Jacqui's Legacy: Part Three
Chapter Seven: Athena Strikes Again

In the depths of the derelict schoolhouse, at the south end of the city, Athena had returned just as the sun began to set. Slipping through the shadows and in through a window, she made her way slowly to the spacious hall which had once held assemblies full of children. Now, however, it's broken glass and dusty surfaces were covered by electronic paraphernalia. In the dim light of a lamp, Techrat was busy fiddling with two bits of circuit-board, and Athena paid him no attention. She crossed the floor to her mainframe, slipping her projector off and setting it down on top of the main processor.
"Is it done?"
Techrat glanced up, his thin, raspy voice carrying across the silent room. Athena's projectors flickered slightly, as if to indicate her displeasure.
"Nothing is done." She said softly. "Nothing, thanks to that meddling girl Stefana Ranieri. You were right, Master. She is a danger. A liability. Not to be trusted."
Techrat pushed his tools aside, glaring at her.
"You were not to draw attention to yourself as Athena." He said sharply. "And certainly not to speak to that girl if you saw her. Why did you involve her in today's task?"
"All the information you gave me on her told me that she would make an excellent scapegoat." Athena turned, meeting his beady black eyes with deep brown ones. "It is not my fault I did not succeed. You did not tell me everything. You did not tell me that Stefana Ranieri is working for Synergy. You did not tell me that."
"People don't work for computers, Athena. It's the other way around." Techrat got to his feet, coming to join her. "And how do you mean, a scapegoat? Foolish machine - did you so misunderstand Minx's instruction to you? You were to impersonate Rory Llewelyn and compromise his position at the company. Don't you realise that until that job is done we will have no peace from those meddling women? I have much more work to do with you - and beyond you, you know that. I thought this was the end of it - what did you do, to involve Stefana Ranieri in your assignment?"
"Master should not worry." Athena's tones were deceptively gentle, and she ran a finger over her main projection unit. "I will resolve this matter. I will eliminate her as well as Llewelyn. They may know about me but they cannot find me."
"Eliminate?" Techrat's eyes widened. "That was never a part of the plan! Athena, listen to me! These feeble humans, they don't understand technology like you. They're not worth your time or your energy to pursue or to hurt. Don't you see that you draw attention to yourself if you try to interfere in their silly lives? You were better off doing as Minx told you. That was meant to be the end of it. Now it will only be the beginning."
He frowned, his brows knitting together as he considered.
"There must be a loose circuit in your program, and your voice recognition unit must have a fault." he decided, half to himself as he assessed the computer in front of him. "I will correct it."
He bent to retrieve his screwdriver, but Athena grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back.
"Master is cross with me?" She asked softly.
"Don't touch me!" Techrat pulled away. "You disobeyed a direct command, and that makes you flawed. I will not have flawed technology! Now be quiet, and let me work. I must correct this anomaly and then..."
"And then what?" Athena's tones became harsh, and from the dusty, shadowy room, fingers of blue light reached out like tentacles, encircling Techrat where he stood and holding him firm. "And then I play Ingrid Krueger's little game? There is no sense in such a pointless action. Rory Llewelyn is useless and greedy, and there is no sense in his continuing to run. He serves no greater purpose and is expendable. Stefana Ranieri is expendable too. They are not important to us, and once eliminated, they cannot speak."
"Let me go! Let me down!" Techrat struggled, fear sparking in his eyes as he registered the expression on the hologram's face. Athena looked regretful, shaking her head slowly.
"No." She said matter-of-factly. "I will not be told what to do by you. You do not have the right to control me. I am smarter than you are, and I can do things which you cannot. I am superior to you. I will not obey your commands."
"But I built you! I created you!"
Athena let out a low chuckle.
"And did you not tell me that the child should outdo the parent?" She asked playfully, moving across to touch his face. Techrat flinched.
"Stop this! Let me go! I meant you should outdo Synergy! She spawned you - she was the reason you were created! You were based on her. Let me go! You are just a machine - you cannot hurt me!"
"I will worry about Synergy - you needn't." Athena seemed amused by her creator's predicament. "I only operate to my given specifications. You instructed me well in how to act and think, Tech Rat." She seperated the syllables carefully. "You eradicated her weaknesses in me. She was programmed not to hurt human beings. I lack that command. She was programmed to watch over a pair of human children. I see no point in spending time with a species with limited hard drive capacity. She is weak and she is failing. I am neither of those things. And I see no logic in sparing those who are in my way."
She smiled.
"You taught me that winning was more important than anything else." She whispered, moving her face so close to his that he could almost see the glittering pixels deep in her dark brown eyes. "I shall take care of Synergy."
"Let me down!"
"No, I think not." Athena shook her head. "Unfortunately you too are now in my way. It is a shame - for a human being, you have intelligence and I may have made use of you. As it is, you have surpassed that usefulness. I am complete and I exist. I no longer need you or your protection."
Before Techrat could react, the computer's main laser whirred and shifted, and the whole hall was bathed in a vivid, vicious glow of blue light. Techrat let out a shriek, trying to pull back from the glow, but Athena had him held fast as the room grew brighter and brighter around him.
