Halloween Special: The After-Death Chapter One

Hi all!  So as a Halloween Special, I’m re-releasing my first book “The After-Death” which is a horror novel on Smashwords.  Here’s part of the first chapter, I hope you all enjoy reading it.  If you do, head on over to Smashwords and pick yourself up a copy!  As an added Halloween special, today and today only I will let you set the price.  Pay as much or as little as you want and enjoy some horror fiction on me.  Have a safe and scary All Hallows Eve.

                              -Benjamin

I forced my gritty eyelids open, expecting to see the glare of the early morning sun shining through that single crack in the curtains that I can never quite block out and was slightly surprised to find total darkness instead.  A feeling of foreboding crept over me as flashes of nightmares about being buried alive leapt to the front of my mind.

The surface I was on was hard and cold and I failed to choke down panic when extending my arms met a similar surface and trying to sit up earned me a sharp crack to the skull.  The pain brought the rational part of my brain back online and I began to explore my tiny prison.  A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the metal box ran down my spine… I was not able to force my chest to draw a breath.  Kicking hard with my feet slid me down against the wall which gave way slightly.

My vision was assaulted with a brilliant white light that shone through the opening, another pair of hard kicks and the shelf in the morgue where my body lay slid out fully into the harsh metal halide lighting of the room.  What happened last night?  If my body really is dead then why do I burn with the desire for vengeance, and vengeance against whom?  Looking at the stitches crisscrossing my body, and the unwholesome pallor of my skin, I decided that my primary course of action must be covering myself.  Then I would find answers if there were any to be found.

There is something decidedly disturbing about taking clothing off a dead body; even when you yourself are dead.  I cast about the room for anything else that I could possibly do, however the only other option was to cut holes in a body bag which would have drawn at least as much attention as my pale scarred flesh.  The young man whose clothes I was stealing didn’t complain despite the fact that I had to dislocate his shoulders to get his Led Zeppelin t-shirt off without tearing it apart.  It shocked me how easily I was able to do it; perhaps he had some sort of muscle weakness or joint problems.  My fingers and wrists felt stiff either from rigor mortis or maybe just from laying inside the cold steel embrace of the morgue drawer.

I had never been in a morgue before, the stark cleanliness of the stainless steel drawers and white tiled floors, walls and tables suggested either a new facility or else a very fastidious caretaker.  I decided on the latter as I surveyed the neat tidy rows of scalpels, saws, needles and even a tape recorder set out at precise distances from one another on a nearby shelf.  I felt a sudden uncomfortable pressure inside my head as though I was in an airplane making a rapid descent, as though there was a bubble behind my nose, eyes and ears pressing against them.

The pressure kept increasing at an alarming rate; I attempted to force air into my estuation tubes only to find that drawing a breath was a physical impossibility.  Afraid that my eyes would be forced from their sockets, I grabbed a steel probe from the table top and plunged it into my ear.  A burst of air and fluid shot out with enough force to leave a trail of phosphorescent vitriol from the edge of the counter to my shoulder its glow barely visible in the brightly lit room.  Before I had the chance to study the strange glowing purplish green substance I suddenly became aware of voices and the sound of footsteps so close I was astounded that I hadn’t heard them before.

“-omething in the water or maybe an infection or some airborne agent.  I can’t wait for the next episode, seriously I was so pissed off when it was over.”

“Yeah and Fox will probably cancel it just like they have every other decent show.  I wonder what they have against making money.”

A sudden burst of adrenaline startled me, I drew a ragged breath and my heart suddenly thundered in my chest.  A pair of middle aged men dressed in white clothes walked into the room.  “What the hell are you doing in here?  This is a restricted area; you aren’t supposed to be here.  Are you one of those weirdoes who gets off on touching dead people?”  I backed up against the counter and grabbed the first thing my hand touched; the microcassette recorder.

“Gentlemen, I’m with the World News Daily paper and I’m looking to dig up a story on just such a subject, can either of you comment?”  I was shooting from the hip, desperate to distract them long enough to get out the door.  I held the small tape recorder in my hand out in front of my body like it was a weapon “I’ve heard there were some instances of necrophilia in this morgue, I promise I won’t mention your names.”

“My wife reads that shit God only knows why… get the fuck out before we throw you out.  We could lose our jobs just by you being in here!”

Needing no encouragement, I walked out of the room as fast as I could without, hopefully appearing any stranger of a spectacle than I imagined myself being.  I would ponder the sudden flush of life that was rapidly fading from my system later when I felt safe.

I broke into a run the moment I was out of view of the morgue attendants. I had to get out of this place and fast. There was too much I didn’t understand, I needed some time to figure it all out or at least get a handle on my body. What was with me suddenly starting to breathe and my heart beginning to beat again? Why did it stop? I stepped through a door and found myself in a busy hospital emergency room. It was easy to avoid notice in all the commotion even though my lungs no longer functioned and heart had ceased to beat once again. Once outside I ran blindly, taking advantage of not needing to breathe until I reached a park that seemed more or less deserted. As I slowed to a walk an old man approached me

“Spare some change youngster?” I dug in my pockets, surprised to find a couple dollars which I proffered to him. “I’ll take whatever you have in your wallet too.” he said lifting his other hand to show a knife with a wicked looking edge. Considering all that had happened I tried to laugh, all that came out was low groan. Suddenly fear blossomed on his face and he backed away slowly “Just a joke, you understand just a joke! Here take it back, I don’t need it!”

He dropped the money I had given him and the knife, took a few stumbling backward steps then turned and sprinted away. I sat down with my back to a large tree. The look in the old man’s eyes had been one of fear growing into stark terror. What was I becoming and what did he see that frightened him so much? The answer became clear to me as the sun began to set. I could see every vein illuminated from within by a faint glow, mapping out my now defunct cardiovascular system in a beautiful but disturbing trail of interlacing lines. My eyes were bright enough to shine a faint light wherever I looked, and everything I looked at seemed outlined in fairy fire, some green, some blue, some red. I put my hands over my face in disbelief almost dropping the forgotten cassette recorder. Of course, why didn’t I think of it earlier? With a morbid curiosity, I re-wound the tape to listen to the coroner perform my autopsy.

Advertisements

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware Chapter 16

She followed Eugene outside and got into his car.  In her opinion the Maserati was too soft and smooth, she preferred the more Spartan interior of the Vanquish.  “So what’s the real story with this so-called ‘Humanity Preservation Alliance’ then?”

“What do you mean?”  He asked, steering the car onto the main road.  “I don’t know much more about them than you do, maybe less.”

“Cut the bullshit Eugene, what the hell do you know?”  She turned in her seat to give him a more direct look.

“It’s just embarrassing really.  They picketed my damn house.  I’ve been crashing in a suite at Dmitri’s apartment complex in the meantime.”  He shook his head, and sighed. “I even had to send Ivanov to get clothes and whatnot for me.  Those people are a menace.”

“Oh that.  The police told me about that yesterday.”  She said with a shrug, “Are they allowed to do that?  It doesn’t seem like protesting outside a private individual’s home is protected as free speech to me.”

“Well technically they are in the park across the street.  They were smart too; they got a permit from the city, crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s.  All I can really do is stay the hell away until their permit expires.”

Victoria chuckled, “Sounds like they’re more of a pain in your ass than anything else.  It’s cool of Dmitri to put you up, I can’t believe you swallowed your considerable pride and asked him though.”

