Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Chapter 16

Victoria

Victoria woke up to her cellphone ringing at 1:30AM on Monday morning.  She fumbled for it without opening her eyes, finally getting it to her ear.  “What?”

“Miss Scott?”  The voice on the other end was female and somewhat familiar.

“Who the hell is this?”  She grumbled irritably, “It’s one thirty in the morning.”

“It’s actually one thirty five.  This is Lieutenant Caarlgard Miss Scott.  We have a problem.”

“What couldn’t wait until a reasonable hour?”  Victoria mumbled, trying to decide whether or not to hang up on the bitch.

“It’s about Dr. Arlington.”  The Lieutenant said, “He’s been kidnapped.”

“Yeah, by some nutjob who calls herself Seraphim.”  Victoria muttered, “Owns a boat called the Misery.  Bought a bunch of robotics lab equipment.  I’m trying to find her right now, anything else or can I get a couple more hours of sleep before I have to get up for school.”

There was a momentary pause on the other end of the line.  “Why didn’t you report this to us?”

“I don’t recall being in the US military.”  Victoria said, “What reason would I have to report the happenings of the world to you?  Don’t you have intelligence agencies for that purpose?

“I seem to remember as part of the agreement you made with us to secure the safety and citizenship of your friend Kai Yuen-Ja you agreed to furnish us with information that could be of importance to national security.”

“How the fuck was I supposed to know this would be a national security matter?”  It was too early in the morning for Victoria to be awake and she couldn’t stand the Lieutenant.

Evidently the feeling was mutual because Caarlgard lost it and started shouting into the phone, “Damn it you may have killed him you stupid little girl!  Angel McKenna, Seraphim’s real name, is the wife of a known terrorist.  Farlan McKenna is, or was a very powerful leader of a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army.  They were in negotiations with some other organization we have as of yet not been able to track down.

“Just over nine months ago he had a meeting with this shadow organization to purchase some sort of chemical weapon they called Dirge.  We don’t know exactly what it is but we do know something went wrong with the deal and it ended up in a high speed chase that ended in a crash that left him paralyzed and in a coma.

“Only a couple of months later Angel began buying and bribing when she could, stealing and abducting when she couldn’t until she had amassed a team of doctors, scientists and specialized laboratory equipment for some unknown purpose.  Only when we received word she had taken Dr. Arlington did we finally realize what she was doing.  She’s trying to bring him back, but as what we still do not know.  To save your friend and to bring this terrorist to justice we require whatever services you can bring to bear.”

Victoria was humbled by this tirade.  “I don’t know what use I’ll be but I will do what I can.  You have my word on that.”

“Just like that?”  The Lieutenant didn’t sound convinced.

“When I’m presented with a logical choice based on facts the decision is always easy.”  Victoria said, “What do you need from me?  I assume you have a task for me or else you wouldn’t be calling.”

“Eugene trusts you but I can’t say the same about any of us, for whatever reason he has a chip on his shoulder about the military.  We believe we know where the Misery is anchored right now and we think Eugene is still on board.  When our team gets there you need to be with them to convince Dr. Arlington to come with them.  We leave at 0300 hours.  Someone will be there to pick you up in thirty five minutes.”

“Wait a minute; you want me to infiltrate a boat owned by a terrorist with a Special Forces team?”  Victoria couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you NUTS?  I don’t have that kind of training!  I’d at least compromise the mission if not get us all killed!”

“Actually Miss Scott, your prosthetic has a built in set of military protocols.” She said, “You already have exactly the training you need.  I’m sure the mercenary strike force from Blackwater that you dispatched when you were in Vegas would attest to that.”

“You know about that?”  Victoria asked, not bothering to hide her surprise.

“Of course we do.” The Lieutenant said smoothly, “We know a lot about you Miss Scott, you are a very valuable investment.”

Victoria immediately thought of Dmitri.  Oh shit, he was going to be pissed if she did this without getting ahold of him first.  “Can you make it forty minutes?  I have some things to take care of.”

“All of your needs will be provided for.  Don’t worry about that.”

“What about my parents?”  Victoria asked, “What am I going to tell them?  I can’t exactly leave a note, ‘Hi guys, I’m participating in a Special Forces raid on a terrorist’s yacht!  I’ll try to be home by dinner!’ now can I Lieutenant?”

“You should tell them nothing.  You shouldn’t tell anyone anything about this at all, doing so will put the mission and all of our lives in jeopardy.”  Lieutenant Caarlgard said, “Someone will stop by later to tell your parents that you haven’t been taken against your will.”

“Lieutenant, wait, what’s your first name?  I feel silly calling you Lieutenant all the time.” Victoria said.

“It’s Kate.”

“Kate, I will be the worst daughter in the history of the universe if I don’t do something more than that.”  Victoria took a deep breath and sat up, “My mom worries when I am ten minutes late getting home from school, this will give her a heart attack.”

“You have to understand, telling her the truth will probably be much worse than anything she could think up and a secret is only safe with two people when one of them is dead.” Said Kate, “I can’t be more clear on this, you will endanger us all if you tell anyone, even your parents or your adopted sister.”

“Fine.  I’m going to get dressed here, I’ll see you in thirty one and a half minutes.”  Hanging up she immediately took Dmitri’s business card from her dresser and dialed the number.  He picked up on the first ring.

“Victoria.  What can I do for you?”  Dmitri’s voice was calm and collected on the other end, almost as though he had expected her to call at this exact moment.

“Hi Dmitri, sorry to call so early in the morning but I need your help.”  She said, not bothering with any pleasantries.

“Do not be ridiculous Victoria, I told you to call me if you needed anything and I do not give my card to just anyone.”  He said, and she could hear the click of a zippo lighter in the background. “I am at your disposal, what do you require?”

“Eugene has been taken by some terrorist organization, he is being held on a ship and the military has recruited me to help.  I don’t trust them, the last time I did they infected Adam with a virus that almost killed us.”  She took a deep breath, “Can you track me somehow so that in the event they fuck it all up I have someone who can bail me out?  I don’t know where the hell the boat is or I’d just tell you.”

