Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 7

Dace burst out laughing, “Ya call this fine?  I think you’re vastly overestimating the situation.  I’ll be here if ya want me or not, at least until the end of the year.  Get any packages from a secret admirer lately?”

“What exactly do you know about that?”  Victoria stopped in the middle of the hallway and pivoted on one foot to face the other woman.  The extra height granted by her new legs put her a good four inches above Dace.  “You’d better start talking; I’ve had a bad day.”

“Oh give me a goddamn break.  You were probably wearing what…” Dace glanced at her, giving her a quick once over, “That charm bracelet on the mission weren’t ya?”

Victoria closed her eyes and activated the remnants of the program Adam had salvaged from the shit virus the DOD had given her.  The air around her came alive with lines representing electronic signals.  With some trepidation she looked at her wrist.  The bracelet was shining in the sunlight, but showed no signs of electric transmissions.

“Negative, I received this today.  Besides, the bracelet is inert.  Wait, you think Dmitri is the one who sent me these?”  Victoria folded her arms.  “He’s not exactly a secret, if he wanted to give me a present he would have just handed it to me.  Besides, didn’t I tell you on the Misery that I had given him our location?”

“Maybe yer right.  Whatever the case I’d think twice before accepting gifts from unknown sources, especially ones who are willing to blithely break into your locker to give them to you.”

“OK I suppose I’m not exactly your average high school girl anymore am I?  I’ll be more cautious if you back off a little, I don’t need someone looking over my shoulder all the damn time.  Deal?”

Dace stuck out her hand and Victoria took it.  “Deal.  Want a ride home?”

“Naw, it’s only six blocks, I’ll be fine.”  Victoria said.

“Are you sure?  Looks to me like ya could use a lift.”  Dace pointed at Victoria’s left leg.  There was a bright spot of blood on one of her white stockings.  “Don’t that hurt?”

“Shit!”  Victoria pulled her skirt up just far enough to reveal the socket for her prosthetic leg.  “He’s turned off the pain sensitive nerve endings but that’s a double edged sword, it’s hard for me to tell when I’m overdoing it.  I’d appreciate a ride, thanks.”

“By ‘he’ I’m assuming you mean your A.I.?  I still can’t believe you let them put that thing in your head.”  Dace shuddered, “It’s just unnatural ya know?”

“Shhhh, that’s not exactly common knowledge around here.”

“I hate to break it to you Victoria, but yer national news.  Everyone who ain’t been living under a rock or in an Amish community knows about you.  If they ain’t asking questions it’s either because they’re scared or they don’t give a shit.”

“I mean the A.I. bit, not the spine transplant.  Let’s not stir up the peasants OK?”  Said Victoria.

They were leaving the school building now and heading for the parking lot.  “Ya worried about those fundamentalist nutjobs?”  Asked Dace.

“Who?  Oh those idiots who were spouting nonsense about this being one of the signs of the apocalypse or something?” Victoria shook her head, “No, I think the cops put a damper on their enthusiasm a while back.  I just don’t want people, especially my friends, to be more uncomfortable than they already are.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that Victoria, zealots are usually pretty persistent.  Don’t underestimate your friends either, if they ain’t tossed you to the curb yet they probably won’t.”  The older woman shook her head.  “I mean David certainly ain’t gonna freak; Jesus he designed your latest hardware didn’t he?”

“You know more than you’re saying about that group of so-called fundamentalists don’t you?”  Victoria asked, fixing Dace with a level stare.

The other woman ignored the look and the comment, opening the door to an aging Toyota Landcruiser.  “Here’s my wheels, hop in, the door’s unlocked.”

“I want to know what you know.”  Said Victoria, climbing in the passenger’s seat.  The truck was lifted several inches to accommodate its aggressive off road tires, had heavy duty bumpers with tow hooks and even a mean looking winch on the front.

“If you really are here to help me out wouldn’t it be a good idea to share information with me that might save my life?”  She began to slide her stockings off her legs, not wanting to leave them on in case her mother saw the blood.

“Hey, I never said I was here to help.  I said I was here to keep an eye on things.”  Dace said with a fiendish grin.  “Don’t sweat it; I won’t let anything happen to ya.  Like I said before I owe ya for bailing my team out; least I can do is return the favor.  Besides, a quarter billion dollars’ worth of DOD funding is walking around with ya.  We ain’t gonna just ignore that investment.”

“So why did you say your age is a state secret?”  Victoria was hoping the sudden change of subject would rattle an answer free.

“Cause it is.  You ain’t the only one who’s had some work done.”  Dace backed out of the parking space.  “Fine, we been keepin an eye on some key players in that movement.  We ain’t sure why they’re doin what they’re doin yet but that don’t matter.  Seems there’s something big in the works but we ain’t been able to find out what it is yet either so the General decided to have someone close to ya just in case shit hits the fan.  That’s me.”

“Thanks I suppose.”  They were turning down Honeysuckle Terrace, heading for her house now.

“You’re welcome, I guess.”  Dace chuckled.  “Damn I wish there’d been girls like you when I was in high school.  I might not have dropped out.”

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Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 6

It wasn’t until she was half way to the Councilor’s office that she remembered the small box from her locker.  She had pocketed it when TT was giving her a hard time and now pulled it out curiously.  It was another set of charms for the bracelet she had gotten before; these ones were tiny glass figures that also appeared to be from the Chinese Zodiac.  Victoria held the dragon up to the light and could see a tiny bit of liquid inside that caught the sun and sent green-tinged rainbows flickering on the walls.  There was a neatly penned note inside.