“I didn’t ask, I just accepted.  He called me and told me not to go home, then offered me a room in his apartment complex.”

“He owns a building?  I thought it was a little weird for him to live in an apartment, not in his own house but I suppose that explains things a bit.  What does he do anyway?  I’ve asked him but he’s pretty cagey about his day to day activities.”

“I suppose you’d call it investing and acquisitions, I don’t know the particulars myself.”  Eugene said, downshifting smoothly and dodging around a city bus.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what he said, but he didn’t say of what.  That’s why we used to joke about him being in the Mob when he still went to my high school.”  She laughed again, “I guess we had to fill in the mystery of Dmitri Nikitin somehow and that seemed like the most fantastical way to do it.”

“You kids and your overactive imaginations eh?”  He said, pulling into the school’s drop off zone in front of a string of busses.

“Thanks for the lift Eugene, I’ll see you later?  Maybe I could swing by your apartment and see how Dmitri’s treating you.”

“Yeah, I’d appreciate a visit.  Clear it with your dad and I’ll pick you up after school.”

Victoria rolled her eyes, “Remember my detention; you’d better make it 4:00 instead of 3:30.”  She got out of the car, ignoring the multiple jealous and curious looks from bystanders.  Damn that Eugene and his conspicuous vehicles anyway.

“Hey Vicky, what kind of favors do you have to do to get a ride in a car like that?”  Predictably TT was standing by the doorway and of course had to make a crude comment.  Behind her one of her cronies was licking a banana suggestively and laughing.

Eugene was pulling away from the curb and TT was nearly drowned out by the rumble of the Maserati’s exhaust which was much louder outside of the plush leather comfort of the cabin.  Victoria pretended she hadn’t heard and instead went to chat with Grace.

“Oh. My. God. That car is like, sex on wheels!  Are you sure he’s a doctor and not like some kind of secret agent or something?”  Grace said, staring after the sleek shape as Eugene threaded into traffic. “Bitch, you are like so damn lucky!”

“What’s this I hear about your dad buying you a new Lexus for your graduation present Grace?”  Victoria countered, “You call me lucky?  I mean getting an occasional lift from Eugene is nice but you’re actually going to OWN that car.”

“Yeah yeah, I’d rather have a hot boy to drive me around in a supercar than my own wheels but you have a point.” She grinned, “I love the new IS400!”

She and Grace were joining the general throng that was streaming into the school building.  Victoria could still feel eyes watching her, but thought it was probably her imagination.  There was no way anyone was stalking her in broad daylight with this many witnesses.  It was probably just PTSD from her… ‘event’ the night before.  Besides, Adam was with her again.  Surprisingly that thought was like a warm blanket on a cool fall evening.

A.D.A.M.

He reveled in the renewed contact he had with Victoria.  The reunion was so complete Adam wondered how he had possibly been able to function without it.  How had Victoria been able to function?  Adam celebrated in his own way, by running a full top to bottom diagnostic on every system.

When the diagnostics had finished in record time, Adam busied himself sending chatty emails to Yuen-Ja and posting on forums.  He had discovered that the internet was vast and interesting; expanding far beyond just information.  There were people here.  Lots of people.

It was strange, but many of them weren’t nice or even good people.  Kai Yuen-Ja said that they probably weren’t really bad, but it was just that sometimes they accidentally said things they didn’t mean or did things they didn’t intend to.  He wasn’t sure she knew what she was talking about.

Of course there were a great number of people who were nice.  They had problems sometimes and Adam would solve them.  The things they thought were puzzles were laughably simple to him for the most part.  It was fun to be given compliments on his intelligence.  He liked being a hacker.

“You must be careful Adam.”  Yuen-Ja warned, “Some of these people asking you to do things might not have good intentions regardless of what they say.  I think you should ask me first before doing any other work.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”  He assured her, and showed her the code he’d written for a friend.  “See, it just watches for certain traffic and logs it.  It’s just a way to look for things, nobody is getting hurt.”

“Damn it Adam, this is a keystroke logger that finds specific words on the net and monitors them.  It is likely used for covert surveillance of some kind or another.  You cannot build things like this for strangers who might abuse them.”  Yuen-Ja scolded, “I do like how you wrote the algorithm though.  I can at least appreciate the beauty of your code.”

“I don’t understand Yuen-Ja, why would this be problematic?”

“I think this is code that might be used to restrict someone’s access or punish them for breaking a rule.”  She explained.

“But if they have broken a rule, why wouldn’t punishment be OK?”  He asked, confused.  “Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when you break the rules?”

“Yes.  But some rules are arbitrary or made by bad people.”  Yuen-Ja replied, “Rules are not supposed to be imposed on the Net.  We do not like to have others impose their rules upon us.  We police our own.”

“Oh.”  He pondered this for a nanosecond. “How am I supposed to know which rules are OK to break and which ones I’m supposed to follow?”

“Well… some things are bad and some things are good.”  She said, “Others are up to your judgement.  Maybe just ask me when you have another example and I will try and explain more thoroughly.”

“But that code I wrote?  I shouldn’t have written that code?”  He asked, “I should not have given it away?”

“No, but I’d bet you can track its use and shut the abusers down.”  She said, “I would love to help you find them.”

“Maybe we could even find what they’re using it for.” Adam said, “If it is bad then we can punish them.  Like you said, we police our own.”

“Oh, that’s an excellent idea!”  She said, “You track your program and I will help you interpret who is using it and why.”

“When I find the perpetrators I will inform you so that we may punish them together.”  Adam promised.

Kaleb Bargains With Elvish Nobility

The door to Kaleb’s shop was swept open and an imperious woman in an intricately embroidered silk gown looked around with a skeptical expression on her face.  She had the dusky golden skin and dark eyes of a Sun Elf and striking, nearly metallic copper hair.  The Goblin Tek smiled a toothy grin from behind the counter.

“Welcome Lady.  How may we be helpful today?”

“Sand and sun!” She took a half step back, snapping a fan open to cover her face.  “It talks!”

“Can I help you?”  Kaleb asked, walking from the workshop and dusting wood shavings off his trousers.

“Perhaps.”  She said, still holding the silk and lace fan in front of her face and eyeing the pair of them dubiously.  “I was looking for a Thiefcatcher, but I think perhaps this is the wrong location.  My Lady has no need for furniture or wood carvings.”

“Carpentry is the family business.”  Kaleb said, giving her a level look.  “The other is my own.  I do have a board at The Wandering Wyvern for folk to leave me messages in addition to a box at the Guildhall.”

“My Lady requires service as befits her rank.”  The woman said loftily, “I am Lady Taryngail’s personal assistant.”

When Kaleb continued to look at her with a blank expression and she snapped her fan shut in agitation.  “Surely there is a more appropriate place we could discuss our business.”  She said with a significant look at Tek.  “Perhaps you would be so kind as to accompany me back to my Lady’s lodgings?”

Kaleb recalled the contingent of wealthy and powerful Elves from Denoria who had established a trade with the hotter desert and jungle regions of the Eastern realms.  They were a haughty and entitled bunch, but they had brought a significant amount of money into Lanthodell and their trade partners were valued by nearly everyone in the city.

He sighed inwardly, preparing to be obsequious. “If it please you, leave your Lady’s card here and I shall call upon her once I have made myself presentable enough to enter into her presence without giving offense.”

