"Well, well, well."
Jetta stood in the doorway of the main studio, folding her arms across her chest as she eyed the room's sole occupant. "Hello, Cynthia. So you do still work 'ere then? My mistake."
"I am sorry for my absence this week, Ms Pelligrini." Cynthia set down the cables she had been examining, casting her superior a penitent look. "I have been most unwell of late. I did attempt to call the office and log my absence through the proper channels, but I...I could not get a signal. I hope I am not in trouble."
"Well, that probably depends on whether or not I tell Pizzazz that you were bunkin' off." Jetta pursed her lips. "Though I 'ave to admit, you look a funny colour. Jus' don't give it to anyone else, all right? We're crazy enough 'ere, with all the sabotages an' stuff that 'ave been goin' down of late."
Cynthia coloured at this, nodding her head.
"Yes, I realise." She agreed. "And Aaron and I will continue to do everything we can to fix those things."
Jetta crossed the floor to the main cabinet, reaching in her pocket for her key and unfastening the top drawer, rifling through the files.
"Well, we're 'oping that they're done with." She said absently, skimming over one of the folders as she hunted for the document she needed. "There ain't been anythin' for a few days an' we think whoever it was either got caught someplace else causin' mischief, or got bored because they weren't dentin' our business appeal. Whatever the deal, it's all gone quiet. You might 'ave a peaceful week if you're lucky."
"I hope so." Cynthia admitted. "I don't feel that I am quite at full fitness yet, I must admit."
She sighed, setting the cables down on the unit. "But it is not contagious, Ms Pelligrini. It was an...an internal problem. Something...something that my family have a hereditary weakness towards."
"Oh?" Jetta set down the folder, looking curious as she reached for a new one. "Genetic? Somethin' Benton? Your old Pa died of some disease or other, ain't that right? Don't tell me you're followin' suit - if Pizzazz 'as to sign someone else off for sick reasons this year she'll be tearin' 'er hair out. Between you an' me, I don't think she can replace you."
"Well, I hope it is not so serious as all that." Cynthia mustered a smile. "But I have been fatigued. We Bentons do not react too well to overwork."
"Who does, love?" She asked.
"May I ask you a question, Ms Pelligrini?" Cynthia perched herself on the unit, eying her boss with curious violet eyes. "It's something that has been on my mind for...for a little time now."
"Sure, kid. What's eating you?" Jetta nodded, dumping her burden on the unit top with the other and sending her companion a slight smile. "Though if this is gonna be at all deep an' meaningful, I'm sendin' you to Jewel."
"No, it isn't that kind of a question, I assure you." Cynthia returned the smile. "No. It's just..."
She faltered, then,
"When my sister died, we discovered references in...in her diary to a man called Techrat." she said carefully. "And that he was known to the Misfits, too."
"Techrat?" Surprise followed by recognition flashed into the executive's grey eyes. "Now, that takes me back donkey's years. What would you be wantin' with 'im?"
"Oh, I don't." Cynthia shook her head. "I just...I guess I wondered who he was."
"I didn't really know a lot about my sister's life, not after we fell out." She added. "And I suppose I'm trying to fill in some blanks."
"I see." Jetta pursed her lips, though Cynthia thought she saw a flash of compassion cross her boss's face. "Well, I doubt very much 'e featured in your sister's life, Cynthia. That's the honest truth. Man was a maggot. Friendly with Eric Raymond - that's 'ow we knew of him. But that's about all we did know. He built machines, an' that was pretty much 'is existance. I don't know 'ow Eric found 'im, or what he got out of workin' that relationship. But sometimes 'e would build gadgets to 'elp us along. Rum little fella, now I think of 'im. Certainly not the kind of man Jerrica woulda associated with."
"I see." Cynthia schooled her features into a thoughtful look. "So he was...not nice?"
"He wasn't really anything." Jetta frowned. "He was just there. More machine-mad than anythin'. You kinda got the impression that Eric switched 'im off at night and put 'im in the broom cupboard, if you get me. No life, no family, nothin' else. Just...'im an' 'is machines. Not even a name. Just...Techrat."
"Then I would venture to agree with you." Cynthia nodded. "He was probably not a friend of Jerrica's. Perhaps she only mentioned him in reference to his acquaintance with Mr Raymond. I know she knew him well."
"You're probably right." Jetta agreed. "Hey, changin' the subject, and while you're 'ere - Pizzazz is wantin' to install a new security system at this place, because the old one is obviously flawed. We've seen it breached far too much of late. If you've got a moment, trot up an' give 'er your advice, will ya? She's porin' over brochures an' if you don't, likely we'll find ourselves zapped by lasers when we step in the door."
"That would be unfortunate." A glimmer of a smile touched Cynthia's lips at this. "I will indeed speak to Miss Gabor about her new system. And thank you, Jetta. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my question."
