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.

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.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 11

“That would great Dmitri, I appreciate it.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”  Eugene cut across three lanes of traffic to take the next exit; Dmitri’s apartment building was in the opposite direction.  He glanced at the gas gauge and noted he was at a quarter tank.  He looked at the sign and saw that they sold the high octane race gas his car required and decided to fill up.  Eugene pulled into the station and an attendant ran out when the bell rang.

“Fill up for you?”  The attendant asked.

“Where’s the race gas pump?”  Eugene asked.

“Race gas is the last pump.”  He said, “What is this thing anyway?  I don’t think I’ve seen one of these before, but it looks familiar.”

“It’s a Maserati.”  Eugene said, looking around.  There was a group of people gathered in the parking lot and they were making a lot of noise.

“Sweet!  It’s like a James Bond car!”  He said.

“Nah, there aren’t any missile launchers under the hood of this thing.”  Eugene glanced at his nametag, “What’s with the tailgate party Jeff?” He asked, nodding his head towards the gathering across the lot.

“Oh some group of douchebags hollering about the end of the world, I guess they were going to some rally but got lost.”  He rolled his eyes, “You’d better fill up and get otta here before they start proclaiming the machines are rising or whatever again.”

Eugene pulled up to the last pump.  It was labeled ‘RACE GAS NOT FOR STREET USE’ and he smiled, “They say it will run on ninety-three octane but I just can’t stand to listen to her complain when I do it.”  He said.

“Jesus, at eight bucks a gallon I hope it’s worth it!”

“I need to pick up some cigarettes; can you fill the tank for me?”  Eugene walked towards the gas station and listened to the conversation the people were having as he passed.

“I’m telling you we should just kill it.  When she agreed to be transformed into that robotic monster she ceased being human.  She no longer has the rights the rest of us do!”  A man in a trucker cap that read ‘Jesus is my co-pilot’ said.

“Good luck with that Eli, my sources say she’s some kinda killing machine!  Took out an entire squad of Marines or something just last week in Nevada they say!”  This was from a short bald man.

“We need to stick to the plan, just threaten her and she will respond with violence.  One of ours will get it all on tape and then we can let the cops take care of the rest.”  The fat, broad-shouldered woman next to them said.  “She walks home every night and she has after school detention so she will likely be alone.  Wait until she is by herself and then make your move.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  If that bitch does actually put my life in danger though I’m gonna defend myself.  If she dies it’ll be a clear cut case of self-defense.”  It sounded to Eugene like this Eli character was hoping for the chance.

Eugene went inside and up to the counter.  “I need a pack of American Spirits, and whatever my gas is.”

“You running race gas in that thing huh?  Ain’t that supposed to be for off road use or something?”  The guy behind the counter punched some keys and handed Eugene his cigarettes.

“Yeah, probably.  I don’t really give a shit though.”  Said Eugene with a grin, “It’s either this or buy those damn octane boosters and I don’t like how variable that makes the octane level.”

“Those idiots are finally shoving off, they’ve been driving customers away and they’re just weird besides.”  He was glaring out the window, then looked back at the till, brightening slightly.  “That’ll be one hundred eighty-nine ten.”

Eugene handed his credit card over with a sigh but his mind was racing.  They planned on attacking Victoria so that she would defend herself and he knew how the AI would respond, even if Victoria didn’t want it to.  Once he was back in the car, he dialed her number.  At least he should warn her about it.  Waving to Jeff, the gas attendant, he pulled back into traffic.

“Hi, this is V’s phone.  Leave me a message if you want.”  Victoria’s phone went straight to voicemail.

“Victoria, it’s Eugene.  Give me a call when you get this, I think we might have a problem.”  He hung up and after a moment’s hesitation punched up Dmitri’s number.

“Good evening Dr. Arlington, this is Ivanov.  Dmitri isn’t available is there something I can help you with?”

“No, it’s cool I can talk with him when I get to the apartment.”

“Ah, well in that case I’m afraid you might not be able to get your information to him until tomorrow morning.  He is … out right now.”  Ivanov sounded so urbane, especially over the phone.  It was hard to believe he was a cold eyed killer, but Eugene knew exactly how dangerous he could be.