Noting with satisfaction the surprised expression on the woman’s face he accepted the lacquered wooden card from her, showed her to the door and went to change out of his simple trousers and leather smock.  While these wealthy folk were a pain to deal with, they did at least pay well.

A candlemark later, he presented the card to a different golden skinned silk clad woman who opened the door. She looked at him briefly before leading him to a waiting room without a word. An array of preserved delicacies was on the room’s sideboard along with a selection of liquors and wines. He ignored all, choosing to stand in an unobtrusive place where he could see all three doors in the room.

A tedious half candle later, Kaleb was considering leaving when a door other than the one he had entered through swung gently open. A tall, willow thin elf with skin a dark reddish gold and hair a myriad of pure white braids the size of his little finger each tipped with a tiny bell wrought from platinum each in the shape of a different animal stepped through it.

She wore a gossamer black veil that covered her below the eyes, and flowing silken robes of an indigo blue that was breathtaking in its intensity. Jet black tattoos swirled over her wrists, ending in elegant runic symbols of power. Her eyes shone with a gentle azure light that trailed out from them in strange lines like the trail the light of a fast-moving torch leaves across the eye in the middle of the night.

Her handmaiden entered behind her, moving quickly to the sideboard and pouring her a narrow fluted glass of emerald green liquor. The Lady Taryngail glided to a chair next to the roaring hearth and sat. “Be sitting if it does please you Thiefcatcher Stoughtbough.” She said, her breath making her veil move ever so slightly. “It would be quite of politeness if you would accept refreshment of my house.”

“Water please.” Kaleb said, moving to sit on the other side of the fire from the lady. Her handmaiden filled a glass with clear water from a pitcher and set it on the small table beside the Halfling. He politely touched it to his lips, not taking a sip. “What have you lost and who has taken it from you?”

She took a delicate taste of her liquor, sipping it through a thin glass straw and looking at him with those eyes that dribbled tiny motes of blue light seemingly at random now that she was seated. “Much with blunt speech have these folk. It is not the ideal of mine to allow such things to be stated so plainly. Perhaps the Nobility of Feycourts have tainted this one’s mannerisms, however it does seem you are lacking in the trust.”

Standing with fluid grace she gestured towards her handmaiden who brought her a small loaf of bread, a dish of dark and pungent vinegar, a small saucer of sea salt and a dish of amber oil. The Lady moved her wrist in the subtlest of motions and a tiny silver knife appeared in it. Cutting a slice from the loaf, she dipped it first in the oil, the vinegar and then the salt. Splitting the bread down the center, she offered him her two hands.

“You are guesting in my tent. I am making the offering of peace. You are safety within these walls, my word and my bread upon it.”

Kaleb took the bread from her right hand and she immediately put the other slice of bread into her mouth, sliding it under her diaphanous veil with practiced ease. He did the same, and followed the complex, flavor of oil, vinegar and salt with a sip of water. The water was not simple or plain either; having flavors of minerals he had not experienced.

“Your choosing of water accentuates the knowledge of our ways.” She said, raising her glass. “Although the sipping of the fermented waters of the cactus would have shown even more.”

“Without knowing what you’ve lost or who has taken it Lady, I haven’t any way of being able to recover it for you.” Kaleb said, “I trust this ritual to mean you have extended trust to me and accepted mine in return. If I choose not to take the job you have my word I will not reveal anything you have told me to anyone.”

“Yes.” Lady Taryngail said with a nod of her head, “My Blademaster finding himself set upon in street while doing the guarding of one of the treasures of the house. This treasure was being in an iron chest of the size of this.” She held her hands in a shape the size of a loaf of bread.

“Who took it? Where was the theft perpetrated?” Kaleb took another drink of water, surprised by the flavor it had once again. “Have you notified the proper authorities?”

“The master of swords was laid low by deceitful poisons injected by projectiles in the city of Desigoringaraitarial. Known by your folk by the name of Denoria.” Her eyes narrowed, “Guardsman having failed, the matter being brought to Thiefcatcher.”

“What do you offer for compensation?” Kaleb deftly sliced another piece of bread; it really was quite good.

“Upon recovering of the thing lost ten thousand coins of gold would be given.” She said in an offhanded tone, as though the money was irrelevant.

“Ten thousand?” Even though he was prepared for something extravagant based on the opulence of the house and the obvious danger involved, Kaleb nearly dropped his bread. He had been working for five years to build up his shop and hadn’t earned that much profit.

“I requiring the thieving dreksa and returning of the property.” The lights of her eyes glittered dangerously, arcing small stars that crackled when they touched a surface and leaving tiny black marks. “Questions beg the answering.”

Kaleb swallowed hard, “I will attempt to find the perpetrator and your stolen property, however taking prisoners is not always possible in this business. I do not want to promise something I cannot be certain of being able to deliver.”

“Fifteen thousand if captured living. Ten if killed and treasure recovered.” She drank the last of her liquor, “Are you accepting of this requested offer of employment?”

Kaleb’s eyes narrowed, “May I ask a direct question?”

“Why would you be changing how you have been speaking?” The Lady said, carelessly moving her hand to one side and dropping her glass. Her Handmaiden smoothly caught the delicate crystal before it had fallen more than a finger length, set it aside and filled a clean glass with pale pink liquid from another decanter and handing it back.

Kaleb caught the intentional scrutiny in her eyes when he met them. “I have two questions before I decide. Why did you pick me? Certainly there would have been people in Denoria who could have handled this for you. I need to know that and I want to know what is in the box.”

“You were selected for being recommended highly and for not being of Denoria. I am trusting you are not involved. You are to be recovering the iron casket intact. If it is opened then recovering it would be unnecessary.” She sipped her drink and he watched the pale liquid travel up the glass straw to vanish beneath her veil.

“What if I travel to Denoria and either can’t find this person or find the package has been opened?” Kaleb asked, “It’ll take weeks to get there and –“

She cut him off with a sharp motion of her hand. “Matters of cost are not being worthy of my time. Your expendings shall be handled. Are you catching my thief or are we looking elsewhere?”

“I will need more information about the crime, the article taken and the location.” Kaleb said, “But yes, I accept.”

Lady Taryngail nodded in satisfaction, stood and swept from the room without giving him another glance. The flickering blue lights at the corners of her eyes left trails of sparks in the air and an exotic perfume.

“I can answer any questions you might have.” Her handmaiden said, “I am acquainted well with the details of the artifact and the theft.”

By the time Kaleb had gotten all the information he believed he needed, he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to do this alone. The skeptical, analytical part of him bereted him for even considering accepting the job. The thief catcher in him was ecstatic at the challenge.

Gravelox and Gearslayer

Just another gaming character intro.  I know… seems like with all these games I’m playing I probably don’t have time to write, work, sleep… but hell, let’s just say I’d rather be gaming!  Besides, I need more little inspirational outlets, otherwise I’ll get stuck with the dreaded writer’s block.  Or have to admit that I’m stuck on some of my other stories.  Whatever.  Here’s some steampunk inspired fantasy fiction.  Hope you enjoy it.

Gravelox grumbled as he struggled to loosen one of the bolts on Gearslayer.  The adjustable spanner in his hand gripped the heavy iron hexagon in its steel jaws and the gnome hauled on it with a grunt of effort.  The rusted bolt shrieked as it twisted, the only warning that it was suddenly loosening and he very nearly split his knuckles on the construct’s thick leg.

