"Well, guess this is you."
Alex Bray leant across from the driver's seat, giving his fiancee a kiss. "The Starlight Mansion, ma'am. Last stop."
"Don't be goofy." Sadie giggled, reaching to unfasten her seatbelt. She glanced at her watch. "It's only half ten, Alex - fancy coming in for a coffee? Or do you have to be somewhere else?"
"Only the office, taking apart case reports." Alex pulled a graphic face. "Which I am quite happy leaving till morning. Ray's taken to pulling all nighters this week as it is, because he can't get any sleep at home with Heather and her hormones. I'd rather leave him to it."
"Heather and her hormones?" Sadie looked nonplussed, then, "Oh! Is the baby due soon?"
"No, she's only about six months, I think." Alex shook her head. "But apparently it's made her nocturnal and he gets more sleep if he kips at the office."
He eyed her thoughtfully. "Tell me, Sade, when we start thinking about babies, you're not gonna do that to me."
"Who can tell?" Sadie shrugged philosophically, reaching over onto the back seat for her jacket, and pushing open the passenger door. "But that's a long way off yet. We still haven't cleared all the paperwork, and until my sister's probation is up, we're not doing anything. I'm not getting married without my family there...all of them."
"I wouldn't ask you to." Alex assured her. "As for that coffee, count me in. I only get a night off like this once in a blue moon."
"So I've noticed." Sadie agreed, as he got out of the vehicle, locking the doors. "But I'm used to it by now. If I'm going to be Mrs Agent Bray, I'm gonna have to."
"I'm glad you realise it." Alex slipped his hand around her waist. "You have your key?"
"Yes, though I doubt anyone but Hollie is in bed yet." Sadie responded, fumbling in her pocket for her door key. "And...hey, Aaron's car is still here. I guess that means he's still working on mission impossible in the basement."
"Mission...?" Alex trailed off, then, "Synergy?"
"Yes." Sadie's features became grave. "When I left earlier, Al, the opinion was that she might not be fixable. But Aaron's spent a lot of time trying, regardless."
"I didn't know anything was wrong with her." Alex admitted. "Am I out of the loop, or do you just think it's better the less a Federal Agent knows about your electronic roommate?"
Sadie coloured, as she realised what she'd almost revealed.
"Oh, I forgot." She admitted. "Well, it's not important really. She was having some problems with her memory recall and her projections, that...that's about the size of it. Aaron was trying to put things back how they should be, but she's not been the same since Jerrica died. I dunno if she even can be."
"She's a thirty year old computer, Sadie." Alex kissed her gently on the forehead. "Maybe it's just, well, time up."
"I don't like to think of that." She admitted. "But I don't know. Maybe it is."
She reached up to put her key in the lock, but before she could, the front door swung open, startling them both.
"Good evening, Sadie." Cynthia's gaze flitted from the Federal Agent to his companion, and a faint, sad smile touched her lips. "I am glad you are home. We need to speak with you."
"Well, and I thought you were out of action." Alex's brow creased in confusion. Cynthia spread her hands.
"I have not been well." She admitted carefully. "But I believe that the worst is behind me. Aaron and I have...er...rectified the little problem I have been having of late. Or at least, I believe we have."
"Oh, thank God for that!" Sadie hugged her friend impulsively. "I'm glad to see you, Cyn, and know it's all over with. But I dragged Al back here for coffee...what do you mean, you need to speak to me? Am I...I mean, is it...?"
"What she's trying to ask, Cynthia, is do you want me to leave?" Alex looked amused. Cynthia shook her head.
"No, Alex, quite the opposite. I am glad you are here." She said soberly. "Though how Stefana will react to you, I do not know. I believe she dislikes law enforcement."
"Stefana?" At this, Sadie stared at her friend. "What has she got to do with anything?"
"She's here." Cynthia responded. "She has been for most of the evening. Topaz and Nancy have both tried to reach your phone, but it was switched off. We hoped you'd bring Alex back with you."
She sent Alex an apologetic look.
"I am sorry, for I know this is a night free for you." She added. "But we may need some help."
"I think I'm completely lost." Sadie cast her fiance a nonplussed look, and Alex shrugged.
