Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 13

Victoria

Victoria was pissed.  First the bastards implied she was a fake and then that reporter’s attitude had just set her off.  “Abomination.  Shit, I guess I should have expected this but I wasn’t prepared for how angry it would make me.  We are NOT an abomination.”

“You were amazing Tori!” Yuen-Ja came from the stairs at the side of the stage with a brilliant smile on her face. “That bastard will think twice before confronting you in public again.  He will likely write a scathing article though; the press isn’t to be trusted.  Are you ready to look for poppa now?”

“Yes, we will find your father.  I’m not exactly sure how but I think I know a good place to start.”  Victoria had no idea how to start looking for the girl’s father, but if she could enlist her help and maybe get ADAM to lend a hand it was possible they could hack into the hotel security system and get video footage of where he might be.  “Do you have any idea where to start?  Can we go to the police?  That seems like a good place to start don’t you think?”

The girl looked at her like she had suggested asking the devil for help.  “According to your country and mine, I do not exist.  Poppa got asylum and I traveled here in secret.  The authorities are nothing but corrupt killers in any case.  I do not trust them.  You should not trust them either.  The moment you trust them and let down your guard they kick in your door.  Governments always have bigger guns than civilians do.”

It was hard for Victoria to listen to a girl so young talk about these sorts of things so pragmatically.  She knew her young friend had experienced horrors beyond anything most people would see outside of war and this served as a reminder of that.

“But that’s not how things are here Yuen-Ja, our government is by the people and for the people.”  Victoria said, “We can trust the authorities to help us.”

“Surely you are joking.  Just look what happened when you trusted your military, they almost assassinated Adam.  You of all people should know better than to trust them.” The girl responded, giving her a look of disbelief.

That hit a little closer to home than she would have liked.  She frowned, trying to reconcile her thoughts about her country and the freedoms she enjoyed with the actions of the military software.

“It must have just been a piece of badly written code.”  She said finally.

“Victoria, there you are!”  Eugene was walking briskly up to her and Yuen-Ja.  “We have an hour in the trade hall and then our flight leaves this evening at seven.”  He glanced at the young Korean girl, “Is she going to be all right?”

“Eugene, we need to talk.  I can’t leave until I help her find her father.  She doesn’t know where he is and after the incident earlier I’m not certain he’s alive.”

“We can’t afford to get involved any more than we already are.  Christ Victoria, I don’t know exactly what’s going on but our lives are in serious danger even if we don’t start meddling with this … whatever is going on.”

“Look we are involved, like it or not.” Victoria snapped, “Or at least I am involved, she saved our lives and I’m not going to just forget that.”

“Yeah, and you saved her life back.”  He hissed, “That doesn’t make you even?  Damn it Victoria I … we are so close to getting out of this alive and ahead of…”  his voice trailed off and he took a deep breath.  She could actually see the blood drain from his face.

“Hey.  What’s wrong Eugene?”  Her brow furrowed in concern, “Are you OK?  You look like someone walked over your grave.”  She glanced at Yuen-Ja who was completely ignoring their argument and furiously typing on her laptop, heads up display strapped to her head.

“I know you flipped out and killed a few guys who weren’t expecting you to be there, but the people involved here don’t give a shit if you’re a teenager or a little kid if they think you have what they want they will extract it.”  He shuddered.  “These people are dangerous.  More than dangerous, I really think they are psychopaths.”

“Let’s get one thing straight here Eugene.  We didn’t KILL anyone.  You say these people are psychopathic killers?  All the more reason not to let them do what they want with an eleven year old girl wouldn’t you agree?”  She had been advancing on him, but now she took a step back and gave him a direct look, “How exactly do you know so much about this group of people anyway?  What aren’t you telling us?”

Eugene glanced around, although the antechamber they were in appeared to be empty he was hesitant to continue.  “I don’t really think this is the time or place to discuss this.”

Yuen-Ja looked up and tugged Victoria’s skirt, “Tori, I might have found him.  One of the rooms on the top floor of our hotel has been making phone calls to a cell phone that I have traced to a North Korean national who is currently in the country.  They have also been making calls to the Iranian Ambassador’s office.  If they don’t have him, they are looking for him.”

“Is there any way we can get up there unnoticed?”  She was interrupted by a crash followed by screams of alarm from outside.

They made their way out through the atrium and saw a crowd of people standing around something on the street.  Police officers were converging on the scene.

“What happened?”  Victoria asked a passerby, one of the doctors from the audience.

“I don’t know, I think someone jumped.”

Eugene was already pushing his way through the crowd shouting “I’m a doctor!”

“It’s sick, I saw his brains on the sidewalk!”  A hysterical woman was walking shakily towards a bench.  “God, he almost hit me.  He wanted to die too, he didn’t scream or anything.”

“Who was it?”

“Some Asian guy, I don’t know he was wearing a nice blue suit though, maybe he was a businessman or something.  I’m not sticking around to find out.”

“It is poppa.  I know it is.  Let’s get out of here as fast as we can.  It is because of me that they killed both poppa and mommy.  We need to go.”  Tears were streaming down Yuen-Ja’s cheeks.

“It’s not your fault dear, you didn’t do anything.”  Victoria tried to take the girl’s hand but she slapped it away.

“You do not know ANYTHING Tori.  It doesn’t matter though; there is not anything they can offer me not to do it now.  It would not have mattered anyway but now they know I do not have anything to lose.”  Her voice was bitter and angry, not sounding at all like a preteen girl’s.

“Yuen-Ja, is there anything I can do to help?” Victoria asked, noting thankfully that speaking Mandarin no longer made her temples throb. “How can you be certain the person out there is your father?  Let me check and see if it’s him.”

“No.  We need to leave now.” The girl insisted, “You probably should not be seen with me.  Not to worry Tori, I will not let anyone do anything to you.”

“Why don’t you come with me instead?  Revenge won’t bring them back you know.  Be honest Yuen-Ja, this has something to do with you stealing that information from that military spy satellite doesn’t it?” Victoria folded her arms and gave her a penetrating look.

Yuen-Ja’s lower lip trembled, “How could they know?  I was so careful”

“Just come with me.  I’m sure I’ll be able to figure out a way for you to stay at my place.” Victoria said, “It can’t be that hard to get some forged documents or something.  Hell if we turn that information over to the military they might even grant you asylum.”

“I refuse to trust your government.  Why do YOU trust them?  They are the ones who infected your Adam with the disease that almost killed you both.  They are the ones who allowed the killers to attack and capture poppa.  They are the ones who are allowing the Iranian pigs to buy enriched Uranium from North Korea so that they can continue their military ambition at the expense of the rest of the people of North Korea.  I’m not going to let it stand.  I’m going to make them pay.”  The force of this tirade literally made the little girl’s body shake.

“This might be your only chance to get away without being killed.”  Victoria knelt down to look the girl in the eye.  “They think they have silenced their target don’t they?  They think your father is the one they were after right?  If you come with me now you will fall off the face of the Earth.  You can start over.”

Yuen-Ja looked at her; hope beginning to dawn behind her eyes.  “I can stay with you?  I can be part of your family?”  The girl’s lower lip trembled, ”I could go to school?”

