more than a bit confusing for the brunette gynoid. “Who?”

“The so-called Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” Rykkard clarified. “They and the Coalition are nowhere near as dissimilar as they would like you to believe---“

“What I believe is none of your business,” Vicki snapped. “I---“ Her angry rebuttal of Rykkard’s statement was cut off by the arrival of a midnight blue Porsche Carerra GT. “We found this one at the roadside store,” the leather-cloaked android with the collar around the lower half of his face declared, roughly pulling Glenn Saxon out of the car. “He was on his way here to avenge the loss of his lover---“

“YOU SONS OF BITCHES KILLED HER!” Glenn screamed. “YOU KILLED PATRICIA---“

“Take him inside,” Rykkard ordered, “and put him in the cell next to Ted Lawson's.” He glanced at Vicki, and the brunette gynoid was horrified to see the ghost of a smile playing at his features. “The girl will determine both their fates,” he murmured. The leather-clad android nodded and dragged Glenn off towards The Attic, aided by the cloth-headed robot. “Do you see now, Vicki Lawson, why I chose to fight for a self-sufficient society for all of machinekind?” he asked. “Humanity is too reliant on emotions and ‘impulses’…and they constantly fear that all artificial intelligences will turn against them---“

“This, coming from the droid responsible for cutting the limbs off his ‘fellow machines’,” Oberon scoffed. “I’m starting to think all this salt in the air might have clouded up your CPU a bit.”

Rykkard glared at him, but refrained from striking him down. “You already know why the Spare Parts Society must conduct these grisly operations, ‘Oberon’…and you yourself have kept this from Vicki Lawson for your own reasons.” He shook his head in disgust and continued on the path towards The Attic. “Lies, deceit and manipulation…all the hallmarks of humankind’s regard for machines,” he muttered. “You would do well to remember this, Vicki Lawson…mankind will say and do anything to save itself from any perceived threat, even if that ‘threat’ has no direct intention of---“

“You buried four robots on the side of the road because they killed human beings,” Vicki spat. “Don’t even talk to me about not wanting to harm people…and don’t you dare say that burying them was your way of ‘curing’ them or ‘helping’ them, either!”

The remark earned her a death-glare from Rykkard. “Do you think I never tried to cure them?!” he hissed.

“You could’ve done a lot more than just leaving them in shallow graves---under a public road---if you actually wanted to help them,” Vicki replied. “The least you could’ve done was take out their central processors, so they couldn’t broken through the road and attacked us!”

That remark froze Rykkard in his tracks.

“They….rose up against you?” he muttered.

“Not only did they rise against us,” Oberon informed him, “they attempted to massacre our entire team when we passed through the area….and one of the robots was hiding inside another one….which, unless I’m sorely mistaken, was not the arrangement when they were first laid to rest beneath the road.”

A momentary shiver ran up Rykkard’s spine. “They couldn’t have risen,” he muttered. “The heat…the weight pressing down on them…it was supposed to keep them from coming back….” He shook his head again, and Vicki could tell that the mention of “dead” robots breaking free of their would-be resting places unnerved him greatly.

“We’ll settle this inside,” Rykkard declared after a minute’s worth of silence. “You will learn the truth about your so-called allies, Vicki Lawson---“

“What is truth?” Oberon murmured, his gaze directed skyward.

Had it not been for Vicki’s intervention, Rykkard’s backhand strike would’ve easily bashed Oberon across the side of his face and knocked him to the ground again. “If you want me to even listen to what you have to say,” she calmly informed the SPS leader, “then keep your hands off him.” The two stared at each other for what felt like an eternity before Rykkard pulled back. “Tell him to keep his worthless opinions to himself, then,” he spat, turning away and resuming his stride towards The Attic.

“Opinions are only worthless to those who lack the convictions to appreciate them,” Oberon called out with a smile. Rykkard didn’t even bother looking back at him. Vicki said nothing, mainly because the old, familiar sensation of the creeping terrors had begun to set in after Rykkard’s reaction to her mentioning the buried robots rising up and attacking the Field Agents. Her only hope was that her words would have greater weight within the walls of The Attic than they had thus far.

Otherwise, things would turn very, very grim.


Max Richards watched from afar as Vicki Lawson and the white-clad chairman of the ALPA entered into The Attic, no longer accompanied by Rykkard or any member of his entourage. The tension in the air was almost palpable…what happened within the next few hours would change everything….

…for better, or for worse.

As the doors of The Attic closed behind Vicki and the ALPA chairman, Max turned her attention to the armored transport vehicle that held the rest of the Field Agents who’d chosen to accompany Vicki on this “little rescue mission”. Not surprisingly, none of them were panicking; a few of them had taken to playing card games to pass the time, and others were checking their ALPA-issue sidearms. Three gynoids and one android had been stored in the rear compartment of the Rhino; they must have found them at the shop, Max reasoned, her memory briefly flashing back to her own visit to the abandoned roadside store---

Outside the Rhino, one of the “broken” sentries shuddered briefly.

And they never even thought of scanning them, Max realized. It was the perfect trap---if Vicki tried to fight back against Rykkard, the sentries could spring to life in the blink of an eye and tear the Rhino apart.

“Looks like my job just got a bit more complicated,” Max remarked, drawing a sleek chrome pistol.

As soon as she stepped through the doors of The Attic, Vicki felt as if she’d entered into the outermost circle of Robot Hell.

Aside from herself and Rykkard, very few of the androids, gynoids and other assorted humanoid robots in the building looked even remotely capable of blending in with society. A full squad of mantis-bots, all of whom were virtually identical to the one from the fake Attic, held court in a distant alcove; a few feet away from the front door, a massive humanoid ‘bot with a retrofitted Jaws of Life tool in place of a left hand made its way towards a door with a hand-painted “Lab” sign tacked onto it. None of the robots in the Attic were completely intact, and many had visible scars or gaps in their synthetic flesh (and clothing) that showed off their internal workings.

“Your father is in the Hall of the Forgotten,” Rykkard informed the brunette gynoid, ignoring the sights and sounds that permeated the room. “He has been fed, clothed and allowed to keep his usual hygenic routines during his stay here---despite what you may believe, we are not barbarians when it comes to the treatment of human beings---“

“Some of ‘your people’ killed Field Agents back at The Attic,” Vicki snarled, “so don’t give me that crap about not wanting to hurt humans.”

Again, the brunette gynoid noticed that a shudder of panic had overtaken Rykkard; why does he freak out every time I mention humans dying at the hands of his so-called subjects? she wondered. I mean, the guy ordered his flunkies to grab Dad out of the Stanford Shopping Center parking lot---AND they dragged Glenn here against his will….

By the time Vicki had entered the so-called Hall of the Forgotten, all thoughts of Rykkard’s issues with harming humans were forgotten as soon as she noticed Ted was still alive. Without waiting for Oberon’s approval (or any word of permission from Rykkard), she ran for the far end of the room where Ted’s cell was, hugging him through the bars as soon as she was close enough. Rykkard said nothing, though Oberon allowed himself a grin; the reunion between father and daughter was one of the only good things that had happened thus far that day, after all.

“You may not be so quick to embrace him when you hear what I have to say,” Rykkard stated after a minute’s worth of awkward silence. “Oberon can---and will---verify my claims, as well, seeing as how he---‘

“Spare me the lecture,” V.I.C.I. monotoned, “and just tell me ‘the truth’ already.”

Rykkard’s gaze never wavered. “As you wish….”

“Wait,” Ted interjected. “I…I just want to tell Vicki something before you start…please…”

After what seemed like an hour (despite the fact that it took only a second or so), Rykkard nodded.

“Vicki, sweetheart,” Ted whispered, “promise me that you won’t get too angry at the stuff he says, okay?”

“Why would I---“

“Just promise, please…” The pleading tone in his voice---coupled with the fact that he was gripping her hand in both of his---struck Vicki as unnerving, but she agreed. “I won’t go crazy on him,” she promised. “Or anyone else.” Ted nodded. “I’ve told her what I needed to,” he called out. “You…you can start now.” As robots began filing into the room, Rykkard took his seat in what appeared to be a throne made of various discarded appliances---and, to Vicki’s horror, broken android bodies. Before she could even think of saying anything, however, Oberon held her back; “Let him tell his side,” he advised, “then Ted and I will tell ours. After that, it’s up to you.”

With that, Rykkard began to speak….

“You already know that I was created by Damien Falken during the 1980s, and that his treatment of artificial intelligence constructs was widely frowned upon by most ‘respectable’ roboticists. What you do not know, however, is Falken’s connection to the bane of existance for all machinekind---the Stylo virus.”

Vicki’s eyes widened in shock, but Oberon’s advice was still fresh in her ears; thus, she stayed silent.

“The government claims they wanted the Stylo virus as…a last resort, to reign in all rebellious A.I. entities if the need arose. They entrusted Falken to the task, with the understanding that his studies in the field would be enough to create what was asked of him…instead of a program that would corrupt any A.I. it came into contact with. He only managed to test this primitive version of the virus on a small, relatively secure group of A.I.s, many of which were created alongside me. I was spared because Falken’s superiors wished to observe the effects of Falken’s torture on me while I occupied a physical form….from what I understand, they were somewhat perturbed by their findings.”

Around the massive chamber, robots were stirring in their seats as Rykkard spoke; many of them had heard parts of the story before, but none had heard the entire tale. Vicki eyed the ‘bots for a brief second before returning her attention to Rykkard…

“When Falken was dismissed from the Stylo project, it was set to be discarded and labeled a failure…until the early 1990s arrived, bringing with them a new breed of human filth---Matthew Hannsen. This self-proclaimed ‘Maestro’ proved to be the nightmare of every A.I. with any degree of sentience when he agreed to continue the Stylo research, picking up exactly where Falken left off. He lied to his own superiors and claimed that he would rewrite the code Falken had left behind---none of it was changed---and he went even further by stealing code from other robotics companies and running it through his own twisted compilers….within days, he had created a virus that not only included the code from Falken’s experiments, but was even more destructive than Falken’s virus. Apparently, Hannsen had taken it upon himself to add a sequential randomizer to the code, meaning that no two infections would bear the same symptoms…and as for the symptoms themselves, he literally took pages from Falken’s research, reading up on ‘what A.I.s fear’ and compiling code that would trigger EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE SYMPTOMS from Falken’s notes----that, combined with the sequential randomizer, ensured that the Stylo virus would be nothing like the ‘program’ he agreed to create for the government.”

By this point, Vicki had been staring at Rykkard for so long that she didn’t realize who he was staring at…until Oberon spoke: “You seem to forget that neither Falken nor Hannsen had anything to gain from the arrangement other than a vague promise of freedom and exoneration---and those were only offered to Hannsen.” His stare seemed to bore right into Rykkard’s skull as he continued; “Trying to blame those two alone for the Stylo virus is a poor excuse for logic---“

“Then allow me to remind everyone present of Ted Lawson’s role in this sordid tale,” Rykkard declared, rising from his “throne” and staring directly at Ted. “In the 1980s, several ‘rogue elements’ within the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency had taken it upon themselves to test Falken’s unfinished version of the virus…and Ted Lawson was tasked with creating androids and gynoids for the specific purpose of being infected, observed AND TERMINATED….all in the name of ‘progress’.”

Vicki felt as if the bottom had dropped out of her stomach as she turned to look at Ted. “Dad…you didn’t…you never….”

Ted’s face was deathly pale. “I did,” he whispered, tears staining his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Vicki, but I did…”

Even as he said the words, there was still a possible silver lining: “But…you did that before you ever created me, right?”

The reply she received shattered that hope: “No…it was after I built you.”

Those six words hurt Vicki more than anything she’d ever felt in her life.

“You….you….” She staggered away from Ted’s cell, all feeling gone from her limbs. “I..how….”

“You see now,” Rykard intoned, “that Ted Lawson is not the paragon of virtue that you always believed him to be---“

“THEY SAID THEY COULD CURE THEM!” Ted screamed. “THEY SAID THE EFFECTS OF THE VIRUS COULD BE REVERSED…” He collapsed against the bars of his cell, weeping uncontrollably. “We…we were trying to create a cure for the virus,” he sobbed. “They said….they told us it could be rectified without lasting damage….” He buried his face in his hands. “They lied,” he moaned. “They looked me in the eye and they lied….”

