The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 1

The winds struggled against stagnant heat.  Great rents in the ground spouted acrid smoke that stopped the natural flow of the air.  Wind from the Abyss wasn’t wind at all; it brought with it the charnel reek of fresh blood mixed with brimstone and rotting flesh.  Anything it touched died.  Worse than that, when the things died, they were animated by the Abyss and so the infection spread.  Some seemed to be resistant to the plague, and they set up as much resistance as they could, living in small enclaves or fighting building to building in large cities.

Rumors abounded.  All the gods were dead.  Jorda was dead.  The Grandfather Tree was burning.  Luftin had lost his mind.  Ild had sided with his treacherous brother at long last and they were conspiring to burn the world.  The only living people who knew the truth weren’t likely to tell it.

A dry sulfurous wind blew through the nearly empty streets of a once prosperous trading town.  Although it was near Hellgate Keep and between that cursed edifice and the High Forest where a haze of smoke still clung to the tree tops, Varild had somehow managed to survive.

The ones who had been taken by the Abyss had answered some strange summons and left as a group.  The others who had been living for almost a year on stored provisions, rain water and the occasional wild game that still eked out a living in the lost land around them.

Other than the obvious problems of a land cursed by the infection of the Abyss, Varild was in a lot better shape than other places.  The storehouses had more than enough food for the surviving townsfolk and the well was still good.

A pair of figures wearing dark cloaks with the hoods pulled low approached the front gate.  Finding it barred, they hammered on it with the butts of their daggers.  “Hello the Town!”  One shouted.

“Keep your skirt on.”  The guard on the wall grumbled.  He’d had a long night and had drawn the short straw, meaning he had first watch as well.  “None may enter hooded.  Throw back your hoods and show me your eyes or you will not be allowed inside.

“A wise precaution.”  The taller of the two said, pushing his hood back to reveal blonde hair in a cluster of braids.  The other likewise uncovered his face to reveal a face with dark skin and a bald pate.  A latticework of scars covered his head and the guard could see it was in an intentional pattern.  He shuddered involuntarily.

“What’s your business?”  He demanded.

“We seek some folk.  Rumor has led us here.”  The shorter man said.  “The ones we seek were last purported to be seen around this area.  We have our own provisions and carry our own water.  We will not be a burden upon your settlement.”

“No need to skimp here strangers.”  The guard said, “Survivors are welcome, and news of the world is as valuable as clean water here.”  He climbed down, inspected their eyes through a slot in the gate and then opened a small steel door to one side, barely large enough for them to squeeze through.

“You think that’s her?”  Callindra heard the voice from across the tavern and intentionally paid it no mind.

“Barkeep.”  Her voice rasped in her own ears, “Where’s that bottle I ordered?”

“You wanted…?” The man behind the expanse of the oak bar asked, nervously dry-washing his hands.

“Whisky.  You know damn well what I asked for.”

“I just thought…  It’s only nine bells…”

“Gods be damned, I care not for the cursed time of day!”

“Pardon, but are you Callindra Sol’Estin?” The man didn’t look like a warrior or a mage, but she had long since learned that looks could be deceptive.

“What.  Do you want?”  She turned a baleful eye towards the two men standing a few feet away.  “If you are from The Order, Glarian is dead.  My Master is dead.”  Her voice sounded flat and dead, even in her own ears.  In her mind she whispered, ‘Luftin, God of Wind is dead.’

“Here’s your whiskey lass.  Your sword, could you sheath it please?”  The barkeep glanced nervously at Shadowsliver lying flat on the bar, his chain piled on the floor next to her before stretching back to the Mithril cuff on her right wrist.

“He doesn’t want to be sheathed, so he doesn’t have one.”  Callindra said, pouring some of the dark amber liquid into the glass he had provided.

“Ah…” The two men were nervously standing on her left.

“You’re still here?”  Callindra drained the glass in one long swallow, “What in the nine hells do you WANT?”

“We aren’t from … we’re here to ask … are you Callindra?”  The man cleared his throat, “We are looking for The Brotherhood of Steel.”

“The brotherhood is broken.”  Her voice fell to a whisper, “Leave me here with my sorrow and my memories.  You’ve chosen an ill day to mention brothers.”

The door to the common room opened wide and Vilhylm strode into the room.  “Barkeep, ale and meat!”  He paused when he saw Callindra sitting at the bar, “You’re still here sister?”

“Nay, they made me leave for a few hours.  You’re up early brother.”  She poured another glass of whisky.

“It is a day we should be observing together Callindra, and one we should be marginally sober for.”

“Sir, are you Vilhylm the Just?” One of the men asked.

“I am Vilhylm.” He said, “What can I do for you?”

“They are looking for the Brotherhood of Steel.”  Callindra said, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

“I fear good sirs that this is an inauspicious day to bring up that name.” Vil said, “Perhaps you could come back tomorrow.”

“But Sir, we have traveled for moons to beg your assistance.”

“We aren’t in the hero business anymore, especially not today.”  Vilhylm said, looking at the man with a suspicious eye.

“Listen.  If you want to talk you have to drink.”  Callindra gestured to the barkeep and he handed her another pair of glasses.  She filled them with whisky and topped off her own.  “To Tryst.  May his soul rest in peace until the end of days.”

“I apologize I did not realize we were interrupting- “ One of the men began.

“Shut up and drink!” Callindra said, putting her left hand on Shadowsliver’s hilt.  “You had the impertinence to come and find us on this day, I fear that means you share in our remembrance of the death of my brother.”

The men exchanged glances and picked up the glasses.

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 49

“Oh come now. I know all about your little tricks. Knock it off.” With one hand he tapped her on the forehead and the Power fled.

Callindra fell to her knees, holding the hilt of her ruined companion in her hands. “No… no… this can’t be.” She stood up and looked him straight in the face. “You have to re-forge him. I’ll do anything if you re-forge him.”

Her brothers exchanged awkward glances.

“Nope, can’t be done. It was broken, can’t be fixed.”  He said, turning away.

“You HAVE to, he is my life.”  Her lower lip trembled, “He’s everything.  Beliach, please re-forge him for me. Please?”

“Fine, whaddya want to give me? Whaddya got to trade?”

“I told you I’d do whatever you want. I don’t have anything to give you, and even if I did anything I could offer would be an insult.” She was still holding her head high, looking him directly in the eyes in spite of the tears running down her face.

“Yeah. I do make one helluva blade don’t I?”  He said with a wide grin, “I’ll make you a new one if that’s what you want, but you have to promise me something.”

“Anything. Anything you ask!”

“Just promise me that when you go rescue Glarian from Hellgate keep you’ll stop by for a visit. I don’t get many visitors these days and when they do stop by they always want something from me. Come on over once you get that old bastard and tell him to bring some decent drink.”

“I swear it.”

He laughed, “No need to be so formal girl.  A word of warning though, when I re-forge this blade it won’t be anything like the old one.” She was taken aback by the sudden seriousness in his voice. “Especially if we leave this on there.” He plucked the chain from the hilt, disconnecting the charmed Mithril as though he wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. “You sure you want it back on there?”

“I need it but…” She hesitated. Did she need the chain? Was it really a sign of weakness? Why couldn’t she hold onto her sword, even in death? Did she just not trust him, or was it herself she didn’t trust? She had thought it would keep anyone from ever taking Brightfang away but Beliach had just pulled the chain off like he was picking a flower. Would having the chain just be a reminder of a painful memory?

“It’s your blade girl. I’ll put it back on there if you want it, I don’t care one way or the other but it makes a difference in the forging.”  He said, obviously thinking about different designs.

