The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 21

He nodded shortly, slung his bow over his back and climbed up the rope at a speed that belied his age and recent injuries.  Arrows began flying down in a steady rhythm the moment he had reached the rooftop.

“Kain.  My hand’s broken and I can’t climb with it like this.”  Callindra stepped in to take his place and he retreated as though they’d practiced the maneuver for years.  He really did have a talent for reading body language.

A hot flash of fire tore through her arm and down her hand as he slapped an ungentle spell into her.  It wasn’t much, but it repaired enough of the damage that she could swing Shadowsliver properly again.

“You get up there next Kain.”  She ordered, “Holt was tortured and I don’t know how much longer he can stay on his feet.”  He frowned, but nodded and obeyed.

“I can climb faster sister.”  Vilhylm said, “You go next.”  He was wearing his brutish mask, muscles bunching as he bashed a huge fist into a guard hard enough to dent his breastplate.

“You go.”  She snapped.  “I’m grabbing Cronos and jumping.”

He looked at her but glanced at their brother and headed for the rope.  She flung herself to where Cronos still moved through the steps of a lethal dance and flung Shadowsliver about his middle.  The chain of her sword wrapped underneath his armpits, slicing through three Taken as it flashed in front of him before the hilt slapped into her palm and she tore a spell from the Weave.

An explosion of wind blasted them into the air in a barely controlled tumble.  She was dimly aware of Taken being tossed aside like twigs from the force of the winds that bore them aloft, but it was hard to concentrate.  For some reason she knew she was supposed to be paying attention to something but whatever it was couldn’t be that important if she couldn’t remember it.

Her unconscious body tumbled to the rooftop and rolled to a stop at Reed’s feet.  He stared at her in shocked surprise.  “She’s insane.”

“Time to go.”  Cronos said, picking up his sister’s supine form and fumbling to keep from being cut by her sword.  Her hand still clutched it in a white knuckled grip.

They watched below as the Taken swarmed over the guards below, burying them in a wave of rotting limbs and emerald green ichor.  Behind where the horde had come from, the city burned.  Screams of terrified people came to them over the sound of combat and flames.

“We gotta get to the dock.”  Reed said, pointing over the rooftops.  “With a little luck we can get there sticking to the rooftops.”  He led the way over a zigzagging set of plank bridges and dizzying leaps from one building to another.

When they reached a warehouse near a run-down dock.  A few small craft were moored there, one of which was a small flat-bottomed river boat with oars and a square sail.  Perhaps a hundred Taken milled about aimlessly in the open are between them and the dock.

Cronos set Callindra down on the rooftop and turned to Kain.  “Can you revive her?  I can’t carry her and fight at the same time.”

The hulking half orc reached out and brushed fingers across Callindra’s forehead.  A few of her wounds stopped bleeding, but others still slowly leaked through scabs that hadn’t quite closed.  Kain slumped, breathing hard and shook his head.  “That’s all I can do.”

“It’s enough.”  Callindra rasped, her eyes flickering open.  “I just overdid.  Too much magic.”

“You had many deep cuts.”  Kain said, “I managed to stop most of the bleeding.”

She looked down at the slashes through her armor and into her side and legs.  When had she gotten cut?  “Where are we?  What is going on?  Is everyone all right?”

“We’re at the docks.”  Reed said in a low voice, “Keep your damn voice down, there’s a hundred or so of those things down there.  They haven’t seen us yet, but if you don’t shut up they will.”

Callindra looked over the edge of the roof and fought off despair.  There was no way they could get through all the Taken below without being seen and fighting them all wasn’t an option.  The light of the city burning behind them was throwing tall shadows across the dockside, but it was also illuminating the river.

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Anniversary Night: The Folk of Einn Boer Gather.

The Dungeon Master takes the threads the players have provided and weaves it into the tapestry of story.  I see myself as more of a narrator of an epic epoch than anything else.  Here begins our adventure.  Let’s meet the souls who will shape this world to their will.

 

It was the Day of Anniversary, and the entire city was alive with light, song and the smells of the delicacies that were always baked, roasted and fried in celebration.  Even deep below the city, the feeling of excitement and anticipation hummed like a plucked lute string in the air.  Arn alone did not share any of the other’s thrill at the upcoming event.

“Herdsman Castille.”  Arn looked up to see the slight form of Morrigan, her hair in its perpetual bun.  “It is a special day.  You should be above with the others.”