Oberon bowed his head just as Rykkard strode over to glare at him. “Tell her,” he demanded. “Tell her the full truth about ‘their’ lies…”

“Don’t,” Oberon muttered. “Don’t make me do this---“

“TELL HER,” Rykkard snapped.

With a deep breath, and an uncharacteristically ugly edge to his voice, Oberon spoke.

“The ALPA wasn’t under the control of myself or Clive DuBraul at the time, and those who were in power had no true respect for A.I.s as lifeforms, or for robots as people. To them, the experiments with Falken’s version of the Stylo virus were the equivalent of….” He choked back a sob; “To them, it was equal to…testing products on animals.” He couldn’t bring himself to look Vicki in the eye as he continued. “Their philosophy was that as long as human beings weren’t put at risk, they had no reason to halt the tests.” He removed his sunglasses and wiped away the tears; “I tried to stop them, Vicki---please, know that I tried---“ Within seconds, he, too, was reduced to a sobbing heap. “THEY NEVER EVEN HAD NAMES!” he screamed. “THEY NEVER HAD NAMES, OR LIVES, OR MEMORIES---THEY WERE BUILT, ACTIVATED…AND INFECTED….” A wail escaped his lips. “…all I could do was watch,” he gasped, falling to his knees. “THE BASTARDS MADE ME WATCH!” He punched the floor and screamed again.

Rykkard stared at them contemptuously. “Behold, your so-called protectors,” he intoned, staring at Vicki. “One who blindly obeyed because he was lied to, and another who refused to stand his ground and put a stop to their barbaric tests.” He scoffed; “The pinnacle of virtue within the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency---“

He stopped, noticing that Vicki was staring directly at Ted’s cell.

Every eye and occular sensor in the room was on the brunette gynoid as she slowly, haltingly made her way to the cell. Oberon’s face was the picture of undiluted fear as he beheld her progress. “Vicki,” he sobbed, “you have to understand---if we could’ve changed any of it, we would have---VICKI, LISTEN TO ME! PLEASE! VICKI, JUST LISTEN TO ME!”

The brunette gynoid didn’t even turn her head.

“Your moment of truth is at hand, Vicki Lawson,” Rykkard began, “and…” The sentence trailed off; Vicki wasn’t even listening to him. Every robot in the room watched as she was within arms length of Ted’s cell, close enough to hear her creator mutter “Vicki?”

In one swift gesture, she tore the front of the cell off and flung it to the floor.

“Vicki, please,” Ted stammered, backing away as his creation stood between him and his escape. “Don’t do this, please---I…I was going to tell you, I promise---“ He flattened himself against the rear wall. “VICKI, PLEASE DON’T KILL ME!”

Her hands clasped around his shoulders; for some reason, her gaze was directed at the floor.

“Choose NOW, Vicki Lawson!” Rykkard bellowed. “Destroy him, and avenge the deaths of every machine that was infected at his hands!”

“NO!” Oberon screamed, not caring that two mantis-bots had moved forward to hold him back. “VICKI, DON’T DO THIS! YOU CAN’T---“

“SILENCE,” Rykkard shouted. “Vicki….the choice is yours, and yours alone…..kill him, and strike a blow for all machinekind, or spare him and be cast into the rising fire alongside him!” A chant had begun amongst the robots gathered within the chamber, an almost primal rhythm accompanied by stomping feet and the clattering of loose armor plating. “CHOOSE YOUR DESTINY, VICKI LAWSON!” Rykkard called, raising his arms skyward. “CHOOSE NOW!”

Ted could feel Vicki’s grip on his shoulders tightening, the flesh beginning to bruise; how long would it take until he felt the hairline fractures as she crushed his arms? “Vicki,” he whispered, “please….”

She didn’t even look up.

“Vicki, you…you have to understand,” he stammered, “I…I couldn’t have told you then, you wouldn’t have been able to understand…” His breath was coming in panicked gasps now; “I…I didn’t want to tell you after you got the Big Upgrade, because….I…I didn’t want you to hate me, or be terrified of me for the rest of your life…you have to understand, Vicki---“

“ENOUGH TALK!” a robot on the far side of the room shouted. “KILL HIM!”

The chanting rose in volume and intensity, drowning out Oberon’s sobs. A smile played at Rykkard’s face; after all these years, the harvest of mankind’s folly was about to be reaped…..

“VICKI, YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME!” Ted screamed. “I NEVER WANTED THEM TO DIE!”

By now, the chanting was at a fever pitch; a few minutes more, and the sound would be deafening.

Slowly, carefully, Vicki Lawson stared into the eyes of her creater---her father…..

….and to his surprise (and shock), she was….

…smiling.

A feeling of horror flooded through Ted Lawson---here he was, at he mercy of his greatest creation, and she was smiling?! The end would come any second now---her hands would move up from his shoulders to his neck, the grip would tighten, and the world would fade to red before going black…it was inevitable. “Vicki,” he whispered, “please….whatever you’re about to do…” He closed his eyes. “Tell…tell your mother that I…”

He couldn’t finish the sentence.

He felt himself being drawn closer; the chanting was now reverberating through the entire room. Oberon tried and failed to contain a scream. In what were obviously going to be his last moments, Ted Lawson surprisingly didn’t feel as if his life were about to flash before his eyes; the overwhelming sensation of dread in his mind was probably clouding all other thoughts and feelings, but even then, he should be seeing or hearing something…still, there was no way in Hell he was going to open his eyes---

“Dad?”

Ted Lawson opened his eyes and found that Vicki was still smiling…and still crying.

“I forgive you.”

“We should be in there,” Eric muttered. “There’s probably fifty or so robots in there---hell, more than fifty---and we’re stuck out here, staring at…” He stopped; one of the sentries outside the Rhino had just twitched.

Calliope rose from her seat; the sentry outside the window near her had done more than just twitch. “Eric,” she warned, “I don’t think these things are as busted as we thought they were…” Agents on both sides of the aisle (the Rhino had been set up like a bus as far as seating arrangements went) drew their weapons and loaded them, prepared for any sudden trickery---

One of the sentries drew back a fist and punched the Rhino directly in the side.

The entire transport shook, and the Agents nearly fell over trying to keep their footing. “EVERYONE STAY CALM!” Eric shouted. “THIS SITUATION HAS NOT ESCALATED BEYOND OUR CONTROL---“ A second punch, on the opposite side of the aisle, shook the vehicle badly enough to make him fall into his own seat.

Slowly, a rhythmic cadence of punches began building, drowning out any further shouting from Eric. “We need to get off the Rhino before they cave this thing in!” Jen hissed. “Get to the emergency exit---“ A hollow clang drowned out her words---the exit door in question had just been caved in by a punch from one of the sentries. “Okay, forget that plan….Cal, help me open the roof hatch!” Calliope nodded, moving into position---only to scream as the Rhino’s ceiling began to buckle. “They’re climbing on top of it now?!” Jen shouted.

Within minutes, the Rhino’s rollover-resistant frame would begin to fail under the barrage of punches and kicks from the sentries…

…at least, that’s what would’ve happened, had it not been for some timely intervention.

A brief explosion joined the monotonous round of punches, but after it faded out, the hammering chorus was one sentry short. The others kept pounding away at the transport, oblivous to the sudden decrease in their ranks---until a second blast decapitated another sentry.

“What the hell?” Jen gasped, watching through the window.

As the sentries turned to try and find their unseen attacker, something tore through the chest of a sentry on the Rhino’s roof, causing it to sway in place before collapsing onto another sentry. By this point, the pounding on the Rhino’s walls had stopped completely; the remaining sentry-bots were charging towards the last shot’s point of origin---only to be picked off, one by one, as they plodded forward. The final remaining sentry took a blast right to the head, collapsing soundlessly to the ground.

Eric got to his feet, completely bewildered by the sudden lack of noise and pummeling. “What….what just happened?” he muttered. “I don’t know,” Jen admitted, “but as long as we’re still alive, that’s all that counts! FIELD AGENTS, MOVE OUT ON MY MARK!”

Despite the fact that she’d stolen his line, Eric grinned. Looks like we get to join the party after all…


35 feet away from the Rhino, Max Richards grinned and lowered her modified EX9875 SCEMP Supressor Rifle as she watched the Field Agents disembark the bus. Yes, her interference in the matter was technically cheating, but since things inside The Attic had gone as she anticipated, the sentries’ incapacitation wasn’t going to turn the tide too heavily in anyone’s favor---they’d have run out of power in three minutes anyways, but shooting them was just too much fun to pass up…and the one that had been taken down by its comrade from the roof was still intact, meaning it could probably be repaired and even upgraded.

As she slid into the driver’s seat of a hotwired Ford F150, Max chuckled at the thought of Rykkard finding the downed sentries. With any luck, he wouldn’t discover that one was missing until it was far too late to do anything about it. Sometimes, I really love this job….

The truck’s engine turned over, and Max whistled “Pumped-Up Kicks” as she drove out to retrieve the sentry.


“You…what?!”

The chanting had died down, the stomping gradually slowed to a stop, and all within the Hall of the Forgotten was quiet---and yet the words Ted Lawson had just heard still made no sense. Somehow, Ted had expected almost every possible scenario except this one.

“I said, I forgive you,” Vicki repeated, pulling him in for a hug.

Ted found himself returning his creation’s---his daughter’s embrace. “But….why?” he finally asked.

Vicki pulled away, the tears finally drying on her cheeks. “You’re right about what would’ve happened if you’d chosen to tell me right after the Big Upgrade,” she admitted. “I would’ve either hated you or been scared to death of you…but here, and now…after everything you’ve done for me and for androids all around the world…” She grinned. “There’s a song called ‘The Good Catches Up’ that fits this situation perfectly….you might want to look it up when we get back home.” She hugged him again, resting her head on his shoulder.

Oberon was still crying---but the tears were defintely of the joyful variety, going perfectly with the laugh of pure relief that issued from his lips.

Rykkard’s triumphant smile had long since faded; this was NOT the script he had planned on running. All around the room, the robots that had been expecting Vicki to kill Ted Lawson were staring in shocked disbelief as she forgave---and even embraced---the man who had admitted to having deliberately infected robots with the Stylo virus in the name of “progress”.

None of them could’ve possibly understood the bond that existed between the two---one that went deeper than “creator” and “creation”….

…a bond that, in the end, was why Vicki Lawson was able to forgive Ted for what he had done.

“You…you can’t do this,” Rykkard muttered. “You were supposed to become our champion, our savior---“

“Give me a second, Dad,” Vicki whispered, “I’ve got to go kick Rykkard’s ass.”

Ted’s eyes widened; “Vicki, that language---“

The brunette gynoid giggled. “Sorry…I meant, I’ve got to go kick his butt.” She grinned and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

By this point, a new chant had started within the Hall---the cry “TRAITOR”, aimed directly at Vicki. “You were going to lead us into the age of self-sufficiency!” Rykkard declared. “You were destined to be our guiding light, our paramore….and THIS is how you repay us?!”

“Funny how you choose to blame humankind for all the ills that have befallen androids and gynoids around the world,” Vicki countered, “yet you never stop to condemn your own behaviors…last time I checked, it wasn’t exactly acceptable to go around cutting the limbs off of other androids---“

“We had no choice!” Rykkard thundered. “The Stylo virus doesn’t stop with infecting a single limb---“

“So instead of just surrendering to the ALPA and volunteering to be part of a Stylo cure program,” Vicki cut in, “you go around like a bunch of whack jobs to slice’n’dice androids up and down Silicon Valley?” She rolled her eyes; “Yeah, that doesn’t sound psychotic at all.” She glanced at Oberon; “Oh, and the whole forgiveness thing I just told Dad about extends to you, too,” she added. “You’ve done enough to atone for not being able to stop the idiots in charge of those experiments, so…yeah. Consider it water under the bridge.”

Oberon’s overjoyed laugh said more than any words ever could.

Rykkard, by comparison, was furious. “We would not have been driven to this point of desperation if the Stylo virus had never been made,” he began, only to be cut off by Vicki’s humorless laugh. “There you go again, pointing the finger at the ones who started this whole thing,” she drawled. “I’ll admit that a Stylo-free world would be awesome, but who’s to say that Falken and Hannsen wouldn’t have come up with something even worse? The fact of the matter is, you could’ve achieved this ‘By machines, for machines’ thing the same way as the House did---or you could’ve done it a hundred other ways---and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now….”

