Sandra fought to control her churning stomach. Charlie meanwhile was forced to surrender in his theater of the war on nausea, and ejected a foul-smelling pool on to his shirt front. Sandra staggered to her feet and approached the door, but it refused to budge.
“Why the hell won’t this open?”
“Why the hell should it?” Charlie gasped back. “You want that thing to come in here and kill us faster?”
“Kid, I’ll take my chances with some ghost any day,” she said. “Listen.”
Charlie did. At the closed factory door could be heard the metallic pounding of the assault bots battering the door.
“How do I open the damn door?” Sandra growled through gritted teeth.
“You have to… deactivate the motion security system,” he said finally. “The whole joint is locked down when the system is on.”
“Great. How do I do that?”
Charlie’s eyes darted from the increasingly-darkening parking lot outside, to the door behind him, which was beginning to creak and bend under the pressure of repeated blows from the assault bots.
“Tell her, kid!” Venus barked, attempting to struggled to her feet.
“Enter 123 on the keypad by my desk,” he blurted.
“Oh, my God,” Sandra said. Despite everything else, she formed the thought What on earth did Lurge see in this kid? Shakily, she stepped to the desk and began to punch in the code.
Her finger had just hit the “3” when the door to the factory gave with an ear-splitting shriek of metal wrenching from metal, and the assault bots began to surge into the breach, weapons raised.
Venus tried to stand, but collapsed to the ground. Charlie yelled “No!” in terror and threw up again. Sandra gripped the edge of the desk for support.
The infantry bots stood still, frozen for a moment. Sandra wondered if time was slowing, as it sometimes does during moments of life-threatening catastrophe. But then she realized the machines had in fact stopped, and were now lowering their weapons, and beginning to return whence they had come.
“Well, this is a break,” said Venus blandly, as the hulking machines marched away.
“I don’t get it,” Sandra said. “But I’ll take it.”
Charlie, who was still a shuddering mass on the ground, gurgled something about the Eidolon.
“Doesn’t look like it’s a problem to me,” said Sandra, jerking her head in the direction of the parking lot, where the lights were now blazing at full power, their reflections glinting off of the asphalt, still wet from the recent downpour.
Charlie looked around suspiciously.
“What in the name of all that’s holy happened in there, ladies?” Max’s voice asked. “Last I heard you where leaving Lurge’s office; after that it was all garbled.”
“Long story,” Venus said. “We’ll tell you on the way out of here.”
She had recovered enough to stand, and together she and Sandra advanced out of the door—which slid open as soon as they approached—and into the cool night air, Charlie following nervously behind them, glancing around as though expecting to be attacked at any moment. The two investigators were on edge as well, though they feared attack from physical entities rather than any phantoms. But nothing waylaid them as they crossed the wet pavement, and they reached Sandra’s orange hatchback without incident.
Sandra slid into the pilot’s seat, and Venus entered beside her.
“Should we give the kid a ride?” Venus asked.
Sandra glanced at him dubiously, but jerked her head in the direction of the rear cargo area, indicating he could ride if he wanted.
“Wait a sec. There’s got to be a towel back there. Clean yourself up a little and throw the towel in the trunk.”
“Thanks,” he said softly, squeezing himself in between the shopping bags, camping gear, beach supplies, and other objects that Sandra preferred to store in the car rather than carry into her home. “I didn’t want to wait alone for the shuttle tonight.”
After riding in near-silence to drop Charlie off at his apartment, Max began leading the discussion, planning their next moves.
“I’m going to set up a meeting with Mrs. Lurge at the office tomorrow,” he said. “We’re going to confront her with everything we’ve got, and ask her to give us a more thorough account of things. In particular, I want to know why she omitted telling us about the change in ownership.”
“She should probably have the family lawyer there as well,” said Venus.
“I have invited him, Venus. And I’m also going to bring a police escort there. I fear our Mrs. Lurge may be a, uh, flight risk.”
“Anything else we should know?”
“Yes—I think it’s appropriate to invite Mr.McIntyre as well. I want to give him a chance to hear Mrs. Lurge’s allegations against him.”
“How about Mr. Lurge’s gal pal, Miss Ritter? Have you tracked her down too?”
“I’d like to, Venus, but unfortunately my sources indicate she’s skipped town. Apparently, she has a second home in the Bahamas.”
“Oh, yes—my sources also discovered a series of fund transfers made from Mr. Lurge’s account to hers over the past year. Those can’t have gone over well with the Missus.”
Venus shook her head, then turned to Sandra, who throughout this exchange had been leaning against the window, her head propped on her hand, wearing a forlorn expression as she gazed vacantly at the empty road speeding along in front of them.
“Sandra? You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“Mm? Oh, well; you, uh… you seem to have things pretty well in hand.”
“You see,” Max chirped. “I told you she’d be a fine addition to our team, didn’t I?”
Sandra said nothing, opting instead to continue staring and idly biting a nail on her right hand.
They pulled to a stop, and the car descended to a landing outside the agency building, directly behind the sleek, red vehicle Venus indicated as hers. She opened the door to get out, and then said, “Hey, Sandra—can you come out here a sec?”
Sandra languidly stepped out as well.
“Max,” Venus said crisply. “We’re going to take our earpieces out. This is on personal time; girl talk, okay?”
“Understood, ladies. I’ll talk to you in the office tomorrow, 10AM sharp!” he said crisply.
“What is it?” Sandra asked after they had both tossed their earpieces into the car.
Venus took a deep breath, and then began: “I just wanted to say thank you. Like I said, nobody’s wanted to hire me, what with the whole cyborg thing. So I try to keep it a secret, but of course a simple drug test gives the game away. It’s been years since I’ve been able to just… partner with somebody. Y’know, as an equal.”
Sandra laughed. “An equal? You did everything! You got the files, you were able to see what was what in that factory while I was stumbling around in the dark, and you saved my life. Without you, the whole thing woulda been a disaster.”
Venus smiled. “Like I said, glad to be part of a team.”
Sandra stared at her. Did she really mean that? Did this woman, who, in addition to being attractive, friendly, and intelligent, also happened to posses superhuman strength, really find it so strange she was wanted?
“This might sound weird,” Venus pushed on. “But once people find out about me, they treat me like I’m an alien or something. It was even that way in the Service, after the procedures. They didn’t look at me and see good old Venus, the chick who likes hats and rock & roll and cheese pizza—they saw a frickin’ battle robot like those things back there. So,” she said, becoming self-conscious. “I’m just saying, I know it’s been awkward for you, but, thank you.”
They stood for a moment, regarding each other. Venus bit her lip.
“Oh, uh, sure.” Sandra said at last.
“Well; see you tomorrow,” said Venus, smiling and walking to her car.
Sandra watched her go. What on earth was that about? She thought. I was totally useless. Some ‘team.’ I’ll be lucky to have a job for another month if this keeps up.
Shaking her head, Sandra finally climbed back into her hatchback and stared ahead blankly.
“Voice Authentication,” the machine prompted.
“Disco,” she said softly, and the car rose from the ground and zoomed off into the night.