“OK, I have some information about the Humanity Preservation Alliance.  It seems like they plan on threatening or attacking Victoria so that she will react to defend herself in the next couple of days.  They’re getting it all on tape so they can use it as evidence against her.  I don’t know if you can do something to counter that plan or not this late in the game but –“

“Never fear Dr. Arlington.  We are aware of this scheme and so is Victoria’s shadow, it will not succeed.”  Ivanov sounded completely certain, but Eugene wasn’t.

“How can you be sure she’ll be safe?  You can’t have her watched all the time.”

“Know this; her shadow is the best in the business.  When necessary Jessie has gone for days without sleep and still remained sharp enough to do the job.  You have nothing to worry about.”  Said Ivanov.

“Jessie?  Like Jessie James?  Who is he anyway?”  Eugene broke a Cardinal rule and lit a cigarette in his car, “I want to know who you have watching her.”

“I apologize Dr. Arlington but I am not privy to more than that.  Jessie has done quite a bit of work for us in the past.  He’s a freelance gun for hire, a throwback to the Wild West I guess.  Perhaps that’s where the name came from or maybe it’s his real name I don’t really know.  I don’t care either, he gets the job done and has never failed to protect the target assigned.”

“Gun for hire?  Such a thing still exists?”

“Haven’t you heard of Blackwater?”  Ivanov snorted, “This kind of thing has been around ever since humans figured out how to kill one another and I don’t expect it will go away until we forget.”

“Is he a member of an organization or does he work alone?”

“I am not certain Doctor, but I can ask the young master then next time I see him.”

“No that’s OK Ivan, it isn’t important I was just curious.  I’ll see you in about fifteen minutes.”

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 9

When they had finished eating, Victoria started helping her mom clear the table.

“How are you doing honey?  Are those things hurting you?”

“No mom, I feel just fine.  They take some getting used to but they don’t hurt.  David said he might stop by with the new model he has cooked up later tonight.  I guess they are a little more comfortable than these ones; a little more advanced.”  Victoria said, putting the silverware in the dish washer.

Her mother began handing her plates, “Well anything that makes you feel better makes me feel better sweetheart.  I really appreciate what that young man has done for you.  He really is a nice boy.”

“Yeah, I’m lucky to have such good friends.”  The last of the dishes were loaded and Victoria turned it on while her mom was gathering things for tea.

“So I hear you destroyed your mid-terms?”  Yuen-Ja was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, “Toria you should know better than to get one hundred percent on all of them.  When people start to think you are doing the impossible they begin to look for alternate explanations.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean to ace them.  I mean I was just doing what I always do.”  Victoria protested.

“Well now you know better.  Next time remember to get at least one answer wrong!”  Yuen-Ja stuck her tongue out at her adopted sister.

On the way into the living room with tea and cookies Victoria tapped into her phone and sent David a text telling him it was cool to swing by.  ‘Hey David, if you want to bring the MKII’s by in the next half hour or so that’d be OK.  There’s tea and cookies too, I’ll save some snickerdoodles for you I know those are your favorites.’

‘I’ll be there in 5’ his response was almost instantaneous.

The tea was just brewed and Yuen-Ja was pouring when the doorbell rang.  “That’s probably David, I invited him over to have tea with us.”  Victoria said, moving to answer the door.

David walked in, struggling with a large cardboard box.  “Hi Mr. and Mrs. Scott!  Hey Yuen-Ja, how’s it going?  Tea smells good, is it Jasmine?”

“Ha, you are learning to appreciate tea against your will!  Another of my triumphs, I will wean you off that nasty yellow five water yet!”  Said Yuen-Ja with a smile.  She hated Mountain Dew and it used to be all David would drink before he’d met her.

They all sat and Victoria took a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance of the tea with pleasure.  Jasmine was her favorite and it went so well with the simple sugar cookies that her mom specialized in making thin and crisp.

“So what did you bring me?”  Victoria was curiously eyeing the box.

“Well, I know the prosthetics you are currently wearing are wreaking havoc on your legs.  The movements aren’t smooth enough and it causes a lot of pressure around the socket which in turn damages the flesh.”  David set his tea down and opened the box.

“That’s why I have made these; they’re like the luxury model you might say.  With a few extras built in.”  He withdrew a carbon fiber leg that looked similar to the ones she was wearing now, but they were a touch larger in diameter and the feet were thicker.  He took out the other one and knelt in front of her.

“May I?”  He asked, his hands hovering over her legs.