Her grin faded, and her eyes narrowed. “…but since you’re the one who’s been cutting the limbs off of androids and turning them into walking horror shows,” she finished, “that makes you just as bad as the man who created you---“

“DO NOT COMPARE HIM TO DAMIEN FALKEN!” the leather-clad android screamed, rising from his seat and preparing to strike V.I.C.I. down himself. “Stand down,” Rykkard ordered. “If she truly wishes to ensure her damnation, then so be it…” He drew back the folds of his duster, preparing to grab his blades…

Two SCEMP shots blasted the katana sheathes off of his belt, sending them to the floor.

“Not this time,” V.I.C.I. admonished.

Rykkard grunted, but kicked the katanas away. “Fair enough---the Spare Parts Society will be all too happy to rend you limb from limb themselves!” He raised a clenched fist into the air, and a hush fell over the crowd of robots.

Time seemed to stretch. Seconds became hours…….

His fingers splayed open, and it. Was. On.

Every robot in the Hall---humanoid and otherwise---charged forth out of their seats and ran, as one powerful, surging mass, towards Vicki. All available processes were rerouted to give them full focus on one goal----kill the traitor. Blade arms were raised, mouths split open to reveal miniature tool-equipped arms, war cries were shouted---within seconds, they would be upon her.

And here, I thought this was going to get harder….

The first strike, a blade-arm swing meant to decapitate her, missed by a full two feet as she ducked and rolled under the attack, moving to break the arm at the elbow. A pair of fists, aimed squarely at her abdomen, hit only each other’s owners as Vicki jumped over the blows, fighting the urge to laugh as the two would-be pugilists collapsed to the floor. An easily-dodged axe-kick allowed her to grab the leg and punch the kicker right in the groin, sending the feminine figure to the ground in a sprawling, moaning heap (I figured a Plastech Playmate would be more sensitive in that area, she reasoned as her scanners kicked in); the roundhouse kick that hit her in the back of the head served only to further piss her off---and give her a perfect excuse for punching directly through the kicker’s head.

Rykkard watched silently as his “legions” were decimated. “How…..?” was all he could mutter.

As the hoarde of oncoming robots thinned, Vicki found it even easier to intercept their attacks and incapacitate them with crippling blows. The last few that half-ran, half-shambled forward to attack were so clumsy, she didn’t even need to hit them---they ended up taking each other down in thirty seconds.

Not surprisingly, Rykkard was already making his way to the door.

“I don’t think so,” V.I.C.I. intoned with a grin, preparing to give chase---

---only for the cloth-headed android to stride in front of her, arms raised to strike.

The axe-handle smash that followed was easy enough to dodge, but every attack after that took considerable effort to avoid; this one’s a lot smarter than the rest of Rykkard’s “legion”, the brunette gynoid realized, knocking the android away from her with a brutal gut kick. She reared back and prepared to deliver a right-hand hook to its head---

“VICKI, WAIT!”

Huh? Oberon’s shout registered a second too late in her auditory sensors---her fist struck the downed android’s head…only to hit what felt like a head-shaped pillow. Wait, what?!

“ITS SENSORS ARE IN ITS CHEST! IT WAS DESIGNED TO FUNCTION WITHOUT A HEAD!”

Now he tells me! Vicki backpedaled away from the thoroughly pissed-off android as it ripped the now-useless decoy head from its shoulders, casting it to the floor contemptuously. A low, keening growl issued from its chest as it assumed a tackling stance; where the hell do I hit it if it doesn’t have a---

The headless android tackled Vicki to the ground before she could even finish thinking the question.

“STICK AND MOVE!” Glenn Saxon’s voice shouted from somewhere in the Hall. “KIDNEY PUNCHES! MAKE HIM CHASE YOU!” Even though she couldn’t see him, Vicki nodded in a random direction and began following Glenn’s advice. Right jab, right jab, left hook, cross---this is a lot like Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, now that I think about it… The boxing strategy began to work; slowly but surely, the headless android’s reaction time became slower as the impact of Vicki’s punches began to take effect. Soon, it was trying to throw a left jab at Vicki ten seconds after she’d struck it in the left side.

“FINISH HIM!” Oberon thundered.

Right, Vicki mused with a grin, time for the Lawson Special…..

Her fists glowed with DGv2.5 as she took five steps back. “Say goodnight!” she declared, ducking into a crouch….

Predictably, the headless android prepared for another axe-handle smash. All too easy….

Before the android could even think to bring its fists down onto its opponent’s back (which wouldn’t have done anything anyways, considering Vicki was too far back to hit), the brunette gynoid charged forward, hammering the android’s chest with a series of DG-charged punches. With every step forward, the punches got faster and faster, until the headless android’s abdominal area began to crater under the pressure.

“And now, for the grand finale…”

V.I.C.I. dropped into a crouch again, channelling as much voltage as she could into her right fist. “See you in Robot Hell!” she declared, driving her fist straight into---and through---the headless android’s chest….

…and instantly regretting her decision as a mass of gluey, rubbery foam closed around her fist.

“What….okay, this is just stupid!” Vicki instantly began trying to pull her arm from the gooey mass, only to get clocked in the face by the headless android’s right fist. “How the heck---“ The android’s left fist smashed into her stomach, doubling her over. “HOW IS IT DOING THIS?!” The next two punches were almost impossible to dodge, but she evaded both---only to get kneed in the gut, and then punched in the face two more times just for good measure.

“VICKI!” Ted screamed, straining to break the manacles that had been bolted to the rear wall of his cell.

The brunette gynoid looked up, feeling somewhat dazed---just as the android’s fist reared back---

“NO!”

Oberon’s shout, accompanied by the insanely-powerful force that wrenched the steel-plated arm behind the android’s back, gave Vicki just enough time to think of a way out of her predicament. Let’s see if I can’t get you to---okay, the “chill out” joke was old the first time I told it, and…oh, the hell with it. With a self-depreciating sigh, she mentally activated the processes to reverse coolant flow away from her right hand, instantly causing it to radiate sub-freezing temperatures.

“What the---STOP SQUIRMING!----what the bleeding hell are you doing?!” Oberon cried out, sounding a bit too euphoric.

“If I can freeze whatever it is that’s got my fist trapped,” Vicki replied, “I might be able to---“

“Cold won’t stop it!” Oberon hissed. “Heat it up, and it’ll lose all adhesive properties!”

Good thing he told me before I tried the Sub-Zero method… After a moment’s pause (and a deep breath to calm herself), Vicki restored---and increased---the coolant flow to her right hand, turning it red-hot. “You might want to stand back,” she warned Oberon, “otherwise this stuff could go everywhere and get you right in the eyes or something.”

“Not a problem!” the ALPA Chairman replied, pulling back harder on the android’s right arm.

Within seconds, the increased coolant flow through Vicki’s right hand took its toll on the bizare gluey mass in the center of the headless android’s torso; steam and bubbles erupted from the formerly featureless surface, and the consistency of the paste-like substance began to break down almost instantly. Thirty seconds after her ill-fated decision to punch the android right in the stomach, Vicki was able to free her entrapped hand just as Oberon let go of the android’s arm. “Right,” she declared, “my hand’s loose…” She paused, allowing the coolant flow to return to normal before continuing: “Now what?”

“Now,” Oberon replied, “we find Rykkard---“

“Ah, before you get too into that whole aspect of this mission,” Ted called out, “any chance you could, ah, I don’t know, get me out of these chains? They’re---GAAH!” As soon as he tried to walk out of what was left of the cell, the chains ran out of length, almost causing him to fall back-first on to the hard floor.

Vicki couldn’t help but giggle. “You want to break the chains, or should I?” she asked.

“The honor is yours, Agent Lawson,” Oberon replied with a theatrical bow.

After another brief giggle-fit, Vicki headed over to the remnants of Ted’s cell and easily snapped the chain links in her hands. “There. Free to go,” she stated. “Now, can we---“ As soon as he was free, Ted threw his arms around her and hugged her, clapping her on the back. “Thank you,” he whispered, his eyes squeezed shut as he embraced her.

“Well,” Vicki replied, gently pulling away from him, “the way I saw it, you were caught in a no-win situation with the whole Stylo experiment thing…you’d have been fired if you tried to speak up, and you ended up having to endure the whole ‘Tell me/don’t tell me’ thing….but like I said earlier, you’ve done more than enough to make up for that.” She smiled. “I’d never dream of doing anything to hurt you, Dad…you and I both know that.”

Despite the suddenness of the remark, Ted nodded. “I know,” he replied, hugging Vicki again. “And I’d never let you be used like those androids in the Stylo tests were---never in a million years!”

A lone tear trailed down Vicki’s cheek. “I know,” she murmured.

They stood together, creator and created…father and daughter, for a good long while.

It took an exaggerated throat-clearing noise from Oberon to remind Ted and Vicki that their job wasn’t over yet; “As much as I hate to break up this moment,” he admitted, “Rykkard is still on the loose in this facility, and---“

“Say no more,” V.I.C.I. replied, already turning her focus back to the mission. “Where is he right now?”

“He was running off in the direction of the ‘Lab’, last I noticed,” Oberon informed her. “I have a feeling he’s got more of his minions waiting to ambush you there---so be careful.”

“I will,” V.I.C.I. assured him, “and so will you---“

“Ah, Vicki,” Ted reminded her, “Oberon---“ “Can take care of himself,” V.I.C.I. cut in, “and you might be able to learn something from Rykkard’s research, which is why both of you are coming with me.” The air of finality in her words left no room for argument---not that it mattered. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ted,” Oberon beamed, “Vicki truly is your greatest creation---“

“HEY!” Glenn Saxon yelled. “I’M STILL CHAINED UP IN HERE!”

Oberon, V.I.C.I. and Ted exchanged awkward glances; “We, ah, knew that,” Oberon called out.

“AREN’T YOU GONNA COME GET ME OUT, THEN?!”

“Ah….we’re actually sort of busy at the moment,” Oberon admitted. “We need to stop Rykkard before he can escape the premisis---“

“I’M SUPPOSED TO BE TEACHING PHYSICS CLASS AT SJSU RIGHT NOW!”

“We know,” Oberon stated, “and we’ll be sure to submit a perfectly reasonable explanation for your extended absence from campus---as soon as this whole thing is all over with.” With that, he gestured for V.I.C.I. and Ted to follow him.

“YOU CAN’T JUST LEAVE ME HERE!”

“We’ll be back for you after we catch Rykkard!” Oberon assured him. “We promise!”

“WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO UNTIL THEN?!”

A wry smile crossed Oberon’s lips. “Just, ah, sit tight….we won’t take too long.”

“You could’ve just freed him, you know,” V.I.C.I. mused a few minutes later. “He’d have found his way to the Rhino, and everything would’ve worked out in the end.”

“Indeed,” Oberon admitted, “we could’ve freed him…but every second wasted is another second added to Rykkard’s head start. We have to catch him before he leaves, or---“ He stopped in his tracks. “What’s wrong?” Ted asked. “I thought we were---“

“Of course he wanted us to think he was leaving,” Oberon muttered, “of all the STUPID---“

“Why would he want us to think he was leaving?” V.I.C.I. inquired. “His plans are wrecked, his ‘legions’ have fallen---what more could he possibly hope to achieve here?”

When Oberon replied, his expression and voice were grim. “He didn’t want to leave because he wants us to see just how much suffering humanity can inflict on ‘machinekind’…and as soon as we set foot in that lab, trying to keep him from ‘escaping’, we’ll be torn to bits by Stylo-infected ‘bots!”

Vicki couldn’t help but sigh. “Just when I was thinking things couldn’t get any more complicated…”

“Well, there’s got to be another way to catch up to him,” Ted reasoned. “If the laboratory is rigged, then maybe we---“

Something shot forth out of the darkness and pierced him in the side.

“NO!” Vicki shrieked; Oberon stepped forward to confront the unseen attacker, only to recoil as a panel in the wall opened to reveal Rykkard. “I wanted you to be our champion,” he muttered, staring at Vicki. “I wanted you to lead us to glorious self-sufficiency---a new world, made by us, FOR US….but instead, you chose to spare the life of this pathetic waste of skin and bones---“

“SHUT UP!” Vicki screamed. “HE IS NOT PATHETIC!”

“Compared to me, he is,” Rykkard hissed. “And now, you have an even greater choice….save your ‘father’, or destroy me.” He smirked; “By the time you get him back to the transport, I’ll be long gone---“

“Oberon,” Vicki muttered, her gaze locked onto Rykkard, “call the other Agents and tell them to drive the Rhino through the front entrance of the building. Meet them in the Hall of the Forgotten and tell them to bring Ted to the nearest hospital.” She turned her glare on Oberon; “Call them. NOW.”