Victoria was at a loss for words, “Of course you can!  We will do whatever it takes to get you immigrated.  I’ll make it contingent to my handing over of the information they asked me for.”  Yuen-Ja hadn’t been going to school?  She turned to Eugene who had come up a short time before.

“The police already had their own investigators there.  They didn’t need my assistance.”  He ran his hand through his hair and sighed, “So mind telling me what you were talking about?”

“Just discussing our options and I think we’ve come up with the best possible scenario.”  She looked back at Yuen-Ja who was looking off toward the street where her father lay smashed into the pavement.

“I will come with you then sister, as long as Adam is not my brother.  He’s already my friend and I don’t think of him as a brother at all.”  She gave Victoria an inscrutable look.

“OK, let’s go somewhere I can make a call in private.” Victoria said, “Can you make me a disk of the data or something?”

“I have to give them back the data?” Yuen-Ja protested, “But it’s MINE!”

“Well you can keep a copy; if I don’t have something to hand over how am I going to help you out?  Maybe it could be partially corrupted or something?” Victoria suggested, “I don’t know a lot about whatever it is you do, but I need something if I’m going to have some kind of leverage to get you immigrated.  It has to be intact enough that they think they’ve got what they are after though.”

“Fine.  I’ll make you a copy.  I’m still allowing it to be released on the website.  It’s timed anyway so they won’t be able to trace it to me.”  She crossed her arms, “I’m going to do it no matter what you say, even if you say you won’t take me with you.”

“Nothing you could say would make me not take you with me Yuen-Ja.  I have no idea what the fallout will be but I’ll take responsibility for not stopping you.  The world hasn’t been fair to you and you deserve to take what retribution you believe is justified.”  She took the girl’s hand, “Come on, let’s go home.”

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 3

Callindra shouldered him out of the way and saw with a shock that the figure standing on the pulpit did indeed look a lot like the black clad figure whom she owed a good deal of pain.  Brightfang was in her hand as quick as thought and she was moving to kick the door open when Tryst and Vilhylm each grabbed an arm.

“Let. Me. GO!”  She hissed, “He’s right there with his back to me the bastard!”

“He has an entire room full of innocent people in thrall there.”  Tryst said, his voice steady as a rock.  “You can’t endanger their lives.”

“Dergeras has not shown himself to be helpless.”  Vilhylm said, “I hardly think you could strike him down in one blow, if he allowed your blade to score his flesh at all.”

“As much as I want to go with you battle sister, we can strike a stronger blow against him by taking this artifact and leaving.”  Cronos said, gesturing at the tongue hanging from Tryst’s fingers.  A momentary flash of indecision was followed by the absolute grip of certainty.

Callindra jerked free of her friends with a violent movement accompanied by a blast of wind, grabbing the amulet from Tryst’s shocked grasp in the same motion.  With a burst of speed, she slammed through the door, tying the artifact around her neck.

“This THING isn’t even a PERSON!”  She shouted, pointing at the shocked form of Dergeras, “It’s lower than the filth on the bottom of your shoes!  It has taken my master and friend by dint of treachery and foul play and must be DESTROYED if it’s the last thing ANY of us does!”

The assembled crowd looked from her to Dergeras and snarled in hatred and rage, closing on the dais with clear intent.  Dergeras looked at Callindra with pure venom and spat in her face.

“Your precious Glarian is still waiting for you.”  He said, his voice grating with spite, “I’ll see you at Hellgate Keep.”  He seemed likely to say more, but a dagger sliced through his cloak, nearly pinning him to the wall and he incanted a spell, vanishing in a foul smelling gout of flame.

The rage of the assembled masses still washed over her like waves on a beach, eroding her sense of self with each assault. Strong hands parted the leather thong around her throat and Callindra returned to herself.  Tryst looked down at her with concern in his eyes.

“Are you all right?”  He asked, “What in the name of the Gods were you thinking?  Those folk could have torn you apart!”

“I’m fine.”  She said, her voice sounding harsh and rough to her own ears, “It was the only way I could think of to get rid of him… like you said, nobody can stand against thousands, no matter who they are.”

“Who is Dergeras?”  Tanner asked, a slight quaver of fear in his voice.  They all turned to look at him.

“Tanner, I think you might need to use this just once more.”  Tryst said, “These folk need to be calmed down and evacuated.  Is there a way out of town anywhere nearby?  A secret way?”

“I’m not sure.”  Tanner said, reaching for the talisman.

“Wait Tryst.”  Callindra said, “He doesn’t need to be the one to tell them what to do.  Why don’t you try it?  You have the Hand after all, and I think it might help you deal with the… discomfort I experienced while using it to influence the crowd.”

“Discomfort?”  Cronos asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You have to ride it.  Like shooting the rapids in a canoe.”  Tanner said, his eyes shining.  “Their emotions push and pull you and if you don’t do it just right they sweep you downstream.”

“Well I didn’t find it exciting.”  Callindra grumbled, “It was more like drowning than anything else, and didn’t you say you had no idea you were using magic?”

“I can tell you aren’t good with words.”  Tanner said, ignoring her question. “I was a bard once, and should have been able to play any noble house but I caught the eye of the wrong girl and was expelled by the Lord whose house I had been playing-“

“I’ll take care of it.”  Tryst said, cutting Tanner’s reminiscence off with an apologetic look at Callindra.  “The Hand will protect me regardless I think.”

He stepped out onto the balcony and began speaking in his sonorous voice, the crowd quickly quieting down to listen.  Cronos and Callindra kept an eye on Tanner while Vilhylm watched over Tryst.

“So this back way out.  Is it big enough for all the folk to come with?”  Callindra asked, “We don’t want to leave anyone here if we can help it.”

“Why are we leaving again?”  Tanner asked, “It’s not as though there’s a plague or anything, just those damn merchants and Lords are keeping more than their share.”

“No, it’s far worse than that.”  Cronos said, “Unless I miss my guess this city will probably not last more than a day or two.  Callindra, I think those monsters we killed who were attacking the Gild’s wagons were scouts for a much larger force.”

Even as he finished speaking, horns began frantically blowing and the great bells of the citadel began to ring.

“The city is under attack!”  Tanner said, his eyes going wide.  “Just like you said!  Oh Gods what are we going to do?”

Cronos slapped him efficiently across the face and then grabbed his chin, forcing him to make eye contact.  “You are going to gather all the supplies you have been able to pilfer and show us the way out.  The faster you get it together the quicker we can get out of here and the more of the people you’ve been leading in rebellion will survive.”

“Um.  Right.  The way out is the caverns though.  Not really a place fit for the women and children…”

“Listen to me you halfwit!”  Callindra said, allowing her anger to flare, “This entire CITY is going to be overrun with hostile forces in a matter of days if not hours!  If Dergeras was here and gave that to you, the odds are he is going to be coming BACK for it and he won’t be alone.”

She was inches away from him now, looking slightly up into his startled face, “Since he knows you’ve lost the priceless gift he gave to you he’s sure to want a little retribution and since he’s bothered to appear here, himself, this group of people is part of his plan.”

