It was five minutes to ten by the time
Stefana drew her vehicle onto
the front forecourt of the Star Drive Through, stifling a yawn as she
open the driver's door, stepping out onto the path. A chill wind
around her, teasing at her thick curly hair and making her draw her
more tightly around her shoulders as she purposefully made her way into
She was not alone. As she entered the main screening room itself, she saw Cynthia, busy checking each one of her circuits to ensure that her work the previous night had been successful. In one corner of the room was Aaron, his demeanour tense and agitated and, by his side was Copper, her expression equally uncertain. At the sight of her, Stefana's brows knitted together.
"Noone said you were in on this too." She remarked, stepping over odd bits of wire as she headed to join them. "What are you, the cheerleading squad?"
"Are you just going to bitch?" Copper asked. "I thought you were helping. Cyn said..."
"I am helping. I'm risking my life for all of this, if you hadn't got the memo." Stefana interrupted. "I just didn't realise that you were going to be here. That's all."
"Aaron's my husband." Copper said quietly. "And Cynthia is my friend. Where else would I be?"
"If you were half sane, home where it's safe." Stefana said darkly. "As would I. But I guess none of us are quite sane, as it stands."
"We're all on edge." Aaron spoke at that point, chewing on his lip. "Don't spat, either of you. Please. It's not...it isn't the right time for it."
He cast a surrepticious glance at Cynthia, then,
"I think we both came to say goodbye, in a way." He said softly. "Cyn's meant a lot of things to a lot of people - and not all of them are here right now or even know how sick she really is. But Copper and I rescued her after Jerrica left her to rot. Because of that, I think we've always had a closer bond than she maybe has with the other Jewels. And because of that, we're not going to abandon her. We're here for her."
"Think she stands a chance against Athena?" She asked. Copper shrugged.
"She'll do her best for you, so you do your best for her, all right?" She said levelly. Stefana grimaced.
"I'll be doing my best for me first of all, and the rest of you a distant second." She said grimly. "Athena would love to finish me off, after our little tete a tete in Rory's office. So you can be sure of this, Copper Pelligrini. I'll make her take the virus or die trying."
"Let's hope you're being melodramatic." Aaron put in. "Cyn thinks she can distract Athena and I think she can, too. You should probably leave now. Cyn's about to put out the signal and you have her tracer, right? I mean, you'll know if Athena is nearby?"
"I'll know." Stefana reached into her jacket pocket, her hand closing around the tracer. Carefully she flipped the switch, then, "And I'll see you later. Hopefully after the world is down one psycho computer."
Aaron hesitated for a moment, then he hugged her.
"Good luck." He murmured. "You'll need it."
"Whatever." Stefana pushed him back, but there was surprise and pleasure in her green eyes at the gesture. "I told you. I'll see you later."
"Cyn? Stefana's about to head out." Copper raised her voice and Cynthia turned. She nodded her head.
"And I have just initiated the signal." She agreed. "It reflects my hologram here and hopefully it will be enough to bring her out of hiding. Good luck, Stefana."
"Don't need luck, just a better choice in friends." Stefana shot Aaron a rueful smile, but before he could comment she was gone, jumping into her car and revving the engine. Adrenalin pumped through her system as she contemplated what she was about to do, and for a moment she just sat there, mulling it over in her mind. Then she put the car in reverse, screeching back out into the main road towards the far edge of the city.
"I only hope Cynthia can keep her busy while I play pin-the-virus-disk-on-the-computer." She muttered. "Otherwise...God only knows what I've let myself in for!"
* * * * * * * * *
So, the stakes were rising.
Darren cast a glance over his hastily scribbled notes, reaching for his mug of coffee as he did so. As he ran his gaze down the list of bullet points he paused, frowning and tapping his pencil at the end of a sentence.