“Sure, of course.”  She responded, not realizing how it must look until after he had begun sliding his hands up her skirt.  Victoria pulled the hem up and tucked it between her thighs, exposing the sockets where her prosthetics attached to her flesh.

“Ohmygod honey you said they weren’t hurting you that looks absolutely AWFUL!”  Her mother exclaimed when she saw the crusted blood around the edges.

“It looks a lot worse than it is mom.”  Victoria winced, she should have cleaned up more before this, not just removed the bloody stockings.

“Not to worry Mrs. Scott, these new models should be much easier on her and give her legs time to toughen up.”  David pressed a couple of buttons, released a latch and gave her left leg a twist.  The prosthetic came off with a loud click and he carefully set it down.  The new one was quickly attached and while he was working on the other leg, Victoria flexed the new leg, trying to get a feel for how it would be different.

“OK, try them out.”

She stood up, feeling the smoothness of the actuators and the compression of the joints as they took her weight.  David walked around her, looking critically at them for a moment before starting to explain some things.

“Good, they look good.  I have built in a few things that you can make use of if you want.  First is there are some storage compartments big enough to hold a wallet or whatever.”  He touched panels on the outsides of either thigh and they whispered open with mechanical precision.  “There is a trickle charger for them and I’m working on a backpack with a solar cell as well.  These compartments can be used for extra batteries in the future too if you want.”

“Come on David, show her the cool part!”  Yuen-Ja was sitting on the edge of her chair with a big grin on her face.

“OK, so this is something totally new.  I know you like to skate and I’ve been working on an electrically charged polymer that can assume shapes based on the current you subject it to.  Recently I discovered you can create manipulators out of it and that’s what the feet of your new legs are made from.  The best part is since it’s completely malleable, we can do things like this.”  He motioned for her to sit and when she did he depressed a switch on the top of each leg, just below the socket.  They morphed from being a pair of X shaped claws with rubber grips to being one large wheel with rubber tread.

“Holy shit!”  She exclaimed, holding a leg up to get a better look at it.  “Whoa, now that is cool, how did you do that?”

“Eventually you can probably learn to transform them from foot to wheel without the switches.  Same thing with the storage compartments, if you can figure out the proper nerve signal you ought to be able to open them with a thought instead of having to touch them.”  From the look he was giving her she understood that he meant Adam already had that capability.

“Be careful though, I couldn’t get them to form multiple wheels and it’s tough to maintain your balance at lower speeds with these things.  I tried making a pair of mono-skates for myself first, just to try it out.”  David said, “I think I might have broken my tailbone the first time I tried to stand up on them.”

“Thanks for everything David.  These are amazing.”  Victoria pushed the buttons to turn her feet back to feet and stood up to give him a hug.

“One more thing, you should remove your prosthetic legs when you go to bed.  I know it must be weird to not be able to walk but it will give your real legs a chance to relax and heal.”

“I suppose you’re probably right, but it’s scary to be stranded without legs.”  Her phone buzzed, it was Eugene.  If it was important he’d leave a voicemail.  “I was going to watch a movie, you want to join me?”

“No thanks, not all of us aced our midterms.”  He gave her a silly grin, “I have some studying to do, and Eugene has a project he wants my input on too.  I’m hoping to continue working with him after high school.”

“OK, good luck then.”  Victoria followed him to the door.  “What else did you want to tell me about these?  I can tell you’re hiding something.”

“Uh, I wasn’t going to tell you until after you healed up a little more so that you don’t accidentally hurt yourself.”

“Well then you should have practiced your poker face a little better.”  She said, “Now you have to tell me.”

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 8

A.D.A.M

Despite the fairly amazing regenerative power Victoria’s body had, Adam was having difficulty maintaining continuity where flesh met metal.  Even though the Neurosynth fluid helped, the irritation that resulted from the sockets connected to their former legs being under constant pressure was presenting a problem.  He decided that when Victoria rested this evening he was going to attempt to influence the mending protocols to try and toughen the skin.

In spite of being technologically advanced, the artificial legs they were currently using were a far cry from Victoria’s real ones.  The balance and skill which her biological limbs had exhibited were far beyond the capabilities of these mechanical ones.  They did have their uses though; for one thing they were interchangeable.  Adam was excited to see what variations David would come up with.