“I am waiting for the evening.”  He replied, “I wish to avoid the crowds.”

“You mean you wish to go and see the cage fight that ridiculous halfling is staging?” She said mildly, raising an eyebrow in amusement.

“Shepherd, I – “ Arn began, feeling flustered and uncertain.  He had never asked for time out of the monastery.  Quite the opposite, he had usually resisted leaving until recently.

“It is normal for youngsters to want to be entertained.”  Morrigan said, “I noticed your attendance at my own sparring match.  What would you offer as critique?”

“You danced as though reciting a Sutra, Shepherd.”  He said, responding to her request without thought. “The Commander Shepherd … you might as well have been trying to strike the wind.  It seemed he always knew where you would be.”

“It is not the first time we have sparred.”  Shepherd Morrigan said, “He knows me better than almost anyone else.  Your eyes do at least see to the surface Herdsman, even if what lies below the water remains largely hidden from you.  The difference in our fighting styles is distinct, however there is a very valid reason why he is the Commander.”

Arn realized he had offered a very stern criticism of her and felt even more flustered, but Morrigan gave him a slight inclination of the head.  Over the years he had learned that this was a gesture of approval.

“Go to your fights if you wish.”  She said with a hint of a smile.  “But please do not pick up any bad habits.  You are on the cusp of the Stillness.”

“Yes Shepherd, of course Shepherd, thank you Shepherd.” He said, grinning at the memories of the enthusiastic halfling and her strange, wild leaping fighting style so different from anything he had ever seen here.  “I think, in all honesty that many of the fights may be staged.”

Her only reply was a soft laugh that could have been amusement or agreement.

Boris rubbed his hands together, chuckling to himself.  This latest batch of ale had failed, but instead of throwing it away, the Dwarf had left it out uncovered overnight and some form of wild yeast or another had infested it.  Now instead of sitting quiescent and sullen, it was nearly bubbling over with activity.  Quite possibly toxic and deadly activity, but he could work with that.

After giving it a good stir and scooping off the unhealthy looking violet froth from the top of the fermenting cask, he carefully covered it and went back to bottling.  His experiments had all but bankrupted him last month and he didn’t want to resort to eating summoned food again.  Over the last few years he’d begun to think there was something wrong with it, and besides, after eating real food, he couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying that magic stuff.  Tasted like the grains left over from brewing; all the flavor and character drained out of it.

Tonight was the Anniversary Celebration.  Seven hundred years.  He had turned out a lot of ales for this event; he relied on the patronage of the folk who tasted his strange concoctions to keep his neighbors from encroaching upon his tiny tavern.  They were always willing to pay handsomely for a new diversion.

Speaking of diversions, Shaena was bringing her hooligans into his basement again tonight.  Fighting.  In this day and age.  He would never have thought it would be something folk would be interested in, but he supposed boredom would lead to all sorts of deviant behavior.  Besides, if he was honest with himself, it really was amusing to watch them beat the everloving shit out of one another.  As long as it wasn’t his bones being broken, what harm could it be?

It brought in more customers and other interesting individuals as well.  Humming happily to himself for the first time in ages, he set about starting another brew.

“Lirin, you aren’t going out tonight of all nights are you?”  Anna stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.  “You promised to watch Zoey and Zyrus tonight so that Tobias and I could mind the store.  This is our busiest night of the year!”

“Anna, I’m only going after the youngsters will long be in their beds.”  Lirin soothed, “I have some things that need looking after.”

“Well, don’t expect me to spend an hour getting blood out of another tunic.”  She said frostily, “I don’t like this new obsession some folk have with violence.  Not one bit.”

“The Long Guard has a history of sparring Anna, I fail to see how this is all that much different really.”  He said, “Father would say the more of us who know how to defend ourselves the better.”

“As if this were about self-defense.”  She huffed, “They’re taking bets I hear.  BETS Lirin!  You might as well be going to a gambling den.”

“But there are folk who get hurt.”  He said, “Some of them are my friends too.  I can’t just let them go to some street hack who will dose them with intoxicants for the pain and nothing else.”

“I don’t like you keeping company with those low sorts Lirin.”  She said, “Honestly the Guard has a long tradition of training, but they don’t do it for entertainment.  That’s just wrong.”