“Victoria, you may absolutely count on my assistance and tracking you will be a simple matter.  Take the microchip pendant I gave you and twist it until you hear it click.  I have implanted it with an ultra-low frequency transmitter for exactly this sort of emergency situation.”  Dmitri said, “I will be ready to extract you at a moment’s notice.  To signal distress, simply twist, hit or otherwise subject it directly to shock twice in rapid succession.”

“Thank you Dmitri, I’ll feel better knowing you are there to help if shit goes south.” She said, “Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta go and get ready they’ll be here in twenty nine minutes.”

“Think nothing of it Victoria.”  He hung up and she got out of bed.  She chose her most comfortable pair of shoes, a pair of dark blue canvas pants that would give her room to move easily, a sports bra and Underarmor workout shirt.  After a quick shower she felt almost ready, although for what she really had no idea.

“Adam, if you can hear me listen up.  We are going to do something stupid and dangerous to help Eugene out and if we’re going to survive I will need your help in a serious way.  I know these military idiots think they have you pegged but they don’t know anything about who you really are.  If they try to inject you with any more software I’m getting the hell out but Kate seems to think you have it built in.  I hope you’re getting this and I hope you can still do whatever it is you do to help us survive when we shouldn’t be able to get out alive.”

There was no way to know if he heard her or not, but she decided he had.  Even if he hadn’t she was confident in his ability to respond instantaneously to a stressful situation.  He hadn’t hesitated to in the past and this was sure to be the craziest they’d been through to date.  Her vision flickered for a moment and bright orange text ran across her vision.

“I am here and ready.  We will get the Creator back.”

So Adam really was there.  He really could hear her.  He could understand what she wanted.  Victoria shivered, unsure if she was pleased to know he was there and aware of her or not.

She was thankful for Dmitri’s help too, regardless of what help he had to offer, he seemed to think he was fucking James Bond or something.  Well, as to that he did provide her with a strange tracking device so maybe he was a spy or something.

She picked up the pendant he had given her and twisted it between her fingers.  There was a sharp click and nothing else.  It only took a moment to activate her data tracking software and she could see a steady heartbeat signal just on the edge of vision.  She isolated the frequency, encapsulated it for transport and sent it to Yuen-Ja with a short message.

“Hey sis, I don’t want to wake you but you need to follow this signal on your GPS tracking program.  I’m heading out with a strike unit to rescue Eugene and I’m pretty sure shit’s going to go down hard.  Dmitri is going to be watching this signal too, and somehow thinks he is going to be ready to extract me if need be, he’s rich maybe he has a helicopter or something.  As soon as I know where the Misery is I will send you a text.  Let me know when you’re online and if you have any trouble with this signal.  Don’t tell anyone I’ve contacted you, even David is off limits.  Love you! –V”

Feeling as prepared as she could be now so Victoria grabbed her phone and stealthily made her way down to the front steps to wait for Kate to pick her up.  She didn’t have to wait long.

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Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing Chapter 15

The airlock opened and Eugene walked through it, carrying his laptop and cup of coffee.  The ultrasonic sterilizer ran again before he was allowed to exit, leaving him woozy and disoriented.  Strange that it would run on exit as well as entry.  The guard on the other side walked him to another room.  A bottle of vodka sat in a bucket ice on a small refrigerator full of mixers.  An unopened pack of cigarettes sat on the table next to an expensive looking torch lighter.  Fucking hell, crazy bitch though she might be, Seraphim knew him well.

Mixing himself a vodka sour, Eugene grabbed the smokes and pocketed the lighter.  His new prison was far nicer than the old one had been, everything plush and comfortable.  Sunlight streamed through the windows which spanned floor to ceiling all the way down one side.  Wandering over to the windows he could see they could all be slid to one side, exposing a narrow private deck on the side of the ship.

To his surprise the windows were not locked.  He slid one open and walked out on the deck, lighting a cigarette.  He had two more surprises, first being that the boat was anchored within a mile of a small tropical looking island.  It was inhabited too, at least he could see the white walls of a modern looking house perched on a modestly high cliff overlooking the cove the ship had stopped in.

The second was the smoke from the cigarette tasted like exotic spices and smelled like frankincense and myrrh.  He looked at the pack, it was silver with a monogrammed M on it but had no other label.  Shrugging, Eugene took a satisfied sip of his drink and noticed the glass had the same stylized M etched onto it.

“So right now a man I don’t know is undergoing a surgery that I’m not involved in the success of which will determine whether I live or die.”  He took a deep drag on the strange cigarette and blew a series of smoke rings out over the water.

“Sounds interesting.”  A voice came from beyond the wall he was leaning against and Eugene nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me!”  Eugene said, trying to lean out to see around the wall. “Who’s there?”

“Just a fellow shipmate, what did Seraphim get you for?”

Eugene was pretty sure it was a man, although the Japanese accent made it difficult to be sure.  “I’m a doctor and a scientist.  My name’s Eugene Arlington.”

“Oh, I did not know you were now my neighbor.”  The man said, sounding impressed. “I am sorry for your trouble, but she has been talking about it for almost a year now.  I’m a robotics developer, Takahashi Shinji.”

“You’ve been her captive for over a year and nobody has found you?”  Eugene asked, disbelief clear in his tone of voice.

“Oh no, don’t get the wrong idea.  I am her employee not her prisoner.  We have been working to build her husband’s chassis for the last thirty two months.”  Shinji said.  “It is going to change the world forever and your prosthetic is the final piece of equipment we need to bring it to life.”

“What do you mean his chassis?”  Eugene is worried now, “What the hell are you talking about?”  He heard Shinji sigh on the other side of the wall.

“I was afraid she was going to do this, I told her not to keep information from you but she went and did it anyway.”  Shinji said, “Oh to hell with it, I’m going to just tell you.  When her husband did not wake from his coma, she immediately kidnapped the most skilled neurosurgeons she could find.  Using technology she herself had invented they removed his brain and kept it in a dormant state.”