“At first I think it was a crutch. Something to keep my fear under control you know?” She said, coming to her decision. “But I’ve turned that weakness into a strength. I think I could even surprise Glarian with some of the new moves I’ve learned with it.”

“I don’t know about that but you’re going to need all the help you can get, especially if you’re facing off with The Order and Dergeras at the same time.” He reached out and deftly removed the Mithril cuff from her right wrist. “This chain is a weird one, I’ll give ya that. I’m not completely sure how it works, so be careful with it.”

He moved to one side of the room and pulled a curtain back, revealing a room with a lavish table set with almost every imaginable type of food. “Why don’t you all get a bite to eat while I work on this? Could be awhile.”

With that, he began sorting through lumps of metal next to his anvil.  Callindra watched him comparing them, tapping them with a hammer, filing pieces off with a large rasp and even touching them with his tongue.  After a few minutes, he selected a piece of metal that was covered in rough scales that flaked off as he tested it.

Walking to the anvil, he pulled a lever so massive that she had assumed it was a part of the structure of the forge.  The chains clanked and moved, pulling Megara’s head over toward the forge, while the forge itself rose to meet him.  The gentle exhalation of the massive demon’s breath instantly heated the piece of metal to an orange-red glow.

Once it came back down, Beliach began moving with inhuman speed.  Hammer and tongs were a blur as he began to work the steel, lengthening and widening the metal, re-heating and folding and drawing it out into the shape he desired.  She watched for a time, but the needs of her body eventually distracted her.

Despite her concern about the forging of her blade, Callindra was drawn into the room by the smell of roasting venison, mulled wine and freshly baked bread. She lost track of time, happily filling her stomach with rich food and drink. Finally after her hunger was sated she sat back, smoking a pipe of fine tobacco for the first time in weeks and feeling truly relaxed. Her shoulder nudged Vilhylm who was intent on some project or another and she murmured a sleepy apology.

 

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Epilogue

“She WHAT?”  General Hallbeck had officially lost his cool.

“Eugene says she has left sir.  After a fight in which she killed the solider you had assigned to watch over her.”  His aide put a manila folder on his desk.  “Here are the initial crime scene photos.  There wasn’t anything to tie her directly to the scene as far as forensics are concerned, but the evidence is fairly obvious to our intelligence operatives.”

“I don’t believe this.”  Hallbeck poured himself a glass of whisky neat to distract himself.  “What does damage control look like?”

“There’s more sir.”  She continued, “Our reports also indicate that Chelsea Daceiron was the one who initiated hostilities.  Eyewitnesses say she almost killed a bystander even though he was heavily armed.  Our posthumous seems to suggest that her latest Remix damaged her medulla, making her angry, hostile and dangerously volatile.  It is honestly a wonder she lasted this long.”

“How did we miss it?”  He growled, grinding his teeth.  “God DAMN it, we have protocols in place to catch this kind of thing.”

“I believe she bribed her physician sir.”  She said primly, “I cannot prove it, however if the medical records were not falsified, Daceiron’s deterioration was much faster than any we have seen in the past.”

“Why hasn’t the tracking program been initiated yet?”  Hallbeck demanded, taking a slug of his scotch to settle his nerves.  “Damn it that’s why we implemented it in the first place.”

“We were tracking her up until approximately twenty-two hundred last night sir.”  She lost her patience and flipped open the folder she had set down, reading from sheets it contained.  “At that time the program was shut down and the tracking signal was lost.”

“They said it couldn’t be shut down.”  The general growled, “They said it was untraceable and that it would destroy any logical system that attempted to remove it.”

“Yes.  Well I suppose that is possible, however she continued to function after our attempts to activate the information harvesting portion we added to the tracking and monitoring software failed to penetrate the system’s firewall.”  She said, flipping a page.  “At that point, we saw some rather unusual activity in the program’s operating algorithms and it crashed.”

“So we’re dead in the water?  We have no way of tracking or finding her, all our eyes on her are gone?”  Hallbeck looked down, surprised to see his glass was empty.  He poured himself another.

“That is correct sir.”  She said, “However, we have agents monitoring the Scott’s house, her friend David’s and Eugene’s current residence as well.  We’ve tapped her bank accounts, put her face on watch lists that will trigger our surveillance teams and we’re working on a system that will use face recognition software to pinpoint her location by accessing publicly available camera systems.”

General Hallbeck blinked and looked at her.  She was a Lieutenant who had been working with him on this project for the last year or two. Caarlgard was her name and she was beyond perfect for the position.  She had been able to manipulate everyone into the positions he required with perfect ease, even going as far as to use what they knew of the artificial intelligence against itself.  Without that Victoria Scott likely wouldn’t ever have installed any of their software in the first place.

That was just about all he knew about her though.  It was time to change that.

Yuen-Ja sat watching her parents.  She didn’t think of them as her adopted parents anymore, they had accepted her in ways her blood never had.

“I am sorry.”  She said, “Mom, daddy, I didn’t tell you because Victoria did not want me to and I love her.  Things have changed now, she is running and scared and in danger.  I want you to know everything.”

“She… she…”  Daddy composed himself with effort, “She has a thing like that living inside her head?”

“Oh my baby.  My poor poor baby.”  Mom said, tears streaming down her cheeks.  “We never should have let her do this.”

“No!”  Yuen-Ja exclaimed, “You don’t understand, Adam is wonderful.  He is good, he is on our side.  He will help to protect her, I swear it by my honor.”

“But that thing is responsible for her getting hurt.”

“Yes mom, but without his actions she would have died.  Eugene too.  All the members of Squad Seventeen.”  She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, “And the metal monster who eventually was killed would have been free.  I cannot even imagine what evil would have ensued had it survived.”

“So she’s out there all alone is she?”  Daddy said, a stricken look on his face.  “Out on the streets, nobody to help her?  No money, torn clothes, no shelter and no transportation?”  He put his arm around mom as she began to cry harder.

“Oh no.  She is never alone.”  Yuen-Ja said seriously, “Adam is always with her.  Please, do not worry so much.  Once this has all settled down she will be able to return.  I know she will be in contact with us soon also.  My sister is a strong, brilliant and determined woman.  She will be OK.”

“That THING isn’t company!”  Mom burst out, “It can’t help her if someone tries to hurt her!”

“Yes he can.”  Yuen-Ja said quietly, “I have seen her fight and win against an opponent who was far more experienced and prepared using only one leg.  It was their combined strength, skill and insight that brought them out safely.  He is a better companion than if she had one of us along.”

“He can’t make sure she has a blanket covering her or that she has enough food to eat though.”  Daddy said, squeezing mom tightly for a moment.

“I worry about her too, but there is nothing we can do but trust in her ability to handle herself.”  Yuen-Ja said.

“Thank you for telling us.”  Daddy said, “I only wish I’d known before.  The fighting, the injuries… I never would have let her out of my sight.”

“That is why she did not tell you and mom.”  Yuen-Ja said, “She would have put you in danger as well.  The people who have attacked her and Eugene would not stay away because you were there.  They are bad people.  Killers.”

She must have not kept her voice and face as smooth as she thought she had, because daddy extended his other arm and gathered her into his lap.  Leaning against him, Yuen-Ja relaxed and the tension and fear that had been building inside her broke.  The family sat holding one another, crying their fear and worry out and taking comfort from their strength.

