“Oh, for the love of….”
Vicki leaned against a corner wall and muttered angrily to herself. After finally realizing what Major Tom’s “ten of the best” remark meant, she’d made it as far as the end of the hallway with every intent to run straight to Mr. Tell about her epiphany, only to be stopped cold in her tracks; a roving group of students was apparently camped out in the hall to her right (the way she needed to go to get to the stairs), having an impromptu meeting of some kind.
“And they’re all exchange students,” Vicki groaned. “Just what I needed…”
The students currently taking up space in the hall were all Japanese girls ranging from 19 to 23 years old; their hushed voices, quick glances at the other end of the hall and minmal hand gestures made it clear that they were discussing something they didn’t want anyone else to know about. “They’re lucky that nearly everyone else in this dorm is out watching movies right now,” Vicki muttered, “otherwise the campus PD would’ve broken up this little gathering in record time.” She sighed, already resigning herself to the option of “sit back, stay quiet and listen in on the conversation” when she heard footsteps moving in her direction; the girls were coming her way!
Without a sound, Vicki dashed for her dorm room, opening the door with ease (WHY didn’t I lock this thing when I left?!) and closing it as quietly as possible. From the peephole, she watched the group as they walked past; as the last of the girls cleared the peephole, a light thump issued outside the door. With the carefullness that only a gynoid could muster, Vicki managed to open the door just far enough to see a cellphone laying on the floor---“It must have fallen out of that last girl’s pocket when she walked by,” she realized.
Vicki grabbed the phone and headed after the girls to return it, but when she rounded the corner, they were nowhere to be found. “As soon as I clear up this business with Major Tom,” she declared, “I’m returning this phone to the girl who dropped it….if I can find her.”
Despite her inhumanly-fast reflexes, Vicki didn’t see anyone behind her when she turned to address whoever it was that had spoken. “Who said that?” she demanded. “Answer me!”
“Ever heard a song called ‘Walking on Air’?” the voice continued. “It’s a particular favorite of mine…then again, I’ve been a fan of Gowan since before you were built, so there’s that.” The voice seemed to be coming from right next to her. “It’s a pretty catchy tune. ‘Moving under nightlight/I see you, dancing in the twilight/I’m near you…..I’m walking on air/beside you.’ Quite appropriate, considering our….unique relationship.” The voice was female…and somewhat teasing; who the hell am I dealing with here? Vicki pondered. And what’s with this “unique relationship” thing?! A playful laugh sounded next to her left ear.
“You don’t get it, do you?” the voice teased. “I’m surprised you haven’t found an upgrade that can see through the ultraviolet spectrum yet.” At the mention of upgrades, Vicki gasped---she knows what I am?!
Before the brunette gynoid could say or do anything to respond to this casual revelation of her true nature, the air next to her seemed to shimmer for a moment….and mere seconds later, a figure faded into existence. Despite a lingering feeling of panic, Vicki couldn’t help but feel a bit impressed; she does know how to make an entrance, she mused. Whoever she is.
The girl that now stood next to her looked as if her body measurements had been drawn up by classically-trained artists---nothing about her seemed too exaggerated or vulgar, yet she still managed to embody an image of what most men would refer to as “the ideal woman”---perfectly rounded hips, an abdomen that was just the right width and thickness, and breasts that didn’t look like overinflated volleyballs. Her shoulder-length, golden-blonde hair framed her face like a waterfall of molten light, making her crystal blue eyes look all the more stunning. A pale red dress clung seductively to her curves, accompanied by matching red high heels; her mouth was curled in a friendly-yet-teasing smile, her tongue playing at the edges of her lips as she noted Vicki’s distress.
In short, she looked like a modern-day goddess.
“Before you freak out and call anyone,” she instructed, “hear me out. I haven’t been following you for anything related to stalking, kidnapping and/or killing, so I suggest you get those thoughts out of your head.” At least she isn’t afraid to put things in perspective, Vicki mentally quipped. Out loud, she voiced her other concern: “Seeing as how you haven’t been following me for any of those reasons, I can’t help but think that you left out one other possible motive….spying.”