“Is that even possible?  I guess it is if you say she has done it, I suppose.  Maybe a better question is why?”  Eugene killed half his drink in one swallow, following it with a deep drag on his cigarette.  After four days without it, the nicotine hit him hard and he needed it.

“I guess she convinced herself he was never going to awaken again.  Regardless she bribed, threatened, seduced or abducted the talent she needed and has constructed a mechanical body for him to live in.  The only thing she couldn’t make work was the spine, she just couldn’t get the brain to transfer the data the way it needed to in order to function properly.”

“Yes, the algorithms necessary are very complicated, I haven’t seen anything like my coding anywhere in the world.”  Eugene was smug on this point, “So why did she take me?  Why not just steal my data?”

“Honestly she tried.  Shortly after your successful implementation she was in your office and stole gigs of data from a terminal right in the hospital room where Miss Scott was recovering.  When we tried to duplicate your work we failed over and over.  I don’t know what secret key you kept out of the main code but we couldn’t figure it out.”  Shinji said, “I’m dying to know what it is.”

Eugene had no clue what he was talking about, “If I tell you I won’t have a damn thing left.  I’m sure Seraphim will have figured it out though, she is certain to have had me under constant surveillance.”

“Well regardless, now that she has your prosthetic with its functioning AI in hand her project is sure to be a success.”  Shinji said, sounding quite eager.

“I don’t think either of you really know what you’re talking about.”  Eugene said, finishing his cigarette and lighting another from the butt before tossing it overboard.  “My AI has no directives related to an artificial body.  ADAM is designed to maintain a living human’s systems and improve on data routing protocol.  Both of you seem to think it is capable of doing a lot of different things, but it is designed to be a front side bus to use a computer analogy.”

“How do you explain Miss Scott’s improved functionality then?  Don’t try and tell me you haven’t noticed.”  The skepticism in Shinji’s voice was quite clear in spite of the accent.

“Sure I’ve noticed.”  Eugene said, “I attribute it to her regaining mobility she had lost.  None of the data logs from the system which I monitor every morning have reported anything to the contrary.  Do you have a different idea?”

“Yes.  The artificial intelligence has become self-aware.  Surely you have considered that possibility?”  Shinji asked.

Eugene burst out laughing, even though he knew it was true the idea was still enough to drive him into hysterics, “Are you serious?  Are we scientists or not?  This is reality, not a Sci-Fi novel.”

“I know it seems far-fetched Dr. Arlington, but I think you need to consider the possibility.”  Shinji said, “If you look at the data-“

“Oh give me a fucking break.  If you’re not going to be serious this conversation is going nowhere.”  Eugene finished his second cigarette and his drink.  “Listen Mr. Takahashi, I’m going to make another drink, why don’t you come over to my room and we can have a chat.  I’ll make you a drink, you can share my weird ass cigarettes and we can bide our time until the results of this freak show come in.”

“That sounds interesting Dr. Arlington.”  Said Shinji, “It might get me in trouble but I think I’ll take you up on that.  One moment.”

Eugene was turning to go back inside when he heard footsteps behind him.  Turning around, he saw a short man with angular features and tidy black hair wearing boot cut jeans and a white tank top standing on the balcony.  He put his hand out and Eugene grasped it, surprised to feel calluses.

“Greetings Dr. Arlington.”

“Greetings Mr. Takahashi, please call me Eugene.”  He lit a pair of cigarettes and offered his guest one.

“My thanks, Eugene.”  He said, taking the cigarette, “In return, please call me Shinji.”

“Deal.”  Eugene said with a smile, “Level with me Shinji, how did you get over the wall?”

“Ancient Japanese secret.”  His guest replied with a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Mix me a drink and I just might tell you.”

Eugene laughed, “Fair enough, come on in.”  He walked back to the bar and mixed two more vodka sours, handing one to his companion.  “Have a seat, we may be here for a while.”

Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Chapter 14

Eugene

“Wake up!  I said wake the FUCK UP!”  Eugene opened his eyes slowly, attempting to make them focus.  It felt like he had been asleep for mere moments but a glance at the wall clock revealed he had been out for almost six hours.

“What the hell is all the noise?  Christ I’ve been working for three days with almost no sleep what do you want?”

Seraphim was on the big monitor again and she looked pissed.  “The Coast Guard accessed our GPS in order to triangulate our location but instead of following normal protocol they initiated an active trace.”

Eugene still wasn’t awake enough to interpret what she was saying, “Why did you have to wake me up to tell me this shit?  Either quit with the word games and tell me what you want or fuck off and let me sleep.”

“It means they are trying to track my ship.”  She hissed, “They don’t do that unless they have a damn good reason.  What did you do?  Send an SOS?  I want to know how you got a message out of that room, it’s hardened with only audio and video allowed out.”

“You have got to be kidding me.  If you don’t know exactly what I’ve been doing this entire time then you haven’t been paying attention.  I built you a machine in three days that took me three years last time I did it.  I’ve been working with almost no sleep and astonishing amounts of caffeine to get this thing done and now I just want to sleep before the final checks.  Unless you want me to miss something important causing the device to nuke your hubby’s brain stem when we turn it on I suggest you shut the FUCK up and let me get some sleep.  I haven’t bothered trying to send any kind of message to anyone.”  He closed his eyes again.

There was a momentary pause before she asked in a fevered voice, “It’s done?  You’ve finished it?”

“Yeah, I made some improvements too, put some better integration protocols in there based on what I’ve seen from Victoria and a few power limiting shunts too.  I want to go over things better before I turn it loose though.  Still haven’t powered on the AI for the internal checks.  Gotta make sure the code is debugged.”  Eugene’s voice trailed off as he drifted into sleep again.

Seraphim watched him for a few moments from the monitor, a variety of emotions flickered across her face finally settling on a grim kind of hope.  “He will be returned to me and then it shall be time for vengeance.”

Eugene woke, finally feeling like a human being again.  Although he knew that technically his nearly four days of imprisonment had freed him from the physical addiction of nicotine he still missed smoking, especially in the morning.  Sighing, he stumbled out of bed and made his way to the tiny shower set into the wall across from the food dispensers.  It likely was supposed to be a chemical rinse station but had been hastily converted to have hot water instead of whatever cleaning agent it was supposed to sluice parts in.