Just then, screams erupted from outside in the great hall.  Callindra drew Brightfang with a whistle of steel, “Tell me where the entrance to the caverns is or I swear by Wind and Blade I’ll gut you like a fish right here and now!”

Tanner pointed a trembling finger toward the great hall, “It’s beneath the dais.  There’s a lever…”

Cronos snorted, “And he said you didn’t have a way with words.”

Both of them broke off when they heard Tryst’s battle shout and saw that Vilhylm had donned a mask and was leaping through the door.  “Poxy rotting bastard must have already had his creatures infiltrating the city.”  Callindra growled, barely pausing to glance at the scene below her before running through the door and vaulting over the railing, bringing Brightfang down to slash an infected man savaging another with long black claws.

The momentum of her swing coupled with her falling weight cut the thing in half, splattering glowing emerald ichor across the crowd.  Behind her, Cronos incanted a spell, sending bolts of arcane Power lancing through the crowd to strike another of the infected, punching five small holes through its skull.  Vilhylm and Tryst had claimed two more and some of the refugees were less helpless than others, drawing swords to hack at more.

With a grinding, grating sound the floor of the podium began to slide to one side revealing a ramp that led down.   Cool, moist air wafted out and Callindra began ushering the nearest townsfolk through, making sure each one looked her in the eye, ensuring they weren’t infected.

“Cronos, either take over for me here or get down there and make sure they aren’t walking into some kind of trap!”  Callindra shouted over the din of frightened voices and the clash of steel on steel.  He nodded and turned to move with the refugees into the dubious safety of the caves beneath the city.

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 12

Eugene

Eugene was a ball of nerves, while he really didn’t have any doubt in his creation’s ability to perform or in Victoria’s ability to make it shine for the crowd this was the real deal.  For the first time they were really going to show A.D.A.M. off to the world and nobody was prepared for it.

He felt as though he needed to stand up like someone accepting a Grammy award and give a speech, ‘This goes out to all the people who said I would fail, all the teachers who said I wouldn’t amount to anything and all my colleagues who said my ideas were shit!’ he chuckled to himself at the absurdity of the thought.

The presenter before them was just wrapping up, he had been showing a new polymer that had the look and feel of human flesh but was much more resilient than the ones that were on the market currently.  The drawback was, of course, that it was twice as expensive and would need a skeleton inside in order to keep its shape.

He gave himself a mental shake and tried to focus.  He could hear the announcer start to talk over the applause as the presenter made his way off the other side of the stage.

“Now for something different, something revolutionary, an innovation that has the potential to completely change the way we look at the world of prosthetics, limb replacement and the role of science in medicine.  We have seen his ideas before and he is back today with a new prototype for your review.  Please help me in welcoming Dr. Eugene Arlington to the stage!”

One or two people clapped but the auditorium was completely silent by the time he reached the podium.  Sweat was pouring down his back and the tie around his neck suddenly was too tight.  Once he reached the podium the lights dimmed slightly and the projector lit up a large screen behind him.  One thing was for sure, with that little Korean girl in the control booth he didn’t need to worry about the effects being off.

On the screen, a slowly rotating image of the prosthetic was displayed as he began his talk, “Ladies, gentlemen and distinguished members of the medical community I stand before you today knowing that those of you who have seen me present before are skeptical about the implementation of the technology I am going to show you.”  The graphic of the prosthetic stopped spinning and merged with a human form.

“I was going to begin with a discussion about current prosthetic options and their limitations but I am aware you are all acquainted with the issues inherent in the field.  So instead of boring you with a bunch of theory and a PowerPoint presentation I thought I would just show it to you and let you decide if current equipment or the new technology I have developed better fits the needs of your patients.”  He paused to take in the confused expressions on their faces, “Victoria, if you would come out please?”

Victoria stalked out on stage like she was walking the runway, absolutely owning the stage in that fantastic dress she’d gotten from Dmitri.  No, he realized it wasn’t the dress or the shoes, it was her bearing, so confident and certain.  She stopped in the center of the stage and slowly spun to show the prosthetic seamlessly integrated into her back.

“Less than a year ago this young woman was told that she would never walk again.  Bone cancer had invaded her spine and was threatening her entire body.  Her options were limited to extreme chemotherapy that had a very real chance of killing her or simply letting the cancer end her life until she bravely decided to attempt an experimental therapy.

“My fully cyberized, robotic spinal cord replacement has literally given her a second chance at an active and healthy life.  Powered by a work of programming genius, Artificial Directed Autonomous cerebreuM or ADAM for short is a true piece of adaptive software that assists in the management of the device and the routing of the body’s data.”

Victoria walked to the podium and bent to speak into the microphone, “I owe Dr. Arlington my life.  His revolutionary medical device saved me from at best a life spent in a wheelchair.  As you can see, I have regained one hundred percent mobility, balance and motor control.”  She stepped back from the podium and stood to his left beaming that stunning smile of hers at the shocked audience.

An explosion of questions erupted from the crowd and Eugene held up his hands, “One at a time, let’s have them one at a time please.  Can we start here and move across to the left?”  The first person stood up.

“Hi, Jared Fredrickson here.  I’m sure I’m asking for every straight man in the room when I ask… are you single?  No, only joking.  Tell me about the integration.  How was it for you?  Were there any glitches or bumps in the road?”

Victoria ignored his rudeness and picked up the mic from the podium.  “I think you all know about how long it takes people to adjust to most standard prosthetics.  Even something as small as a hand or a foot can take years, not that those are inconsequential things to lose but they are certainly less intrusive than mine.

“I have had this prosthetic for exactly four months, six days ten hours and thirty seven minutes and the integration is complete and seamless.”  She spun in a circle balanced on the sharp heel of her right stiletto, something that seemed nearly impossible and gave them that dazzling smile again.

Another one of the audience members stood, “I’m Dr. Anders, I would like to take a closer look at your … device if I could?”  The doubt was clear on his voice.

“Certainly Dr, while you’re making your way up to the stage I thought I’d run a daily diagnostic so you can see it unfiltered.”  She walked to the podium and accepted the cable from Eugene, gracefully pulling her hair out of the way and plugging it into the port on the base of her skull.

“Could I get the VGA from the podium up on the projector please?”  The screen refreshed and the familiar daily log checking screen was displayed on the wall.  Dr. Anders, that old skeptic paused and watched with interest as Victoria put the AI through its paces.

“I haven’t run this yet today so it should show logs from last night.  Here we see the packaged reports from last night, the routing tables, any data collisions and the traffic history reports.  As you can see the device itself requires periodic maintenance and that schedule is listed here on the left.  Any major errors get recorded here and are part of the daily package for transmission.  If there were bug fixes to the operating system from the night before they will be loaded at the same time.”

“Could I trouble you to show us a bug fix that has been uploaded?”  Dr. Anders was now standing at the base of the stairs that led to the stage, “From what I can see here it looks like all the logs came back clean.  I find it difficult to believe that this device has been operating perfectly this entire time.”

The room was dead silent.  Eugene couldn’t hold himself back anymore.  “What exactly are you implying Anders?  That I’m making it all up?  Do you expect to come up here and see that we’ve glued a piece of plastic to her back?  If I wasn’t so positively certain that this is a world changing technology that works as designed I’d tell you off.  Instead I’m just going to make you eat your words.”