Before her companion could respond, she scooped up her cables and tools, heading out of the door and up towards the lift, pressing the button for the top floor.
"Well, that wasn't my smoothest deception ever, but it sufficed." She mused, as she waited for the car to reach her floor. "Good thing Jetta did not know Jerrica well enough to know that my sister did not keep a diary. But I was right. He was known to the Misfits - and therefore we encountered him, in the eighties, when I was still working with Jem and the Holograms. I knew I had that reference in my database - I knew that there was more to this man than just someone who'd infected me with a virus. I have come across the name in the past, and Eric Raymond also managed the Stingers. I recall that only too well. So we must consider that that is the connection. Of course Minx and Magique would seek help from someone who had served them well in the past. It is unfortunate that Jetta did not know more about him...but he seems like a man of whom little is known, anyway."
She sighed, stepping into the lift and dropping her tools down onto the floor.
"Now, if only I can maintain my projection long enough to go over this tiresome brochure with Miss Gabor." She added. "I do not wish anyone here to be suspicious of me, but I feel that I am wasting time. We still don't know when Athena might strike at Rebel Records. I will have to hope that it won't be before lunch. As it is I will do well not to keep Stefana waiting."
* * * * * * * * * *
Alex clicked his mouse across a new section of the file, hunting through each and every description as he went. Every so often he would cast a fleeting glance at the sketch his girlfriend had done, but so far, there was no match.
He sighed, tilting back slightly in his chair as he loaded a new database.
"It's like the dude doesn't exist." He mused. "Hell, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's only in Stefana Ranieri's head. I knew she was messed in the drug scene when I plea-bargained her over that fire. Maybe it's more emphatic a problem than I thought."
"What are you looking for?"
A voice from behind him made him jump and he turned, casting his partner a grin as he took a folder from the shelf, casually dumping it down on top of Sadie's sketch.
"You look like crap." He said bluntly, as Raymond dropped down into his own chair. "Don't tell me you spent another night here."
"Okay, I won't tell you." Raymond sighed. "I swear I love my wife to death, Alex. But it is impossible to sleep when the bed's other occupant is fidgeting. And, to make it worse, you're getting kicked repeatedly by a midget that isn't even here yet! I swear, the first thing I'm going to do when he's born is give him a good hiding!"
Alex laughed appreciatively.
"What if it's a girl?" He teased.
"Oh, you just wait till it's your turn." Raymond retorted. "Who'd have believed that coming to work in this crazy place would be less stressful!"
"I'll keep it in mind." He said playfully.
"So what are you doing?"
"Referencing known criminals." Alex frowned. "And coming up with squat."
"Referencing...?" Raymond looked confused. "For which case?"
"I had a tip-off." Alex hesitated, then crossed his fingers beneath his desk. "About that series of arson/murders south of the county. Someone phoned in a description...but nada is coming up. I got the feeling that that guy was a repeat offender - it seemed like a professional MO. But I guess this was just another timewaster. Pity, really. I mean, that case has been dragging on till the end of time."
"Tell me about it." Raymond grimaced. "Bummer. I hoped we'd have that dude in jail by the end of the year, as well. It seemed such an open and shut case."
"It would, if we had a suspect that matched the DNA profile." Alex clicked off the database with a sigh. "But anyhow. I'm wasting my time here. There's nothing on record."
"Can I see the mugshot?" Raymond asked. "Maybe it'll ring a bell with me."
"Sure." Alex pushed the folder aside, handing him the sketch. "Be my guest."
"That's our arsonist?" Raymond snorted. "This is the guy who's murdered six people and flamed their houses before fleeing the scene? Are you kidding me?"
"Well, I seem to be." Alex sighed. "I think it was a hoax call."
"So do I." Raymond dropped the sketch onto the desk. "Remember, we had those hair samples. We're looking for an African American suspect. This dude's caucasian. Way off the meter."
"Good point." Alex drummed his fingers on the desk. "Guess I was just desperate."
"Well, where that case is concerned, we need to follow all leads. Unfortunately." Raymond shrugged his shoulders. "But this one's a dead end. Shall I file the picture, just in case? Or...?"
"No, you might as well toss it." Alex responded. "And we'll go back to square one."
"And hope that in the meantime, suspect X doesn't do another one." Raymond said grimly.
"My thoughts exactly." Alex nodded his head. "But if we've nothing to go on...what can we do to stop him?"
* * * * * * * * * * *
She was running late.
Stefana cast a nervous glance up at the restaurant's clock, chewing on her bottom lip as she watched the second hand slowly creep round towards the twelve. The minute hand clicked forward again, and her gaze flitted to the doorway, but there was still no sign of Cynthia.