"No more than I am." He agreed. "But sure, Cynthia. If I can help, you know I will. So long as I get my coffee."
"Nancy just made a pot." Cynthia nodded. "Come, through to the lounge. I do not wish to discuss this matter outside the walls of the Starlight Mansion. I do not know who might be here, or who may be listening to me."
With that she turned on her heel, retreating into the house. Alex grinned.
"Visiting the Starlight is always eventful." He teased, casting his fiancee a grin. "Come on, Sade. Let's see what this is about."
The atmosphere in the lounge was both awkward and tense as Alex and
Sadie joined the gathered musicians, taking in the sombre expression on
more than one face. Stefana was curled up in one corner, toying with a
cigarette, though she had not lit it up. She tensed as Alex entered,
him with an almost hunted look, but Alex took no notice, dropping down
into an empty seat and pulling Sadie down with him.
"So what's all this?" He asked, by way of preamble. "I feel like I'm waiting outside the courtroom for a judge to pass sentence. Cynthia gave me the impression you needed to speak to me - or to Sadie, or to both of us. Is something wrong?"
"It's kinda strange." Nancy bit her lip, casting Stefana a wary glance, then, "Stefana began it. She kinda turned up on our doorstep earlier, banging on about another computer - that someone had built a new Synergy and that this machine was going to go psycho on Los Angeles. Maybe even kill someone. She might have hallucinated the whole deal - I don't know. But she seems to have convinced everyone, so I guess she's telling the truth. What we want to know is, what can your department do about it?"
"I was not hallucinating anything!" Stefana reacted to this. "It's as damn real as you are!"
"Woah, both of you." Sadie put up her hands. "Stef, another Synergy? How is that possible?"
"Techrat is how." Stefana said darkly. She bit her lip, then,
"I don't know about involving him." She indicated Alex. "He's law enforcement, and I didn't come here to make it a federal case. I only came to drop the warning on you all. I didn't say I was getting involved beyond that."
"Well, I'm here now." Alex said levelly. "And if someone has duplicated the technology, it is something we need to know about."
Stefana rolled her cigarette between her fingers absently, then,
"I'm way too involved in this to feel happy if your department goes to town on rooting it all out." She said uneasily. "I'm not involved in the sense that I'm part of building this crackpot computer, or anything even close to it. I just stumbled onto something I shouldn't have and now I know too much for them to let me out of the loop. It threatened to kill me if I tried to interfere, so you'll understand if I'm apprehensive about making it public knowledge. It's bad enough Darren McMillan has been on my case ever since Synergy's componants were stolen from your damn labs. He's convinced I know something. The further on I go, the more I do know. And maybe noone else would care if it obliterated me, but dammit, I care."
"We hoped to speak to you on a confidential level." Cynthia added, meeting Alex's gaze with a grave one of her own. "Stefana has taken a great risk to confide in us."
"And you already know, Alex, how important it is that noone knows who Cynthia really is." Copper added, twisting her hands together in her lap. "So, really, we just want your advice. And...and your help, without the Bureau getting involved."
"I see." Alex pursed his lips as he considered the situation.
"So basically, you're asking me to do some more covert sneaking around on your behalves?"
"Something like that, yes." Topaz looked guilty. "I know, it sucks. We're sorry. But otherwise we're on our own. And, well, we can't make this official or public. We don't know enough about it."
"I do." Stefana said grimly.
"Well, if you do, you've not told us half of what we need to know to begin tracking it down." Nancy said bluntly.
"If I tell you all that I know, you can't act on it." She said, her gaze directed at Alex this time. "I know you plea-bargained me once, and I know that you listened to my side of what happened without jumping in on me and putting me into prison for it. Maybe you'll be fair with me now, too. I'll swear to tell you the truth - tell you everything I know - so long as it's off the record. So long as it's only to...to help find this computer and shut her down before anyone gets hurt. Especially me."
Alex frowned, eying Stefana for a moment. Then he held up his hands.
"Off the record." He agreed. "I've no dictaphone and I'm taking no notes. But if someone's life is at risk..."
"Sophie Devereux and Ingrid Krueger." Stefana interrupted him.