After a quick shower, he retrieved a banana and a cup of coffee from the machines and walked back into the lab.  He powered on his diagnostic tools and ran yet another bug check.  This one too came up clean which was strange.  He knew he was fallible and had been working under the absolute worst conditions and yet somehow his code was perfect.  Running his fingers through his still damp hair, he checked to make sure the power cells of the new unit were fully charged and then ran the power up sequence through the access cable.

Again, everything went nearly perfectly.  The operating system booted without a hitch and after a moment’s hesitation the AI began sending recognition signals.  Eugene had simulated a brain stem connection and the AI responded as it should, passing information and behaving itself otherwise.  When he sent the power down sequence, the AI closed its threads and shut off.  All those extra protocols he had added must be working as designed.

Shaking his head he sat back and sipped his coffee, wishing again for a cigarette.  Looking at his laptop, Eugene opened the simulator, running a program that imitated a human brain in a coma.  At least it was supposed to, who knew exactly how a brain in a coma would really react.

He ran a variety of different simulations and every time the AI failed completely to do anything about the state of the brain.  Shit, the fact of the matter was it wasn’t a tool to heal; it was a tool to maintain.  If he was going to make it do anything other than that major modifications were going to have to happen.  Making Seraphim believe him was going to be the hard part.

On a whim, Eugene introduced one of the advanced problem solving algorithms ADAM had reported using to organize Victoria’s memories.  The effects were immediate and absolute.  The simulated brain awoke and began rudimentary functions.

“I’ll be damned.  That digital bastard is bailing me out again.  I wonder if I’m going to be able to pay him back.”  Eugene muttered to himself.  He set down his coffee cup and raised his voice, “Seraphim, this thing checks out.  I’m ready to hand it over to you for implementation.”

“What?”  The screen filckered to life on the wall, “Already?  You really are a prodigy Dr. Arlington.”

“I only did what I had to in order to survive.”  He said, “It seemed in my best interests to get this shit done as quickly as possible.  Can you let me go now?”

Seraphim laughed, “Oh Eugene, you really are a silly bastard.  You can go once the surgery is complete and my dear sweet darling is returned to me.  Until then, I will at least let you retire to more comfortable quarters.”

“Wait, aren’t you going to have me be involved in the surgical procedures?  I might be able to be of assistance.  After all, I’m the only one on this boat who has done this before.”

“So naïve, did you really thing I would try to do this with unskilled amateurs?  It was hard to get you but it was child’s play to get the rest of your team.”  The truth that rang in her voice cut deeper than any sarcasm or derision she added on top.  “Now run along Eugene.  The work is done, now you can relax and wait for your work to bear fruit.  If it doesn’t you will be the first to know.”

Alex Feldspar, Mundane Investigator – Chapter 1

I sat in my office chair, gingerly leaning back so that I could put my feet up on my desk.  The chair was a decrepit piece of raksa and had a tendency to give way without warning if I put too much pressure on the hinge that allowed it to swivel and tilt.  It was one of many things that was on my list of things I’d like to replace.  I opened the carved cedar cigar box and cursed under my breath.  Only one left.

There was a tap on my door and I closed the box with a sigh.  “Yeah come on in, it ain’t locked.”

The slender form of a male elf slipped through the door with willowy grace.  I always resented how they were able to move like that.  “You’re Mr. Feldspar?”  He asked, his voice chiming like perfect crystal.

“Yeah.  I’m Alex, what can I do for ya?”  I said, my fingers twitching reflexively toward my cigar box.

“I have some work for you.”  He replied, leaning forward to look me in the eyes.  His were sparkling pools of liquid blue with sparkling golden motes deep in their depths.  Normally this kind of charm would make a mortal melt, but I was more than mortal.  Or less than one, depending on how you wanted to look at it.  I was Mundane.

“What kinda work?”  I asked, giving up and snatching the last cigar from the box. The attitude most Fey creatures had about their power and influence just rubbed me the wrong way.  “My specialties are pretty narrow, but I’m damn good at what I do.”

He sat back, folding his arms and giving me a guarded look.  “So it’s true.  You really can resist it?  It has no effect on you at all?”

“What’s the job?”  I asked, getting more annoyed and lighting the cigar with a match.  “If you came here to see if you were the one who could crack the Mundie’s shell then you can just turn around and walk out.”

“I need you to investigate something for me.”  The Elf said, “My name is Trillium Greenleaf, perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“Yeah sure.”  I said, affecting a tone of indifference.  Of course I’d heard of Trillium.  He was a local musician who was apparently all the rage.  I hadn’t seen his act yet, but only because I had been wrapping up my last case.  This guy was loaded.  “What’s the job?”

“I think someone has been following me.”  He said, gesturing elegantly with his right hand, “I want you to keep an eye out for me.”

“You want me to be your bodyguard?”  I asked, “I don’t think so Mr. Greenleaf, that ain’t really what I do.”

“You misunderstand me Alex, I want you to watch who is coming and going outside my show.  No need for you to get directly involved in anything I have competent personal protection who will take care of that.”  Trillium said airily, “It’s just that they aren’t the most observant boys in the world.”

“Ah.  All brawn, no brains?”  I said, “I know the type.  Well, that I can certainly help you with Mr. Greenleaf.  My fee is three gold pieces per day plus expenses which will not equal more than an additional two gold pieces per day.”

“Oh Mr. Feldspar, surely you don’t need to charge me the full-“ He began, eyes sparkling

“Save it Elf.”  I said, “Haven’t I already convinced you that your charms don’t work on me.  My fee is my fee.  One day in advance.  Pay it or go elsewhere.”

He opened his mouth in surprise; something I’m used to by now.  They always think some part of their magic will function as it has for as long as they’ve been alive.  They’re wrong though.  They might as well be trying to charm a stone for all the good it does.