"I hope she's not going to bail on me." She muttered. "I've put everything on the line this time. I've pushed Marissa out of things. I've bailed on Diablo this morning, so I don't run into Ingrid or Sophie while I'm watching out for Rory. I've turned down lunch with Mari and Farah to come here and spend it with someone who doesn't even eat. Where is she, dammit! She might not run to human rules, but I do!"
"Well, if it isn't my favourite piece of hell."
The voice jerked her back to attention and she scowled, registering the Tribune reporter.
"Do you have a reservation?" She snapped.
"Do I need one?" Darren countered, dropping down into the empty seat opposite. "I thought this was a casual lunch type place. Is it black tie all of a sudden?"
"No, just they don't serve lowlifes like you."
"They do if I have the money to pay the bill." Darren said astutely. "What's your excuse?"
"Go away. I don't have time for you or your games." Stefana retorted. "I'm waiting for someone, and that someone isn't you."
"Someone?" Darren raised an eyebrow. "Do I sense a Tribune exclusive?"
"No, you sense a thump in the mouth if you don't get lost." Stefana bristled. "I mean it, Darren. Go screw yourself. I'm fed up with it. Stalking is against the law, you know."
"So is taking amphetamine, or breaking into music company studios, or, you know, lying to the FBI." Darren's gaze narrowed. "It goes both ways, honey."
"I don't take amphetamine." Stefana said darkly. "And shut your face. That's all in the past."
"Even the lying to the Feds?" Darren looked interested.
"I haven't lied to them about anything."
"Well, I beg to differ." Darren pursed his lips. "Because I've done some thinking since we last spoke, Steffi."
"Stef-a-na. Try it. Three syllables can't be too much even for your puny brain, surely?" Stefana spat back. "And what do you mean, you beg to differ?"
"I think Synergy is still running." Darren rested his chin in his hands. "I think you lied to them and I think you lied to me. I think that's what all this weird stuff has been about. The you who came to see me. The incident in the restaurant. I think that someone's using your pet computer to shut you up, so you don't talk."
He reached over to touch her hand.
"And I like those odds. It means that what you know is big enough to sell a whole ton of papers. So what about it, Stefana? Want to spill? I'll make it worth your while."
"I didn't lie to you." Stefana knocked his hand away. "Synergy was taken by the FBI, so deal with it. If someone is playing games with holograms, it isn't me."
She pulled a face.
"And there's nothing you could offer me that I'd be interested in, McMillan. So go write that in your paper."
"I might." Darren looked amused. "You're an entertaining little minx, I'll give you that much. But you don't fool me, you know. You're way deep into all of this - whatever this is - and I'd be willing to bet a fair bit that it had something to do with this computer of yours."
"Well, then I am afraid you would lose that bet, Mr McMillan."
Cynthia sat down at the table, casting Darren a smile. "I'm sorry, did Stefana invite you to join our lunch break as well? I did not realise."
"No, he just likes stalking me." Stefana rolled her eyes. "As you can see."
"Well, this gets better, doesn't it." Darren pursed his lips. "Stefana Ranieri and Cynthia Benton. My two little sources that ratted out Jerrica Benton's magic computer. Now they're suddenly meeting up in a restaurant downtown, when Synergy's componants are missing and holographic imitations are appearing all over Los Angeles. Who says there's no smoke without fire?"
"I am afraid I do not understand." Cynthia affected a confused expression. "There are holograms where?"
Darren raised an eyebrow at her.
"Do you think you're going to convince me any more than she does that there's nothing going on?" He demanded. "Don't be simple. I'm not so easily fooled. I know what I've seen, and I know that computer is behind it. What else is there in this city that can project holograms real enough that they could be actual people?"
Cynthia stared at him for a moment. Then she burst into laughter, startling both her companions equally at her reaction.
"Is that what you think?" She demanded. "That somehow Stefana and I are plotting to use Synergy to...I don't know, project pretend people all over the city?"
"That's sure as hell what it looks like to me."
"Well, we'd have a job." Stefana gathered her wits. "Darren, I don't even know how to switch on Clay's computer, let alone Synergy. I admit, I saw it in action. It projected damn good holograms, when it was running. But it isn't now."
"So I'm supposed to believe that Synergy was destroyed by falling masonry, in the Star Drive Through?" Darren demanded. "If that's the case, why were so many of the drives totalled? I spoke to my leak at the FBI. He said there was warping and melting within the system which wasn't consistant with it being crushed. Are you going to tell me that wasn't a lie?"
Stefana glanced at Cynthia, who became grave.
"Stefana is not party to this." She said quietly. "And you must leave her well alone. She only knows about the computer at all because of me, and she has nothing to do with it, when it was running."
"Cynthia?" Stefana looked confused. "What are you on about now?"