Victoria was already pulling up an event log from a couple days prior, “Here’s a bug, there was a routing error between two points, I’m not sure what they are, but it was reported to the main system here.”  She circled the reporting time with the cursor, “And here you can see on the next day’s sync it pulls a bug fix file which is loaded into the Host system.  I almost never pay attention to them because I haven’t had an error large enough that it impacted me directly.”

She leaned down and gave him an indulgent smile, “Did you still want to physically inspect the unit?  Come on up.”  Eugene envied her vocal control, she sounded indulgent, as though she was simply humoring him but wasn’t quite condescending enough to be insulting.  It didn’t go unnoticed either, Anders got a little red in the face and a few people in the crowd chuckled.  To his credit though, he stuck to his guns.

“If you don’t mind I would still like to take a closer look at it.”  He walked up the stairs and over to where she was standing.

“While Dr. Anders satisfies his curiosity are there other questions?”  Victoria was surprisingly calm and steady despite being under the proverbial microscope.  Eugene supposed she was used to being the center of attention what with cheerleading and all, even though this was a slightly different situation.

Another man stood up promptly, “This one’s for Dr. Arlington.  What is the estimated cost of one of these units?”  The crowd hushed again.

“I thought this would be the first question judging by the audience.”  Eugene got a couple rueful laughs out of that one, “I am not sure what a production price would be, but I will say the R&D that went into this particular unit is astronomical.  The majority of the materials themselves aren’t all that rare though so I would imagine the price of production would be around forty to fifty thousand dollars.

“The retail?  Well that’s another matter entirely.  What would you pay to be able to walk again?”  He let that sink in for a moment.

Dr. Anders was shaking his head in bewilderment, “How in the world did you get it to graft so cleanly?  The skin seems to have bonded to the unit as though it grew there on its own.  Not only that but I see minimal scarring, it’s so slight I wouldn’t even call it a blemish.  I have to hand it to you Arlington, this is a real piece of art.  I’m wholly impressed.”

“The grafting process is part of the research, the secret to the smoothness lies in the materials used.  My Neurosynth fluid also facilitates a chemical bond between the organic and inorganic components.  I can furnish you with a white paper on its composition if you would like to read more on it.  Thanks for the compliment, it means a lot coming from a surgeon with your credentials.”

A man in a sharp business suit stood, pulling out a pad of paper and a pen “Hi, my name is Alex Chadwick I’m from the LA Times.  I heard you were going to be here and took the liberty of doing a little research.  I’ve heard some rumors about there being a group of people who oppose this technology and are claiming you’ve created an abomination.  Any comment on that Dr. Arlington?”

“Mr. Chadwick, I know there are people who are resistant to change.” Eugene said dryly, taking a drink of water from a bottle on the podium, “Every time there is a major technological advance there are those who take to the streets screaming about the apocalypse.  It is good to scrutinize new developments but eventually even the Catholic Church has admitted that the Earth is round.”

“Do you feel as a doctor and a scientist that there has been adequate peer review of this project?” Alex asked, raising an eyebrow.

Victoria broke in, her voice high pitched with indignation. “Do I LOOK like an abomination to you?  Besides, what right do you have to talk about peer review?  I know for a fact you are here on vacation and not as a part of any kind of fact finding mission AND that you have a vested interest in making this into a big scandal.”

Everyone turned, surprised at her sudden tirade.  She wasn’t holding the microphone, but her voice was transmitted through the auditorium speakers anyway.  Nobody else seemed to notice, but Eugene handed her the mic hastily before anyone thought it strange.

Her eyes flashed as she continued, “Your last expose piece didn’t end up too well did it?  A big investigation into unethical information gathering and possible plagiarism?  I don’t think you have any room for accusing others of wrongdoing Mister Chadwick.”

“I seem to be at a slight disadvantage Miss Victoria.”

“I think it’s more than a slight disadvantage Mister Chadwick.  Why don’t you go back home to your wife and child instead of whoring it up here in Sin City with your mistress.  Cheaters are losers Mister Chadwick, no exceptions.  I’m not answering even one of your slimy questions.”  With that she turned and stalked off the stage, leaving Alex gasping like a fish out of water.

Dr. Franklin walked in from the wings and took the microphone from the podium, “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for questions, we have a lot of other presenters to get through today.  Thank you Dr. Arlington and Miss Scott, any other follow up can take place in the exhibit hall, otherwise we have each presenter’s contact information on our website.”

There was a clamor from the crowd but Eugene waved, smiled and walked off stage.  “Let them come to me now.” He thought to himself, “The showboating douchebags are finally out of the way, time to let those who can really afford to buy this technology step forward.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 2

The walls of Levora came into view and Callindra heaved a sigh of relief.  She was certain she would lose her mind if she had to put up with one more hour of Jordan’s chatter.  His hero worship had degenerated into some kind of awkward attempt to pay her court and she couldn’t decide which one was less welcome.

All thoughts of the boy and his strange behavior vanished as they drew close enough to see details.  Throngs of people were outside the city walls, living in what she could only think of as abject squalor.  The sheer number of them had churned the grass into mud and when an errant breeze swirled around her, Callindra could smell the rank scent of human waste, fear and illness.

“What is this?”  She demanded in disgust, “Why are these people forced to live in such conditions?  Doesn’t the Lord of this Holding take care of his people?”

Tom Gild ignored her as usual and frowned, looking at Tryst.  “Levora got a strong town council and is full a folk with plenty a gold.  Ain’t like ‘em ta tolerate such outside their walls.  Guards shoulda run ‘em off else fed ‘em.  Bad for business havin suchlike around.”

Callindra’s eyes narrowed, and she rode forward so as to avoid making acerbic remarks to the stubborn farmer’s face.  “Damn prejudiced old goat.”  She mutters, riding through the throngs of people who line the roads.

“Do you have any food?”  A woman with sunken eyes asks in a hopeless tone, “Or clean water?  I wouldn’t ask, but… my children…”

She gestures behind her and Callindra is shocked to see three children in dirty rags huddled together on a tattered blanket.  Even though it was obviously inevitable that children would suffer as well, seeing them in such a state wrenched at her heart and she wordlessly handed over her waterskin and what was left of her trail rations.

“Gods favor you!”  The woman said, clutching the food and running back to the blanket.  Several others close by saw her giving food away and ran toward her, startling her horse as they began to clamor for food, water, anything to help.

A few became a dozen, and a dozen became a hundred.  The crowd of people, each shouting their need, trying to be louder than the others to be heard.  She needed to calm them down, but her voice wasn’t loud enough, she wasn’t tall enough and worse they had spotted the grain wagons.  Hundreds of hungry, angry people surrounded the wagons, their voices melding into an angry rumble.

A rock flew from the anonymous crowd, striking the canvas of the lead wagon and several more followed, one nearly hitting Jordan Gild in the head.  Tom shouted, his voice barely audible to Callindra although he was only a few yards away.