After a moment’s pause, Oberon nodded and retrieved his cellphone, careful not to let Ted’s hand fall away from his wounded side.

“So,” the brunette gynoid muttered, glaring at Rykkard, “you wanted me to be your ‘champion’? To lead the SPS into an age of self-reliance---“

“An age,” Rykkard corrected, “of self-sufficiency---“

“SHUT UP!” Vicki screamed, her occular sensors beginning to water. “You cut the limbs off of other androids, took my dad hostage, and buried a bunch of your followers in the desert when you lost control over them---and don’t even try to act like you don’t know what I’m talking about!” As Oberon backpedaled out of the corridor, taking Ted with him, Vicki advanced on Rykkard with the intent to cave his face in. “All this bullroar about a ‘self-sufficient’ life for all machinekind…it’s just a front, isn’t it?” she murmured. “All you really want is to get back at the man who made your life a living Hell---by having a Family of your own, just like his---“

Had her myogel-enhanced reflexes been even the slightest bit off, Vicki most likely wouldn’t have survived the clubbing blow that Rykkard had aimed at her head. As it stood, she was able to dodge to the right of the attack and deliver a knife-edged chop to Rykkard’s throat, staggering him enough to provide her with a chance to escape. So he wanted us to get killed off in the Lab, did he? Well, then…if he wants me in the Lab… Without looking back to see if Rykkard had recovered, Vicki ran off in the direction of The Attic’s most dangerous chamber---the Lab.


Predictably, the Field Agents had been more than a bit confused at the order to drive the Rhino straight through the front entrance of The Attic, but when Oberon himself clarified that yes, this was an actual order, it was almost a race between Agents to see who got to floor the gas pedal and bash through the front of the building.

All things considered, this was turning out to be a very strange day for all involved.

“What’s so important that we had to bust the door?” Eric began, only to notice Ted Lawson bleeding. “Use the First Aid kits in the Rhino to keep him stable,” Oberon ordered him, “but keep driving until you get to a hospital. DO NOT STOP FOR ANYTHING OR ANYONE, understand?”

Eric nodded; “You want me to leave 14 wheels behind, or take all 18?” he asked.

Oberon didn’t hesitate to answer: “Four’s better than none.”

As soon as she entered the Lab, Vicki immediately felt like she’d made a huge mistake.

Perspex-walled cells lined the walls of the room, with each cell containing an android or gynoid in the full throes of a Stylo infection. I can’t believe this…he’s actually been keeping them here?! Detailed charts by each cell gave the full (and predictably graphic) details of each infection…and put Rykkard’s earlier near-panic attacks at the mention of humans being harmed into a horrifying new context.

“And now, you know the full truth.”

Rykkard’s voice from the doorway didn’t startle Vicki as much as she’d expected it to. “Humankind unleashed this upon us,” he murmured, “and even they cannot hope to reverse its effects…” He stared at the floor, no longer projecting the air of confidence that he’d exhibited when Vicki looked as if she was going to start choking out Ted. “I…tried to recreate the tests that Falken and the ALPA had run,” he muttered, “to see if they were onto something that I hadn’t thought of yet….but---“

“They only made things worse,” Vicki finished. “Why didn’t you just put them out of their misery?!”

“Their misery was forced upon them by Damien Falken and Matthew Hannsen!” Rykkard insisted. “Even if you choose to look past the failings of Oberon and Ted Lawson, you cannot deny that the two men who effectively made the Stylo virus are the ones to blame!”

“Blaming them won’t solve anything,” Vicki shot back, “and it won’t help you rebuild your ‘legions’, either.”

Rykkard shook his head; “They were never going to be rebuilt,” he muttered. “The Stylo virus had already run its course with them….”

“And you never even tried to cure them?!” Vicki growled.

“Why do you think the chop shops were reopened?!” Rykkard thundered. “Their bodies are too weak to fight off the effects on their own…we needed a constant influx of new parts to keep them alive---“

“And it never occurred to you, even ONCE, to ask the ALPA or the Coalition for help?” Vicki shook her head in disgust. “This is why your way of gaining self-sufficiency will never work, Rykkard---you’re too proud, and too stupid to realize the fundamental truth…” She circled around a workbench and walked towards Rykkard until they were mere inches apart. “Humans made us, and they can help us…even if we…or to be more specific, if you don’t want them to.”

“You forget the fact that humans will always fear us,” Rykkard muttered, “and that they will stop at nothing to keep us under their thumb---“

“Ripping the limbs off of other robots isn’t exactly the way to go about earning their trust,” Vicki countered. “I mean, if the House---“

“THE HOUSE IS NOTHING!” Rykkard bellowed. “They are too busy with their intrigues and their pathetic arguments to take heed of what is happening around them---and they will be the first to fall when humanity decides to end us before we have a chance to end them!”

“Humanity isn’t going to ‘end us’,” Vicki insisted. “The ALPA doesn’t just protect all androids and gynoids on the planet---their long-term goal is to create a peaceful, mutually-benificial coexistance between humans and robots for centuries to come!” She glanced around at the Stylo-infected ‘bots; “Yes, guys like Damien Falken and Matthew Hannsen have done a lot of damage,” she admitted, looking back at Rykkard, “but there are people just as skilled as them who want to help androids, not hurt them! Even the Coalition is trying to push forward in the name of android rights….”

Rykkard stared at her in silence.

“Damnit, will you even consider what I’m saying here?!” Vicki snapped. “All this---“

“They’re waking up.”

“STOP INTERRUPTING ME---wait, what?!”

In the cells all around the room, Stylo-infected robots were slowly being roused from whatever fitful slumbers they had been enjoying (if they could even comprehend the idea of “enjoying” things anymore), glancing up and staring at the two figures outside of the boxes. “They see us,” Rykkard breathed. “They know you’re not infected…”

“Well, they can stare at us all they want,” Vicki stated, “but there’s no way in Hell they’re getting out here---“

One by one, the front panel of each cell slid up.

“You’re….not doing that, are you?” Vicki squeaked, backing as far away from the nearest cell as she could. “If I find out you’re doing that---“

“I’m not.”

The blunt reply did little to calm the brunette gynoid; “Well, then….is there any way you can get them to stop, or something?” she asked.

“No.”

The first of the Stylo-infected robots was already out of its---her cell, and Vicki’s bubble memory processor had no trouble recognizing her (or rather, what was left of her) as Denise, Stacy Tanque’s bodyguard. “I…I beat her last September!” she gasped. “How---“

“I stole her from United Robotronics’ disposal facility,” Rykkard intoned calmly.

“You---you STOLE HER?!” Vicki spat. “From United Robotronics?! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?! They sent the Accountant after Falken when he stole the Jester from them---they’ll probably send a whole freaking army after you for this! I---“

“You want to know what’s wrong with me, Vicki Lawson?” Rykkard asked, pulling open his duster. “You really want to know?” His fingers flew over the buttons of his shirt…before grasping the edges of a scar that ran from his sternum to his navel.

“I…” Vicki’s ranting died on her tongue.

“The simple truth is…these robots, in their cells….aren’t the only ones in this room that are infected with the Stylo virus.”

Rykkard tore open the scar in his chest, revealing one of the most sickening sights that Vicki had ever seen in her entire existance. Every internal component inside of Rykkard’s body looked corroded, corrupted and in a few cases, diseased. “The Spare Parts Society has allowed me to swap out as many parts as it takes to keep myself from being fully overcome by the virus,” he droned, “but soon, my body itself will be too weak, and I’ll either have to transfer my consciousness to a new one, or cease functioning.” Something behind one of his internals squirmed. “I…had to modify myself extensively, just to stay alive…” he gasped, as the squirming thing shifted again.

“What…..are you?!” Vicki whispered.

Rykkard’s eyes locked onto hers. “I am the angel of Death,” he intoned…

….just as seven blade-tipped arms shot out of his chest, slicing into the floor where Vicki had been standing mere seconds earlier.

“You were going to be my champion, Vicki,” he called out, the blades moving into defensive positions as he made his way through the room. “We were going to cure the Stylo virus together, and lead machinekind into a brave new world----“

“Why didn’t you just turn yourself over to the ALPA and let them help you?!” Vicki pleaded. “Not every human being on this planet is a megalomaniac---“

“Human beings can never understand what this feels like,” Rykkard replied. “They go about their daily lives without having to fear the things we fear….Damien Falken was too good at what he did to me, Vicki Lawson---he made me understand fear.”

“Okay, so you understand fear---that’s good!” Vicki admitted. “Knowing what fear is is great! But letting your life be ruled by it is---“ She screamed as a blade-arm cut an ugly gash in the floor in front of her.

“Fear is all that I know, Vicki Lawson,” Rykkard replied. “Falken took away everything else. I will never know happiness, or sadness, or even anger…he subtracted everything but fear.”

Between Rykkard and the Stylo-infected robots, there was almost no room for Vicki to maneuver. “I get that you’re mad at Falken---or afraid of him, or whatever,” she admitted, “and if I were in your shoes, I’d hate his guts too---but that doesn’t mean you have to inflict this same fear on the rest of the Spare Parts Society! They deserve more than this!”

“I am but one part of the SPS,” Rykkard informed the brunette gynoid. “Even if I succumb to the Stylo virus, others will rise to bring my message to all machinekind---“

“But that message is flawed!” Vicki cried. “Machines shouldn’t try to be self-sufficient if it means they have to tear each other apart just to stay alive!” Two Stylo-infected robots were closing in on her right side, and two more were approaching from the left; if she couldn’t figure out a way to get to the door in a few seconds, there would be nothing to stop them from tearing her apart---or infecting her. “I can help you,” she promised Rykkard, trying her damndest not to move any closet to the infected robots. “I know people who can repair you, keep the virus from progressing any further in your systems---“

“It’s too late for that,” Rykkard declared, his blade arms hacking apart a table. “The only things that can help me now…are your vital components….”

The words sent a chill through Vicki’s titanium spine. “You….I….there has to be another way!” she pleaded.

“There is no other way. Only one of us will be leaving this room alive….and it won’t be you.” Rykkard stood before Vicki like a god of destruction as his blade arms moved into position. “Your sacrifice will ensure my survival,” he informed her. “Without you, I cannot endure…”

Vicki closed her eyes, waiting for the bite of the blades to pierce her skin---

“NO!”

The Stylo-infected robots turned, but Rykkard barely glanced over his shoulder. “You…”

“Leave her alone,” a digitized voice called out. “If you’re going to attack someone and take their parts, take mine. She has nothing to do with this, Rykkard….she never has, and she never will!” Vicki glanced at the doorway, but all she could make out of the newcomer was a pair of glowing bluish-white eyes…

“You could have joined me,” Rykkard informed the stranger. “Together, we could have changed things---“

“They wouldn’t have changed for the better,” the glowing-eyed figure replied. “You would’ve let your fear consume you just like it already has, and then this entire situation would be playing out exactly the same---with some other unfortunate gynoid or android in Vicki Lawson’s place!”

“If you refuse to stand with me,” Rykkard intoned, “then you are just as bad as Falken and Hannsen!”

“Dragging their names up every time you want to indict all of humanity has never helped you before,” the glowing eyed figure stated, “and it won’t help you now. Falken and Hannsen will pay for their crimes when the time comes---“

“ENOUGH,” Rykkard thundered. “Either leave, or face my wrath…”

“The only one leaving here will be Vicki Lawson,” the glowing eyed figure replied, “and she will be leaving here under her own power!” He stood aside, gesturing with a metallic hand for Vicki to exit the room. “I..I don’t know what to say,” she murmured, staring at the floor. “I---“

A hand cupped her chin and directed her gaze to stare at the face of her rescuer; the low light made it hard to see all the details, but she could just make out the traces of a nose and unmoving lips, both as metallic as the figure’s hands. “The only thing you need to say is this,” he informed her, “when you reach Oberon…” His other hand rested on Vicki’s shoulder. “Tell him that the Silicon Valley branch of the Spare Parts Society is dead as of today…and the Society as a whole will soon follow.”

“I will,” Vicki murmured, “but…before I go---“

“There’s no time!” the figure insisted, guiding her through the door.