“No, you’re right.”  He said, “I shouldn’t have compared these fights to the Guard.”  Lirin smiled at her, “You always were the grounded and sensible one.”

Her expression softened, “You always did think more with your heart.  I can’t keep you from helping others Lirin, just … I worry about you.  When are you going to find your own life?  You should find a woman and start a family.”

Lirin stiffened, a feeling he couldn’t define gripping him.  “I have to take care of mom and da.  There are enough children as it is.”  He couldn’t quite keep the resentment from his voice, “Besides, if I had a wife and children of my own who would watch Zoey and Zyrus while you worked the shop on Anniversary Night?”

“I didn’t mean-“ She began.

“No, I’m the one who should apologize.”  He said, taking a deep breath and giving her a rueful smile. “I guess it’s just that I see your family and can’t help but feel a little jealous Anna.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still love you all; sometimes it’s just hard to see what you’ve made of your life and not feel like a failure.”

“Oh Lirin don’t say that.”  She came to him and caught him in a fierce hug. “You’re a wonderful uncle and a great brother.  I’m sure your calling will come.”

At her words, Lirin felt an echo of something he couldn’t quite grasp.  A touch on his spirit that called to him and made him yearn to be able to hear it, but somehow it was just out of reach.

It was Anniversary day and Shaena was even more of a ball of energy than ever.  After her third breakfast and fourth ale she felt finally calm enough to face the day.  Tonight she had enough fighters for a full card, and that meant… well… something.  The Halfling tried to keep track of the business end of things, but it was all just so god’s cursed boring.  Good thing Garrett had offered to handle all that for her; he really was a dear, even if his weird color changing mane of hair and odd clothing seemed a bit off.

The fighters though, that was exciting!  She’d finally gotten a dragonborn and had pitted him against the Catfolk because all those weird critters fighting one another would be really something.  She had wanted to be the first one to fight him, but she’d also gotten her first Goliath to fight and there just wasn’t any way she couldn’t be the one to face him.  I mean come on!  A halfling against a Goliath?  She got the giggles just thinking about it.

Thankfully that nice Lirin gentleman had agreed to come again.  He really had quite the hand for setting broken bones and all that which was lovely and the strange Elf had helped too when that one boy had accidentally almost died.  Probably would have died.  But really, they’d all signed the waiver and fighting was fun!  That Elf seemed to act as though he didn’t even want to use the spell to save the boy’s life too which was quite weird but that’s those Elves for you really.  I mean Elves right?

She was going to try something new tonight too, something for Anniversary night.  This human made the most fantastic patterns with magic, lights and she heard he could even sometimes make a fog seem to roll across the stage.  It would be fun.  Good old Garrett had come through on that one too.  He really was a treasure.

SP put on a tunic and of finest white silk and belted it with a white on white embroidered sash.  Contrary to what most believed, black was not the color of death or mourning after all; at least not among the Elves.  To walk at night down the dim streets in all white was to proclaim that you were such a part of the night you did not need to hide in it.  Not that the streets were likely to be darkened on Anniversary night.  Which was an annoyance.

Straightening the collar of the tunic, SP made final adjustments to ensure the clothes fell properly and turned to leave.  Gathering an ivory topped cane of carved ash, the Elf strode out the front door of the mortuary and into the throngs of folk gathering for the celebrations.

It was nearly time for those pit fights to begin.  They were really quite delicious actually.  Who would have known fighting would be so intriguing and satisfying?  Death was inevitable of course, but watching healthy folk with everything to lose and nothing to gain being so willing to throw it all away for no immediately apparent reason was addictive.

It so defied logic that it made SP want to understand the contrary thinking.  The Elf simply had to understand it.  There must be a reason for that illogical and self-destructive behavior.  It was a knot that made SP’s fingers itch.

Using magic to bring that unfortunate boy back to life had been more instinct than intentional.  SP had discovered something very interesting while studying the necromantic arts that needed further testing.  The Elf had begun to theorize that healing magic, especially the magics that prevented death, were actually a type of necromancy.  The gap between preventing death and returning life was so razor thin that it was often difficult to determine the difference.

That balance was something SP found to be the subject of obsessive interest.  There was a lifetime of study there.  Perhaps more than a lifetime.  Perhaps even more than an Elven lifetime.