David stared at his workbench.  The gleam of titanium and the flat black of Nano-muscle contrasted nicely.  Luckily he’d accumulated all the parts he needed for his latest revision of prosthetic legs from Eugene’s lab before those assholes blew it up and now it was time to begin the assembly.  Victoria was going to need them.

These legs were much different from the beautiful curves of carbon fiber with delicate hinging.  When he had started on them, his idea had been for these to be a utility prosthetic; one she could go rock climbing and hiking with.  Sturdy construction from lightweight but very durable components.  No fancy bells and whistles, just lots and lots of titanium cams, molecularly aligned titanium cables and thick strands of Nano-muscle fibers.

The feet were a prehensile X with thick modular pads that were easily replaced.  Instead of a human like knee and ankle, there were three ball joints that could move in a nearly infinite set of directions.  Without Adam’s help he never would have been able to program the controls for something this complex.  In the end, they would be incredibly versatile, although they would also be a bit heavier and therefore put more stress on Victoria’s leg sockets.  He was sure she could handle it though; Adam wouldn’t let her overdo it.

With a sigh, he picked up his tools and began to do the final checks.  There were always a few adjustments that needed to be made before the device was ready for testing.  Soon it might even be ready for field testing.

David’s fingers flew over the keyboard of his laptop.  He knew she wasn’t his girlfriend and that she didn’t return his feelings for her nearly as strongly as he felt them towards her.  In spite of that he was determined to do everything he could to help her.  Damn it if she wouldn’t accept affection then he would settle for making gifts for her.  Gifts that would reflect the twisted, complicated feelings he had for her.  Gifts that would protect her.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 24

Victoria’s descent was less destructive but no more graceful.  Her right leg was now also nothing but torn strands of carbon fiber, shreds of Neuro-Muscle and titanium cable.  She hit hard, even though she tried to roll with the impact.  Pain lanced through her hip and shoulder as she landed, crying out in agony.  Forcing herself to remain conscious, Victoria crawled over to where Dace lay in broken defeat, dragging herself with her hands.

“Why?”  She asked, “Dace why did you do this?”

“Sorry.”  Dace said, her voice a slurring whisper. “Bad Remix.  Lost my shit, ya know?”

“What?  No!  I don’t fucking know, what are you talking about?”  Victoria said, a welter of emotions making her voice quaver.

“I ain’t normal Victoria, but ya knew that yeah?”  Dace hacked and coughed, “Ya busted me up pretty fuckin good damn it.”

“I had my doubts.”  Victoria said, gasping as the adrenaline wore off and the pain began to set in.  “You aren’t making sense.”

“Don’t trust Hallbeck.”  Dace said, “That old fucker.”  She broke off in a wheezing hack and spat blood.  “He only cares for his pet projects.  We used to be, but then the fucking doctor came along and then you were his shining star.”

“Who is ‘we’ Dace?  What happened to you?”

“Project Chimera.”  Said Dace, her voice slurring even worse. “Gene splicing.  Dunno much about it.  Just wanted to be faster and better.  Wanted one more just so I could show ‘em.  Went wrong.  Lost control.”

“You have to stay awake Dace.  You’re going into shock, I’ll get help.”  Victoria was shutting off her emotions, forcing herself to be logical.  “Yuen-Ja has her cell.  I’ll get her to call an ambulance.”

“Don’t bother.  Bad remix always fatal.”  Dace whispered.  A gunshot exploded in Victoria’s ears and the top of the other woman’s head exploded into shards of brain and bone.

“Did it hurt you?”  Dmitri’s urbane voice asked.  “Your legs are destroyed Victoria, we must gather what we can and leave before the authorities arrive.”

“You shot her in the fucking head!”  Victoria’s tenuous hold on her calm vanished, “What the hell Dmitri?  She was confused, I don’t think she even knew what was happening.”

“She broke Ivanov’s arm, gave him a concussion and possibly fractured several of his ribs.”  Dmitri said calmly, “Nobody does that to one of my people without paying the price.”

Victoria stared at him in confusion.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Besides, the most expedient way of exiting this situation without attracting undo attention from the authorities is to eliminate the person who would raise the most questions.”  Dmitri continued without acknowledging her question.  “I was certainly not going to bring her with and leaving her here alive would likely have put us all in danger of protracted unpleasantness with the authorities.”

“Victoria!  Are you alright?”  David was running up but skidded to a halt noticing the gun in Dmitri’s hand.  “Holy shit!  Holy shit!”

“No.  I’m not.”  Victoria said, pushing herself away from Dmitri.  He looked at her with apparent surprise.

“Perhaps I misjudged you Miss Scott.”  He said, lighting a cigarette as though they weren’t standing over the corpse of a woman she had trusted, fought, mortally wounded and watched him execute.  “This was the most logical course of action.”

He turned and walked calmly back to his Bentley, climbed in the driver’s seat and drove away.  Eugene was climbing out of David’s Beetle and leaning heavily on the car.  There was blood on his forehead; he must not have been wearing his seat belt.

“Oh God.  Did he fucking shoot her?  Oh God your legs.”  David was babbling, “Shit we can’t leave this here I mean they’ll be able to trace the remains to Eugene’s lab won’t they?  Oh shit.”

“David.”  She said, her voice perfectly calm.  “Do you still have the MKI legs you made me in your car?”

“What?  Uh, yeah.”  He said, and then seemed to remember that her current legs were destroyed.  “Oh, right.  I’ll get them.”

Victoria heard the sound of sirens in the distance.  Could she really escape from this?  Was there any chance she wouldn’t be arrested?  Surely there would be DNA evidence on the scene.

“David.”  Eugene said, his voice grim, “Siphon some gas out of your tank.  I’ll bring Victoria the spare legs.  We can’t leave a shred of evidence behind.”

Something clicked inside of Victoria.  She shut off the horror at seeing someone she knew and trusted killed in cold blood.  She stopped thinking about the fact that her other friends were calmly talking about burning the corpse.  Nothing mattered but survival.  Survival.

Eugene came and she swiftly and efficiently released the locks on her current appendages and attached the replacements.  Victoria stood and rapidly gathered all the pieces of her old legs that she could find, tossing them inside the trunk of David’s car.  As she cleaned up the larger pieces, Eugene and David poured the gasoline David had siphoned over Dace’s corpse.

“I appreciate what you have done for me.”  She said, her voice hollow.  “I have to go now.  If I stay with you, I will endanger your lives.  Keeping you safe will put me in danger as well.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” David said.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”  Said Eugene at the same time.

“Victoria, what is the matter?” Asked Yuen-Ja.  “This is not like you at all.”

“I am sorry.”  She replied calmly, “I must distance myself from you.  It is the most logical way to keep us all safe.  David, I expect you to create the MKIII and deliver them to me as soon as you are able to finish them.  Until then I will be forced to make do with these inferior prototypes.”

“Wait!”  David shouted.

“Victoria, come back!”  Said Eugene.

“We just want to help.”  Yuen-Ja whispered.  Hers was the hardest voice to turn away from.  Victoria did so anyway.

“Goodbye my friends.”  Victoria said, lighting a match.  They backed away and she flicked it into the gasoline.  “Don’t try to find me.  I will find you.  Yuen-Ja, please tell mother and father that… that… I’m sorry.”

“You can’t!” Yuen-Ja said, “You won’t survive on your own.”  Sirens sounded in the distance; they all knew they had only moments before the authorities would arrive.

The fire burned hot and fierce, it wouldn’t be enough to completely consume the body but that wasn’t the point.  Nothing that would identify Victoria could possibly survive.  The flames rose into a barrier between her and her friends.  Victoria turned her back and walked away from everything she knew.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 23

“So.  Tell me about your side project.”  Eugene said, glancing at David sidelong.  “Why haven’t I heard about it before now?”