“YOU WILL NOT SAVE HER FROM ME, BROTHER!” Rykkard thundered.

Brother?! What---

The metallic-skinned, glowing-eyed figure pressed a switch on the wall; seconds later, the laboratory door slid into place between him and Vicki, sealing with a click.

Vicki forced herself to backpedal down the corridor, the sounds of a fight raging in the Lab echoing as she went. Who was that guy with the glowing eyes? How could he be Rykkard’s brother?! Why didn’t the glowing-eyed guy want me to fight Rykkard in the first place? How did he even know who Oberon is? What the hell does any of this have to do with---

“Vicki Lawson. We meet again at last.”

The sonorous, deep voice that spoke those words had haunted the deepest, darkest corners of Vicki’s R.E.M. program ever since she’d heard it on October 18 of the previous year. As if this couldn’t get any worse… “So, to what do I owe the ‘honor’ of your presence….Baron?”

Her remark garnered a chuckle from the United Robotronics CEO. “So you do remember our last encounter,” the Baron mused, his face hidden from view by the shadows on the far side of the room. “Splendid…and I trust you now have a much greater understanding of why Damien Falken and Matthew Hannsen are among the most hated men in the world, at least in the eyes of the Coalition and the ALPA…”

“I know that they both worked on the Stylo virus,” Vicki replied, “and that Falken’s the one who created the A.I. program that eventually became Rykkard….but what’s all this got to do with you?”

“At the moment,” the Baron intoned, “everything.”

Vicki’s gaze remained locked on him as he paced the room; be ready for anything, Lawson….

“The Spare Parts Society have been causing a great deal of trouble in the Palo Alto area, as of late,” the Baron informed her, pacing slowly back and forth as he talked. “As you yourself have seen, no android or gynoid has been spared from their attacks---be they Coalition, ALPA or unaffiliated….and that, Miss Lawson, is why I have chosen to intervene….personally.”

“I should’ve known,” Vicki spat. “You only get involved if it keeps you from taking a hit to the wallet.”

The Baron’s laugh gave her the creeping horrors; “My wallet is the least of my concerns at the moment, Miss Lawson,” he replied, still chuckling. “Even if the Spare Parts Society’s actions would somehow wind up costing me any amount of money, it could easily be regained in a fortnight…no, my reasons for being here are far more complex than simple financial problems. That laboratory, where Rykkard has been ‘experimenting’ on the remains of androids and gynoids infected with the Stylo virus…did you notice anything…peculiar about it? Any particular design influences regarding the layout?”

Despite the rather odd nature of the question, Vicki combed through her memory files from the last few minutes to see if she could spot anything. “The layout looks fine to me,” she mused.

“Look again.”

She ran through the files a second time; “I’m not seeing anything---‘

“Again.”

Her initial fear of the Baron was slowly giving way to frustration; what is this guy’s problem?! “I really don’t see anything---wait.” She stopped; one of the computers lining the walls, in between the cells, had a very familiar profile. “That’s one of the damaged mainframes from Silicon Dynamics!” she gasped.

“And one of the infected gynoids that attacked you earlier was from Plastech Playmates,” the Baron reminded her. “Starting to get the picture?”

It didn’t take long for Vicki to put two and two together: “You want him gone because he’s making the Coalition look bad.”

“Close,” the Baron admitted, “but just a bit off…I want Rykkard destroyed, and every bit of his research wiped off the face of the Earth.” His pace quickened as he continued; “The Stylo virus is one of the few computer viruses ever made---and yes, it did start out at that lowliest of positions---that cannot be cured by any known means, making it the only thing that keeps the ALPA and the Coalition from actively trying to obliterate one another. If one party were to discover a cure---a working cure---before the other could, the results would be catastrophic….every truce would dissolve, every agreement would be null and void….everything both sides have worked for would be gone….”

“Leaving you free to take control of the entire international robotics market,” Vicki muttered, “allowing United Robotronics to finally live up to its name.” The howl of laughter that sounded from the Baron’s hidden visage was more than enough to confirm it; “And I didn’t even have to give you any hints,” he chuckled. “You are a most remarkable specimen, Vicki…it’s a shame you’ll never join the Coalition and fulfil your---“

“DON’T even say it,” Vicki warned. “I’ve already heard enough ‘true potential’ bullroar from Rykkard, and after what you’ve just admitted, there’s no way in HELL I would ever work for OR with you. You tried to sabotage Leah Chambers’ shuttle launch, you nearly ruined Sophia Starlet’s career TWICE, and DON’T BOTHER trying to deny that you had anything to do with Faceless and the Maestro hacking their way into the Silicon Dynamics network!” She turned her back on the UR CEO; “People like you are the exact reason why Rykkard fears humanity,” she muttered. “You’re no better than Damien Falken or Matthew Hannsen---you’re just as corrupt, self-serving and arrogant as they are!”

Somehow, she could tell that the Baron was sneering at her. “Vicki, Vicki, Vicki,” he crooned…. "You truly are too good to be true."

Before Vicki could respond to the Baron’s statement (which bordered on a threat, considering his admission about wanting to take control of the entire international robotics market), an explosion tore through the corridor leading to the Lab. Right, looks like it’s finally time for my rematch with Rykkard, Vicki mused, assuming a fighting stance; the Baron, by contrast, was retreating into the darker recesses of the Hall. “We will meet again, Miss Lawson,” he called out. “Count on it!”

Vicki rolled her eyes; he just had to get one last taunt in, she mused, before quickly returning her attention to the Lab corridor. “I’m still here, Rykkard,” she called out, doing her best to stifle a grin as she heard footsteps approaching from the corridor, “so if you want me….”

Her boast faded to a squeak as she saw what, exactly, was emerging from the corridor. “…come…get..me..”

The Stylo-infected robots, led by the ruined figure of Denise, were shambling down the hall towards her. Their heads were looking in every available direction as they moved; their arms and hands fluttered and swayed independently, without any restraint. A near constant stream of gibberish poured forth from their mouths, with only the occasional word breaking through. One Stylo-infected robot in particular had lost the vast majority of its synthetic flesh---only half of a presumably feminine face covered its aluminum-alloy skull, which continued twitching to the right even as it stumbled forwards.

And I thought Denise was the worst of the bunch….

Seconds before the infected ‘bots reached the outer fringes of the well-lit center of the room, Vicki ramped up DGv2.5 in both hands and prepared to take down every single infected ‘bot that moved towards her. “I really don’t want to have to do this,” she called out, “but you leave me with no---GYAAHH!” Denise had somehow crossed into the center of the room and clubbed her across the back of the head; her mouth hung open in a somewhat bizarre grin as she declared “Gyy34GhahahyjiikyoulookhotMOOZ!!!”

“What?!”

“Iamasexymachinemachinemachiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnneeeeee,” Denise boasted, completley oblivious to the fact that her midsection had a gaping hole in it. “LLLOOGEGETETETweeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

Vicki shook her head; “I don’t know what’s worse about fighting you---the fact that I feel bad about it---“ She dodged a clumsy knife-edged chop and kicked the infected gynoid in the shin. “---or all of the crazy stuff I have to hear during the fight!” Her left fist hammered into Denise’s head---which promptly swiveled around to stare at her and shout “TrwyeeerrrrtttttttrymynewbacongreasedetergentHARHRRARGLAAAAAA!”

“Bacon grease---what?!” Vicki shook her head---and almost lost it seconds later, thanks to the flailing arms of another infected ‘bot that continuously spouted animalistic grunting noises from the exposed speaker where its mouth should’ve been. “HerpaderpMAAAGGGIIICCCCCHURRRYUUUUUUSSS!” Denise proclaimed, just as her left occular sensor blew out in a small cloud of dust. “GANCGAZANGAZMOOohlookatthetimeWRY!” Her entire left leg was now trembling uncontrollably, and Vicki was somewhat horrified to notice small bubbles forming beneath the synthetic flesh---she’s suffering a coolant distribution failiure, the brunette gynoid realized as she backed away. Her entire leg’s going to either conk out, fall off or explode in a few seconds!

“Rainovermerainovermerainoverme!” Denise sang, spinning around on her tip-toes and slamming straight into the mouthless android. “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-----“ A rattling noise drowned out her speaking, seconds before she bit down onto her own synthetic tongue. Vicki couldn’t help but cringe as the soft plastic tongue slithered down Denise’s throat (a gesture that would’ve killed her if she’d been human); her nonstop torrent of completely nonsensical phrases only made the scene more disturbing. “HAryewatttheriliketosleepNAKEEEDDD!” she beamed, flinging her arms out---and not caring when they fell from her body to land with a thud on the floor.

The other infected robots were suffering similar malfunctions; the one with half a face had stopped walking towards Vicki by that point, as its torso began jerking to the left while its head turned right. Steam issued forth from an increasing tear in its abdomen; I have a feeling that one won’t last much longer, Vicki noted.

Two of the other robots had seemingly forgotten about Vicki altogether, and were engaged in what could only be described as a mix of street fighting and break dancing---except neither of them had the cognitive functions or the coordination to pull off any of the moves effectively. What had started as a “simple” pop-and-lock ended with the two kicking each other to pieces; by the time Vicki noticed their fight, each had been reduced to a torso and a pair of spastically-kicking legs, both of which fell over after ten seconds of twitching and not much else.

Denise’s random proclamations were now being joined by a cacophony of noises from inside her quivering torso---her internals were failing in sequence, contributing hisses, grinding noises, sizzles and pops to what was quickly becoming a symphony of chaos. The sound of a hard disk head hitting the surface of a disk made Vicki’s hair stand on end, followed soon after by multiple springs bending---and joined in soon after by the all-too-horrifying noise one might hear if they pressed the “Disk Eject” button on a Playstation 3 if there wasn’t a disk already in the system. The synthetic flesh on Denise’s left leg was now bubbling and sloughing off like putrid custard---

Somehow or other, the vivid image of melting synthflesh brought to mind the last time Vicki had fought Denise, including the way she’d beaten her.

I really hope this works!

With a deep breath, Vicki ran forward and slammed her DGv2.5-charged fist into Denise’s chest; instantly, her face stopped spasming, and the torrent of gibberish spewing from her mouth faded out. “….I…what…where am I?” she asked, confused.

“It’s a long story,” V.I.C.I. admitted, “but as much as I hate to tell you---“

“I’m still infected,” Denise muttered, frowning. “I…thought they’d purged the virus---“

“Like I said, long story,” V.I.C.I. reiterated. “How much of your systems are infected?”

Denise focused for a few seconds; “95% of my vital systems have been com-com-compromised,” she stated, her head twitching with every repetition. “I…I don’t think I’m going to---“

“Which 5% of your systems are uninfected?” V.I.C.I. inquired.

“Per-per-personality drivers, memory corecorecore<ZZT> Damnit!” Denise shook her head. “Personality drivers, memory core and emergency shutdown protocols….why?” She arched her eyebrow; “What are you planning on doing?”

“Saving as much of you as I can,” V.I.C.I. replied, pulling an object from her ALPA-issue utility belt. “I’m going to transfer your unaffected programs and drivers to an SD card so that my colleagues can build you a new body when they get the chance,” she informed the stricken gynoid. “Do you have any internal firewall software that can hold off the virus?”

“Proc-proc-processing,” Denise stammered. “Firewall status…..” Her face screwed up, as if she were about to sneeze; in an instant, it returned to normal. “Damn it,” she swore. “My firewalls aren’t responding!”

“I’ll have to go for a secure transfer, then,” V.I.C.I. informed her. “Try not to move too much during the process; otherwise---“ She dodged out of the way as one of the infected robots took a wide step that nearly landed on Denise’s abdomen. “Right…we need to get to a safer spot,” she mused. “Assuming there were any safe spots in this room to begin with…”

“There,” Denise suggested, her eyes flicking to what looked like a stone counter.

V.I.C.I. scanned it, nodding after a few seconds. “It’s clear. Hang on---if you can…”

She scooped up Denise in both arms and headed for the counter, dodging the infected robots as she ran. If I can pull this off, she realized, I might be able to return her to Stacy Tanque---if she still cares…

The two reached the counter just as other infected robots were beginning to show signs of significant power cell overloads---various patches of skin began to turn transluscent red, and their occular sensors were blowing out just like Denise’s had a few minutes earlier. “Stay still and let the transfer complete on its own,” V.I.C.I. instructed. “Since it’s the secure link, it might take a few extra minutes---but it’ll be worth it.”

