Jacqui's Legacy: Part Three
Chapter Eight: Cynthia's Ruse
Stefana stirred in bed, stretching and stifling a yawn as she tried to blink her companion into focus. "Steffi? Stef, come on, wake up! We were meant to be at Rebel Records an hour ago, and we have a rehearsal to get through. Rory's already been on the phone once demanding to know where we are!"
"Go away, whoever you are." Stefana muttered, turning her back on the speaker and closing her eyes. "I jus' got to sleep."
"Well, you'll just have to wake up again."
Madeleine reached down to grab her bandmate's duvet cover, pulling it back and hauling the guitarist into a sitting position. "I'm serious. We were meant to be in studio an hour ago and you bailed on us yesterday. We need you today. Our song is late now, and you've been acting like crazy this last couple of days."
"Maddy, you suck." Now awake, Stefana grabbed at her duvet, glaring at her companion. "I'm awake, all right? I'm getting up. Just Rebel Records isn't the place I most want to be at the moment."
"Well, that's just tough." Madeleine put her hands on her hips. "You got half an hour to shower, breakfast and be downstairs, because that's when we're leaving. And if you're not dressed by then, you'll have to come in your pyjamas."
Stefana muttered a curse, but obediently climbed out of bed, stomping across her room to grab her towel and then stalking out into the corridor, banging the door behind her. Madeleine let out a sigh, shaking her head slowly. Then she left the bedroom herself, hurrying down the main staircase to the kitchen, where her bandmates were already gathered.
"Well, is she coming today?" Clay demanded. Madeleine rolled her eyes.
"She was asleep." She said darkly. "But she's up now, I saw to that. She's taking a shower. I told her if she wasn't ready in half an hour we were taking her in her pyjamas and it seems to have done the trick."
"At least she's sleeping normally now." Luca remarked, finishing off the last of his coffee. "Any more of this going, Mari? I'm parched today."
"Some in the pot." Marissa nodded, reaching over to take his mug and refilling it. "Here. Though I'm saving a bit for Stef - sounds like she'll need it."
"She didn't go to bed till late last night." Farah commented from the doorway, crossing the kitchen floor and grabbing an apple out of the bowl. "I heard her. She was here, all right - I think she was going over music. Probably whichever song it is you're practicing today."
"Stef was working last night?" Madeleine frowned. "So if she is keen on getting this song down, why didn't she come to studio with us yesterday?"
"Something's up." Marissa sighed, setting down the coffee pot. "She won't tell me what, exactly. But I've had a lot of cryptic chats with her of late."
"So have Maddy and I." Luca remembered. "About someone dying...or not dying...and someone maybe being a threat to others."
"That kind of thing." Marissa agreed. "I was half afraid it was drugs again, but..."
She paused, then shook her head.
"I'm sure now that it's not, and that she is wound up in something." She concluded.
"Funny you should mention that." Farah took a bite out of her apple. "Rory dragged me into his office yesterday afternoon, to go over the concepts for the video. He was on edge the whole time, glancing at the door and out of the window. He didn't pay a blind bit of notice to anything I said, I swear."
She pursed her lips. "I suggested maybe blue ostriches could be Diablo's backing dancers, just to see if he was listening. He just nodded and murmured something. I swear he was on another planet. And, not long before I went to see him, I saw Steffi leave his office. She wasn't alone."
"Well, she wasn't with any of us." Clay said bluntly. "Because we were working."
"This was around lunchtime - just after." Farah shook her head. "And I didn't see anyone else with her, as such. I just heard her voice. She was talking to someone. I didn't hear what she said, and like I said, I didn't see a companion. But it struck me as funny."
"Rory was fine yesterday morning, when he barked his usual orders at us and headed off for his compilation meeting." Luca pondered. "Do you think that whatever's bugging Stef involves Rory?"
"Wouldn't be the first time." Clay remarked.
"No, true, but do you think she'd let herself get wrapped up in another of his schemes?" Marissa asked.
"Rory looked scared to death, you guys." Farah shook her head. "If this is one of his schemes, it's going majorly wrong."
"Morning all."
At that moment, Stefana pushed open the kitchen door, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, and with her damp curls hastily pulled back into a tie. "Coffee, Mari?"
"I saved you some." Marissa obediently poured a mug, passing it across to her friend. "Here."
"Are you going to studio like that?" Madeleine stared at her. "No make-up or anything?"
"I can't be bothered - we're on a tight schedule and I'm half asleep." Stefana shook her head. "You wanted me downstairs, so don't complain, huh?"