“To be thrown at the feet of enemies.”  Was all it said.  She shrugged and put the box back in her pocket.  They were beautifully crafted even if her admirer seemed to have a cryptic streak a mile wide.

The door Big K’s office was open and there were a couple students inside already.  Victoria took a seat near the window and tapped into her phone to send Yuen-Ja a quick text.  “Let mom and dad know I’ll be late, they probably know already but it can’t hurt.  Also tell David to stay out of trouble, I’m not sure he’s going to listen to me.  See you at around 5:00! –V”

Two more figures entered the room; Donna was leading ‘Ms. Daceiron’ “I just have a few things for you to sign before you leave for the day.”  She picked up a fat stack of papers and shoved them at Dace.

“Can I take this with me to read it over?  I ain’t used to signing things without reading ‘em first.”  Her gaze wandered over the students in the room, acknowledging their presence but not lingering on any one more than another.

“This is merely a copy of the student teaching agreement we sent you by email.  You’ve probably read it through already.”  Said Donna, “Or if you want to sit and read it now you’re welcome to hang out with the few delinquents I haven’t managed to beat into submission yet.”

Dace took the papers and sat, flipping through them.  At one point she paused and seemed to re-read a section a couple of times before continuing with an odd expression on her face, then nodded and continued.

“Students, you are here for a variety of reasons, however one thing remains constant.”  Kneepkens was sitting behind her desk and looking at them over steepled fingers.  “You have all broken the rules and need a little bit of work to remind you to follow them.  Here we have a card catalogue, and I have terminals for you to work on.  We are working on digitizing our library in preparation for the new wing that will be built this summer.  Each of you must complete two hundred entries before you are excused.”

Victoria ignored the moans of the other students and walked to the front of the classroom.  She grabbed a stack of cards and flipped them through her fingers, watching carefully and counting as they rolled off her thumb and setting down piles of fifty.  She could feel Donna’s eyes on her as she walked to a terminal, sat and began to enter the ISDN number, title, author and bar code label into the system.

Other students followed her lead, shuffling miserably to the front and laboriously counting out a stack of cards.  By the time the first of them had sat down, Victoria had finished her tenth card and had hacked into the library system through the school’s WIFI network.  She started flipping through cards, reading them and sending the data to the proper fields.  For every card she entered manually she did ten with Adam’s help.

Two hundred cards took her approximately nine minutes.  Victoria walked up to where Donna was reading a magazine and set the stack of cards on her desk.  “Here you go.  Two hundred cards finished, may I be excused now?”

“You expect me to believe you’ve completed your task already?”  Donna narrowed her eyes, “Come now Miss Scott, you don’t think I’m that stupid do you?”

“What I think of you is irrelevant, my work is done and I’m asking to be excused.”  Victoria said, keeping her tone level and polite.  “Please.  Go ahead and spot check them if you’d like.”

Donna set her mouth in a firm disapproving line and pulled a card from the middle of the pile.  Pulling up the system on her desktop she punched in the author and, of course, found the title of the book.  She tried another, then another, and with each one her frown became deeper.  Finally she gave Victoria a disgusted look.

“Fine.  I’m not sure how you did it but you may go.  I’ll see you here again tomorrow.”

“This all looks in order.”  Dace had finished reading and signing the documents and was bringing them back to Donna’s desk.

“Excellent, you’re just in time to walk Miss Scott out of the building.  Thank you Ms. Daceiron, it will be a pleasure having such a highly recommended individual working with us.”  She stood and shook Dace’s hand.

As soon as they were out of the room she turned and to Victoria, “What a fuckin’ blowhard.  What’d you do to get stuck in there anyway?  Your file says you’re some kinda genius.”

“I could ask you the same question, only your file says you’re some kind of military maniac.”  She reached her locker and opened it.  “I got in trouble for being too good.”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m here too; you’re too good.”  Dace said, folding her arms and frowning.  “There ain’t a civi in the world who can just walk out of a situation that takes apart half a highly trained Special Forces team.”

Victoria finished stuffing books in her bag and slammed her locker shut.  Locking eyes with Dace she stuck out her right leg, showing the carbon fiber of her legs where they showed over the tops of her stockings. “I think you’re misremembering.  I didn’t walk out of anything your team was involved in.”

“Poor choice of words, sorry.  Ya moved with us as though ya’d been on the team for years and the only reason ya got injured was because ya took an astronomical risk to disable that…” Dace shuddered, “That fuckin’ monster.  Look I owe ya, we owe ya.  I know there must be others out there who’ve also noticed so I’m keepin’ an eye on things.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need or want a keeper.  I’m just fine.”

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 5

When she walked into class, there was a vaguely familiar woman writing on the board, Mrs. Ordstrom was sitting at her desk.  Victoria slipped into a seat next to Stace and watched with interest.  She had written ‘Ms. Daceiron’ on the board and began speaking as she turned to face the class.

“I am Ms. Daceiron, I’ll be student teaching for the remainder of the year.”  Victoria stared in shock.  Standing in the front of the class was Dace, the leader of the Special Forces squad seventeen.

“The Ms. means you aren’t married right?”  One of the boys in the back asked.

“Yeah, how old are you?”

“Inappropriate questions will be ignored.  Repeat performances will result in punishment.  My age is a state secret and I’d have to kill you if I told you.”  Dace smiled a friendly and dazzling smile and Victoria suppressed a shudder.

She was good at knowing when someone was lying, especially with Adam’s help.  There were certain voice modulations and stress reactions that made it pretty simple.  Either Dace had an epic poker face or else she was telling the absolute truth.

