Across the bustling city, at the spacious estate where Diablo made their home, Stefana had secluded herself in her bedroom to think. The light of day had long since faded into darkness, but she had been so intent on her thoughts that she had not noticed the dim atmosphere in which she sat, and Marissa frowned, reaching to flip the switch on.
"Steffi, what are you doing up here?" She asked softly, and her friend turned her head, as if registering Marissa for the first time.
"Stef, you're sitting up here in silence and darkness. Is something wrong? Are you sick?" Marissa came to sit down on the bed. "You've been funny since you got back from running that errand this morning. Is something up?"
"Something's well up, yes." Stefana said darkly, rolling an unlit cigarette between her fingers. "And I can't tell you any of it. Mari, something big is going down and I don't know what to do about it. Something - that much I'm sure of. I can't not do anything. But...I want to be safe. And I don't know that either of them are safe."
"Stef?" Marissa looked anxious. "Stef, you've lost me. Either of who are safe?"
"That's what I can't tell you." Stefana sighed, glancing at her hands. "You already know way too much, and I'm in so over my head. I can't drag you into it too. Better only one of us knows."
Marissa eyed her companion thoughtfully.
"Does this have something to do with Darren McMillan?"
"Let's hope not." Stefana shook her head. "If he gets his smart ass involved, it'll only make things worse for everyone."
"Mari, I told you already - it's better that you don't know!"
"And that's not gonna wash with me." Marissa shook her head. "Listen, Steffi, if you're in trouble, then I'm in trouble with you. It's how things are. Farah and me both - we're both always on your side and you know it. I haven't told Farah about this...well, this crazy stuff about Jerrica's computer, but maybe it's time we did. I'm guessing from your reticence that this is about Jerrica's computer...yes?"
"Yes." She acknowledged. "In a manner of speaking."
"Luca said that you were worried someone was sick - maybe dying." Marissa pursed her lips. "Is that tied into this too?"
Stefana was silent for a moment, and Marissa's brows knitted together.
"I suppose it is."
"Getting anything out of you right now is like getting blood from a stone." Marissa sighed. "I don't like thinking that you're alone with whatever this is, though. It's bugging you and we all know you shouldn't be in that position again. I don't want you in trouble, Stef - even if the trouble isn't your fault to begin with. And I think you are. Aren't you?"
"Yes." Stefana met her friend's gaze with a sombre one of her own. "And I get what you're saying, Mari - about wanting to be in on the deal and backing me up and all. I really do. But it ain't your problem. And I'm not going to make it your problem, either. All you need to know is that the people who got hold of Synergy from the FBI are more dangerous than any of us realised. People might get hurt. They could already have been. And I don't want you - or Farah - to be next."
"You know who broke into the Federal Lab?"
"I have a strong suspicion." Stefana said grimly. She got to her feet.
"Mari, for the last time, stay out of it." She said at length. "I've made up my mind what I have to do, and I just have to hope I've taken the right gamble and chosen the right side."
She scooped her purse up from the counter, sliding her jacket over her shoulders and reaching for her boots.
"Are you going out?" Marissa looked surprised. "It's dark out - is that a good idea? If you feel threatened...?"
"Well, I'll take my chances." Stefana said simply. "Either way, I want you to forget we had this conversation - or any others like it. I don't know how things are going to work out yet, Mari, and I might have gambled on the wrong side. If something happens to me, well, you don't know enough to put yourself in harm's way. But I had my life threatened this afternoon - and it's a threat I take very seriously."
Shock flooded Marissa's features, but before she could respond, Stefana was gone, fumbling for her car keys as she went. By the time Marissa reached the bottom of the stairs, Stefana's car had screeched out of the driveway and into the night, away from the Diablo estate.
"Was that Stef going out?" Farah poked her head around the door of the little room in which she had been sketching basic plans for a music video. "I was going to ask her opinion on something - but that sounded like her car."
"It was her car." Marissa faced her sister, a troubled look in her eyes. "Farah, I think Stef's in trouble. Big trouble. I don't know where she's gone, but she's involved in something crazy and she won't tell me what it is."
"What has she said?" Farah's clever features adopted a look of concern. Marissa spread her hands.