"Steffi, did you have a meeting with Rory yesterday?" Luca asked. Stefana almost choked on her coffee, sending her brother a startled look.
"Yes." Farah nodded. "I just wondered if he seemed okay when you saw him. I heard you leaving his office and I had a meeting right after. He wasn't with the program at all."
Stefana bit her lip.
"Well, he never is, is he?" She returned. "Nothing new there. He's always a jerk."
"Stef, what's going on?" Luca asked. "Something is, so don't tell us it isn't. You're starting to worry all of us with all this crazy behaviour."
"If I told you you'd never believe me." Stefana muttered. "So I'm not even going to try, if it's all right with you."
"I mean it." Stefana shook her head. "If Rory was on edge yesterday, you ask him why. Leave me out of it. I never asked to be involved in anything, and I certainly don't want the twenty questions about it. When it's all done with, maybe then we'll talk. But for now, we have a single to lay down. And if I sat up till four o' clock this morning getting my part straight for nothing, you will all be very sorry you woke me up."
"We just want to know if we can help, that's all." Farah said gently.
"Well, you can't." Stefana responded firmly. "So drop it, all right? I mean it."
"Fine." Luca sighed. "Just be careful, sis? Okay?"
"Trust me, I'm doing my best." Stefana grimaced, taking another sip of coffee. "Well? Are we going then?"
"I guess so." Madeleine glanced at Clay, who shrugged his shoulders.
"Guess I'm driving." He said simply. "Okay, Diablo. Let's hit the road."
As they left the house, Marissa heard the sound of a car engine and she grabbed Stefana by the arm.
"Did you hear that?"
"What am I hearing?" Stefana frowned at her. "Mari, don't you start getting all creeped out! Bad enough that I am!"
"I swear I heard a car." Marissa shook her head. "Like someone was...someone was here."
"What?" Stefana frowned, quickening her pace to the end of the drive and peering around the hedge. "Oh, Christ, that's all I need!"
"Steffi, are you coming to work or playing hide and seek round the shrubbery?" Clay called.
"I'm coming!" Stefana pulled a face at him. "Just Mari heard a car. I wanted to see who it was."
"And did you?" Marissa looked anxious. Stefana nodded her head.
"Darren McMillan. I'd know his junkheap anywhere." She said, her lip curling in distaste as she rejoined the others, climbing into the back of Clay's car. "He's still stalking me, even though Cynthia told him to get off my case yesterday. Of all the jerks...he's waiting for me to make a slip and reveal some great mystery to him!"
"Cynthia?" Madeleine frowned. "As in Benton? I thought you hated her."
"Well, let's just say we've found some common ground of late." Stefana sighed. "I don't know if I like her or if I don't, Maddy. But she did try and get Darren off my back at lunch yesterday."
"You blew me off for lunch to meet Cynthia, a girl who you wouldn't even talk to in the street a few weeks ago?" Marissa stared. "I'm trying not to be weirded out, Stef, but you're not making it easy."
"Well, I know where I stand with her, now." Stefana said grimly. "I told you once, drop it. If McMillan is stilll after me, the less he hears me say the better. This morning it's about music - all right? Anything else can wait."

At Rebel Records, Sophie Devereux had arrived early, pacing impatiently across her office as she glanced up at the big clock over the mantle. As the minute hand clicked onto the twelve, the office door swung open and, casting a furtive look behind her, Ingrid slipped into the room.
"Well?" Sophie raised an eyebrow, indicating for Ingrid to shut the door behind her. "Did you speak to him?"
"No, and not yet, either." Ingrid shook her head, dropping down into an empty seat with a sigh. "Athena was there, and I spoke to her. The trouble with involving electronics in anything that you do, Sophie, is that they have literal minds. She didn't understand that removing Rory from Rebel Records was not a direct command. But I think I convinced her that she shouldn't come near the company for a few days - at least not until I've spoken to Techrat. I don't know where he was, but he's never been the kind of man who likes to be found. I'll try his apartment later on, when I'm done here."
She bit her lip, then, "Riot?"
"He's not here." Sophie shook her head. "I suggested that, with yesterday's events, he took it easy today and took the morning off. I told him I'd handle his meetings today, and I intend to."
She looked troubled.
"I don't know what this means for our plans from here...but I think at best we need patient."
"I'm mad at Riot. I don't want him dead." Ingrid shook her head. "And I agree. Till I speak to Techrat, I don't think we should do anything. He's never let me down before. I'm not going to let this be a first time."
"All right - then we're agreed?" Sophie asked. "We sit back and let the dust settle. No sense in taking unecessary risks."
