Aaron eyed Stefana in shock, pushing his tools to one side as he made himself more comfortable on the stone slab floor. "Stef, you're sure about this? I mean, one hundred percent sure? You know this thing exists?"
"Aaron, I've seen it." Stefana bit her lip. "Listen. I can't tell you names exactly - I'm a little afraid of what might happen to me if I stir the water too much. I got dragged into...something that I can't get myself out of, because they know that I know too much about their little plot to walk. I didn't think it was that much of a problem to begin with, but once we were at Techrat's place and I saw the computer, I knew it was as bad as it could possibly be. The computer threatened me directly - she basically told me to make up my mind which side I was on, or I would be eliminated."
"So why are you here, then?" Aaron asked gently. "Why come to us and risk your safety - if you think she can hurt you?"
"Because I chose my side." Stefana said quietly. "Athena wants to kill people. Synergy gets her RAM in a twist most days and she's as deranged as you like...but she's the devil I know. So I made my choice. That's why I'm here."
"I hope it wasn't the wrong one." Copper looked troubled, running a hand along Synergy's cold, silent units. "She may already be dead, Stefana. Techrat was right when he said she was erratic. She thinks she's Jacqui Benton half of the time - taking revenge on the world for Jerrica's death. She was programmed to protect Jerrica, but the file has got warped."
"And you can't fix her?" Stefana eyed Aaron in surprise. "I thought you could fix anything."
"Your confidence in me is appreciated, Stef, but without her help there are things I can't fit together." Aaron sighed, getting to his feet and dusting down his trousers. "She's the only one who really knows how she works. And I daren't switch her projections back on. She...got a little frisky earlier. I'm not sure it's safe."
"Well, with her wires all over the floor, I bet it ain't." Stefana said bluntly. "At least put the girl back together before you give up on her. Sheesh! What kind of a surgeon does that make you?"
"A desperate and hopeless one, grasping at straws." Aaron admitted, obediently beginning to return the stray wires and circuits to their correct locations. He lifted the front panel, glancing at it and then pushing it back into place. "There. But it hardly matters. Short of rewiring her entire hard drive, I don't know what to do. She can't control Jacqui's behaviour, and I sure as hell don't know how to stop it. If Jacqui carries on taking over her projection time, she could prove just as dangerous as this Athena you're telling us about."
"So you're giving up?" Stefana frowned. "I didn't think you did that. When I got that stupid virus cooked up, there wasn't meant to be a way to fix it. But you fixed it anyway. Why is this any different?"
"Because that was a virus, and she wanted to get better." Aaron said simply. "This is her original programming, and it's overriding what she wants to do. That's the difference. It's become habit. She can't stop it."
"Damn right she can." Stefana's brows knitted together and she headed up to the mainframe, banging a hand down on the projection unit.
"I know you can hear me in there, you stupid tangle of wires." She said darkly. "You listen to me, and you listen good. You're a computer. You don't have hangups and you don't have neuroses. You're a damn machine and that's all you'll ever be."
"If you're trying to make her respond to you, Stefana, it won't work." Copper shook her head. "If she can hear you, she can't project. The units are off. We made sure of that."
"Well, we'll see." Stefana glowered at the hapless Jewel, then flicked the main projector switch to on. "Let's see how tough this Jacqui bitch is, huh?"
"Stefana, no!" Aaron's eyes widened with horror. "Turn it off! The last thing we want is..."
"Is another episode?" Stefana demanded, positioning herself firmly in between the projector and her friend so that he could not reach the switch. "Don't be stupid, Aaron! She can control herself. She can break her programming, because she's been doing it ever since you've damn well known her. Don't pretend that she hasn't! So she's got lax lately, and let things get the better of her. What are you going to do? Mollycoddle her? Pretend it doesn't matter? Or are you going to damn well tell her to pull herself together? You said yourself that she's the only one who can fix the problem. Well, if she really gives a damn, that's what she'll do! She'll quit making you all run around like headless chickens and she'll fix her own problems!"
"Stefana, I don't think you understand..." Copper began, but Stefana shook her head.
"No, you don't understand." She said bluntly. "She has a problem, and she's the only one who can face it and deal with it head on. She has to want to stop acting like this if she's ever going to manage it. And if Athena is right, and she's the only one who stands a chance of stopping things before they begin, it's about time she got a grip!"
"Stef, she isn't like you." Aaron said gently, putting a hand on his friend's arm. "You're human. Different rules apply."