"What?" Nancy's brow creased.
"They're the ones behind all this." Stefana put her cigarette to her lips, fumbling in her pocket for her lighter. "They're the ones paying Techrat. Or rather, they made a deal with him. It's his machine, but they got the parts for him. I don't know how - they didn't tell me that. But I'd lay odds it was Sullivan that did it. He's the only one who could."
"If you light that thing up in here I'll make you eat it." Nancy threatened.
"Oh, shut your face, Jewel." Stefana snapped back. "I'm on edge!"
"Nance, lay off her." Topaz put up her hands. "I know you hate it, but the girl's trying to help us. Just for once...let it go, huh?"
Nancy grimaced, but she fell silent, and with shaking hands, Stefana lit her cigarette, taking a deep drag.
"Minx and Magique are trying to kill Riot?" Cynthia looked startled. "Is that what you're saying, Stefana?"
"No, not at all." Stefana shook her head. "I don't know what exactly got up Ingrid's ass, but something has. She and Rory are barely speaking, and Sophie's a manipulative bitch. She's enjoying playing power games. The idea is to use Techrat's computer to frame Rory - I don't know how. But they want to, well, oust him from the company so they can take over. That's what I got."
"Jesus." Aaron whistled.
"Well, they have issues." Stefana shrugged.
"No kidding." Sadie frowned. "But what's this about killing Rory? Where did that come from?"
"Techrat's stupid computer." Stefana flicked ash from her cigarette onto the windowsill. "He thinks he has control over it, but he hasn't a clue. I knew it was a bad idea as soon as I realised what they were doing."
She pointed at Cynthia.
"She doesn't follow programming." She added. "And nor does his."
"So you're telling me that this Techrat person built the computer, and that Ms Devereux and Miss Krueger were going to use it to stage a coup at Rebel Records?" Alex asked slowly. Stefana nodded.
"But the computer's out of his and everyone's control, and is making her own decisions about what needs doing?"
Stefana's lip curled in derision.
"It seems to be a design flaw with the breed."
Cynthia looked troubled.
"Indeed it is." She said softly. "Alex, it frightens me that there is another computer like myself operating in Los Angeles. I have become aware over time that I have many capabilities - including that to be dangerous, if I should so choose. I don't choose...but clearly, this other machine does. Whatever her motivation, and whatever drives her, she needs to be stopped."
"So what can I do?" Alex frowned. "Magic it out of thin air?"
"No, but if Stefana can describe the dude who built it, you might be able to track him down on one of your databases at the Bureau." Topaz suggested. "At least, that's what we thought. If we could find him, we could find his computer. But none of the rest of us have ever seen him - not even Cynthia. We wouldn't have a clue - we don't even know his real name."
"If he even has one." Stefana sighed. "He's not exactly...well...human, if you want the truth."
"Not exactly human?" Aaron looked confused. "What's that mean?"
"Well, he's a man, of course." Stefana inhaled on her cigarette. "I mean, I guess he is. But he's a total recluse. A real weirdo. Obsessed by machines and componants and stuff. He freaks out if you go near him, or touch one of his precious creations. And he's modelled this computer's image on Ingrid. It's sick. He's sick."
"Stef, if I grabbed some paper and a pencil, could you describe what he looks like?" Sadie asked, getting to her feet and heading over to the desk in the corner. "I could sketch him and then Alex would have something to take away with him."
"I guess so." Stefana nodded her head. "Though he's kinda...well...nondescript."
"Try." Sadie found what she was looking for, crossing the room and dropping down beside her friend. "It's all we have to go on."
"All right." Stefana agreed slowly. "Then I'm cutting out of here. It's getting late, and this is not my favourite place to be."
As the two girls huddled down in their corner to compose the sketch, the others gathered more closely on the remaining seats, each chilled by the implications of Stefana's words.
"Are we definitely telling Syl about this, by the way? When she gets home?" Topaz asked. Copper nodded her head.
"Of course, but noone else." She responded. "She's one of us and we can't leave her out of it. Besides, we may well need as many bodies as possible if we're canvassing for something that looks like anything or anyone."