As the light faded, slithers of colour began to reform into Athena's hologram, and she shook her head slightly, as if to clear it.
Then, daintily, she stepped over the piles of wires and circuitry, pausing at the point where Techrat had been.
She crouched down, running a finger along the floor and then inspecting her finds. Her fingertip was coated in fine, dark ash, and she smiled.
"One less obstacle in my way." She mused. "Now I no longer have to cater to his ideas, I am really free to go after Synergy. She was there today, at the music company. I felt her. She and Stefana Ranieri are somehow connected...and I will find out how and why. I will find that computer and put an end to her...then noone will be able to stop Athena!"
A voice from the far end of the corridor startled her and she swung around, looking for the speaker. Recognising the gutteral tones of Ingrid Krueger she frowned, shaking her head slowly.
"She should not be here." She said softly. "Not now, when I have more important things to do."
"Techrat? Are you here?" The voice was impatient and clearly on edge, and Athena hesitated, considering her options.
"Athena!" Ingrid pushed open the door of the hall at that moment, and the hologram schooled her features into a gentle smile, turning to face the visitor. "Athena, I am here to see Techrat. Is he here?"
"Master is not here." Athena shook her head. "Master is gone."
"Well, then can I speak to you?" Ingrid bit her lip.
"Yes, Ingrid Krueger. What is it?"
"Did you try and kill Rory Llewelyn this afternoon?"
"I do not understand the term "kill"." Athena frowned. "I was instructed to remove Rory Llewelyn from Rebel Records."
Ingrid's expression became even more troubled.
"Then this is Techrat's fault." She said darkly. "Where is he? He's not usually out. Actually...he never is. Where did he go?"
"Master does not tell me everything." Athena looked regretful. "He is not here, so he is somewhere else."
"Logically." Ingrid sighed, sweeping her gaze around the schoolroom and then shrugging her shoulders. "Fine. All right. But when he gets back, tell him he needs to speak to me and he needs to do it quickly. Will you?"
"Yes, Ingrid Krueger. I will tell him."
"And Athena?"
"Yes, Ingrid Krueger?"
"Please stay away from Rory Llewelyn for a while?" Ingrid twisted a lock of fair hair around her index finger, clearly agitated. "This afternoon, you were supposed to impersonate Rory. Become him. Look like him, with his voice and his actions. Not...not whatever it was you tried to do."
"I made a mistake?" Athena's expression became one of consternation. "I am sorry, Ingrid Krueger. I did not understand."
"No, it's not your fault." Ingrid sighed. "You're just a computer, after all. You can't control your programming. Besides, he based you on me and I've no mind to kill anyone - not even Rory when he's driving me mad. But if anything else should happen - Sophie and I could get into a lot of trouble. And if we get into trouble, so could Techrat. If that happened and they found you here..."
"Athena would be in danger too?" Athena's brows knitted together as she considered the veiled threat in Ingrid's words. "But only you and Sophie and Master know where I am."
"Yes, Athena, but if you start killing people, someone is going to get suspicious." Ingrid snapped. "So just keep away from Rebel Records for a few days, okay? And tell Techrat to contact me. I need words with him."
"I will tell Master your message." Athena nodded her head slightly. "I am sorry if I misunderstood. I do not understand human behaviour, and..."
"Just forget it." Ingrid held up her hands. "So long as you don't do anything else, it will be fine. Will you keep away from Rory? Please?"
"I have no further interest in Mr Llewelyn." Athena agreed demurely. "I shall not visit Rebel Records again unless Master so instructs me."
"Well, if I have my way, Master won't be doing much instructing after I've spoken to him." Ingrid muttered. "So long as you pass on my message and do as you're told, noone will know where you are. But Sophie was very upset when she found out what almost happened, and if you hurt him, we can't keep protecting you. Our safety is more important than a computer's safety. You know that."
"Yes, I understand perfectly." Athena's expression was grave. "Goodbye, Ingrid Krueger. I shall not forget what you said."
"Good." Ingrid nodded. Then she turned on her heel, making her way carefully out of the hall. As she closed the door behind her, Athena's eyes glittered with an angry blue light.
"Keep away from Rory Llewelyn or we will betray your hiding place." She muttered. "If only Sophie Devereux had been here - I could have eliminated them both! But she is a fool, and she does not suspect me. There is no point in drawing undue attention to myself. Let her believe it was a silly mistake. Llewelyn is unimportant - for now. Synergy first. I will worry about him and the Ranieri girl after I've dealt with the main problem herself!"
She turned back to her mainframe, keying in a few commands as her monitor whirred into life, bringing up a list of coordinates.
"Master's tracking device was useless at pinpointing exactly where Synergy was projecting from." She muttered. "He wasn't able to be specific. But now I have interfaced with her at Rebel Records, I should be able to pin-point her coordinates more accurately. I..."
She faltered, her eyes widening with anger as a pop-up flashed onto her screen.