The blonde girl rolled her eyes; “Why do you think I’ve been using the stealth suit?” She pulled at her arm, and Vicki noticed a shimmering, almost transluscent material between her fingers. “So you’ve got bleeding-edge tech, and the only thing you could think of doing with it is follow me around campus?” the brunette gynoid cooly assumed. “Not so much ‘spying’ as ‘watching’…as in ‘watching your back’,” the blonde replied. “And before you ask, yes, I’m like you.” She reached behind her ears, pressed inwards, and pulled her face away to reveal an intricate lattice of servomotors, actuators, titanium and wiring. A pair of realistic, special effects-quality eyeballs looked upon Vicki’s shocked face emotionlessly, and the lip actuators that allowed for the precise formation of consonant and vowel sounds---as well as emotional responses---twitched in an animatronic approximation of a smile, their movements only slightly concealing the speaker grille housed behind them.
“If you were anyone else,” the blonde gynoid remarked casually, “I’d have to knock you out at this point…but you’d probably have fainted by now anyways.” “You’re probably right,” Vicki agreed, grinning. “I take it the ‘knock you out’ bit is just standard operating protocol with you…” The blonde gynoid nodded. “It took a whole month for me to get the necessary clearance just to talk to you, let alone show you this---“ She gestured at her “naked” face. “In any case,” she continued, reattatching her face, “the reason we’re having this conversation is, well…a bit complicated.” Vicki groaned; “I hate that phrase,” she replied. “It’s never ‘this mission is going to be really easy’, or ‘I’d like to remind you all that this equation is the simplest you’ll have to deal with this semester’ or anything like that….it’s always ‘complicated’, ‘complex’ and ‘it’s a long story’…..”
The blonde grinned. “You’re probably going to hate me for giving the ridiculously long explanation, then…” She sighed, and her expression turned serious. “Issues like this tend to get oversimplified by those who don’t fully understand the conflict---it’s always ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘right vs. wrong’, that sort of thing. To outsiders, it’s almost like some sort of glorified chess game.” “And you’re saying it’s more complicated than that?” Vicki querried. “Definitely. It’s not so much chess as it is Risk---it’s not just one side or the other…”
“You’re talking like there’s a war coming,” Vicki muttered, frowning as she considered the rammifications of that remark. “There isn’t a war coming, is there?”
“It’s not so much an actual, physical war as it is a chance for….let’s call them ‘various entities’…to prove their dominance in the world robotics market,” the blonde replied. “Certain groups---like the ALPA---are probably the closest thing to ‘good guys’ that this particular conflict has right now---“ “The closest thing?” Vicki echoed, incredulously. “You do know I’m a member, right?” “So am I,” the blonde replied confidently, “but as much as I hate to admit it, they haven’t always been the paragons of virtue when it comes to android rights…you’ll probably learn more about that particular part of their history later. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that some of these entities are trying to shift the balance in their favor, and if they can achieve that…….”
“It becomes less about dominating the world robotics market and more about just dominating the world,” Vicki finished. “You’re good,” the blonde mused, impressed. “As much as I’d like to continue this chat, though, you’ve probably got a schedule to keep, and as for me…well, let’s just say that you’re not the highest-profile person on my watch-list.” She handed Vicki a business card; “Meet me here if you want to know more---and don’t tell anyone about this place.” Vicki studied the card, noting the address and the acronym embossed on its surface in silver foil; “C.O.T.A.?” “City of the Angels,” the blonde replied, smiling again. “It’s off-campus, but it’s still a pretty good hangout. The fewer people know about it, the better…you’re one of the fortunate ones.” “Sounds like another Gowan song,” Vicki mused. “You catch on quick,” the blonde stated, chuckling.
With a playful wink, she stepped in front of Vicki and mimed the “call me” gesture before an electric shimmer washed over her; within seconds, she was completely invisible.