“Well.  I know you have had some bad experiences with big robots so I sort of wanted to make sure it was, uh, ready before I told you about it.  I don’t have an AI in it or anything, it just uses the basic programming I’ve put together from my other experiments for balance and stuff.”  David looked at him sidelong, “And I suppose if I’m honest, you’re like a genius and I didn’t want you to see my early kinda crappy attempts.”

“That’s fair.”  Eugene said, “But I won’t judge other than to give constructive criticism, and right now I’m pretty grateful that you started making the thing in the first place.”  He focused on driving, the way he always did and felt his hands twitching slightly.  After all that had happened, he really wanted a cigarette.  He wasn’t going to smoke in David’s car though, especially not with the kids in here.

“I want to know more now though.  That thing looked pretty cool honestly, even if it was a tad rough.  No more secret projects, we can make things better together than we can apart.  You’ve got quite the gift for robotics David, more of a natural talent than I do and with your father being who he is, you probably have more experience too even if you haven’t always had the benefit of the technological toys I have.”

“You made most of those fancy toys yourself.”  David countered, “You’re way more advanced than I am.”
“Give it time.  I’m in my thirties David.  You still have your twenties to grow.”  Eugene glanced at a road sign and put on the Beetle’s turn signal.  “If you stick with me, I’ll make sure you’re ten times the prodigy I was.”

Turning onto a freeway entrance, Eugene smoothly heel and toe downshifted, tapping the emergency brake and sending the car into a drift with sudden savagery.  The tires screamed in protest and he revved the engine to its limits.  He grinned as his passengers were tossed about with the g-forces, not having the steering wheel to hold onto or the warning of intent to brace themselves.

“All right kid, this car is OK if you push it hard enough.”  He said, “Good balance, even if the power to weight ratio is crap.”

Eugene flew into traffic, using the drift and the downhill angle of the entrance ramp to accelerate to speeds the Beetle hadn’t ever seen before.  Yuen-Ja laughed in exhilaration from the back seat while David tried to avoid screaming in terror.  In a mere seven minutes they were pulling off the freeway and down the frontage road towards their destination.

They reached the parking lot just in time to see Victoria stepping away from a motorcycle and towards Dmitri’s slate gray Bentley.  She was wearing what was left of an elegant dress, there were a myriad of scrapes and cuts visible on all her exposed skin and she was moving in a strange limping gait, the carbon fiber of her legs obviously splintered in a few places.

“Why she is not waiting?”  Yuen-Ja asked, her voice sharp with irritation.  “She knows we are coming and yet she goes with him instead!  Why?”

Eugene rolled his window down and tapped the horn.  Victoria looked up and saw them, pausing to wave.  In that moment of hesitation, the trap was sprung.

Victoria

She had been feeling that “someone’s watching me” itch again but had still not been able to pinpoint anything. The last few minutes had nearly made Victoria jump back on the motorcycle and ride to a different location, but then she had seen Dmitri’s steel gray Bentley and relaxed.  As she approached, reaching her hand out to the door, a familiar car horn made her look over to see David’s Beetle with Eugene at the wheel.  She waved and something slammed into her side with the speed and power of a charging bull.

A figure wearing dark clothing hammered her across the parking lot, sending her flying off her feet.  Victoria struggled to control her fall, barely managing to get her feet under her, but the attacker hadn’t slowed down.  The initial rush was followed up by a second burst of speed that smashed her into the trash cans behind the Tommy Burger.  Only by throwing herself sideways in the air with a desperate wrenching motion was she able to keep her head from slamming into the grease dumpster.

Even so, her shoulder connected with painful force and she cried out in pain.  Instinctively, she rolled into a ball, her arms over her head and hit the ground.  Attempting to get her bearings, Victoria heard a pair of gun shots followed by a savage roar and turned to see a small figure slamming a fist into Ivaonov’s hulking form, knocking him back into Dmitri’s car hard enough to spider web the bullet proof glass.

She stood unsteadily on her broken carbon fiber legs, feeling the strain vibrate through her limbs as the strands of carbon fiber grated against each other.  This was not good.  The shorter figure was outlined by a flickering red light courtesy of Adam, she mentally acknowledged the threat.  No shit, this person was dangerous.  Thank you captain obvious.

Reaching down, she picked up a bottle that had scattered when she had toppled the garbage cans and flung it with speed and accuracy that would have gotten her a starting position on a major league baseball team.  The figure casually leaned out of the way as it turned to face her.

“They want to replace us with you?”  It said, its voice sounding like an animal trying to form human words.  “You are nothing. I could kill you with the slightest effort.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Victoria said, fumbling for anything else she could throw or use as a weapon.  “Who are you?  Who are they?  What the FUCK is going on?”

“Too bad.  You will never know why you died.”  The figure said, taking a few steps forward, lithe and sinuous like a cat stalking a mouse.

It ran forward again, fast as an Olympic sprinter, but Adam had been able to analyze its movements and speed.  He and Victoria were working together out of instinct born of the bonds of trust they shared and had recently strengthened.  Just when it sprang, Victoria made her move.

She leaped to meet her attacker’s charge, only using her left leg but still getting high enough in the air to swing her right leg down in a kick.  Her left leg tore itself apart as the carbon fiber gave way, the tensioned cables and cams destroying the damaged limb.  With superhuman agility, her opponent twisted and grabbed her right leg by the ankle.

“Predictable.”  Victoria said in a totally calm voice and activated the emergency lift on her right leg.  A face she recognized looked up at her in shock and astonishment as Chelsea Daceiron was flung down out of the air to slam into the pavement with bone shattering force.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 22

Eugene lost his temper.  They could blow up his office, they could picket his house, and they could force him to move into an apartment with a landlord who made him drink too much but his car…  His fucking CAR was off limits.  Cursing under his breath, he forced himself to crawl underneath a nearby truck.

His phone lay nearby, its screen a spider web of cracks but Eugene risked slivers of glass in his fingers as he unlocked the screen.  Instead of dialing the police or calling building security or anything so mundane, he dialed a far more dangerous number.

“Speak.”  Dmitri’s voice came over the phone tense and angry.

“Someone just bombed my building.”  Eugene said, his voice quiet in case there was someone close enough to hear.

“You should not need my advice to get the hell out of there.”  Dmitri said with acid in his voice.  “Why are you calling me?  I happen to be a bit busy right now with a very important matter that demands my focus and attention.”

“They also blew up my car.”  Eugene hissed, “And I’m pretty sure they’re still around somewhere to finish the job.  Is there anything you can do?”

“Certainly.  I shall call you a taxi.  In the future, I suggest you start actually carrying that gun of yours if it didn’t get destroyed in the explosion.”

“Goddamn it Dmitri, if I die what happens to your project?”  Eugene said, starting to panic.

“I’m not talking about a damn yellow door you idiot.  Someone will be there momentarily just shut up and stay put.”  Dmitri said angrily, “Now shut the fuck up before you give yourself away.  These coordinated attacks can’t possibly be coincidence.”

Eugene heard footsteps crunching over the gravel and shut his mouth.  Heavy military combat boots wandered into his field of vision.  Looking at those boots, Eugene clammed up, barely allowing himself to breathe.  He carefully, slowly moved his thumb and hung up the phone.  All it would take was a single sound for his position to be revealed.  He wasn’t surprised when his phone lit up and ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC began to shrill.  Of course, Dmitri would call him right back right after a warning not to give himself away.