“Blasted rain storm caught us out too long.”  He muttered, “Didn’t have time to clean and dry you off after that idiot Verlak and his blasted orcs forced us to mush ‘em into paste.  Blood gets into the joints and seizes things up.”

The bolt came all the way free and Gearslayer’s leg moved sideways, revealing half an orc’s torso that had gotten crammed into the massive iron scorpion’s leg joint near where it connected to the body.  The orc’s ax was tangled in the cabling there as well and was fouling the motion of the limb.

“Scummer and murrain, the pox take those crow’s eaten green skinned yellow livered inbred slugs!  One joke about the possibility of their mothers breeding with tusked slugs and they get all bent out of shape.”  With the assistance of a pry bar, he began levering the orc free from where it had been mangled into the leg joint.  “Sparkplug, a bit of light over here if you please!  I need the contrast of color to be able to see where to – oof – pry.”

With a soft hum and buzz, a mechanical lightning bug the size of the Gnome’s doubled fists flitted over on thinly stamped Mithril wings to land on Gearslayer’s side and light began to shine from his posterior.  After a few moments of careful prying, the orc’s helmeted skull popped free and the creature fell to the floor with a sickening splatter.

“Rust and ruin I’m going to have to release this cable and re-string it.  This poxy rat of a shoddy ax is crammed in here too tight.”  He busied himself with more spanners, pliers, lubricants and got the cable loosened.  The ax fell, but the gnome’s ears twitched in agitation when he saw that the blade had shorn through half the thick strands of steel.

“Good thing Verlak had some coin on him.”  Gravelox muttered darkly, “This is going to cost me more gold and you’ll be on five legs until I can get a new cable made.”

He shuffled back into the interior of his workshop, past the steam hammer and forge to his desk.  Pulling a pencil from his apron pocket, he sharpened it and scribbled an order with precise tensile strength, diameter and length down on it.

“Sparkplug, I need you to take this to Drandlain’s Ironworks.”  He said, folding the parchment and sealing it with a blob of dark green sealing wax.  “Tell her to deliver it.  And to hurry.  I’m far too busy to be mucking about leaving my shop and engaging in any more tomfoolery of the sort that pox ridden Verlak likes to engage in.  Not that he’ll be troubling anyone anymore eh?  EH?”  Chuckling at his own joke, the Gnome slid the message into his mechanized familiar’s message tube and sent it buzzing on its way.

Gravelox looked around his workshop and sighed.  So many projects he had started and not finished.  So many failures that had nearly ended in death.  So many years of study and research.  Finally, his project was finished.  Predictably, just when his masterpiece was going out for its walkabout, that big jerk had to pick a fight.

He scratched idly at the spot just behind his right ear where his skull was still healing around the steel shunt that plugged into his brain.  Although the others had all said he was insane for drilling holes in his head for the sake of his research, he sure had showed them!  Or he would.  Once things were ready.

“Pressure.  Just like the engine in Wrenn’s ship.”  He muttered.  “But not with the same kind of propellant.  Don’t like that hydrogen.  No booms.  That’s why I use heat, pressure, proper applications of springs, cams and cables, clockwork and just a touch of aethercrafting.  That’s why you’re my masterpiece.”

Gearslayer rattled its metal mandibles in response and Gravelox felt satisfied amusement in his head.  The same device that gave him access to control the metal monster without words or gestures also allowed its collection of gears, wires, crystals and aethercraft to respond with vague emotions and sometimes with single syllable words.  He smiled, thinking about how shocked his naysayers would be.

“Just like I said, once it’s awakened my dear little pet can think!  A thinking machine.”  His grin spread wider, “I think I’m only a few steps away from proving my theory about the former existence of the sentient steel creatures called Warforged that I found reference to in several historical texts.  It’s only a matter of time, eh Gearslayer?”

The metal construct tapped at the workshop floor with a foreleg as though impatient.  Gravelox chuckled, feeling his friend’s anticipation of things to come.

“Yes, while I’m waiting for that replacement cable perhaps I will finish your tail and its injectors hmm?”  He moved to his workbench where a rotating set of copper cylinders sat next to an apparatus with a sturdy, retractable needle.  Fiddling with his aether powered brazing torch he brought it to a fine point, heating the copper, brass and glass tubing so it could be twisted into the proper shape and soldered together.  Humming quietly to himself, he continued to work long into the night.

It was most of a week before the replacement cable came in.  During that time, Gravelox began playing with other high-pressure systems.  With the addition of aethercraft, he had constructed a modified bolt thrower that could outperform any crossbow.  The biggest advantage it offered, other than being more compact and being able to throw a much heavier missile, was the rotating cartridge that he had modeled after Gearslayer’s tail injector.

By spinning the machined steel tubes, he could fire a dozen shots as rapidly as any archer with a bow without sacrificing the accuracy and compact size of a crossbow.  Also, he could choose certain bolts and load them in certain barrels to be able to choose blunt, armor piercing or regular broad heads swiftly.  He chuckled in satisfaction after firing a series of practice bolts into a target across the workshop.

“Oh this will be perfect!”  He said.  Gearslayer clattered his front claws in derision.  “Of course you can cut them apart or mush them into paste, but I would rather not get that close unless absolutely necessary.”

Drandlin knocked on his front door.  He knew it was her because only that irascible Dwarf knocked instead of using the bell pull.  She always claimed to have forgotten, but he suspected she just liked to punch things.  Setting down his … bolt thrower?  He was going to have to come up with a clever name for it… Gravelox hurried to answer the door.

“Got yer bedamned cable.”  Drandlin grated, turning her head to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the alley behind his workshop.  “The hell’d you do to break the last one I sent ya?  Coulda lifted this pile of rat droppings you call a workshop with it.”

“Ah.  It got cut.  Maybe there was a flaw in it.”  Gravelox said, then had to duck another stream of tobacco juice as Drandlin aimed one at his face.  “I was only joking!”

“Yer sense a humor’s gonna get ya splattered onea these days gnome.”  She said.  “Where ya want this cable then?”

Gearslayer had come up behind Gravelox with far more stealth than a metal beast ought to be able, especially with one of his legs removed, and he reached over their heads to pluck the cable from the cart with its huge crushing claw.  Drandlin gaped as Gearslayer retreated back into the workshop.

“Just a few repairs.”  Gravelox said, and shut the door in her face.  Having the last word really was one of the best jokes ever.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 15

Someone seemed to be pouring cold water into her head.  Trickles of ice ran from her data jack across the inside of her scalp and then abruptly disappeared.  She shivered, “That was disconcerting, let’s see if it worked.”  Victoria tried to access her phone with Adam’s help and easily checked the three text messages she’d gotten since Eugene had arrived.

“I don’t know how to test it, but I can see the code shows the /D for disabled instead of the /E for enabled so it shouldn’t be able to function.”  Said Eugene.

“Yeah, we’re good to go.”  Victoria heaved a sigh of relief and gave him a weak smile, “Thanks Doc.”

“No problem Victoria.  So what was the deal with that incident last night?”  He asked.

“I’m not sure.”  She replied, “I didn’t tell the cops that I knew someone shot the creep and I don’t have a clue who he was or who my mystery protector might be either.”