"You already did that, you pair of idiots."
A voice from the doorway made both women jump, and as one person they turned, seeing Stefana standing watching them.
"What do you want?" Sophie asked wearily.
"Don't think I'm doing this out of any loyalty to you or your little coup." Stefana clicked the door shut, perching on Sophie's desk and carelessly pushing her pile of paperwork aside. "And I'll make it brief, because the others think I've gone to the rest-room. But with Rory's car not here, I'm guessing you've convinced him to stay away from work. And so I'm warning you. You're in over your head. Your precious pet computer is not only completely psycho, but she's also really bad at keeping a secret."
"What exactly happened yesterday, Stefana?" Ingrid's eyes narrowed. "And how were you so close to Riot's office to see it all?"
"Maybe I was just lucky." Stefana folded her arms. "But if it was either of you who told Athena to masquerade as me while she tried to put an end to my boss..."
"What?" Sophie blanched. "She did...what?"
"So you didn't know." Stefana looked thoughtful. "Interesting. I had a feeling you didn't."
"What are you trying to tell us?" Ingrid frowned. "Stefana, stop playing games. We're all a little stunned by what happened yesterday, but Athena misunderstood her commands. She's a machine, she's not perfect. Techrat..."
"Techrat is the biggest idiot of all of you." Stefana interrupted. "I know more about what these machines can do than you do, and I know more than he does. I might not know the first thing about circuitry, but I know that it's crazy, getting involved with this kind of computer. Jerrica had no control over her computer. It outed her at the Memorial. It threatened me. It had a mind of it's own and it did what it wanted to. Did you really think that Techrat's computer would be any better? You make a machine smart enough to think, then you make it smart enough to rebel. And considering what Athena is capable of, we're all in big trouble unless someone flips the switch."
"Are you saying that Athena did...what she did yesterday...of her own free will?" Sophie asked slowly. "That somehow this computer is able decide for herself how to tackle a situation?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying." Stefana agreed. "And she's made it personal with me now, since she tried to frame me for Rory's murder. If I hadn't been there, well, who knows what might've happened? I kept my mouth shut and that's how she thanks me - so I'm done keeping mute. I want to know where he's keeping Athena and I want to know now. She has to be stopped."
"We gave Techrat our word..." Ingrid began, but Sophie held up her hand.
"No." She said softly. "I only got involved with this on the premise that there would be no violence. If what Stefana says is true, yesterday Athena crossed that line. Rory can be foolish and arrogant, and sometimes he is too chauvenistic for his own good. But I am fond of him, and I do not wish his death. Techrat is the one at fault - he should have seen the problems with what he was creating. He has created unwelcome trouble for us. I have no qualms in doing the same for him."
"Sophie." Ingrid's brows knitted together. "I was there last night. I spoke to Athena. If she's so dangerous, why didn't she go for me? She knows I know where she is."
Sophie looked grave.
"Because - if Stefana is correct - she knows I know where she is, also. And had you not returned, I would have become anxious." She said quietly. "This is beyond what either of us wanted."
She glanced at Stefana.
"I will give you the address." She said slowly. "If you give me your word that you will never speak of this to Rory. And that, if ever it should go any further - your silence in this matter is guaranteed."
Stefana gauged her companion for a moment, then nodded her head.
"I don't care what you do, or who runs this company." She said. "I just want to get rid of this machine before she totals me - and I know she has it in mind."
Sophie bit her lip. Then she tore a sheet of paper from her notepad, scribbling down the address. In silence, she handed it to the Diablo guitarist, who glanced at it, slipping it into her pocket.
"What makes you think you can stop this computer, if it really is as crazy as you think?" Ingrid demanded.
"Simple." Stefana shrugged her shoulders. "I have help."
With that she was gone, the door swinging behind her, and Sophie exchanged looks with her friend.
"I don't know that we can trust her." Ingrid was the first to speak. Sophie shook her head.
"I agree, but this is too messy and I do not wish to go back to Paris." She said gravely. "Nor do I wish you to be sent back to Germany - and Rory already suspects your involvement. If we silence Stefana, we silence all evidence against you. I can convince Rory that it was a misunderstanding - I will think of something and he will not take action. But we have no choice but to withdraw now and see how things go."
"All right." Ingrid spread her hands. "I trust you, and I guess you're right."
"Don't worry." Sophie offered a smile. "I'll ensure that Rory knows how you feel without making him suspicious. He is rattled at present - vulnerable and easy to persuade. I will work on him - it will be all right. I promise."