"That doesn't give us great odds, does it?" Nancy sighed. "Cyn, what about you? Stefana said that you were being tracked. Can you counter that and track his machine instead?"
"Perhaps." Cynthia considered. "If I was to have some way of pinpointing her frequency and her signal. The problem is, of course, that I do not know what kind of projection she has. Stefana compares her to me, but she is not technological, and she may be mistaken. She said downstairs that Techrat had corrected weaknesses he saw in my own design. It suggests that, whatever hardware she is using, it is different from my own."
"Which means you can't just pin a device on your own signal and hope for the best." Aaron sighed. "Pity."
"Is it his machine that's tracking Synergy, or something else?" Copper wondered. Cynthia frowned, as flashes of memory flooded her senses.
"I think it's something else." She said slowly. "I have a recollection..."
"A memory?" Aaron looked startled. "Of what?"
"Ingrid Krueger...at the Drive Through. She had something, and she was tracking me there." Cynthia said carefully. She cast Alex a glance, then, "I was not Cynthia, so she does not know that Synergy and I are one and the same. But I did speak with her. She claimed to be a friend of Jerrica's. But she carried something with her to follow my signal. I do not know why she sought me out. But she did - so whatever she did it for, it must be important."
"And it would explain why we found that button there, when Sadie and I went back there later." She added. "Oh, I wish my senses weren't still so muddled! I'm so tired, and everything is still all over the place. It's enough to fence off my emotions over Jerrica's death without having to wade through several mismatched files."
"Then maybe you should call it a day." Copper suggested gently. "Power down and give your processors a chance to rest up. Maybe in the morning you'll feel fresher and the files will slot back into place together more easily."
"Perhaps, though a computer does not benefit from a good night's sleep in the same way you do." Cynthia responded. "And whilst I am powered down, I leave the Starlight Mansion vulnerable. It is taking considerably more of my power than usual to maintain the sensors, because I am still trying to sort out my jumbled hard drive."
"So we'll take our chances tonight, then." Nancy said. "We survived last night, and you were switched off then."
"Last night we didn't know about this other computer." Cynthia said grimly. "And if she poses a danger to any of you..."
She trailed off, her eyes widening.
"Oh, but maybe that is the answer!"
"What is?" Alex looked lost.
"Stefana said that she was bothered about me still existing." Cynthia explained. "Maybe I shall bait her. Draw her out into the open. If I can find her hologram, I can trace her signal. And if I can do that, Alex, then I can discover where her mainframe is based."
"But what if she hurts you?" Topaz protested.
"Well, I'll take the risk that she's too newly built to understand all of her capabilities and realise that it is a trap." Cynthia said composedly. "Experience is the only thing I have on my side, after all. I will not draw her into confrontation, Topaz. It is not my goal for her to locate me. Merely for me to be close enough to her emission to get a bearing. That's all."
"And you think you're up to that, after all that's been going on of late?" Aaron raised an eyebrow. Cynthia's expression became stubborn once more.
"Don't fight me on this, Aaron. It takes more strength to argue with my friends than it does to play the computer and log a signal." She said softly. "Once I have that, I will know better what we are up against. More, I might even be able to fathom a way to stop her."
"How will you draw her out?"
"For that I might need Stefana's assistance." Cynthia admitted. "If this Athena computer intends on making an attempt on Rory Llewelyn's life, then she will surface at Rebel Records at some point. I just have to ensure that I'm on the premises at the time. That's all. And the best way to do that is by being - or being with - a member of Rory's staff."
"I don't like any of this." Alex frowned. "If Llewelyn is going to be attacked, he needs police cover and bodyguard. People to keep him safe."
"Cynthia's probably the only one who could get in there and save his life." Aaron shook his head. "You and I, we wouldn't know a hologram just by looking at it. Cynthia would. Her sensors would pick up the light emissions right away. She's the only one who'd recognise the killer for who or what she was."
"In which case, she might be Rory's only chance." Copper looked pensive, exchanging looks with her husband. "So I guess you better speak to Stefana before she leaves tonight. Because I got the feeling it was going to be soon...and the quicker we find Athena, the quicker it will all be over!"
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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