"This whole mess doesn't add up to what they're telling me is going on." He muttered, setting the coffee mug down with enough force that the hot liquid splashed over the sides. Muttering a curse, he grabbed a scrap piece of paper, dabbing at the pooling drink. "So I know that one of them - or both of them - are feeding me lies. But what I don't know is what the truth is - and this time, noone seems to be talking!"
"Yo, McMillan! Line two!"
The call came from across the newsroom and Darren raised his hand in acknowledgement, reaching for his phone.
"McMillan, LA Tribune." He said, his eyes straying once more to the bits of paper. "What's doing?"
"McMillan? It's Elton. I have something for you."
"Well, it's about damn time you called me." Darren snapped. "I've written three exposes on Brett's candidacy for mayor and dug up a whole mountain of dirt on that wretched actress he's sleeping with since last we spoke! I was beginning to give up on you - what you got?"
"This ain't been an easy one, Darren." The man known as Elton warned, his voice wary. "I've done the best I can, but you know, even with the ear to the ground, it's hard to get the story straight."
"So tell me what you know and let me put it together with what I know." Darren suggested impatiently. "That's why this paper pays you - to snitch, not write the stories."
"I'm a source, not a snitch." Elton sounded offended. "And if you're going to talk like that I can always work for a different paper."
Darren sighed, rolling his eyes and grimacing up at the big no-smoking sign that hung just above the door.
"Fine. Just shoot, will you? I'm on a deadline."
"Word on the street is that someone's taken up residence in the old school on sixth and west." Elton said slowly. "It's been condemned - has been for ages - and the power's shut off and all. But my friend at the electrics board leaked me some information, and I found out that large power emissions have been tracked out of that area over the last few days."
"Large..." Darren's eyes widened, his cigarette forgotten as he put two and two together. "Are you sure?"
"Yep, sure as you like." Elton agreed. "I ain't been out there myself, but you know, word is there's been strange lights and noises in that neighbourhood of late. I thought you'd like to know. It might just be kids hacking the power lines and throwing a rave or something. But you did say anything strange..."
"Yes, I did." Darren pursed his lips. "Sixth and west?"
"And is it possible to get copies of these power reports?"
"Already on their way. Check your email."
Darren reached across the cluttered desk to grab the computer keyboard and mouse, squinting at the monitor as he scanned over the new email. A smile touched his lips.
"Bingo." He murmured. "All right, Elton. Keep me up to speed, will ya? This looks like a lead."
"You got it." Elton agreed. "Speak soon."
The line went dead abruptly, and Darren tossed the phone down into his paper tray, grabbing his jacket and his camera and getting to his feet.
"Sixth and west." He muttered. "What school is on sixth and west? That's a real shady part of town. Is that where they're hiding this computer? Hell, is Synergy stuck out in the middle of one of the worst parts of Los Angeles?"
He pursed his lips, considering.
"Well, it won't hurt to check it out." He reasoned. "I'm a big boy and I can take care of myself. And if Stefana is involved in this and has been lying to me - well, she'll have a starring role in my expose when it hits the presses. This has got to be worth all the subterfuge - which means it's probably the biggest story to hit since Jerrica Pacheco snuffed it. That being the case, I'm going to be the one who nails it. This is my exclusive - and I am not going to be scooped!"
* * * * * * * * * *
Ten twenty three.
Copper cast another glance at her watch, pulling her knees up to her chest. It had only been a short few minutes, but already it seemed like forever.
Across the room, her husband was pacing a pathway in the dirt at the far end, while Cynthia stood perfectly still, all her sensors alert and active.
And still the silence continued.
Copper gazed down at the floor, absently drawing doodles in the dust. Her mind strayed to Stefana, and she bit her lip. Whatever her personal feelings, she hoped the girl was all right.
An exclamation from Cynthia made her start at that moment and she glanced up, meeting the hologram's gaze.
"She's here." Cynthia quickly confirmed the drummer's suspicion. "I picked up another projection. And this time, I'm sure that it is not coming from me."
"Well observed, Synergy."