Tabitha (The Wind in the Storm) crouched on the edge of a rooftop, peering out over the city.  Her tail twitched and thrashed as she watched the preparations for Anniversary day below.  She was up early; it was barely midday after all, and she was irritated at losing the hours of sleep.  The irritation was mitigated by the presence of those deliciously muscular jugglers in the plaza below.

They were performing for a small crowd of children and harried looking adults or older siblings and this angle was perfect to ogle muscular arms and shoulders.  The men and women in the square were now tossing pony kegs of ale between them; a seemingly impossible feat.  She decided the kegs must be empty.

Then the thought that the kegs weren’t empty occurred to her.  If they weren’t empty and the did contain the Brannagann’s Dark Ale that was branded on one side then she wanted some.  With that thought came a sudden impulse and as she always did, Tabitha acted on it almost before the idea had fully formed in her mind.

Leaping from the third story was, she thought as she fell through the air, a far more interesting and astonishing feat than throwing around some empty ale kegs.  Probably only truly impressive if she didn’t die or break her legs though.  That was why she had aimed for the flagpole.  Her claws caught and she slid down the wooden shaft, peeling spirals of it off as she plunged toward the ground.  Just before she struck the cobblestones, Tabitha leaped off toward the troupe from behind and then bounded high enough to land on the shoulders of the shortest of the jugglers, neatly snagging the barrel out of the air.

The barrel was full.  It hit her like … well … like a barrel of ale.  It hammered her slight form clean off the startled man’s shoulders and knocked the wind out of her in a startled “Oof!” and a second impact when she hit the cobblestones with the barrel on top of her drove the remaining breath from her lungs.  The bung that was driven into the top of the keg popped out and a thick brown stream of Brannagann’s Dark poured into her face.  She was in heaven except for the wet; but it was worth it.

All of the assembled adults and children burst into an uproar of laughter, clapping and cheers.  The man she had stolen the barrel from looked at her in baffled astonishment as trinkets, sweets and small coins showered into the hat they had set out to collect donations.

“Well.  Well now.”  The massively muscular man said, stroking his prodigious moustache and giving her a speculative grin.  “Lass if you ever want a part in our act, all you need do is ask.”  He bent to pick up the cask, still able to easily lift it although she continued to cling to it and to guzzle the ale as it poured out.

When he set it down bung up she gave him a reproachful look and a sulky pout.  “That was mine!  I stole it fair and square!”

The rest of the troupe burst out laughing, as did the assembled crowd who were now unsure if they had seen an accident or a carefully constructed prank that was part of the act.  “She’s got you there Fortus!” One of the other jugglers said, laughing so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks.

“I like a man with some heft.”  Tabitha said, licking ale from her furred cheeks and leaning forward to run a hand lightly over his bulging bicep.  “What are you doing for the next hour or two?”

He blinked, and the crowd laughed again, although it was mostly the adolescents this time; the youngsters not understanding and the parents trying hard to keep straight faces.  Fortus seemed to not be able to make up his mind if she was serious or crazy.

“I guess it’s true about the kitties eh?”  He managed to say, and threw in a waggle of his bushy eyebrows to the crowd.

“I could make you purrrrrrr.”  She said, tail twitching.  A motion over his shoulder caught her eye.  A man in a garish purple vest with bright steel studs and a mane of hair spiked straight up that slowly changed colors was shouldering through the crowd on the other side of the square.  It was Garrett.  Well shit.

“Sorry.  Gotta go cutie.  Maybe I’ll find you later.”  She slipped into the crowd before the bookie could see her.  She owed him too much money to have him see her now.  But she was gonna beat that Dragonborn in the fights tonight and she could finally pay him off.  It was either that or she’d have to move to another part of the city.  She never would have thought a place that once had felt so large would feel so small.

The song ended and Telos allowed the patterns and shapes that his magic had been causing to shift in front the white screen of silk to fade away.  The assorted gentry sitting in the audience applauded politely and the musicians stood and bowed.

Although this wasn’t his preferred scene, these people paid better than most and he always got to eat the prepared, not simply summoned, food they made and that was worth putting up with the slightly stodgier and prim attitudes they often had.  Also, the songs that were fashionable among the highborn were quite beautiful and accompanied his artistic passions quite well.

Then again, his best paying, and most exiting gig was happening tonight.  It was so strange to him to think that people would really enjoy fighting.  Enjoy getting punched, kicked and choked.  Weapons were of course not allowed, but when a rather wildly dressed half elven man named Garrett had approached him and asked to hire his services for the show.