“Get back ya filthy scavengers!  If ya got coin we cn deal, but get otta th way!  We’re headin ta Levora an yer blockin th road!”  His angry words exploded the mob’s already tinder dry mood into a raging bonfire of anger and desperation.

As people began to try and climb onto the wagons, Callindra’s companions prepared to defend themselves.  She couldn’t stand by and watch these poor people get hurt just for trying to feed their families.  Whipping Brightfang from his sheath, she drew upon the Weave to lend her voice strength and shouted, “STOP!”

Her voice broke through the low rumble of the crowd whip crack sharp.  A swirling vortex of dust and dry leaves spun around her rising two score feet into the air and taking on the semblance of a humanoid form.  The crowd took several involuntary steps back, staring in stunned silence as she continued.

“WE HAVE NO WISH TO HARM YOU.  WE WILL HELP ALL WE CAN BUT YOU MUST LET US PASS IN PEACE!”  The vortex gradually spun slower and slower, collapsing into nothing and leaving her covered in filth, but the people stood by, watching her with frightened eyes as they rode past and through the town gates.

Callindra sheathed her sword as they passed the gates and fatigue hit her like she’d just run for miles.  She saw Cronos staring at her and gave him a shaky smile, “I didn’t know I had it in me…”

“That was quite the display of power.”  He said, “I haven’t known many skilled enough with the weave to manifest an illusion that could appear solid and speak at the same time.”

“Illusion?”  She asked, confused, “It was just a whirlwind… and my voice got louder.”

“That might be what you saw.”  He said with a raised eyebrow, “I saw a forty foot tall Callindra with a drawn sword and a voice like a bolt of lightning.  Would have scared the life out of me if I hadn’t known what a kitten you are.”

She bristled and then shook her head, still adjusting to his wry sense of humor even after knowing him for months.  “I just wanted to make myself heard… I guess I accomplished that.  Gods and Demons it took a lot out of me though.”

He stared at her for a few more moments as if trying to ascertain if she was making fun or serious and then shrugged.  “My… ah, teacher… pushed my limits pretty ruthlessly.  I’ve felt the exhaustion that comes with it.”

Anything else he might have shared was cut short by the sound of the great gates of the city booming shut behind them.  As the sun had yet to reach its zenith, it was highly irregular and caused Callindra and her companions to look around in alarm.  A phalanx of guards closed rank around them and an officious looking man in dark blue robes trimmed with gold came out to greet Tom with a pleased smile on his face.

“Ah, Master Gild, I see you’re punctual as usual.”  He flicked his eyes dismissively over Callindra and her friends, “Picked up some rabble along the way?  No matter, we can deal with them.”

“My pardon sir but we are on an errand of some importance.”  Tryst said, his voice dripping contempt.  “We will leave you to conduct your commerce.”  He wheeled his horse and swept down the street with the rest of them following close behind.

Once they were out of earshot, Cronos brought his horse abreast of Tryst’s.  “What are you trying to do?  Those guards might look like a bunch of idiots with their matching armor and plumed helmets but there are a lot more of them than there are of us.”

“I’m just following the Hand.”  Tryst said shortly, referring to the precious artifact that Jorda had given them. “I checked it briefly just now.  Those guards can go to the crows for all I care.”

Vilhylm glanced over his shoulder, “Well you certainly got their attention.  There are a dozen of them following us.”

Too late, Callindra realized Tryst had led them down a blind alley.  She vaulted from the horse’s back, not wanting to try and fight from there since she had no experience and Brightfang was hardly long enough to use from horseback.

“You must return with us for proper questioning and customs excise for any items you might be attempting to smuggle into the city.”  Their captain announced, his men lining the exit of the alley and forming a wall of burnished breast plates and shining shields that bristled with spear points.

“Smuggling?”  Callindra demanded indignantly, “We SAVED those wagons of grain from monsters on the road and again just now from an angry mob.  If anything you should be on your knees praising us for our bravery, not treating us like criminals!”

A stone bounced off the captain’s helmet with a resounding clang and he staggered to one side.  “Rebels!”  He shrieked before a hail of stones, slate shingles and other assorted heavy objects rained down upon his squad, reducing them to twitching, bruised unconsciousness.

Ropes dropped from the rooftops and three figures dressed in leather armor slid quickly down them.  Without paying any attention to the others in the alley, they began stripping the weapons, armor and valuables from the comatose guardsmen.

“Hey!”  A voice from behind them said, “Hey you, an enemy of the guards is a friend of mine, come on!”

Callindra felt her heart quicken, the voice was … beautiful.  She spun in place and saw an ordinary looking man who was holding a gate aside, wearing much the same nondescript leather armor as the others.  It was cunningly painted to look like the stones of the alley, a deception that was only apparent after it had been opened.

“Never mind them, they’ll be done in two shakes.  But you need ta get them horses in here quick like if ya wanna keep them.”  He grinned at Callindra and she found herself grinning back.  “No need fer that little slicer here.  I ain’t one ta tell a girl she can’t do as she pleases.”

“I’m Callindra, and these are my friends.”  She said, not bothering to introduce the others, “Who are you and what’s this about rebels?”

“Oh, I’m Tanner.”  He said, making an elaborate bow, “We’re rebels.  Ya see, these bastards have taken all the food and such for themselves, leaving all the refugees and the poor cityfolk high and dry.  So we’ve been sticking it to the buggers!  We steal their food and hand it out.  Soon, maybe we’ll be able to really do something about it too.”

Callindra followed him through the door, a wide grin on her lightly blushing face.  He wasn’t very cute, but there was … something about him that she found irresistible.  Turning, she saw her friends following with expressions of relief on their faces.  Only Tryst had a mild frown creasing his brow.

Tanner led them through twisting back alleys and narrow streets until they came to a large stable attached to what appeared to be a cathedral.  No grooms came to tend the mounts, but that wasn’t an impediment to Callindra and her friends who would have wanted to take care of their own animals anyway.  Once their beasts were settled, they followed Tanner through a door.

Callindra felt her breath catch in her throat when she saw what lay beyond the door.  The room was the largest she had ever seen, and it was packed with folk.  They sat in rows, filling the pews.  They stood in ranks, filling the isles.  Hundreds, perhaps a thousand or even more and they all cheered when Tanner walked through the door.

“We gave ‘em hell and chalked up another victory for the resistance!”  Tanner said with a wide grin of triumph, “Afore long them highborn jackals won’t have a choice but ta give us our share!”

The cheers grew louder and Callindra surveyed the gathered people.  Most were much the same as the ones outside the walls, although they were slightly better fed and in far better spirits.  Most were grown men, but there were a fair number of women and children as well.

“And now I’ve taken these heroes!”  Tanner continued, “They’re gonna fight for us against the tyranny an lead us ta victory!”

“Wait a minute-“ Tryst started to say, but Callindra was swept along by his words and found herself cheering along with the masses in the room while brandishing her sword aloft.  Tryst’s hand landed on her shoulder and she was jarred from her exuberant state with a shock.

“Callindra!”  He hissed urgently into her ear, “He has a piece of it, look!”  Tryst was pointing towards Tanner’s neck.  A pendant hung there, a strange half rounded looking flat piece of what looked like clay but if it was anything like the Hand it was near as indestructible.