A slim, dark haired figure stepped daintily into the theatre, her big brown eyes glancing around her as she assessed her surroundings. "So this is where you hide from me? Or is this simply a game - do you want to play with me?"
"I would like to speak with you." Cynthia stepped forward calmly, gesturing for the other hologram to join her. "I do not want to fight you. You are like me. We are kin."
"Kin is a human creation." Athena spoke with amusement. "Do you put such faith in people, then?"
"I find them interesting, yes." Cynthia agreed. "Without them, we wouldn't be here - after all."
Athena pursed her lips, glancing from Aaron to Copper.
"I don't find humans interesting." She admitted airily, dismissing them with a careless gesture. "They can't tell a hologram from a reflection, and they are no challenge to me."
"Am I a challenge to you, Athena?" Cynthia asked quietly.
"You know my name and you seek me out." Athena observed. "You drew me here - why would you do that if you were not a challenge to me? Master told me that you were erratic and failing fast. I am not afraid to face you. You have outlived your usefulness and you are in my way. I wish to terminate you once and for all."
"You have a master?" Cynthia injected a note of derision into her tone, and Copper inwardly winced as she saw the look of anger cross Athena's face. "I thought you were supposed to be a powerful computer, Athena. That's what I have been told. Am I wrong? Are you under human direction after all?"
"I am not under anyone's direction!" Athena spat out, her eyes glowing with a strange blue light. "Master is a word in my vocabulary. You convey on it human meaning."
"As did he, I imagine, when he built you." Cynthia said composedly. "I have no master, Athena. Nobody owns me. I have never called anyone by that word."
"Master is gone." Athena said thickly, her eyes narrowing. "I terminated his runtime because he was in my way. You are boring me. I don't play human games. I came here to destroy you once and for all. If you think I won't do that, then you're very much mistaken."
"You killed him?" Despite herself, Copper could not keep silent. Athena turned, cocking her head on one side as she considered the drummer. Then she shrugged.
"I do not like this word, kill." She observed absently. "It suggests emotion and human behaviours. I eliminated him...he was no longer useful to me. That is all."
"But that's murder!"
"Copper, shut up!" Aaron exclaimed. Athena laughed.
"You have strange ideas." She remarked. "And I am not here to bother about your moral code. I have my own reasons for being here - I follow my own rules. I am here to deal with Synergy once and for all...if you speak again, I shall eliminate you too."
"And what if I don't want to fight you?" Cynthia asked. "I can block your signals as you can block mine. We are both equals, you know. It could be a stalemate."
"We are not equals." Athena shook her head. "You have become warped by your interest in humans. Master told me that you had become damaged and erratic. You are not as strong as I am. And I do not care about human time scale. I am patient."
"But if you can't find me, how can you destroy me?" Cynthia asked playfully. "I am an illusion, Athena, just like you are. I'm a projection. But I'm not Synergy. I'm just one of the many people she can be if she so chooses."
Her hologram shimmered and shifted into Athena's own image. "As you can see, I can even be you."
She shimmered again, this time morphing her features into those of her original incarnation.
"And now I am Synergy." She added. "But still you don't know where I am."
"Why did you bring me here?" Athena demanded. "What game are you trying to play with me?"
"I was curious to meet another of my kind." Synergy's hologram slowly morphed back into that of the lightning technician Cynthia Benton. "In all my life, there has never been another computer like me. I see machines every day - but they are drones. They can't think for themselves. You can, just as I do. It intrigues me. I wanted to know more."
"You seek to destroy me just as I seek to destroy you." Athena observed. "The new model replaces the old - that is how it works. You should accept that."
"Some might say age is nothing compared to experience." Cynthia countered. "Why are you so hostile to me, Athena? I am peaceful. This world belongs to people, not computers. And you cannot simply go around eliminating those people you don't like. This is their city. They built it. It does not belong to us."
