Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 17


Eugene was late and Victoria was sick and tired of waiting.  She’d had a terrible day, constantly feeling eyes watching her and it had impacted her mood, making her snap at everyone.  Even the normally imperturbable Stace had given her a wide berth by third period.

She was just about to give up and walk home alone when Dmitri’s steel gray Mercedes limo pulled up to the curb.  The rear window rolled down smoothly and she heard the strains of a classical symphony accompanied by the faint scent of his exotic cigarettes.

“Do I sense a lady in distress?”  He said with a grin which only widened when she scowled at him.  “You seem to be in a foul mood.  Allow me to take you out and spoil you.”

“Dmitri, I don’t think so.  It’s a school night and I don’t have a damn thing to wear.  I’d catch hell, and besides I’m not going to be any fun to be around right now.”

“Nonsense.  I will call your father and ask him if I may take you shopping to improve your outlook after a trying day.  After I purchase several outfits for you, we shall have a light repast at Hanabi and I shall have you home by no later than seven.”  He said, and Ivanov stepped smoothly around to open the door.

As usual, orange light surrounded the man alerting her to the danger he posed to her and everyone around him.  As usual, she ignored it.  Ivanov had never been anything but perfectly polite to her.

Victoria looked at him for a moment before her resolve failed.  “Oh fine.  If daddy says it’s OK then I’ll let you spoil me.  But just this once, I’m not going to make a habit of accepting expensive things from you.”

“We need not purchase expensive things my dear.”  He said as she slid in beside him, “I will take you wherever you desire, whether it be to Niemen Marcus or Target.”

“Well if we’re going out for sushi I suppose more or less anything would be fine, even just my school uniform.”  She sighed.

“While I find it most fetching, I happen to remember that you do not.”  Dmitri said with a smile and rapped on the window.  “Ivanov, take us to La Belle.”

Victoria looked at him with a puzzled expression before Adam supplied her with information about the shop.  “That’s a high end French boutique right?  I can’t very well come home in a thousand-dollar dress Dmitri, and you haven’t called daddy yet.”

“Oh that is quite all right Victoria, I called him before I picked you up.  I also told Dr. Arlington that he need not attempt to break the land speed record in that Italian rocket of his because he was late.”

She crossed her arms and gave him a flat stare.  “I suppose you already knew I was having a shitty day somehow?  Like you have a spy in school or something?”

He held up his hands in mock surrender, “You forget that I recently was also a high school student.  Every day is a shitty day.”

Cracks formed in her determination to stay angry and she smiled for what felt like the first time in days.  What could the harm be in letting him buy her a nice outfit?  He could afford it after all and had never asked anything from her in return other than her company.  It was nice to have someone like him who would anticipate her and try to be sweet in his own way.

“Ah, there is the smile that I love to see.”  He said with a slight smile of his own.

Something about his expression bothered her slightly, but she had decided not to be annoyed anymore.  “Thank you Dmitri, I didn’t realize just how much I needed something like this.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”  He asked, leaning forward to look her in the eye.  She met his gaze and she found herself telling him about everything.  About how frightened she had been when Adam seemed to have abandoned her, about the man who had tried to assault or kidnap her, about her strange savior and the feeling of being watched constantly.

“It has been driving me crazy, but I know I’m not imagining it.”  She said, running her hands through her hair and then peering at him through the strands that fell over her face.  “I’m sorry Dmitri, I didn’t mean to dump all this on you.”

His smile never wavered a millimeter, “Think nothing of it Victoria, I asked you after all.  You have my word that I will do everything within my power to keep anyone from harming you.”

To her surprise, Dmitri was suddenly surrounded by orange light.  An orange script scrolled across the bottom of her vision. ‘Dangerous angry individual, aggression very high, unknown motives.’

“Dmitri, are you feeling OK?”  She asked, “You seem strange, aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?”

“You were attacked yesterday.  You feel threatened and watched; frightened enough to tell me, a man who you barely know about it.”  He gave her that intense look again and it fascinated her.  “Of course I am taking this seriously.”

Victoria blushed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dump all this…”  She trailed off, feeling like a program that had a glitch.  She shook her head, “God, I feel like a broken record or something.”

“Victoria, there is no reason for you to apologize.” Dmitri said with a smile that looked genuine and warm.  “I asked you to tell me.  I want to hear your problems.  I am here for you, because I care about you.”

She blinked.  This was not what she had expected, and to her surprise it was actually a bit off putting.  It was like talking to a book titled ‘A Beginners Guide to Talking to Girls’ or something.  Before she could fully analyze her feelings on the matter the car stopped.

“Ah here we are.”  Dmitri said as Ivanov opened the door.  “La Belle.  I’m sure you’ll find something fit to wear out here.”

Victoria allowed him to help her out of the car and into a world of silk, velvet and exotic perfumes.

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.


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.

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


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 12


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 10

“I built in a second set of cables that are under a thousand pounds of tension.”  He said, obviously torn between telling her and wanting to show off his invention.  “Cocked like a crossbow, they can be released when you need to move in a hurry but make sure you’re braced properly since you could easily jump over your house with that much potential energy.

“When you’re airborne the calf section of the prosthetics can extend to absorb the shock of landing, I’m not certain how well they will work but the idea is the force of impact should come close to re-loading the cable tension.  I built in a cam that has the potential to work but I’m not sure you’re heavy enough to make full use of it, so there’s also a very small motor that can re-tension the cable, although it does take a minute or so.