“I have got to get one of those,” Vicki muttered.
On the other end of the SJSU campus, things weren’t looking nearly as cheerful.
Everyone who saw Major Tom made sure to get out of his way---the leather jacket, leather gloves with lead shot in the knuckles and jet-black mirrored sunglasses were all menacing enough, but it was the almost hateful scowl he wore that guaranteed him a wide berth. Even though most of the people who stepped aside had no idea who he was, none of them wanted to risk pissing him off.
Smart decision, really…
By the time he reached his destination, the Major’s sinister expression and choice of attire all but solidified the fact that he looked like the Terminator---if the role had been given to a buff Zac Effron or Ted DiBiase Jr instead of the Governator. That resemblance wasn’t lost on the receptionist at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, a rather attractive 20-year-old girl with wavy reddish-orange hair. Before she could even ask the scowling Major how she could help him, he leaned forward and glared into her eyes. “I’m looking for this man,” he intoned, handing over a picture of an unshaven Caucasian male who looked like the long-lost brother of Lee Harvey Oswald. “Is he here?”
The receptionist, slightly off-put by the brusque manner of the Major, smiled nervously. “I’m afraid it’s against campus policy to disclose that information,” she politely began, only to yelp as the leather wrapped arms of the ex-NASA prodigy closed the distance between her and Major Tom, his grip tightening on the collar of her blouse. “Normally,” he hissed, “I’d have followed all of the official channels to handle this sort of thing, but today has been a really bad day for me, so just cut the crap and tell me where he is….”
Not surprisingly, a few people were looking up from their laptops, e-books and notes to see what all the fuss was about. Rather than calm them with a few choice words, Major Tom let go of the receptionist and snatched the photo away from her, holding it up for everyone to see.
“Now that I have everyone’s attention,” he bellowed, “I would appreciate it if you people could help me out with something. I’m looking for a spineless, brainless, gutless piece-of-crap scumbag who may have something to do with the deaths of ten individuals over the course of this month.” He ignored the whispers and muttering, choosing instead to continue his diatribe. “This individual is currently using the false name Linus L. Miller, also known as Luis Miller, also known as Luiz Millano, also known as Louis Millan, also known as Louie the Mile, also known as the guy whose ass is going to be dropkicked into a brick wall as soon as I get my hands on him.” His scowl had already morphed into a genuinely angry snarl, and there was no trace of sarcasm in his words. “I’ve been told he has an affinity for hanging around libraries and reading up on hazardous chemicals whenever he gets the chance,” he continued, not caring that people were calling the campus police, “and if anyone has seen this useless waste of humanity around this facility, I invite you to step forward and tell me when and where you last saw him.”
“Sir,” the terrified receptionist whispered, “you’re scaring the library patrons---“
“DAMN RIGHT I’M SCARING THEM!” Major Tom shouted. “THEY SHOULD BE SCARED---BECAUSE THEY’VE HAD A MURDERER IN THIS BUILDING WITH THEM, AND THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW HE WAS HERE!” He stood up on the desk, holding the photo aloft for everyone to see. “Ten people have died because of what this man has done,” he declared. “TEN PEOPLE. Ten decent, hard-working, honest people whose lives were cut short because THIS PIECE OF CRAP wanted a few extra digits in his bank account!” He ripped the sunglasses from his face, allowing all present to see the hatred blazing in his eyes. “This is not a joke,” he intoned. “This isn’t a publicity stunt, or a viral marketing campaign….this is me requesting your help in bringing this PATHETIC EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING to justice.” He lowered the photo. “And if anyone cares, I’ve already told the campus PD about him.”
After fifteen seconds of awkward silence, a girl raised her hand. “I….I think I’ve seen that guy,” she murmured, not daring to look the Major directly in the eye. “He…he was at Burger King just yesterday, in the drive-through lane….”
Immediately, Major Tom jumped down off the table and almost ran across the room. “Keep talking.”