"Well, and I thought you liked to believe she was almost a real person." Stefana snapped, pulling her arm away. "You don't get this, Aaron. Athena wants to hurt people. Rory. Me. You, if she finds out you've been sheltering Synergy like this. Anyone could be next. She can impersonate anyone, adopt their voice, their mannerisms and take over their lives. She's dangerous and she has to be stopped. To stop her, we have to find her. And this box of screws is about the only chance you - or I, or any of us - have of finding her. Techrat has had her moved, but I don't know to where. And if I can't track her down, I can't stop her from vaporising my boss - so don't you think I have a damn good motivation for wanting to get rid of this psycho attitude Synergy's developed?"
"I always knew you were going to be trouble."
Intent on their discussion, none of the trio had noticed a thin wisp of smoke begin to curl up from one of the projectors, expanding and deepening into shades of colour as a woman took form before them. She pursed her lips, tut-tutting as she surveyed the assembled group. "Stefana Ranieri, why can't you mind your own business? This isn't your battle. You're not a Hologram, and you're not a Misfit. You're no part in this. I tried to warn you to keep out of my way...why can't you listen?"
"I don't listen to dead bitches who pretend to be me to tabloid reporters." Stefana spat back. "Get a grip, you stupid tangle of wires. Jacqui Benton is wormbait. You're not her and you never have been, so go curl up in your coffin and stay there. You're not who we want to talk to."
"Stefana, that wasn't smart." Aaron shook his head slowly, reaching to pull both his wife and the dark girl back behind one of the big processors as the computer's laser creaked and shifted in their direction. "I told you. She's frisky as Jacqui."
"Then she needs to stop being Jacqui." Stefana said firmly.
"I don't know that it's that easy." Copper bit her lip. "I don't think even she knows the difference any more."
"Maybe it's time we taught her."
"No, Stef, you'll only antagonise her." Aaron kept his grip on his friend's arm, despite her struggles. "We're not going to try and fight her, because she's stronger than we are. You shouldn't have switched her on - now we have to get her back switched off again, before anyone gets hurt."
Copper frowned, eying the hologram carefully. "Stefana, when you said that about Jacqui being dead, she flickered slightly. It was like...like she felt it. I have an idea."
Before Aaron could stop her, she had slipped out from the safety of their hiding place, standing in plain view.
"This is crazy." She said softly. "Jacqui Benton is dead."
"I know that you think you can tease me into letting you go now." Jacqui looked sad. "And I don't want to hurt Raya by hurting you. But I have no choice. You tried to stop me. I have to complete my program, before my time is over. I have to..."
"You have to let go." Copper laid a gentle hand on the computer. "Jacqui, Emmet, Jerrica - they're all stars now, up in the heavens with my father and all the others who've passed on to the next world. They're all at peace, but you're not. You're tired and angry and you don't understand why you've been left behind."
"Copper, are you mad?" Aaron hissed, but Copper ignored her husband, holding Jacqui's gaze with a calm one of her own as the hologram seemed to digest her words.
"There's nothing in this world for Jacqui Benton." The drummer continued softly. "You know that. But there's plenty in it for Cynthia. She's your family too, you know. Emmet's creation - she sees him as a father. You were programmed to protect Emmet's children. Cynthia is one of his children...one you know better than either Jerrica or Kimber. You know that Jerrica's death hurt her, because you feel it too. She needs us, and we need her. Won't you let us help her? We're all her friends. Revenge only makes other people cry - like my Mama, like Aaron's family, like Stefana's brother. It has a ripple effect, you know that. Enough."
Jacqui's hologram flickered again, then the main processor whirred loudly, as a burst of light flooded the projector. For a moment the entire room was lit up with an emphatic glow, so bright that Copper, Aaron and Stefana found themselves forced to cover their eyes. Then, in an instant, it was dark again, and silence fell.
"What in hell happened then?" Stefana pulled herself to her feet. "Copper, whatever you do, don't go into psychotherapy, huh? Blowing up your patients probably wouldn't go down so well."
"Power surge, I think." Aaron eyed the projector thoughtfully. "But it gives us a chance to switch her off again. Copper, I know you can talk to her, but I don't think you can reason with her - not really."
"Perhaps she cannot, Aaron." A fresh voice joined the conversation, causing the technician to swing around in surprise. "But maybe she can try reasoning with me instead."
"Cynthia?" Copper stared.
"I told you that the freak could work if you just yelled at her." Stefana folded her arms. "You should listen to me more often."