“I think Adam can probably make more use of the polymer than I have, my imagination is a little limited and finding the proper electrical impulses to make it form different shapes is very difficult.  Even simple things like a stick can be problematic, especially if you need them to change shape rapidly.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”  Said Victoria with a smile, “We’ll practice to make sure we get it right before trying something on the fly.”

David grinned back, “I can’t believe Dr. Arlington has allowed me to help with this stuff.  I even get to use the advanced stuff in his prosthetics lab, it’s like a dream come true V!”

“I’m glad I gave you his number then.”  Victoria said, appreciating the ease with which she was able to stand perfectly still with her new, more advanced legs.

“Seriously though.  Don’t try and activate the emergency lifters yet.  Let me do some more simulations and whatnot first, I mean I trust Adam not to mess with you but I’m more worried that my calculations might be off than I am that he would do something bad.”

“Well.  I’m not.”  Victoria said with a shudder.  “I know he’ll do what’s logical, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for me.”

“He will.”  David said, looking her in the eyes.  “It will be the best way for you to survive.  I know he would only hurt you if it was absolutely necessary for your survival, and I…”  He took a deep breath, “I’m glad he did.  Because you and Dr. Arlington would be dead if he hadn’t done what he did.”

Victoria sighed, knowing he was right but still feeling betrayed.  “I know, and I’ll forgive him eventually.  I just can’t right now.”

“That’s not fair!”  David protested, giving her an indignant look.

“Yeah.  I know.”  She shrugged, “It’s not logical either, but then again emotions rarely are.  Look, I almost got killed out there.  What he did cost me my legs, and as much as I appreciate what you and Eugene have done for me…”

“We couldn’t have done it this fast without Adam’s help you know.”  David said quietly.

“Have you looked at me lately David?”  She demanded, “I mean REALLY looked at me?  I’m a fucking freak!  What kind of life am I going to have?”

“I think the only kind of freak you are is freaking gorgeous!”  He said fiercely, “And I think you’ll have as awesome of a life as you care to.  Yeah, maybe he fucked up, but I doubt it… and actually if he DID make a mistake it’d make me feel a little better somehow.  Like … I don’t know, like he was more human or something.”

Victoria opened her mouth to issue an angry retort, but stopped short.  He was right, and it was illogical to waste time and energy like she was.  She knew damn well precisely why Adam had done what he did.  What frightened her so badly was that she knew she wouldn’t be able to be to tell when she was putting herself in the same situation later, and she wouldn’t be able to stop him from responding in the same way he had.

“I’m scared David.”  She said softly, “I’m afraid because I’m not in control.”

“You don’t need to be afraid Victoria.”  David said with a smile, “What are the odds of you being in a situation like that again?  I mean really.”  The smile on his face died when he looked at her stricken expression.

“David, you just don’t get it do you?  One of the girls from that strike force is a teacher here now.  There are those crazies that are screaming about us being evil…”  She ran her fingers through her hair, brushing it back behind her ears.  “I don’t think I’m going to have a quiet, calm life.”

“Wait, what?  Who?”  David stopped and shook his head, “It’s got to be Ms. Daceiron, she’s the only new teacher or student teacher this term.  But no way, she’s only like twenty or so max.  She isn’t old enough to be leading some elite military team.”

“Yeah.  I know.”  Victoria said, biting her lip, “Something’s not quite right about that.  I didn’t realize it at first because it was hard to see anything underneath all that battle armor, but in retrospect I think I should have noticed it.  I think she’s a lot older than she looks.”

David gave her a strange look, “What makes you say that?”

“Well… Adam just told me that she was born in 1969, and that puts her into her mid 40’s.”  Victoria said.  A slight twinge in her leg made her wince.  “I’m sorry David, I really think I need to get off my feet.  Thanks again for these, and for listening.”  She gave him another quick hug and he trotted happily down the stairs to his waiting VW.


It was early evening and Eugene had just dropped Ms. Kirsten Murray off at her hotel after their third date.  Dinner had been delicious although he found his companion to be lacking.  He was just so used to Victoria’s quick wit and comprehension of advanced scientific concepts that normal people seemed slow and boring.

He was cruising towards home, enjoying the comfort and power of the new Maserati GranTurismo he had bought to replace his drowned Vanquish when his phone rang.  Without checking to see who it was, he answered it using the Bluetooth integrated into the car.  “This is Eugene.”

“Ah, Dmitri here, glad I could get ahold of you Dr. Arlington.  Listen, I have some unsettling tidings.  The Humanity Preservation Alliance, as they are calling themselves, has staked out your house, I would recommend not going there at this time.”

“What?  Who the hell are you talking about?” Eugene swerved around a semi-truck with a load of concrete barriers, downshifting smoothly to speed past.

“That load of lunatics who are protesting your work.  They have a protest permit and have set up shop in the park across the street from your house.  There are about two hundred of them out there, carrying signs and handing out pamphlets.” Said Dmitri.

Eugene shook his head.  “Damn, I need some things from inside my place.  Mostly just my laptop I guess, but there are a few other things I’d like to have too if I’m going to be away for a few days.”

“If you would like, I could put you up in my apartment building.  Ivanov would be happy to retrieve your personal effects from your house regardless of where you decide to stay.”  Dmitri said, “There is no reason to risk a confrontation with those idiots.  You are too valuable to put in harm’s way.”

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


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.


“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.”