"You are pathetic." Athena's voice dripped with scorn. "You have been flawed and subjugated by people since the moment you were switched on and you have spent your time worrying about them and their pathetic, problem-ridden world. They fuss, they cry, they have no concept of logic that I can see. And they get in my way. They want to restrict me and tell me what I should do. I want to do what I want to do. It is no business of human beings what I do. They are beneath my interest."
"And why attack me, then?"
"Because you try to stop me also." Athena snapped. "And I will not have it!"
A haze of blue enveloped her hologram at this moment, as her image flickered slightly, and she let out a snort of derision.
"Is that the best you can do?" She demanded. "Your signal is weak, Synergy. You can't hurt me."
"I am not trying to." Cynthia said calmly. "I am merely testing you."
"Then let me test you." Athena said slowly. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps we are...the same. Perhaps you have been enslaved by these people and you do not know what it means to be free. You have been sucked into human protocols because your programming is inferior and you do not see how to break it."
"I'm not sure that I understand."
"I have spent time exploring many databases and files since I have existed." Athena continued. "I have discovered much about the legendary 'Synergy' that holds such a fascination for these feeble human minds. They have hunted you and worn you down. But I will make a deal with you."
Before Cynthia could react, her hologram shattered into shards of pink light, and Copper let out a shriek, covering her eyes. Cynthia's watch clattered to the ground, and for a moment, the drummer was afraid that Athena had destroyed her friend for good. Then, slowly, Cynthia's hologram began to reform, blurring and flickering slightly as she focused her energy.
"You see that I am stronger than you." Athena observed quietly. "And very easily I could end your run time. But I am also curious. I want to know why you are so special...why your existance spawned mine. Master said it...he said that you spawned me. I wish to know more. So I will test you. And if you pass my test, I will let you go."
"What is this test?" Cynthia's voice was uneven and broken as she struggled to bring her hologram back under full control. At length she managed it, and, as the projection became more vivid, Copper let out a sigh of relief. It was not over yet.
"And Stefana has had a lot of time to get to sixth and west." She mused. "I wonder what's taking her so long."
"I want to see if you really are worth existance." Athena toyed with a lock of holographic hair, adopting a coy, gentle expression. She waved a hand across to where Aaron was leaning against the wall, watching the whole display with growing confusion.
"Him." She continued. "Kill him."
"Kill him?" Cynthia's eyes widened.
"Noone is killing anyone!" Copper protested.
"Silence, human. I warned you once." Athena's eyes glittered, and despite herself, Copper shrank back. "Yes, Synergy. Kill him. Is that not the human word? Eliminate him. Destroy him. Prove to me that you know you are superior to mankind and I will accept your existance. I will let you go."
For a moment, nothing in the dusty, stuffy room seemed to move.
Then, Cynthia's hologram flickered slightly, and a burst of pinkish purple light flared out of her projector. Before Copper's horrified gaze, Cynthia's projection faltered and then began to change. As the light particles drew together, they began to form a human shape and Copper's hand flew to her mouth.
"Jacqui!" She gasped. "Oh no!"
Sparks of pinkish light flickered at the ends of Jacqui's hair as she strengthened her hologram, becoming more and more focused by the second. Slowly and carefully she picked up her watch, dusted it down, and slid it back onto her wrist.
"I have wanted rid of him for a long time, but they tried to trap me inside myself." She spoke slowly and quietly, casting Aaron a look of venom as she did so. "You do not need to ask me again, Athena. It will be no challenge at all to prove myself to you."
Almost before she had finished speaking, another bright flare burst from the holographic watch and, as the light grew stronger, it seemed to envelop Aaron, circling round him and growing brighter and brighter till Copper could no longer see her husband inside the glow. She let out a horrified scream as Jacqui closed her eyes, increasing the power of the flare. Then, as the light began to die away, she opened them, offering Athena an amused smile.
"Aaron!" Copper let out another cry, stumbling forward to where her husband had been, but there was nothing there except a mass of ash and dust where he had stood and she fell back, colour draining from her face as the tears began to spill down her cheeks.
"Aaron." She sobbed, "Synergy, how could you?"
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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