Rolling sideways out the opposite side of the vehicle, he barely avoided a concentrated burst of automatic weapon fire.  These assholes were playing for keeps and he had almost nothing to fight back with.  Rolling backward, he fetched up against the adjacent car and smacked his head hard enough to see stars.

There was a whirr of servo’s and a blur of motion and something sprinted past him, bending down and flipping the car on top of his attacker with a harsh jerking motion.  Blinking tears out of his eyes, Eugene saw a figure of titanium and carbon fiber hold what looked like the side of a dumpster as a shield as gunfire erupted from across the parking lot.

“Don’t just sit there, RUN!”  A teenager’s panicked voice shouted.

“David?”  Eugene said, his mind slow to respond to what he was seeing.  The boy was standing off to one side, holding a remote control for an old radio controlled airplane.  Apparently, he was using it to control a contraption that looked like something from a comic book.  Wires, tubes and an assortment of cables were clearly visible from the back, but the front presented somewhat of an armored face.  He had made himself a giant robot.

“I only have about three more minutes of battery life damn it RUN!!!”  David shrieked, flipping a few switches and jamming levers that resulted in his robot ripping a parking sign from the ground with an armored fist and hurling it in a whirling blur across the parking lot to the sound of shearing metal and exploding glass.

Bemused, Eugene scrambled to unsteady feet and ran across the parking lot as best he could.  David was flipping switches and muttering words in a high-pitched jumble that amounted to a stream of curses in at least two languages.  David’s VW Beetle sat idling at the side of the road with Victoria’s adopted sister sitting at the wheel and the boy flew past Eugene on his way to leap into the passenger’s seat.

Eugene scrambled awkwardly onto his lap and the car lurched away.  Moments later the robot exploded in a roar that rivaled the concussion that had destroyed his building.

“What the fuck is going on?”  He managed as Yuen-Ja ground the car into another gear, careening around a corner and almost into oncoming traffic.

“I don’t know!”  David said, “I was in the lab and wanted to test out the suit and then everything went wrong!  I saw those guys planting explosives and I managed to grab one of the bricks of C4 before they detonated the rest of them… I planted it into the suit and used it as an improvised self-destruct.  Holy shit you’re bleeding!”

Eugene hadn’t even noticed the long cut on his forearm or the gash in his forehead, but now that they had his attention the pain grew sharp.  He began to laugh despite himself.  “I don’t know either, but I think Victoria is in trouble.”

“When is Victoria not in trouble?”  David asked, humor in his voice despite the insanity of the situation.

“Yeah.”  Eugene said, “Can we pull over before Yuen-Ja kills us all?”

The girl began what was likely an impressive string of curses in Mandarin, wrestling the Beetle through a few more turns before pulling into an alley.  The car shuddered to a halt as she slammed on the brakes without shifting into neutral.

“My first time driving.”  She said shortly, “I would like to see the video of your first time Doctor Arlington.”

“I was the only survivor.”  He admitted somberly and they all smiled.  “Shit, I lost my phone… whoever Dmitri sent to get me isn’t going to have a very good time of it I’m afraid and I don’t have any way to tell him.”

“Victoria is sending me messages.”  Yuen-Ja said, pulling out her phone while sliding into the back seat.  Eugene clambered awkwardly into the driver’s seat and looked at the girl in the rearview mirror.

“So where are we going to pick her up?”  He asked, putting the car in gear.

“I’m asking.  Seems she’s broken her phone too.  Messages taking longer than they should.  I told her to start using Hangouts.”  She muttered, “Unified messaging is so much more efficient.”

Sirens sounded in the distance and rather than waiting around, he pulled out of the alley and began driving below the speed limit.  It was easy to do; going from driving his Maserati to David’s VW was a serious let down.  With a mental sigh, he made a few turns, heading vaguely toward the freeway.  The car was in decent repair, but he missed the smoothness of a synchronized gearbox.

“She is at the Tommy Burger on Aberdeen.”  Yuen-Ja announced, “We should be able to get to her in thirty minutes.”

“Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.” Eugene said, grimacing as he coaxed the car into the next gear.

“Hey, if you don’t like it don’t drive it!”  David said a little more defensively than was necessary, glaring at Eugene.

“Oh David, stop being jealous.”  The girl said, frowning and shaking a finger at him.  “Mr. Arlington stop being mean, I like the Beetle.”

“I don’t.  It’s slow, the gearing is awful, there’s no torque and it sounds like I’m driving a meat grinder.”  Eugene grumbled.  Despite his words, he managed to maneuver the car through traffic a lot faster than even David thought would be possible.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call for Hardware – Chapter 21

“We can make it.  If you can keep up.”  Victoria said, pulling up the schematic of the building Adam had downloaded.  Alex had been moving towards the door, but she opened a closet door instead and kicked a hole in the wall.

“What are you doing?”  He demanded turning back to her with an angry expression on his face.

“Hurting myself apparently.”  Victoria replied, grimacing in pain.  “Can you finish making a hole here?  It leads into the elevator shaft and this goddamn plaster is harder than I thought.”

Alex looked at the wall, the hole and the splintering carbon fiber appendages that were her legs.  “I think I can do something about that.”  He said, his tone more respectful after seeing the hole she’d put in the wall.  “How about you just get out of there for a minute?”

She walked out, her prosthetic legs creaking ominously with every step.  They were damaged and now was not the time to have them fail completely, she didn’t trust Alex to be able to carry her out.  A red alarm flashed in her vision and Victoria instinctively ducked behind a steel desk.  An explosion shook the floor, pieces of wood and plaster hitting the walls and the desk.

“I guess that’s one way of getting through a wall.”  Victoria said, standing on her fractured legs.  “Come on, let’s get moving.  This will get us to the parking garage.”  Without waiting for his response, she climbed through the door, gripping the cable of the elevator with her hands and feet.  The prehensile nature of her prosthetic’s toes allowed her to descend much more easily than she would have anticipated.

She automatically counted the number of floors they passed, halting her slide when she reached the proper floor.  It was very dark inside the elevator shaft, but Victoria could pick out the tiny beam of light that illuminated the crack.  Digging her fingers into it, she strained and managed to pull the door open about a foot.  Alex landed beside her a moment later and with his help they managed to make an opening wide enough to squeeze through.

“Where’s your ride?”  She asked, looking around.

He handed her a key. “Not my ride.  Your ride.  My job is to keep you alive and that means drawing the enemy off.”

Looking down she saw the Ducati logo on the key fob.  “A motorcycle?  Are you serious?”

“Sorry, it won’t work very well with what’s left of that dress but it’ll have to do if you want to get out of here.”

“There’s just one problem… I can’t ride.”  She said, “How the hell am I supposed to use a motorcycle to escape when I can’t ride?”

He stared at her for a few heartbeats, his eyes boring into her and she shook her head feeling like a fool.  “Adam, can you load something that will tell me how to ride a motorcycle please?”  She thought silently, although he was, of course, already feeding her information.

“Fine.  This is still less than ideal.”  She said.  “If you’re creating a distraction you’d better get on with it.”

“Normally I’d expect some thanks, but I’m not surprised.”  He said dryly.

“Why would you?”  She asked, tearing the skirt of her dress so that she could swing a leg over the Ducati’s saddle.  “You’re getting paid and I already saved your ass tonight.”

Alex shook his head and disappeared down the line of cars.  The motorcycle was a lot quieter than she had thought it would be when she started it but the rumble of power beneath her was unmistakable.  Adam informed her that it had nearly one hundred and fifty horsepower and it as impossible to keep the smile off her face as she used her newfound expertise to deftly maneuver her way out of the parking garage.