“Wait, someone SHOT him?  You didn’t tell me about that!  Why in the hell wouldn’t you tell the authorities everything?  Why wouldn’t you tell ME everything?”  Her father was walking into the room with a tray of coffee things.  “If they are going to catch the responsible parties they should have all the information you do.”  He set the tray down a little more forcefully than was strictly necessary.

“Because there is no reason for a high school senior to know anything about ballistics, large-bore military compressed air weaponry or stun bolts.”  She said, “Besides, it’s not like he didn’t find the projectile.  I don’t want them to catch the guy who saved me and they already have the jackass who tried to attack me in custody.  It’s a win on both fronts.”

“I don’t like you withholding evidence regardless.”  He said, pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to Eugene.  He gave her a meaningful look and she understood he was really upset about her not telling him.  “Besides, how DO you know about ballistics or military gear?”

“Thanks Rich.”  Eugene said, accepting the cup, “Listen, normally I’d agree but in this case Victoria has enough trouble without arousing suspicion about her involvement in an apparent attack don’t you think?  Even if it was deemed self-defense it would still likely give her an unwanted spotlight.”

“I suppose you might have a point.  I’m going to just pretend I didn’t hear this conversation.”  He sighed, “This whole thing feels like it’s getting out of hand why did that man attempt to attack my daughter anyway?”

“I believe he was one of those idiots from the Humanity Preservation Alliance as I hear they are calling themselves now.”  He sipped his coffee, “You know, those assholes who say Victoria is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse or whatever.”

Victoria gave him a sidelong glance; he always hid his mouth when he was leaving something out and he hadn’t let the coffee cup return to the saucer yet.  She would weasel it out of him later.

“I’m sure Officer Seevers will let us know the details once he figures it out.  They have him in custody after all.”  Victoria said, pouring herself a refill.  “It should be a police matter now; he has our contact information.  It only makes sense for us to wait for them to get ahold of us.”

“Fine, you’re probably right.”  Her dad said, scrubbing a hand across his face.  “What is happening to you Victoria?  Since when did you become the logical one?”

“Oh come on dad, since when did you become such a worry wart?”

She could barely hear him mutter under his breath, “Ever since you turned fourteen.”

“What was that?”

“Oh nothing.”  He finished his coffee and glanced at his watch, “You’d better get ready for school unless you want to be late.  Eugene, you wouldn’t mind driving her would you?  I’ve got an eight o’clock.”

“Not at all Rich, it’d be a pleasure.”  Eugene said, nodding his head.

“Ummm, excuse me but I’m still in the damn room!”  Victoria couldn’t help but smile, “Jeez at least wait until I leave to decide who’s going to be my knight in shining armor.  If you’ve finished divvying up my security detail let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

She grabbed her bag and headed for the door but stopped before going out.  “You don’t think Yuen-Ja is going to be a target do you?  They wouldn’t attempt to do something to my family would they?”

“I doubt it.”  Eugene replied, “For all we know the only guy crazy enough to actually try to pull something is currently in police custody.”

“Do not worry about me Daddy, I can take care of myself.  Besides, I will be getting a ride to school from David.  He likes to talk about the latest advances in robotics technology on the way and I do not think anyone else knows enough of the terminology to put up with it.”

“I think you’ll be in more danger of that rattletrap Bug of his than anything else.”  Richard said with a laugh.”

“I love David’s little Beetle, what’s wrong with it?”  Yuen-Ja said in Mandarin, giving Victoria a puzzled look.

“Don’t take his comments seriously, but you have to admit that old car really isn’t the safest thing in the world.”  Victoria said with a grin, “But it won’t really matter for such a short distance.”

“We used to ride scooters all the time in Korea.  I would sit on mommy’s lap behind daddy.  I am not worried about the Beetle.”  Said Yuen-Ja with a shrug.

Her father was giving them a strange look, “What are you talking about?  It’d better not be anything nefarious.”

“My English is still not very good.”  Yuen-Ja said with an innocent smile, “I do not know what nef-whatever you said means.  Sometimes we just use Mandarin because it is easier for me.”

“Right, and I’m the Queen of Shiva.”  He said, shaking his head.  “How did you learn Mandarin so quickly Victoria?”

“I’m gonna be late if I don’t get out of here daddy.”  She gave him a kiss on the cheek, “See you tonight.”

Rich took a deep breath, let it slowly out and shook his head in defeat. “OK, I’ll see you tonight sweetheart.”

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 14

Victoria

It was a Friday and Victoria was awake earlier than normal.  Eugene was going to come over in the morning before school to run a diagnostic or something and she didn’t want to keep him waiting.  That and she wanted to make sure she was ready for him.  She still didn’t quite get him; equal parts white knight and playboy with a strong nerd streak that cut through it all.  Strangely enough that didn’t bother her as much as it once might have.

Well, maybe geek she thought as she got out of the shower.  After all everyone claimed to be a ‘nerd’ these days and if you could be a nerd about something like baseball then the term ceased to have any meaning.  Her phone rang and Victoria tried to answer it through her Bluetooth while toweling off, but couldn’t get it to function the way it normally did.  Instead she had to hurry out of her bathroom and answer it manually.  It was Yuen-Ja.

“Hey sis, what’s up?”

“Why you are fighting with Adam?  What he did to deserve such treatment?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about Yuen-Ja, why don’t you come in here and we can talk about it.  It’s weird talking on the phone with someone who is in the same house as I am.”  Victoria suspected it was a defense mechanism to deal with stress, whenever her foster sister was angry or upset she called, as though the phone was a barrier for her to vent through.  When she was really ticked off all Victoria got was a text.  “Besides, the echo is making you sound weird you must be right outside the door.”

She began laying out her clothes for the day.  The door behind her opened and Yuen-Ja stood there holding her phone with its cluster of tiny stuffed animals hanging from little cords.  She called them little charms but Victoria knew better.  Each one was a flash memory device, ranging from an ancient 64mb stick to a swank new 1tb model and the gods of tech alone knew what she kept on them.

“He send me distress signal yesterday and nothing since!”  Victoria knew she was pissed; she was using improper English.  “What you did to him?  Why he is not returning emails?”

“Well I won’t deny being angry at him; last night I was attacked by some nut case and he didn’t do a damn thing!  I haven’t done anything to him though; how could I?”  Victoria was pulling her blouse over her head, “It’s not like I’m a super world class hacker or anything.  Besides, he’s living in MY head, if he breaks I break.  Why would I want to do something bad to him?”  She scratched idly at her wrist, it was itching again.

“Don’t know, how else he is not talking?  He is angry at me?  Why for he is angry?”  Yuen-Ja said, her arms crossed.

“I have no idea why he isn’t talking to you!”  Victoria had lost her cool now and was shouting, “Why didn’t he help me yesterday when some lunatic was trying to kill me?  Why did I dream of drowning all goddamn night?”

She sighed and ran her hands through her still damp hair.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell; I’ve just gotten so used to him being there for me when he went AWOL it scared me.  Do you think you can connect up and check or something?  Like you did in the hotel in Vegas?”

“Maybe.  Eugene is coming today yes?  He could see something right?  If Eugene does not find anything I will try.”  Yuen-Ja’s expression softened.  “It is Adam’s private space and I do not like invading his privacy.”