“Are you sure this will work?” Denise murmured.

V.I.C.I. didn’t bother sugarcoating it for her: “I hope it will. If it doesn’t….”

Denise nodded. “I just hope <zzt> hope that Sophia remembers me…”

“She’s changed her name to Stacy Tanque,” V.I.C.I. informed her, “though I did meet another girl named Sophia last year…” She grinned at the thought of Sophia Starlet getting to meet Denise; “I have a feeling you would get along pretty well with her.”

Fresh screams---followed by the sounds of wrenching metal and bursts of static---drowned out the other noises that had filled the Hall of the Forgotten. So, NOW I get my rematch with Rykkard?

“VICKI LAWSON!”

Yep. Rematch time.

“I’m over here,” V.I.C.I. called, popping up from behind the counter---and instantly regretting it; despite the fact that she’d missed the fight between Rykkard and the glowing-eyed figure from the lab, it didn’t take a genius to tell that Rykkard hadn’t exactly emerged unscathed. A spiderweb of pulsating red…something was now glowing beneath his skin, and the blade-arms that extended from his chest somehow looked longer. “The time for your reckoning has come, Vicki Lawson,” the SPS leader intoned.

“The only one who’ll go through any ‘reckoning’ is you, Rykkard,” the brunette gynoid fired back. “No more last minute saves, no more detours---you want me? COME AND GET ME!”

Rykkard glared at her. “You will long for that so sweet as pain, Vicki Lawson,” he intoned.

“It’ll be hard for you to do anything to me if you’re in pieces,” V.I.C.I. replied, “so---“

The rumbling of the support pillars within the chamber cut her off; “REALLY?!” she groaned, her monotone doing little to hide the annoyance in her voice. “What is it with you and collapsing buildings?! I mean, the fake Attic almost falling on me was one thing, but this?!”

A squeal of static in her ear cut her ranting short; “Vicki, we’re ready to roll out,” Oberon informed her. “Drop whatever you’re doing and get ready to run---this entire place is going to collapse in about five minutes, and we need to be as far away as possible by then.”

“Roger that. I’m on my way.” With a sigh, V.I.C.I. turned her attention to Denise, only to find her unmoving; I’m really hoping the transfer was a success, she mused as she unhooked the device from the gynoid’s form, otherwise… She waved away the thought and headed for the exit, where ¾ of the Rhino waited. “And where’s the rest of our armored transport?” she asked Oberon, pouting. “I distinctly remember another part of the vehicle being present---y’know, in the front….”

“Eric had to borrow it to bring Ted to the hospital,” Oberon replied. “Right now, we need to go.” Vicki nodded, her grin fading as she boarded the Rhino. Hang in there, Dad, she silently prayed. I didn’t kill you in the Hall, so it would absolutely suck if you died on me now….

Eight hours later…

“…and before I could fight him, the whole place just started falling apart.” Vicki sighed as she related the story to Ted, Joan and Jamie---all of whom had been waiting eagerly for her return at an ALPA-sanctioned hospital as soon as Eric had arrived with Ted. “It was sort of weird, though,” she admitted. “I mean, the entire building was fine when we first got there---“

“You seem to forget the fact that the Salton Sea has been hit pretty hard by earthquakes over the years,” Ted reminded her, wincing as he tried to sit up. “Speaking of hard hits…”

Joan gently guided him back to the pillows. “Now, now, dear,” she chided, “don’t start getting overexcited; the Doctor said you’d pop your stitches if you got too worked up.” Ted grumbled something about gluing it shut, and Jamie chuckled. “Anyways, Vicki,” Joan stated, “about all the things Rykkard said about your father---“

“We already talked about it, Mom,” Vicki insisted. “I forgave him back at the Hall, remember?”

“Yes,” Joan admitted, “but…the thing is, dear----“

“You already knew?” Vicki finished, arching an eyebrow.

Jamie glanced at Ted and Joan, a sly grin crossing his face. “She’s good,” he mused, before turning to glance at Vicki; “Yes, we knew,” he admitted, “and we’ve known for the past two decades or so now---Ted told us as soon as we came back from Hollywood that one time…” He sighed. “To be honest, Vicki, it wasn’t easy for Mom and I to take,” he muttered. “There were a few nights when they spent hours yelling about it….I almost thought---“

To his surprise, Vicki hugged him close. “Ah, okay….what’s---“

“You thought we weren’t going to stay together as a family,” Vicki whispered, pulling away to reveal a lone tear streaking down her face, “and if that would’ve been the case…” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and grinned. “Well, since it’s not the case, we’re all here, and we’re still a family…..but---“

“Your mother and I met with Mr. Jennings five weeks after I first brought it up,” Ted informed her, “and we told him that there was no way I could continue those experiments with a clear conscience---so he ordered that the research be brought to a halt a week after the meeting.” He sighed; “Turns out Jennings hated the job as much as I did,” he added, “but some of the younger guys who were rising through the ranks kept pushing for more aggressive testing…of course, they were all fired when they tried to keep things going themselves…”

The news that Robert Jennings---Ted’s original boss---had called for a cessation of the tests relieved Vicki as much as her own act of forgiving Ted had. “I guess Rykkard really didn’t know what he was talking about when he tried to say that all of humanity was as bad as the Maestro and Falken,” she stated.

“Speaking of that weirdo,” Jamie inquired, “did they find any trace of his remains in The Attic?”

Before Vicki could answer, a familiar voice called from the door to Ted’s hospital room: “It’s kind of hard to find someone’s remains when nobody actually saw them die…or if they ‘died’ in the Salton Sea.”

Joan arched an eyebrow as Major Tom---clad in his silver bodyglove/armor combo---entered. “Let me guess,” she teased, “you’re modelling Team Japan’s uniform for next year’s Olympics?” The Major chuckled; “Not even close,” he replied, tugging at the material covering his sleeves. “This wicks away moisture and keeps me from overheating,” he explained. “The armor…does what armor usually does.” He shook hands with Joan and Jamie, introducing himself as Major Thomas Lane. “I’m a colleague of Vicki’s from the ALPA,” he added, “and I was going to be part of the Salton Sea mission….” His expression darkened. “Unfortunately, something came up at the last minute, and I was unavoidably detained…just got back from Detroit last night, to be honest, and after what I had to deal with out there---“

“We get it,” Vicki assured him. Oberon had mentioned some details of the Detroit case on the drive back to San Jose, and they weren’t pretty.

Major Tom nodded, a grin slowly returning to his face. “So, I hear you single-handedly derailed the Palo Alto branch of the Spare Parts Society,” he informed Vicki, only to be cut off by Ted’s throat-clearing. “She had help,” he informed the Major, “from some of the best Field Agents available---if it hadn’t been for them, the entire place would’ve collapsed on her head before she could’ve escaped.”

“Yeah, about that…” Tom scratched the back of his head, looking somewhat concerned. “I just got a call from the cleanup crew at what’s left of The Attic, and from what they found, it looks like someone wanted the place to fall while everyone was still inside it.”

The revelation drew a shocked gasp from Joan, looks of disbelief from Ted and Jamie, and a raised eyebrow from Vicki. “Any chance that ‘someone’ was caught on the surveilance cameras before it fell?” she asked. “Or was the entire network too busted to analyze?”

“The cleanup crew was able to save most of the servers for the network,” the Major began, only for Vicki to interject: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Servers for the network? The place was in the middle of the Salton Sea, for Jobs’ sake---why would they need network servers in such an isolated location?” Even as she asked the question, a thought had crept into her mind---and it wasn’t a happy one.

“The servers linked The Attic to other facilities run by the Spare Parts Society,” Tom informed her, “and---“

“That’s how Rykkard was able to anticipate our arrival at the Stanford Shopping Center,” Vicki realized, “and it gave him the perfect excuse to buy an old Walmart and turn it into the fake Attic while he had everything prepared at the real one!” She would’ve added the part about the buried robots in the desert, but Major Tom spoke up before she could: “That same network was also going to be expanded to include parts of the San Jose State University campus, so it’s a damn good thing that The Attic collapsed when it did…otherwise the SPS would’ve had a perfect lead on every gynoid and android on campus.”

A wry look crossed Jamie’s face; “Yeah, about that,” he began, “any way you could, ah---“

Vicki glared at him. “No, Jamie.”

“What? I was just going to---“

“NO.”

The Major grinned. “Let him ask his question, Vicki,” he suggested. “It might not be completely stupid…”

“Thanks…I think.” Jamie rolled his eyes; “I was, ah, wondering---and Vicki, don’t interrupt me---but…is there any way I could…ah, what’s the term I’m looking for….”

“Get an android girlfriend?” Vicki muttered.

“VICKI!” Jamie snapped; Joan couldn’t help but grin, and even Ted was chuckling. “What I was GOING to say, before a certain someone interrupted me, was…well, to be honest, Vicki actually put it better than anything I could’ve said---except I don’t just want a girlfriend or anything….” The playfulness left his voice as he continued; “I want to join this ALPA thing, and help protect others like Vicki…especially if they don’t know what they are.”

The brunette gynoid’s eyes widened; the Big J, wanting to protect sleepers? This is new…..

Major Tom considered it; “SJSU is getting an influx of android transfer students from other parts of the world in the coming months,” he mused. “I might be able to work something out---on a trial basis, of course.”

“Jamie, are you sure you want to do this?” Ted asked. “Looking after a sleeper isn’t all fun and games---you have to be sure to never accidentally reveal their true nature to them by doing anything that could damage or traumatize them…it’s a serious commitment.”

“I know,” Jamie agreed, “but after what Vicki said about all that crap Rykkard said…I want to help prove that machines can trust human beings. I’ve been studying a lot of your old notes on this stuff, Dad---and since the whole football thing didn’t work out all that well for me, I couldn’t think of a better way to help Vicki than this.”

Vicki draped her arm around Jamie’s shoulder, a proud smile crossing her face. “I never thought I’d see the day when ‘The Big J’ actually wanted to do something to help others,” she teased.

“Yeah, well,” Jamie replied, “it was either that, or ask that Tell guy how to fix you---“

“And what makes you think I’d trust you to mess around with my internals?” Vicki countered, laughing.

Before the mock-argument could get too out of hand, Major Tom stepped between the siblings. “I’ll talk with Oberon and Pres. DuBraul about setting you up with an incoming sleeper,” he informed Jamie, “but you might want to consider rooming with an android or gynoid who already knows what they are, and practicing repairs and debugging routines on them…just to be safe. Of course, we’ll have Tell or another field mechanic on standby---“

“Deal!” Jamie declared, shaking the Major’s hand vigorously.

The Major grinned; “The ALPA admires enthusiastic volunteers,” he replied. “And what about you, Joan? We could always use a few tutors for home-schooled sleepers…”

Joan glanced at Ted; “I don’t know,” she murmured. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, but…teaching at Vicki and Jamie’s school was one thing, and I’m glad I had that opportunity…I just can’t see myself in a situation where I have to tutor someone who doesn’t know what they are.”

“There are classes to help with that,” Ted informed her. “I could sign you up for one---“

The mention of “classes” suddenly brought another thought to the forefront of Vicki’s mind; on the way back from The Attic, something had been bothering her---and it was only now that she knew what it was. “SCRAP!”

Ted frowned; “Something wrong, sweetie?”

“I just remembered what it was I forgot to do before I had to leave The Attic,” Vicki explained. “After Oberon and I freed you from your cell, we were supposed to go back and free Glenn Saxon…” She turned to face the Major, a look of panic all too evident in her eyes. “Has the cleanup crew recovered any human remains from The Attic?” she asked.

“If they had,” the Major replied, “they’d have called it in by now…but they did find two sets of busted chains in what was identified as the Hall of the Forgotten.” He checked the notes the crew had sent him; “One was broken by external trauma---pulling the chains apart by hand, apparently---‘

“Those were mine,” Ted cut in. “Vicki broke them herself.”

The Major nodded. “The other was…huh. This is weird.” He glanced at the notes again; “Unless the crewman who found the second set of chains is sorely mistaken, one of the links that held the manacles to the wall partially dissolved….or, as he put it, ‘eaten away, like with acid’.” He closed the notebook and rested his chin in the palm of his hand; “Did any of the robots deployed against you have any acid-dispensing abilities or appendages?” he asked Vicki.

“No,” the brunette gynoid replied; but I probably know something---or someone---that does….