Wishing she had a helmet or any gear that was even remotely adequate, she dodged around the stop bar at the automated payment kiosk.  It wasn’t worth the time to attempt to pay, even if she had the parking ticket.  Deciding that getting away fast was more of a priority than anything else and weighing the chances of being shot by whoever her enemies were against a traffic ticket, Victoria gleefully twisted the throttle.  She’d be safer arrested for speeding than out in the street with those men with guns after her.

Neither cops nor killers found her though, and after a couple of blocks she slowed her dangerously fast speed.  Pulling to the side of the road near a Starbucks, she hijacked their WIFI and then began sending text messages through her Gmail account.  First to Dmitri to let him know she was OK, where to come pick her up and that her phone was broken.  Then another, asking David if he had another set of legs because she had accidentally broken these ones and that her phone was broken.  Another to Eugene letting him know she was fine and not to call her parents and ask them where she was.  And that she and Adam had fought off a horrible virus that had threatened to disable and possibly kill them.  And… that her phone was broken.

After that, she rode a few more blocks, took a short detour on the expressway to put some distance between her and the scene of the shooting and arrived at her destination.  Tommy Burger might not be the most fantastic place to be riding up on a sport bike wearing a shredded dress but it was at least public and open late.  The likelihood of an armed mob attacking her here was fairly remote.

Pulling the Ducati into an open parking space, she revved the engine once before shutting it off.  Lowering the kickstand with a flick of her heel, Victoria looked at the late-night crowd and sighed in relief.  Adam didn’t see anything threatening in them.  She leaned against the bike, wishing she had something to do while she waited.

Eugene

When he received Victoria’s first messages, Eugene had just been getting ready to finally head home.  It had been a long day of reviewing his documentation and going over notations regarding the prosthetic implementation process.  The time had come for a true proof of concept; if he was going to be able to begin to pay back the money he owed, he had to produce a second working model.

He knew that it would come to this eventually and he thought he should have been better prepared for it, but somehow the thought of someone other than Victoria using one of his prosthetics seemed wrong.  It was likely his recent near-death experience where he had been forced to create a duplicate and help to implant it into a psychotic killer robot, but it still bothered him.

The amount of potential for mayhem that Victoria had was frightening and the fact that she hadn’t yet exceeded her bounds was a true testament to her restraint.  Although there was the matter of her midterm exams.  There was no possible way she had truly gotten those scores on her own, but then again she didn’t have a choice when it came to sharing the space in her head with A.D.A.M. so it wasn’t her fault.  He highly doubted she had done so on purpose and really the two of them were one entity now.

By the time he got her second message about being OK, he had been working for another hour.  Eugene tried to respond with a text, but he couldn’t get enough signal.  Damn cell phones and damn the old construction of the building that disrupted them.

Sighing deeply, he grabbed his keys and his cigarettes and walked out the back door so he could at least send her a message back.  He had already decided that this was his last pack.  He’d kicked the habit a few years ago, but the stresses he’d been subjected to recently had caused him to backslide.  This morning he had woken up feeling like his throat had been sandblasted after a night of drinking with Dmitri and that was the last straw.  Of course, he couldn’t just throw away a perfectly good pack of cigarettes.

Knowing he was simply being a slave to chemistry, he walked the required fifty paces from the building entrance.  Leaning against a parked car, Eugene flicked his lighter and leaned forward to apply flame to the end.  The roar of his office exploding was followed almost instantly by a shock wave that took him off his feet.  From where he lay on the ground staring up at the darkening sky he could see the tower of flame.  It was strangely beautiful for a murder attempt he thought whimsically.  Then a second explosion rocked him back into the real world.  Something clattered to the ground next to him.  It was a Maserati hood ornament.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 20

Victoria

Coming back to consciousness, Victoria tried to make sense of what was happening but all she heard was noise and all she felt was pain.  The noise resolved into gunfire and the pain was more than stiff muscles but she couldn’t waste the time thinking about it.  Opening her eyes, she saw a slight form standing a few feet away on the other side of the knee wall she had been leaning against.  Either

The person was wearing dark urban camouflage complete with a helmet holding some sort of submachinegun and firing bursts of bullets between speaking in short, terse sentences into what must be a helmet mic.

“Seven on my three, at least that many circling to my six.  Where the hell are you Charming?  No Princess is down; repeat Princess is down.  Had to break cover am directly engaged.”

Waiting for Adam to bring ability to move online, Victoria tried to process.  The voice was totally unfamiliar and the body was outlined with Adam’s orange glow identifying it as a dangerous, although not yet hostile, individual.  Information blossomed in her mind, a damage assessment on her legs.  She would be reduced to seventy percent of their effective mobility and even that was not recommended.  Adam also impartially informed her that she was bleeding from several minor contusions and should likely have them cleansed but that they should pose no immediate threat to her operation.

Her guardian dove behind the wall where Victoria lay as a barrage of return gunfire broke out from the night.  Chips of brick showered down from the impact of bullets.  Victoria hacked a nearby WIFI connection and then into the city records bureau before the firing had stopped.  Assessing the situation without proper data on her surroundings was useless.  Within another pair of heartbeats, she had the city zoning commission’s schematic of the building.  It was an old one, but all she cared about was window placement.

“Hey.”  She said to the other person, “You have any rope?”

“Princess is awake but we’re taking fire.  I’m requesting immediate evac.”  He said, ignoring her.

“Look, there are men currently moving to surround us.  Unless your superiors, whoever they are, can get a helicopter or something here in the next thirty or forty seconds we are going to be full of enough lead that we’ll be useful only as pencils.”  Victoria said, “There’s a strong steel railing there that if you had some rope we could tie off to and then swing into the ninth or tenth story window just there over the edge of the building.”

The man was loading another magazine into his gun, she idly noted it was an FN FS2000, and looking at her with a guarded look on his face.  “My assignment is to see that you are protected.  Protection means extraction, not leaping off buildings and crashing through windows.  This isn’t a movie.”

Victoria had been watching him while he was loading his weapon.  When she mentioned rope, he had glanced at his left ankle.  She saw the pouch that contained a rappelling rope there now that he’d brought it to her attention.  Snatching the carabiner, she slapped it onto the steel railing and gave him a challenging look.

“You want to be my white knight or am I going to be the one to do the rescuing?”  She said, “I don’t do the armor thing though and tilting at windmills isn’t my style.”

“We have an evac on its way.”  He said tersely, “But they’re five minutes out.”

“Saddle up then!”  She said with a grin, “You keep them distracted and I’ll save our asses until your supposed team gets here.”

Not waiting for a response, she stood and ran with the rope wrapped around one arm.  He followed, laying down cover fire in three directions.  She grabbed him around the waist just as she leaped off the building.

At first, she was distressed by his weight; but then she allowed Adam to take over.  Her body relaxed into a perfect ballet of motion, carrying the man still firing his weapon and leaping over the edge of the roof.  While in the air, she whipped her arm around in a circle, wrapping the rope around it twice to provide more friction.  It slid briefly and stopped, putting strain on her shoulder but not exceeding her body’s capabilities.  The pair of them swung in an arc that ended with Victoria’s feet smashing perfectly through the window on the tenth story of the office building.

Since her feet weren’t flesh and blood, she didn’t slice herself to ribbons on the glass, but that didn’t soften the impact when they slammed into a filing cabinet.  Victoria, the man she carried and the cabinet all crashed to the floor.  Pain flashed momentarily through the sockets that joined her real legs to her prosthetic ones.