"That someone threatened her life today, and that she knows who it was who broke into the FBI lab and stole that stupid computer of Jerrica Pacheco's." She said with a sigh. "I wish that damn thing had never been built - Stef was doing so well with her rehab and everything and then suddenly, bam, it all goes mad again. She's keeping secrets, she's haring off to secret locations and she's scared of something, but she won't tell me what. She says she's protecting me - but how can we protect her if she keeps clamming up?"
"Do you think she really is involved with something, or is she just, you know, having an episode?" Farah asked hesitantly. "I know you said that she had paranoid fits when she was using the speed. I don't suppose...?"
"Well, I thought it at one point too, but I don't think it now." Marissa rubbed her temples. "I believe that Stef is sober and I do think something is going on. I told you what happened at lunch the other day, when that impersonation of Sylva Martescu harangued her in the middle of the restaurant. And McMillan is constantly on her case, so he thinks she's in on something too. No, Farah, there's something."
"Should we try and follow her?"
"Too late now. We'd never catch her." Marissa sighed. "She said she'd made up her mind what she had to do. I just wish I knew what it was, and what we could do to help!"
Stefana, for her part, put her foot down on the gas pedal of her
glancing in the mirrors from time to time as if to ascertain whether or
not she was being followed. Finally, as she drew closer to her
she let out a sigh of relief. Marissa had not followed her, and there
nobody on her tail.
"Athena may have just been blowing hot air." She mused. "But either way, I have to take her threats seriously. If I don't, I'm accessory to murder - and even though I don't like Rory Llewelyn, I don't really want to be up in court over a stiff. Besides, that machine needs to be shut down. I just wish I knew if the opposition was any more stable."
She pulled her vehicle onto the arc-shaped driveway of the Starlight Mansion, drawing to a halt beneath one of the big trees that stood guard over the house. With a moment of hesitation, she unlocked her car door, stepping out onto the concrete and gazing up at the big, imposing building, taking a deep breath. As she did so, she recognised Aaron's car parked to one side, and a stab of relief flooded through her. If he was here, then maybe it would be all right. Maybe she would be all right.
She gathered her courage and composure, hurrying up the front path to the door and ringing the bell. There was no response to begin with, then the sound of voices and a catch being drawn back. The door swung open, and the person on the other side let out an exclamation of surprise.
"Well done. You get an A." Stefana snapped, impatiently pushing past Topaz and into the hallway of the house. "Aaron's here and I need to speak to him."
"Well, do come in." A note of irony touched Topaz's tones. "Aaron's kinda busy right now...can I take a message?"
"No, you can't." Stefana said flatly. She glanced at Topaz, then, "Look here, blondie. What I have to say, I say to him...or to Sadie, if she's here. I don't play chinese whispers with something this important."
"Sadie's out with Alex tonight." Topaz said levelly. "And like I said, Aaron's busy. He's working on...a very important project."
"No, he's working on that crackbrained computer." Stefana wheeled on her companion, taking her off guard. "And that's why I'm here, too. Synergy."
"What's going on out here?" Nancy pushed open the door of the lounge, stopping dead when she saw who was in the hallway. "Stefana? What are you doing here?"
"She wants to speak to Aaron or Sadie - though I told her Sadie was still out with Alex." Topaz shrugged her shoulders. "And that Aaron was busy."
"What's so important that you come barging into our home?" Nancy fixed Stefana with a glare. "You should know that you're not the most welcome houseguest around here, and this isn't the obvious place to go looking for my brother. Why are you really here?"
"I saw his car." Stefana stood her ground. "And I want to speak to him because he'll take me seriously and not treat me like I'm here to case the joint. I'm not here to cause trouble. I really don't want to be."
She paused, then,
"I really came to see the maniacal mainframe." She admitted. "It's her I really want to talk to."
Copper appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, a sombre frown touching her pretty face. "She's not exactly well at the moment - but then, I was under the impression that you knew that, Stefana."
"I do. She's impersonated me once too often these last couple of weeks." Stefana nodded her head. She paused, fixing Copper with a thoughtful look, then, "How do you mean, she's offline?"
"We had to switch her off. She...wasn't acting like herself." Copper leant up against the doorpost. "In much the same way as she has been of late."
"Why is any of that your business, anyhow?" Nancy demanded. "And you still seem to be in our hall, Stefana. I don't remember anyone actually inviting you in - and since Cynthia's not up to taking your call, do you want to leave a note and get lost?"