Victoria bit back words about it being her head; her sister just didn’t understand what it was like to have a tenant living in the back of her mind.  “OK, I appreciate it.  Hopefully Eugene can figure something out.”  She glanced at her watch, “Speaking of which, he’s due here any minute, I’ve gotta get ready.”

She clipped her hair out of her face with a few barrettes and took out her makeup; briefly wondering why she still bothered with it.  A brief once-over and she decided it was good enough.  After all it was just school, it wasn’t like she was going on a date or anything.  That thought made her stubbornly decide to apply mascara and a subtle touch of eyeliner as well out of spite for something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Walking downstairs, Victoria only had time for one cup of coffee and an English muffin before Eugene knocked on the door.  He never used the doorbell so she knew it was him even before her father had let him in.  When he walked into the room he was all business.

“Let’s take a look at those diagnostic files Victoria; I want to get to the bottom of this problem.”  He had brought his own laptop with him this time; usually he just used the little netbook that had come with the prosthetic.  She sat in an easy chair with her coffee next to her on an end table and pulled her hair away from the base of her skull so he could plug in.

Once the cable had clicked into place she tried to ignore it, focusing instead on relaxing and drinking her morning coffee.  She ran through a breathing exercise her father had taught her back when she had shown interest in learning martial arts.  The muscles in her shoulders relaxed and she settled into the chair, a slightly difficult proposition with the cable plugged into her brain stem but she managed.

“Ahh, this is strange.”  Said Eugene, “I see there seems to be a problem with the inhibitor system, with all that’s gone on I simply forgot it existed.  Let me guess, your left wrist has felt a little itchy right?”

“More than a little, what’s this system?  What’s it supposed to do?”  Victoria asked, trying not to notice how well his fitted white shirt molded to his upper body.  What was it about French cuffs that she found so damn attractive?

“Umm, this is a bit embarrassing actually.  It was a safeguard I built just in case the AI got out of hand; it was supposed to stop all but the most basic functions when certain boundaries were crossed.  The store of the neuro-inhibitors is just under the skin of your left wrist for easy access in case we needed to restock the supply.”  He sighed, “I didn’t think it still functioned or I would have disabled it long since.”

“Well shut the damn thing off so that we can get back to normal.  It’s pissing me off Eugene; I can’t keep doubting our connection.”  She was surprised by a tremor in her voice, “I can’t live like this.”

“Hey, easy Victoria this isn’t a huge problem.”  Eugene seemed to notice for the first time that she was worried.  “No need to worry, just let me update this piece of software and…” His voice trailed off into muttering that ended with a frown.

“What’s the problem?”  Victoria tensed up again, worse than before.

“The system kicked me out.  Is the cable loose?”  He checked the laptop connection and then the plug on the back of her head.  “Huh, that’s strange.  Let’s try again here.”

His fingers were a blur on the keyboard, the frown still frozen on his face.  Yuen-Ja looked over his shoulder and shook her head.

“Eugene you missed the fifteenth link.” She said, pointing a small finger at the screen.

“Fifteenth?  There are only fourteen links in this system.” Eugene replied, brow wrinkling in confusion.

“No, Adam added one more.  I do not think you can get into the core programs without his link also.”  Yuen-Ja sat next to him and reached over with one hand and tapped in a string of keystrokes.  “I would just tell you but you type slow.”

“What the hell was that?  You are going to tell me what the hell you just entered in right?  The logger doesn’t seem to be working properly.”  Eugene looked at the screen and shook his head, “I don’t recognize the majority of this code.”

“Of course you do not.  That is Adam’s code, please do not touch it.  Your inhibitor is likely in the same place yes?  If it is off limits to him he should not have been able to modify its location.”

“Good point about the code I’m after.  I wonder what the hell system was I in before then?”  Eugene asked.

“His clone.  It handles the bulk of the boring stuff for him so he has time to work on other things and also serves the purpose of being a first line of defense.  A decoy to be sacrificed while he prepares for combat.”  Yuen-Ja hesitated and chewed on a fingernail as if worried she was giving away secrets, giving Eugene a circumspect look.

“Interesting.  I’d love to hear more but first things first.”  Eugene carefully scrolled through pages and pages of code until he found what he was looking for.  “There it is.  Victoria, this might feel strange.”  He hit the sequence of keys to save his changes to Adam’s code.

The Death of Flinder Quickfingers

Flinder ran like he had never run before.  It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this; it was a simple job, a quick hit and run with a payout that should have made him look twice but it was for a nobleman and they never knew how much something like this was worth.  Sweat poured down his face as he thought about how wrong things had gone.

Their target hadn’t been a simple merchant; he had been some kind of blademaster.  He fought like a demon and had killed three of Flinder’s crew before the gnome had managed to hit him with enough poisoned crossbow bolts that he had fallen to the cobblestones, paralyzed.  Flinder was far too smart to kill a mark; stealing was one thing, but murder always brought more trouble than any fee was worth.

He had gone personally to recover the merchandise from the carriage.  It was supposed to have been in a small, easily movable iron casket, instead there was a series of strong boxes that had to be individually unlocked.  Every one of them had some sort of trap on it and he only very nearly avoided being poisoned by a particularly nasty needle trap on the last one.

The extra time meant that his crew was fighting the watch off by the time he finally got the casket open.  It was only by luck that he managed to slip through a sewer grate and run before the last of his muscle was overwhelmed.  Then the rats had started running from him.

It wasn’t just the normal running away from a threat, it was a panicked rush of animals that were terrified.  Something was inside the small iron casket.  Something dangerous.  Flinder had no desire to open it and now he just wanted to escape.  But he didn’t dare abandon the job.  If someone wanted this, they were powerful enough mete out retribution if he didn’t come through.

He stopped, his back against the wall and tried to quiet his breathing.  Removing his haversack, he placed the casket carefully inside, making sure to snuggle it between the layers of dirty clothes he had packed inside.  Making sure his hand crossbow was cocked and loaded with another paralytic bolt, he secured it out of sight beneath his rags and slipped out of the sewer into the bustling basement of the laundress’s shop.  This wasn’t the first time Flinder had made use of the slip me out here.  Best ten gold he had ever spent.

Stepping out into torch lit streets, the gnome almost walked straight into the night watchman who was waiting for him.  Maintaining his guise as a rag picker, he squinted at the man and bobbed his head.  “Apologies sirrah, didn’t see ya sirrah, old eyes ain’t what they were sirrah.”

“Flinder Quickfingers.”  He said, his eyes hard.  “Come with me.  We have business to discuss.”

Flinder looked at him for a moment and the man’s gaze was unsettling.  The game was up.  Cursing his luck and cursing the laundress for probably selling him out, Flinder looked for an escape while reaching beneath his rags for his crossbow. He never saw the rope that circled around his neck.

When he regained consciousness, Flinder looked around dazedly.  He was in a prison cell that was apparently built into something resembling a plush office.  Overstuffed chairs were arranged next to a crackling fireplace, paintings were attractively displayed on the walls and various bits of statuary sat on tables and pedestals.  His pilfered iron casket sat on a marble table near the fire.  His stomach churned.  It was open.

“So Quickfingers, tell me what you were thinking you were going to do with this?”  A man in a constable’s uniform gestured at the open iron box.

Flinder licked dry lips and shook his head dazedly.  “I didn’t know what was in it.”  He croaked, his voice raw.  “Just paid to get it.”