“He…he was driving an old car….grey, four doors….he was really mean to the cashier,” the girl continued. “He was cussing her out and saying she didn’t deserve to have a job…” As the girl continued talking, the Major’s eyes scanned the crowd….stopping only when they saw a lanky, unshaven figure slowly making his way to the exit.
“That’s him…” he growled. “The rat bastard has been here the whole damn time!” He elbowed his way past the girl and several other students, gaining speed with every shove. “DON’T YOU DARE MOVE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” he shouted, breaking into a full run as his target kicked open the door and backed out of the library. “I SAID DON’T MOVE…why do they never listen?!” No longer caring that he had already caused a scene, the Major brutally shoved his way through the rest of the crowd and nearly knocked the library door off its hinges by shoulder-blocking it. “WHAT PART OF ‘DON’T MOVE’ DID YOU NOT GET, ASSCLOWN?!” he screamed at the retreating perp, already gaining ground.
The chase---if it could even be called that---didn’t last very long; Miller was pathetically out of shape, and in no condition to outrun his pursuer. After about ninety seconds of running, Linus was clotheslined into the ground by the Major, who stood over him with an almost-visible, Mack Bolan-esque aura of violent retribution coursing through his body. “The next time someone tells you to freeze,” he snarled, “you damn well better freeze.”
He hoisted the cowering Linus by his collar and slammed him against the nearest wall. “You were paid off to hand over information regarding ten people,” he intoned. “Who made the payment, and why?” Linus tried to spit in the Major’s face, but only managed to slobber onto his own shirt. “Wrong answer,” Tom sneered. “I’ll ask again---“ “I DON’T KNOW WHO THEY WERE!” Linus shouted. “I…I just got this e-mail, one day…told me I could make a lot of money by…collecting information---“ “Information that left ten innocent people dead,” the Major hissed. “Who sent the e-mails?” “I…I don’t know,” Linus whimpered. “They barely made any sense…it was like a bad translation, or something…like they were typed by someone who barely knew any English…”
Major Tom glared at the sniveling face of Linus Miller and contemplated kicking the crap out of him. “I really should beat you within an inch of your life right now,” he breathed, his nostrils flaring like an angry bull. “Those ten people were all good friends of mine….and they’re all dead now thanks to the information you handed over.” “I DIDN’T KILL ANYONE!” Linus shrieked, rivulets of snot running down his nose. “All…all I did…was run intel….I didn’t kill them…” “You facilitated their deaths,” Major Tom replied, his voice cold. “That makes you just as guilty as the ones who did kill them.” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Not to mention your ‘habit’ of stalking girls around campus…does that receptionist at the library know you’ve been spying on her every night for the past month?” Linus’ eyes went wide; “I…I don’t know what you---“
The lead shot-ladden knuckles of Major Tom’s glove smashed against Linus’ face, fracturing a cheekbone.
“You’ll get a broken jaw if you lie to me again,” the Major growled. “Seeing as how you obviously don’t want that, here’s how this is going to go: You’re going to tell me who paid you off, and then you’re going to tell me why all of the books on chemistry and hazardous material that you’ve been ‘borrowing’ haven’t been returned. And when you’re done with that, I’m hauling your worthless ass to the campus PD to---“
Something fell out of Linus’s pocket, hitting the ground with a flutter. “Pick it up,” Major Tom ordered. Linus hesitated---not a good idea, given his current situation. “PICK IT UP,” the Major repeated; Linus slowly reached down to grab the fallen envelope. “Give it to me,” Tom demanded. “NOW.” Linus handed over the envelope, cringing as the Major tore it open and examined the contents…..
Before he could even think to run, Linus was kicked---hard---in the ribs.
“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Major Tom shouted. “YOU WERE PLANNING ON HANDING ME OVER TO BE KILLED?!” He kicked Linus again, in the head this time. “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?!” Another kick, aimed at the fallen man’s kidneys. “The hell with the police,” the Major snarled, “AND THE HELL WITH THE ALPA!” He hoisted Linus up, preparing to slam him---head first---into the wall. “You’re sleeping in fire tonight,” he spat. “You hand over ten of my friends, and then you try to serve me up on a platter?! News flash, retard: NOBODY GETS THE DROP ON ME!” He reared back, prepared to cave Linus’s head in….