“You’d better be worth the expense.”  He said, the glamor on his face fading further until I could see his plain, almost gaunt features clearly.  The longer I was around an enchantment, the less power it had.  Eventually even others would be able to see through it.  With a flourish, he placed a small stack of gold coins on the corner of my desk.

“Oh I assure you Trillium, I’m as worth it as your new Mistress is.  Did you know she’s trying to kill you?  I’d guess she’s only recently figured out who you really are.  I’m guessing you used a more mundane disguise and not magic.”

“What?”  He said, glaring at me.  “What makes you say I have a Mistress?”

“Well obviously, the broken blood vessels I can see peeking out from beneath your collar.  You’ve been married now for quite a time now if I recall; no wife of ten years would give you a hickey.  My theory is also supported by the fact that you’ve only got another three gold in your purse, apparently she’s been bleeding you dry.”

I grinned at him, and inclined my head.  “Would you like more evidence?  The second finger on your left hand has a swollen knuckle.  This indicates to me that you’ve been removing your ring regularly but that this is a rather recent development.  That’s why I say you haven’t been using magic to disguise yourself.”

“What makes you say she’s trying to kill me?”  He asked, leaning forward and tugging up the collar of his shirt.

“You’re here, and you’re nearly broke.”  I said giving him my best feral grin.  “Why else would a person like you seek out the services of someone like me?  She’s discovered who you are and is blackmailing you perhaps?  Doesn’t believe you’re out of money?”

He blinked in surprise and then his shoulders slumped.  “My last tour didn’t generate as much profit as it should have.  I’d dressed casually and gone out just to get a couple of drinks and relax and Cassandra was so kind, so understanding…”

“I don’t need the details of your love life.”  I said, “Unless you think they directly pertain to the issue you want me to investigate.  Is Cassandra the only one?  What’s her surname?  What demands has she made?  When’s the last time you saw her?”

I rapped out the questions rapidly, knowing that a barrage of questions usually confounded and confused the Fey, especially when they weren’t anticipating them.  With any luck I’d be able to get real answers out of him before he recovered himself enough to start lying again.  Taking a deep drag on my cigar, I exhaled smoke out my nose and leaned forward to look him in the eyes.

Here’s the thing about being a Mundane.  Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, hell even Sektar with their faceted orbs on either side of their heads, all share some of that ability to communicate on an arcane level.  Then there’s me.  When you look in my eyes there’s nothing but the reflection of your eyes looking back at you.  Nothing but yourself.

Trillium reacted differently than anyone else I’d ever stared down.  His eyes rolled back into his head and he fell out of his chair, completely unconscious.  As might be expected, Spark chose this moment to make her cheerful, irreverent appearance.

“Holy shit, I knew you were ugly Feldspar, but I never thought you’d actually KILL someone just by looking at ‘em!”  She said, popping into existence in a shower of golden glitter.

“Who’re you running from now Spark?”  I asked, fixing the pixie with a baleful glare.

“Oh, now that’s just cold Feldspar.”  She said pouting and showering my office with more glitter.  “I take the time out of my busy schedule to come and grace you with my presence and you greet me with abuse!  Always with abuse!”

“Yeah.  You’d think it would be enough to… oh I dunno, keep you away!”  I snapped, staring at the comatose form of Trillium Greenleaf.

“Seriously what happened to him?”  Spark asked, her glitter starting to fade away like morning mist as my presence started to erode the magic that created it.

“He was stupid enough to look me in the eyes.”  I said with a shrug, “I guess he didn’t like what it revealed about himself.”

“I’m not all that surprised.”  She said, perching on the unfortunate Elf’s head.  “I think this one’s done some kinda terrible shit.”

“Nah, he just feels guilty.”  I said, giving her a meaningful look. “Really guilty.  Strong emotions do strange things to the Fey.”

Her laugh was a tinkling of silver bells.  “Oh Feldspar, I know!  That’s why I never bother with any emotion other than glee!”  She spun in a circle in the air, scattering a weak circle of glitter that faded before it touched the floor.

“That and frustration, malice, vengeful rage…” I said taking a puff on my cigar to keep it lit.

“Those aren’t emotions you fool.”  She said loftily, “Those are states of being.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “As you say Spark.  Now get out of here before he comes to his senses.  You know how they get around you.”  I pointed to the comatose Elf.

Spark sighed, “You’re no fun Feldspar.”  She said with a pout, “No fun at all.  But being around you should have masked my trail well enough to make leaving safe.”

She vanished in another muted shower of glitter and I poured a glass of cool spring water from the pitcher I kept on the far side of my office.  It was a magical cold box, but as long as I didn’t come near it too often it seemed to work more or less.  I brought the water back and dabbed a bit on Trillium’s face with a clean handkerchief.

His eyes fluttered open and he shuddered.  “Earth and sky, what was that?”

“You fainted.  I’d say you’ve been working a little too hard Mr. Greenleaf.”  I said wryly, handing him the water.

He looked at me, passing a hand over his face and accepted the glass.  As he did so, his eyes traveled up my lean, rangy frame.  It may come as a surprise to those of you who look at the androgynous, beautiful Elves to know that they place a lot of importance on gender.  Even though it can sometimes be difficult to tell, I’ve seen gang wars start over some careless human mistaking the sex of an elf.

Some of them find my lack of any overt sign of my gender disconcerting.  I like it that way.  My body is my business and I never mix business with pleasure.  Messing around with clients is a good way to ruin your reputation and that’s a slippery slope nobody in my line of work recovers from.

“I have some notes you could pick up later, but for now I think it might be better for you to experience things firsthand.”  He said, as though withholding information could somehow improve an investigation.  “I’m afraid I have to leave and prepare for the show tonight.  If you could stop by at twilight?”

I nodded and he rose, recovering some of his dignity as he swept his cloak around his shoulders and left.  Elves.  What a pain in the ass.  He’d paid in advance though and I had rent to pay.  I’d had a dry spell and if I didn’t get a few more clients Dilynn was going to throw me out on my ear.  She could too, literally.  Dwarves were tough.

Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Chapter 13

When she got downstairs, only fifteen minutes late, she was not surprised to find David sitting in the living room looking decidedly more awkward than he had the night before.  Both her parents were there as well, trying to engage him in some sort of conversation.  They, on the other hand, looked a lot more comfortable with David than they had with Dmitri.

Grabbing a leather jacket off its peg in the hallway, Victoria went in to rescue David.  “Hi, sorry I’m late.  Yuen-Ja and I were working on that problem all day and still didn’t get to the bottom of it.  I can’t wait to unwind a little bit, it was totally exhausting.”

Relief and shock washed over David’s face.  “You look great!”

“Just my favorite jeans and a comfy shirt.”  She grinned at him, knowing she looked fantastic in these jeans, that’s why they were her favorite pair.  “Let’s get going, I want to see the previews!”

“Yeah we should go.  Thanks for letting me borrow her for the evening.”  He shook hands with her father and they walked out together.  Victoria saw his car was a 1963 VW Beetle, he couldn’t have been more opposite of Dmitri she thought with a chuckle.

“He might be old but he’s a fun little rig.”  David said, sounding a little defensive.

“I love it!  He fits you perfectly, a touch nerdy but cute as hell.”  She gave him her best smile and watched it take effect.

“Uh yeah.”  He hurried to open the door for her, his face coloring in a slight blush.

“You said you did some stuff with robotics?”  She asked, sliding into the passenger’s seat, “I’d love to see your work some time.”

“Yes, yeah I do a little bit with robotics.”  David looked sideways at her as he started the car. “You really want to see my work?”

“I really do, is there time before the movie starts?”  She asked, glancing at her phone.

They were just down the block, and instead of turning right towards the interstate he turned left.  “Maybe, I mean if we miss it I won’t be upset.”  He gave her a shy smile, “I’m really proud of the piece I’ve just finished actually and was trying to figure out a way to get you to some see it.  I think you’ll … I think you’ll like it.”

Victoria looked around, “I guess I don’t know where your house is David.”

“It’s not far, only about a half mile or so.  It’s all city streets though so it can take a little time.”  David was not paying enough attention to the road for her taste.  Maybe it was just a sign of how used to Eugene’s precise attentive driving she was.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be distracting you.”  She said, trying to be slightly more tactful than she had been over the last few days.

David noticed he was over the center line and jerked the car back into the proper lane.  “My folks aren’t in the country right now.  Dad works for American Automation and he’s working on machinery at some mining facility and mom is a pilot for Delta and she’s only home one week a month.  I’m not all alone though; my sister is staying at home while she’s going to college so I see her almost every day.”

“Wow, I don’t think I’d do well being that independent already.  Or at least I appreciate what my parents do for me right now you know?  My mom’s breakfasts are pretty epic.”

“Yeah, I miss them sometimes but it’s nice to have the house more or less to myself.  It gives me space to work.”  He grinned, “Besides I make companions, after a sort.  You’ll see what I mean when we get there.”  They rode in silence for a few minutes, Victoria trying not to pay too much attention to his driving style and David seeming to be lost in thought.

David steered the car into a short driveway and into the garage of a massive old house.  It was a rambling three story monster with fading paint and windows old enough to be wavy with age.  The inside of the garage had old steel signs from gas stations on the walls, a tiled black and white floor and a spotless workshop.

“Here we are, home sweet home.”  When he got out of the car the garage door closed behind him with a mechanical hum and recessed lighting in the ceiling flickered into life.  A small circular robot moved from a niche in the wall and swept up minor trail of dirt that had come in on the Beetle’s tires.

“Whoa is that one of those things from the Sharper Image?  The Rondo or whatever?”

David laughed, “No this one actually works.  I call him the Little Butler; he uses lasers to find foreign objects on the floor and sucks them up with the suction power of a full size vacuum.  I designed it myself.”

“Right, I should have known.  What happens when it finds something too big to pick up?”  Victoria watched the machine precisely clear the floor around the car, pause in the center of the floor and slowly spin before moving back to its tiny home.

“If it finds something that doesn’t belong it contacts Grover my garage organizer.”  He gestured towards the ceiling at a robotic arm.  “Watch.”  He picked up a wrench from its cradle on the workbench and tossed it on the floor and touched a button on the wall marked ‘Clean Up’.  After a few moments the small bot came out, scanned the room again and the arm on the ceiling swept down, paused over the wrench and then swiftly picked it up and replaced it in the proper location.

“Awesome, how does it work?” Victoria asked, truly entranced.

“Well I input the coordinates of everything on the bench and everything here has a barcode.”

“No, not that I mean the robotics.”  She said, “You have some seriously advanced servos in that thing, how much can it lift?  Does that thing have access to the entire garage?”

“Yeah, I tend to make quite a mess and I got sick of cleaning up after myself.”  He gave her a big smile, “If you like this wait until you see the things I’ve made in high school.”

“Holy shit!  When did you design this thing?”  Victoria was even more impressed now.

“When I was ten.  Come on in, I’ll get you something to drink and show you my latest invention.”

He opened a door in the back of the garage and she followed him down the stairs it revealed.  When they got to the bottom he turned on the lights, revealing a workshop that rivaled the lab Eugene worked in.

“So this is my dad’s workshop.  Pretty sweet right?  I mean I don’t have access to a laser lathe in here but he has almost everything else.”  David walked to the back of the room and gestured for Victoria to sit on a bench that looked like it had begun its life as a church pew.  There was also a small refrigerator from which he removed a couple of cans of soda.

“I guess rather than trying to explain my latest achievement to you I’ll just show you.”  David handed her a Mountain Dew and walked over to a workbench and began fiddling with a box with what looked like two aluminum legs sticking out of the bottom.  They were made from a tubular exoskeleton with cabling and a pulley system visible running down the open center.

“I put some gyroscopic stabilizers in the box but once you get the hang of using it you don’t really need them.  I really wish I had some different sort of cabling system to use because this one isn’t as efficient as I would like.  I can’t put enough tension on them to get the performance I want either, right now they can’t support much more than their own weight which means battery power is pretty limited.”  He pulled the legs off the edge of the bench and picked up a remote control from an old R/C plane.  The feet were four segmented metal fingers with rubber pads on the bottom and they splayed out on the floor as the machine stood up, wobbling slightly and took a few steps forward.