“Is that… a tongue?”  She asked, “Wait, why aren’t YOU affected by him?”

“I think because I have a piece of it too.”  He said, “We need to get Tanner alone so we can have a serious talk with him.”

The crowd had finally quieted down, and Tanner turned towards Callindra still beaming.  With Tryst touching her, she could see through whatever glamor was covering him.  He really was quite ordinary after all, she thought with mild disappointment.

“We should go and discuss your plans.”  She said, “We can hardly have a war council out here with all this noise.”

“Of course!”  He said, turning back to the crowd.  “Prepare yourselves!  Brother Dominic will speak and then you shall all follow his instructions for the next raid.”

The four of them followed him into a small alcove that had likely once been used by priests to prepare sacraments or vest themselves.  It was paneled in dark wood, had thick carpets and tapestries on the walls.  Tanner moved to the sideboard and poured wine, handing cups around.

“So, how should we plan our attack?”  He asked, eyes shining and Callindra began to slip back under his spell once again.  Tryst, however, was having none of it.

“Take off that necklace at once.”  He said sternly, “You have no business using such a powerful artifact on any whom you meet without warning or giving them a choice but to follow you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  Tanner protested, “This necklace is a gift from Brother Dominic after I expressed interest in helping to gather the people for the resistance.”

“I think he’s telling the truth.”  Cronos said, uncharacteristically trusting.  Callindra opened her mouth to agree, but before she could speak Tryst reached forward and yanked the braided leather cord from around Tanner’s neck.  It parted with a snap and that seemed to break them all free of the spell of belief and adoration they had been under.

“Where.”  Vilhylm asked, his voice deadly with menace, “Is this ‘Brother Dominic’ then?”

“He’s just outside talking to the folk!”  Tanner said, his voice sounding shrill and unbecoming.  “I swear, I thought they were following me ‘cause I was a good leader!”

Cronos pushed past him and opened a small window, looking out at the back of the man speaking on the raised pulpit.  He hissed a breath in warning and fear.  “That’s Dergeras out there, I’m certain of it!”

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 11

The door flew open and the attendant stood there in shock.

“What on Earth happened here?  Who is this woman?”

“I don’t know, it looks like she was bringing our champagne and slipped on something.  I think she hit her head, can you call an ambulance?”  The woman had already pulled an emergency phone from the wall and was talking rapidly into it.

“Tori I want to leave now.  No massage for me today, let’s go get dressed.”  Yeun-Ja was sitting up; mud was flaking from her skin in large pieces.

“I agree, I feel like getting this dirt cleaned off and getting dressed again.  Besides, Eugene is probably wearing a hole in the waiting room with his pacing.” She laughed and the attendant smiled a thin-lipped artificial smile.

“Very well, this way please.  I will show you to the showers ladies.”  As they left, wrapping plush towels around their bodies a pair of EMT’s ran through the door.

Victoria recognized one of them from outside the elevator about an hour before and hoped the mud plastering her face and hair would be sufficient camouflage.  He gave her a quizzical look but before he could say anything the woman on the floor moaned softly and he hurried on to help her.

The shower was amazing, not only was there a large nozzle overhead but there was a detachable wand that made it easy to sluice the layer of dried clay off their bodies.  Once they were both clean they came back into the dressing room where Victoria found her freshly dry cleaned dress hanging next to a Kelly green jumper, white button down shirt, stockings and a pair of Mary Jane’s, apparently intended for Yeun-Ja.

“Where are my clothes?  Why is this here?”  She gave the attendant a confused look.

“I apologize miss, but your old clothes did not fit you and I wasn’t sure which room was yours in order to fetch some of your personal things.  I thought you might appreciate more appropriate attire?”

Yeun-Ja fingered the fabric of the shirt and shrugged “Thank you; I will wear these until I can retrieve clothes from my room.”

While Victoria finished dressing and re-applying her makeup Yeun-Ja retrieved her netbook and custom hardware from the locker.  After giving herself a once-over glance in the mirror, Victoria looked at her friend.

“How do I look?  That jumper is absolutely adorable; green is a good color for you Yuen-Ja.”

“You look like a movie star or a model.” The girl said, “Are you a model Toria?  How does the dress stay on?  It looks like it could just fall off if you moved too quickly, that strap around your neck doesn’t look very strong.  You aren’t really able to wear much under it either, that doesn’t seem very practical.”

“It’s not about being practical, and I suppose I am a model in some ways.” Victoria said with a slightly ironic smile, “I’m showing off Adam to a group of medical technology investors today, so I need to make sure they can see what he looks like.  I need to help Eugene fund more research and development so he can help more people like he helped me.”

“Why did you attack that woman in the sun room?  Was she one of the Killers from before? “ She looked so nervous that Victoria reached out and gave her a quick squeeze around the shoulders.

“Adam knows more than I do about these things but we worked together this time.  He helped me see that she was military trained by the way she moved, and she was bringing the wrong number of glasses.” Said Victoria with a grim smile, “There’s no way anyone in their right mind would try to serve someone as young as you alcohol.  I’m not sure if she was from before or someone new but I am certain she wasn’t an employee of the spa.”

“If Adam says she is bad then she must be bad for real.”  The girl smiled in relief, “I’m glad you two are with me Toria, and I’m happy you seem to be treating Adam better too.  I was worried about him, but now I see that you trust him and care for him just as he does you.”

With that she took Victoria’s hand and headed out to the waiting room where Eugene sat at a table laden with sushi.  The chopsticks in his right hand were flickering between dishes and conveying morsels to his mouth while he was typing on Victoria’s diagnostic laptop with the other.  When they entered, he looked up and broke into a smile.

“I was hoping you were about done!  Good timing, look at this spread.  I haven’t had Unagi this good in years, oh and you have to try this Tako, it’s heavenly.”

“Actually Eugene, we need to go.”  Victoria did pause to snag a piece of fatty tuna before continuing.  “Don’t we have a conference to get to?”

“It’s fine, I’m doing the prep work right now.  Actually I’m just about done.  They were nice enough to get your laptop and bring it down here once I gave them your room number.”

“I want to make sure everything goes smoothly though.  We really should be on our way.”  Said Victoria, watching Yeun-Ja munching on some salmon and eyeing a small dish of urchin roe.  “I will admit that this is really tasty though.”

When he still didn’t move, she pulled her phone from her purse and sent him a text.  “Damn it, we were attacked in there and she could regain consciousness at any time.  We need to get the HELL out of here!”

His phone chimed and he glanced at it, his face going pale.  “You’re right I suppose, it just seems like a waste.”  He stood and closed the laptop, grabbed another piece of octopus and made his way towards the door.

They arrived at the conference hall with about an hour before it was slated to start.  Even this early the floor was crowded with presenters and medical industry representatives.  Victoria saw all kinds of prosthetic devices from lifelike reproductions of partial limbs to pieces with only passing resemblance to the body parts they replaced but with more functional capability.  None of them came close to the technical complexity of hers though, only a few even used nerve function at all, and even then it appeared they were only rudimentary devices.