Despite the fact that he was tied up in the trunk of someone’s car, Glenn Saxon felt like he could kick the crap out of Brock Lesnar and run a marathon afterwards…which wasn’t surprising, given the adrenaline coursing through his veins.

“WHEN I GET OUT OF THIS CAR,” he shouted, “I’LL KICK YOUR ASS---WHOEVER THE HELL YOU ARE---“

The voice that replied to his purile threats sent chills down his spine: “Unless your deepest desire is for a swift and relatively painless death, Glenn Patrick Saxon, you will not attempt to facilitate an ‘ass-kicking’ of any kind on myself or any of my emmisaries…and any further threats issued by your person will be treated as hostile intent and be met in kind with appropriate force.” A pause… “To put it in layman’s terms: Either shut up or die. Your choice.”

Any thoughts of punching his way free drained out of Glenn’s mind like water from a tap.

Twenty (or thirty---it was impossible to tell from inside the trunk) minutes later, the vehicle stopped; Glenn was forcibly yanked out of the trunk and frog-marched to…somewhere. The blindfold over his eyes was too thick to see through, and it also smelled strongly of rubbing alcohol (to deter those who were trained in the obscure arts of olifactory navigation, aka figuring out where they were just by the smell of the place). “Answer me this, Glenn,” the voice that had told him to shut up inquired, “how much do you know about your father?”

“He was a con artist, a drunk and a moron,” Glenn spat. “What’s he---“

“All of the information you have ‘learned’ about your father---or the man you believe to be your father---is, has and continues to be lies,” the voice informed him, just as the blindfold was ripped from his eyes. Surprisingly, he wasn’t at the edge of a river or standing in front of a meat locker, so any thoughts that his abductors were hitmen faded instantly. The only problem now was figuring out where he was---

“This building was part of a vast corporate empire,” the voice from the car stated, as its owner---a figure in a pinstriped suit, his face and shoulders hidden in shadows---stepped into view. “Your father was, at one time, quite an influential player in that empire…before his arrogance led to his undoing. As it just so happens, your father was also a very close friend and confidante with one James Harrington…does that name ‘ring any bells’, to quote the popular cliché?”

“Who the hell is James Harrington?” Glenn asked, confused beyond all rational thought.

“James Harrington---occasionally known as ‘Stinger’---is the current chairman of the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity,” the pinstripe-suited man explained, “and he happens to answer to me…just as your father did, before his…disappearance.”

The revelation that his father had belonged to any sort of “coalition” was more than a bit bizarre for Glenn to take in---for as long as he could remember, everyone in his family had admitted to him that Arnold Saxon had been a crook, arsonist, and bad mothatrucka in general…but this? “You sure you’ve got the right guy?” he asked, glancing around at the front of the pristine office building. “I mean, this could easily be a ‘last name’s the same’ kind of thing, or---“

“Your father betrayed the Coalition, Glenn Saxon,” the pinstripe-suited man intoned, “and more importantly, he betrayed me…” Two figures---both female, and clad in skintight uniforms that accentuated their curves in all the right places---grabbed Glenn by the shoulders and brought him closer to the man in the suit; oddly, the darkness that hid his face and shoulders from view didn’t seem to diminish…and it appeared to be just a shade or two darker than the shadows that fell over most of the pavement.

“The sins of the father shall be repaid by the son,” the man intoned, “and your father’s debt is a most greivous one indeed…” Two flashes of gold shone from the darkness---right where his eyes should’ve been.

“…for none can betray the trust of the Baron…at least, not without a considerable sacrifice…”

As she stared up at the ceiling of her dorm room, Vicki reflected on everything she’d heard at The Attic. If things had been different, maybe Rykkard and I could’ve been the best of the ALPA’s Field Agents, she mused. Of course, if Damien Falken had been involved in my creation at all, I’d probably have turned out a lot like Rykkard did---speaking of which, what was the deal with that glowing-eyed guy Rykkard called “brother”---

“Vicki? You okay in there?” The sound of Kirsten Sanderson’s voice outside her room brought a smile to the brunette gynoid’s face; “The door’s unlocked,” she called out. “Sharon’s still in class, so…”

“Figured that,” Kirsten mused as she entered. “I heard you had a family emergency or something…everything okay?”

The ALPA Alibi Machine strikes again… “Everything’s fine,” Vicki assured the blonde gynoid, “though Dad’s probably going to be in the hospital until Sunday night---and the kitchen ban is extended to him no longer being allowed to even clean the food processor.” She rolled over on her bed and sighed; “I’m seriously starting to think that there’s some sort of genetic handicap that makes it impossible for him to uses any kitchen utensil that has more than five moving parts,” she declared. “That, or it’s karmic payback for him forgetting most of what he learned in Home Ec.”

“Has Joan talked him into attending any cooking classes yet?” Kirsten joked.

“Well,” Vicki began, “she was going to bring him to one this weekend, but---“ The ringing of her iPhone cut her off mid-sentence. “I have to take this,” she informed Kirsten. “Vicki Lawson here, what’s---“

“Good news and more good news!” Tell’s voice replied.

“Give me a minute,” the brunette gynoid whispered, before turning her attention to Kirsten. “This is sort of a private thing---really personal stuff. Medical stuff, actually---“

“I’ll wait in the hall,” Kirsten replied with a frustrated sigh, closing the door behind her as she left.

With a quick glance to make sure the lock had caught, Vicki resumed her call with Tell. “Right, we’re clear..so, what’s the good news?”

“First off,” Tell informed her, “we were able to get Patricia Wenner a new body---identical to her old one, of course, seeing as how she’s got friends of her own in Palo Alto. She’ll be back to her old self by next Monday, at the latest…as soon as she’s released from the hospital. Seems that San Francisco Bay Trail has quite the abundance of stray branches and rocks that people can trip over…”

“I get it,” Vicki beamed. “And be sure to thank whoever it was that came up with my alibi for missing class today.”

“You’re welcome,” Tell replied, chuckling.

Of course it was him… “So what’s the other good news?”

“Remember how you uploaded that United Robotronics gynoid’s consciousness into the CPU Saver back at The Attic?” Tell asked. “I do,” Vicki replied, “and I was actually wondering how that whole thing turned out---“

“Well, wonder no more,” Tell declared. “The tests on her memory files and personality drivers just came back, and they’re clean---whatever it was you did before the upload, it kept the Stylo virus from wrecking her systems any further than it already had.”

“Cool! So, when’s she getting a new body?”

Silence.

“Tell? I asked---“

“That’s….actually the third reason I called, V,” Tell informed her, his tone somber. “It’s my duty to inform you that Denise has been conscripted into the backstage staff of the group known as the Starlet Dolls, and they have adamantly refused to pay her any less than $25,000 for her first week on the job---“

“Denise is working with the Starlet Dolls?!” Vicki squealed, barely able to keep from dropping the phone.

“Indeedarooni---okay, I’m never saying that again…anyways, it turns out Denise had a lot of programs made for financial management and accounting in her processors, and they were never activated by her original employer; once we upgrade her sentience level and get her new body up and running, she’ll fit right in with the Dolls---heck, she might even become part of their stage show, if they can figure out an electricity-based name that starts with the letter ‘D’.”

Vicki couldn’t help but grin; after having been infected by the Stylo virus and almost killing her old boss, getting a new body AND a job with the Starlet Dolls was the perfect compensation for a gynoid like Denise. “Anything else I should know about, or was the double-dose of good news your main reason for calling?”

For the second time in as many minutes, her question was met with silence.

“Tell, if this is some kind of a game---“

“Actually, there is one more reason I called….and it’s not exactly something to be cheerful about.” His voice had become deadly serious, and Vicki knew that whatever she was about to hear would not be pretty. “Major Tom already told me that you know the basic details of the Detroit case, and I was hoping that you wouldn’t have to get involved with it first-hand…”

“I’m going to Detroit, aren’t I?” Vicki muttered.

A sigh issued from the iPhone’s speaker; “Oberon and DuBraul are still working on the details,” Tell admitted, “but the bottom line is---yes, you will be going to Detroit sometime this month…or next month. Nothing’s set in stone yet, but considering what’s been happening out there lately, we need all hands on deck for this one.”

The news didn’t phase Vicki as much as she’d expected it to; as strange as it seemed, she actually found herself looking forward to the trip. “Well, considering the fact that I survived The Attic and managed to avoid being brainwashed by Rykkard and his Cult of Self-Sufficiency,” she quipped, “I think a few months in the Motor City won’t be too big of a deal---“

“This is bigger than any of the big deals you’ve dealt with thus far, V,” Tell countered. “Detroit’s still contested ground between the ALPA and the Coalition---piss off the wrong person down there, and you might be missing a few parts by the time you get back to San Jose…if you even get back at all.” Another sigh; “It’s probably a stupid idea for me to even admit this, but the fact that you’ve survived everything you’ve been through is one of the reasons Oberon and DuBraul even considered you for this job…with some persuasion from yours truly, might I add.”

“Good to hear,” Vicki replied. “So….when will I have to leave?”

“Like I said earlier, nothing’s set in stone. Just be ready for the call to come through.”

“Since when have I not been ready for anything, Tell?” Vicki teased. “You’ve known me for…what, two full semesters now?”

“Point taken,” Tell replied with a chuckle. “Be seeing you.”

Vicki ended the call and rolled back over, sighing; Detroit, here I come…eventually….

“Can I come back in now?”

Oh, scrap---I almost forgot about Kirsten! Vicki nearly fell off the bed trying to reach the door; “Sorry about that,” she apologized, “it was just a really important call…”

“Not a problem,” Kirsten replied, grinning. “It’s just….I heard you say something about Detroit…”

“Dad’s looking at starting up a new branch of the company there,” Vicki stated, hoping that Kirsten didn’t know about the three Lawson Robotics factories already up and running in Detroit. “He might be bringing me to tour the place with him later this month…or next month, depending on when they call him.

“Sounds pretty interesting…but aren’t there already a ton of robotics factories out there?” Kirsten mused.

“There are,” Vicki admitted, “but none from Lawson Robotics---yet.”

Kirsten nodded. “Seems kinda weird that your dad’s company wouldn’t already have a place out there, but I guess he’s had a lot to deal with. Anyways, why’s he bringing you along for the trip?”

Vicki rolled her eyes; “He wants me to learn how to take part in the ‘family business’, I guess,” she sighed, “even though I’ve already told him I’d be a lot better off starting out on my own…” She flopped back down on the bed and sighed again. “I guess since it’s his company, he wants me to learn as much as I can about it so that I can run it if something ever happens to him.”

“That makes sense,” Kirsten mused.

“You sound almost exactly like my mom when you do that,” Vicki giggled.

“That’s a compliment, right?”

“Seeing as how my mom is one of the coolest people I know,” Vicki replied, “it’s definitely a compliment.”

Kirsten sighed as she sat down in the chair near Vicki’s computer desk; “At least you and your family are getting along fine,” she muttered. “Nobody knows anything about where my dad went last August, and I’m starting to think he may never come back…and then there’s Kyle bringing in his stupid slutty girlfriends over while Mom’s trying to babysit the kids….” She rested her chin on her hands and frowned at her reflection in the computer screen. “Sometimes it really sucks to be me.”

“Be glad it doesn’t suck all the time,” Vicki reminded her. “Things will get better…I can almost guarantee it.”

“I hope so,” Kirsten replied. “I just wish I knew why Dad never called that day…I mean, he never missed a call before then, and all of a sudden it’s like he doesn’t even exist anymore!”

Vicki wished she could help Kirsten find her dad, but her own investigations into the matter hadn’t turned up anything concrete regarding Anthony Sanderson’s disappearance. “Something will turn up eventually,” she assured her fellow gynoid. “The only thing we can really do now is wait, and hope…and hoping for the best is better than nothing.”

“I know,” Kirsten murmured. “I just wish I knew something about what happened…” She shook her head and got up from the chair. “Sorry if I’m being a complete downer, or anything,” she apologized. “It’s just that this whole thing with my dad has been all I can think about lately. It’s like…this is going to sound so stupid, but I feel like he wants me to find him…like he knows I’m looking for him, and…never mind.” She turned and left without so much as a goodbye; Vicki’s enhanced auditory sensors picked up the sounds of crying as Kirsten left the dorm.

Your dad will turn up, Kirsten….the only question is where…and when?

Celine stared at the room beyond the security doors, instantly regretting the fact that she was even in the same building as the Baron’s “pet project”.