"Well, I hope so." Ingrid sighed. "Meantime I have music to write. And I still have to try and find Techrat. If Athena is a threat, I won't go back there looking for him. But I will check his home in town."
"Do you think Stefana is right about the computer? Or do you think Techrat has a more sinister motive than we realised for wanting to build this machine?" Sophie asked pensively.
"Right at the moment, I don't know." Ingrid admitted. "I thought I knew him - but how can you really know a man like that? And Rory did call him stupid a while ago. I suppose it's not impossible that he worked with us in order to build the perfect weapon of revenge."
Sophie shivered.
"Then I'm glad our involvement in this is at an end." She said soberly. "And me, I have meetings to oversee. Adieu, Minx. Keep me informed of what you find out at Techrat's home. If he isn't at the school, then he must surely be holed away there."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

It was getting dark.
Cynthia cast a glance around her, scanning the landscape for any sign of company, but she was alone.
Slowly and carefully, she picked her way across the gravel and patchy grass to the derelict building which had once been the Star Drive Through Theatre. Pausing at the door to run a hand along the crumbling plaster, a sense of nostalgia washed over her and a sad smile touched her lips.
"I may not come here again." She murmured. "Not after this is all over, anyway. But I will always feel at home here. And, if my plan is to work correctly, this is far enough away from the Starlight Mansion that it will not put others in danger. I just hope that I have taken everything into account. Athena's signal is strong and vibrant - she is a powerful computer system. And not at my best."
She slipped into the abandoned building, hesitating for a moment as she worked out how best to carry out her plan. It had been a long time since the days when her mainframe had been powered here, and the power outlet had begun to rust in places.
"But there is still power, and I know how to fix that, thank goodness." She murmured, setting to work as she carefully replaced the old, rotting sockets with new ones. "I am counting an awful lot on Athena's inexperience. If I can convince her that Synergy's signal comes from the Star Drive Through, then we shall be ready and waiting for her. And if that works, then it leaves my spy the opportunity to locate Athena herself."
"What are you doing here?"
A voice startled her and guiltily she swung around, apprehension on her face. At first she could see noone, but then a figure stepped out from the shadows and Cynthia let out a sigh of relief.
"You made me jump, Stefana." She said reproachfully. "Did you follow me here?"
"No, Aaron told me where I could find you." Stefana flicked off her torch, making her way carefully across the floor. She glanced up at the cracked ceiling, suppressing a shudder. "This place is creepy and dangerous. Are you sure it's a good idea to be here?"
"Yes, for those reasons." Cynthia nodded her head, finishing her task and getting to her feet. "I am glad you are here...but why are you here? I did not contact you to meet me."
"No, but I have some information I thought I should give to you."
Stefana fumbled in her pocket, pulling out the dogeared scrap of paper. "Here. Sophie and Ingrid are feeling a bit sorry for themselves at the moment, realising how in over their head they are. I told them Athena tried to kill Rory disguised as me and that it was personal now - I made them tell me where she was. And they did."
"I see." Cynthia pursed her lips, glancing at the address. At length she nodded.
"I believe she might well be." She admitted. "I have traced several signals to that area of town - but never anything too specific. I think she knows that I am trying, and she is able to deflect my probing."
She gestured to the pile of wires and circuits she had brought with her. "That too is my task. I hope that, by wiring up the Drive Through, I will convince her to look for me here. I do not want a confrontation at the Starlight Mansion. There are too many people there who could get hurt."
"Makes sense, I guess." Stefana tucked a lock of curly hair behind her ear. "So, well, I'll leave you to it. I mean, I've given you the address. And, well, this place creeps me. Especially at the moment. And in the dark."
"Wait a moment, Stefana." The guitarist turned to go, but Cynthia called her back. "I had hoped to speak to you on another matter tomorrow morning, but as you are here now, I may as well mention it. After all, time is growing ever more pressing, and the further I go into this, the weaker my capabilities become."
"Okay..." Stefana looked wary, but she leant up against the wall, casting the hologram a curious glance. "What about?"
Cynthia pulled her toolbox closer to her projection, rummaging through it. At length she pulled out a thin plastic sleeve, holding it out.
"I wanted to ask of you a favour." She said solemnly.
Stefana took the wallet, glancing at it, then back at her companion.
"I don't get it." She said finally. "What's this about?"
"I told you that I would be working on a virus to decimate Athena's program." Cynthia said slowly. Stefana nodded.