"No." Stefana folded her arms across her chest. "I'm not leaving here until I've spoken to someone who's going to take me seriously. I already told you I didn't want to be here. You don't have to make this whole thing harder for me."
Copper held up her hands.
"Wait a minute." She said softly. "Let's hear her out. Stefana, will you tell us what you wanted to tell Synergy? I know that you did her one good turn already in recent months. I'm game to believe you're not here to hurt her this time. Please. Tell us."
Stefana stared at her rival, for a moment stunned speechless by this unexpected support. Then she pulled herself together, nodding her head slightly.
"All right." She agreed cautiously. "But first off, you didn't get this information from me. I don't consort with Jewels, and I'm already putting my neck on the line even being here. I don't know if I'm being watched as it is."
"Watched?" Nancy raised an eyebrow. "Paranoid much."
"Nance, don't." Copper shook her head, before Stefana could retort. "Go on, Stefana."
"I know who took Synergy's waste from the Feds." Stefana said softly. "I can't prove it, though, that's the trouble. I don't know where they're going, exactly...and I probably won't till after things...happen."
"And you think Cyn needs to know about this because...?" Copper looked confused. "She and Aaron both rendered those bits useless to anyone. They're just junk. That's all."
"No, they're not just junk." Stefana shook her head. She narrowed her eyes. "Do you remember a computer virus, that made your precious computer sick as a dog?"
"We remember." Nancy said coldly. "And we remember who was behind it."
"Do you?" Stefana raised an eyebrow. "Do you remember his name, Nancy? Because that's who's got Synergy's old bits of junk. And he might be a weirdo, but he's a damn smart weirdo. Do you know what he's used them to do?"
"He's built his own computer." Stefana said darkly. "Now do you understand? There's another Synergy in Los Angeles - and this one wants to kill people. Starting with Rory Llewelyn - and me, if she finds out I've told you anything about her."
"What?" Topaz blanched. "Another Synergy? Another holographic computer?"
"That's what I said, blondie." Stefana agreed. "Athena. That's what he calls her."
"But...I thought that was impossible?" Nancy, startled out of her hostility, stared at her foe. "Cynthia said those componants were useless to anyone!"
"Techrat isn't just anyone." Stefana snapped. "He's a freak, but he's a goddamn genius with it. More, he's been tracking your computer for a while. He knows she's still running, and he said that she was getting erratic. Crazy, even. He said it wouldn't be long before the strain blew out her circuits. Now do you understand why I came here? His computer is nuts and she wants to put an end to Synergy herself, if Techrat's prediction doesn't come true quick enough. She thinks that Synergy is the only thing that might be able to stop her doing whatever the hell she likes - and judging by the little demo Techrat gave of what she can do, she might damn well be right."
"But Synergy may already be spoken for." Copper bit her lip. "Stefana, it's worse than we thought. Aaron's working on her downstairs, but we can't even switch on her hologram. We don't know...well...who we might get if we do."
"Why did you bring all this to us, if this computer of Techrat's is so amazing and deadly?" Topaz asked quietly. "Why put yourself in danger?"
"Athena wants to total my boss." Stefana said levelly. "And I don't love my boss any, but I draw the line at murder, whether you believe it or not. Plus..."
She paused, then,
"Aaron and Sadie are my friends, and I owed it to them to pass on what I knew." She added. "So now I've done so, I'll cut out of here. I've done my bit. It's up to you what you do about what I told you."
"No, I think you should come down and speak to Aaron directly." Copper shook her head. "He and I seem to be camped out here at the moment - and you're right. If anyone should know about it, it should be him."
"Fine." Stefana looked reluctant, but she nodded her head. "Just remember - none of this came from me."
"We promise." Copper agreed. "Noone outside us - and Sadie and Syl when they get home - will know anything about your visit tonight. Follow me, huh? Aaron's down in the basement...it's through this way."
Stefana pursed her lips, but made no further comment, merely following the drummer through the hallways of the big house.
Once they were both gone, Topaz and Nancy exchanged looks.
"Do you think this is for real, or is it one of her games?" Nancy was the one to break the silence. Topaz chewed on her bottom lip, looking troubled.
"I think she's for real." She admitted. "There was something in her face, Nance - she was afraid. And if she's right, maybe we should all be afraid. Cynthia is the only one who understands Synergy technology enough to know how to really deal with another of her kind. Even Aaron has his limitations. We need her...if there's really another computer out there, we need her more than ever!"
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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