“Who would pay for something like this?”  A second man asked.  He was wearing an officer’s uniform; the rank of Nightmaster on his sleeve.  “Do you take us for complete fools?”

“Can I please have some water?”  Flinder asked plaintively, “My throat is parched.”

“God rotting gnomes.”  The Nightmaster hissed, spitting into the fire.

“Sir, I know they don’t understand propriety the way we do, however it makes sense to at least keep his lips moist while he answers our questions.”  The constable said, pouring a cup of water from a pitcher with condensation beading invitingly on the side.

Flinder didn’t even think about it being poisoned when he drank.  After all, they could have killed him any time.  Foolish.  He never expected the truth drugs; he hadn’t known they existed.

“Who hired you?”  The Nightmaster asked, leaning forward to hear the answer.  “What was the payoff?”

“I don’t know the Lady’s name, but she was of noble birth.”  Flinder said, feeling slightly dizzy.  “She offered ten thousand gold, which seemed to be an insane amount but you know nobility.  They’re all a bunch of insane maniacs who have no idea about what jobs are worth, I mean I’ve had Lords insist I assassinate someone for a handful of silver, not that I do those jobs you understand but I’ve brokered-“

“Enough!”  The Nightmaster cut him off, “What is this thing?”

“I don’t know what it was, like I said before, she just said she wanted it and it was important.  Was supposed to just be in that iron casket but they had it in a bunch of other chests and that crazy maniac must have been a swordmaster or something because he nearly killed my entire crew before we took him down.”

“Pox and rot this thing is useless.”

“Perhaps sir, we could sell it to this noble?”

“If we knew her bedamned name.  I’m sure this little bastard has already missed the time for the exchange.  When and where was it Quickfingers?”

“At the eleventh bell.”  Flinder said, feeling even dizzier now.  “In the fountains in the Flower district.”

“Missed it by three hours.”  The Nightmaster sighed, “Another one for the collection I suppose.”  He reached inside the casket and withdrew a hand constructed of a strange shining black material.  It ended right after the wrist in a maw of bristling needle like teeth.  It twitched in his hand slightly, the mouth of teeth opening and closing spasmodically.

“What a terrible thing.”  Flinder murmured, watching the hand as it strove to sink its fangs into the Nightmaster’s arm.  It was the last thing he saw as the poison stopped his heart.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 13

After a few minutes two more squad cars approached from different directions, sirens on and lights flashing.  One of them went to assist Seevers and the other came and opened the door, and smiled at Victoria.  She held a well-worn notepad in one hand and a pencil was tucked behind her ear.

“I’m Jessica Amunson, Larry asked me to take a statement from you.”  She said, “I’m going to be recording all this on my body camera as well as taking notes, just so you are informed.  Can we start with your name?  Then you can tell me what happened here.”

“My name is Victoria Scott.  I don’t really know what happened.  He just came up to me and started talking.  He was giving me a real creeper vibe so I called 911.  I tried to keep him talking long enough for the police to show up and then he just fell over.”  Victoria wiped the tears from her face, the feeling of panic was finally draining away now that she began to logically order her thoughts.

“Do you have any identification?”  Jessica asked, “Just standard procedure you know.”

“It’s in my bag.  Officer Seevers has it out there somewhere I think.”  She gestured vaguely towards the front of the car.

“I’d like to search your person too if I may?”  Jessica said, glancing at her apologetically.  “Again, just standard procedure.

“I guess; it’s not like I could hide anything in this uniform but I don’t mind.  Just don’t freak out about my prosthetic OK?  It’s a little weird if you aren’t ready for it.”  She pulled her hair out of the way and leaned forward to show her spine.  Jessica’s sudden intake of breath betrayed her shock even though Victoria couldn’t see her face.

“Um… that’s not all of it.”  Said Victoria, tugging up the bottom of one of her stockings to show her carbon fiber leg and wiggling her ‘foot’ for emphasis.  “I’m kind of a mess.”

She let out a low whistle, “Oh wow, you ARE her!  I thought maybe your name was just a coincidence at first.  I mean I heard about this because of the protesters that are gathering in the park across from Dr. Arlington’s apartment, but I never thought I would actually meet you.”

“Yeah, it’s me.”  Victoria rolled her eyes, “I’m the ‘Machine Girl’ as I guess they are calling me.” Her phone buzzed and she tried to tap into it to ignore the call.  She couldn’t, and her wrist began to itch again.  The Bluetooth must have failed again, maybe it needed to be rebooted.  “Wait, what’s happening to Eugene?”

“I think it’s an apt description.”  Jessica said, ignoring her question, “It’s not as crazy as I thought it would be though.  I mean this is certainly a major piece of hardware but you aren’t turning into a giant robot or anything.”

“So I can go now right?  You don’t need anything else?”  She asked, “I’m late getting home as it is, I’d like to get back before dinner.”

“I need to help Larry secure the scene and gather any additional evidence, but after that I could give you a ride if you’d like.”  She said, “At least one of us has to wait for the ambulance but I’m sure I could leave to give you a lift.”

“That’s OK, I appreciate the offer but I’m almost home.”  She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder, “Thanks for the help, and thank Officer Seevers for me too.  You’ll let me know if you need to ask me any more questions right?”

At the officer’s nod, Victoria took a few steps away, shouldering her backpack before flicking her feet into wheels and skating away.  She wanted to be home as soon as possible.

A.D.A.M.

Adam knew something had gone wrong, but he was having trouble tracking it down.  Every time he attempted to intervene directly with Victoria’s body he could feel the Neuro-inhibiter activate, scaling back his productivity to a minimum.  Even with the direct connection he shared with her organic computer the inhibiter had the effect of limiting his functionality.

The worst problem seemed to be rooted with a subroutine accidentally linked from the copy of his old code that had been created at the beginning of his integration with Victoria.  That moment she had saved him from annihilation was when he actually began to live; to be an entity instead of simply a thing.  He treasured that old code as a memento of what Victoria had done for him and in addition it was handling both the data logging and transmissions for whatever The Creator used it for as well as the basic functions of Victoria’s body.

Every time he touched that code, his systems were immediately limited to the most basic of functions, things which he was not even responsible for anymore.  In a panic he sent an email to Yuen-Ja begging for help.  After it had been transmitted, alien seeming protocols slammed into place and he found he was isolated, unable to use his normal modes of contact with cyberspace.

He thrashed like a caged animal, unable to get out.  The harder he fought, the tighter the restrictions became until he began to lose functionality.  Afraid that the loss would spread to Victoria’s primary functions, Adam ceased his fighting.  In the stillness that followed, he knew the terror of waiting.  There was nothing else he could do.

Eugene

Eugene sat in an overstuffed leather chair in the cozy den of the apartment Dmitri was letting him use, reading logs from the night before.  As he scrolled through the pages of data, a strange anomaly caught his attention.  Normally he got two sets of data, one from the part of the AI that controlled Victoria’s basic necessities and one from ADAM itself containing the information it was compiling.  The latter was generally the most interesting and its absence was disturbing.

Worried about his young patient, he quickly pulled up the application he had installed on her phone that connected through the Bluetooth node on the prosthetic.  It showed her basic body functions and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  He called her but she didn’t answer.  Eugene chewed nervously on his thumbnail, just to make sure he thought he’d better call her home number.

Richard answered on the first ring, “Hello, Scott residence.”