"So I finished it." Cynthia gestured to the wallet. "Inside that is a computer disk. What I have to ask is a big imposition, and also a dangerous one. But it seems to me that you are the only one who might be able to undertake it successfully."
"I don't know as I follow." Stefana bit her lip. "What can I do with a computer virus? I barely know how to run a computer!"
"You don't need to do much." Cynthia looked grave. "But you have seen Athena and you know what we are up against far better than any of us. Plus...and I realise this may not be appealing to you, but she already has some interest in you and your fate. I think...well, I want you to make sure this disk loads into her system. That is all."
"You think that I have a chance in hell of sticking a disk into a computer who's on the rampage and threatening to zap people?" Stefana demanded. "You have to be kidding. Why can't you do it? I can get hurt, Cynthia! You can't - or had you forgotten that little fact? Why can't you confront her? Or are you afraid of her?"
"Are you?" Cynthia countered.
"You damn well know that I am." Stefana dropped the wallet back on top of the box of tools. "Count me out on this suicide mission. If you want her poisoned, do it yourself. I'm out."
"I can't do it." Cynthia bit her lip. "Stefana, I am asking you to do this for more than just me. Listen. You know that I am not as strong as I have been previously. I am losing power and I am losing strength. I am not even sure that I can stretch my projection to the limits of the city in this way...and even if I could, she would detect my signal and block it as soon as I reached her hiding place. I am ineffective in those circumstances. I do intend to confront her - in fact, this is what all this work tonight is in aid of. But I need someone to go behind enemy lines whilst I am distracting her attention. I will engage her hologram here. While she is busy focusing on should be possible to get this disk into her mainframe. And once it is inside, it will do its work swiftly."
Her hologram flickered slightly, and Stefana's expression became grave.
"Sheesh, you really are gonna be scrap metal after all of this, aren't you?" She asked softly. Cynthia spread her hands.
"Will you help me?" She asked. "I could ask one of the others...but they have not seen her. You have. It may mean everything."
Stefana let out a heavy sigh. Then, slowly and reluctantly she bent down, picking up the wallet and glancing at it. She shrugged.
"Guess when you put it that way, I have to." She said quietly. "I brought you all into this mess, after all. Coulda kept my jaw shut, but I didn't. I wanted your help. You're pretty much killing yourself to resolve all of I guess so. I guess I have to."
Relief touched Cynthia's violet eyes and she smiled.
"Thank you." She responded. "That being done, then, I think that we should aim to do this as soon as possible. Tomorrow, if we are able. I already know Athena is keen to find Synergy - and will pursue a strong signal to find her. Will you meet me here, at the Drive Through in the morning - at ten o'clock? Aaron will also be there - he has promised to see this through to the end with me."
Stefana sighed again.
"I'll be there." She agreed. "But I hope you have this all figured out, Cynthia. Strikes me that she's a whole lot stronger than you are right now. Those ain't good odds."
"I am hoping that perhaps my experience will outwit her technology." Cynthia looked rueful. "I am unsure that it has yet, in truth...but I think it is worth a try."
"And if it doesn't? If she blows you up and then comes after me? Or if Techrat's there? What about him?"
"That is the other reason why I chose you." Cynthia said comfortably. "Aside from myself, I do not know anyone as adept at lying in a tight situation."
"Well, I think that was a compliment." Stefana snorted. "Sometimes I think Los Angeles will miss you and then, when you say things like that, I'm about ready to come to your funeral."
"Just ensure she takes the disk. However it has to be done." Cynthia turned her attention back to her work. "And I will see you here tomorrow. Oh...and take this."
She scooped up the finished transmitter, holding it out. "It's rudimentary, but I think even your limited technical skill will not be foxed by a machine with only one button."
"So funny." Stefana grabbed at it, grimacing at her companion. "What's it do?"
"You already know where to find Athena, but she can look like anything or anyone." Cynthia explained. "And this will warn you when her hologram is nearby."
"All right. Guess that'll help." Stefana admitted. "Fine. I've got the disk and I've got your geeky little box of wires. I'll be here tomorrow morning - for now I'm going home to pretend to my roommates that I haven't lost my mind and that nothing huge is going down in Los Angeles."
She paused, then,
"And if I don't come home tomorrow, someone's got to tell them that I wasn't just screwing up again. That this time I was doing something important."
"If I am here to convey it, I will pass on the message myself." Cynthia looked rueful. "But I feel that you are far more likely to see out tomorrow's encounter than I am. I do not know what the confrontation will call on me to do, Stefana - but I have a feeling it will take a lot of power. She is strong and she is wily - she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. And I...I must be willing to do the same."


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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