Despite the pain and unexpected collision, Victoria dropped her human cargo and allowed Adam to spin her in a cartwheeling roll that ended with her skidding across the floor balancing neatly on her feet.  The man she had dropped rolled like someone who knew how to fall but without Adam’s ability to vector in the air, he glanced off the side of desk with a grunt of pain.

Spinning in a circle, Victoria took in their surroundings.  She could only see by the dim light coming through the window they had just crashed through but her limited vision revealed it to be a small office.  It was empty, she also couldn’t see any security cameras or telltale lights of alarm systems.  Adam apparently sensed her intention and reported no electronic surveillance.

“We’re clear.”  She said, offering a hand to the man.  “How about you give me a name or something.  Go ahead and lie or give me a code name or whatever.  After that you can tell me where we can go to meet up with whatever evac you have enroute.”

“My name is Alex.”  Now Victoria couldn’t quite tell if that was a man’s voice or a woman’s voice.  “The evac isn’t necessary any longer.  We will escape on our own if you can keep up.”

“Excuse me?”  Victoria said, giving him an angry look.  “I just had to bail your ass out of a firefight by pulling a stunt ‘out of the movies’ just give me the coordinates and go back to your cub scout meeting.”

Alex laughed, “I never thought much of the scouts, but it seems the intelligence I had on you was flawed.  They said you were all logical and cold but you’ve got a real sense of humor.  I don’t really, I’m afraid, that wasn’t a joke just a test.  They’re picking us up in the parking garage in the basement of this building.  They leave in five minutes.”

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 19

She ducked low, mentally directing her feet to form wheels as she leapt from the door and allowed the momentum from the car’s motion to carry her out of harm’s way.  Once in the alley, she skidded to a halt and reverted her wheels to feet again.

“Neat trick.”  A voice from a doorway startled her and she spun to face it.  “Too bad you behaved exactly as we thought you would.”

Turing in horror, Victoria saw a ring of hard eyed men with heavy looking pistols in their hands step from the shadows, completely surrounding her.  “Just give up, we don’t want to damage the merchandise.”

For a moment, Victoria panicked.  She whipped her head around, frantically searching for an exit and didn’t find one.  Then a feeling of calm fell over her and she had to keep her face smooth lest she give away her surprise.  Apparently she didn’t have the best poker face though, the men all hesitated and leveled their firearms at her.

A series of metallic clicks released the safety catches in her legs and she crouched slightly.  David had told her not to use this function yet, but it was this or die.  Trying to access the data on how the leaping mechanism worked failed, but Victoria didn’t have the luxury of waiting around.

“What was that sound?  What are you doing?  Stop it at once!”

“I give up.”  She said, raising her hands.  “Just don’t shoot.”

Only about half the men fell for her ruse and lowered their guns, but it didn’t matter.  A mental nudge released the last catch that contained the power of the molecularly aligned titanium cables and Nanomuscle fibers all at once and Victoria sprang ten stories straight up and crash landed on top of one of the nearby buildings.  A wild surge of anger at ruining her new dress and astonishment at the ridiculous nature of such a thought made her feel like laughing hysterically.

The gunfire from the men below was likely reflexive as all the shots went wide.  The sheer exhilaration of leaping through the air left her gasping and breathless which was just as well since she couldn’t have stood.  Since she hadn’t landed on her feet or from any real height the springs hadn’t been able to retract on their own and it would take a few minutes for the tiny motors integrated into the legs to crank them back down.

Victoria attempted to tap into her phone and found the connection unavailable; Adam wasn’t responding.  Pulling it from the stylish purse that matched her dress, she almost cut her fingers on the shattered glass of the screen.  She had landed on it, completely destroying it.  Damn, she was here alone without any way to contact anyone.

She took a moment to look down at her legs and saw large cracks on both thighs; the carbon fiber had splintered from the release of potential energy.  A series of sharp clicks announced the retraction process had finished.  Victoria queried Adam for a status report and got a strange series of panicked impressions.  Something terrible was happening to him and if she didn’t help him right now he might die.

The realization hit her like a bucket of ice water.  No matter what was happening in the real world, she couldn’t hesitate to help her friend, companion, and symbiont.  It would be the death of them both and she owed Adam.

Closing her eyes, Victoria pulled her knees up against her chest and leaned back against the brick wall and opened herself to Adam as completely as she knew how.  Chaotic images flashed past her consciousness too fast to follow.  Her head began to ache with the precursor to a migraine but she ignored it and forced the things she was experiencing to come into focus.

She was standing on a graphical line drawing of the building where her physical body sat.  A swarm of tiny shapes flew around her body so swiftly that she couldn’t see what they were, only it wasn’t her body at all.  It was what she would imagine the boy Adam had been when she first rescued him would grow into as a man.

The tiny shapes were flying through him and tearing pieces of him apart with every passage.  He was defending himself as best he could, but there were just too many.  A cry that spoke of pain and fear came from Adam.  Even though she couldn’t understand the words, Victoria felt anger burning within her.

She focused, knowing that this was her mind and that imagination was her best and only weapon.  Looking down at her body, she watched an exoskeleton of liquid metal flow over it.  Electricity began to crackle in her left hand and her right hand became a long, slender sword blade.  It was time to do battle.

A.D.A.M.

He was fighting but it was a losing battle.  They were eating his code and with every bite bytes of him were vanishing.  His carefully constructed safeguards dissolved under the onslaught and even the clever tricks Kai Yuen-Ja had taught him were useless.  Small jolts of controlled code managed to deflect some of the attacks on his core systems but there were too many of the things for him to properly defend himself.

Frantically, Adam tried again to contact Victoria and to his immense relief he felt her respond.  Reaching out for the resources she could provide he felt something unbelievable.  Victoria wasn’t just granting him resources.  She was actually there.

“You cannot do this!”  He shouted, trying to move towards her.  “You must leave!  Victoria you can’t be here!”

She stood in front of him, wearing the garment she had been in the physical world.  Her eyes flashed with fire and her body became a thing of absolute beauty, all steel and technological prowess.  Moving with fluid grace, she danced among the flying forms of destructive code.  The lightning from her left hand incinerated them and the blade in her right slashed them, she floated like a leaf on the wind and destruction followed in her wake.

Despite her power and grace, there were millions of enemies and she was surrounded in an instant their bodies obscuring her from his view.  “No!  Victoria!”

Adam surged forward, letting go of his defenses in favor of an all-out attack.  The electricity that arced from his outstretched hand mirrored what he had seen Victoria use moments ago.  He felt a solid connection, a hand clasping his, the fading power he still merging with something far greater.  An explosion of white light overwhelmed the digital landscape as a pure force of electronic will reformatted it into something else.

Victoria sat on the grass, leaning against a plant (tree, weeping willow) wearing a white cotton dress and sun hat.  A pond with birds (ducks, mallards) swimming in it was not far away.  Adam sat next to her wearing shorts and a crisp linen shirt.  It was the place he had first met Kai Yuen-Ja.  Where he had first realized what and who he was.

“What happened Adam?”  She asked, looking at him with a bemused expression on her face.

“I think you managed to purge the virus.”  He said, “Your algorithms were not very elegant but the sheer overwhelming force of your program seems to have removed the hostile code.”

“Is that really how you see yourself?”  Victoria was still staring (looking, observing, studying, ogling) at him.

“I do not ‘see’ myself as anything.”  He replied, “Is that really what you believe your current physical representation to be?”