“That is amazing David, you even made joints for the hips and knees that mimic human ones!”  Victoria walked around the machine, watching as it shifted slightly from foot to foot in order to maintain balance.

“Yeah, the feet are the only problematic thing as far as realism is concerned.  I wanted it to be something that could be used to be a replacement for people who lost limbs and if it looked too outlandish nobody would want to buy it.  If I could just get more cable tension through the feet I could eliminate the need for the gyro’s completely and it wouldn’t have rock side to side when stationary either.  As it sits right now the feet aren’t strong enough to pull it back if it gets overbalanced.”

“Can it go up the stairs?”  Victoria asked.

“Hell yeah it can!”  David steered his invention around the basement, showing her how it could move and turn just like a pair of human legs, but with added benefits.  The hip, ankle and knee joints were fully articulated so it could spin completely around on one leg without moving the foot.  The feet could grip as well or better than a human hand, making picking things up an easy task.  After five minutes or so, the unit lost battery power.

“I am using lithium ion batteries from a couple old laptop computers but they just can’t store the amount of juice this thing draws.”  David said, lifting his invention back on to the workbench.

“That’s a setback I’m sure you could overcome, after making something this complex surely it wouldn’t be an engineering impossibility to come up with a better battery cell.  You really need to get in touch with the designer of my prosthetic.  I think you and Eugene would really hit it off.”  She scribbled Eugene’s number down on a random piece of paper and stuck it to a cork board on the wall.

Victoria’s phone rang, interrupting her thought.  She rolled her eyes, “It’s my mom, just a sec.  Hi mom, what’s up?”

“Oh thank GOD you’re safe!  How did you get out?  Are you OK?”  Her mom was nearly in hysterics.

“Mom, what on earth are you talking about?” Asked Victoria, puzzled.

“The fire in the theater!”  Her mom said, “Where are you honey?”

“I went to David’s house first, he is showing me some things he has invented.”  She said, “What’s this about a fire?”

David turned on a TV mounted above the workbench and tuned in the local news.  It showed a cluster of fire trucks circling the theater they had intended on visiting engulfed in a massive inferno.

“I see it on the news now mom.  Boy, we dodged that bullet, it would be hard to survive a fire that size.”  This was obviously the wrong thing to say to her mom who burst into tears on the other end of the line.

“We’re OK mom, we aren’t even within ten miles of that place.  Calm down, I’ll come home right now.”  She hung up, “Sorry David, can you bring me back?  My mom’s losing it”

“Yeah, sure.”  He was staring at the TV, looking slightly green around the gills.  “Shit that could have been us Victoria.”

“But it wasn’t, what’s the big?”  She looked at him with her head tilted off to one side, “Every day you make decisions that could be your last.  Driving your car to my house and back is probably the most dangerous thing you could do and yet we take that totally for granted.  Focusing on what could have happened is only going to make you stay in your room for the rest of your life.”

“That’s a pretty pragmatic attitude for a teenager.”  David said, “It’s not like you’re really that old.”

“I’ve had an interesting few months I guess you’d say.”  Victoria said, “If I didn’t try to keep looking ahead instead of behind I think I’d probably have a nervous breakdown.”

Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Chapter 12

A.D.A.M.

Adam was noticing an interesting anomaly in the brain functions of the Host system – in Victoria.  Before his cataloging program was put in place, there were spikes in activity and unnecessary activation of certain data stores causing erratic data retrieval patterns.  Now that his program was up and running, the Host often skipped the first step and went straight to the data source it was looking for.

All his carefully laid out schema were being gradually undermined and had to constantly be updated and maintained.  It was almost as though the system was making shortcuts every time it accessed the storage database.  Adam created a maintenance daemon to maintain order in the database and decided to monitor progress from there.

A spike in activity drew his attention.  Victoria was storing a lot of information in a schema related to logic and linking it to another related to emotions.  These were the same issues he was attempting to work through, what could she be doing that would trigger this kind of response?  Adam opened the files and looked through them.

Images of a man, his high cheekbones, clean shaven face and short cropped black hair, his dark eyes peering from beneath a serious brow.  There were scraps of audio, bits of video, but nothing having directly to do with logic at all.  Adam assembled the entire file together and attempted to analyze it further.  Once he did this he began to see a pattern.

The man’s actions, motions and speech were all very precise.  He moved like a machine, talked like a machine and made decisions like a machine albeit much slower than a machine would.  There was very little wasted motion in his actions and he waited to act until he had gathered the information needed to make a logical choice.  Most interesting of all to Adam was that after looking at the data as a whole he discovered that the man approached emotions logically as well.

It didn’t appear he actually felt emotions, he merely knew that others did and therefore it was only logical for him to display them in order to fit in.  This fascinated Adam, and the more he looked at it the more he was certain that this man was as close to a machine as any human he had data on.  He flagged the file for easy reference and so that he would be notified when it was accessed or modified.  The next time Victoria met this man he wanted to experience their interaction as it was happening.

Victoria

It was well after nine before Victoria was able to drag herself out of bed.  She stretched, noting that during the night she had somehow managed to wrap the sheets completely around her legs.  What the hell had she been dreaming about?  Images of running along a mountain ridge barefoot with a rushing river far below her floated to the top of her conscious mind.

Oh yeah, that’s right.  It was actually pretty cool that she could remember dreams now.  That’s something she had never been able to do before.  Getting out of bed, she unplugged her trickle charger and grabbed her bathrobe.  She could hear noise downstairs and smell brewed coffee.

She walked into the kitchen, still yawning and idly listened to the radio broadcast that was on.

“- Iranian officials still deny the allegations as do the North Koreans but it now seems almost certain that North Korea has been selling weapons grade uranium to Iran.  The report that was released had too many verifiable specifics including dates, satellite photographs of vehicles and even images that appear to show the heat signatures of nuclear material in buildings and in transit to be a hoax.  The group Anonymous has posted the report on their site and claim they were given the information by a lone hacker who told them he stole it from a US military spy satellite.”