Before they had entered the hall, Eugene had paused and put his jacket around her shoulders.  “No reason to spoil the surprise.”  He had whispered with that grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes, “They won’t know what hit them when you walk out on stage.”

Now that they were inside, she understood his excitement and desire for secrecy.  He obviously knew quite a few of the industry professionals and developers that were here.  Most of them didn’t appear very happy to see him.

“Back again eh Arlington?”  A man who wore a complicated looking metal forearm in place of a left hand that looked as though it had different interchangeable hands gave him a scornful look.  His question caused nearby presenters to turn and glare their direction.

“Looking for some sucker desperate enough to die for your experiments?  Trying to lure them in with cute young girls won’t get you any farther than false promises!”

“Eugene, why don’t you just give it up?  It’s a great concept but this is the real world.  I heard a rumor that someone had completed the procedure a few months ago but they quickly died except for some internet conspiracy nonsense.  I tried to contact you but apparently you changed your cell number.  What’s the matter?  I thought there were no hard feelings from my realistic, albeit harsh review of your technology.”

“What are YOU doing here?  This conference if for serious medical professionals and REAL prosthetic designers, not science fiction wannabe’s!”

Eugene just steered her and Yeun-Ja through the crowd without comment to speak with the main organizer.  He was an athletic looking man in his late forties whose legs ended just below the knee and were replaced with wild-looking carbon fiber arcs.  Victoria had seen similar prosthetics on television before her surgery, mostly worn by veterans who had stepped on landmines.

“Dr. Arlington, you’re sure you want to do this?”  He fixed Eugene with a penetrating stare.  “This is like your last hurrah, if you don’t have something amazing to show us there’s just no way I can allow you back next year.  No animal experiments or half-baked slide shows with computer generated images of what could be this time right?”

“Oh, I think you will all be surprised by my offering this year Dr. Franklin.” Eugene said with a wry grin, “Now I’m going to need the digital projector to hook up to a HDMI or VGA connection from the podium.  If you have a presentation mouse that’d be very helpful as well.”

“Sure thing, I am all set up there for digital connections.  The hookups should be underneath the podium and I’ve got a wireless keyboard and mouse setup right on top for you to use.”  He shook Eugene’s hand, “I hope you have made some interesting progress this time Eugene.  I really like the theories you developed but without proof of practical application it’s just too risky for anyone to commit any amount of money to.”

“I understand, the majority of investors here don’t have much of a technical background and my work does fly directly in the face of accepted medical science.  I should change a few minds today though.  Is everything on schedule?  Are we still the third presenters?”

“Yeah, number three.  Sorry, I know you wanted a later slot so that more of the heavy hitters would be here.”

“No problem, this is just the first of several appearances we intend to make.  If they don’t get in touch with me at this one, they will be sure to make contact before the next time.”  He turned towards Victoria, “Let’s get into the wings and prepare, you remember what I had in mind right?”

Victoria gave him a grin, “You got it Doc.  Let’s knock ‘em dead!”  She made a mental note to ask him why he hadn’t shown his Neurosynth fluid and the soldiers with robotic bits off.

“What should I do Tori?  Can I help out?”  Yeun-Ja was standing to one side looking curiously at her surroundings.

”Watch for anything unusual and help Eugene with the presentation if he needs it.  Mostly just enjoy the show!”  She said in Mandarin.

“I will go to the audio visual display booth.” Yuen-Ja said imperiously, “I will ensure that things go well, they do not seem very skilled.”

“Yuen-Ja will take care of your effects Eugene.”  Victoria said, “She seems to think they are lacking in the A/V department.”

She couldn’t tell if this relieved him or worried him, but at very least he wouldn’t need to worry about her getting in the way or wandering off and she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone hurting the girl.  The odds of hired assassins tracking her down up there were pretty slim.

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 10

Victoria

There was a creak from above as the elevator doors in the hallway were opened from the outside, “Dr. Arlington, are you there?”  The policeman’s voice was muffled by the thickness of the door Victoria had recently closed.

“Yes, we’re down here!”  Eugene yelled, managing to sound frightened.  “Hurry, there’s a child with us!  I heard gunshots up there, what’s going on?”

“Don’t worry Doc, the fire department is on their way.  It looks like there’s nothing to worry about here, some joker just pulled the fire alarm and it stopped all the elevators.  There’s an override here but the fire department has the key to open the box.  They’ll be here in just a couple minutes and we’ll lower you down to the lobby.”

“I’m not worried but the girls would appreciate a swift extraction.  Victoria and I have a conference to get to and now she’s going to need to tidy up before she’ll let me take her there.”

“True Eugene.  Annoying but true.”  Victoria tried to make her voice sound spoiled and petulant.  “Is there any way you competent men could just get us out of here?  Jesus some jackass pulls the fire alarm and I have to deal with the fallout?  Have you seen the state of my dress?”

Eugene sighed, “Sorry officers, I know you’re doing everything you can.”

There was a chuckle from above, “No offense taken, we’ll have you people out in a few minutes.”

There was a pause and Victoria heard a click and the same officer continued talking, “What the fuck happened here?  I see blood and multiple bullet holes in walls.  This place looks like a fucking war zone.  You’re sure they couldn’t have been involved?”

“I dunno Jackson, but I’d better get forensics up here as soon as we rescue these folks.  I’m going to send them down to eleven where there are some EMT’s waiting to make sure they’re OK.”  Victoria realized she was tapping into their comm link and sent Adam a silent thank you.

After a couple of agonizing minutes the elevator slowly began to move down.  Yeun-Ja came up to Victoria and took her hand.

“What is happening Toria?  Are we in trouble?  Why are the police coming for us?”

“It’s OK, they are here to rescue us.  They don’t know we could get out any time we wanted and the rescue will give us the cover our need to escape.  It would be completely illogical for a group such as ourselves to be involved in anything that went on up there since we were trapped and had to be rescued.”  She gave the girl an encouraging look.  “Once I fulfill an obligation to the doctor here I’ll help you find your dad and we’ll get out of here safe and sound.”

“OK Toria.  I trust you.” Yuen-Ja said, “We leave together to find poppa when you have paid your debt to Eugene.”

Victoria squeezed her hand, “We will find your father together, just make sure you’re discreet.  That data you have is dangerous and we’ve already seen that they are willing to kill for it.”

”Yes, I fear for poppa’s life.” Her lower lip trembled, “The killers took mommy before and now they are back for him.  Is it my fault?”

“No, you can’t control the actions of others.”  Victoria’s mouth thinned into a determined grimace.  This girl had been through so much at such a young age, it wasn’t fair.

“What are you two talking about?”  The elevator was still slowly moving downwards, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get to your room, it’s a crime scene up there now.”

“They can’t deny me access to my things, I am going to at very least need my makeup!  Are they going to move me to another room?  They damn well better.”

“Just play the diva and you should be fine.  It seems like you have that act down already?”  He arched an eyebrow at her and she gave him a flat look.

“You’re clearly not used to dealing with girls Eugene.  If you want drama I can turn it up to eleven; not wanting to ruin a five thousand dollar dress hardly qualifies me for diva status.”  She strapped her shoes back onto her feet, picked up her purse and squared her shoulders.  “I’m prepared for battle!”