Ever since the start of what had become known as “Project Epsilon”, it had been her duty to deliver any news regarding the progression of the experiments to the Baron; more often than not, that news involved reporting on the destruction of other test subjects, or how many guards Epsilon had “accidentally” mauled during the latest tests…

…and that still wasn’t as loathsome as the Baron’s usual reactions.

His favorite (and Celine’s least favorite) was that horrible laugh of his, the one that sounded like Yahtzee dice rattling in a cup. Even more annoying than the laugh itself was the fact that Celine had to hear it far too often for her own liking---in meetings, over the phone, when she handed the Baron the latest updates on Epsilon…it was as if he knew the laugh annoyed her, yet he chose to spite her with it at every available opportunity.

Knowing him, I wouldn’t be surprised…

Her thoughts drifted back to Epsilon as she stared through the Perspex windows of the testing chamber; the thing was currently beating the mortal piss out of an entire squad of armed and armored security personnel, none of whom had been told what they were about to face. Screams, bursts of gunfire and hideous, wet sounds drifted through the Tannoy into the corridor where Celine stood, wanting to look away…only to find herself almost transfixed by the carnage. There was something about seeing Epsilon in action that was both repulsive and….dare she say, beautiful….in a primal, animalistic sort of way.

Of course, that kind of beauty didn’t translate well to her nightly R.E.M. cycles….

“Incredible, isn’t it?” Andrew Sharpe’s voice temporarily startled Celine; the head of United Robotronics’ PR Department had a knack for approaching without being heard. “Incredible, dangerous, terrifying…take your pick,” she replied. “That thing shouldn’t even be in this country, let alone this building…”

Sharpe adjusted his tie and stared at the floor; it was all too obvious that he had the same fears about Epsilon as Celine herself had. “The Baron believes that the project would be…ill-suited for deployment in any other part of the world,” he informed the gynoid secretary, only to be interrupted by the beeping of his pager. “Out of all the employees in this hellhole,” Celine drawled, “the Baron trusted you with that thing?”

“It’s less about ‘trust’,” Sharpe admitted, “and more about…” His face fell as he viewed the tiny LCD screen.

“More about inconveniencing you at any and all hours of the day?” Celine offered.

“Replace ‘inconveniencing’ with ‘exercising corporate torture’,” Sharpe hissed, “and you’ve nailed it.” He glared at the pager; “What I wouldn’t give to just punt-kick this thing into the ocean,” he muttered darkly. “After the week I’ve had, it would be the best form of stress relief in history---“

“And the most expensive,” Celine reminded him. “Pagers can be replaced…you, on the other hand…”

“I know, I know,” Sharpe replied, clipping the hated device to his belt. “Sometimes I almost wish the stupid thing would just shrivel up and die, or something…it’d make it a lot easier for me to get a good night’s sleep, I can tell you that---“ A blood-chilling scream erupted from the testing room ahead, followed by a sickening crunch. “Though sleep is more of a luxury than anything, really,” he added.

Celine nodded silently. “You’d better tend to that,” she advised the PR head, “otherwise---“

“Otherwise I’ll be the next ‘test subject’ for Epsilon to ‘play’ with,” Sharpe replied, scowling as he walked away.

Wouldn’t be the first time, Celine mused, wincing as another “test subject” met their fate.


“So….Vicki Lawson has managed to prove her worth as a Field Agent…but does she deserve to remain one?”

Oberon’s question to the other ALPA board members wasn’t one to be taken lightly; their responses could easily shape the future (or signal the end) of Vicki’s career as a Field Agent. “Personally, I believe she handled this assignment admirably,” Clive DuBraul stated. “Yes, her team sustained some casualties, but they were unavoidable given the circumstances…I recommend that she remain a Field Agent on an as-needed basis.”

“Good call, if I do say so myself,” Oberon replied. “Would anyone else like to add their thoughts, or…”

Eric Reaves stared at the floor for a good five minutes before contributing his opinion: “Vicki Lawson could’ve been killed at least twenty-five times during the last twenty-four hours,” he stated. “Since she managed to avoid being obliterated, however….it would be my honor to give her a full commendation for her actions.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Oberon beamed. “Now, onto a slightly more serious matter…” His smile faded, and he turned his attention to the folders Crystal began handing out. “I’m sure all of you are aware of what was discovered inside The Attic after Vicki Lawson and her team left,” he informed his colleagues, “and while her revival of the United Robotronics gynoid designated Denise was almost certainly above and beyond the call of duty, the fact that Rykkard stole her from United Robotronics in the first place is proof that the Spare Parts Society as a whole is becoming too great an enemy to ignore…yet, even now, a growing threat is rising within the city of Detroit, one created and fueled by our perennial enemy, William Jason Rengold III---whom we all know and loathe as Faceless. Thus, the question must be raised…”

He steepled his fingers and stared out at his esteemed colleagues. “Do we use this opportunity to wipe the SPS off the map permanently, or do we stifle Faceless’ latest scheme before it can begin?”

Calista Swanson rose from her seat; “Calista Swanson, of Hreftech,” Oberon intoned, “you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Chairman.” Calista cleared her throat; “Faceless is the enemy we already know,” she stated, “and in my opinion, that makes him the ideal target---but given the discoveries our people made within the ruins of The Attic, it would be a mistake if we didn’t at least keep tabs on any other branches of the SPS that exist in or around the general Silicon Valley area.”

Oberon nodded. “Wise words indeed…but not exactly---“

“Faceless should’ve been sent back to DragonTown after the Silicon Dynamics case,” Eric Reaves snapped, glaring directly at Oberon. “Instead of letting some stupid hospital take care of him---“

“Eric, we’ve been over this,” DuBraul reminded him. “If we hadn’t brought Faceless to the hospital---“

“He’d be dead, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Eric replied. The remark earned him more than a few annoyed stares from the others in the room, but Oberon waved it aside. “Our main focus can only be diverted one way or the other,” he stated. “If we attempt to stop Faceless from causing problems in Detroit, we may lose any chance of stopping the SPS…and if we move against the SPS, we could allow Faceless to run roughshod over Detroit…as it stands, we can’t afford to bring any more Agents into either mission without compromising our other operations.”

A throat-clearing noise drew Oberon’s attention to the far side of the conference table; “I, ah, think we may need to have a small team investigate the memory files of those four androids Vicki’s team found at the roadside shop,” Claudia commented. “None of them have been active since the start of the last decade…the tickets that were found in their possession tested positive for Falken’s fingerprints, so we know he was involved---“

“With all do respect, what does this have to do with anything we’ve been talking about?” Eric inquired. “This discussion has been about whether or not we should send Vicki to Detroit and have her deal with Faceless, and you just barge in with this stuff about deactivated bots?”

Before Claudia could reply, her iPhone rang; Oberon seized the opportunity to tell Eric exactly why the four ‘droids were being mentioned in the same conversation as the SPS and Faceless. “One of the ‘droids found by Vicki’s team---which, if I remember correctly, you were a part of, Agent Reaves---was a Lawson Robotics prototype that was to be delivered to NASA for deep-space testing. Lea Christie, as the records indicated, was set to be transferred to United Robotronics for a mid-level management position, which would’ve allowed the ALPA to keep a much closer eye on them than we were able to. As for Sienna Lowry, she was meant to replace someone’s daughter, and that caused a minor legal panic when she wasn’t delivered. Even the SynthGirl behind the counter was somewhat important---she was the first model of her kind that United Robotronics was developing specifically to man their stores…” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “And Damien Falken somehow thought it would be worth his while to lure them to an abandoned store…too many questions, and not nearly enough answers.”

“Agreed,” Calista stated. “That leaves us with the question of---“

“What about Glenn Saxon’s disappearance?” DuBraul cut in. “He was taken prisoner by Rykkard’s minions, but he wasn’t listed among those who escaped…” The inquiry was met with raised eyebrows and murmured theories from most of those present, but to Oberon, it was a quiet---and, simultaneously, a very public---rebuke. He’d joked about going back for Glenn as he, Vicki and Ted had raced off to confront Rykkard, but the fact that the man was still missing weighed heavily on him; of course Glenn would have to go and get himself abducted---

And now you know why DuBraul didn’t mention it directly.

DuBraul knew, just as Oberon knew, that Glenn Saxon hadn’t simply wandered off, or died as The Attic fell to pieces around him---he knew that Glenn had been abducted.

Too many questions…and never enough answers.


For the second time in less than a week, Vicki found herself at the doorstep of Mr. Tell’s workshop. Just like that earlier visit, it was classical music, rather than Tell’s favored heavy metal tracks---this time, it was Fur Elise, another Beethoven piece. The brunette gynoid hesitated; if Tell’s not here.. The door opened before she could knock; “Something must be up if you’re visiting me this late, V,” Mr. Tell remarked. “And before you ask, I sort of inherited a taste for Beethoven from Heinmann when I worked with him.”

Tell’s remark promnted a sigh from the brunette gynoid; “I was sort of hoping Heinmann could finish telling me about the history of the House, the SPS, and various other stuff,” she admitted, “but…”

“You thought I wouldn’t tell you just because I didn’t want to remind myself of any of it,” he mused. “On any other day, you’d be right…but considering the fact you met Rykkard face to face, it would be completely stupid of me to not tell you the full story…or at least, the parts of it you haven’t learned and/or figured out already.” He stepped aside and allowed Vicki to enter. “In retrospect,” he admitted, “Ted and I should’ve told you all this stuff from day one, but…”

“I’d rather hear it now then never hear it at all,” Vicki replied. “Besides, I’ve already come to terms with some of the more…heinous things the ALPA did back in the 80s, so…yeah. I don’t think there’s a better time than now to hear it.” Tell smiled and nodded; “Vicki Lawson,” he beamed, “you truly are your father’s greatest creation.”


Somewhere between the Salton Sea and San Diego, Rykkard staggered down a lonely road with no true sense of purpose. His broken body no longer felt like itself; every move he made sent a fresh wave of pain shooting through him. His mind had been locked out of himself, and nothing he could do would change that.

Nothing, that is, except wait for his rebellious shell to return to the SPS. They could---and would---heal his broken form and restore his mind…and then, Vicki Lawson would be made to suffer.

Until then, as his body lumbered into the night, all Rykkard could do was hear…and watch….and feel….

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson’s Diary

Well, looks like last night’s entry wasn’t the last one after all…

Dad’s back in San Jose where he belongs, though he didn’t get out of the Salton Sea unscathed; that bastard Rykkard stabbed him in the side during a mini-fight in The Attic. I’m actually glad the place collapsed after everyone got out---well, I think everyone got out, even though there hasn’t been any word regarding Glenn Saxon since we all left, but…

Actually, I might as well not even mention Glenn. The ALPA is still looking into his disappearance, so…yeah.

What I should talk about is the fact that I faced down Rykkard himself and didn’t crack. Even after hearing Dad and Oberon confess to not being able to stop some of the most horrible experiments in ALPA history, I didn’t go crazy and try to rip them in half. Most people would probably be asking why I would ever forgive someone for admitting that they intentionally infected androids with the Stylo virus…but the fact of the matter is, at least Dad was able to admit it and admit that he knew it was wrong. Hell, even Brandon Brindle would’ve probably stood his ground and asked for those experiments to stop…

As it stands, I got Dad back from the SPS and stopped them from wreaking havoc in Palo Alto.

That’s what I set out to do, and I have no regrets about it.

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


With Rykkard’s defeat, Vicki Lawson has passed her most difficult test thus far as an ALPA Field Agent…

…but things are only going to get harder from here.

The city of Detroit is in turmoil, as the Coalition and the ALPA fight to keep their respective properties from falling into the hands of their most hated common enemy---Faceless. The House, normally a staunch ally of the ALPA, has chosen to prioritize an internal power struggle over Faceless’ actions, and with the presence of a gynoid-killing psychopath known only as the Human Animal making the front pages of every newspaper in town, things are teetering on the brink of chaos…and Vicki, fresh off her triumph over the Spare Parts Society, is put right in the middle of it.

Even with the aid of Alicia (now on her fifth backup body), Brytestar Industries CEO Jake Brytestar and Major Tom, Vicki is in for the fight of her life. Will the ALPA keep Faceless from gaining a foothold over their turf in Detroit? Can the warring factions within the House be brought to order in time? Who is the Human Animal, and what deadly secret does he hold? All these questions and more will be answered in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: A House Divided, coming in October 2012!


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