 

Eugene

“They WHAT?”  Eugene couldn’t believe his ears.

“I’m serious, I now have a seasoned military commando as a student teacher.  Listen, I have to go to detention now but I’ll call you later.  Or we can chat by email while I’m in detention if you want.”

“But I –“ He began

“Look Eugene I gotta go OK?”  Victoria hung up.

Eugene looked at his phone, momentarily feeling a flush of anger until he realized that she was in school and likely had been calling him at risk of being caught and punished.  Taking a deep breath he tried to relax.  It had been difficult since his kidnapping.

After a momentary hesitation, he dialed Dmitri’s number.  He needed to know she was safe.

“What can I do for you Dr. Arlington?”  Ivanov’s voice was flat and toneless.

“I was hoping to speak with Dmitri.”  Eugene said, “I just had a question to ask him.  A rather important question.”

“The Young Master is currently occupied with another task that requires his full attention.”  Ivanov said, “Perhaps I can assist you?”

“Dmitri had mentioned having Victoria… watched.”  Eugene said, feeling uncomfortable.  “Do you know anything about that?  Do you happen to know if his man is still on the job?”

“As a matter of fact, I believe the bodyguard is indeed still watching Miss Scott.”  Ivanov said in his precise, clipped speech.  “What is your concern?”

“Ahhh, I don’t know, it’s probably nothing.” Said Eugene, “Never mind.  Forget I called.”

“That, I will not do Dr. Arlington.”  Ivanov said in his deadpan voice.  “I never keep anything from the Young Master.”

“I wasn’t asking you to keep anything from anyone.”  Eugene protested.

“Excellent.  I will let him know you called.” The line went dead.

“Shit.”  Eugene looked despondently at his cell phone before tossing it on his desk.  He wasn’t so careless as to allow it to land somewhere that wasn’t soft though.  “I don’t want to trust Dmitri, but he has acted in his own best interests as long as I’ve known him.  At least I know keeping Victoria alive is within those interests.”

Well, even if Dmitri had more resources at his disposal he certainly didn’t hold all the cards.  Eugene powered up his laptop.  It was time to do what he could to help Victoria in his own special way.  Cracking his knuckles, he set about trying to figure out everything he could about the zealots in this so-called Humanity Preservation Alliance.

 

Victoria

Detention, Victoria couldn’t believe it.  She opened her locker to put her books away with a heavy sigh and saw there was a small package sitting there.  Damn, a weird secret admirer?  She wondered who the hell it was and how they had gotten into her locker.  Before she could open it, a singsong voice came from behind her.

“Vicky’s got detention, Vicky’s got detention!”  TT burst out laughing and was echoed by her group of friends.  A group that Victoria noticed had grown in the last few weeks.

“What are you, six?” Victoria asked, then had another thought. “Wait, how did you know about that?”

TT just laughed harder and walked away, “I’ll be at practice freak, enjoy hanging out with the delinquents!  That’ll teach you to cheat; I guess you couldn’t bear the thought of me being smarter than you.”

Victoria opened her mouth to respond, but sensed someone coming behind her and slid suddenly to one side, turning to see David’s surprised face.

“Damn, there’s no sneaking up on you!”  He said with a grin, “Don’t worry about Thorndon, she’s a wicked pain in the ass.  Listen, this weekend can you swing by the lab?  I think the MKII is almost ready to test and I want to run some basic diagnostics.  You’re gonna flip when you see them.”

“MKII, you mean the second pair of legs you won’t give me any details on?”

He nodded, “Yeah, you’re gonna love them I just know it!”

“Maybe, I’ll text you later tonight and let you know.”  Victoria said, slamming her locker door.

“You have plans?  What are you up to, spending some time with Dmitri?”  His voice had an unfamiliar edge.

“I’m probably going to be spending quite a bit of time with my folks for a bit.  They’re all clingy for some reason.  I can’t imagine why, can you?”  Victoria glared at him, “Look I told you what the deal with us was; I like you and I like hanging out with you but if you want something more than that you’ll need to look elsewhere.  Same goes for Dmitri or anyone else right now.”

He winced, “Yeah, sorry I didn’t mean to be like that.  I’m just jealous of time other people get to spend with you.”

“No, it’s fine I’m on edge too.”  She said with a sigh, running a hand through her hair and tucking it back behind her ear.  “I have my fucking detention to go to.  Kneepkens has it out for me.  Again.  I don’t get what the hell I did to get on her bad side.”

“Want me to round up the troops and make her life hell?  I’m sure she has some dirt we could dig up.” He said.

“Thanks for the offer but I’ll be the one to take the risk if it comes to that.”  She said, “I don’t want any of you getting in trouble over something as stupid as that.  Besides, I’ve already given her and Jean something to think about.  I need to go I don’t want to give her an excuse to extend my sentence.”  Victoria turned to go, leaving David staring after her.

The Effects of Ghost Ale

As the others converse with the Djinn at the top of the tower, Ioz stares in wonder at the marvelous brew before him.  He has heard of Ghost Ale before, but has never tasted it.  Licking his lips, he unstoppers the flask and takes a delicate sniff.  The nose is rich and earthy with a hint of flowers.  Brightstar flowers unless he missed his guess and he was rarely wrong when it came to alcohol.

‘What wonders might this reveal?  I’ve oft pondered my heritage as I never knew my family.’  He thinks to himself.  Unable to resist, he takes a deep drink.  Images flicker before his vision and he finds himself sitting around a low stone table.  Six forms appear, sitting in chairs identical to his.  Although he hasn’t ever seen them before he instinctively knows them to be blood relations.