"Cyn, are you...I mean...Jacqui...?" Aaron faltered, and Cynthia bit her lip as her hologram flickered in and out of focus. She closed her eyes, as if concentrating hard on stabilising her image. Then she got down on her knees, pulling open her main panel and reaching inside. Hesitating momentarily, she grabbed a section of circuitry and yanked it out, tossing it down onto the stone floor.
"There." She said, her voice wavering slightly. "I believe I have tracked down the anomaly. When Copper spoke to her, she upset her, and I felt it. I knew where it came from...and for the first time I knew how to stop it."
"That's it?" Stefana reached to pick up the small section of board. "That's Jacqui Benton?"
"That's what was blocking my signals." Cynthia nodded her head. She flickered again, and frowned. "But I fear my projector has suffered much over recent weeks. I feel very tired."
"But you're back." Copper flung her arms around her friend. "Oh, and I hope for good this time!"
"I hope so also." Cynthia nodded. "I can't remove all of it from me, Copper, because part of it is part of me - as Aaron said himself. I hope now it is under my control."
"But if you wish to lock me in here tonight, be my guest." She added. "Just in case."
"We might take our chances, Cyn." Aaron said grimly. "Listen - if you heard me speaking to Copper earlier, did you hear what Stefana came here to say?"
"I heard Stefana shouting a lot." Cynthia's tired violet eyes flickered with faint amusement. "Most of it was abusive, but I'll take it as well meant."
"And about Athena?" Stefana demanded. "You're a nutjob, Cynthia, but she's creepy. I think she really meant it when she said she was going to eliminate Rory. Are your projection lasers really strong enough to kill someone?"
"I have never fired them up to try." Cynthia responded. She met Aaron's gaze with a guilty look. "Although I believe I may have come close on occasion."
Her hologram flickered again, and Aaron grimaced.
"New units, I guess." He said resignedly. "Copper, how desperate are you for a new kitchen this month? I can see a huge componant bill coming up."
"Oh, the kitchen can wait." Copper grinned. "I'd rather have Cynnie back to her full strength - she's more important."
"Stefana, you said that Techrat can track my emissions?" Cynthia turned her gaze on the Diablo guitarist, who nodded.
"I thought I had heard you correctly." Cynthia became thoughtful. "And you are certain that the machine means harm? She is not...she does not want to be like me, and just live her run time as peacefully as possible?"
"I'm sure." Stefana shook her head. "Though recent activity on your part..."
Cynthia's expression became troubled, and her hologram jumped slightly, settling on a greyish shade.
"I know." She agreed softly. "I have told you - I am sorry for trouble I may have caused you. All...all of you."
"Cyn, you're a weird colour." Aaron pursed his lips. "Maybe you should switch off the hologram. You're putting more strain on circuitry that's been overdone enough in the last few weeks. If Stefana is right and there is another computer in Los Angeles, we need to find out more before we can do anything. And you have a lot of recovery to do, too. Print me a performance readout, please. I want to see exactly what damage Jacqui's done."
Cynthia sighed, but her printer whirred into life, spitting out several pieces of paper.
"I can run my hologram, Aaron." She said wearily. "I think in this instance I should be the judge. Besides, Stefana has come to us in search of assistance. If she is correct, it is assistance we must provide. Somehow. If for no other reason than I owe it her, for all I have done."
Stefana bit her lip.
"Like I said, you're a nutjob, but Athena's worse." She said quietly. "And she's brand new, too. If you're half scrap metal, how are you even going to find her? Techrat said he'd corrected flaws in your original program, or something. Weaknesses...I don't know. I'm not technical enough to really get what he did to what. But he knows what he's doing."
"Then you must tell me everything that you know." Cynthia decided. "I have a good many memory files shunted out of order and in the wrong places, and I am not yet clear on everything Jacqui did while monopolising my power and my projection units. But I will reorder it, and then maybe I will have a better idea what I have done and where I have been. Maybe it will reveal something that can be of use to us."
"Cyn, if you go upstairs looking like that, they'll all freak." Copper said sensibly. "And if you can't maintain proper colours, you're not fit to be doing anything until Aaron's replaced whatever componants you've busted out. So take it easy, huh? Now we know about this computer of Techrat's, maybe we can do something ourselves. You need to focus on regaining your strength."
"No." Obstinacy flashed into Cynthia's eyes. "This is my fault. This is all my fault. I gambled with the FBI, and I failed to take into account the possibility that someone may be able to use those componants. My very existance has spawned something that will put human beings in danger. If Athena feels anything like what I felt when I wanted nothing more than to end Rio Pacheco...then she must be stopped. And I am the reason she is here. You can't stop me from being involved."