Oh shit.  Yuen-Ja had actually done it.  She had actually posted the stolen satellite data in spite of the effects it was going to have on the world.  Well at least she had kept her promise to release it after the fact so that it was less likely they would be implicated.

“Pretty unbelievable huh?”  Her dad poured her a cup of coffee, “I mean everyone knows North Korea is a nuclear power and that Iran wants to become one but I never imagined they would get desperate enough to sell uranium to the Iranians.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty wild.  I wonder what will happen now?  Obviously sanctions aren’t very effective but if Iran has the bomb now a direct invasion isn’t a good idea.  I wonder what Israel will have to say about this?”  Said Victoria, taking the proffered cup.

“It will be all talk and bluster I fear.”  Yuen-Ja was sitting at the breakfast bar, eating a bowl of cereal and holding her coffee cup out for a refill.  “The world has seen worse things come and go with barely a passing glance.  In spite of how we perceive him I am certain Ahmadinejad is too smart to risk a direct confrontation with other nuclear powers.  Since it was exposed so soon, I expect he will give it up in return for some loosening of sanction or another.”

“Well that is an awfully jaded view of world politics don’t you think?”  Her father said, refilling Yuen-Ja’s coffee cup.

“Not if you see the world of politics from the view of a North Korean peasant.  Thank you for the breakfast, I am going to go check on a program I was running last night.”  She left the room, taking her coffee with her.

“You know there seems to me to be a lot more to her than we were previously aware of.” Said her father.

“I think you are probably right.”  Victoria said, carefully ignoring the fact that she knew exactly what her sister was long before the adoption had occurred.  “I can’t imagine what it must have been like living there under constant threat of death or imprisonment.  Especially with her father being in his line of work.”

“What did her father do?” Asked her dad, “It’s strange that we’ve adopted her and that she seems so comfortable with us but I don’t really feel like I know much about her.  Other than what you told us of course.”

“He was a scientist involved with their nuclear program.”  Victoria said, her mind still on the newscast. “He quit and defected as soon as he found it was not for peaceful means.  I’m not certain what happened to her mother exactly but I know Yuen-Ja believes the military killed her.”

“My god, that’s terrible!”  Her dad said, “How do you know about all this?”

“Um… I guess sisters talk to each other?”  Victoria said, still sounding distracted. “She says the world is divided into four groups in North Korea.  There are members of the military, members of government, peasants and slaves.  Almost everyone falls into the last two groups.  Even though her father was a man of some influence, I gather he still lived in a one bedroom apartment and she remembers often going to bed hungry.”  Victoria had never actually talked to her adopted sister about this, but somehow she knew about it.

“Well she’s part of our family now and a citizen of the USA.”  Her father said, “She won’t have to go to bed hungry unless she’s being punished for something and I think she’s a little old for that kind of thing.”

“Let’s hope so dad, let’s hope so.” She said, “I’m going to go see what she’s up to.”

Victoria went to check in with Yuen-Ja, .  She found the girl sitting down in the basement, curled up in a corner of the worn leather sofa with her heads up device strapped to her face, deep into the program she was writing.

“Find anything?”  Victoria asked.

“No.  This database is too big.  Nothing is labeled properly.  It is a real pain in the ass to navigate.”  Yuen-Ja said petulantly, her fingers flying over the keyboard, “My program crashed earlier this morning.  It looked too much like a virus and their AV caught it.  I am having to re-write it using completely different code.”

“How long do you think it will take?”  Victoria asked, “Should I start looking for the other components?”

“Sure, you might as well.  The more leads we have the better off we will be.”  She didn’t sound very hopeful. “I will have this up and running in another ten or fifteen minutes, then I will help you.  I owe Eugene; I do not like leaving him hanging this way.”

In spite of working all day the two sisters had not managed to come up with any good leads.  With both of them finding the parts had been fairly simple.  There were only a couple options for most of them, especially the laser lathe, but they were all shipped to different addresses.  The only pattern was many of the components were sent to shipyards, docks and marinas.  All places the Misery could have stopped to pick them up.

“They must have taken them to their lab right?  I can’t think of a better way to disguise your operation than to have your address be a boat.”  Victoria said, tossing her laptop on the table in front of her in exasperation.

“I suppose you are correct.  The only other thing I can think of is that perhaps the ship itself is the lab.”  Yuen-Ja replied.

“Holy shit, it’s so simple!”  Said Victoria, “Why didn’t we think of that before?  How big is the Misery anyway?”

“She is a one hundred foot yacht.”  Said Yuen-Ja, her fingers flying on the keyboard, “Easily large enough to house a compact robotics laboratory right?”

Victoria paused in thought, “Yes, but they wouldn’t be able to do the surgery there I don’t think.  Even with advanced instruments they couldn’t risk the motion of the ship messing up a procedure this delicate.  They will need to come to a port of call somewhere to do the operation.  I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too far off the California coast either.”

“What operation?  Do you think they are forcing him to do another prosthetic spinal transplant?”  Yuen-Ja seemed excited by the prospect.

“Why else would anyone have purchased all this equipment and taken him hostage?  They haven’t even made any demands.  Hell, I don’t even know if anyone else knows he’s missing.”  Victoria looked at the clock. “Damn, David is going to be here in a half hour and I haven’t even showered today.  I’d better get ready.”

“Oh that is right, I forgot he is taking you out to a movie tonight.”  Yuen-Ja gave her a sly grin, “He has not forgotten though.  He could not believe it when you asked him out, he is your biggest fan.”

Victoria hurried upstairs, picked out her favorite jeans and a ‘Tank Girl’ faux vintage T-shirt before getting in the shower.  She got dressed, brushed on a touch of makeup and pinned her hair back with a pair of hot pink barrettes.  Standing back to assess her outfit, she added the charm bracelet her mystery admirer had given her and the microchip pendant from Dmitri.