“I am your grandfather twice removed.  I am Storgar Wyrmslayer of the Caverstorm Clan.”  One of the figures said with an inclination of its head.

“I am your grandmother twice removed.  I am Brenlena Greatblade of the Deepdelver Clan.”

“I am your grandfather.  I am Durrak Diamondthrone of the Caverstorm Clan.”

“I am your grandmother.  I am Belladin Herbweaver.”  Ioz started at this, for this person was a human, not a Dwarf.

“I am your mother.  I am Noranna Bitterbrew.”  A sweet voice that hovered between the rich registers of a Dwarf and the sweet timbre of a human said.  “Oh my dear little gemstone what have they done to you?”

“I am your father.  I am Chara the Hammer of the Brightforge clan.”  A gruff and rumbling Dwarven voice said.  “You bear the marks of power, the sigils of pain and the scars of battle.  You do your ancestors proud, or at least you begin to my son.”

“I – I am unworthy of any praise.”  Ioz said, “Anything I have accomplished has been by accident.  Any accolades you give me are not earned but are mere happenstance.”

“And yet you have been chosen by The Lady of the Lost Ones.”  His great grandfather said, leaning forward to give him a bushy eyebrow.  “Don’t you think perhaps she might know better than you?”

“Don’t be so hasty to trust the Gods.”  Durrak said, his voice severe and morbid, “The do not care for you in particular, only their games and their own power struggle.  What they want from you may not be in your best interests.  They might even be lying to you about what you are doing or why they want you to do it.”

“I don’t really even know what I’m doing or why though.”  Ioz said, a bit chagrined.  “I honestly thought I was going to have more time to figure that out.  Wait, gods lie?  Wait, that kobold was a god?”

“Don’t judge everything based on Durrak.”  Noranna said, “He is still angry at Moradin for what he did to us, even though those actions may well have saved the world.”

“Beware of the warnings given by any Oracle.”  Said Storgar, “Even when they prophecy your success they rarely encompass all that should be taken into account.  Follow your own instincts.”

Ioz barked a laugh, “My instincts tend to tell me to drink whatever I can and pummel things into submission afterword.  While that’s gotten me this far, I think the stakes have been raised slightly now don’t you?  Besides, it was my instincts that got my friends killed.”

“No.”  Belladin said in calm reproof.  “You did not kill them.  You were but a child, how could you be expected to defend them and yourself?  Your memory is judging you harshly for things beyond your control.”

“I could have-“ Ioz began.

“The fault of the killing rests solely with the killer.”  His father said in his basso rumble, “You tried, fought with everything you had and failed.  We all fail, but do not allow your failure to mold who you are.  Instead you must grow from your failures, and I can see that you have grown from them.”

“You have the tools you need.”  His mother said in a voice that brought back dim memories of warm arms circling protectively about him.  “Now you must gain the understanding of who is convincing you to employ them and to what end.  Your companions seem trustworthy enough, however simple talk of a balancing act and the promise of a good fight shouldn’t be sufficient for you to risk yourself thus.  None of us realizes how precious life is until it has slipped through our fingers.”

“You’re a good lad.”  Brenlena said, speaking for the first time since introducing herself.  “Don’t allow your pride to interfere with your duty.  My pride was my undoing, led the destruction of our ancestral home and was nearly the undoing of the world.”

“Small chance of that.”  Ioz muttered.

“Fare well.  Our time grows short.”  They said in unison, “Find your Purpose, complete your Quest.”

“Wait… I feel like I should be asking something more.”  Ioz protested, not sure what he wanted to say, but wishing the encounter to continue just a few moments longer.

“You have forged yourself into a weapon child, just as your destiny dictated you would.”  Chara said, “Remember that you are meant for more than destruction.  We will speak again; this I promise you.”

The last sensation was his mother’s arms holding him in a warm embrace.  Then Ioz was unceremoniously deposited back into reality once more, surrounded by his companions on the Seventh Floor of the Tower of Mineral.  The sparkling blue words on his forearms twinkled mockingly at him; their runic for “Purpose” and “Quest” an ironic reminder.  What had possessed him to attempt to assimilate that thrice cursed weapon crystal?

With a sigh, Ioz took a large drink from his mug, thankful that at least one thing was constant.  His cup was ever full.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 4

Stace shrugged and waved, “See ya in class V.”

“Ms. Kneepkens, I need to make sure I’m prepared for my first class.  I can’t afford to miss any more, I don’t want to fall behind.”

“Quiet Scott, you have always been too chatty.  It was a problem in middle school and it prevails now.”  She fixed eyes too beautiful to be a part of that massive frame on Victoria, “You are in a serious amount of trouble, now quiet until we get to my office.”

Her mind was racing, what did she know?  Did someone tell her about the mission?  About the accident?  About Adam?  No, that couldn’t be.  Even if Big K had learned something somehow what difference would it make in her schooling?  They entered in silence, Victoria was nervous even with the calming influence that Adam always seemed to exert in these situations.  Maybe he was feeling the pressure too.

The Principal, Mr. Kucera was there.  Jean had always seemed to be a good guy but he didn’t have enough of a spine to stand up when it was appropriate.  She had seen him shouted down by parents whose child hadn’t met the grade requirements for some sports team or another at a school board meeting.

But that was back when she had extra time.  Back when she was in the National Honor Society.  Back before her accident had changed her outlook on life.  As cliché as it might have seemed before, it was clear to her now that she needed to look out for herself before paying attention to the needs of others.  It only made sense.