The Major didn’t even have to turn around to tell that the receptionist from the library was staring at him with a mixture of fear and pity. “Please,” she pleaded, “don’t…hurt him or anything….”
“You do know this idiot’s been spying on you, right?” he shot back. “Trying to watch you change every night and all that crap. On any other day, that would’ve earned him a ticket to the ER….” He kneed Linus in the ribs. “…but seeing as how ten of my friends are dead because of this jackwagon, I’m not exactly in the mood to pull punches.”
“I knew he was spying on me,” the receptionist admitted, “but the only reason I didn’t do anything about it was.. well, he…he said he had pictures…”
At that, Major Tom’s lips curled over his teeth; before the receptionist could stop him, he began raining down a series of body blows against the already-weakened ribs of his prey. “STOP!” the receptionist shrieked, but the Major refused. “You sick bastard,” he hissed between punches, “threatening her with blackmail….” By the time he finally stopped, Linus was unconscious, and his face looked like he’d been attacked with a cheese grater.
“He’s not dead,” the Major informed the receptionist after a two-minute cooldown. “I’ll drop him off at the hospital---even though it’s a hell of a lot more than he deserves. In the meantime…”
A few minutes later, Major Tom and the receptionist sat down to a meal of Whoppers, french fries and Dr. Peppers at Burger King, both of them trying not to mention what had happened at the library. All the while, the Major did his best not to stare at the girl; she doesn’t even know what kind of pictures Linus had taken of her, he mused. And those pictures just happened to be in that envelope he dropped…..
“I’ve never seen you on campus before,” the girl finally said after a few minutes of awkward silence. “Part of the job,” the Major replied. “Not being seen is considered an asset in my line of work….and before you ask what ‘my line of work’ is, I’m a private investigator.” The girl nodded; “That was my first guess,” she admitted. “I figured you were either that, or an FBI agent…except most FBI agents don’t dress like the Terminator.” The remark actually brought a grin to the Major’s face; “This is a one-time look for me,” he admitted. “While I’m on the subject….sorry about that little scene at the library. This past week has just been completely sucking…”
The conversation continued from there, though Major Tom was more concerned with what the girl didn’t know than with what she knew---namely, the fact that the “pictures” Linus had threatened to show would’ve revealed her existance as one of seven highly-experimental ReVerse gynoids on the San Jose State University campus to the rest of the student body. Fortunately for her, the pictures would never see the light of day, and the negatives from Linus’s camera (he was either too poor or too stupid to afford/use a digital camera) would end up “accidentally” being over-exposed, rendering them useless. Two birds, one stone.
“Well, I’ve got to get back to the library,” the girl told Major Tom after the impromptu dinner (which the Major had insisted on paying for) ended. “Thanks for the Whoppers!” “Thank you for not freaking out back at the library,” he replied. “Sorry about the whole ‘grabbing you by the collar’ thing…like I said, I’ve been in a crap mood lately.” “Just don’t do it again,” the girl remarked, grinning as she got up to leave. “You never did tell me your name,” Major Tom mused. The girl sighed; “I don’t know your name either..how about I tell you mine if you tell me yours?” “Fair enough,” the Major replied with a grin as he extended his hand. “Thomas Lane.” “Francesca Bowman,” the girl replied, shaking his hand. “Hopefully, the next time we meet will be under less…bizarre circumstances.” With that, the two parted company, both feeling a lot better than they had at the start of the hour.
Neither of them noticed the armored van parked across the street from the Burger King, nor did they notice the two humanoid figures in Hazmat suits seated in the driver’s and passenger’s seats.
Rather ironically, the figures in the van didn’t notice they were being watched as well…..
"No one steals our chicks.....and lives!"