Her speech shook slightly as dust particles echoed around her vocal units, and her hologram faded in and out of focus for a second as she struggled to regain full control. Copper eyed her friend sadly.
"Even if it kills you?" She scolded. Cynthia nodded her head.
"Even if it kills me." She agreed gravely. "Synergy was built to nurture and protect. That is what she must do. Wherever it takes her."
She hesitated for a moment, and her projectors whirred and clicked as, bit by bit, she began to regain her normal colour. "And I am not so feeble as you think, Copper. I have survived worse decay."
She glanced at Stefana.
"Please, will you come with me? We must speak to the others, and I must know everything about this computer."
Stefana hesitated, and a shadow touched Cynthia's expression.
"I shall not hurt you." She said softly. "I give you my word."
Stefana chewed on her lip, then, slowly, she nodded her head.
"I guess." She agreed. "At least out of here I stand a better chance than I do with that thing pointed at my head."
She indicated the computer's main laser with a jerk of her hand. "I don't know what I can tell you, though. Like I said, I'm not technical and it's all just a computer to me. Just I know it's dangerous. That's all."
She pulled open the door of the basement, and Cynthia scooped up her watch, locating the missing chip and pushing it back into place. Then she slid it onto her wrist and, with a sad smile at Aaron and Copper, the hologram followed Stefana up the stone steps to the house proper.
The door banged shut behind her, and for a moment, husband and wife just looked at each other. Then Copper sighed.
"How bad is it?" She murmured, indicating Cynthia's printout. Aaron looked grave, shaking his head.
"Not good." He admitted. "Her projectors are worn, but that I can fix. I have done before, and it's not a problem. I'm more concerned about the damage being done to her power units. Emmet built them and they've stood up to a lot of things over the years. But all of this has taken it's toll. She's not been properly powered down in months, and I don't know how much more they can stand. It's not something I know how to fix, Copper. Maybe she does, if I could get her to focus on doing it...but they were built specifically for this machine and mostly from componants that are no longer available. Emmet built the rest himself from scratch. I wouldn't know where to start."
"Do you think she knows?" Copper looked anxious. Aaron nodded his head.
"She knows." He agreed grimly. "She knew before she printed this out, I guarantee it."
"Then you need to talk to her. If she's the only one who might be able to build replacements, she needs to do so before her time runs out. This other computer will still be there when she's done."
"No, I think she's made her choice." Aaron frowned. "She feels responsible for this, and in some ways, maybe she is."
"It's not her fault, Aaron, that some mad guy's cloned her technology to make his own machine!" Copper protested.
"No, it's not." Aaron shook her head. "But if Synergy had never been in the public eye, none of this would ever have happened. And, since the Jem memorial, we've had constant reminders of that fact. There was the FBI's initial search for her. Techrat's virus. Then Jerrica's will...people only knew that she meant Synergy because of all that had gone before. The FBI hunted again. The Tribune journo and his scoop article. Letting componants go to the FBI to shut them up. All of those things have kept Synergy in people's minds. And her recent breakdown has meant that Techrat's very easily been able to trace her signals. Maybe, if she'd been herself, she would have picked up the probe. As it is, she hasn't."
"Even if all of that is true, she doesn't have to kill herself trying to resolve it." Copper sighed, slipping her hand into her husband's. "We've got her back, only to lose her again? That doesn't seem fair."
"Well, maybe it isn't." Aaron shrugged his shoulders. "And perhaps I'm reading more into this report than is there - maybe she knows something I don't know. But either way, I think this is something we should keep to ourselves for the time being. If she takes it easy and doesn't overstretch herself too much, the cells might last long enough for me to work out how to build new ones. That's the line we'll take, okay? But don't freak the others out - especially not Topaz, with Hollie to think about. If I'm right, there's nothing we can do without her help, anyhow. And if I'm wrong, there's no sense in frightening her friends. Right?"
Copper was silent for a moment. Then she cast a glance at the mainframe, tears touching her dark eyes. She nodded, blinking them back.
"All right." She agreed, reluctance clear in her voice. "I won't say anything."
"Then let's go upstairs and see what's going on." Aaron squeezed her hand. "And try not to fret, Copper. She's a good friend, we know that. Cynthia will always do the right thing, and we just have to trust her. So long as Jacqui's gone from her programming, I'm sure she'll know her own limitations and stick to them. It's as she said. It's her call."
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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