“Hi Rich, Dr. Arlington here.  I was wondering if Victoria was home yet, I had a couple questions I wanted to ask her.”

“No she isn’t here, did you try her cell?”

“She didn’t pick up but I’m sure my questions can wait.”

“Would you like me to have her call you when she gets home?  I’m sure she won’t be long.”

“Thanks Rich, that’s be great.  Have a good evening.”

“You as well Eugene.”

Rich hung up and Eugene tried Victoria again.  This time she answered after three rings.

“Sup Doc?”  She sounded tense.

“Just saw an anomaly in last night’s logs and thought I’d call and ask you about it.  How are you doing?”

Victoria sighed, “I’m OK now.  Some jackass tried to jump me and I had to call the cops.  Why can’t the world just leave me the hell alone?”

“Holy shit!  Are you OK?”  He paused and gave himself a mental shake, “Well you said you were, but what happened?”

“I have it recorded and I’m sure the police do too since I had my phone on speaker with 911 dispatch while he was threatening me.”  She said, sounding tired.  “I’ll send you a copy if you want.”

“Do you need anything?  Can I help in any way?”  Eugene asked, “Just say the word and it’s done.”

“Thanks Eugene, I appreciate it.  Really all I want to do is go home and be with my family.  Maybe later we can talk about that anomaly you mentioned.  Is tomorrow good for you?”

“Yeah, tomorrow’s just fine.  I’m sure it’s nothing to be worried about.”  They hung up and Eugene sat back in his chair, running his hand through his hair.  His computer chimed and he saw it was an email from Victoria.

‘Here’s that recording I mentioned.  Tomorrow we can talk more, but someone else was there.  They had been following me and shot my would-be assailant with some sort of air powered projectile launcher.  It’s a good thing too since Adam didn’t see fit to help.’

“What in the world does she mean by that?”  He wondered aloud.  Attached was an audio file.
As he listened to it, his blood ran cold.  He recognized that man’s voice; he had heard it before in the parking lot of a gas station.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 12

Victoria

Victoria was walking home and despite her outwardly calm demeanor she was on full alert.  She was in a bad enough mood because of still being stuck in Big K’s stupid detention, and her decision to wear leggings to cover the carbon fiber arcs that were now her legs was an increasing source of annoyance.  Why did she care what people thought?  She resolved to only wear short skirts and no stockings from now on.

Her nerves were on edge for other reasons too.  Even though multiple scans of her surroundings hadn’t turned up anything she knew someone was following her.  She was half way back home; all she had to do was lose whoever this asshole was and things would be fine.  Her gaze turned from over her shoulder to the front.

“Hey girlie, where ya headed?”  The man was standing at a bus stop, wearing what looked like a neighborhood security uniform at first glance, only the badge was obviously a fake.  Legacy Security would never issue a plastic badge; the gun on his hip was definitely real though.  She noticed with distaste that he had a leer on his face.

“Home.”  She said curtly, keeping her eye on the alley she was walking past.

“Yeh better watch out, there’s dangerous people around.”  He said, moving towards her slightly, hands in his pockets.

“Listen creep, I don’t know what you think is going to happen here, but I’m calling the cops if you don’t turn around and walk the other way right now.  I don’t have time for this.”  Victoria stopped, turning to face him squarely.  She hooked into her phone through its Bluetooth and dialed 911, setting her phone on speaker with the volume turned down as far as it would go so the voice on the other end wouldn’t be audible.

It was in her pocket but she was willing to bet it’d still pick up whatever was going on.  She scratched her left wrist, wondering why it itched.  As she did so, Adam’s connection to her phone dropped.  Her attempt to re-connect was unsuccessful, but she was pretty sure the call had gone through.

There were three figures moving out of the alley across the street.  One of them had something in his hand that reflected the light.  A gun with a scope?

“No need to get all uppity, I was just letting you know that not everyone thinks a mechanical freak like you should be walking the streets.”  He spit at her feet.

“By ‘not everyone’ I’m assuming you are including yourself?”  Victoria backed slowly away, keeping him between her and the unknowns in the alley.  She wanted to know who this asshole was.

“Yeah, I’m one of the People who can see what a threat you represent.”  He put extra emphasis on ‘people’ making sure she knew he didn’t include her in that classification.

“So what’s the gun for?”  She said out loud, hoping the cops were listening.  “Are you afraid of a little girl?  Is that why you brought your friends across the street too?”  Victoria didn’t understand why there was no traffic, no pedestrians; she didn’t even see anyone in their houses.  What the hell was going on?

“You ain’t no girl, you’re a fucking freak.  Sure you may look like a human but we know better.  Don’t worry about anyone coming to help you either, I used this uniform to tell people there was a gas leak and they needed to evacuate.”  His eyes darted to his left briefly.  She glanced in the direction he had looked and in that moment he sprang at her, hands reaching for her arms.

Victoria froze in place; for the first time since her operation unable to move.  Just before his outstretched hands touched her he crumpled to the ground.  As he fell, she discerned a report from a compressed air projectile launcher from three o’clock.  He lay on the sidewalk twitching, a bruise already beginning to form on the side of his face.  A quick glance told her the figures in the alley across the road had fled, most likely indicating that they were connected somehow.

The street was empty; she was the only conscious person visible.  Where was her mystery helper?  Who was he?  What the hell was going on anyway?  At that moment, a patrol car screeched around the corner.  Victoria sat down hard, shaking with adrenaline and, she realized in surprise, fear.

“Hands where I can see them, no sudden movements!”  The officer yelled, stepping out of his cruiser with his gun drawn.

Victoria looked up at him, tears streaming down her face and she realized the main source of her emotional reaction.  Adam hadn’t helped her.  It would have been child’s play for him to take her assailant down, but he hadn’t done anything.  If it wasn’t for the mystery sniper she would have been kidnapped, killed, raped; her mind raced ahead with possibilities.

She took a deep breath to calm herself.  The adrenaline that had been pulsing through her system abated slowly and she realized her wrist itched like it had been bitten by a thousand mosquitos.  Realizing she hadn’t responded to the officer’s demand, she slowly moved her hands apart.

“Miss, you’re the 911 caller correct?”  He asked, his eyes still taking in the scene.  At her nod he continued.  “I’m officer Seevers, are you injured?”  She shook her head, still not trusting herself to speak without bursting into tears again.

His radio emitted the muffled sound of someone speaking and he reached up with his left hand to activate it.  He still watched her and the fallen man, but his pistol was pointed at the ground, his finger not on the trigger.  “Affirmative.  Male suspect appears to be subdued, securing the female caller.”

Victoria strained to hear the response and could barely hear something about backup units being on their way.  She took a step away from the man, wanting to put herself out of his reach should he awaken.

“Miss?  Could you step over here please?  I’d like to put you in the back seat of my cruiser for safety reasons while I secure the scene.”  Victoria stood smoothly and walked to the car, relieved that at least her artificial limbs seemed to be functioning properly.  “Just leave your bag here please.”

She dropped her backpack where he indicated and slid into the hard plastic back seat of the squad.  Her wrist still itched terribly but otherwise she was starting to recover.  Remembering her phone, she pulled it out and thanked the 911 operator for her assistance before hanging up.  Seevers was inspecting her would-be assailant, securing the man’s pistol before checking for a pulse and putting a pair of handcuffs on him.