“Have a seat Scott.  Now, do you mind telling us what happened Wednesday during your mid-terms?”  Big K sat at the head of the table, Victoria chose a chair on the side, opposite Jean.

“Are you referring to my History test?  When that jerk accused me of cheating and I quoted the textbook back at him?”  Victoria asked.

“This is very serious Miss Scott.”  Jean’s voice was subdued, “Please understand us, this situation is very serious.”

“Describe if you would, exactly how you did it?”  Donna Kneepkens leaned forward, the table creaking under her weight, “How did you manage to cheat on your mid-terms?  Was it your computer friends?  Did you hack the teacher’s test files before the exams?”

“Wait just a minute here, this is total bul- uh- I mean I did NOT cheat on my exams!”

“I just don’t understand it Miss Scott.  You are such a talented young lady, why would you resort to such obvious and extreme measures?”  Jean said giving her a furtive but accusatory look.

“She’s just like the rest of them.  Thinks she can get away with anything because she’s pretty and on the cheer squad.”  Donna’s eyes narrowed.

“I would like to see what evidence you have that I cheated.”  Victoria said hotly, “I study hard for my grades.  Hell, I missed a quarter of this term because I was in the hospital and I still managed to do OK when I got back.”

“That.  Is exactly the problem.”  Donna pulled out a file folder, removed a piece of paper and slid it across the table to Victoria.  “First you are gone for seven weeks, then when you return your daily work is nearly flawless.  Needless to say I began paying closer attention when I heard the teachers talking about your supposed genius in the lounge.  This is all the evidence I needed and you were arrogant enough to provide it to me.”

Victoria picked up the sheet of paper.  It was her mid-term test results.  She stared at them in disbelief, “I aced them ALL?”  She looked over the paper again, and couldn’t believe her eyes, perfect scores all the way down the line.

“There were college level calculus problems thrown in there just to maintain the curve.  Your English essay reads like an encyclopedia entry.  One of the formulas on your chemistry test was written incorrectly, quite by accident I’m told, and you corrected the error, made a notation of it and solved it even though it was possible to get an answer the way it was.”

Donna’s voice was silky soft, a look of triumph on her sweat-slicked face, “I don’t think I need to talk about your History test.  If this had happened with ONE of your exams you would be a genius.  With it happening on ALL of your exams you are a dirty little cheater!  Now tell me HOW did you do it and WHO helped you?”

“I don’t need this shit.  I worked my ASS off to stay on top of things despite missing a lot of school.  I’ve had a TERRIBLE week and all I wanted to do was get things back to some semblance of normal but because I’m smart and pretty, unless I misheard your words earlier Kneepkens, you think you can accuse me of cheating?  I’m out of here.”  Victoria stood up fast, the actuators on her legs causing the backs of her knees to strike the chair she had been sitting hard enough that it did a complete backflip before slamming into the wall and falling to the floor.

“One week detention.” Donna said.

“Are you kidding me?”  Victoria was incredulous, “For what?  Getting pissed off for being called a cheater?”

“For cursing in my presence.  Keep talking if you want another week put on top of it.” The oily grin was enough to give Victoria the self-control she needed to calm down.

Victoria took a deep breath.  “May I be excused?”

“Certainly Scott, we don’t want you missing any class.”  Donna smiled an oily smile.  Jean looked like he’d swallowed something and it had started moving.

Pausing at the door, Victoria looked back over her shoulder, “I don’t know what brought this on, I don’t know what vendetta you have against me but if you pursue this I will win.  I did not cheat on my mid-terms, you have no proof other than that I’m exceptional.  After I win, I will find whatever secrets you have no matter what they are, regardless of how well hidden and I will use them to ruin you.”

She turned and strode out the door, listening with satisfaction to the choked sounds of indignation coming from her opponents.  Another student was running down the hallway and Victoria had to spin on one foot, tilting her body at an angle that should have been impossible in order to avoid a collision.  It would have been impossible without the unique construction of her new artificial legs.

“Sorry!” The boy yelled, not slowing down at all and disappeared around a corner.

Shrugging, Victoria began walking to her class and the hall phone caught her eye.  Last fall, the school had upgraded to a new VoIP phone system, and the fact that it was now all digital and running over Ethernet cable meant it was connected to the school’s network.  On impulse, she hacked the school’s WIFI connection and tried to track down the phone in Kneepkens’s office.  With Adam’s help it was a cakewalk, she listened in through the speaker phone.

“-n’t possibly know anything.”  Donna was saying.

“But she looked right at me, she must know something!  I don’t know how but she has found us out!”  Said Jean, “This could be the end of our careers, we might even do jail time!”

“Jail time?”  Donna snorted, a sound like ripping canvas.  “Jean, there is no possible way we would go to prison for this, but don’t worry.  I’m telling you, she’s an eighteen year old girl who needs to cheat to get good grades.  She just doesn’t have what it takes to find shit on us.  We’ve been too careful, and she’s too stupid.  Now shut up before someone overhears you.”

Well.  That was interesting.  What on Earth could they be up to?  Victoria filed that tidbit away for future reference; she had only intended to make them sweat a little bit.  Just keep them looking over their shoulders when sneaking office supplies or whatever, but it seemed like she’d hit the jackpot.

Id Om Zagod (Stone Crushing Fist)

Id Om Zagod sat in the Wandering Wyvern Inn, watching the adventurers come and go.  The fat, chisel pointed Dao with its long double grip handle sticking intimidatingly out from over his shoulder.  He glared at the patrons, a massive pewter tankard in one hand and a tiny crystal shot glass in the other.  Setting the empty shot glass down, the Dwarf carefully poured a measure of the thick brown liquor from the stoneware jug on the bar next to him.  A small drop spilled on the bar and began to eat its way through the oak, sizzling and burning.