Garrett’s foot high Mohawk had flashed assorted colors as the man had gesticulated and explained his idea to make the intro “really pop” and his ideas about showing the fights in larger than life size on the wall were interesting, although Telos wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to pull that off or not.  Thus far he wasn’t having much luck with moving images.  Perhaps with practice though.  He had seen others who had managed as much, albeit not for this specific purpose or on this scale.

He had managed considerable success with creating images that were complimentary in nature that could overlap to create fascinating and captivating pieces of art.  Even better, the art he had been creating thus was temporary and unique.  Like the sand paintings he had seen one of the older monastic orders create, the moment it was complete, it was gone.  This quality made it the perfect accompaniment to music which was also always unique and only truly lived in memory.

Telos paused for a moment, thinking about the interchange of blows that made up a fight.  Perhaps the folk who fought did so for similar reasons.  Some of them anyway.  Could a physical expression of one’s abilities hold the same beauty as an intellectual expression?  Pondering this idea, he began preparing his mind for the display he was planning.  It was Anniversary Day.  A day for celebration.

Trey was following Headmistress Trencher’s orphans as they were heading back to the alleyway that led down to the Little Goblin Orphanage.  He made sure that they didn’t stray, although one or two seemed as though they would try and escape so as to stay out past curfew.  The hour was late, but after the youngsters had been put to their beds the Headmistress turned to Trey with a questioning look in her eye.

“Aren’t you going to ask to be released for the evening?”  She asked, when he remained silent.

“Released?”  He scratched his head with one hand, fingers not quite able to fully unclench due to the restraint gauntlets.

“For the Celebrations.”  She said, “Surely there is something out there that you would like to see?  A dance perhaps or to get one of the actually prepared pastries that Lady Taryn hands out every year?”

The Half-Orc remembered smelling the things being cooked.  He hadn’t ever tasted actual cooking before.  His mouth began to water.

“If it’s all right Headmistress.”  He said.

“I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t all right.”  She all but snapped.  It seemed that showing overt kindness was difficult for her.  “It’s Anniversary day.  Seven hundred years today.  You helped with the rugrats today, saved me some work. Get out of here and don’t say I never gave you anything.”

Trey walked out, feeling mildly confused at the Headmistress’ contradictory seeming words and actions.  Heading for the square where he thought he’d seen Ldy Taryn Vaknair Torben the Third’s attendants handing out sweets.  Following his nose, he almost ran over someone.

He looked up to see Lirin’s serious face looking into his own.  “Trey, where are you going with your head in the clouds?”

“Oh.  Hi Lirin.  To get a pastry.”  Trey said, “You?”

“The Anniversary pastries are this way.”  Lirin said with a smile, “Follow me, I’ll show you.”

“But where are you going?  Isn’t it a little late?”

“I am going to a …”  His voice trailed off as he looked at the other man.  “A place where people might get hurt and need my help.”

“I won’t let you go alone.”  Said Trey.  “You are a friend who has done much for me.  If there is danger I will be there.”

“It’s not really necessary Trey, they won’t be putting me in danger.  It’s a sparring ring.  The combatants there will be hurting each other, not hurting me.”

“I have seen fights get out of hand.” Trey said with a voice that brooked no argument.  “I am coming.”

Lirin gave him a rueful smile, “After all the time I have tried to spend with you learning that violence is not the only answer, I lead you into a place where people are using violence as the answer.  Thank you for your company my friend.”

Tension that he hadn’t known was there unclenched from Trey’s shoulders.  His friend would not turn him away.  He would not go into danger unprotected.

Alexander Brigit Macedon: Intro

Author’s note: This is just an introductory piece for a collaborative writing project I’m participating in… there may be more to follow if things pan out.  Hope you enjoy.

The door opened, to Lex’s and he knew it was a regular since they didn’t open it far enough to allow the steel edge to come in contact with the five-foot length of pipe he had near the wall.  The clang was enough to make everyone think twice about mistreating his door.

He liked his door.  He’d found it in a surplus depot and paid nearly two thousand dollars for it.  The inlaid oak, ash and walnut made interesting contrast and the carving of a huge tree that grew up it matched the custom brass hinges he’d had made to look like tree leaves, branches and roots.  Most people didn’t notice his favorite part though.  Just above the polished brass kick plate, the roots of the tree grew not into soil but into a field of bones.  Subtle, but macabre.  Just his style.