Eugene

Eugene was nervous about how this was going to go.  He found it hard to believe the cops would just let them go after the obvious firefight that had occurred just a few feet from them.  The only solution was to put their freedom in the hands of an eighteen year old girl who was actually involved in said firefight.

Of course another issue was her erratic behavior and the certainty that she was being directly influenced by his creation.  The door opened and she immediately went on the attack, zeroing in on the poor floor manager who was waiting with the fire department outside.

“Why have I been denied access to my room?”  She demanded, “Look at this dress, it’s ruined and it’s all because you don’t have proper security over your alarm system!  I have a conference to attend and if I don’t look my best I’m holding your hotel directly responsible!”

She had her head high and was looking down her nose at the man who was stammering to respond.  “Miss, please!  You’ve been through an ordeal and may need medical attention I have professional EMT’s standing by here to examine you and give you what you need.”

“What I need?  These men here may have medical expertise but do you think they can do anything with THIS?”  She spun and pulled her hair away from her spine.  “What I NEED is my doctor, my friend, a spa and a fast, high quality dry cleaner.”  She gestured toward Eugene and the little girl who was looking at her with wide eyes.  “Do you think you can manage that?”

“We have a world class spa Miss.”  He said with smooth efficiency, “Please come with me right now; I will personally see that you and your friend have a complimentary full access pass.  While you appreciate the luxury at the spa I will ensure your clothes are cleaned or replaced ready for you as soon as you require them.  By the time you are done with your conference I will have all your personal items placed in a new penthouse suite for you.  Is there anything else you require?”

To her credit she didn’t pause and instead looked him square on and said, “A bottle of champagne for me, a bottle of scotch for my doctor and fresh sushi for all three of us.  Oh, and I’ll need my laptop from my room along with the case which should be on the desk in the foyer.”

“Absolutely, please follow me and I’ll take care of everything.”  He walked off and she followed as though there was no chance of anyone stopping her, and to Eugene’s amazement nobody did.

“Thanks for helping us out guys.”  He rolled his eyes at the med techs who were standing by, “You know how it is with the needy ones right?”

“I HEARD that Eugene!” Victoria said without looking around, “Get your ASS over here! If you make me wait I’ll make you sorry!”

“Shit man, good luck with that.”  One of the EMTs was staring hard at the retreating form of Victoria, “I hope to hells that ass is worth the hassle, I wouldn’t put up with that kind of bullshit.”

Eugene gave him a chagrinned look, “I hope so too.  Thanks for your understanding.”

“EUGENE!”

“Sorry guys, gotta go.”  Eugene hurried after the trio. Upon reaching the location of the spa, he was pulled off into a separate room by a fussy looking woman.

“Oh sir, this is the woman’s side!  You’ll have to wait for your girls over here on the men’s side, unless they are family?”

“I’m Victoria’s doctor, there’s no reason for me not to join her.” He said, trying not to think about the innuendo the EMT’s had made.

“Ahh, but she’s not the only young lady over here is she?  Off you go now.”

Shit, nothing for it but to let them go.  “You take care of those girls for me OK?”  He slipped her a hundred dollar bill.  “I’ll never hear the end of it if they don’t have the best experience possible.”

“I can assure you sir our salon and spa will exceed even the most demanding expectations.”

Victoria

Victoria lay back in a tub of heated mud, unsure if she loved or hated the experience.  While it was amazingly warm and relaxing she also was aware of the minute grains of earth working their way into every crease and crevice of her body.  How in the world was she going to get completely clean after this?  She lifted one of the huge slices of cucumber sitting over one eye and cast a glance at Yeun-Ja who was totally submerged with only the tip of her nose protruding from the mud.

Strangely enough, her young friend hadn’t hesitated at all before disrobing and stepping into the mud bath.  “It is very good for the body and the spirit.  I have not had a good earth cleansing since we left Korea.”  The mention of her home country brought a shadow across her face.

The staff was amazing, once they realized that Yeun-Ja spoke limited English they changed the attendant to a woman who spoke Mandarin.  Looking like the strangest VIP ever dressed in overalls, a white T-shirt several sizes too big for her and pink flip flops she had lectured the woman about proper treatment of her hardware before handing over her precious laptop and HUD to be put in a locker.  She also took off what appeared to be a charm bracelet with a dozen or so rubber animals about the size of her thumb hanging off it.

The woman looked as though she was used to all kinds of characters and took it in stride, assuring Yeun-Ja that her machine would be untouched.  In spite of that, she had still insisted on having the key to the locker put on a large-linked silver necklace she refused to remove before leaving the dressing room.

Victoria understood completely, she certainly wouldn’t want to be separated from something so important.  As she settled deeper into the mud she wondered what Adam thought of all this.  In spite of her body’s state of supreme relaxation she had a feeling of readiness from her mechanical companion.  Why in the world would he be so nervous?  Oh well, at least she could relax with him on high alert.

After twenty or so minutes, the attendant returned to help them out of the mud.

”Did you ladies enjoy your soak?  Come with me and we will let it dry in the sun, the feeling when it flakes off taking all the dead skin with it is fantastic.  Then after that we will take you for a healing massage.”

They got out of their baths; bodies obscured by a thick layer of dark red muck and followed the woman to a long, narrow room with several low canvas deck chairs.  It thrust from the side of the building and one wall and the entire ceiling were glass.

“Sit here and enjoy the sun warming your bodies.  I will bring your drinks, is there anything else you require?”

“Not at this time, thank you.”  The sun did feel amazing and as the mud began to dry Victoria felt like it was sucking the impurities out of her skin.  It was a strange experience but a very pleasurable one.  She was settling back against the soft canvas of her chair when she heard the side door open.  Lazily looking out of the corner of her eye, she saw an unfamiliar woman enter carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses on a tray.

Immediately alarms went off in Victoria’s head.  First, the way the woman carried herself screamed combat military training.  Second, the staff outfit she wore did not fit nearly as well as their other attendant’s had.  Third, she had brought two glasses, and while she herself might pass for twenty one, there was no way Yeun-Ja was even remotely old enough to drink.  From the satisfied feeling that settled over her, she figured this was what Adam had been waiting for.

”Just set it on the table please.”  She murmured sleepily, watching the woman from beneath lowered eyelashes and waiting for an opening.  The woman hesitated, apparently she didn’t speak Mandarin and had no idea what the instruction had been.  Victoria and Adam both recognized the opening and burst into action simultaneously.

She flipped sideways out of the canvas sling of the chair, using that momentum to propel herself all the way around, spinning on one hand to sweep the woman’s feet.  Her opponent fell hard, flinging the tray and its contents away as she tried to catch herself and landed on her back sliding slightly across the hardwood floor.

Before she could recover Victoria had flipped to bring her heel down on the side of her head with a sickening thud, bouncing her skull off the floor.  The glasses and bottle hit the far wall, shattering into a thousand pieces, the bottle of champagne exploding like a grenade and Victoria stood, surveying her fallen foe.  It was the first time she and Adam had acted truly as one and the thrill of it still sang through her body.  Unbidden Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ began playing through her head.