“Hey little guy, what’re ya drinkin?”  A tall and massively musclebound human sat down next to him, the impact of sitting knocking the bottle off the bar.  Ioz, as his friends would have called him if he’d had any, moved as fast as a striking snake, catching the bottle a finger’s breadth from the floor.

“Did you just call me… little?”  He asked, his voice gravely and deadly quiet.

“Oh come now, I don’t mean nothin by it.  Pour me one a whatever that is.”  The human slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to shift him a finger on his stool.

“Fenris, leave Zagod alone!  By the Mother Goddess, that crazy gobshite is drinking Purple Hippogriff!”  Another human had noticed his friend and had intervened at perhaps the worst possible moment.  “If he don’t kill ya th drink will!”

“This is th Stone Crushin Fist everyone’s been on about?”  Fenris asked incredulously, “Canne be him, he’s got a bloody sword don’t he?”

A fist the size and shape of a summer ham smashed into Fenris’s cheek, even as Ioz drained his tankard.  The huge human staggered back, drawing his sword and swinging it in the same motion but Ioz stumbled three steps to the left, then three to the right seeming to accidentally stumble out of the way.  Fenris was only barely able to stop his stroke before the blade struck his friend.

“You little-“  Fenris began, but Ioz had woven his way back into range, draining his shot glass as he came.  Fist, elbow, forearm, knee and foot struck in rapid succession hitting solar plexus, collar bone, temple, nose and then chin as the Dwarf unleashed unarmed fury upon his would be opponent.

“Nobody calls me little.  Nobody spills my drink.  Nobody doubts my fists.”  Ioz sat back on his stool as though nothing had happened.  The human on the floor was groaning and holding his broken nose with one hand and his stomach with the other.  Calmly, he reached out and poured himself another shot of the muddy brown liquor.  Purple hippogriff.  It ain’t purple and it ain’t a hippogriff.

“Very easily managed.” An accented voice said in common.  “I can see that your reputation is very well deserved.”  The second human had retreated, hand on the hilt of the Greatsword over his shoulder and a diminutive figure in a blue robe with the cowl pulled low over its face had stepped forward.  It extended a gloved hand.

Ioz did not take it, instead tossing a pair of silver coins to the Minotaur behind the bar who refilled his mug with frothing ale without comment.  The Dwarf took a long drink and sighed in satisfaction.  Reaching into a belt pouch, he took out a long stemmed pipe and a pouch of tac.  With careful deliberation he packed the bowl full and lit it with a practiced stroke of flint and steel.

Finally, after blowing a perfect smoke ring he turned to the figure where it stood patiently waiting.  “What you want Kobold?”

The human guard flinched and took a step backward, but the cloaked figure didn’t so much as twitch.  “I am offering you something.  An opportunity.  The Mother Goddess has brought all us forgotten here for a reason and I believe yours goes beyond carousing and fist fights.”

Ioz grunted. “Naw.  That’s pretty much all I’m good for.”

“Very well.  Then I challenge you to a fight.  The stakes are-“  The figure broke off as Ioz drained his tankard and took a pull directly from the bottle before leaping at her, his arms spread wide.  She easily slid to one side, tapping his foot with hers as she did so.  Her touch was just enough to spin him around, a motion which he turned into a vicious roundhouse that had the power to sunder a stone wall.

She leaned backward and slapped his heel as it flashed past her face, causing his motion to carry dangerously close to the bar.  Only by pulling his foot in and spinning twice in a circle did Ioz avoid kicking his bottle from the bartop.

“That ain’t right.”  He rumbled, unleashing a mad blur of punches, kicks and other less gentlemanly strikes.  The small figure glided out of reach every time and as was her wont, tapped him in just the right spot to put him off balance, this time sending him crashing into a table laden with food and drink.

Ioz rolled easily to his feet, ignoring the bits of broken pottery jammed into his flesh and the pottery, coming to his feet with an un-spilled tankard from the table which he promptly poured down his throat.  This time when he approached, he wove in an unsteady rhythm, feet crossing over themselves in an unintelligible tangle of stuttering steps.  His upper body wove in a nearly impossible sinuous weaving motion.  Instead of fists, his hands cramped into uncomfortable looking claws, knuckles splayed at wild angles.  A wide, unsteady grin was plastered across his face.

“Now we shtart to shee jusht how good ya be lassh.”  Ioz slurred, and stumbled forward three quick steps.  His foot came down hard where hers had been a moment before and he stumbled into her, his elbow smacking into her temple with force that should have been impossible from that angle.  She neatly turned a sideways cartwheel, turning most of the force of his blow into motion and lashed out with a foot as she did.  The motion flipped her hood back and he could see that her scaled skin was the white of driven snow.

Ioz wobbled back a half step and evaded her strike entirely before weaving back into the fray his arms, elbows and knees a blur of fluid, yet somehow erratic motion.  She retreated, awkwardly countering his blows, ducking and blocking.  Finally, she fetched up against the bar and in the blink of an eye was holding a pair of nunchaku.  Weapons in hand, she launched a furious counterattack.  Steel flashed as she battered at him, attempting to wrap the chains of her weapons around his arms or legs and settling for striking ferocious blows instead.

As he passed the bar, Ioz snagged a bottle at random and downed it before rolling backward out of reach and coming to his feet with his massive Dao in both hands.  The weapon whistled out, the wickedly polished edge shining in the light coming through the tavern’s window as he used it to block his opponent’s deadly assault.