"I destroyed Synergy, and I did it when my sister died." Holographic tears filled Cynthia's violet eyes, but she blinked them back. Across the table, even Stefana was unsure if the emotion was real or carefully constructed to throw the reporter off the scent. "I was scared. I knew people would look for her, and I knew she'd be dangerous. So I...I made a virus. I infected her systems and she shut down. The roof has always been unstable at the Drive Through. Once she was...once she was dead, I just, well, let things take their natural course. When we brought you to see her, she had been inactive for some time."
She bit her lip, then,
"I didn't tell anyone that." She added. "And if you print it, I will deny every word. But you see, Synergy is dead. Whatever you have perceived - noone knows her fate better than I. There is...there is no story for you here."
Stefana stared at Cynthia, unable to believe her ears. Darren cast her a glance, and then frowned.
"You killed her with a virus?" He asked.
"I did." Cynthia agreed. "But she was just a computer - are you going to have me arrested for murder now? I think not. Jerrica had abandoned her. It was one of the things we disagreed on. I worked on her and conducted studies within the Drive Through - it was a hobby, but it never transgressed outside those walls. Then Jerrica died, and I knew what I must do. I had to protect my father's work, at all costs. And my family, too."
She spread her hands.
"So now you know." She added. "But as I said, you only have my word that it happened at all. I know nothing of anything since. And I will not have you harassing my friend. She is innocent in this. She knew nothing but what we told you, and you are upsetting her."
"So now you know, butthead. Leave us alone." Stefana managed to find her voice at last. "Or I'll call the restaurant's security and they'll show you the way out."
"Fine, I'm going." Darren got to his feet, then paused, eying both girls again.
"It could be true." He admitted. "But Synergy's bits are no longer in Federal custody. Which means..."
"Any fool could have stolen them and done whatever to them." Stefana said coldly.
"No, not a fool." Darren pursed his lips. "If this ain't to do with you, Stefana, then it means someone else took those parts. And someone else is responsible for the holograms...if they are holograms. And something else is happening that I don't quite understand yet. But it's okay. I will. I'll work it out."
He winked at her.
"So you better hope you've told me the truth." He added. "Else it could be ugly."
"Kinda like you, then." Stefana muttered. Darren merely grinned, turning on his heel and leaving the restaurant. Stefana poked out her tongue at his receding back, then,
"Why did you tell him all that crap?"
"Because I find with these people it's often better to tell them something and buy time. Even if it's not true." Cynthia said quietly. "And if it gets him off your back, then it is worth it."
"What if he just prints something anyway?"
"He won't, because he still has questions unanswered." Cynthia dismissed it with a careless gesture. "And besides, if he did, the heat would be on me. Not you. You should not concern yourself. I'm not worried."
"Why not? He might find you."
"By the time he did, it probably wouldn't matter." Cynthia said frankly. "And we're wasting time."
"What do you mean, it wouldn't matter?" Stefana stared. "Oh God, Techrat was right? You are..."
She dropped her voice, then,
"You are dying?"
"Maybe." Cynthia pursed her lips. "Jacqui damaged my power cells irrevocably, so it all depends on how long they last. And how much energy I will have to put into finding Athena."
"Do Aaron and the others know about this?"
"Aaron does, since he's seen my system status report, but there's nothing he can do about it." Cynthia shrugged philosophically. "They were built by Emmet Benton, not him."
"Aren't you freaked?"
"Right now, I'm tired." Cynthia admitted. "Tired of letting people down, tired of having to create lies to keep other people out of trouble. Tired of dragging my friends into harm's way. And tired of trying to regulate rogue emotions in a computer's hard drive."
Stefana was silent for a moment. Then she shook her head.
"That's giving up." She muttered. "What in hell use are you going to be to us if you're quitting?"
"I'm not quitting." Cynthia offered a faint smile. "You need my help to find Athena, and I shall give it. What happens after is still the future and we need not worry about it for now."
She got to her feet.
"Come on. You have still to get me inside Rebel Records. I am sorry for my tardiness - Phyllis Gabor had me in her office discussing security systems and I could not get away."
"Ironically, discussing with the saboteur ways to prevent further sabotages."
"You really did lose your mind, didn't you?" Stefana demanded. Cynthia nodded.
"I wasn't myself." She agreed. "And it scared me to know what I almost did."
"Hell, maybe we ain't so different." Stefana looked rueful. "Maybe you're more human than I thought."
"Perhaps, but at the end of the day, I am a computer." Cynthia pushed open the door of the restaurant. "And I was built to protect...whatever the cost to myself. So that is why we are going to Rebel Records. If Athena is there, we are going to find her."
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
The copyright for the original Jem characters featured in this and other stories by me belongs entirely to Hasbro and their interpretations to Christy Marx and the other writers of the Sunbow Jem series. Their future selves are based on concepts that are entirely my own and are not to be repeated elsewhere without due permission.
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