Victoria looked at herself and sadly shook her head.  “No.  Look, there aren’t any robotics at all.”

“I do not find this memory in any of your storage archives.”  Adam continued, “Is this a construction of your conscious processing then?”  He didn’t know how Victoria had accessed these files, but this was yet another sign of just how reliant on her he was.

“I owe you an apology Adam.”  She said softly, “I know I was not paying attention before when you needed me.  It won’t happen again.”

Something made Adam feel as though he were a guitar string that had just been plucked.  A feeling, a real, true feeling washed over him and he smiled shyly at her.  “Apology accepted.”

“Oh no.”  Victoria gasped, “Oh NO!  Adam, how do I get out?  I need to get out they’re going to kill me how do I-“

She vanished and Adam got to work.  If they were going to survive and her physical vessel was in danger, he absolutely had to get the core systems online again as quickly as possible.  Bypassing the safety and security protocols he had painstakingly built, Adam put Victoria in full on war mode.  It was indeed time to do battle.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardwre – Chapter 18

A.D.A.M.

Everything about the building they were entering seemed to be either extraneous or dangerous to Adam.  The confusion of scents, colors and the sheer number of places for enemies to lurk unseen had him on edge, but in spite of all that Victoria seemed excited and eager.  She was so happy to be there that he kept his concerns quiet and merely stayed vigilant.

What could it be about this place that made her so relaxed?  It certainly couldn’t be the company; she had been warned about Dmitri and about Ivanov and knew they were dangerous individuals.  Especially Dmitri, he exhibited characteristics that did not fit with normal human behavior.

Adam continued to monitor Victoria’s different systems, logging but not altering the spikes in different chemicals that her brain was manufacturing and releasing as well as their resulting impact on her activity.  Although some of these things seemed completely irrational, he also found them to be fascinating.

Although it had been more than an hour, the time seemed to have flown by.  This was troubling to Adam as he was very well aware that time was a logical constant.  He was just about to run a diagnostic on his internal clock program when a message pinged.  There was a response from the search program he and Kai Yuen-Ja had written.

Feeling excited, he began scrolling through the lines of code, following the convoluted series of IP address hops from ISP to ISP that his clever opponents had used to mask their trail.  If he hadn’t written the code himself and if he didn’t have the immense processing power of Victoria’s mind at his disposal, he might not have been fast enough to catch them.  As the jumps became shorter a feeling of apprehension began to come over him.  The signal originated from North Korea and it appeared to be trying to filter information about Eugene, Victoria and Yuen-Ja.  He had written a program that was targeting his family.

He pulled diagnostic files and researched connections, frantically trying to find the information his enemies were gathering and what use it might be to them.  Most of it was totally extraneous, but the extent of data that had been gathered was astounding.  They had everything from Victoria’s internet browsing history to medical records she had stored on her personal laptop.

One of the threads had led him back to data that was very familiar.  A moment’s inspection showed him that it was real time streaming data from the very connection he was using at that very moment.  He slammed his firewall safeguards down just before a massive brute force back hack smashed into them.  Adam didn’t even dare open a Bluetooth connection to send out an SOS to Kai Yuen-Ja.  The war he waged now was as real a threat to his existence as any he had ever faced and it took every possible ounce of processing power he could muster to keep it at bay.

Victoria

“That looks absolutely lovely.”  Dmitri said, looking Victoria over with a smile on his lips.  She spun in a circle, enjoying the way the long skirt of the dress flared out.

“I can’t believe how well it fits.”  She said, smoothing the silk over her hips.  “It’s almost like it was made for me.”

“Then it must have been made just for you.”  Dimitri replied, “Come now, let us go and enjoy a little sushi and a bit of quiet relaxation in surroundings that are suitably elegant for your beauty.”

Victoria fought the urge to giggle that came from nowhere followed quickly by a wave of dizziness.  She swayed slightly and wobbled as her mechanical legs momentarily failed to compensate for her light headedness.  “That’s strange.  I feel… odd.”

Dmitri was at her side in an instant, putting a steadying arm behind her back.  “Your prosthetic is hot to the touch, is something wrong?”  He said, a touch of concern in his voice.

“What?  We’re fine.  I’m sure we’re just fine, probably just low blood sugar and too long on my feet.”  She said in an airy, unconcerned tone.  “I demand sashimi!”

Dmitri looked at her for a few heartbeats and Victoria leaned into his arm.  The dress slid over her skin and the sensation made her shiver.  She knew something wasn’t quite right but she just didn’t care.  This was enjoyable, her new dress was beautiful, she looked stunning in it and Dmitri had always been a perfect gentleman.

“Of course Miss Victoria.”  He said, tucking her hand into his arm and leading her out of La Belle.

Ivanov opened the door to the limousine and they slid inside.  Something about him seemed odd or wrong to Victoria but it wasn’t until they were well on their way that she realized what it was.  Adam hadn’t identified him as dangerous.  There was no orange outline around him and no warning message.

Idly, Victoria reached out to tap into her phone’s Bluetooth; just to send Eugene a quick text and ask him to check the logs, but found the connection had been severed.  Frowning slightly, she took her phone from her purse and swiped it awake.  It only took a few moments to text him.

“Is something the matter?”  Dmitri asked, not making any effort to see what she was doing.  He leaned back on the suede of his seat and watched her eyes.

“Probably nothing, I’m just sending a text to Eugene.  I just wanted him to look over a log file that’s all.”  A slight scraping sound made her look down.  Her left foot was twitching ever so slightly underneath the long skirt.  She focused on it and it quieted but now she was getting slightly more concerned.

Her phone buzzed with a message from Eugene.  ‘Can’t connect to log files.  Can you send manually?’

She texted back, ‘Out on date.  Will send later.  Why can’t you connect?’

‘Connection denied.’ He replied.

‘Should I worry?’ She asked, biting her lower lip.

‘If you are with Dmitri you will be fine.’

“Well.  I guess that’s a mark in your favor.”  Victoria said, giving Dmitri a speculative look.

“Something positive from the good Doctor?”  Dmitri asked, his voice completely level and calm.

“He seems to trust you, and since I trust him and you have given me no reason not to trust you.  Well except for that Ivanov is probably some kind of ‘hired killer’ or something.”  She put air quotes around ‘hired killer’ and giggled.

“What makes you say that?”  Dmitri’s voice was still careful and even.

“Oh.  Well.”  She wasn’t so sure she wanted to tell him about Adam’s programs.  Sighing in satisfaction, Victoria leaned back on the plush seat and gave Dmitri her best secret smile.  “Nothing.”

Dmitri gave her a level look, “You are not acting like your usual self.  This silly, random version of you is quite a change.”

“I’m no different than normal, I just want a night to enjoy myself.  I can relax around you Dmitri, is that so bad?”  She tried not to glare at him, but ended up failing miserably.  “Maybe I should just go home.”

“Or perhaps I should bring you to Doctor Arlington.”  Dmitri said, frowning.

“I was really looking forward to talking with you Dmitri.”  She said, giving him an inscrutable look, “What did you have in mind?”

“Yes.  Definitely straight to Eugene.”  He said, “Ivanov, if you please take us home.  Dr. Arlington should be in his apartment.”

“Damn it Dmitri, I’m not letting you take me to your place!”  Victoria said, knowing she wasn’t being fair. “I’m not your-“  Before she finished speaking, instinct took hold.  She opened the door, and dove out of the moving car.  Moments later gunfire erupted from both sides of the street, bullets ricocheting off the armored plating of the limousine.