He stepped back, grounding the chisel tip of the sword and bowing slightly from the waist.  “You are good.”  He said without rancor or the slurring speech and slumped back into his seat at the bar which just happened to be where he had retreated.  “You forced me to draw steel… What do you want?”

She stepped forward and poured a shot for each of them.  He raised a bushy eyebrow skeptically but downed his while she did the same.  Impressed, Ioz waited patiently.

“You’ve seen exactly what happens when you cannot maintain balance.  You are defeated, and by a mere Kobold.”  She said the last with irony in her tone.  “That is why I wish you to assist in a little project.  I can promise many strong opponents and a few staunch allies as well as the chance to do something a bit more… meaningful with your existence.”

Her eyes took in the now empty bar, the destroyed tables and crockery and she raised an ironic eyebrow.  “If you don’t have something more pressing in your schedule?”

The doors slammed open and the city watch tramped in.  Ten of them.  Even though he had never resisted, they sent more every time.  They circled him warily and the guard captain came forward with a pair of manacles.

“Zagod.”  He said with a frown on his face, “Don’t tell me that this tiny person over here somehow forced you to destroy the bar.”

Ioz saw that the Kobold had flipped her hood up again.  He looked at the guard captain and snorted in derision, “You know I don’t judge folk because of their size Darious.  You also should know I don’t resist arrest when I’ve broken the city’s laws.”

Ioz turned to the hooded form, “I accept your offer.”  He said, inclining his head.  He paused, noting that its shoulders shook with silent laughter.  Narrowing his eyes, he asked, “What is so damn funny?”

“They call you Zagod.”  She choked out, “They are literally calling you ‘fist’ or ‘punch’ and they don’t even understand it!”

“Punishment for a bar fight is payment of damages and a night in the lockup.”  He said, keeping his face straight.  “So you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

“You’re going to actually go with him?  You’re actually going to spend a night in jail?” She sounded skeptical, “Why?”

Ioz shrugged.  “It’s the law.  Part of following the law is acknowledging when you break it and serving the time required.  I’m bad at following the law but I try and atone for those failings by serving my sentences without causing trouble.”

“There is much more to you than it would seem Ioz.”  She said, using the name he had chosen.  The name he had taken for himself.  The name that had no hidden meaning.  “I will ensure someone is there to collect you upon your release.”

With that rather cryptic and unsettling statement, she turned and left.  They all watched her for a minute before Ioz sighed.  “Can I finish my drink before we go at least?”

“We’d be here all night, I know better than that.” Darious said.

Ioz sighed again, deeper this time.  “Damn.”

Sitting in the cell that smelled of vomit, sweat and piss, Ioz admitted that he’d had better accommodations.  Still, it was his own lack of self-control that had led him to this place.  Again.  He leaned back and let the memories of old pain wash over him.

He had been too weak to protect anyone.  Too small to defend those who he cared for.  Too stupid to notice until it was too late.  He had relied on his weapons, hadn’t trained his body to the fullest extent possible, hadn’t honed himself to a razor’s edge… and his friends had paid dearly for it.

After his failure, he had simply walked away from his life or what was left of it.  He had left everything behind and just walked until he could no longer put one foot in front of the other.  Until nothing mattered and it felt like death would be a comfort, a balm, a welcome release from the suffering of continuing to live.  And then he had run.

When The Mother Goddess, Landria Mother of the Lost, Keeper of the Forsaken, Finder of Things that Shone in Darkness found him, she wept at his despair.  She took some of his pain into herself.  She offered something other than the endless darkness that he wanted to give in to.  She gave him the escape he craved without demanding the end of his existence.  It had been a temptation too sweet to resist.  He had regretted it for every day thereafter.

Once he had accepted her salvation, Ioz had discovered that he was no longer able to forsake his own life.  He couldn’t change who he was when the very stones of this place demanded that he live.  That he serve the Mother’s purpose.  That he follow this land’s Laws and obey his set destiny.  He wept bitter tears as he saw the treachery of Landria’s forgiveness.

So he tempered himself in the forge of pain and strengthened himself on the anvil of despair.  He had years, decades, centuries to live.  Without the release of suicide, he simply tried to die by fighting the strongest person he could find in every place he traveled.  Over the years, decades, centuries, he had come to a simple conclusion.  He was the strongest, or else the Mother would not allow him to perish in such a trivial fashion.

Dorda.  Randar.  Shrav.  Terkin.  His friends who had been murdered because he hadn’t been able to fight without a weapon stood always over his shoulder.  Always reminding him of his debt to them.  Constantly exhorting him to greater effort.  And now, this Kobold… a person who hadn’t even had enough respect for him to grace him with her name… now she held the strings of his fate in her clawed, white hands.  She held them and he was too much of a coward to deny it.

Or perhaps this was his chance to redeem himself.  Closing his eyes, Ioz allowed sleep to claim him.  Tomorrow, the true testing would begin.  A test of balance that was sure to strain him to his utmost limits, or so he hoped.  Perhaps it would even break him.  That thought was the first comfort he had felt since Landria, the Mother of the Lost had claimed him.  The jailers found him sleeping with a smile on their nightly rounds and shuddered at the sight.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 3

Eugene

Eugene had been debriefed by the military, told what he could and couldn’t say, told what had and hadn’t happened and then reluctantly released back into the civilian world.  He wondered if the girl he had rescued was still alive; she’d been in rough shape when they got back to the mainland.