Recognizing the man’s silhouette even as he began to walk down the three stairs that would bring him into the bar, Alexander took down a bottle of Belvedere vodka and mixed a gimlet.  He was just garnishing the drink with a twist of lime when Investigator Jon Lee slid into his usual seat at the bar.

“How do you know it’s me?  I’m not even wearing my normal uniform today.”  Jon was one of NYC’s finest.  He also only came to Lex’s when he was off duty and had a rough day.  His usual ankle length cashmere coat was indeed missing; an oddity considering the sleet rattling against the half windows that faced the street.

“I got an eye for people.”  Alex said with a shrug.  “Where’s your coat, this weather is shite.”

Jon grimaced.  “Dry cleaner’s.”  He took a drink and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Alex grunted, but didn’t say anything else.  When Jon’s drink was empty another one appeared in front of him like magic.  He closed his hands around it and glanced around the mostly empty bar.  The usual two old men in the corner were playing chess, each with a pint of Alexander’s bitter ale close at hand.  A bored looking woman sat next to a young man who was ignoring her in favor of his phone.  Nobody was within earshot.

“It was bad.  That fire on 87th?  Well, I’ve heard of spontaneous human combustion but I thought it was a myth or something.”  He shuddered and placed the cold glass against his forehead.  “Nothing else it could have been though.  Burned all the way through her middle right where she was laying in bed.  Didn’t so much as set the sheets on fire.”

“Huh.  Well.  At least the building didn’t burn.”  Alex looked over and saw the girl catch his eye.  “Excuse me Jon.”

He glided down the bar, moving smoothly and silently especially for a man his size.  Looming up behind the man he rumbled, “What can I get you Miss?”  Carefully keeping his expression blank, Alexander chuckled inwardly as the young man started and almost dropped his phone.

“Can I have an appletini?”  She asked.

“No miss, I don’t carry that apple garbage.  I’d gladly make you a regular martini or perhaps a Cosmopolitan?”  Alex said, crossing his thick arms over his chest.  With the black tshirt and white apron, it made him look much less threatening than his words might have initially suggested.  Like a favorite uncle.

“What’s in a Cosmopolitan?”  She asked.

“Vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice.”  Her date said with an annoyed look first at Alex and then at her.

“My Cosmopolitan has Vodka, Cointreau, freshly squeezed lime juice and real cranberry juice.”  Alex said smoothly, “Combined and shaken before being poured into a martini glass and garnished with a twisted rind of lime and lemon.”

“That sounds pretty good actually.”  She said, smiling.

“And for you sir?” Alex asked, looking at the man.

“Bud light.”  He said.

Alex sighed, shook his head and pointed a finger the size of a bratwurst at the chalk board behind the bar.  It listed the available beers with the alcohol content, serving size and price.  At the bottom was written ‘Bud Light.  3.2% ABV 12 oz can. $50.00’

“Fifty Dollars?”  The guy exploded, but Alex pointed to the sign hanging below it which read.

‘This is a brewpub.  I make these beers.  If you want that piss water you’d better be willing to pay me for the insult.’

“I have a very nice British Blonde Ale.” Alex said patiently in a voice that suggested he’d said the same thing hundreds of times.  He pointed to the top beer on the list named ‘Blondes Have More Fun’. “It’s as close as you’re gonna get here.”

“Yeah.  Sure.”  He said shortly.

With an inward chuckle, Alexander went back to the bar and pulled a pint of Blonde and then mixed the perfect Cosmo.  After serving the drinks, he brought a fresh pair of pints to the chess players and returned to where Jon was finishing his second gimlet.  He placed a glass of water in front of the cop and smiled inwardly again at the surprised look his face.

“How’d you know I didn’t want another?”  Jon asked, “You always seem to know exactly what to do or say.”

“Bartender’s instinct.  We know you better than your lover does.  You tell us stuff you wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else.  We get ta know ya.”  He let the smile travel from his mind to his lips, “These are on the house.  You’ve had a rough one lad, take all the time ya need.”

“Thanks Alexander.  You’re a good man.”

“Ain’t nothing.”  He said, turning to take a bottle of scotch from the top shelf.  Just as he was finishing pouring a double shot of Laphroig over ice.  He had a feeling an old friend was about to walk through the door, and all Duff Bowman ever ordered was Laphroig on the rocks.

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.