They were almost home, the familiar barrage of sights coming in through Victoria’s optic nerves told him that even if his triangulation through cell phone towers or WIFI networks didn’t.  Out of habit, Adam scanned for any unusual activity or unknown vehicles in the area as the vehicle pulled into the driveway.  All appeared to be normal civilian activity, no military or mafia presence other than the female who was kind enough to give them a ride home, saving Victoria from sustaining further damage.

Adam did a quick background check on Ms. Chelsea Terese Daceiron and found nothing out of the ordinary.  Born 1969, dropped out of high school in 1987 to join the Marine Corps.  No civilian history of misconduct, she didn’t even have a speeding ticket.  Without going through anything that was classified and risking being caught, Adam also scanned her military record.  It was a litany of decoration; Chelsea had been a rising star almost from the moment she signed her contract.

In Basic Training she had performed CPR on a superior officer who suffered a heart attack, saving his life.  Her good looks and charisma had also landed her a spot on a promotions team where she had modeled for posters and spoken about her experiences as a woman in uniform.  In spite of not having a high school diploma, her test scores were good enough to get noticed and after Basic she was sent to officer training.

When it became clear Chelsea had a natural aptitude for leadership and tactics, she quickly rose through the ranks and graduated at the top of her class.  There was some incident that was classified, that Adam skipped but after that she lodged multiple complaints about not being able to be part of a combat unit.  She and a group of other female Marines eventually gathered together as a team and although it was suppressed initially, they dominated every other team in practice battles.

There was another classified section after which Chelsea was on her own again.  She volunteered for an initiative known as ‘Project Chimera’ which didn’t even appear to have an electronic record.  There was a five-year gap after which she and her six companions had become the first all-female strike team, Special Forces ‘Squad Seventeen’ the members of which Adam was well acquainted with.

Filing that information away just in case he wanted to review it later, Adam opened the logs from the software he had written to monitor and adjust the operation of their new mechanical legs.  From what he could see, there were only a couple of adjustments that needed to be made to improve efficiency.  Those changes coupled with a tougher layer of skin just might be enough to keep Victoria from injuring herself.

Victoria

“Who gave you the ride home?”  Victoria’s father was waiting for her at the door.  “And what’s this about you having detention?”

“Oh god daddy, don’t get me started on the stupid detention.”  Victoria groaned, “Donna Kneepkens has it out for me.  She says I must have cheated on my midterms and gave me the detention supposedly to punish me for not coming clean about it.”

“Why would she think you cheated?”  Her father’s brow furrowed, “Does she have any evidence to support such an accusation?  That’s a serious charge to make without being able to back it up.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said dad.”  Victoria rolled her eyes, “Her supposed evidence is I scored too well.”

“Wait, since when is ruining the curve grounds for being punished?”  He raised an eyebrow, “How well did you do anyway?”

“Ummm… I probably set records.  I didn’t get one single answer wrong in any subject.  Apparently I even corrected improper questions and figured out graduate level problems too.”  She shook her head, “None of it seemed too hard to me, I guess I’m just gifted.”

“Wow, honestly that is a little suspect.  Even as your father it’s crazy to think about you acing every single subject.  Not that I think you cheated mind you, I’m just saying it’s pretty unbelievable.”  He gave her a significant look, “You don’t think there’s a chance one of your computer friends fudged some numbers in your favor do you?”

“Well I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think they’d do that to me.  I mean something like that would leave a trail a mile wide in the school’s database ya know?”

“Not really honey, I don’t know all that much about computers.” He said with a self-deprecating smile.

“Hey you two, get in here!”  Victoria’s mom said, her voice carrying from the dining room.  “Dinner’s almost ready and I need some help setting the table.”

They walked in and found Yuen-Ja laying out plates.  Victoria grabbed silverware and her dad started setting out the glasses.  By the time they were done, her mother was bringing out steaming plates of food.  Stir fried vegetables, meats and tofu were piled on individual dishes, each cooked with different seasonings set out around a large bowl of sticky white rice.

“Dang mom, super looking spread!”  Said Victoria.

“I helped her with the spices.  Any of them that have red pepper will be pretty hot just to warn you.”  Yuen-Ja said with a smile.

The family sat down for a quiet meal, the sound of their chopsticks and murmurs of appreciation the only things breaking the silence.

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.”

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.

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.