After his grilling in that small cinderblock room, General Hallbeck himself had come to sign for his release.  Good old Charles had even thanked Eugene personally for helping the team out, but Eugene was pretty sure he was just happy to have more data on Victoria and her prosthetic.

Victoria had been taken first to the nearest hospital where her battered legs had been amputated.  Eugene shuddered, they had been so pulverized that the Kevlar armor was the only thing keeping them together at all.  After the procedure was complete and her vitals were stable she had been transferred to his medical engineering lab.

It was pure chance that she had given his number to the young robotics expert a couple of days before, the young man was nothing short of brilliant.  His ideas were leaps ahead of the engineering he had seen on the Misery taking the best of what they had thought of but using pure mechanical design instead of using technology to compensate for the shortcomings of their imagination.

He had accomplished in days what Eugene had seen a team of engineers take months, only David had actually gotten it right on the first try.  The second prototype actually gave him chills, his face split with a Cheshire grin.  Victoria was going to love it.

Victoria

Victoria was finally going back to school, there was only half a term left before graduation and she had missed a week of it at the insistence of doctors who weren’t Eugene and didn’t know shit about her situation.  They were still bewildered by her rapid and complete recovery, not to mention the assimilation of the new technology she had that allowed her to walk.  At least she’d been able to rely on Grace to get her the pertinent details so she knew what to study.

She still hadn’t responded to Adam’s overtures, even though she knew he was sincere.  It wasn’t that she was trying to be difficult or that she wasn’t grateful that he had saved her; the fact was that she was simply frightened of him.  It was so hard for her to trust him after what had happened.  Who knew what situation she would be in?  Would he interpret something harmless as a life and death situation?  The massive implications of that were too horrible for her to imagine.  So she made a point of not.

Her new legs were a combination of fantastic and terrible that reflected her mixed feelings about Adam’s influence over her body.  After a bit of practice Victoria found she could move around with far less effort than she had ever exerted with her flesh and blood legs.

The main problem were the sockets where her body joined to the slender slivers of carbon fiber, even though Adam kept them from hurting, by the end of the day blood was often seeping from the edges.  She could only hope they would eventually toughen up.  Because her school uniform had a skirt, Victoria had decided to wear thigh high stockings in order to make her new legs a little less shocking although there was no hiding her feet or her extra height.

“Fucking hell V, what’s that?  Jesus, you have some really hard luck, what happened?”  The ever-tactful Stacy was staring at her in shock.

“Got hit by a truck on a midnight stroll.”  She had decided in advance that she’d use the same story the military had given her father.  After all it wasn’t like she could tell anyone she’d been part of an advanced military strike team that had extracted a high value target from an ocean vessel and suffered severe injury in exchange for their lives and the success of the mission.

“So how are you up and about so fast?  My uncle lost a leg to a land mine in the Gulf War and it took him years to be able to walk on his prosthetic.”

“I have friends who are the top in the industry.  These things are state of the art, check it out!”  Victoria stuck a leg out, balancing on the other.  “All high tech and shit, the only drawback is I never get to wear shoes again.”

“You seriously got hit by a fucking truck?  Shit your mom must be flipping out, she freaks when you get a hangnail.”  Stace was exaggerating as usual.

“Yeah, both my folks are pretty worried honestly, me too.  It’s frightening not having control over your life.”  That statement was a little too close to home.  She didn’t have to fake the anxiety in her voice.

“Hey, hang in there V, it’s not like you to be a Debbie Downer.  I mean look at those things, they’re pretty sweet right?  Sure, they might be a little weird, but YOU’RE a little weird.”  She said with a laugh, “They don’t seem to be hurting you so it’s all good right?  Ow!”

Victoria had punched her in the shoulder.  “Thanks Stace, you always seem to make me feel better.”

“Damn, that’s gonna leave a bruise.” She said, rubbing her arm.

“Oh stop being such a baby, I’m practically an invalid!”  Victoria said with a grin.  “How do you think you did on your midterms then?  Other than History, I’m a little sketched out about mine.”  She said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?  V you always rock on tests, even if you worry about it more than the rest of us.” Stace replied, then she smacked her palm on her head, “Shit, I forgot about something.  Big K is on the warpath.  I overheard her saying she was going to make you see her as soon as you get in today but she didn’t say about what.”

“Great, I can’t think of a better way to start the week.”  Said Victoria.

Big K is what they called Donna Kneepkens, the school’s so-called guidance counselor.  She was huge, not just overweight but also tall and with fairly broad shoulders for a woman although it was hard to keep that in perspective.  Her waistline eclipsed them by a wide margin.  Big K had a large personality and an even bigger ego.

Victoria supposed that she might be pleasant to some people, but she hadn’t seen it yet.  All those years working with kids who would become a much bigger success than she had must have rankled, or else maybe the jokes at her expense that were inevitable in a group of adolescents was the problem.  Either way, if she wasn’t such a bitch Victoria would have felt sorry for her.

“Seriously?  I’ve only been back in school now for a couple weeks and she’s already gunning for me?  What is it this time?  Can’t be my grades, I know those are good unless I bombed my mid-terms.”

Stacy laughed, “I know you didn’t do badly on mid-terms.  Shit you haven’t had an issue with your studies since grade school.”

A hand fell on Victoria’s shoulder and she stopped Adam’s reflexes just barely in time before he executed some complicated arm lock.  Even so she spun in place, brushing the hand away like a bothersome fly and bringing her hands forward, palms open in a defensive posture.

“Good, you’re here early.”  Donna’s voice had a gravely quality; Victoria suspected she had once been a heavy smoker.  “You.  My office.  Now.”