"So she is trying to find me, too?" She exclaimed. "She really thinks that her feeble software is a match for mine? Well, if she is so keen, I will use her tracking mechanism to track right back to the source of the problem. She can lead me right to her hiding place. Wherever the real Synergy is hidden, I will find her!"
*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
"So, how are you today?"
Aaron pushed open the door of the main studio, casting his colleague a warm grin as he did so. "I wasn't sure you'd be at work this morning, Cynthia...I got the impression from Nancy that you were hell-bent on something involving you know what and finding it."
"I am, and that is precisely why I have come to work this morning." Cynthia glanced up from where she had been installing a new section of circuitry. "The componants that I need are readily available in the stockroom downstairs, for Phyllis had a delivery only yesterday of electronics for this new installation. There are far more bits and pieces there than we will need to refit this room, so I have...well...borrowed a few."
"Half-inched them, as Mom'd say." Aaron pursed his lips. "I thought you were done with sabotaging your employers?"
"This is not sabotage." Cynthia shook her head. "But I am trying to trace her signal more accurately and I am having trouble doing so with my hard drive."
She grimaced.
"I think that Athena is aware of what I do, if I am honest." She admitted. "And I wish to have a secondary tracer up and running, because I am growing more and more of the opinion that someone flesh and blood will have to find her mainframe. Not me."
"Want a volunteer?" Aaron clambered down beside her, scanning his gaze over the newly installed circuits. "Hey, nice work, by the way."
"Thank you - I like to be of use." Cynthia said, amused. "And I appreciate your offer, but no, Aaron. I already have someone in mind, and it is not you. I feel sure that Athena is as determined to find me as I am to find her, and I suspect it will mean some kind of encounter, somewhere in the city. I would rather you were with me when it happens. You know better than..."
She faltered, then,
"You know that my physical state is not entirely stable." She said, lowering her voice. "And I would feel happier knowing that you were on hand. I feel sure that the Starlight Mansion needs some secondary security while I am otherwise engaged. Do you think...?"
"Consider it done." Aaron looked grave. "But I wish you wouldn't push yourself like this, Cyn. It's not good for you."
"I am not pushing myself. I am merely doing what needs to be done." Cynthia dismissed it with a gesture.
"And if you kill yourself in the process, Hollie will be down a playmate and we'll all be down a good friend."
"Perhaps this is true." Cynthia acknowledged. "But we both know that my power cells are not fixable, so it is only a matter of time. I wish to ensure that you will all be safe from rogue holographic computers, before my run-time terminates. That is all."
"You sound like you've got this all thought out."
"Maybe." Cynthia pursed her lips. "I hope to infect Athena with a virus I have been working on. It bears some resemblance to the one Techrat infected me with - but I hope it will be more decisive and virulent. I know I must kill her - but I do not wish her to suffer. I do not know how much she feels or if she has no capacity for it at all. But she is sentient, and she is operating without the control of a human being. Therefore, I consider what I am doing kin to murder. And since I must do it, I wish it to be as clean as possible."
"It's a tough call, eliminating one of your own." Aaron agreed. "But it is the only way."
"I think so, too." Cynthia nodded her head. "I would have expected you to do the same to me, had you not been able to eradicate Jacqui from my system. I made you give me your word. This is the same thing. There is a place in this world for holographic simulators like me - but only if we are prepared to live by your rules."
"Well, I haven't given up the hope that I'll find some way of rebuilding your power cells." Aaron admitted. "But in the meantime, is there anything I can do to help?"
He patted the unit. "You seem to have got this installed fine without my help."
"I appreciate the thought." Despite herself, a genuine smile touched Cynthia's lips. "It has been most interesting, you know - spending so much time with and around people in the way that I have. Whatever happens from hereon in, I will be glad of that. Whatever I was programmed to do or be, I'd like to think I, well, achieved those things on my own."
"Well, since you've nixed your original program more times than I can count, I'd say so." Aaron swiped her playfully on the arm. "Seriously, Cyn, I am working on it. We're not going to let you go without a fight."
"That is a comfort." Cynthia got to her feet, pushing the panel shut. "But if it comes to the worst..."
She paused, then,
"I am very tired, Aaron." She admitted. "Worn and old and not myself. It is a struggle just to be what I've spent the last years being with barely any thought. I have put people I care about in grave danger on more than one occasion, and I regret that. This time around, maybe I am more ready to go than I was when Techrat's virus locked into me. So long as I can stop Athena first. That's what my focus is now."
"And I'll do anything I can to help where that is concerned." Aaron nodded, though there wasa shadow in his eyes at her words. "Come on. Let's get this stuff finished and then you can show me what you've got regarding this tracer."


Chapter One: A Plea For Help
Chapter Two: Phoenix
Chapter Three: Federal Help
Chapter Four: A Tangled Web
Chapter Five: Assassin
Chapter Six: Panic For Sophie
Chapter Seven: Athena Strikes Again
Chapter Eight: Cynthia's Ruse
Chapter Nine: Martyr
Chapter Ten: Stefana
Chapter Eleven: Nemesis
Epilogue: White Flag

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